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Brothers Judd interview of W. Hodding Carter, author of Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization


In his new book, Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization, W. Hodding Carter plunges into the reality and history of sewage and plumbing with all the zeal of a missionary.  His message for modern man is that we need to face up to the fetid facts about our own body functions and the technological marvels by which we process them.  The book is as funny as it is fascinating and we recently had the honor of an e-mail interview with the author.

Howdy Mr. Carter:

Congratulations on a fine book and thank you for agreeing to answer some questions.

Q: Before we get going, I take it you're not a former spokesman for the Carter Administration?

Given that my dad used to banish me from the dining room table for my bathroom talk, I'd say I'm definitely not him.  So, yes, HC III is my dad and he's teaching public policy and leadership at UNC Chapel Hill.  I'm thinking he and I should go on the lecture circuit together, Poop 'n Politics--they always go hand-in-hand.

Q: What got you interested in plumbing and why do you believe that the plumber has saved civilization?

Whoa, wait a minute.  That took me a whole book to answer.

Honestly, I became interested in writing about plumbing because I thought it would be amusing.  So, let this be a lesson for me and everyone else: Never, ever, decide to write something because you think it might be "amusing."  It took me three years just to research my version of the history of plumbing.  And I certainly didn't begin with the the thesis that plumbers had ever saved civilization but I did start by thinking it was an essential; part of our daily lives that hardly any of us understand.  Richard Trethewey, the plumber for the TV show, This Old House, calls plumbing the "dark art" of home construction and repair.  It's the one aspect of their home that most people have no concept of and they don't want to because of the waste management side of things.

So, that sort of answers why I got interested in writing a book on plumbing but to find the answer as to why I got interested in plumbing itself, you'd have to ask my therapist.

The one thing all great, successful societies have in common is good plumbing--from the Harrappan of the Indus Valley 5000 years ago to the Romans to the Victorian Brits to the US in the present day.  In some cases, good plumbing essentially created these societies, as in the case of the Romans, and in others, it afforded the fledgling state to blossom, as in the US.  Having a constant water supply and a system that removed waste from the residents' neighborhoods, afforded people a level of health and leisure time that allowed these civilizations to prosper.

I do my own plumbing but came across a problem with my well pump just yesterday that had me thinking it might be best to call a professional. There's a good reason why they have to put in 2000 hours before they can become a journeyman plumber--mid-level in the plumbing world.

Q: Can you describe the Washlet you bought for your house for those of us who may still be suffering on a mere toilet?

It's sort of hard to describe love at first sight, know what I mean?  Put simply, the washlet is a super-modern toilet seat functioning as a bidet--or is it the other way around.  See?  I still can't think straight when I talk about Jasmin--the washlet's given name.  Anyway, the seat is constantly warmed to a soothing 100-plus degrees.  No recoil when you sit down on Jasmin.  Registering your arrival, a deoderizer that acts more like a catalytic converter kicks on and so there's no stink in Jasminland.  You do your business, press a button on the remote control and a wand comes out to wash you.    Hard, soft, oscillating, pulsating, forward, back--whatever you desire.  You can then hit the drier button but since that takes about 5 1/2 minutes to work, you might want to skip that function, and instead, hit stop and use toilet paper, like the common folk.  The thing cost about $1000 but I think it's worth every penny.  But, then, I'm a bit biased, being in love and all.

Q: In the book you discuss how public body functions have been throughout history and still remain in many cultures, but that they've become quite private in ours.  What benefit would there be to making them public once again?

I think you can have open toilet habits and still have sanitation.  When I spoke about this on the Diane Rehm Show, many people wrote in fondly remembering their experiences in the army, sitting in an open latrine sharing jokes and gossip.  They were pitying modern soldiers with their private porta-potties.

I just believe that we make using the toilet an unnecessary hang-up.  It starts in childhood and never lets up.  And my own empirical evidence suggests when we first start out, we don't even mind the smell of human waste.  I have seen countless kids (mine and my friends) not find their waste smelly.  It's only after we go "Ewww.  Yech." over and over again that  they too learn to think it's smelly.  If you start with that knowledge then you realize it's a conditioned response and one that's led to there being way too many anal people in the world.  Sure, you want to clean the waste up and not get it on your food or in your mouth but it doesn't have to be reviled.

And I'd have to say that the ways we've chosen to separate ourselves from our waste--the sewage system--has been more harmful than helpful.  Wastewater has ruined more harbors than any other single contaminant.  We're addressing that in many cities now but we still have a long way to go--treatment plants are far from perfect.  We were probably better off when we had nightmen, as they were called (human waste was called nightsoil), carting the stuff off to local farms to use as fertilizer.  And I hate to break it to everybody but that's what the best sewage treatment plants are doing today--killing harmful bacteria and creating fertilizer.

Q: Along the same lines, you and your editor(s) faced an unusual challenge in this book, finding a way to speak frequently about fecal matter and the like.  How did you decide what terms to use?  In my review I was critical of your choice of s**t and poop, because the first seems needlessly profane and the latter somewhat juvenile.  Were these things you considered or are those just the terms you feel most comfortable with personally?

