Monday, April 3, 2023

Q&A with Michelle Fishburne


Michelle Fishburne is the author of the new book Who We Are Now: Stories of What Americans Lost & Found during the Covid-19 Pandemic


Q: What inspired you to write this book, and how did you choose the people to interview?


A: I did not write this book. I wandered all over the United States interviewing hundreds of people during the first year or so of the pandemic. That's all I did. One hundred of those first-person stories, in their own words, are in this book. I am just the person who collected the stories.


Why was I out there, motor-homing all over the U.S. during the pandemic?  Because I lost my job in the COVID spring and nobody would hire me, not even as an unpaid 57-year-old intern.


So I gave up the lease on my house and moved into the 2006 motorhome in which I had homeschooled my kids. I needed a project to keep me from waking up panicked every day, so I started driving all over and asking people how they were doing. It was a "Run, Forrest, Run" moment. 


I never intended to be an author, and I still do not think of myself as such. As I roamed the country and gathered the stories, I put them up on my website and social media. People started asking me whether I was going to put some of the stories in a book, so that future generations could look back on them and get a sense of what life was like.


That made a lot of sense to me, so I emailed UNC Press and asked them if they thought it was a book. "Yes, it is a book," is how they responded. 


As to how I chose the people to interview, that answer is complicated. There was a raging pandemic and a lot of people in most of the country were staying in their homes. When John Steinbeck did Travels with Charley in 1960, the country was full of people everywhere, milling about. That was not the case in 2020. I had to get creative. I found people by hook or by crook. Not literally, but you get what I mean.


Suffice it to say that I had a grid to ensure that I was compiling stories that, collectively, represented a pretty decent mosaic of the American experience. I made sure the stories were diverse as to race, religion, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, profession, and area of the country.  


Q: The filmmaker Kern Konwiser said of the book, "Michelle Fishburne has assembled a diverse array of voices from around the nation that add up to a compelling snapshot of America during a time of crisis and uncertainty. The profound conclusion is that Americans do in fact care deeply—about each other, about the fate of our country and what it stands for." What do you think of that description?


A: I am just offering up the stories. How each person processes them is personal. 


This may seem like a cop-out on my part, but I told UNC Press when I signed the book contract that there was no way in hell I was going to tell people what they should take away from the book or how they should process the pandemic. I still feel that way. Each person's experience and journey was personal.


It is my hope that readers find a bit of themselves in each of the 100 stories in the book, and that they get a glimpse of what it must have been like meeting all these people in person while everything was still so uncertain.


Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about how Americans were affected by the pandemic?


A: When I went out into the country in the fall of 2020. I expected to find despondence, division, and desperation. Yet that is not what I found, and at first it really surprised me.


Then as I moved through the country, I began to understand. What I found was "pluck," which means "spirited and determined courage." Even among people who had lost loved ones, even among people whose businesses and livelihoods were failing, I saw a spirited and determine courage.


And you know what? It makes sense. Ten thousand years ago when saber tooth tigers attacked our ancestors sheltering in caves, the remaining clan members still had to find food, water, and shelter the next day, and encourage the clan's children to keep moving. Pluck. We saw it in the Spanish families singing and playing instruments from their balconies during quarantine. It is what I saw in America. It is one of our strongest human traits. 


Q: What impact did writing this book have on you?


A: Collecting these stories was something I did naturally. It was just me, living in my country and listening to my countrymen during a very challenging time in our country's history. I do not feel like it changed me or had any impact on me. I was just hanging out with my fellow Americans, pure and simple.


It has only occurred to me recently that my view of the pandemic might be unique because I was the only person in the United States who traveled throughout the country interviewing people while it was happening.


All I did was ask just one question: "It's January 1, 2020. What was your 2020 supposed to be like, and what has it been like up through the present?" Most people talked for 20 to 30 to 40 minutes straight, without stopping. The range of responses seemed natural to me. Everyone has a story, and each story is different. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am starting on my next "Who We Are Now" book, but with a completely different topic.


Also, I am starting to do presentations to groups about the way-of-thinking that saved me in the summer of 2020. It is the same way-of-thinking that my father used to save the Apollo 13 astronauts.


Basically, whenever there is scarcity (I did not have a house, a spouse, a job, or a kid to take care of as of August 1, 2020), there is always abundance (I had a motorhome, experience driving it all over the U.S., curiosity about others, writing skills, etc.).


This scarcity-abundance way-of-thinking is very simple. If you are feeling  stuck or panicked or worried about what is scarce in your life, get very quiet and think about what you have in abundance. It works.


And the Apollo 13 story? Well, you can probably tell that I like a good story, so here it is  . . .  . If you watched the Apollo 13 movie, you will remember that the craft only had enough electricity to power a coffee pot.


You also might remember the scene in which they asked the Grumman guy how the lunar module would be separated from the command module without using the motors (not enough electricity) and without changing the trajectory of the craft.


My dad and his colleague at Grumman had to figure it out. The scarcity was electricity. The abundance was the oxygen canisters that were not needed because the astronauts had not landed on the moon. 


My dad and his colleague calibrated the exact amount of oxygen to release in the chamber between the vehicles before unlocking them, resulting in the lunar module backing away from the command module very slowly, like a balloon, without changing the command module's trajectory.


Scarcity and abundance. Simple and actionable, by everyone.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I hope you take your time reading through the stories in Who We Are Now. Each one will give you pause in a different way, each one will get you thinking. It is worth mulling them over, figuring out how your understanding of yourself, your experience, and others’ experiences, might be changed by having read it.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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