“Steal This Country:” Alexandra Styron’s newest book for student activists


“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek,” Barack Obama said in a 2008 speech, a year before becoming 44th president of the United States. Ten years later, it’s the quote author Alexandra Styron chose to invite readers into her latest book, “Steal This Country: A Handbook for Resistance, Persistence, and Fixing Almost Everything.”

Styron is the author of “Reading My Father” and “All the Finest Girls,” as well as a number of pieces published in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and the Wall Street Journal. In her latest book, scheduled to be released on Sept. 3, she tackles a topic she had never explored as a writer: activism and youth.

“Steal This Country” offers interviews, essays, and personal accounts that represent what needs to be done to fix this country, and how young people can take a stand for what they believe in. I talked with Styron recently and learned about why she wrote the book, whom she wrote it for, and what she hopes readers will take away from it.


What inspired you to write this book?

This book is a direct response to the 2016 election. I was writing fiction and magazine pieces for grownups and teaching in graduate school. I was feeling very hopeful that the message, philosophy, and direction that President Obama was taking us would continue on. It really knocked me off my pins, as it did to millions and millions of other people, when the election turned the other way. My first thought that night as I was lying in bed at 2 am was about my children. One was a teenager, and one was about to be a teenager, and I had a profound sense that we had let them down.

I didn’t have the idea for the book until April of last year. It came after four months of being pretty despondent and feeling so distracted about what had happened, and what was happening. I wasn’t being terribly productive doing the work I had been doing. I wanted to make a difference, and make amends to the young people; I felt we had changed the course of their lives. I felt it was urgent, and I wanted to do something in my own way to help them make sense of it. I thought, This is what I know how to do — I know how to write books, I know about social justice, and I care about activism. This is a place I can help kids to participate and maybe make things a little better.


Was this very different from the other books you’ve written?

Totally. A 180. I have no experience with YA (young adult) books, but I’ve worn a lot of different hats in my life. It’s just a matter of finding a voice that feels authentic and nonpatronizing — the kind that reaches a kid. Having teenagers of my own, I felt like I knew what sounded real and what didn’t. I was checking myself a lot for that tone. Everything about this book was new territory to me — which is fun. It’s always fun to try something new and see where it takes you.


Who’s your target audience?

My hope is that this will be a book high school students embrace. I think that’s the sweet spot. I think there are older middle school students who can make use of the book — precocious middle school students — but I really wrote it with teenagers in mind. This book kind of foresaw the Parkland kids in the #NeverAgain movement. Those are the kids that I want to embrace this book, look at other issues, and explore what else they’re passionate about. Where else can they make a change? I think this age has the agency that will allow them to make best use of the book. Although I hope it speaks to young people of all ages. Maybe they’re not old enough to vote yet, but they’re forming their ideas, and ready to go out there and cause a little “good trouble,” as John Lewis said. Have your ducks in a row so that by the time you can vote, you know what you’re talking about.


How do you envision your book getting into the hands of this audience?

I’m hoping to visit high schools around New England and the tri-state area, but it’s really important that this book not feel like a textbook for kids. I have two teenagers, and I know they don’t spend a lot of time in bookstores. So it may be that parents are the people giving the book to their kids. I’m hoping word will be spread on social media, and young adults will see it as something that’s their own. It’s something for them and their friends to use in a totally extracurricular way.


I notice in some parts of the book you use the term “we.”

“We” is a device. It’s in the same way politicians use the word “we.” It creates a collective sense of people like me. As I was saying a minute ago, we as a generation let you down. “We” represents me. It represents the publisher who let me produce this book. It represents the editor, and it also represents my research assistant and niece who was there with me through a lot of the writing. I was bouncing ideas off of her, so “we” allowed me to say the whole collective brain that is bringing you this information.


Your book has a clear point of view. Are you expecting any sort of backlash?

I have not received any yet, but I will not be surprised if there’s blowback from a more conservative set. My feeling is that the book is going to be self-selecting, and I think a lot of it depends on how successful it is. The more it’s out there, the more likely it is to be seen by people who have a different opinion on what young people should know and learn. I think if it produces any kind of backlash, that’s fine, because it’s all healthy dialogue and a learning experience. It furthers the conversation that I feel we need to have, and that democracy is built on.


