James Howard Kunstler is cheerful and fearless about delivering the bad news to his fellow Americans—not that he exhibits any jingoist plumage. Here is a recent posting from the lively declamations found at his website:
But in this moment, the week after a new president’s inauguration, the deadly fog has rolled in and absolutely everyone dreads what lurks on the other side of it, without being able to discern the path through it. For example, the “bail-out fatigue” being reported suggests that congress may just call a halt to money-shoveling. Where would that leave Mr. Obama’s urgent call for “stimulus?” Not to mention further TARP injections for redecorating bank offices.
I’ve been skeptical of the “stimulus” as sketched out so far, aimed at refurbishing the infrastructure of Happy Motoring. To me, this is the epitome of a campaign to sustain the unsustainable—since car-dependency is absolutely the last thing we need to shore up and promote. I haven’t heard any talk so far about promoting walkable communities, or any meaningful plan to get serious about fixing passenger rail and integral public transit.
James and I first conversed in the summer of 2006 whilst he was engaged in that odd contemporary enterprise, the book tour—authors are these days compelled to pursue all stripe of activities meant to enhance image and, well, sell books. The book in question was The Long Emergency whose subtitle offers the ambivalent offer, Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. A subject (the oil peak and its implications for our oil-fueled industrial civilization) that appeared to be infelicitous to book page editors or how else to explain the loud silence on their pages about Kunstler’s well-argued and seemingly dire outlook. I should say here a wing nut or purveyor of declinist manure he is not.
My second chat with James in April 2008 came with the charm initiative appended to his fictional follow-up to The Long Emergency, World Made by Hand, a novel that envisioned life under most of the circumstances Kunstler alludes to in his books and website: the capsizing of our oil economy, the localization of agriculture, the drying up and blowing away of artifices like Las Vegas and much of the urban Southwest, marauding Chinese ocean-going pirates terrorizing the Pacific Coast—you get the picture.
James Howard Kunster is an amusing and engaging observer and polemicist and the terrain he surveys is unforgiving and perilous. It would be an encouraging sign if there were functionaries in this young Obama administration who availed themselves of the maps which Kunstler is helping to chart. That they don’t seem to be is to our peril.
RB: When you wrote this novel, what did you start with? Besides the last book.
JHK: Well, the very first thing I started with was the image of two men walking home on a summer evening from a river where they were trout fishing.
RB: And the title, World Made by Hand, did you know that was going to be in the last line?
JHK: No. I knew it was going to be the title of the book at some point though, yeah.
RB: I don’t recall if you ever used that phrase before the last sentence. Did you?
JHK: Yes, I did. There’s a scene where Brother Joseph is proselytizing one of the men in the warehouse in Albany and he’s telling him “We’re building a new Jerusalem, we’re building a world made by hand, brick by brick and board by board” or something like that. You know, one of the funny things about the New Faith evangelical characters whom I created is that they’re constantly proselytizing people and they’re constantly given the brush-off. No one really wants to talk to them about God or Jesus. These are people who are a bit bitter about how things have turned out and, you know, they often say things like “I don’t have time for that crap,” but you know, the new faith guys never give up.
JHK: It’s odd because when I started the book I assumed they were going to be the bad guys—you know, it’s all sort of set up that way. And I had come from a background where, when I was a newspaper reporter 25 years ago, I sort of specialized in investigating religious cults for a couple of years, and then I eventually wrote a novel in 1985 about religious cult killers. So when I started this thing, I kind of thought that the evangelicals were going to turn out to be the bad guys, but once I brought their leader onstage, “Brother Jobe,” I really enjoyed him so much and I got such a kick out of him that I decided they weren’t the villains after all. And the way they behaved—they ended up being kind of valiant and generous.
RB: Right. I was going to say, what sort of tipped me off that he wasn’t going be the bad guy was that he actually let them drink.
JHK: Oh yeah.
RB: So there wasn’t that stern, austere—
JHK: Well they weren’t puritans. Whatever else they were, apparently, from what we could gather, they weren’t puritans.
RB: But, you know, I guess my view of this book is that it is sort of the fictional fleshing out of The Long Emergency.
JHK: No question about it.
