© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Hillbilly Elegy' Recalls A Childhood Where Poverty Was 'The Family Tradition'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, J.D. Vance, is the author of the new best-seller "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir Of A Family And Culture In Crisis." He says the book is about what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. He writes about the social isolation, poverty, drug use and the religious and political changes in his family and in greater Appalachia. He grew up in a Rust Belt town in Ohio in a family from the hills of eastern Kentucky. Until the age of 12, he spent summers in Jackson, Ky., with his grandmother and great-grandmother. Vance joined the Marines, which helped him afford college. After attending Ohio State University, he went to Yale Law School where he initially felt completely out of place. He has contributed to the National Review and is now a principal at a Silicon Valley investment firm.

J.D. Vance, welcome to FRESH AIR. There's a paragraph from your new book that I want you to read. It's on Page 2.

J D VANCE: There is an ethnic component lurking in the background of my story. In our race-conscious society, our vocabulary often extends no further than the color of someone's skin - black people, Asians, white privilege. Sometimes these broad categories are useful. But to understand my story, you have to delve into the details.

I may be white, but I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast. Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, poverty's the family tradition. Their ancestors were day laborers in the southern slave economy, sharecroppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and mill workers during more recent times. Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends and family.

GROSS: Thanks for reading that. There's, you know, the line where you make a point of saying that your people were day laborers in the slave economy of the South. Reading between the lines there...

VANCE: Sure.

GROSS: ...What are you saying about class and race with that statement?

VANCE: Well, I guess, I'm not trying to say anything too explicit about race, but to note that poverty just goes back really, really far in the generational stories of these families. So the point I'm trying to make, ultimately, is that these folks have been poor for a very long time. In a lot of ways, intergenerational poverty is something that they inherited and that they've lived with as part of a family tradition. I think part of that means they've grown up with a certain resentment at rich people. But it also means that, for them, the upward mobility that a lot of folks experienced right after World War II was their first real taste of economic optimism, and I think that's something that really gave them a lot of hope. And ultimately, as I write later in the book, that hope didn't really materialize.

GROSS: You know, reading your book, I get the impression that you think - and I think rightfully so - that there's a lot of similarities between what poor people who are white endure in America and what poor people who are black endure in America. Sure, there's differences, too, but there's a lot of things in common. Yet, I'm wondering if you and the people who you grew up with made that connection at all and felt any sense of identification with black people who were your class counterparts.

VANCE: I never thought when I was a kid that there was a sense of competition or animosity towards poor blacks. I just thought there was a recognition that they lived differently - they primarily lived on the other side of town. And we're both poor, but that's kind of it. There wasn't much explicit statement of kinship or of the lack of kinship. Though, I will say there was one really interesting experience I had with my grandma where I started to realize that there was some sort of kinship at least that she felt. And I think I was very lucky to have that exposure to a woman who had lived the life she had but was able to think these thoughts. And what happened is that we were watching a golf tournament. And it was, I believe, the 1997 Masters, where Tiger Woods won.

I was a very young kid, maybe 19 or 20, and the only reason my grandma was watching it was because he was in it. She loved Tiger Woods. And the reason she liked Tiger Woods is because she saw him as an outsider that was shaking up a rich man's game. And there was this really interesting moment where after he won - and the Masters always has this ceremonial winner's dinner to celebrate the victor. One of the golfers said something to the effect of, what are we going to have at the winner's dinner - fried chicken and watermelon, which, of course, was this extraordinarily nasty racist comment.

But it struck me at that moment, one, that that fried chicken and watermelon was almost the cultural food of my people, and my grandma just got so viscerally angry. And she said, those a-holes, they're never going to let people like us be part of their crowd. And the sense that she had was they both looked down on the black people who were outsiders and the poor, white people who are outsiders. And she really saw the similarities. And that was the first real exposure that she felt some sort of kinship to people who looked very different from her but ultimately were similar in a lot of ways.

GROSS: Your family is from Jackson, Ky. And your grandparents moved to southwestern Ohio after that. But you spent a lot of time in Jackson growing up. Would you describe what that community was like physically and also just what it was like as a community?

