LONDON—It’s the last week of Tara Westover’s book tour for “Educated,” her memoir of growing up in rural Idaho in a family of survivalists, and she really can’t wait to get back to a familiar bed. Having travelled across the U.S. and now the U.K. promoting her bestselling autobiography, she quickly realized she couldn’t stand having to be sleep in a new place each night. So while in Britain, where she lived for a decade (she has a PhD in history from Cambridge) before moving to New York City this past summer, she has gone back each night to company apartment of her publisher back in London after each book festival and reading. The desire to sleep in the same bed outweighed long train journeys back and forth each day from places like Bristol and Cardiff.
It’s been a whirlwind for the 32-year-old since her memoir was released in last February. She has done the talk show circuit and seen her book get rave reviews from media outlets—The New Yorker described it as an “astounding memoir” –while Barack Obama included it in his summer reading list, stating that the book was “remarkable.” She’s now ready to head back to the U.S. and, after taking a bit of a break, she plans to start work on a documentary about rural education. She sat down with Ginanne Brownell Mitic at the London offices of Penguin to talk about the success of the book, what she plans on doing next and meeting Mandy Patinkin, a childhood idol. EXCERPTS:
Brownell Mitic: One of the things I don’t see asked in other interviews is how did the book actually came to pass.
Westover: I think the idea for some kind of book was in the air in the sense that I had several professors from my undergrad [at Utah’s Brigham Young University] say, “I think you should write a book about your kind of weird life.” I had no interest in that; my family are kind of private and I am kind of private and I thought, “No, this is not really my beat.” Also I was not persuaded because I could not think of a good reason to do it. And I think after I became estranged from my family and I went through this incredibly difficult experience, I became kind of sensitive to the fact that I did not think there were that many stories where people were talking openly about estrangement and what it is like. And the people who were willing to do that were nearing the end of their lives and their parents had passed on, which is why they were suddenly liberated I guess. So I felt like those were very useful but they did not resonate with me. But that started to feel like a reason. And then the education side was always important to me but increasingly I thought these were kind of the same story.
While your book is about your education—from barely being home schooled to motivating yourself to study for the SATS, getting into college, going to Cambridge to study history—it is also about estrangement and how you had a breakdown when you were a visiting scholar at Harvard.
I don’t know anyone who becomes estranged over night; it was over five years for me. And during that time, I was completely desperate for stories; I wanted a story of someone who I respected who seemed like they had it together to say to me, “Actually I have had these difficulties with my family and I am okay, my life is okay and I am a good person.” I think it is hard to believe you are a good person if you mother does not believe you are a good person. I never realized how much I relied on her opinion of me to have a good opinion of myself until I lost her good opinion, and actually that was 70% of my self-worth or maybe even more. So there was just a long period of time where I just wanted an “it gets better” example. It was impossible for me to think of a happy healthy life without my parents in it. I could not imagine it. I remember reading some sleazy tabloid story about how JK Rowling and her dad were estranged for many years and I obsessed about it. Estrangement feels super shameful and feels like its tantamount to admitting you are a terrible person but you are not the only one who goes through this.
I wrote a draft in a year and used that to get an agent and publisher. And then revised for a year and half. I was not doing anything else. It was get up, walk the dog, write. Walk the dog, write, go out for dinner, go home, write.
This is the last week of your book tour. What is next for you?
I am working on a documentary on rural education. I would like to do a podcast simultaneously but not sure how realistic that is. I am doing some writing for the Atlantic, journalistic-type writing. And I just want to do some other kinds of writing and use all the attention that “Educated” has been getting to use as a way to talk about other things that don’t get talked about as much. And in a few years, I would imagine I would write another book. I am going to see if I can tell other people’s stories for awhile and then maybe come back to a novel or something.
She-files has focused a lot of stories on the barriers that girls face to their education across the globe but until I read your book, I never thought much about girls and young women in the U.S. who had access to education but for some reason they couldn’t or didn’t go to school.
I think that it is a huge issue, also for boys as well, but more for girls. I think you have a lot more families like mine than people realize where people kind of opt out of the system. And a lot of women for cultural reasons, maybe they get an education but the whole idea of what they are meant to do with their lives and that education has been so narrowed by the expectations around them that it’s almost as if they were not educated in a way. So I think it is a big problem.
Tell me about your focus on rural education as a subject.
The crisis that I have chosen to engage with this year is the kind of splitting happening –especially in the US, but here too— of the body politik into two worlds. We are just so separate, we cannot even talk to each other. I think it is largely an urban/rural divide— some say it is a right/left divide— but I think those things often line up. Rural kids really struggle going to university. They enroll in lower numbers and drop out in higher numbers and even when they graduate it takes them on average twice as long, eight years to do four years. That’s on average. I think ironically the rural population has a lot of the same problems that inner city minorities do: they don’t know anyone with college degree, no mentorship, no one to know how to navigate the system. A small thing goes wrong and they do not know who ask for help and it completely derails the rest of their lives. I think gender is a large thing that I want to explore and talk about because the women in these [rural] places are way more likely to graduate from college than their male counterparts. They do much better. But they basically study the same disciplines: dental hygiene, nursing and early childhood education. So it is still very prescribed and limited for them even though they are the ones getting the degrees. They are much less likely to use their degrees, and they congregate around a constellation of caregiving professions.
How has your family reacted to the success of the book?
I would say with a memoir like this that you can never predict how people are going to react. And people that I thought would be very supportive weren’t and those who I did not think would be supportive really were. And it wasn’t really predictable. Half of the family in the book I was estranged from I am still estranged from so I don’t have a lot to say about their reactions because I am not in touch with them. The remaining ones, my aunts and uncles were really good and my brothers have been good, they were really good before it was published. One of them has struggled since it was published, which I think is fair as no one expected it to do what it did. So I think there is one thing like, “Write your little book that no one will ever read to vent your feelings.” And then it was like, “What have you done?” [laughs]
What are some of the highlights of the last year? I would think Barack Obama listing your book as one of his five summer reads was pretty cool.
Yeah, definitely the Obama thing. And he called me. It was weird, totally weird. They called me and asked if I could take a call with him, I was like, “I can squeeze that right on in.” [laughs] We talked about the book and rural education, which I am obsessed about. We talked about politics and why people dehumanize other people and why it is this divide has become so toxic. It was incredibly generous for him to do, to read the book was generous. To put it on his list was generous. So it was just above and beyond to take the time to call. The other thing was I got to meet Mandy Patinkin. I was very into musical theater growing up. I got to meet him and his wife. And he sang a song for me. He was a huge childhood hero of mine. Music for me became a symbol of how there was a whole world out there.