Chris Register is a Charlottesville, VA writer I bump into from time to time at writing events. We discovered that we have some things in common–we both served in the Peace Corps and have practiced law–so when I heard about his Conversations With US project and that he had a new book coming out, I invited him to chat with me about it here.
- The second volume of your Conversations With US series is about to appear on March 19, 2020. What prompted you to start the project?
Cliff, I started the project because America is in trouble, and everybody knows it. I think I put it best in the introduction to the upcoming Conversations With US – American Southwest:
Wondering often leads to wandering, though I suppose the opposite is equally true. …While perhaps an eager participant, my innate restlessness was not the genesis of Conversations With US. The project began taking shape in my mind alongside concern about a different unraveling, one threatening the nation itself. I worried the headlines and social media posts were right—that the United States of America was coming undone. Cable news experts and internet trolls were tripping over themselves to portray us as little more than a corrosive amalgamation of distrust, tribalism, and misunderstanding, centered in a dysfunctional and disconnected Washington. I wondered if that dire narrative would stand up to an on-the-ground inquiry, out in the real America.
I wandered to find out.
- What can we expect to see in Volume 2?
The first thing that comes to mind is that you can expect to be captivated by the epic story behind the cover photo, and the hair-raising experience that followed shortly after I took the shot.
How’s that for a teaser? After that, I’d say you can expect an eye-opening adventure that will leave you with a much richer and more nuanced understanding of the people of the American Southwest. I covered some 1,900 miles, much of it through lonely ranchland and desert, and I interviewed something like 30 Southwesterners—archetypes included—over the course of 5 weeks. You can expect to meet folks whose perspectives you agree with, folks who you vehemently disagree with, and—if you go into this with an open mind—I think you can expect to see your patience with the other side—whatever that might be for you—grow in some material degree.
- What is life like on a long trip like that? Where do you sleep? How do you survive?
Exciting, lonely, unforgettable, tough, invigorating, harsh, reassuring, depressing, uplifting. I undertook all of my Conversations With US tours completely alone, almost always in places I’d never been. I go into detail in the books’ introduction about my sleeping situations but if you can dream it up, I probably had to do it. For example, on the American Southwest tour, I slept in a casino motel, under a bridge, in random people’s houses, beside a pumpjack, in a rodeo arena, in a hostel, in a kid’s bedroom next to his pet tortoise, on the lip of the Grand Canyon, and 300ft below sea level in Death Valley. I survived with the help of my credit card and the goodwill of countless Americans.
- Have you had any harrowing situations on your travels that you can share? Accidents? Attacked by wild animals?
I wouldn’t want to give away too much, Cliff, because then my teasers wouldn’t work. I’ll say this: imagine yourself traveling the entire country on a bicycle over a cumulative year, sleeping in all kinds of random places, and, again, whatever you dream up in terms of close-calls, I’ve probably experienced it. I’ve had several encounters with wild animals (see my Alaska blog post for examples). In fact, what might have been my closest call with a dangerous animal happened while I was all alone, on Day 28 of the American Southwest tour.
- We have some shared background—serving in the Peace Corps and then practicing law. How have these experiences influenced your project or your writing?
With the Peace Corps, I think living among poor folks in El Salvador and traveling much of Latin America has shown me how people suffer when government and civil society aren’t functioning. If you think about, say, Argentina or Brazil, and especially Venezuela right now, those countries all have abundant natural resources, but the first two are not economically stable and have serious poverty problems, and Venezuela is a complete tragedy of human misery. None of those problems fell from outer space—they are the results of failed, or foundering, civil society and rule of law. What really, truly frightens me, especially in recent years, is how clear it has become to me that our country is susceptible to the same failures. If we don’t get our act together soon, and start working together as a nation to solve our problems, we seriously might be looking at a reversal of quality of life as our institutions and sense of shared purpose crumble. Conversations With US really is just my humble attempt to do something to help us see that we’re in this together, and it all depends on us.
As for being an attorney, I think practicing law helped me hone the clarity of my writing and interview questions. And, it also made me a stickler for consistency and detail, which has allowed me to design these books myself while producing, I think, a high-quality product, and also to run the business side of Spoke & Word Books. I think those are all good things, but I also think the precision with which I write is simultaneously my biggest weakness as an author. I often find myself, by default, placing clarity over flourish, which doesn’t always make for really moving storytelling. I’m still working on that, but I think readers will find a marked improvement from Volume 1 to Volume 2.
- What’s next?
A little R&R, some salsa dancing, lots of public appearances, and the volume that might appeal most to folks around our Central Virginia home: Conversations With US (Vol. 3) – Appalachia & Bluegrass Country.
- How can we learn more? What’s the best way to order the books?
Visit my robust website, conversationswithus.com, to access tons of cool multimedia content, from maps to audio recordings to photo/video. There, you can also order signed copies of Great Lakes States and American Southwest (the latter will be released on March 19th). The Great Lakes States audiobook (produced in Charlottesville) and American Southwest Kindle ebook are currently available on Amazon. If you’re just itching to get a copy of American Southwest right now, I am offering PDF copies for purchase on my website for early readers. Finally, the first public appearance of American Southwest will take place at Horton Vineyards from 12-4pm on March 28th. I’ll be signing books and answering questions, and will have the touring rig with me for folks to check out. You can see the Facebook event here.
Thanks, Cliff, and let’s go on a ride sometime!