VANCE: Jackson, Ky., is in southeastern Kentucky coal country. And it's this extraordinarily beautiful part of the Appalachian Mountains - pretty big hills, pretty severe, harsh landscape, but also just a very beautiful town with very beautiful people. It's about 6,000 people. There are only a couple of stoplights in town. There are maybe a few restaurants, most of them are fast-food restaurants. And the people are these extraordinarily sweet people who love the land and also love the people that they grew up around.

And when I was a kid, the first time I realized that there was something really unique about Jackson and its people, as I write in the book - there was a funeral motorcade passing by. And my grandma said, we have to get out. We have to stand at attention. And I said, you know, why, Mamaw (ph)? Why are we all doing this? Why does everybody stop and stand at attention when a funeral motorcade passes? And she said because, honey, we're hill people, and we respect our dead. And it made me realize that there was something very important about this identity of hill people that both my grandma and the rest of Jacksonians took on as a certain, you know, as a certain self-identifier.

GROSS: So you write that you consider your family part of a greater migration from Appalachia to Ohio. What is that period of migration that you're writing about? What is that larger wave that you feel your family is part of?

VANCE: So there were two big waves of migration - one right after World War I, the second right after World War II. And my grandparents were part of that second wave where literally millions of people moved from the hills of eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, eastern Tennessee into southern Ohio, into Michigan, into northern Ohio, Pennsylvania and so forth. And in many ways, the white part of the Rust Belt economy was really filled with these Appalachian migrants. There are various studies that suggest that at any given time, at least 30 percent of the population of some of these Rust Belt counties were directly from Appalachia. And of course, that doesn't count that the kids and grandchildren of the Appalachian migrants.

And so there was this sense, in southern Ohio especially - we called our hometown of Middletown Middletucky (ph) because so many of the residents actually came from Kentucky. There was a massive family-based recruiting program that brought migrants from eastern Kentucky into the southern Ohio steel mill where my grandpa worked. So it was this massive transplantation of one culture and one group of people into an entirely different area. And a lot of times, of course, they kept the culture, and they kept a lot of their habits with them when they moved.

GROSS: Yes. You write that a lot of the people who move from Appalachia to Ohio kept the culture. But your grandparents, you say, brought an ancient family structure from the hills and tried to make it work in a world of privacy and nuclear families, and it didn't quite fit. Would you explain?

VANCE: Sure. So in Appalachia, in eastern Kentucky, these families are extraordinarily large. And they're built on an extended network of kin. So grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins - they're all a part of the mix. And they all, ultimately, I think, are involved in family life in a way that's a little bit different from upper-income white people from the Northeast, for example.

And what I think my grandparents found when they moved north is that they didn't have quite that extended network of kin that so many of their people back in eastern Kentucky depended upon. So there was no grandma or grandpa to look after the kids. There wasn't help from aunts and uncles.

And I think my grandparents really struggled in a lot of ways without that big, extended family network that they had become so dependent upon and so reliant upon. It's really sad in a lot of ways because I think - you know, this is a slight aside.

But a lot of the modern social welfare state is built around a nuclear family. So when a kid enters a foster care system, for example, they're presented with an opportunity to go live with a licensed foster care parent or to stay with their parent, who's potentially abusive or neglectful. That's why they're in that situation in the first place.

And a lot of times, these child welfare bureaucracies ignore these extended networks of kin that are really important to these children's lives. And so that's one of the things I found when I was a kid - is that I wasn't really given an opportunity by the child welfare worker to go and live with mamaw and papaw, which is what I wanted to do.

What I was given - an opportunity was to either shut up or to go live with a complete stranger. And so it's not just that my grandparents, I think, were culturally disconnected from the modern WASPy nuclear family. But in a lot of ways, the broader community of Appalachians was thrust into a world that respected a different family structure than the one they came from.

GROSS: Why were you almost put in a foster home when you were 12 years old?

VANCE: So what happened is my mom, who was, in a lot of ways, this really wonderful person who tried very hard but also carried around the demons of her youth a little too much - she had come over to my grandma's house where I was staying. She had apologized for something she had done earlier. And she had offered to take me on this trip to go and do some fun things.

