Goodby City Life
14 June 2003
How a former urbanite with a maxed-out credit card found happiness under the wide Nebraska skies
Four years ago, essayist Meghan Daum very elegantly -- and very publicly -- explained in a New Yorker essay titled "My Misspent Youth" how a successful, 20-something, Manhattan-dwelling writer could easily go broke (and into debt) on approximtely $50,000 a year. Daum declared her love affair with New York officially over, at least for the time being, and fled her cramped quarters on the Upper West Side for the expansive prairies of Lincoln, Neb
"Now I have a house with many rooms, a big yard, a washer and dryer," enthuses Daum, who still looks every bit the New Yorker with her short, spikey hair and black sunglasses. She's back east on a leg of her book tour, and as we chat in Union Square Park on a one of the few sunny days of the spring, Daum describes how her moved helped her grow as a writer. "I heard John Updike say once that a writer really needs to be an outsider in order to write well, to see and be open to things," Daum explains. "In New York, the writers are all insiders. After a certain point, living in New York, perhaps one is not as open to things as might be necessary to be a good writer."
It's clear that outsider status has done great things for Daum. Inspired by her relocation experience to take on a project as grand in scale as the landscape visible from one of her rural home's windows, Daum put aside journalism for a time to write a novel. Her first effort, The Quality of Life Report (Viking, $24.95), is the story of young, spirited journalist Lucinda Trout, who, like Daum, moves from New York to the Midwest (only in Trout's case it's the wholly fictional Prairie City, USA.)
Trout first visits the aptly named PC on assignment, as Daum had Lincoln, and is charmed by the prospect of moving there. As Trout describes it, the wildly welcoming PC is a place where "farmers waved at semi-butch lesbians, a place where women threw menopause showers and the sky -- I noticed this even from my hotel room -- seemed to eclipse the Earth itself." (Not to mention that entire houses in PC rent for as little as $400 a month.)
Yet, despite the similarities between Daum's own choices and those of her main character, "The Quality of Life Report" is only "32.9 percent autobiography," she insists. Aside from Lucinda's long, elegant, philosophical digressions on "quality of life" that punctuate the book -- "the aspects that are me are really in the internal stuff, like her ideas about geographical space and the impact it has on your personal life," Daum says -- all that author and main character really have in common are geography and occupation. Unlike Lucinda, who takes up beauty treatments as a way to stave off the winter blues, the luminous but decidedly un-Coppertoned Daum stresses, "I would never have fake nails. Or go to the tanning salon." She adds: "And I hope that when I arrived in Lincoln I wasn't as flaky and entitled as Lucinda."
Daum's eclectic cast of supporting characters -- including Lucinda's appealingly rugged boyfriend, Mason, and a goofy group of consciousness-raising ladies with hearts of gold and a pig named Diva Starz -- are, much to my disappointment, purely fictional, too. (I was hoping to meet one or two of them on my next trip to the heartland.) Yet, her picture of the Midwest is starkly real, a place that's stunningly beautiful in the gentle months and brutal as a bear in the freezing winter. Daum never thought of moving to the country as any way of "simplifying" her life. Indeed, part of the impetus for writing "The Quality of Life Report" came from a desire to debunk the myth that rural life is somehow easier than living in the city. "One of the things I wanted to deal with in the novel was this whole way that the media ran away with the "simplicity" movement and kind of wrapped that up in rural life," she explains. "It was so reductive about living in the country. And part of the satire of the book is riffing off of all that ridiculous media stuff."
She says that the basic idea for "The Quality of Life Report" came to her after surviving a particularly chilling winter in her new home. As the weather violently rattled her windows, she began researching "prairie madness," a scientifically documented syndrome that afflicted 19th century homesteaders in the Dakotas. "Women and families were literally driven insane by the sound of the howling wind," she explains. "I started to think about how prairie madness would affect a contemporary woman -- what could a 21st century manifestation of wind and grizzly bears be like?"
Apparently, leaky windows, poor insulation, busted boilers and a dearth of sun are our modern-day bears. But they're nothing Daum can't handle. When I ask whether the quality of life is better in Nebraska than in New York City, Daum says simply, "It now it is, because I'm still an outsider." Doesn't she miss New York, even with its insider-ness? "All the time, all the time."