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The Wag Chats with
Caroline Kettlewell

Caroline Kettlewell discusses the nature of the 'Southern' writer and tells us why her new book isn't really about cars.

Is this a book about cars?

Kettelwell: Not really. Of course there are cars IN the book, but the real story is about an unlikely juxtaposition of characters and situations. At the heart of the book is a fish-out-of-water story about a young, excitable, tofu-eating and Birkenstock-wearing science teacher, Eric Ryan, from Berkeley, California, plopped down in the middle of an economically struggling region of rural North Carolina, in a community where many of the families have lived for generations. To the people in that community—Northampton County—Eric is like some kind of exotic bird that has wandered off its migratory path and landed by accident among them. His students at the local high school, Northampton-East, refuse to believe he moved by choice from California to Northampton.

It’s also a book about a surprising, enduring friendship between Eric and Harold Miller, a born North Carolinian, who has been the auto mechanics teacher at Northampton-East for more than twenty years. The two become the lead teachers putting together a team to build an electric car for a high-school competition that will bring in some of the most stellar science-and-tech schools from the entire mid-Atlantic region. Harold and Eric’s team is the complete underdog—these kids are from some of the poorest counties in all of North Carolina, and they’re going up against the best and best-equipped schools in a technology competition. So the tension of the story is built into the question of how far you can go with little but determination and a home-grown ingenuity born of making do with what you have.

It’s also a book with strong themes about the environment, education, and taking the responsibility to change the world for the better.

WAG: Sounds inspiring.

Kettelwell: That’s what the reviews have been calling it! Really, it’s a great story, and there is a lot of humor in it, and suspense as well. It was a demanding book to write—lots of research and pulling different threads together—but fun. If you count working day and night nonstop for six months “fun.” I think there was a summer of 2003, but I missed it.

WAG: What interested you in this story?

Kettelwell: I happened to met Eric Ryan and Harold Miller. The two of them were travelling around promoting a high-school electric vehicle (or “EV”) competition called the EV Challenge, and Ann Regn of Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, who knew I was interested in stories about “ordinary” people making a difference on environmental issues, invited me to come meet them. I knew very, very little about EVs at the time, but as soon as I met Eric and Harold together, I knew there was a story in their friendship. And then Eric gave me a very zippy ride in the electric-conversion Triumph Spitfire they were travelling with, after which I was rather like Toad in The Wind in the Willows following his first encounter with a motor car.

Also, the book is set in a small Southern community, a place where everyone knows each other and people still leave their doors unlocked and their keys in the car, where family and community are still at the center of daily life. I’m not from the South originally (OK, I’ll admit to being born a Yankee), but I grew up in rural Virginia in a place much like Northampton County. My father was the rector of a little Episcopal church, and he couldn’t show up for a pastoral visit at a parishioner’s house at any hour of the day or night without being plied with ham and fried chicken and biscuits and greens and stewed tomatoes and coconut cake. You waved to anyone you passed on the road, regardless of whether or not it was someone you knew.

So I was drawn to a story that would let me write about that South.

WAG: So do you consider yourself a “Southern writer”?

Kettelwell: I’m not actually sure what that term means. I say “y’all” and I love the cheese grits my mother-in-law makes, does that count? Although you hear “the South” and think of some region of monolithic sameness, in fact there isn’t any one defining quality to this part of the country. Even the accents change. A North Carolina southern accent is quite different from a Virginia southern accent. That being said, I’ll venture the opinion that what makes “the South” a good breeding-ground for writers is that it’s a place so full of contradictions. Contradictions make for unexpected twists and good stories.

WAG: Are you a car person?

Kettelwell: Hah! Not hardly. My family drove Pintos and Chevettes. I learned to drive on a three-speed manual Ford Econoline van. I’ve owned three cars of my own. The first was a second-hand manual transmission Plymouth Horizon Miser. Light blue. I bought it the summer after I graduated from college and it averaged more than 40 miles to the gallon. That car had all the glamour of a pair of orthopedic shoes, but I loved it. Then I had a Toyota Corolla hatchback that was forever manifesting mysterious ailments peculiar to the internal-combustion engine, each of which cost me a bundle to get fixed. One of the many virtues of an EV is that it so fundamentally simple in design, there aren’t a gazillion greasy parts and pieces always threatening to fall apart on you.

WAG: So what kind of car do you drive now?

Kettelwell: That would be my third car, a 1996 manual transmission Honda Civic.

WAG: Why aren’t you driving an EV?

Kettelwell: I wish. If I get another car, it will be either a hybrid or an EV. Maybe there will be EVs to choose from by then. Right now, I have an electric scooter. I ride it for neighborhood errands and wherever I go people say to me, “That’s so cool!”

WAG: Do you really think EVs are a practical option?

Kettelwell: Absolutely. So few people have ever had a chance to see an EV, much less drive one. I think Harold Miller has it absolutely right when he says that if you drove one for a week, you wouldn’t want to give it up. They’re fun. They’re so quiet. There are no fumes. And given that many, many households have more than one vehicle, and that, on average, most people in the U.S. travel fewer than fifty miles in a day—a distance easily handled by current EV technology—an electric vehicle make perfect sense as a second car.

Electric Dreams isn’t polemical at all, but it addresses many of the arguments typically marshaled against EVs and finds them all wanting. Basically, we’ve just grown accustomed to the tyranny of the internal-combustion vehicle, and we continue to pay the price for it. Pollution and a heavier and heavier dependence upon foreign oil are just two of a long list of serious consequences.

WAG: Aren’t battery-powered EVs really obsolete? Isn’t the hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle where we are headed?

Kettelwell: It may be where we are headed, but we’ve got a long way to go, with some significant obstacles to overcome en route. “Hydrogen is the fuel of the future—and it always will be” was the way one person at the Department of Energy put it to me. In the meantime, we have everything in place right now to make EVs a reality. Literally, high school students are building EV conversions that travel more than 100 miles on a charge.

Actually, with hybrids gaining in popularity, the logical next-step might be plug-in hybrids. They plug in to charge, and they run like EVs until the battery pack is tapped out, then switch to running on an internal-combustion engine, which also recharges the battery.

WAG: Are you a left-leaning bleeding-heart liberal?

Kettelwell: Actually, I’m a mother. I’d like my child to grow up in a world that recognized that wealth is not just material resources, but also the well-being of all people. As a nation rich in talent and economic wealth and material resources, we should be leading the world in initiatives for sustainable living, and moving away from the internal-combustion vehicle now ought to be one of them. Out of sheer self-interest we should be doing so. Our economy and way of life at the moment are dangerously dependent upon a profoundly polluting, finite resource, an ever increasing amount of which we have to import from other countries, which means that those other countries have us quite literally over a barrel.

WAG: Anything else we should know?

Kettelwell: My middle name is “Hummer.” No, really, it is. It’s a family name. This is what I love about real life. It’s full of ironies and coincidences that would seem totally contrived in a work of fiction.

Posted June 26, 2004


Caroline Kettwell is the author of the critically praised Skin Game. Her work also appears in the anthologies Tales Out of School: Contemporary Writers on Their Student Years and Reflections on Anthropology: A Four-Field Reader. Kettlewell is a regular contributor to the Washington Post. She lives in Richmond, Va.

Visit her Web site at www.carolinekettlewell.com.



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