And it was supposed to be a big makeup trip. But what happened is that something ignited her temper while we were together. She sped up the car on the highway. Went over - you know, it seemed at the time like she was driving over 100 mph. And she just kept on saying, I'm going to crash this car and kill us both. I'm going to crash this car and kill us both.

And so what I did is hopped in the backseat to hide from her. And this got her really angry. And she stopped the car and pulled over and, I think, was going to start hitting me. And so I ran. I ran out of the car. We were in a pretty rural part of the state. And I actually ran through a field to a person's house.

And eventually, this set in chain a set of events where mom was arrested. She was charged with domestic violence. And I was made to sit in a police car until my grandparents and my sister came to rescue me. But that's what invited the child welfare bureaucracy into our lives - is that as soon as she was charged with domestic violence, it became a case of child abuse and neglect.

And I was effectively given a choice between - keep talking, and we're going to have to file charges, and we're going to have to take you out of the home - on the one hand. Or if you just keep quiet about things, then you can stay living with your family. And that was, of course, a pretty hard decision for a 12-year-old.

But luckily, I had enough faith in my grandma. I knew that she wouldn't let anything too bad happen to me. And so I lied to the people who asked whether something bad had happened. I remember my mom had a domestic violence hearing. And the judge asked whether she had done anything to threaten me. And I lied. I told him no because I knew that if I kept on pushing the case, one, it would cause a lot of problems for the family. And two, it might land me in a foster home.

GROSS: How did you feel about lying? You're always taught not to lie. And here you are at a hearing, lying. And you think it's for your good and your family's good. Nevertheless, it's a lie.

VANCE: The honest truth is that I didn't care at all about lying because I remember sitting in that courtroom and feeling in some ways that I was on the wrong side of an invisible line because the lawyers and the judge - they all talked a certain way. They all wore certain clothes. And I felt like they were outsiders.

They were the people that I was taught, in some way, to mistrust and to fear. They were rich people - whether they were actually rich - they seemed rich to me. And I noticed that in this little courtroom, all of the people who were subjected to the court system were like me. They were white people. They didn't wear that nice of clothes.

They were obviously very poor, both in the way that they talked and the way that they conducted themselves. And when I was asked to lie to that judge, frankly, I didn't feel bad at all because I knew that it was something that was necessary to protect my family and to protect myself.

And it's really interesting, looking back, that I didn't, you know - I'm a member of the bar now - that I didn't feel at all guilty about lying to a judge. And a big part of it is just because I felt like - look, my people are here. And they're being subjected to this system. These people are over there. And they're administering this system. And it's fine to tell a little white lie to them. And that's, of course, a little ironic because I was there, theoretically, because of my own protection.

But it was pretty clear to me, both in my exposure to the courthouse and my exposure to the child welfare bureaucracy, that the folks who were involved in our lives were outsiders. And what was most important was to push them out as quickly as possible.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is J.D. Vance. He's the author of the new best-selling memoir "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir Of A Family And A Culture In Crisis." Let's take a short break. And we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is J.D. Vance, author of the new best-selling memoir "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir Of A Family And Culture In Crisis." And his family is from Kentucky and moved to Ohio. His grandparents moved to Ohio to a steel town there - what he calls now a Rust Belt town. So this is the story about his family and the larger story of Appalachian poverty.

Your grandfather was an alcoholic for many years. Your mother was addicted to various drugs for many years. And the way you describe it in your book, it sounds like both the area of Ohio where your family lived in and the area of Kentucky where they're from ended up having a lot of alcohol and drug problems there - drugs including heroin and opioids.

VANCE: That's absolutely right. And it's maybe even worse in southern Ohio than it is in eastern Kentucky, though it's certainly terrible in both. I saw a statistic a few weeks ago that in the Ohio county where I grew up, Butler County, deaths from drug overdoses actually outnumber deaths from natural causes. And that's just an extraordinary statistic. I don't know that that's ever been true in that area. It certainly hasn't been true in recent history.

And it goes to show how really rooted this opioid epidemic is. It's something that everyone thinks about and talks about. You see signs about support groups whenever you go back to these areas. And it's just an extraordinarily terrible thing that's happened to these communities. And I'm not sure that there's a super easy solution for how to get out of it.

GROSS: Do you feel like you saw it start to happen and then build?