Well, I like both those terms but I intentionally used s**t (spelled out) early on to make it clear that I wasn't going to be beating around the bush when talking about this subject.  And, having four kids, we use the word poop very, very often.  As a matter of fact, my son just pooped in his diaper.  Wouldn't that have sounded odd if I'd said, He just scatted in his diaper"  or "he just had a bowel movement in his diaper"--that's not the way we, or at least I, talk.

Q: Does your family share your enthusiasm for plumbing, newfangled toilets and greater openness about body functions?

My wife humors me, except when it becomes an added expense--like when it takes me 3 tries to sweat a couple of fixtures and I spend as much money as it would've cost to higher a plumber.  My 8-year-old daughter shares my sensibilities and will talk about poop and plumbing all day long with me.  My 3-year-old son loves bathroom talk and my 10-year-old twins hate all of it.

Q: You mention that you've taken to leaving the bathroom door open and talking to people as you see a man about a dog, or whatever...  Biographers suggest that this was a tool that LBJ used to dominate his staff and colleagues.  Presumably you're pursuing different purposes?

Well, as much as I'd like to dominate my family, it isn't in the picture so I'm definitely doing it for different purposes.  Again, it's about not being freakish about bodily functions.  We all poop.  Why try to pretend otherwise.  People go to great lengths to hide it--turning on showers, blowdriers, singing loudly.  It's insane.

Q: Now that you're immersed yourself in and revealed some of the mysteries of the bathroom, do folks want to talk to you about it or is plumbing something they just don't even want to think about?

People always, always want to talk about it.  It appears to be cathartic which goes to my point about the need to open up about all this pooping and peeing.

On to some more general questions about writing:

Q: Brian Lamb of Booknotes (C-SPAN) always asks a question that I find interesting. How do you go about the physical task of writing?

I write on a computer.  I've been doing so since I got out of the Peace Corps in 1987.  It seemed like such a luxury and I love the way I can move things around using it.  I wear out the lettering on my keys every 6 months or so.  "N" and "A" seem to be my most popular.

I keep a journal that I, oddly enough, write by hand, and my journals are usually much, much longer than my books.  While I love computers, there's something about pausing over a page in your journal, pen in hand, thinking about how best describe deciding not to take a chart with you while trying to sail from Portland to Boston.

Whether I'm writing a book or magazine article, I take along a tape recorder, spiral "reporter" notebooks, and journals.  I use the tape recorder for catching quotes I do not want to get wrong, the notebook to jot down hard bits of info (like the smell of the ocean) and I use my journal to tell a story from the day and record how I'm feeling, what I'm thinking, what I want.

Q: At one point in the book you note that many plumbers are not necessarily plumbers by conscious choice, but followed in their father's footsteps.  Is journalism sort of the plumbing of the Carter family?

My family was shocked when I announced at 22 that I wanted to write but I'd known it for years and years.  I'd just been too afraid to say it aloud.  So, while I had other choices work-wise, there really wasn't anything else to do.  It almost didn't seem like a choice.  I did have second thoughts, though, when both my grandmother and my father said on more than one occasion, "Don't you want to be a teacher instead?"

My grandfather was, and my father is, an incredibly talented writer, but I felt my approach was different (entertaining versus informative). There was room for one more Carter voice.  A couple of my daughters already write better than I did at their age so I'm guessing there will be a few more generations of us Carter writers to come.

Q: In past books you've written about following the trail of Lewis and Clark and sailing a Viking ship and in this one you both travel widely and describe hands-on plumbing experiences -- how would you describe what you do?

I'd call myself an experientialist.

I feel like the only way I can learn about a people or an event or even a place--learn about a noun, I guess--is by going and doing.  I need to be hit in the head with a 2 by 4 to really appreciate carpentry or sail a wooden tub through packs of ice to appreciate the hazards of the arctic.  I guess I'm a little dim.  I just think when people read about this average guy fumbling his way through a situation they can relate and become more engaged.

I loved going to India for this plumbing book to learn about this amazing man, Dr. Pathak of Sulabh International, building these extraordinary public washing facilites that are powered by human waste.  India was so overwhelming but his organization gave me a focus and a chance to see all of India's craziness through his goal--no more Untouchables.

In some ways, though, trekking through the Maine woods with my friend, the writer Will Blythe, in a hopeless attempt to retrace Thoreau's trail was my favorite trip of all.  We didn't know a thing about canoeing or the outdoors but somehow, we lived to tell the tale.  To me, that's what it is all about.

Q: Finally, are there other projects you're working on -- another book you have on tap or a trip in the works?

I write somewhat irregularly for Outside magazine (I'm some kind of correspondent for them), and an article that I have coming out in Outside's August issue discusses my current project--trying to swim as fast now at age 43 as I did in college.  Sadly, most evidence suggests that it's possible to do so; if I don't, I have no excuse.

OJ: Thanks again for your time, Mr. Carter, and all the best with the book.