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'Hillbilly Elegy' Author J.D. Vance Plans Ohio Return To Hear State's Challenges


The book "Hillbilly Elegy" is on countless year-end best lists. It's a hot topic in book clubs and its author is a frequent guest on NPR - J.D. Vance. The book tells the story of his southern Ohio childhood and the white working class people who struggled when the steel industry collapsed. He describes the poverty, the addiction and the violence that surrounded him. Vance found his way out, went to Yale and became an investment banker in San Francisco, but now he wants to leave the Bay Area and move back home. J.D. Vance joins me now from member station KQED to explain why. Welcome to the program.

J D VANCE: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: So what are you going back to Ohio to do?

VANCE: (Laughter) Well, first of all, I've always wanted to go back to Ohio ever since I left when I was 18 or 19 to join the military. So it's always been this thing in the back of my mind. And the success of the book has given me the flexibility, but also I think the platform to talk about some of the issues that are most important to me. And so what I'm going to do is start a small nonprofit that's going to focus on a couple of issues that are a special concern to me and I think will be pretty familiar to those who've read the book.

CHANG: I know that opioid addiction is one of the major issues you'll be focusing on, right?

VANCE: Yeah, that's absolutely right. It's actually pretty astonishing, but Ohio apparently led the nation in drug overdose deaths last year. And that's obviously a pretty significant cause for concern. So it's a real significant concern among the demographic I wrote about in the book. It's obviously very personally important to me and it's something my family has struggled with and dealt with. And I felt, you know, frankly a little bit of responsibility now that I've been given this platform by the success of the book to go and try to do at least a little something to help out.

CHANG: And I understand you'll be embarking on a listening tour is how you phrase it.

VANCE: Yeah. You know, listening tour because it's an incredibly complicated issue and I don't presume to know all the answers. And I think that this is something that folks in Ohio have really struggled with for a long enough time that I'd like to get a sense, one, of really what people have tried in the past and two, what they think might be good ideas to try in the future. And the only way to do that I think is not by - you know, not just by reading studies and academic research on what's causing this problem, but to actually get out there and talk to people who've been affected by it.

CHANG: Based on your experience growing up in the area, what do you picture yourself doing to help this problem, this opioid crisis?

VANCE: Well, it's difficult to say in the abstract exactly what I want to do because this is a really, really difficult problem and I think that there's something to be said for humility in the face of these really complicated, really vexing challenges. So, you know, in a very specific way what I'd like to do is identify a couple of things that can be done. Maybe it's access to some of the anti-opioid medications that are out there. Maybe it's sort of addressing this at the church and community level and figuring out what those folks have been doing already and trying to scale it to a broader statewide effort.

But I am sort of unashamed to say that I don't have the specific answers right now. And I think that it would be in some ways a little arrogant for me to jump into the problem and say this is exactly what I want to do. Because what I'm really trying to figure out right now is what has been done in the past and how can we improve it. So I think, you know, my answer on the specifics is always going to be a little bit inadequate right now just because I don't think I have the answers yet and I'm OK sort of admitting that.

CHANG: J.D. Vance is the author of The New York Times bestselling book "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir Of A Family And Culture In Crisis." Thank you for joining us.

VANCE: Thanks, nice to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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