VANCE: Absolutely. I definitely - in a lot of ways, I was at the ground floor of the opioid epidemic because I saw it happening with my mom before it had really reached crisis proportions. But in a lot of ways, she was just responding to the things that cause people to go and search for drugs in the first place.

She was a person, I think, who carried around a lot of emotional baggage, a lot of emotional turmoil and hurt from her own childhood. And so she turned to drugs. But a lot of people have done the same, of course, in the past five or 10 years, which is why these addiction rates - which is why these overdose rates are so high in these communities.

GROSS: What was your attitude towards drinking and drugs when you were growing up and seeing how it affected your grandfather, seeing how it affected your mother?

VANCE: Well, growing up as a young child, I think that I had attitudes pretty similar to a lot of kids, which is just, say no to drugs. These things are bad for you. They're immoral and so forth. But as I grew older, I started to be attracted, frankly, to the kids who were doing drugs, to the possibility of having a bit of an escape from a very chaotic and very troubling home life.

And so by the time I was 13 or 14, I was hanging out with kids who were doing drugs. And I was even starting to experiment myself. And it's funny that my grandma - she was so perceptive that she recognized that I was starting to do these things and that they were becoming a problem, I think, much earlier than a lot of kids' parents would have.

GROSS: What did she do when she realized it?

VANCE: (Laughter) Well, the first time she realized that I was hanging out with the wrong kids, she actually told me in a very menacing voice, look J.D., I'll give you a choice. You can either stop hanging out with these kids, or I'll run them over with my car.

GROSS: (Laughter).

VANCE: And trust me, no one will ever find out. And I don't think she would've actually run over 12 or 13-year-old kids with her car. But I sure thought she would. And so I actually did stop hanging out with the kids she told me I couldn't hang out with. A lot of kids don't listen to that demand when their parents make it. But I was so terrified of mamaw that I listened and listened good.

GROSS: I'm just thinking about the violence in your family. Your mother threatened to crash the car to kill both of you. You thought she might actually attack you. Your grandmother threatened to, like, run down the guys you were hanging out with. And you believed that she had it in her to do that.

Your mother was always - sounds like she was always arguing - and I mean, like, fighting, arguing with her husband - she had several of them - and her boyfriends. It seems to me you grew up in an atmosphere where violence was always a possibility, even among people who are supposed to love each other.

VANCE: That's absolutely true. Violence and chaos were an ever present part of the world that I grew up in. And unfortunately, it wasn't just in my family. Sometimes, you'd see, you know, mom fighting with one of her boyfriends. But a lot of times, you'd see people exploding on each other in a local restaurant or on the street. It was just this ever present part of the world that I grew up in.

And it's interesting that all of the people that I talk about in my book that grew up in this chaos that ended up having successful home lives and successful marriages - they married an outsider.

They married someone like I did who didn't grow up with these lessons, who didn't grow up with these experiences, and because of that, knew how to manage the people that they were married to and knew how to not respond in kind. As I write in the book, you put two of me in the same marriage, and I don't think it works.

But you put one of me, who's maybe a little self-reflective, in a marriage with somebody who hasn't faced that trauma - then I think you have a good chance. And that's one of the lessons of my life.

GROSS: My guest is J.D. Vance, author of the new book "Hillbilly Elegy." After we take a short break, we'll talk about what the conversation is like with family and friends when the subject turns to Donald Trump. And Ken Tucker will review the new album by the bluegrass group The Earls of Leicester, which pays tribute to Earl Flatt and Lester Scruggs. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with J.D. Vance, author of the new best-seller "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir Of A Family And Culture In Crisis." He writes about the social isolation, poverty and religious and political changes in his family and in greater Appalachia. He grew up in a Rust Belt town in Ohio in a family from the hills of eastern Kentucky, where he spent summers when he was a boy.

Christianity was a presence in your life. But you say church wasn't that important. Your grandmother had a deeply personal faith. But she saw churches as breeding grounds for perverts and money changers. So what was the gap between faith and church?