RB: And there was something else about it—in this day and age, I don’t know who’s going to read a book about the Scottsboro Boys.
JHK: Well we’ve been there about 147 times.
RB: Right. So it struck me that perhaps now a fictional account of it might be more accessible and readable than a nonfiction account of another one of those racial deprivation stories.
JHK: Well I was in an odd position because I had written a lot of novels—nine previous ones—and I had published four books of nonfiction more recently, but, well, I want to be a full-service writer. I expect to be able to go back and forth. And this was a subject that deserved an imaginative treatment because I was describing circumstances that really haven’t happened yet. On the other hand, I didn’t want it to be didactic, or necessarily polemical. But I felt like I knew enough about writing fiction so that I could just write sort of a ripping yarn that would be set against the background of these circumstances that I have described.
RB: My recollection of The Long Emergency is that there was a lot of resistance to the kind of observations you’re making.
JHK: Oh there’s a tremendous amount of denial and wishful thinking and fantasy out there about how we’re going to deal with these circumstances that are coming down at us. It’s a scary thing—the end of the petroleum age and the implications that it poses for our way of life and for our economy and for all the conveniences and comforts that we’re used to.
We’re not going to run Walt Disney World, Wal-Mart, and the interstate highway system on any combination of wind, solar, nuclear, bio-diesel, ethanol, or used French-fried potato oil. Or dark matter.
RB: But saying that in a chapter, I’d be willing to bet that for most people it’d be too much to take. But describing it in a story—I think it would allow people much greater access to what it would look like, what it would smell like. You really get involved in the picture of that world.
JHK: Well, that’s exactly right. I’m not coming at the left side of their brain with this; I’m coming at the other side, the side that processes things of the senses. I intended this to be a vivid depiction of a new way of life, with all of the sensations that went with it. The feeling of what it would be like to live in a world where you weren’t tyrannized by automobiles, where you weren’t bombarded incessantly by television advertising or radio advertising or visual clutter, a world where you were really much more immersed in nature, and these people are. They return to a far less mediated existence than what we’re used to.
RB: Well, the only problem for them of course is that they remember that old life. And the only problem with the generation that’s after us—like the poor kid who gets shot and killed—is that he’s, as much as you know him, embittered by the fact that he was never allowed to engage in the luxuries of that life before it was taken away from him.
JHK: Yeah, this is a character whose murder sort of begins the action of the book. He’s a young man of about 30, and he had been on the track of going to college and entering the professional world, and the world changed radically and severely and he finds himself working now more or less as an agricultural laborer on the farm of a wealthy planter, and he’s rather bitter about it.
RB: Yeah, I gather. So, three years ago you published The Long Emergency. I was surprised it didn’t get much attention at the time; I don’t know what’s happened subsequently.
JHK: Man, it wasn’t reviewed anywhere! I got about two columns at the end of another review in the Washington Post. None of the other major newspapers paid attention to it at all. The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the San Francisco papers—they all totally ignored it. I don’t know why.
RB: Did they think you were a crackpot?
JHK: Well, I think that because the subject matter is so terrifying there’s a tendency to put me and what I’m saying in a crackpot folder. But, look, since I published that, the price of oil has tripled, the economy is tanking, the housing bubble imploded exactly the way I described it imploding three years ago. The truth of the matter is: We’re not going to run Walt Disney World, Wal-Mart, and the interstate highway system on any combination of wind, solar, nuclear, bio-diesel, ethanol, or used French-fried potato oil. Or dark matter.
JHK: Or any other combination of anything you can imagine. But the wish to continue doing that is tremendous. The main symptom of where our heads are at collectively and the failure of collective imagination in this country can be seen in the fact that the only conversation that’s going on about this all over the country is: how are we going to run the cars on some other kind of fuel. That’s all anyone wants to talk about. And it’s not just the stupid people and its not just the NASCAR people, it’s the policy wonks and the environmentalists. The conversation is the same, and it is a huge fantasy, because that’s not going to happen. We have to really, comprehensively make other arrangements for daily life in this country—and [yet] we can’t think about it. And there’s a reason we can’t think about it: It’s called “the psychology of previous investment.” And what it means is that we put so much of our national treasure and invested so much of our identity in all the infrastructure of daily living and happy motoring that we can’t imagine letting go of it. We can’t even imagine reforming it.
