A Conversation with Kyle Conway on Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958-2018

One of the best parts of being a publisher and editor is talking with authors about their work both as it develops and after it has been published. Last week, I pitched six questions to Kyle Conway, the editor of the most recent book from The Digital Press, Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958-2018 and got him talking about both this book as well as his past and future work on the Bakken oil patch.

Kyle, as always, was on point with his responses to my questions and his thinking about the Bakken. If you want to get a copy of his book, Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958-2018, go here. It’s a free download or you can get a paper copy on Amazon or from a small bookshop.

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If you’d like to here more from Kyle, check out his interview on Prairie Public Radio or this piece in the Williston Herald.

Bill Caraher: This is kind of an unusual book in that it’s really two books—the 1958 Williston Report and a series of chapters written 60 years later. What does this juxtaposition bring to light? Are there things that we can learn from the 1950s or that our contemporary experience of the boom makes more clear about the past?

Kyle Conway: The amazing thing about the 1958 Williston Report when I first read it was just how contemporary it felt. Read the introduction and there’s very little to clue you in to the fact it was written over sixty years ago. The more I think about it, though, the more I realize there’s one key difference. In the 1950s, people didn’t have a prior boom that shaped how they thought about their experience. In the 1980s and again in the early 2000s, they did. So many of the choices people made in the 2008 boom were really about avoiding the bad experiences they had had in the 1980s. Western North Dakota recovered from the 1950s boom and the 1980s boom, although it was not always easy. I think people now can find precedents for the bust they’re currently experiencing by looking back to see how the region recovered before.

This book is also a followup to The Bakken Goes Boom which came out in 2016. How do the two books compare? Are there things that we understand better now than we did back then?

(You can download a copy of The Bakken Goes Boom here for free or get a copy from Amazon or a small book store!)

The Bakken Goes Boom captured a moment that I didn’t know it had captured until much later. Many of the chapters came out of a seminar I taught at the University of North Dakota in 2014. It was the height of the boom, but also the moment before the price of oil dropped. People were always thinking about the bust, which felt imminent, but in an indeterminate way. I think The Bakken Goes Boom captures that ambivalence—something like excitement and nervous energy at the same time.

Sixty Years captures its inverse. The bust had started when I began to recruit authors, but as a number of the authors point out, oil production was still increasing. In 2018 it even hit a new record. The nervousness is gone, even if by some measures the boom never really stopped.

I’ve always been struck by how little rigorous scholarly work has there been done on the Bakken. Why do you think this is?

I think North Dakota occupies a strange place in the popular imagination in the United States. It’s “fly-over” country, although I really dislike that term because it’s so dismissive. There were a lot of popular press articles about the 2008–2014 boom because the boom was a curiosity, but being located far from the coasts, North Dakota itself was a curiosity, too, like the movie Fargo but with real people. And even then the New York Times or Buzzfeed treated the state either as an abandoned frontier or, quite the opposite, as a frontier full of lascivious possibility. (So many articles about strippers…)

The rigorous scholarly work is less common, I think, because it’s harder. The work I find most compelling takes people on their own terms, rather than looking at them through the exoticizing lens used in the popular press. That work takes time, and the stories are less likely to go viral. But I also think the stories are more compelling—people’s experiences of the boom were far more complex than the stories Buzzfeed told.

That being said, there has been a small publishing boom lately of books about oil in western North Dakota. I recommend the work of Nick Estes in particular, especially for people who want to understand Indigenous perspectives.

Expanding on that just a bit, how does your work on the Bakken fit into recent scholarship around “petroculture”?

Petroculture scholarship is about the ways our dependence on oil (in North America and elsewhere) shapes how we live and relate to each other. It’s about showing the ways our relationships are mediated by oil. How does our dependence on cars, for instance, encouraged by city planning and made possible by gasoline, shape our interactions with our neighbors? Or more broadly, how does it influence foreign policy? And how does foreign policy—or how do our interactions with our neighbors—encourage our dependence on oil?

What makes the Bakken interesting is the way people navigated through a series of technological, economic, and social contradictions that reveal different facets of “petromodern” life. Oil is a commodity, but it also makes the trade of other commodities possible. As those markets fluctuate, things like migration increase, too. Because the Bakken was subject to the vagaries of the globalized oil market, the impact of oil was amplified and made more visible. It showed in microcosm what migration in the era of climate change—to use the same example—might look like.

Finally, where do you go next? What next for your Bakken research?

I’m working on a book called Boomtown Hospitality: Feeling at Home in Petromoderniety, which is about the 2008–2014 Bakken boom. One of the recurring comments from longtime residents during the boom was that they felt like they were losing their homes (figuratively, but sometimes literally, too). And one of the challenges faced by newcomers was a lack of housing, in addition to the need to travel between North Dakota and wherever they came from. In other words, the boom had a profound impact on how people understood the idea of home. That’s what the book will be about.

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