Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Alan Maimon spent five years writing about Eastern Kentucky for the Louisville Courier-Journal’s now defunct Hazard Bureau. In 2000, he was a young reporter living in Berlin and fast-approaching a major career juncture. He had a hazy idea that, in his next job, he still wanted to feel like a foreign correspondent. But he was getting nervous about committing to the expat lifestyle.
When he saw the ad for the job in Hazard, the Philadelphia native thought he could have the best of both worlds—a firm foothold in the United States, and an immersive cultural experience. As it turned out, he would be the last reporter to enjoy that opportunity. The Courier-Journal closed its Hazard office in 2005.
Part memoir, part field notes, and part broad American political analysis, Twilight in Hazard is “a story about how America and its institutions have failed Eastern Kentucky, but for better and for worse, how the people of the region have remained loyal to their idea of Americanism.”
Enjoy my conversation with Alan, below.
Olivia Weeks, the Daily Yonder: Your stint as a reporter based in Hazard ended about fifteen years ago. Why reflect on your years in Eastern Kentucky now? Why is this book different from the trove of Appalachia Explainers written by outside reporters?
Alan Maimon: It’s impossible to understand the present challenges facing Eastern Kentucky and the country as a whole without examining how we got here. I covered Appalachian Kentucky during a pivotal and tumultuous period that included the outbreak of the opioid crisis, environmental destruction, political corruption, 9/11 and its aftermath, and a widening cultural and political divide in our country. Every story and issue that I wrote about in the early and mid-2000s still reverberates today, especially ones related to how the historical dominance of the coal industry has impacted economic development in southeastern Kentucky.
One of the reasons Twilight in Hazard is different from other books is that it was 20 years in the making. I worked in Eastern Kentucky for more than five years and have maintained my relationship to the region through my marriage to an 8th generation Appalachian.
I don’t consider the book an “Appalachian Explainer.” At its core, it’s a story that zooms in on the Kentucky mountains and zooms back out to examine the uniquely American forces at play in the region. I also don’t portray myself as some kind of oracle who has all the answers. If I don’t know what to make of something, I say so. I hope that adds to my credibility as a narrator.
There are two ways to tell a story. The first is to narrate it in a way that leaves little or no room for conversation. This is the way things are, and that’s how they’ll always be. Then there’s the approach I tried to take that encourages conversation by presenting information and leaving it to the reader to decide what might come next.
A constant thread through the book is that this is an exciting and crucial time in Eastern Kentucky. While the region’s leaders have long talked about the need to diversify the area’s coal-based economy, those conversations have historically lacked a sense of urgency. Today, I think there is recognition that coal isn’t coming back this time. And economic development officials have become more serious about working towards creating a multi-faceted economic transition. That is a key part of the story that I tell.
DY: In one chapter of Twilight in Hazard, “The Day the News Left Town,” you wrote about the Louisville Courier-Journal’s elimination of its regional bureaus, including your post in Eastern Kentucky, within an era of general news industry contraction. Did your role feel precarious while you were in it? Did it seem like proving the worth of rural stories to your city paper was part of the job?
AM: That question touches on what was probably the biggest internal struggle I faced as a reporter in Eastern Kentucky, namely how I and the paper were presenting the region to a mainly urban and suburban audience. I’ve thought a lot about how I depicted the area in my stories.
There was no shortage of news on my beat, and it was logical to think that a steady flow of front-page stories out of Eastern Kentucky would solidify the relevance of the Hazard bureau. At some point, however, I began to question my paper’s coverage priorities. This was the start of an era we’re still living in when newspapers were reckoning with the challenges and opportunities of the internet as well as new initiatives that have resulted in less in-depth journalism. I spent enough time in Eastern Kentucky to understand the importance of presenting a three-dimensional portrait of the region. I appreciated the chance to work on a series about the Kentucky criminal justice system that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. But I often found myself bumping up against editors who were looking for quick-hit breaking news clickbait and corporate ownership that ultimately felt that a bureau in Eastern Kentucky was no longer necessary.
