Wichita author Sarah Smarsh named finalist for 2018 National Book Award
Sarah Smarsh grew up poor.
But not in the itinerant “Grapes of Wrath” or Dickensian orphan versions of poor. This was the grounded, farm-family variety that exemplified a large slice of the Midwest. One where an incessant collision of classism, sexism, exploitation and legislation kept opportunity out of her Kansas household’s grasp.
Until Smarsh proved she could write.
This led the aspiring author to be placed in her school’s gifted program. Then she got an article published in a national children’s magazine. And she received a scholarship to the University of Kansas.
A year ago this month came her debut book, “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.” Now Smarsh is savoring a year that’s seen her work become a New York Times best-seller and finalist for the National Book Award.
She’s on tour to promote the paperback version, which comes out Tuesday. On Thursday, she’ll appear for a talk and book signing at Unity Temple on the Plaza.
Smarsh’s chronicle of her 1980s and ’90s upbringing outside Wichita delivers both a towering level of personal truth and a keen appraisal of what needs to be fixed in this country.
“It means a lot when people for whom the world I’ve written about is completely foreign say, ‘You opened my eyes to a stereotype or misunderstanding that I was carrying,’” Smarsh says by phone from her home in Kansas.
“But what’s most special is the flip side of that coin, when someone who has lived their version of this story says, ‘I felt validated or seen in the thing you wrote, in a way I hadn’t before.’ That’s my dream come true right there.”
Smarsh, a onetime Kansas City resident, admits she hasn’t paused to assess how much her life has transformed since the book was published last September.
“I definitely do more traveling,” she says. “I get invitations from around the country and around the world to talk about rural issues, poverty and socio-economic inequality. There are a lot of threads of my book that people pick out and ask me to come talk about, which is really cool.”
There is one invitation that could spin her life in an entirely different direction.
In March, the 39-year-old author met with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to discuss running for Kansas’ open U.S. Senate seat in 2020, now that Republican Sen. Pat Roberts is retiring. She also consulted with Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
“I can’t talk about any of this stuff,” she says of her Schumer meeting.
“Because I’m choosing not to at this time,” Smarsh responds, marking the only instance during the conversation she isn’t open to personal revelation.
“A long journey”
The speed of her potential foray into politics was by no means reflective of her rise as a best-selling author.
“It was such a long journey. I got the first grant to write the book in 2002 when I was a senior at KU. And it took so long to write because I was really broke a lot of the years that I was toiling away on it. Creative enterprises require time and money, and money is time. I didn’t have any of the above,” she recalls.
She confesses it took years to figure out exactly what she wanted to say. Plus, she needed to articulate an aspect of the nation’s culture that few care to discuss: class.
“It’s an interweaving of memoir, cultural analysis and a little bit of American history. For that reason, it wasn’t necessarily a classic coming-of-age, where in chapter one I start with ‘little me,’” she explains.
Unlike similar memoirs, “Heartland” doesn’t follow a standard chronology. Further setting the book apart is the fact that Smarsh — a product of successive generations of teen mothers – addresses her story to a hypothetical daughter. (Smarsh herself does not have children.)
“The hardest thing about the book was baked into the fabric from beginning to end, which was the way I choose to structure it with moving in and out of private story lines into more public awareness. Inevitably, that personal thread is the much more difficult and painful thing to reveal,” she says.
The often agonizing social and economic realities of her childhood in rural Kansas (near Wichita) become a centerpiece of her narrative. Yet she cautions against making assumptions about the underprivileged.
“Our profession is notorious for this kind of ‘poverty porn’ framing of, ‘Let’s go to Appalachia and specifically look for the sorriest house on the block and relish documenting the miseries therein,’” she says. “Those problems must be documented and revealed in the interest of rectifying them. But usually the people writing those stories don’t have a direct experience of poverty, and they therefore project their own mix of pity, condescension and sometimes overt classism.”
Smarsh hopes readers will also see moments of real beauty and humor in her tale.
“(Poverty) sucks, but it’s also a complicated experience just like any other,” she says, “and it can’t be reduced to only tears and wretchedness.”
