Author of 'Hillbilly Elegy' Describes Growing Up Poor in Appalachia and Getting Out

Sep 23, 2016

J.D. Vance
Credit Naomi McCulloch

J.D. Vance's memoir of growing up poor in Appalachia, both in Kentucky and Ohio, Hillbilly Elegy, has been on the New York Times best-seller list since it came out early this summer.

It's the story of his life, but also the story of white, working-class "hillbillies"--people he describes as having a very deep affiliation with Appalachia and the communities that make up the region.

Vance says the "elegy" in the book's title doesn't imply the death of the culture but it shows a "sad reflection" of parts of the area. "It's important to note it's not what's going on in every part of hillbilly country," he says. "There are some good things along with the bad. But there are some very significant problems."

Vance admittedly had a lot of things work out for him. He joined the Marines right out of high school, graduated from Ohio State University right after that and then onto Yale Law School. "This isn't a 'boot-strap' story about how one kid through grit and determination and brain power made it," he says. "It's more a story of how one kid got really lucky. People feel pretty kicked and down in this part of the world, the world has been tough in this area."

He says he he's seen a lot of people just give up because of what they see as  the unfairness of life, whether coal miners or steel mill workers.

But even with all the violence, the unemployment, the drug addiction rife in Appalachia Vance says he's not without hope for the future. "I think we need an 'all-of-the-above' approach. We need to recognize as a community there are things we can do to make things better," he says, "but we also need to push on the government. It's complicated and it's not easy."

He laughs when he's asked if he sees a political future for himself, but does say he'd like to come back to help out in some way.

His hope is that people who pick up his book see Appalachia not as an exotic place or a foreign country, but say "these people are pretty interesting, they've got a lot of good to them but they need a little help. I hope it doesn't turn into another excuse to condescend to this group of people."

To hear the complete interview with J.D. Vance click on the "Listen" button at the top of the page.