Editor’s Note: In an era of deepening political divide, two friends set out on a road trip across America to discover more about the country they love, in good times and bad. In this edition of Behind the Book, Christopher Haugh and Jordan Blashek tell us about their journey, friendship and what they learned about their country during this difficult time. Read on to discover more about their book, Union, and what they hope readers will take away from it.
What made you want to write about the political divide within America?
Jordan Blashek: Before starting these trips, both of us had spent time in organizations that represented America abroad. Chris worked at the State Department, and I was in the Marine Corps. We both loved the sense of mission and purpose those institutions gave us, and we also got to see the good America does overseas. When we got to law school though, we were struck by how much division we saw around us and across the country. I think we both worried that there was something existential about it. We didn’t start our trips with that in mind, but slowly that sense of lost mission and purpose led us to this book.
Christopher Haugh: Really the road made us want to write about it. Union started as a lark of a drive from New York to California, and it only later matured into a book about travel, culture, and politics. Jordan and I were natural friends, and the politics always came second. Of course, the division became inevitable as we got to know each other better and the 2016 election loomed and crescendoed. How we navigated those choppy waters started to feel timely. And so, we started to write.
Did you find it difficult to write a book together when your views are on opposite sides of the political spectrum?
CH: Yes and no. It was challenging to merge two voices into one, but I think that’s true of any joint project. On the other hand, the process of negotiating the writing turned out to be really helpful. The lowest common denominator was what we often settled on, and that was usually whatever the answers to two questions were: “What’s the clearest way to say it?” and “What’s the simplest?”. With any luck, settling on simple and clear usually makes for decent writing.
JB: One fact that really helped us write this book was that we saw the same things on the road. We might have interpreted them differently, but the facts were almost always the same. And that made for an interesting story to us since it surprised us that a Democrat and a Republican—a journalist and a Marine—would come away agreeing on things like that.
You traveled across forty-four states in pursuit of research for this book. Did anything in your journey or research surprise you?
JB: I was stunned to learn about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. We drove through Tulsa on our fifth road trip in August 2018 and visited the Greenwood Cultural Center, which is a memorial to the lives lost during the destruction of “Black Wall Street.” I had always viewed myself as an American history buff, but I had never heard of this horrible event. It was very powerful in changing my understanding of racial justice and the narratives of American history.
CH: How hard getting to 45 states ended up being? No, I was surprised by how hopeful we were by the end. I was a skeptic coming into these trips. Too many concerning trends are cropping up around this country for me not to fear a “coming apart”—inequality, the opioid epidemic, a broken criminal justice system. But we met people working hard to create a better future, and that’s a really hopeful picture to witness over and over again.
What does the political divide and bipartisanship mean to you?
CH: It’s a challenge, because we face real, honest-to-god political differences. Some things we’ll never agree on. The divide is also an opportunity because those intractable differences are fewer and further between than you’d ever imagine. We want many of the same things for our own lives and families, and we articulate them very similarly. Many of our so-called divisions are perpetuated by outside forces—like the media and politicians on the campaign trail. The good news is those forces can change and their negative consequences remedied.
JB: I agree with Chris wholeheartedly (bipartisanly?). Politics will always be a fight, because that’s the nature of the system, and more importantly, we often believe what we say strongly and passionately. But we can wage those fights nobly and with grace. Bipartisanship to me does not mean we have to agree on everything, but we can disagree while acknowledging the good faith, the deeply held values, and the virtues of the other side. The truth is that Republicans and Democrats need each other; we balance each other out and make each other better.
What did your writing process look like?
CH: A lot of back and forth on Google Docs! I would usually pour all my notes onto the page and start reshaping them. Then, Jordan would go over them and start putting an idea behind our experiences. Then it was draft after draft after draft.
JB: We liked to joke that we knew we were finished with a chapter when we started changing one or two words back and forth. Chris would write “healing” and I would change it to “reconciliation,” and Chris would reverse it, and this would go on over and over again until we noticed the pattern. When we realized we were back in this writer’s time loop, that’s when we put down our proverbial pens.
Tell us about a challenge you faced in writing this.
JB: For me, I think ideas come more easily than narrative. I like exposition, and I wanted to get those ideas into the book. It was hard for me to learn the journalistic ethos of just telling the story and letting the reader draw their own conclusions. Luckily, Chris is an amazing journalist and storyteller, so he was able to help me develop this over time.