VANCE: Absolutely. That was a really important part of my life. And so my grand - my - you know, Mamaw taught a very personal faith. She really loved the Christian faith. She loved God, and that was an important part of her life. But she was disconnected from a traditional religious institution. And it's interesting that we hear so much about how religion and evangelical faith is really important in these communities. But if you actually look at the statistics, lower-income Americans are increasingly less likely to go to church. So church is increasingly the province of upper-income and well-educated folks, despite a lot of the stereotypes that exist around religion.

The problem, of course, is that children who go to church, they are less likely to commit crimes, less likely to do drugs. And there's some really good evidence by MIT economist Jonathan Gruber that this relationship is causal. So in this world where a lot of things are falling apart, church can be a really important backstop, but less and less people are going to church. And that was certainly something that was true in my life.

GROSS: Your grandparents were both religious. They were deeply Christian. Why didn't they go to church?

VANCE: So there were a couple of reasons, I think. So one is that Mamaw just mistrusted a lot of the parts of institutional Christianity as she saw it. She saw that people were primarily asking for money and weren't actually that interested in the faith. And the other side of it - and I think that this is related - is that Mamaw saw church as increasingly an upper-crust institution.

There were a lot of churches in Middletown, Ohio, but there weren't a lot of churches in the very poor, white communities. They were typically in the wealthier suburbs. They were typically in the better-educated suburbs, the parts of Middletown where people were doing a little bit better off. And in some ways, I think Mamaw's approach to church was a leading indicator of what we're seeing a lot these days, which is that lower-income folks don't feel as comfortable in church and don't have as much exposure to church.

GROSS: Your father, who you lived with very briefly, was one of the few conservative Protestants you knew who attended church regularly. And when you briefly lived with him, you went to his church. And you were exposed to things like not believing in evolution. You say there was a big emphasis on the war against Christmas, as it's called (laughter), remarks about the gay lobby.

VANCE: Sure.

GROSS: So how did you how did you interpret that when you were exposed to - are those ideas that - like, did your grandmother not talk about the gay lobby? Was that not a part of her Christian view?

VANCE: No, she definitely didn't. And I think that was a big part of the modern fusion of conservative politics and evangelical Christianity. And because she was not part of a modern church, I don't think she ever picked up the rhetoric, some of the more political rhetoric of conservative Christianity. The juxtaposition between my dad's church's social importance and its teachings is really fascinating to me.

So on the one hand, my dad's church provided a lot of moral pressure, a good community of believers that really supported me and supported him. And that was really important, and it was really great, full of the best people, honestly, that I've ever known. But on the other hand, there was this sense that the outside world was starting to gang up on Christians. There was - you know, evolution was a lie that the devil told to get Christians to believe in modern science. There was a feeling that the gay lobby was making it more and more difficult for Christians to live their lives or to practice their faith - that it was impossible to speak your faith in the public square.

And all of this stuff taken together really meant that we felt isolated from the larger community. To be a Christian, in a lot of ways, meant to feel a certain mistrust for the broader community. And that has really problematic consequences because I needed church. I needed a lot of the good things that church provided. But as I grew older, it became increasingly hard for me to rationalize the importance of church in my life with the beliefs that it required that were at odds with modern science.

GROSS: Did you ever subscribe to those beliefs that are at odds with modern science or subscribe to the homophobia that you were taught in church?

VANCE: Absolutely. I used to go on chat rooms on AOL, back when those things existed, and argue with believers in evolution and argued with them that it was against God's law to believe in evolution. It was something I believed really personally. But as you grow up and you're exposed to more and more people from different walks of life and you realize that evolution is just a scientific truth - it doesn't necessarily have much to do with the Bible one way or the other - you start to realize that there are real conflicts in your church. And it makes it hard to believe that you can be a good Christian if you don't necessarily believe the teachings, all the way, of the church.

So it creates this conflict in people where you want to believe in modern science, but you also want to be a good Christian. And a lot of people can't do both at the same time in a very politicized, very conservative sort of Christianity.

GROSS: You read the "Left Behind" books when you were a teenager. And those are books - those are novels written by, you know, a Christian fundamentalist who - and the novels are about the rapture and about the tribulations after the good Christians are raised up to heaven and everybody else is left behind. As I recall, the devil, in at least the first installment of the "Left Behind" books, the great Satan is the head of the United Nations. So...

VANCE: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Like, did you buy into that?

