Graphic artist Alison Bechdel and former Sleater-Kinney member/ current NPR contributor Carrie Brownstein are among 50 writers who have contributed to the new book State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America. Each state was assigned to someone who was its byproduct. (Bechdel took on Vermont; Brownstein wrote on Washington.)
Though Brownstein now lives in Portland, Ore., all of the Pacific Northwest remains her home and her loving approach to its three-dimensionality (what, it does more than rain?) has left readers with an enlightened view of Washington — and that’s exactly what editors Sean Wilsey and Matt Weiland intended. They recently praised both women’s work in an interview with Powells.com:
Sean Wilsey: Her portrait of the Northwest helps you understand it in a different way. I never had much of an understanding of how much trees influence everybody up there, and mud and moss.
Matt Weiland: And it speaks to something general throughout the book, which is how weather informs character. How place informs character. Yes, most people know that it’s rainy in the Northwest, but Carrie’s piece speaks to a deeper truth, not just that it’s rainy but how it affects the people living there, how it affects their view.
Bechdel’s approach to Vermont was, of course, a little different. Instead of an essay, she did an illustration in the form of a map.
Wilsey: I know Alison worked very hard on it. She’s such a good writer and she’s such a good artist. Most of us only have to do one of those things. She had to do both. By the time she got to the end, she was so tapped out. But we’d been talking about her doing a map of the whole state. I thought the map was really important to tie it together, but I also felt like we were slave-driving her, she was working so hard. I did beg her to do that map. And it’s so great.
Weiland: That map is one of the most beautiful pages in the whole book.
Wilsey: In the whole book, I agree.
Brownstein and Bechdel are in good company, as talented scribes like Susan Orlean, Dave Eggers and Sarah Vowell also waxed poetic on their origins. Of course, their big names seem rather bland next to the praise Bechdel and Brownstein have received. (Leave it to the lesbians to be the most creative.)
Powell’s liked the book so much they made a film out of it, interviewing several contributors (including Bechdel) on their pieces. You can find it on DVD or screening at several bookstores in the U.S.
From Bechdel’s interview, included in the trailer:
I was living in Minnesota at one point when I got a fan letter from this person who was living in Vermont, and it was a very charming letter. It just won me over, and I went to visit her. It was a dramatic foliage season when Vermont is just truly mind-blowingly beautiful, and I was convinced that I was in love with this place.
I packed up my whole life in Minnesota and I moved to this woman’s house in Vermont. And it wasn’t until a few months later when I realized we had absolutely nothing in common, that this had been sort of a mistake — not the moving to Vermont part, that was right, but the relationship was wrong. And I stayed in Vermont, I moved 20 miles away, and I stayed in Vermont because that was what I had really been moved by.
If that’s the case, then Carrie Brownstein, you must come visit me in Illinois. I just know you’ll fall in love.