Educated - A Conversation with Tara Westover | Aspen Ideas Festival, 2019

Tara Westover | Paul Stuart

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Educated - A Conversation with Tara Westover | Aspen Ideas Festival, November 2019 (Transcript)
Length: 47 mins

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Raised by uncompromising survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, Tara Westover survived extreme adversity, from never being allowed to go to school, to suffering serious physical injuries (and a dad that prohibited doctors or hospitals), to being at the mercy of a volatile and often abusive older brother. How did she not only make it through this childhood, but ultimately achieve success at the highest levels? How does she look back on her childhood and her family? What has she learned from her incredible and improbable journey?

JG - Jeffrey Goldberg
TW - Tara Westover

JG: ÔøΩ needs no introduction, so I want to jump in, but I do want to ask a question first. How many people have read this book? Right, so we don't really have a spoiler alert problem, do we? One of the miracles of this book, and it's my favorite book of the last year, one of the miracles-

TW: That's nice.

JG: It's true. I told you that; it's true.

TW: You didn't say that in here last night.

JG: I say that to every author I interviewed here, by the way. Except last night. I didn't say it last night, actually. That's an inside joke that's not actually that inside I guess.

It's my favorite book and one of the miracles of this book is that, you know, it reads as many different kind of books as one. In part, there's a suspense, a thriller, a horror story even, and you're reading it and you're thinking,  "God, I hope she lives," and you obviously know that she lives because she wrote the book, and yet, it's so propulsive and so tension making. It's one of your gifts as a writer.

So since everybody here, almost everybody here, has read this book, I don't think we're going to have to spend a lot of time talking about the bare bones story, but you can refer to it, obviously, whenever you need to. My opening question for you is this: it's an extraordinarily specific story, obviously. Not a lot of people grew up the way you grew up. That might be the understatement of the day. But there's something sufficiently universal about this that people are drawn to it. Noting that it's a New York Times bestseller notes only part of the story. This book has sold more than 2 million copies in hardcover so far in the United States alone.

TW: I don't think that's hardcover; I think that's all of them.

JG: Okay, just go with my story, go with it. Just go with it. It's an extraordinarily popular book. Popular books, often, are rooted in something specific but have a universal message. What do you think your readers are getting from this book? What are they taking out of this?

TW: Oh. That's a nice, soft question to start.

JG: You can handle it.

TW: What are they getting out of it? I think that you're absolutely right, it's a principle of storytelling that the universal is always best explored in the specific and we're told that, but I think when you're writing it, it never feels that way. I remember when I was writing Educated, I felt like this book is going to do so great with little girls who were raised in Idaho and never went to school and worked in their dad's junkyard. They are going to love this, like all ten of them. And then I don't know how anyone else could find anything in this

But I don't know. I mean, I intentionally wrote it so that I wouldn't know the answer to that question because I wanted it to be an experience. You have a lot of choices when you're writing about your own life. You can tell a few stories, kind of anecdotes, and then you can slip into a different voice and say this is what this means, and you can give a lot of opinions, and that's not a bad way to go. I didn't go that way. I wrote it to be an experience in the sense that I wanted to stay in specific moments and I didn't want to step outside and say this is what it means. And the thing is about letting people have an experience instead of something more like an essay is that two people can have the same experience and come to really different conclusions about it.

And so I kind of wrote the book in such a way that people, I hoped, could have some little piece of experiences I had and I wanted them toÔøΩ I wanted that to go through a filter of their own lives that would distort it in a way. So I didn't put any pictures of my family in, and part of that was to preserve their privacy, but the other part of it was if somebody reads the book and sees their father instead of my father or their mother instead of my mother and disregards the bits of my story that don't quite fit, I'm okay with that distortion. It's kind of what I was going for.

And it's one of the weird things about the book is I have people come up to me and get all kinds of things from it. I have people come up to me and say,  "I'm just really happy for you because I'm so sure that reconciliation with your parents is right around the corner," and I have people come up to me and say,  "I'm so glad that you're never going back there again and that that's sorted." And on both, I just smile and nod and I know it has everything to do with them and like nothing to do with me, and that's what a story should do I think.

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