VANCE: That's exactly right. And I even remember, as a kid, wondering if Kofi Annan might be the Antichrist because he was then the secretary-general of the United Nations, when those books came out. But it's part-and-parcel of this idea that there's a war against Christians, this sense that the world is hopelessly corrupt, that institutions like the United Nations are going to produce the Antichrist. And when you are exposed to that sort of message, it is hard to simultaneously be a Christian but also engage meaningfully with the modern world.

GROSS: You really thought Kofi Annan might be the the great Satan?

VANCE: I was 12 years old, and it definitely crossed my mind. We would sit around and talk about where - you know, where is the Antichrist going to come from? Maybe it's Kofi Annan. Maybe it's - you know, it was definitely a conversation that we had. And of course, I don't know many secretary-generals of the United Nations. But I remember Kofi Annan because he was such a prominent part of my thinking when I was that age because yeah, I did think maybe this guy could be the Antichrist.

GROSS: I always wonder what impact thinking that the rapture is about to happen has on a child growing up because, on the one hand, if it's going to be the end of the world, like, why not do whatever you want? You know, like, why not get the instant gratification while the world still lasts, right? But on the other hand, if you do the wrong thing, you're not going to be raptured and you're going to be left behind to face the tribulation. So, you know, you're facing, like, two extreme choices there because you believe in an extreme and an immediate extreme.

VANCE: Yeah, that's absolutely right. And what's interesting about it is that you don't prepare for a material future when you think that you're going to be raptured. I had a friend who, no kidding, said he was going to take on as much debt as he wanted in college because he thought the rapture would happen before he had to pay it back. And, of course, that's not a really good way to go through life, if you're trying to live an upwardly mobile American life, is to think that, on the one hand, you need to be a good Christian and worry about how you're going to live your life - that's very important - but on the other hand, you can make as many terrible financial decisions as you want to because you'll never have to face the consequences of them.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is J.D. Vance. He's the author of the new memoir "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir Of A Family And Culture In Crisis." Let's take another short break and then we'll be back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is J.D. Vance, author of the new book "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir Of A Family And Culture In Crisis." He writes about the social isolation, poverty, drug use, as well as religious and political changes in his family and in Greater Appalachia.

You describe yourself as conservative, and you've written for The National Review, a conservative magazine. You've become kind of famous for an article or two in which you try to explain why, you know, a lot of poor people would be voting for Trump. And in your writing and in your discussions, you've called Trump's promises the needle in America's collective vein. You've described Trump as the new pain reliever, trying to make comparisons between, you know, narcotisizing (ph) pain and what Trump is trying to do in explaining things away, easy solutions. Do you know a lot of people who are going to be voting for Trump or - yeah.

VANCE: I do. A lot of people in my family are going to be voting for Trump, a lot of my neighbors and friends from back home. So it's definitely a phenomenon I, I think, recognize and frankly saw coming pretty early. You know, it's interesting that I don't think the Trump phenomenon is exclusively about the white poor.

I think that it's more about the white working-class folks who aren't necessarily economically destitute but in some ways feel very culturally isolated and very pessimistic about the future. That's one of the biggest predictors of whether someone will support Donald Trump - it may be the biggest predictor - is the belief that America is headed in the wrong direction, the belief that your kids are not going to have a better life than you did.

And that cynicism really breeds frustration at political elites, but, frankly, that frustration needs to find a better outlet than Donald Trump. And that's why I've made some of the analogies that I have because I don't think that he's going to make the problem better. I think, like you said, he is in some ways a pain reliever. He's someone who makes people feel a little bit better about their problems. But whether he's elected president or not, those problems are still going to be there, and we've got to recognize that.

GROSS: So when you're having a discussion about the presidential race with someone in your family, someone who's going to be voting for Trump, what is that conversation like?

VANCE: It typically starts with me making a point that I just made, which is, look, maybe Trump is recognizing some legitimate problems. He's talking about the opioid epidemic in a way that nobody else is. But he's not going to fix the problem. You know, better trade deals is not going to make all of these problems just go away.

And typically my family actually recognizes that. That's what I find so interesting. They don't think that this guy is going to solve all their problems. They just think he's at least trying and he's saying things, primarily to the elites, that they wish they could say themselves. So it's really interesting. There's a recognition that Trump isn't going to solve a lot of these problems, but he's, at the end of the day, the only person really trying to tap into this frustration.