RB: Let’s talk about some differences between the United States and Europe. Is there any place in the world that is acknowledging the coming emergency?
There are huge diminishing returns to technology. You find an oil field and you only succeed in draining it more efficiently.
JHK: Well I think the Europeans, by and large, are more clued in than we are. They also have got a huge head start. Despite World War II and all the destruction—
RB: Their cities are livable.
JHK: Well, they never lost the idea that cities are a wonderful place. They didn’t destroy their public transit systems—in fact they have wonderful public transit systems. We have a railroad system that the Bolivians would be ashamed of.
RB: You use to say Bulgarians.
JHK: Yeah, well, it’s gotten worse, Robert.
JHK: We’ve fallen down about three notches since then.
RB: Where’s the lowest? The Albanians?
JHK: Well, I’m not sure they even have one. It may be the Tierra del Fuegoians since South America seems to appeal to me for metaphors. But yeah, the Europeans are still more or less producing food in proximity to their towns and cities, and also the value-added activities that go with it—like wine-making, cheese-making—you know, taking the stuff that you grow and doing something valuable with it. We don’t do that. So the Europeans are better prepared for this. They understand that we’re facing a very new energy diet in the years ahead. But they’re [also] actually in a very precarious situation; not only do they have almost nothing in their own petroleum supplies and natural gas supplies, they’re almost entirely dependent on whatever comes up to the Suez Canal or whatever comes over from Russia, and that’s it. The North Sea is running down. The North Sea on the British side peaked in 1999, and now they’ve become net importers of energy. One of the lessons of the North Sea was that you take an oil field that’s discovered rather late—a big one, a significant one—and you apply the latest and greatest technology which everyone is always touting, and it is has the unintended consequence of only draining these things more efficiently.
RB: So what does that mean? Sooner or later it goes, so why not sooner?
JHK: But my point is that a lot of the people in charge in the oil industry and in government are always invoking the idea of advanced technology as being our route out of this problem—our pathway to what they call energy independence. They don’t get it—there are huge diminishing returns to technology. And in this case, you find an oil field and you only succeed in draining it more efficiently.
RB: Then what happens to all the equipment that they use? It just lays fallow?
JHK: Oh no, the equipment is used and reused—but that’s another problem in the world—and this is not generally understood either by the public or the media—that the equipment that is used all around the world for drilling and for transporting oil, and the pipelines, and the refineries are very, very old and decrepit, and they’re not being fixed and we’re not reinvesting in them, largely because the people who run the oil industry know that it’s a twilight industry. They’d rather spend the money buying back their own stock and paying enormous bonuses to their executives. There are many layers to this problem. And there’s a new one: the oil export crisis that is gathering now. It’s only really been recognized in the last 18 months or so since my previous book came out. The story is that the nations that send oil out to the importers—to us—are seeing their export rates decline more steeply than their depletion rates. So, in other words, if Saudi Arabia is depleting at three percent a year, their export rates are going down more steeply, between five and 11 percent, and what we’re also discovering is that the export rate decline is accelerating—the export rate decline is accelerating. The reason for this is that they’re using a lot more of their own oil even while they have entered depletion. So they’re getting less oil out of the ground, they’re using more of their own oil—
RB: For society or to actually get the oil out?
You know, we pretended we had a service economy, we pretended we had a digital economy, but what we really had was a housing-bubble economy, and what that was all about was building more of an infrastructure for a daily life with no future.
JHK: For both. And that’s a very astute observation because a lot of people don’t realize—they think it’s all about the Saudis and the Russians buying more cars, which they are—but it’s also a matter of them requiring more energy to lift the oil out of the ground every year, because every year the oil they have left is the stuff that’s harder to get out of the ground. So this is the new picture that’s resolving, along with yet another new feature which is being called “oil nationalism,” which is that the oil markets are now dominated by the national oil companies—Aramco, owned by Saudi Arabia; Pemex, which is Mexico; Petrobras, which is Brazil; etc.—and they are more and more making geopolitical decisions over the allocation and distribution of their oil. They are increasingly making favored customer contracts with other nations and withholding that oil from the auction block in the futures markets. The problem with that being that the United States is less and less a favored nation.