CH: Cutting stories was the worst. You have to “kill your darlings,” and all that, but we had to leave some pretty good, juicy ones on the sidelines. People always say, “Well, then you’ve got a start on the next book,” but I’m not sure these will be relevant down the road. Though, I will say, each cut made what was left behind that much more powerful. So, in the end, I’m really glad we were brutal about slashing away at things that didn’t quite fit.
How has your friendship changed over the course of writing this book?
CH: We’re in a groove! I think we understand each other’s styles and temperaments much better now. I’d say we’re a lot closer, but we have a lot of work these days, so I think we’re overdue for a friend vacation or just a dinner without any book talk. It’s amazing how all-consuming a passion project like this can become when you let it grow.
JB: A friend vacation sounds pretty good right about now! I think the book actually helped us stay much closer over the past two years. We talk almost daily about it. It gave us a reason to call each other, to debate and engage, to lean on each other, and so much more. Especially since we lived on opposite coasts for much of it, and now can’t even see each other with the pandemic. Union has strengthened our friendship immensely.
What do you hope people take away from reading Union?
JB: You said it: hope. Even before the pandemic, we heard so many people express the fear that America had gone off the rails. But what we saw on the road gave us hope because we saw good people helping their neighbors, improving their communities, and grappling with hard problems. When you see it firsthand, it’s hard not to be inspired. We wanted to share those stories of hope with everyone, so they could feel what we felt on the road. I hope Union leaves readers with a better sense of how we can build a better future together, and stories of people doing just that.
CH: I hope people see the complexity of this country, and I hope readers then feel more empathy for their fellow country people as a result. It’s not so easy to type out hot takes about other people when you meet them and spend time with them. Union is an attempt to let readers do just that: spend time with a Democrat and a Republican, blue collar workers, immigrants, Trump supporters, returning citizens, activists, and even carnies serving deep fried alligator. We only just started to scratch the surface of what this country has on offer, but it’s a cross-cutting of what you might see if you were to take off on a highway headed toward who-knows-where.
What has been the most difficult part of writing this book?
JB: Finding the time to do it. Chris and I both had full-time day jobs for much of the writing and our last two road trips (out of six). We squeezed in writing first thing in the morning and in the evenings and weekend when we weren’t too exhausted. We burned vacation days for drives and “writers retreats.” But this book mattered to us, so we found the time.
CH: I’d have to say deciding on the voice. We went with a hybrid third person plural (“We drove to Florida” … “Jordan thought it strange” … “Chris coughed into his elbow”), so readers could know our mindsets and emotions. At first, we started bouncing back and forth between voices, and that got complicated. I’d like to think the way we settled on works and maybe is a little radical.
What has been the most rewarding part of writing this book?
CH: Making something with a friend I love. I can see how writing a book could be really lonely, but having a partner in crime—and one who happens to be a damn good buddy—makes it a heck of a lot more enjoyable. There’s always someone there to revel in the wins and pick you back up when things don’t go to plan.
JB: 100 percent agree. I would also add meeting some of the people on the road who’ve enriched our lives and become real friends.
What can we expect from the two of you next?
JB: Well, I told Chris in our early conversations back in 2016 that I wanted to start a company, and I hope to make good on that dream. But I would love to do another project with Chris, so hopefully we’ll figure out something that moves us as much as this book has.
CH: Hopefully more books from me and probably from Jordan, too.
Jordan Blashek is a businessman, attorney, and military veteran from Los Angeles, California. After college, Jordan spent five years in the US Marine Corps as an infantry officer, serving two combat tours overseas. He holds degrees from Yale Law School, Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Princeton University. Jordan is based in New York, where he invests in entrepreneurial efforts to grow the American middle class as a part of Schmidt Futures, a philanthropic initiative founded by Eric and Wendy Schmidt.
Christopher Haugh is a writer from Kensington, California. After graduating with highest honors from the University of California, Berkeley, Chris attended Oxford University and started speechwriting as an intern in the Obama White House. He went on to join the U.S. Department of State’s Policy Planning Staff where he served as a speechwriter to the Secretary. In 2018, Chris graduated from Yale Law School where he was a Yale Journalism Scholar. Chris is based in the San Francisco Bay Area and New York.