Street Talk

Jeanne Marie Laskas

Jeanne Marie Laskas is the author of six books, including her latest, Hidden America (Putnam, 2012). Most of her longform journalism appears in GQ, where she is a correspondent writing about everything from concussions to migrant workers to hit-men. Formerly a contributing editor at Esquire, and a weekly columnist, she has been writing for national magazines for twenty years. She is the voice behind Reader’s Digest’s Uncommon Sense column, where she dispenses wisdom with zero authority but plenty of common sense. Laskas serves as Director of The Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh, where she teaches creative writing. She lives on a horse farm in Pennsylvania with her husband and two children.

Tracking the Invisible: A conversation between Jeanne Marie Laskas and Robert Yune for Braddock Avenue Books


In 2012, Robert Yune was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award in Short Fiction and was one of five finalists for the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, selected by Sherman Alexie and Colin Channer. His fiction has appeared in Green Mountains Review, the Kenyon Review, and Los Angeles Review, among others. This past summer, he worked as a stand-in for George Takei. Yune teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. His debut novel, Eighty Days of Sunlight, is forthcoming from Thought Catalog Books.


Robert Yune: One thing that struck me about Hidden America is its sense of fair play, especially when dealing with sensitive topics such as guns and unions and immigration. How do you maintain a sense of fairness and openness towards your topics?

Jeanne Marie Laskas: Frankly, I’m not aware of it, but that’s nice to hear. Certainly, that’s something I strive for. I think it has to do with how I enter these experiences, and it’s not very complicated. I enter, honestly, like a little kid who knows almost nothing. Because the truth is, I usually don’t know a lot. I knew nothing about coal mining, that’s for sure. Or very little about guns. Although [at the gun store in Arizona], I certainly had a bias that I had to wrestle with—I had a strong sense of myself there. And that just took time and surrendering myself to the experience and comfortably asking, “Well, what am I here to discover?” Am I here to prove what I already think I know? If I’m here to learn (and I am), then I need the ability to learn every single point of view that comes at me. It’s not really very interesting what I think—you know, who cares?

RY: One thing that probably helped with fairness is that, and you noted this in the chapter, we often don’t think about some jobs—or think of them in past tense, like Steelworkers. But there are several working steel mills in Allegheny County. So, everyone’s knowledge has gaps. And speaking of Steelworkers, can I call you a Steelers fan?

JML: If I’m going to be a fan of any team…I’d say I’m a conflicted Steelers fan because I have issues with football, but I get sucked in like the rest of us.

RY: I must say I was pleasantly surprised by the chapter about the Ben-Gals, the Cincinnati Bengals’ cheerleading squad. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Most teams with open stadiums don’t have cheerleaders. For example, the Chicago Bears and the Steelers. But some teams do. How do you think Steelers fandom might change if the team had cheerleaders?

JML: I think not having cheerleaders is a characteristic of the team. The Steelers project or embody an aspect of the region and how we think of steel mills. That’s in addition to the general sports atmosphere at Heinz field. The team’s all men and there’s no place for the ladies. Adding cheerleaders would be a pretty significant change, and I’m not sure that fits with the team’s image, either.

RY: That’s a good point about change.  I distinctly remember the reception Steely McBeam received. In Hidden America, many of the people you write about are underpaid, especially the migrant workers and NFL cheerleaders. Many of your readers were probably surprised by how little they make. Your book focuses on their experiences and, in a larger sense, invites the reader to consider our connections to a network of people we rarely think about. But was it hard not to cross the line towards advocating or lobbying for specific changes in some industries?

JML: Sure. In the case of the migrant workers and the air traffic controllers, it’s hard not to. But in the book, I’m not leaning towards an immigration policy. I’m not interested in arguing for government policy. We are all implicated as Americans. We’re all part of the problem.

Maybe it would have been different if the people I wrote about were whining or saying “Help us.” But it wasn’t that kind of situation, which actually made their problems louder for me. I felt like, “I’ve gotta show everybody the truth about what their lives are really like.” Although that’s not my point—it’s not why I set out the write the book, it certainly creates an echo.

But we have this knowledge now. The question is, who are we? How do we choose to look at things in light of this new awareness?