RB: Well there’s also Nigeria and Venezuela.
JHK: Well, there a lot of them. Nigeria is kind of a mixed picture because they tend to make licensing agreements with oil companies, including American ones, so that ExxonMobil will set up a platform in Nigeria and pay royalties to the Nigerian government—that’s not necessarily controlled by the Nigerians, you know? But for all practical purposes, the operations of the Russian oil companies are directed by the central government, even though they are supposedly private companies. Mexico is really the poster child for both of these problems. Sixty percent of Mexico’s oil production comes from a giant oil field called the Cantarell Field. It’s the second-largest oil field ever found in the history of the oil industry, and it was one of those fields that was found relatively late—in the 1970s—and drilled with the latest and greatest technology: horizontal drilling, nitrogen injection to goose the oil out, and all sorts of other tricks. And it’s now depleting at a minimum of 15 percent per year. That’s 60 percent of Mexico’s production, so it’s very easy math to do to figure that they don’t have a very long horizon on their ability to send oil to other nations. Plus they’re using more of their own. Plus the Mexican government depends on Pemex for 40 percent of their revenue. So there are all kinds of implications there. And, look, the New York Times isn’t paying attention—they’re doing a lousy job of covering the story. The Wall Street Journal is doing a slightly less-lousy job of covering the story. Cable news, forget about it. NPR is clueless.
RB: But you get asked to talk on NPR, don’t you?
JHK: Only on the little regional stations. The national people aren’t interested. They don’t want to hear about this.
RB: So here’s the big question. This  being an election year—any of the remaining presidential candidates who have a policy that looks into the future?
JHK: We don’t have any evidence from their action, their speeches, their behavior, that they fully understand this.
RB: Did any candidates previously? Did anyone who’s in politics?
JHK: I have reason to believe that Al Gore understood quite a bit of this. But, for example, I mean since you asked, I know for a fact that, going back eight years, he was being briefed regularly by the new urbanists who were telling him [that] this suburban living arrangement is going to be a huge liability for American society. It’s an enormous problem and you got to pay attention to it, and he was totally on board with them. But when he ran for president, he chickened out, and he didn’t challenge the home builders, he didn’t challenge the highway guys, because they were major contributors. And the suburban voters were more than half the voters in America—he didn’t want to alienate them, so he didn’t take on the whole fiasco of suburbia itself. And there’s another interesting ramification of this: over the last decade, the housing bubble sort of became the replacement for the manufacturing economy. You know, we pretended we had a service economy, we pretended we had a digital economy, but what we really had was a housing-bubble economy, and what that was all about was building more of an infrastructure for a daily life with no future. So it was a completely tragic fiasco, and now we’re seeing a severe and radical implosion of that, which is just going to thunder through our lives for years to come.
RB: In your novel, the characters are forced by circumstances to deal with this new reality—you know, bombing, disease—but if we don’t have that kind of dramatic intervention, what would be a palatable way for American politicians to convince Americans that they’ve got to change, and that change is coming whether they like it or not?
JHK: I’m not sure that it’s not too late for that. For one thing, I do think there’s going to be at least one major shock, and it will come in the form of regional and spot gasoline shortages. That’s the next thing on the agenda, unless there’s an outbreak of war or a terrorist attack or something. That’s really on the menu: you could almost say it’s scheduled to happen within the next 36 months because of the oil export problem. Because of the acceleration of our trouble with getting imported product into the country.
RB: Who’s most vulnerable? The Midwest, or the coasts? Is there some area of the country that’s more vulnerable than others?
