this a book about cars?
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.
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.
What interested you in this story?
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.
So do you consider yourself a “Southern writer”?
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.
Are you a car person?
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.
So what kind of car do you drive now?
That would be my third car, a 1996 manual transmission
Why aren’t you driving an EV?
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!”
Do you really think EVs are a practical option?
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
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.
Aren’t battery-powered EVs really obsolete?
Isn’t the hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle where
we are headed?
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.
Are you a left-leaning bleeding-heart liberal?
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.
Anything else we should know?
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.