Last month, TFAS alumna and newly-published author Grace Olmstead, Novak ’15, sat down for an interview with Director of the Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship Program Dan McCarthy for an in depth look at her writing process, the impact of the Novak Fellowship and the importance of local stories and folk culture.
Olmstead, now a journalist in Washington, D.C., left her small farm town of Emmett, Idaho, to pursue higher education and a writing career several years ago. In her newly released book, “Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind,” she examines the heartbreaking consequences of “uprooting,” and what that means for herself, her hometown and for the greater heartland of America.
In the exclusive interview with TFAS, Olmstead shared her keen interest in telling the stories of America and why she feels it’s important to preserve this history. She told of the works and writers who inspired her book, including novelist Wendell Berry, whom she interviewed in 2014.
She shared the stark theme running through Berry’s work that “rural America matters for its own sake,” and not necessarily for the resources it holds that can be extracted and used elsewhere. She explained how this value truly lives in the communities, cultures and traditions – all the way down to health and ecology of the soil itself that remains – in those rural places.
“As someone who very much loves Idaho and the community I grew up with there, that resonated deeply with me,” she shared. “It became something that inspired my studies as I went forth as a journalist, and continued to seek to write about people in rural America.”
In 2015, Olmstead was awarded a Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship from TFAS. During the interview, Olmstead gave attendees a look into her Fellowship project and how the award influenced all of her writings – including her new book. She shared her desires to tell the firsthand stories of the declining small family farms throughout the nation, to understand this reality better, and to provide insight on the American farming experience.
Throughout her Fellowship year, Olmstead traveled to interview farmers on the East and West Coasts, as well as in the South. Through these journeys, she uncovered the federal policies that have impacted America’s farmers over many years, which she discovered usually resulted in harmful outcomes like breaking down the resiliency of communities.
“The Fund for American Studies made that project possible and gave me the time, space and funds to begin the research that then eventually led me homeward to take a much more focused look at how all of these things affected a particular group of people in a particular region – and that is what my book is,” she said.
Olmstead said the Fellowship laid the important groundwork for her book, for both the experience and knowledge it provided.
“It was important to begin large and talk to a large variety of Americans, and then to use the research and knowledge that I gained through that experience to look at my own homeland and to understand it better as a result,” she explained.
Since her time as a Novak Fellow, Olmstead has developed into a prolific writer on the American experience and an expert on rural life. She has written numerous articles on rural farming, localism and family, and her writing has been published in The American Conservative, The Week, The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Review, and The Wall Street Journal, among others.
Following the interview, TFAS alumni and guests engaged in a Q&A with the author and fellow alumna, and she shared deeper insight into her research on economic incentives in rural farming, federal agriculture policies and the importance of localism and community ties.
To watch the full interview, click the video below.
Olmstead’s Novak Fellowship, the Alumni Fund Fellowship, was renamed the John Farley Memorial Alumni Fund Fellowship last year to honor friend and former colleague, John Farley. John served as a mentor, friend and guidepost for Novak Fellows for more than 20 years while he served as director of the Fellowship and on into his retirement. The TFAS family cherishes the impact he had on so many young journalists and we continue to celebrate his memory.
Applications for the 2021 Novak Fellowships, including the Farley Fellowship, are due Monday, April 14.