JHK: Well, probably the West, and possibly the Northeast. Like, if something like this happened during the winter it would be a big problem with heating oil, and in the Northeast, especially New England, heating oil is very important. And in the south, a lot of the oil comes up from the Gulf of Mexico and goes right through a pipeline network straight from Louisiana to Atlanta, and of course that’s exactly what fell apart with Hurricane Katrina, and they did have regional and spot shortages in the Southeast. That’s really what’s going to happen, I think, and that’s what’s going to get people’s attention. But to take it another step—there are two things that you said there that I want to respond to. One is that there is an expectation that the federal government is able to control these things and has some power to actually mediate these problems; my sense is that the implication of the whole peak oil story is that anything that’s organized at the giant scale is going to get into trouble and wobble and fail, whether it’s a government, or an agro-business system, or a big commercial enterprise like Wal-Mart. Anything organized on a big scale is going to get into a lot of trouble and I think, and I actually said in my last book, that the federal government would be seen to be incompetent, ineffectual, and impotent.
What they’re really asking for is a set of miracle rescue remedies so they can keep on running Wal-Mart and suburbia and the interstates and everything.
RB: Well you can even go a step further, and I think you sort of jumped into it in your novel, which is that civil authority would become despotic.
JHK: Yeah. At least very local, and in fact, the key issue is World Made by Hand is: Who’s in authority? You know, they hear that there’s a president named Harvey Albright in Minneapolis, but they don’t really know how he got elected. My characters make a journey about 40 miles down the Hudson River from Washington County to Albany, the old state capitol, and my protagonist, whose name is Robert, goes looking up at the Capitol to find what’s left of the state government, and he finds one guy sort of rattling around an office like a BB in a packing crate. He says he’s the lieutenant governor and he’s wearing a tie and his office is clean—the rest of the building has been vandalized and pissed in—but he’s in there, and they sit down and have a conversation, and Robert asks this guy if in fact he has become the governor—because the governor is missing, he’s disappeared—and he says no. And Robert says, Well, are you the acting governor? And he says No, there wasn’t anyone in authority to appoint me, but I’m acting as if I’m the acting governor. So he can’t do anything. And in fact Robert has gone to appeal to him for help.
RB: If he wanted to do something, who would he call to talk to? Who would he empower to do something?
JHK: Exactly. The whole chain of officialdom has broken down, and Robert has gone up there to ask him to help. Because there is a guy who’s basically a kind of warlord or gang boss who’s become the boss of the Albany docks, which is now the only industry left in the capitol city of New York, and he’s running a hostage and ransom racket. So Robert, my protagonist, wants the acting governor to intervene, and he just says, Forget it, there’s nothing I can do about it. So yeah, the whole question of authority in the book is interesting.
I also just wanted to address part two of that question of yours: What can we do? As I go around to the colleges and the environmental meetings, there’s one word that keeps on coming up in the context of people saying, “give us solutions.” What I’m starting to realize is what they’re really asking for is a desperate plea for a set of miracle rescue remedies so they can keep on running Wal-Mart and suburbia and the interstates and everything. They don’t really want to hear what it is that we really can do. What we can do is, well, there is a comprehensive menu of intelligent responses to this set of circumstances. They mainly have to do with downscaling most of the activities of normal life, reorganizing them, doing them differently, doing transportation differently, fixing the passenger railroad system—
RB: To be run on what energy?
JHK: Well they could be run on electricity. You know, this is what the Swiss showed us in World War II. They were faced with a six-year oil embargo during WW II and they reorganized their train system, and that allowed them to continue having a civilized life. I mean, you can make electricity out of a lot of things, and that would be the intelligent thing to do, but we’re not even talking about it; it’s not even part of the presidential campaign rhetoric; it’s not there, it’s off the chart. We need to understand that things like Wal-Mart and Target—they’re not going to function on the leaner energy diet, they’re not going to be able to run the warehouse on wheels. The just-in-time delivery of products that are made 12,000 miles away, that’s over with. We have to rebuild local networks of economic interdependency. We’re going to have to grow our food differently—because this whole trip of pouring oil and gas-based soil amendments onto the ground and then harvesting the cheese doodles, that’s going to be over with.
RB: Isn’t the new interest in organic foods a step in the right direction?
JHK: Oh you bet.
RB: Although I don’t understand why some people buy some food that’s organic, and some that’s not. What’s the point of that? Because it’s less toxified or something?
JHK: Really, I can’t speak for those people.
