Raleigh’s own Scott Huler was recently named the 2011 Piedmont Laureate. Huler is the author of six books, most recently On the Grid, which examines and exposes the hidden – and often unappreciated – infrastructure beneath our feet. Huler worked as a reporter for the News and Observer, he has also written for many news outlets including public radio and The New York Times.
As a member of the Raleigh Public Record board of directors, Huler was not immune to our questioning. We chatted with Huler a day after meeting a big deadline for one of his latest projects and found that among other things, he likes knowing how stuff works and that he once found online media a tad bit threatening.
How does it feel to named this year’s Piedmont Laureate?
It feels absurdly good. I really am delighted by this honor. I’m thrilled. I’m really thrilled.
How do you plan to fulfill your responsibilities as Piedmont Laureate?
A lot of the things that you do are pretty straightforward. Each of the partner agencies have a few specific things that they expect you to do, like a reading or a cooperative event. That’s all the kind of stuff that I love to do anyway. My last book was about infrastructure and we haven’t exactly decided what we will be doing, but we will be using some kind of sign to direct you to online information, a story basically, about a couple of infrastructure monuments here or beyond, like a water plant. Or a sign that directs your attention that beneath your feet there is something interesting in the storm water system. I’m not exactly sure how we’ll take advantage of what I was interested in, but I just want to bring it to life.
What was it about nonfiction that appealed to you?
When I started out as a writer, I wanted to be a novelist. I started out trying to write a novel when I was a young kid out of college. I was terrible at it. Whatever good there was about my fiction, and there wasn’t much, it was when a character would just straight forward tell something to the reader. I realized that’s really what I had to offer; a voice and a capacity to understand something and explain it in a way that someone else can understand it.
Is that why journalism appeals to you?
Yes. I love to say, “Hey, what about…” and go about find out about it and explain it. What a thrilling life to be able to be curious about something and not just get your answers, but go to these interesting places and do these interesting things and talk to people. I make my living sharing what I’ve learned.
I’m doing books more than anything than else and my standing joke is, do not write a book because it’s going to make you rich, it will not. Do not write a book because it will make you famous. It will not. And do not write a book because it will get you a date. It will not get you a date. But, if you find some topic that you are so amazed by what you discover about it that you want to stop random people in the street…then that’s worth writing a book about. Because if you don’t feel that way about the topic of your book, you are wasting your time and you are wasting a publisher’s time.
How has working for the News & Observer influenced your work?
When I moved here before the internet, I was amazed to the degree to which people were engaged with the News & Observer. It reached so many people. I really felt like I had this enormous privilege of helping to steer the conversation. If I wrote something people knew it. Something like this where you are just part of your community and keeping people awake. And that was just a thrill to me to realize that it happens on both sides. Not only am I throwing things out there, people are catching and we’re creating a relationship.
How do you feel the internet has changed how people are engaged with their local newspaper?
It has smashed the walls of authority. The newspaper used to have the authority and now everyone has the authority. You can blog and the guy next to you can blog. There’s just so much capacity for people to get the word out on their own and if they think you’re wrong then you have a whole comment thread of people telling you that you’re wrong. On one hand, initially that’s kind of heartbreaking because you spend your whole life struggling to get over that bar and the day after you get over that bar, the headline says, guess what, no bar. Now everybody is a writer, everybody is a publisher. At first it was very threatening, but I think the multiplication of sources does lots of things. On the one hand it does help stories that wouldn’t otherwise get out there get out there. And there is still the democratic process that if a story isn’t interesting then forget it. You still have to be good. I think it demonstrates the importance of what good writers do. It’s harder now in some ways to get heard. But, I think that the more stories there are the better. The more people feel the capacity to get the word out with what they feel is important, the better.
What can you tell us about your new book, On the Grid?
For so long it has been on my list of topics to address. It’s such a weird book. It’s such a combination of different things. Every one of my books is filed under the, it’s kind of hard to explain category. It started about 750,000 years ago when I did a story about an architect in Philadelphia. Everything is thought about [in architecture]. When I moved to Raleigh in 1992 I would drive out to Six Forks, and eventually you come to the end because it’s a new town and it’s metastasized, it’s growing so quickly. And you could see the bones of the infrastructure sticking out. You literally see them laying the road and all the trenches where all the pipes would go. It’s just amazing to see a physical environment being created in a place like Raleigh and the Triangle. And I started to get interested in how those things work.
We always talk about “the grid” but there it is. It’s hanging on telephone poles right above my house. We had that drought and meanwhile we never ran out of water, how does that happen? How does a million people get their water from a reservoir that was pretty much dry, but we still had our water. If you whack the snooze button and go back to bed, that’s already broadcast information in the electrical grid that made the clock radio go. That’s two enormously complicated infrastructure systems with histories and stories to tell and I haven’t even opened up my eyes yet.
How has writing this book changed you?
It has certainly made me more aware of how important these systems are. It’s really changed my relationship to my surroundings. I think that’s how this particular book has changed me and it has made me so aware of what’s happening. I think that this book more than anything else made me deeply believe something that I’ve often said, which is that you can understand it. When you just look at [these systems] it seems like there is no way you can possible understand it and put it in context, but yes you can. What is overwhelmingly complex is not overwhelming complex. It’s complex, don’t kid yourself, it’s not overwhelming if you just take your time and love it, it wants to tell its story to you. If you are willing to love what’s around you and open your mind and your spirit and your intellect you can understand what’s happening around you.
How have your sons influenced your writing?
They have influenced it and formed it in the way they have formed everything about my life.
As a reporter, as a journalist, whose job is to be excited about the world, well hang around with little kids. Everything is exciting. I would push Louie around in the stroller and he would get so excited about a manhole cover and he wanted to know what was underneath it. Then you start looking and there’s all kind of stuff. Every fragment of asphalt is new and interesting to them and it should be to us. I feel enormously grateful to have them hanging around and we have a large time. I think they make me a better person and a better writer.
What can we expect from you in the future?
I’ll be blogging on the Piedmont Laureate website this year which is a new thing for the Piedmont Laureate. I’ll just write about stuff. In some ways I’ll be writing a column, which I really like. Then there are some ideas that I’ve been talking to a publisher about that doesn’t seem right to talk about it until I know what’s happening with that. Check in with me in three months.