PW: You earned a doctorate in biology, but your nonfiction books have centered on social issues—from women and medicine, to the construction of masculinity, to the politics of class in American society and even a theory of war. In Nickel and Dimed, you go undercover as a low-wage worker. How do your books tie together?
BE: If there's a unifying theme to my work, I don't know what it is yet. I wasn't trained in the social sciences, so I don't have disciplinary loyalty to them. I enjoy just going where I want on the issues that concern me. Nickel and Dimed is part of one broad stream: women and poverty and work. But I like moving on parallel planes.
PW: Who are you trying to reach with this book, and what impact do you want it to have?
BE: You don't start out thinking about who the audience is—or at least I don't. It's too constraining. I've written about economic issues a lot since the '80s, trying to show through statistics that people couldn't live on the minimum wage. I wrote expository books, interviewed women, approached it from an economic point of view. But nothing I did seemed to make much difference. I mean, abolishing welfare was not what I had in mind. So taking this approach was a matter of escalation: I realized the next step was to get out there and try to draw some attention to these issues by personalizing them.
PW: How did plunging into the midst of your subject matter change the way you saw the issues?
BE: It really changed the way I saw the world. I began to see all the invisible people—I know this sounds like [the movie] The Sixth Sense—but I became aware of a world of discomfort and pain all around me: in the grocery store, at restaurants. I also found that writing in the very immediate first-person was a lot of fun.
PW: What do you see as the responsibility of the middle class to the low-paid workers who serve them?
BE: You mean what would I like them to do in a perfect world? First, think about how they vote and influence the political process. Ask themselves what's the difference between the candidates on these issues, learn more about what's at stake and vote accordingly. Second, I'd like to see people honor union-organizing drives and not cross picket lines. There comes a time when most of us face a choice about those things. Third, I'd like more people to see low-paid working people as interesting human beings and to treat them with respect. That was one of the things that really hurt me when I was in those jobs—the invisibility, and the contempt I felt from the people I was serving.