RH: Right in the opening scene, there's a strong parallel between
the prairies and the high seas about which you've written so much
before, and you've mentioned that thematic continuity in several
JR: Well, this is a shipwreck story. Everybody in the
nineteenth century was writing about the prairie as a 'sea of grass,'
and the problem with that analogy is that it's a great cliche, but most
of the people who used it didn't knew peanuts about the sea. They
were content to say that it was like the sea in that it had a sea-like
expanse, but I see the prairie as being like the sea in other, very
The sea is fantastically eventful; it's full of waves, and every wave is
different from every other one. It's astounding how rarely waves
repeat themselves. And the lie of the land is like that as well. It's full
of features, but not conspicuous features. You can't rely on them any
more than you could tell your direction by looking at one particular
wave on the ocean. And I decided to try to write about the prairie
with the same degree of detail that I'd previously used in writing
about the sea.
But one of the most sea-like things about the prairie is that it's
dotted with wrecks. Houses, many of them built with the same care
and affection that ships were built with.
RH: You use so many primary resources in writing this book,
including books that you find in abandoned houses, it's almost like
going through the flotsam of a shipwreck, salvaging relics of the
JR: That's a nice thought, which actually hadn't occurred to me
before. Scuba diving on the prairie.
RH: The glimpses of the culture those books provide is fascinating,
particularly some of the children's books.
JR: Self-conscious writers, those who are writing for posterity
or 'literature,' often write so that much of what you discover in the
book is what they wanted you to discover. But there's a kind of text,
especially some of the books written for schoolchildren, that gives
away so much more about its culture because it's totally unself-
For example, my favorite primary source, Campbell's Soil Culture
Manual, is a homilectic work, a classic of Puritan work ethic
idealism. Its whole pseudo-science is based on straight
Presbyterianism wrapped up in science; the so-called science of dry
farming was all about conservation: "save, save, save, save." The
whole thing is about saving rain, conserving moisture, applying
Calvinist retentiveness to the rainfall. The problem is that what he
told people to do was, according to the current agricultural theories,
the surest possible way of letting whatever moisture there was in
the land straight out again.
RH: It's fascinating to see the mixture of despair and optimism in
the homesteaders as the soil dries up, as the dream doesn't come
true for them. This book shatters our happy myths about America's
JR: It's a powerful twentieth century story. When many
Americans think of pioneers, they seem to think of powerful
creatures who aren't really human at all, rugged, hardy people. That
makes the pioneers so distant and remote to us, glossed over in a
nineteenth century that might just as well be the Pleistocene era. One
of the appealing aspects of this story is the pioneers of the early
Machine Age, the pioneers with the first Maytags and Model Ts --
these people were totally hooked on gizmos, looking through papers
to find out about the latest gadgets.
RH: What initially attracted you to this region?
JR: My friend Michael Wollaston showed me a manuscript that
his father had written about his memoirs of growing up on the
prairie, which I thought was more vivid and more carefully written
than any other first-person homsteader narrative I'd seen before.
Eventually, the two of us went looking for his father's childhood
It was while I was there, looking at a land the likes of which I had
never seen before, that I thought, Christ, people came out here from
places like England. They had a dream about what it was going to be
like in America, and then got deposited into this enormity. It was the
archetype of the immigrant's encounter with the New World. You
couldn't get more of a New World than this place, something that just
defeats all your senses, your habits of thinking about landscape. How
could you, deposited here from a train, learn to call it home -- and
that's the ultimate question for immigrants, isn't it?
RH: You certainly seem to have come to terms with being
in America in your six years here.
JR: Well, they gave me this lovely title, "resident alien," on my
green card. I guess every writer is a resident alien in his own
country; I certainly always felt I was in England, but it's wonderful
to have the INS give me a formal title that I can use -- "What are
you?" "Well, I'm a resident alien." It's an alienation that one doesn't
have to strive for.
RH: Another important aspect to this story is the constant struggle
between the individualists and the government over who's going to
control the land.
JR: It seems like the government needed to get people into
debt to bring them into the social lie. There's nothing like saddling
people with all sorts of monthly payments for turning them into
responsible citizens. And boy, did these people have monthly
payments. The ones who made it through, and whose descendants
still live there today, are the people who did not submit to the
blandishments of the smiling bank managers, who didn't take on a
big debt, didn't get into the waste of the machinery. If you talk to
people now, they'll often tell you that their fathers and grandfathers
were still plowing with horses long after everybody else had bought
the tractors that eventually bankrupted them into starvation. Or they
were the sort of strongly religious people who saw all the inclement
weather, and the droughts, and the plagues of grasshoppers, as proof
that they were living in the last days, that the Lord would be coming
with a flourish of trumpets and the horsemen of the Apocalypse
would be riding into eastern Montana, and that that was a good
reason for them to stay.
RH: What's next for you?
JR: The book that I dropped to write this was set at sea. What
it lacked, what caused me to put it aside, was a narrative spine. It
was going out in too many directions, and although I'd written about
fifty or sixty pages, it didn't seem to be developing an internal
momentum. Each new page was an awful labor, and I feel that if a
book really needs to be written, then it ought to be writing itself at
But I want very much to write another book about the sea. The sea is
a vital part of our culture, and how we interpret it, how we position
ourselves in relation to it, changes radically from one period to the
next. And as I was finishing Bad Land, I realized that was this
book had been missing was a sense of a real voyage, not just a
physical voyage but a voyage along a line of enquiry. And I spent a
good portion of this summer sailing from Seattle to Juneau, Alaska,
alone, and that trip is the narrative spine on which I can build a
story about the sea.