Nick Reding sat in the plush Branford College Master’s house Thursday night and spoke about the devastation wrought by crystal methamphetamine on a small, down-at-the-heels town.
Reding talked about his nonfiction book “Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town.” To write it, he spent four years observing the town of Oelwein, Iowa, where a weak economy pressured struggling community members to fall back on meth production to make ends meet. Reding spoke about investigative journalism and the process of reporting and writing the book.
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“It is bulls—to point out the problems and then not think about what solutions there might be,” he said, adding that after spending so much time studying the drug’s presence in the Midwest, he feels a responsibility to start thinking of answers.
Reding said he became interested in researching meth when he was staying with friends in Idaho and came across a group of meth dealers. He said he eventually realized the town’s miniscule size and failing economy made it the perfect place for meth distribution.
During his stay in Idaho, he found his way into a circle of meth dealers, witnessing a nighttime exchange between different dealers preparing to distribute meth throughout the region. He said that experience opened his eyes to the degree to which the region’s poverty drove the production of meth.
“It was brilliant,” he said. “Who could stop them?”
Reding told the stories of several of the people he follows in the book, among themLori, who was forced to deliver illegal drugs in her early teens to make a living and survive. After being arrested and serving eight years in prison, missing part of her son’s childhood, she went right back into business upon returning home.
He also talked about why people from Iowa and surrounding states, especially young people, do not feel a strong urge to curb drug issues. Young people usually feel a deep desire to escape their small towns, he said, and do not want to be focused on issues pertaining to those towns.
“To them, staying is a form of failure,” said Reding, who was born in Saint Louis, Mo.
He said his concepts for “Methland” were continually rejected by the publishing industry when he first pitched the book. He said he was told by one publisher that no one knew anything about meth or “gave a s—” about small-town problems.
Two audience members asked how Reding forged connections with the people he wrote about.
“People aren’t as secretive as they seem to be,” he said, adding that he genuinely liked the people he got to know in the meth business.
He said it is impossible for him to write about someone he does not like.
Writer-in-residence Anne Fadiman, who assigned “Methland” in her creative nonfiction class this year, invited Reding and introduced the talk.
“The most important thing [Reding] brought was proof of the irreplaceable value of foot leather reporting,” Fadiman said. “He reported this book without shortcuts. This is the message that young journalists need, especially in a time when people have begun to doubt the future of journalism.”
Reding said he is currently writing a sequel to “Methland.”
“Methland” won the Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Prize, given to works that address the issues of Midwestern America,among other accolades, and was a New York Times bestseller.