I was struck by the number of voices represented throughout the book, including Lena Dunham, Chance the Rapper, and Maggie Gyllenhaal. How long did it take to put this book together?

It was incredibly hard and intense. The truth of the matter is, I could have spent three years writing this book. There was so much I wanted to say, so many people I wanted to talk to, and so many points of view and areas of expertise I wanted to include. I worked nonstop for five months, and created a book that could have taken me two years to do. I spent parts of every day sending emails, making requests, and calling people. In a very compressed period of time, I was able to cover the ground that I covered, but every time I look at the book, I think, Oh, I wanted to do this, and I wanted to do that. But at some point the bell goes off, and you have to put your pencils down.


Did you give yourself that five-month time frame?

I didn’t — my publishers did. When I pitched the book and sold it, I went into my first meeting with the editor. In my mind I was thinking, If I work really hard, I bet I can get this book done in one year. I was recognizing that it takes a long time to get Chance the Rapper to do an interview. I recognized that might take me six months to find someone who knows him, make the connection, and get in touch with his publicist. I walked into the meeting, and my editor said, “We’d like to have this manuscript done in three months.” I nearly fell out of my chair. I didn’t say yes, I didn’t say no, but I walked out overwhelmed.

I ended up writing it in five months instead of three. My publishers wanted it to come out this September, ahead of midterm elections, so that it could get in the hands of kids. That’s why I had such a short deadline, and that’s also why there was this whole other imaginary book I had in my head. I’m very proud of what you see there in my book, but it was done at warp speed.


How did it feel piecing it all together?

First, I felt the base panic of trying to write a book on such an accelerated schedule. Then I felt a very steep learning curve. This was new for me. While I’m well-educated, a news junkie, and interested in a lot of issues discussed in the book, I’m not an expert on any of them. For me, it was a full-immersion speed course in a lot of different issues — and that was fascinating, stimulating, and exciting. It opened the door for a lot of new information and interests for me. I felt a sense of urgency and excitement about the fact that I was putting together a document that could, even if it’s just one interview, make one kid think I’m really interested in this, then I feel like my work is done as a writer.


The book highlights climate change, immigration, LGBTQIA rights, racial justice, religious understanding, and women’s rights as key issues our country is facing. Is there one that stands out to you as most important?

They’re all so important — I would land on two things. David Harris was the Vietnam protester I mentioned quickly in the book. I did a long interview with him, but it ended up getting cut. He said an interesting thing to me. He said climate change is this generation’s Vietnam, and I think that that’s true in a lot of ways. Because of that “frog and boiling water” aspect of it, it’s the one I feel is hardest to motivate people around. But there’s no more important issue we need to embrace. There’s no greater danger facing our world than climate change.

Nationally, it’s racial justice. I think at the end of the day, all roads leave back to slavery. This country was built on the backs of slavery. So many of our economic, social, emotional, and legal problems stem from the lack of equity in this country.


Is there a single interview that stood out to you?

To my surprise, I was very moved by my interview with the Rev. Dr. Katharine Henderson about religious understanding. I grew up in an agnostic family, and religion has never been a big part of my life. Her interview really got to the basics of human kindness and about the way we interact with other people. Her life is focused around faith, but so much of what she talks about covers all topics, and at the bottom of it all is love. I found that really inspiring and interesting, and it opened a door to a subject I don’t give a lot of thought to.


Any final thoughts you’d want to leave your readers with?

I would say that the exciting thing about writing a book like this is that I’m learning too. I’m a student too. I hope that kids can read a book and know that any adult in their right mind knows that they don’t have all the answers. We’re all still learning, and there are so many new avenues to travel and follow as we try to be better human beings. We’re all always trying. I hope kids will read this and know their parents are still learning — it’s something we’re doing for this lifetime, and it’s something we can do together.


Alexandra Styron is a lifelong Vineyard summer resident, and the daughter of the late William Styron, a renowned novelist and essayist, and Rose Styron, a poet and year-round Island resident. The Vineyard is the Styron family’s home base, and where Alexandra says her heart always resides.

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