Oliver Diaz & Evan Goldstein

An Interview with Kate Daloz

Kate Daloz was raised in the woods of Vermont, in the geodesic dome her parents built during the back-to-the-land movement in the 1970s. She holds an MFA from Columbia University, where she taught creative writing, and was a founding member of Neuwrite: Columbia Scientists and Writers. Her work has been featured in American Scholar, New Republic, and Rolling Stone, among other publications. We Are As Gods: Back to the Land in the 1970s on the Quest for a New America, is her first book.

Gandy Dancer: We Are As Gods, seeking to chronicle a movement of hundreds of thousands of young people across the US out of cities, is a truly massive undertaking. We were wondering how you did it. Approximately how many interviews did you do? How did you record them and what methods proved most efficient for pulling these stories out of your sources and into cohesive narratives? How did you maintain all these threads while writing?

Kate Daloz: In addition to formal interviews, I talked to a lot of people informally, so I’m not one hundred percent sure of exact numbers, but it was scores of people and probably hundreds of hours. As many interviews as possible were in person, but I did a lot over the phone and by Skype. Whenever possible I recorded conversations using the voice recorder on my iPhone. I also took notes during the interviews, in case the recording failed. In person, I usually take notes by hand, but when it’s not in person and I don’t need to be making eye contact, I type because I’m faster that way. After each interview, I take extra notes on whatever I wanted to remember about the conversation itself (the setting, the mood, and any insights or areas for follow-up). Then I type up loose transcriptions, making it very clear where I used paraphrase and which were the subject’s exact words. I also include timestamps in the transcription so I’m always able to easily go back and double-check the original sound file. I give each interview a simple title of the subject’s name and the interview date.

Using the writing program Scrivener, which allows you to break a project into small, flexible parts, I make files for each area I know I want to write about (“communal child-rearing,” “Summer ’71”). After I finish each interview, I go through it and cut-and-paste its contents into the appropriate files, labeling each chunk with the interview title. This way, when I’m ready to start writing, say, about the summer of ’71, everything everyone told me about it is in one place, labeled with the source, so I can remember whose version was whose.

GD: You give vivid depictions of these communes’ landscapes. Although primary source material and interviews must have been useful for getting to know the settings in which you worked, it seems like you visited these commune sites (and, of course, grew up next to one). How much traveling did you do to write this book?

KD: I take every opportunity I can to go back to Vermont! Growing up in the area was absolutely vital for allowing me to write with authority about the landscape and seasons—what the air smells like in January as opposed to June. I only actually visited the site of the commune a few times, but on one of those visits, I brought a blank map and had former residents walk around with me and help identify where gardens and structures had been forty years earlier. Back in Brooklyn, I also used Google Maps and MapMyRun.com to get the specifics about routes and distances really accurate.

GD: In a few sections of the book, you qualify this back-to-the-land movement in terms of its racial and class makeup: the people who lived in these communes were almost exclusively white and middle class. How did you reconcile the seeming exclusivity of this movement?

KD: That’s a really great question and one I’ve continued thinking a lot about since finishing the book. Like many Americans during the Obama era, I found myself having more and more intense conversations with friends and family about race and class. I had long since noticed the extremely narrow demographic that made up the population I was writing about, but when I read “How Privilege Became Provocation,” in the New York Times, by my friend Parul Sehgal, something clicked. I suddenly understood the back-to-the-land phenomenon in a new way: as an expression of privilege. Though I tried not to use that word very much in the book itself, it informed the way I described my characters’ backgrounds and choices, as well as their confidence, assumptions, support networks, and blind spots. It let me approach some of the recurrent questions about simplicity movements (Who are these idealists? Why don’t more of these radical experiments last?) and emerge with new answers.

GD: In many ways, the communes are not perfect, particularly in their gender-specific divisions of labor. Are these difficulties products of inherent human flaws or a product of the fact that the communards still lived within American culture?

KD: Another great question! What I like to point out is that partnership, cooperation, and collaboration always involve conflict and negotiation. There’s a persistent fantasy that stepping outside of traditional structures—monogamy, say, or the nuclear family—will somehow also mean stepping away from disagreement and interpersonal tension. But domestic issues—questions about cooking, cleaning, childcare, financial security, how money should be saved and spent—have to be addressed, no matter how your family is structured. While it came as a surprise to many ’70s-era communards that it was harder to be “married” to twenty people than to just one, they learned a tremendous amount about group conflict resolution and how to structure healthy communities—lessons that are still in widespread use today.

GD: Have you explored any contemporary communes or cooperative living environments? If so, what is your opinion on these back-to-the-land-inspired movements and communal living experiments?

KD: I haven’t spent as much time in today’s collective houses, live-work spaces, or independent farms as I’d like to, but there’s no question that another back-to-the-land-ish movement is taking place today. If I could sum up the contrast between today’s idealists and those of the ’70s, I’d say that people undertaking these experiments today are far less naïve and ill-prepared than the ’70s back-to-the-landers. This is partly because they have the experience and practices of the ’70s generation to draw on—but they also have the Internet, with its almost limitless ability to connect people, resources, and ideas.

And it’s worth noting: The intellectual origins of today’s Internet culture, with its emphasis on sharing, stretches straight back through the Whole Earth Catalog, to the early hippie communes of the American Southwest.

GD: Throughout the book, we see many communes struggling with the question of whether they can transform society. Do you think any came close to inspiring a restructuring of American society? What do you believe is the largest success of this movement?

KD: America went through so many huge changes after the 1960s that it’s hard to give credit to any one element, especially one as short-lived as the commune movement. But as I’ve already indicated above, its participants’ extreme inventiveness and rejection of the mainstream gave rise to many structures and practices we take for granted today, from recycling programs to homebirth advice to food co-ops. The two biggest, I’d say, are organic food and the connected, information-sharing culture of the Internet.

GD: Do you see any similarities or differences between young people’s responses to American society in the ’70s and young people’s responses to the same social structures today?

KD: I had already begun working on this book when the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements started, making the parallels between today’s activism and that of the ’60s and ’70s much more obvious.

As much as I admire and am grateful for the real changes they brought about, I do bristle a little bit at the “Baby Boomer Exceptionalism” narrative that often accompanies comparisons between their activism and that of other generations. While there’s no question that Boomers’ idealism and frustrations with social ills spurred them to action, it’s also vital to point out that they were born into a period of tremendous economic confidence and inherited a job market in which a college degree pretty much guaranteed a comfortable livelihood. That background of privilege—not just on a personal, but on a generational level—was essential in letting such a large number of people feel secure enough to risk such widespread rejection of the status quo.

GD: What are you working on now?

KD: Right now, I’m working on another personal-history-as-American-history book—this one is about my grandmother’s sudden death in 1944, during WWII, and the decades of secrecy and shame that surrounded her story.