On Tuesday, August 6th, 2019, journalist and best-selling author Beth Macy visited the Leonard Library to launch the paperback edition of Dopesick--a heartbreaking, essential read that takes the reader into the epicenter of America’s twenty-plus year struggle with opioid addiction. From the publisher:
Macy sets out to answer a grieving mother’s question-why her only son died-and comes away with a gripping, unputdownable story of greed and need. She investigates the powerful forces that led America’s doctors and patients to embrace a medical culture where overtreatment with painkillers became the norm. Through unsparing, compelling, and unforgettably humane portraits of families and first responders determined to ameliorate this epidemic, each facet of the crisis comes into focus. In these politically fragmented times, Beth Macy shows that one thing uniting Americans across geographic, partisan, and class lines is opioid drug abuse. But even in the midst of twin crises in drug abuse and healthcare, Macy finds reason to hope and ample signs of the spirit and tenacity that are helping the countless ordinary people ensnared by addiction build a better future for themselves, their families, and their communities.
Before her talk Macy graciously agreed to field a few questions via email from Off the Shelf in which she touches on her process, gives shoutouts to a few of the librarian superstars in her life while also providing some insights into her personal reading habits.
Off the Shelf (OtS): Your book is an up-close telling of one of the most heart-rending stories of our times—of the devastating opioid epidemic that continues to touch families and communities across our nation. You tell this story with such care and tenderness; it must have required full immersion. Can you talk a bit about your research process? What drew you to this topic? Is there anything not in your book that you would like your readers to know? Are there any libraries that helped in researching for this or any of your books to which you would like to give a shout out (no pressure)?
Beth Macy (BM): Oh my gosh, let’s start with my favorite librarians: Piper Cumbo (Roanoke College), and Edwina Parks (Virginia Room, Roanoke Public Library) deserve a kidney from me should they ever need one. They’ve helped so much with all three books. And it was the database at the Library of Virginia that led me to that great Dopesick epigraph quote from the doctor in 1884 who warned that we would elect a despot unless America took its then-morphine epidemic seriously.
My M.O. with all my reporting is first to go to the people on the ground — in this case, the unfiltered families and human beings suffering from this disease. As I started to report the story, I ended up with three geographic “buckets” pasted on my wall* — a list of both people and themes that fit broadly into the three kinds of regions I believe represent the arc of this epidemic: distressed rural hinterlands, cities/suburbs, once-idyllic small farm towns. Then I just started peeling the onions, interviewing as many people as I could, casting my net wide. When I settled on my main stories from each of those three loyalties, then I went deeper, re-interviewing them again and again, and talking to more people, until I was satisfied I was capturing the truth, or as close to the truth as I could get.
*My geographic buckets I write on a dry-erase product called “Wizard Wall” — it literally wallpapers my office.
(OtS): We also want to ask a few questions about your reading habits, perhaps given the heaviness of your subject matter--do you have any dependable pleasure reads that balance the emotional labor of your work?
(BM): I prefer to read fiction as a way to balance the emotional labor of this work. I like to fall into a good story that’s as far away from my subject as possible for pleasure reading. Last winter, I read every single Tana French novel. I devoured Taffy Brodessar Akner’s new Fleischman Is In Trouble last month because what a great voice and she’s the best sentence constructor in feature writing right now. And you can’t get farther from the distressed rural communities I write about than a Manhattan doctor who’s considered “poor” and whose wife abandons him at Kripalu! When I’m on deadline, though, I read nonfiction to help inform me — dog-earing, notating, summarizing as I go so I can put the sources in footnote.
(OtS): The characters in your narrative journalism are so well described, so universal, can you talk about characters, in either fiction or nonfiction, that were important or instructive to you as a reader?
(BM): I want to know what people fear and desire--I want to know what keeps them up at night. The North Carolina novelist Lee Smith (I think quoting Eudora Welty) once told me that “memory and desire are the only two things worth writing about.” Tracy Kidder’s illuminating descriptions of Paul Farmer from Mountains Beyond Mountains always come back to me as I write; J. Anthony Lukas’s sense of history and place in Common Ground; and as for sheer advice, there’s nothing better than what the grandmother of the great Bryan Stevenson tells him, as recounted in Just Mercy: to drill down to the nitty gritty of justice, you have to “get close."
(OtS): And of course, this is a library blog, so we have to ask: why do you love the library?
(BM): I love the library because it was the only place, outside of school hours, that a poor kid like me could go and be treated equally, and where I realized that what you KNOW is as important as what you have and who you know; where my parents could go, with no money, and disappear into worlds they would never see. The library is one of the great equalizers in our society. Librarians are my superheroes.
(OtS): And finally, we like to ask one final question: what books are actually on your nightstand right now. (Not your aspirational nightstand, but your actual nightstand. You can supplement with your aspirational nightstand, if you wish)
(BM): I am traveling right now (and about to travel even more) so oh to have my nightstand nearby! At home I have mainly galleys of books by friends (and friends of friends!) who have requested blurbs. I just wrote one for Aaron Glantz’s Homewreckers [publishing 10/15/19] that, friend or not, is an awesome social history of what it means to own a home in America and so very much more (out in October). Right now, I just picked up for a dollar at a used book store on Vinalhaven, Maine, a 1997 novel called The Straight Man by Richard Russo. I’m up here in Maine at the moment, in Russo territory, and it just seemed right — and it’s pure Russo, wryly hilarious and poignant too. For its sheer chill powers, I have been keeping Mary Pipher’s Seeking Peace nearby so I can dip into all the dog-eared sections as needed.
Thanks again to Beth Macy for her thoughtful responses and her excellent event. If you were not able to attend, you can reserve a copy of all her titles through our online catalog, or pick up a copy at a neighborhood bookstore near you.
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