Lawrence and Kansas City
Smarsh’s first foray into professional writing began while living in Lawrence and earning degrees in journalism and English. She freelanced for Lawrence.com, the then-hipper offshoot of the Lawrence Journal-World newspaper. Her first story to get picked up on the wire involved low-income students who fell through the loopholes in their FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) applications.
She then moved to New York to pursue a master’s degree in nonfiction writing from Columbia University. While still filing features from the East Coast for Kansas City alternative paper The Pitch, she also freelanced for airline magazines and found spare work in the nonprofit realm doing grant proposals.
Eventually she returned to Kansas City to take a staff job at The Pitch. For a year of that stretch, she moved into the basement of a high school friend in downtown Overland Park.
“Most of the things I’ve been writing over the years were topical and involved current events and controversy,” she says.
However, the idea for “Heartland” kept percolating, and she actively pursued a publishing deal.
“I ran a marathon once,” she says. “But that pales in comparison to sticking with something for 15 years, 10 of which I couldn’t get an agent. I sent the manuscript down, and agents would say, ‘You’re good with a turn of phrase, but we’re not quite sure why this story would matter to anybody.’”
Gina Kaufmann, who hired Smarsh to be her assistant while an editor at The Pitch, understood early on why her story would matter.
“(Smarsh’s writing) has the music of spoken language in it. She has the ability to craft a clear, concise sentence that communicates a complicated and downright poetic thought,” says Kaufmann, now host of KCUR’s “Central Standard.”
“Within a very short time, my editor was poaching her time for feature stories. It says a lot that I also remember her writing on topics that in and of themselves aren’t necessarily worthy of the mental space I’ve reserved. It’s the writing that holds the real estate. She started a piece on Watkins Mill by saying something to the effect of, ‘Give a town a sheep, they’ll eat for a day. Give a town a sheep mill, they’ll be offering tours for decades to come.’”
Above all, it’s her honesty, Kaufmann says, that’s most impressive.
“I’ve read drafts of her work that include personal information that if it were me, I’d be worried about putting out there, or I might not have the confidence in my ability to explain in a way that would stave off judgment. Sarah is, from what I’ve seen, undaunted by any of that — which I think is testament to her commitment to the truth she wants to tell,” she says.
That honesty permeates both Smarsh’s writing and her frankness during public appearances. And while she doesn’t want to talk about her own political career right now, she has no problem discussing politics.
“I’m very sensitive to the ways that we frame issues like the economy, and even the vocabulary we use to do so,” Smarsh says.
“While the worst trouble since the last presidential election may or may not be an increasing gap between the haves and have-nots, it absolutely is that we are simultaneously claiming the economy is doing great. The problem that is worse for people in poverty today than it was before 2016 is we have an administration that is fixated on ‘things are humming along great.’ And it’s not so great for a lot of people in a reality where experiences are not measured by the GDP. This is a country of millions and millions of people who are not stockholders.”
Despite her nationwide prominence, Smarsh decided to return to Kansas as her permanent residence. She often comes to KC, but her visit is forever etched in her memory.
“The first trip I ever made there was a little family road trip, and we put the song ‘Kansas City’ on while driving past the 18th and Vine district. I love that spot because I’m a huge baseball fan, and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is something I think is a major national treasure. It was always exciting to me that it was there so close to where I lived,” says Smarsh, a die-hard Royals fan.
Smarsh has no plans any time soon for another book. Her primary non-“Heartland”-related project is a podcast called “The Homecomers,” in which she interviews people who are advocates and leaders in rural spots around the country.
“It concerns a diverse and vibrant rural America that we don’t hear about in the usual hyper-politicized and dismal headlines about such spaces,” she says.
She also earned her motorcycle license last year and is hoping to devote some time to roaming the Plains on two wheels. Perhaps a motorcycle helmet might address one of her other predicaments.
“I don’t know how people know what I look like because authors and writers tend to be sort of invisible on the page,” she says. “But somehow it’s fairly frequent that somebody says, ‘Hey, you’re that author.’”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Sarah Smarsh appears in conversation with Rainy Day Books founder Vivien Jennings at 7 p.m. Sept. 5 at Unity Temple on the Plaza, 707 W. 47th St. Admission is $17, which includes one softcover copy of “Heartland.” See rainydaybooks.com/SarahSmarsh2019.