JHK: But I’ve rubbed shoulders, or rubbed elbows—whichever one is correct, both maybe—I’ve rubbed elbows with a lot of the organic farming organizations and they are some of the most clued-in people in America, and some of the most heroic. They really know what the score is, and they’re doing something that’s very, very important out there. Even in my region, which had been a kind of derelict dairying region where the farmers were just getting older and their farms were crapping out and their kids didn’t want to take over and they wanted to sell out to developers—that was the scene over the last 30 years. Now that’s turning around and you’re getting people who are running very mixed kind of farming there, it’s not all dairying anymore. Now it’s small lambing operations, small market operations, and the scale is correct.
RB: Meaning that they’re not interested in shipping more than, what, 50 miles, 100 miles?
We’re going to have to inhabit the landscape differently because whether we like it or not, suburbia is going to fail.
JHK: Well, meaning that they’re not being organized like the pig farms in Iowa, which are just basically industrial operations.
RB: And with the expectations that this would travel far and wide.
JHK: Well, agro-business is still alive and well in the Midwest, and every year there are more giant hog operations in Iowa, there are more giant pig farms in North Carolina. It’s a terrible, tragic way of doing this.
RB: Right, but those businesses need incredible volume to sustain themselves, while a local or regional farmer who doesn’t expect to supply more than his locale—the economics of that operation doesn’t require huge volume and huge increase in volume. That’s the thing, right?
JHK: Well, the agro-business model is very different from the local organic model, in many ways, but what we’re going to find is that it’s not going to be that different in Iowa than it is in the Northeast. We’re going to have to grow food locally wherever we are in the United States, and the places that can’t do that, like Las Vegas and Tucson, you know, forget about it, they’re going to dry up and blow away.
RB: So in any case, all the locales will have to be much more diverse. Iowa is going to have to grow a lot more than corn and pigs.
JHK: Well let’s put it this way: This is not going to be imposed from above. Human societies and economies are emergent and by definition are self-organizing. Circumstances present themselves and societies respond. I mean, they can respond foolishly—they can elect Nazis, or do other things that societies do in desperation—and I hope that we don’t do anything like that here, although we may—
RB: We may invade Mexico and steal their oil.
JHK: Well, I don’t know.
JHK: I don’t know if that would be a winning project for us; it probably wouldn’t be anymore of a winner for us than Iraq has been, especially knowing how talented the Mexican mafia is at killing people, and how huge it is as an enterprise.
RB: Right, you’re not fighting an army, you’re fighting against a real organization—
JHK: [Laughs] Right.
RB: So, we’re talking about either cataclysm or some intelligent response.
JHK: Well, like I said, there’s a whole menu of them that we have to pay attention to. We’re going to have to inhabit the landscape differently because whether we like it or not, suburbia is going to fail. Unfortunately, one of the main ideological arguments over the past 20 years has been that suburbia is OK because people like it. That’s the argument of David Brooks at the New York Times and Peter Huber at Forbes magazine. But what we’re going to find is that it doesn’t matter what people like or not, it’s a matter of what kind of reality the universe presents to them and then they’re going to have to respond. We’re probably going to have to return to living in towns, villages, cities that are going to be scaled differently. We’re going to have to organize an agricultural landscape that’s inhabited differently because growing food will require more human attention. So all these things—there’s a likelihood that things will organize along these lines, if we’re lucky. The joker in the deck is that we don’t know how disorderly this process is going to be. As I go around the country one of the things I find is that there’s an assumption—especially by a lot of policy people and environmental techno-wonks—there’s an assumption that we’re entitled to an orderly transition from where we’re at and where we’re going, and I of course don’t buy that at all.
RB: In addition to the fact that they’ve proclaimed there will be some replacement, some equivalent, to what we had with oil.
JHK: Yeah, they believe with the faith of little children that there is a set of technological remedies that are going to pull our asses through this.
RB: Well, we’re not transitioning to an age of deprivation, we’re transitioning to an age of a different… something.
JHK: Yeah, and you know a lot of those wishes and fantasies have sprung from our experience with advertising and public relations. We’ve gotten so good at deluding ourselves that anybody tells a cockamamie story and millions of people believe it.