RY: Have you worked any jobs where you felt invisible, or, like the air traffic controllers, where you were only noticed after causing a disaster?

JML: I’ve never been in that kind of position. I had jobs as a teenager that were hard and involved physical labor and sweat. But I’ve never worked the kind of difficult jobs I wrote about [in Hidden America]. I never felt exploited, and the way I grew up, the background I came from, was very sanitized. This was beneficial because I really didn’t have a personal stake when I arrived at the job sites. I didn’t bring a lot of baggage.

RY: You mentioned in the book how long it took to gain access to the coal mine, and especially the air traffic control tower. What’s the holy grail in terms of workplaces you’d love to visit and write about?

JML: Probably something in government or politics. I’ve never had a burning desire in that subject area, but I am driving to DC this weekend for the inauguration as part of a long research project for a profile of Joe Biden. [Laskas’s profile was published in July by GQ.]  I’d love to peek inside the sleeping quarters of the White House. There’s something about peering behind the curtain, seeing how the government actually works.

RY: Parts of this book are downright terrifying. The nation’s conversation about guns, if you can call it that, is even more polarized now, and I’m not sure the hostility between air traffic controllers and their management has changed. We still need more truck drivers. In a lot of ways, Hidden America is a microcosm of crises.

JML: That’s interesting. I’ve never thought of it like that.

RY: There’s a lot of positivity as well, though. Is there anything in your experiences that gives you hope for any kind of improved dialogue—or improvement in general?

JML: The one that jumps out is, ironically, the landfill. The dedication of the people and engineers there…it’s almost like a priesthood. Trash matters to them, and they see it as a real problem. They’ve been solving it—and had been—and will continue to. They’re so devoted to managing resources. It made me feel very optimistic that people like Joe Haworth are in charge, and that they’re smart enough and committed enough to get the job done.

RY: In Hidden America, you write about keeping in touch with some of the people you met and wrote about. Do you have any updates since the book’s been published?

JML: In the mine in Ohio, they got all the coal they could and moved to another mine. “Foot” was hired by the state of Ohio to be the state mine safety guy. It’s a much bigger role, and he’s very proud of that. The migrant workers…well, they always move from camp to camp season by season. They would have left the blueberry camps but return each August. So in that sense, nothing has changed. The chapter about Alaska ended just like that. I’d finished writing it, and then I got the news about TooDogs. It was incredibly sad.

RY: Especially because he’d kind of predicted things in one of the last conversations you had with him in Alaska.

JML: After I got home, it took me a long time to re-enter the world. It felt like I’d been gone for a very long time in a strange landscape, the kind of trip where you can’t quite recognize your friends after you’ve returned home. And it really was a strange landscape. The wind was howling the whole time.  And it seemed like, on the surface, there was a lot of desperation, but this group of men had found this lifestyle where they could survive.

RY: And the money—my God.

JML: I know. I told my grad students that if they wanted to make a ridiculous amount of money, all they had to do was move to Alaska and work on an oil rig. And think of all the writing time you’d have.

RY: I think the rig’s “no drinking” policy might be a dealbreaker.

JML: You’re probably right.

RY: Pauline Phillips, better known as Dear Abby, passed away on Wednesday. And of course, you write an advice column for Reader’s Digest. One description that pops up in both of your bios is the phrase “common sense.” Everyone I know bemoans the widespread lack of it. It’s a strange concept, one of those things where you know it when you see it. How does one learn or cultivate common sense?

JML: That is such a cool question. I’ll have to write an essay to figure it out. But my first fleeting thoughts would be…I don’t really know where common sense comes from. A lot of it’s just what I think. Maybe people don’t laugh about things the way I do. I have a way of distancing myself from things. It’s like being an alien among a world of creatures, looking at them and making a joke to myself to make sense of it. My dad recently passed away—we understood each others’ humor, got each other’s jokes. I’ve missed that, and now it sometimes feels like I’m alone in this knowledge that everything is funny. I think that’s a kind of common sense. It puts things in perspective.

My husband is a shrink. And sometimes, he helps with hard questions by people who are really bothered by something. And I’m not laughing at them, but the absurdity of it all. There are situations everyone’s been in. And we can connect that way, by laughing. Not at, but with. We’re humans, we’re all part of this.