A lot of troubling news came out of the region when I was covering it on a daily basis. These stories are fundamental to understanding Eastern Kentucky, but what I’ve tried to do in the book is provide context to those stories and to assess their meaning within the framework of the area’s generational struggles.
DY: Where does your news about the area come from now?
AM: In the years since the Courier-Journal and the Associated Press closed their Eastern Kentucky bureaus, it’s been more difficult to get at what’s happening in the region. I still have sources there. I stream the local CBS affiliate, WYMT, on my TV. The Lexington Herald-Leader still does some solid reporting from the region. And I’m glad that there are news outlets like The Daily Yonder. What’s still lacking, though, is a big-picture view of this very special part of the country. That’s a major reason why I wanted to write the book, to connect the many dots that hopefully form a bigger picture.
I think it’s also important to note that less reporting from Eastern Kentucky has opened the door to some bad journalism. I was distressed by the coverage of the region after the 2016 presidential election when a lot of national reporters parachuted in to see what “Trump Country” looked like. Not only were most of the resulting stories built on faulty premises, they also had a real mean-spiritedness to them. I had been talking for years about the developing electoral trends that I saw in Eastern Kentucky, so it was disappointing to see the 2016 election reported on in such a lazy way.
DY: I wonder if you can expand here, as you do in the book, upon the term “bad nerves” and what that phrase means to Appalachian Kentuckians. How did you come to understand it as more than a simple racket?
AM: I’m glad that you asked that question, because the “bad nerves” storyline is about more than just high rates of anxiety and clinical depression. These diagnoses speak to a larger and underreported phenomenon in places of urban and rural distress: generational trauma.
Time and again when I was out doing interviews, I heard people use the phrase “bad nerves” to describe the ailment that had qualified them for Supplemental Security Income benefits. I didn’t quite know what to make of that at the time. But an enormous SSI scandal that erupted after I left the Courier-Journal motivated me to explore the subject in the book.
In the 2010s, the SSI (and Social Security Disability Insurance) programs came under tremendous scrutiny in the wake of what was called the biggest Social Security fraud in American history. It involved falsified medical records and was perpetrated by Eastern Kentucky disability lawyer Eric Conn, an administrative law judge, and several physicians.
Not a single one of Conn’s clients was accused of knowingly participating in the scheme, but I think there was public perception that the SSI recipients were in on it and just trying to game the system. Then something happened. The Social Security Administration cut off benefits to more than a thousand of Conn’s clients, and the suicides started. A man in Floyd County who lost his monthly check took his life. Then a woman in Martin County did the same thing. These acts suggested that many of Conn’s clients weren’t engaged in a “simple racket” and that their mental or physical anguish was real.
There are some Eastern Kentucky counties where one in four people are on SSI or SSDI. State and federal regulators have sounded alarms about the rate being so high. But the number of people receiving disability benefits is not the problem. It’s the symptom of a set of larger problems that I lay out in the book.
DY: What’s your relationship to the area now? What are your crucial stops when you visit?
AM: I have a dual relationship with the area now. My journalistic instincts remain strong, but my other affiliation to the region is that of the husband of a Harlan County coal miner’s daughter.
I get back to Eastern Kentucky pretty often, both for work and for family visits and gatherings.
I like to start each trip with a drive around the region that usually starts and ends in Harlan and includes stops in Hazard, Prestonsburg, Pikeville, and Whitesburg. It’s a great way to meet with friends, both old and new, and to see what’s new in the downtowns and out in the counties. I view the economic future of southeastern Kentucky as a jigsaw puzzle of sorts. And downtown revitalization is certainly a hopeful piece of that puzzle.
There are some outdoor spots that my family enjoys. Bad Branch Falls in Letcher County and Kingdom Come State Park in Harlan County are two of our favorites. The Kentucky Coal Museum in Benham is also a great place to spend a few hours.
While I have a lot of affection for the area, I also get upset by some of the things that I see there. You can’t fix problems without attacking their systemic and structural roots. And I believe there is still a lot of work to do on those fronts. In some ways, Twilight in Hazard is a call to action, not just to Eastern Kentucky but to all Americans, because I believe we can do better to recognize and solve our most pressing challenges.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.