JHK: Well the TIME magazine story was a milestone on the road we’re on because it was a pretty definitive argument that a lot of our wishes are indeed fantasies that will probably not come true. So that may help, but the psychology of previous investment is a powerful inducement to continuing the fantasies and this wishes. So it’s going to take quite a shock to shake that loose.
You got to live locally, you got to offer your fellow human beings something useful and maybe you’ll get something useful in return.
RB: So if you were a betting man, the notion that there’s going to be any kind of intelligent transition is probably unlikely.
JHK: Well I’m not an apocalyptarian, and I think that’s one of the more common mistakes that people make about my point of view and where I’m coming from. I think that life is going to continue. In fact one of the big points that I was trying to put across in World Made By Hand is the idea that, in many ways, this is a very appealing world of the future. A lot of the annoyances of contemporary life are now gone.
RB: Well, that’s if people recognize them as annoyances. If they recognized them as annoyances, it’s possible they might have done something about them instead of waiting until they’d be totally deprived of voicemail and—
JHK: Well, the diminishing returns of technology really creep up on you.
RB: That makes sense, but not if you’ve been hypnotized into—
JHK: Yeah, well, that’s the old frog in a boiling pot metaphor, where you put a frog in a pot that’s room temperature, you put it on the stove and it just slowly heats up and the frog sort of doesn’t realize that it’s reaching a critical level of heat and that he’s got to get out of there. And he just hangs around in the pot until he boils, and that’s sort of where we’re at.
RB: But you can understand why people would think you’re a—I mean I don’t think you are—clearly I don’t. You’re an optimistic, good-natured—
JHK: I’m cheerful, too!
RB: And cheerful. But the story [of your books], well, is a different story. [Laughs]
RB: Although another thing about you: I’m not sure everyone shares your appreciation of this idyllic life. A lot could be said for people who still enjoy electricity.
JHK: Oh sure. And in a way, this can be described as nostalgia for the future.
RB: Yeah. Right. But it certainly is an idyllic life. I guess there are businesses that actually take people to have adventures, take them to have contact with nature and take them out to see whales because it’s so foreign for people to actually have contact with that stuff.
JHK: Well, these people in this book don’t have any choice. Reality has thrust them into a new way of life and if they want to survive they got to get with the program. The program is that you got to live locally, you got to offer your fellow human beings something useful and maybe you’ll get something useful in return, you’ve got to work with your neighbors shoulder to shoulder on things that are important. There’s no more canned entertainment so people have to make their own music, and a lot of the satisfaction that these people derive from their lives comes from that. They have returned to the church as a way of organizing their lives because all of the other structures have dissolved. There’s no more corporate structure left—
RB: How come there are no Jews in this town?
JHK: There’s at least one that we know of. But there are a lot of allusions throughout the story that various people are being persecuted and put upon, and we have reason to believe that it’s not a good thing to be an ethnic person.
RB: Did you have to write a love story?
JHK: There is a love story in it.
RB: I know.
JHK: Like I said, I didn’t want to write a didactic, polemical tract. I wanted to write a real story.
RB: Well you finish the book in this sort of nice, roseate way with Robert stumbling on Sarah and Brigitte—
JHK: Britney! Her name is Britney! And of course. What else?
RB: And they go fishing and then he takes them home—
I’m not too paranoid about it because I’m not sitting around sucking on vodka bottles and driving myself crazy.
JHK: Well, she’s a complicated character, you know. She’s a tough little cookie. And she asks for what she wants once she gets her head together. She realizes that she needs help and can’t live alone, and she says basically you need to take care of me now. And he’s lost his daughter and his wife, and his son, his 20-year-old son has gone off some months before the story begins to see what’s happened in the rest of the United States, so he’s not around. So Robert is alone, and he’s presented with a rather strange opportunity—
RB: I think that’s another one of the sort of more gripping elements is that he has a son that he thinks is alive but has no idea. It’s sort of like people who never recover the bodies of their loved ones—they never really know what happened.
JHK: Yeah. Well I have plans to bring him back in a later incarnation of the story.
RB: That’s my next question, which is: What are you planning after this?
JHK: Well I’d like to write a novel for each of the other three seasons of the year that this takes place in. The first one takes place in the summer of “the year that concerns us,” which I didn’t specify. And I intend to proceed with the other ones in order.
