"In your book," I said, "you've made the land seem almost a character."
"Yes, I wanted to write it like the land was a character; I didn't anthropomorphize it, but it seemed it was like Mother Nature, it got teased and pushed and beat up and finally got its revenge. I've always written stories about the outdoors. Growing up in the Northwest you can't help but love the outdoors, but you work on a story like this and you realize that the land has a limit, and if you abuse it, there's a terrible toll. Some people think there's a parallel to what's going to happen with global warming. I'm not sure I'll go that step."
"As a reader, I was glad that you stayed away from the global warming discussion. That discussion would have taken away from the immediacy of your story."
"I'm glad to hear you say that because my editor wanted to push me into that. I wanted to stick with the story. I wanted to let the story tell itself, like a parable, and lay it out and let people see what's obvious. I didn't think I needed to draw in the global warming."
"Did you think a lot about James Agee when you did this?"
"Certainly, he was one of the people I read going into this. But he wasn't a role model. Agee was trying to stir a conscience. I'm mostly trying to bring this almost lost era back to life. So he wrote out of urgency. I'm writing out of 'Wait a minute, wait a minute. Most of these guys are going to die. Let's not forget this.'
"So as a journalist who tries to write history as well, I know that there's a sense of urgency and you want people to wake up. That's what Agee was motivated by."
"Both you and Agee allow the vanquished rather than the victor tell the story."
"We always write from the point of view of the victor. History is always written in the sunshine, while they're drinking from the goblet. The first take is the most accurate take. I wanted to get those voices. I wanted to get them. I wanted to let them talk."
Mr. Egan, in libraries, looked at people's Bibles. "The interesting thing about that is that in a lot of households in that part of the country, the family Bible is more sacred than anything. It's the heirloom that gets passed down. The story of that family is in that Bible."
"The family Bible," I said, "is one thing people will grab."
"You finished my sentence. It's the one thing they'll grab. That's exactly right. I did hear people saying, you also need your gun. But the family Bible was the one thing."
"Can you describe for me what the dust felt like?"
"At one point, I tried to illustrate this in my book. A dust particle is about one-fifth the size of a period at the end of a sentence. As much earth as was excavated to create the Panama Canal was thrown to the air during a single storm, the Black Sunday storm. It has this sandpapery quality, fine sandpaper, people often said. It was like someone was rubbing sandpaper against your face."
"I kept trying to come up with ways to try to describe this. But it comes from the way the people talked about it. That when it was that concentrated, there was abrasiveness to it. It scratched at you. It got in your eyes, your nose, your throat."
"There's a kid, a doctor looked at him, he was a young, healthy man, and the doctor said, 'Young man, you are filled up with dirt.' And the kid died the next day. I mean that's why I said people would literally drown from the stuff.
"You could go out in your back yard, what was left of it, and you'd see a dust snowdrift. It would be misshapen one way. And then a day would go by and everything would have moved to one side, or it would have buried something that was not buried. People would have their cars buried in a day or two.
"Women worked so hard. You'd get old real quickly. A beautiful young woman, getting married in her 20s, by the time she's 30, would be broken down and beaten up.
"I quote a woman as saying, 'People get old very quickly in this part of the country. You age very quickly.' But women would talk about how they'd turn the pots over all the time, upside down. And you'd only flip it up to cook. You knew the dust was going to filter most of those rooms. Those houses were not insulated. They were plank boards.
"Dust would get in your house. It doesn't take much for it to get in. One woman told me the entire ceiling of the house caved. They saw it swelling, swelling, and it opened and it caved, and all the dust came down on them inside their house.
"'Why didn't they all flee?' Well, they always thought things would get better, that it had to end. They also didn't have any real choice. I mean it wasn't like they had spare cash lying around. These people were living a subsistence existence, even in towns."