And it's, you know, I - so my dad is a Trump supporter, and I love my dad, and I always say, Dad, you know, Trump is not going to actually make any of these problems better. And he says, well, that's probably true, but at least he's talking about them and nobody else is and at least he's not Mitt Romney. At least he's not George W. Bush. He's at least trying to talk about these problems.

And I think it's amazing how low the bar has been set by the political conversation we've had for the past 20 or 30 years that this guy, who many people don't think is going to solve the problems, is still getting a lot of support from people who are blue-collar white folks.

GROSS: I think a lot of people are mystified that working-class people would find anything to relate to in somebody whose accent might sound working class but was born into wealth and has, you know, is a billionaire if you, you know, listen to what he says about his net worth and who has, you know, like, you know, gold all over his many properties. I mean, there's - he's - it's such an extravagantly flaunting it rich lifestyle that he leads. Like, it's always a little hard to understand why somebody who so strongly identifies as working class would think that somehow he'd be able to best represent their interests.

VANCE: I certainly understand why a lot of folks are surprised. I think a big part of it is just the way that Donald Trump conducts himself. A lot of people feel that you can't trust anything Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama say, not because they necessarily lied a lot but because they sound so filtered and they sound so rehearsed. Donald Trump, if nothing else, is relatable to the average working-class American because he speaks off the cuff. He's clearly unfiltered and unrehearsed.

And there is something relatable about that, even if, you know, half of the things that he says don't make any sense or a quarter of the things that he says are offensive. There's something to be said about relatability. And it's not, you know - there's been a lot written about how elite political conversation is not emotionally relatable to big chunks of the country. I think that in a lot of ways, Trump is just the first person to tap into that sense of disconnect in the way that he conducts himself with politics.

GROSS: So, as a conservative who thinks that Trump does not have the answers and isn't qualified to be president...

VANCE: Sure.

GROSS: ...What are you going to do this election, if you don't mind saying?

VANCE: My current plan is to vote either third party or, as I joked to my wife, I might write in my dog because that's about as good as it seems. But, you know, I think there's a chance, if I feel like Trump has a really good chance of winning, that I might have to hold my nose and vote for Hillary Clinton. But at the end of the day, I just feel like she is so culturally disconnected from the people that I grew up around that it would be very, very hard for me to cast my ballot for her. So ultimately I think I'll probably vote third party. I might vote for this new guy who I really like, Evan McMullin, who I actually met the other day. But I think that I'm going to vote third party because I can't stomach Trump. I think that he's noxious and is leading the white working class to a very dark place. And ultimately I just don't share Hillary Clinton's politics.

GROSS: I'm just curious, though, in terms of the cultural difference you see between your life and the Clintons' - like, Hillary Clinton's mother was, I think, poor. Bill Clinton had a single mother who was somewhere between poor and working class. They have a lot of money now. You have a lot of money now.

VANCE: Yeah. So I think that there are obviously a lot of things that are relatable about Hillary and Bill Clinton. But fundamentally, they've surrounded themselves by very elite people who went to very elite universities. And because of that, both in the way they conduct themselves and the things they seem to care about - they just seem very different from the people that I grew up around. And that makes it very hard for me to feel that Clinton - Hillary or Bill Clinton are very relatable.

GROSS: The title of your memoir is "Hillbilly Elegy." What do you think of the word hillbilly? It's often used as a pejorative expression. You say people you know call themselves that.

VANCE: Yeah, I think it's an insider's term. It's something that my grandma once told me, we're allowed to call ourselves hillbillies - and we did - but nobody else is allowed to call us hillbillies. So it's very much a term of endearment for the people who use it about themselves and their families. But it's definitely pejorative and it's definitely the sort of term where if someone called me a hillbilly and meant it seriously, I'd be very, very offended.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

VANCE: Yeah, Terry, thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed chatting with you.

GROSS: J.D. Vance is the author of the new memoir, "Hillbilly Elegy." After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review the new album by the bluegrass group The Earls of Leicester which pays tribute to Earl Flatt and Lester Scruggs. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.