RB: So do you have an overarching name for the quartet?
JHK: I think the overarching name will be World Made by Hand, but each additional story may have a subtitle of some kind.
RB: So you feel like you have more details you want to flesh out more—
JHK: Well I set a lot of things into motion that were deliberately not resolved. The evangelicals who have come to town in the story, they have appeared sort of out nowhere, and they have bought the high school and moved in. And they pose—they have a kind of adversarial relationship with the townspeople. There seem to be some elements in the new faith order that suggests supernatural activity, and one of the points I was trying to make with that was that the consensus about reality has changed. The consensus of an enlightenment-based reality, featuring things like empiricism and logical positivism and certain species of cause and effect that may be withering away, and something else may be creeping in to take its place: a consensual reality that includes a bit of magic and perhaps a bit of the supernatural. But I was pretty coy about it, and really didn’t want to flog it too heavily.
RB: Was this part of what you were suggesting with the way the guy died at the end?
RB: With exactly identical wounds?
JHK: Sort of engineered by ways we don’t quite understand.
RB: So do you have for yourself a personal timetable for when you’ll finish these?
JHK: Yeah. When I can get it done.
JHK: I mean I’m not too paranoid about it because I’m not sitting around sucking on vodka bottles and driving myself crazy. I’m not one of these neurotic blocked writers who bangs his head against the wall.
RB: So, ideally, two years, three years?
JHK: Well, you know, I’d like to produce them on a regular basis. I seem to produce a book about every 18 to 24 months, by and large, or more or less.
RB: I know that The Long Emergency is in paperback. How does that sell?
JHK: Well I think it sold OK, but you know, I never got rich writing it. It never made any bestseller lists.
RB: Is it possible that in the long haul, when people start to discover—
JHK: It seems to be selling pretty steadily, and people buy them in batches and give them away to friends because they get kind of alarmed at where we’re headed.
RB: So a lot of it is word-of-mouth?
JHK: Yeah, and also, you know, a lot of the book is being corroborated by everyday reality. People read the financial page in the newspaper or they turn on Bloomberg and they see what’s going on with the mortgage fiasco.
RB: Is there one good piece of economic news anywhere in this country?
JHK: I’m sorry to use a cliché, but what we’re really seeing is a perfect storm of bad news and events that are not very favorable. Everything from the disappearance of a huge amount of capital that will never come back again—it’s not a liquidity problem, it’s a vanishing capital problem, sometimes called insolvency, sometimes called being broke, sometimes called losing all your money, sometimes called pissing away your fortune. That money ain’t coming back; it’s gone. And right now what we’re seeing with the Federal Reserve and Goldman Sachs and Bear Sterns is kind of a shell-game of them pretending that the losses haven’t occurred and them pretending that they can substitute loans for money that’s been lost.
RB: Isn’t that amazing?
JHK: I think the public is getting ticked off about it. There’s an awful lot of resentment about how Goldman Sachs is getting huge loans from the Federal Reserve to take the remnants of Bear Sterns under its wing. Meanwhile all over America, ordinary people are getting repo’d out of their house, they’re getting foreclosed, the yellow tape is going up around their doorways from the sheriff’s office, their furniture is getting hauled off for auction. There are parts of this country, parts of the Central Valley in California and Florida and Arizona and Ohio that are just—it’s out of this world, the desolation is out of this world.
RB: That’s a nice note to end on. So I expect we’ll see you in maybe two or three years?
JHK: You bet. It would be nice to have another meet-up. I hope I don’t have to ride a camel to get here.
RB: Actually, what did you ride to get here?
JHK: I drove a car. You want to know why?
RB: No, I was wondering about your Toyota truck. Did it turn to dust?
JHK: It did. It flunked inspection after 15 years: the frame rotted out. I would have had to spend $1,000 in order to fix the frame in order to sell it for $500.
RB: [Laughs] That’s the kind of economics that are common in this country, isn’t it?
JHK: Yeah, that’s the old Polish blanket trick: You want to make your blanket longer so you cut 12 inches off the top and sew it on the bottom.