Interview with James Kunstler   3 comments

 

Today’s interview is with James Howard Kunstler. Welcome to the blog. You and I have some semi-similar backgrounds … we were both journalists when we were young. Tell us something about yourself.

JKunstler Author picI was born and raised in Manhattan, except for a three-year interval in the Long Island suburbs between age 5 and 8. Went to the High School of Music and Art, where my poor academic record made it hard for me to get into college. Because the Vietnam War was on (and the military draft), I managed at the last minute to wiggle into a third-rate SUNY school (Brockport State) in the remotest corner of far western New York. Had a pretty good time there. Majored in theatre (show biz!) Liked being far away from the Big City! Liked small town life. After college, worked for the Boston hippie newspapers, then several daily newspapers as a so-called feature writer. Got hired by Rolling Stone Magazine in 1974 — then located in San Francisco — and worked as an editor / staff writer in the music section 1974-5. Didn’t like the job (stuck in an office, unlike my freewheeling days on a metro daily). Wasn’t happy living in San Francisco. Dropped out. Rode my motorcycle back east and settled in Saratoga Springs, upstate New York, a small-town antidote to my Manhattan childhood. Commenced writing novels. Published eight books and was still waiting on tables for walking around money. Then wrote a non-fiction book about the fiasco of Suburbia — The Geography of Nowhere.  My writing career got some traction. Started getting better advances on my books and did a lot of public speaking and lectures on urban design, a good revenue stream that allowed me to live a bit better. Eventually wrote The Long Emergency, a much broader disquisition on the discontents of Modernity and the converging catastrophes of contemporary life (energy and other resource scarcities, geopolitical upheaval, climate change, etc.). I have been fortunate to not have to teach in college — a deadly fate — though I have worked plenty of shitty jobs until my 40s. I was also fortunate in having settled where I did: Saratoga Springs in the late 20th century was a great place to be a starving bohemian. I lived in really nice apartments that were cheap. I had ready access to beautiful countryside. And I developed a nourishing social network… all in one of the rare, healthy Main Street towns of America… life at an agreeable scale! After over thirty years there, and about 16 books, I moved 15 miles east across the Hudson River to the edge of a smaller town, Greenwich, New York, in order to make a little homestead with gardens, fruit trees, and chickens… where I remain. I was married and divorced three times — not proud of it, but there it is — with no children. I lead an orderly, happy life, spend my free time gardening, hiking, painting (oils on canvas), and playing fiddle with a local contradance band.

 

At what point did you know you wanted to be a writer? 

JHK — My stepfather (a nice man) was a magazine editor and he encouraged me to write. As a teenager, I turned out poems and short stories. In college I was somewhat distracted by my activities as a theatre major — though I really liked directing plays! I got a job directing for a summer stock theatre right out of college, but it ended badly when the operation ran out money and stopped paying us… the night of my tech rehearsal (setting lights) for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So I chucked that career path and set off for Boston to write for the hippie newspapers of the day. My stepfather knew a guy who ran The Boston Phoenix and he gave me a tryout. I was very earnest about it. I learned how to do the legwork of reporting and turned out a lot of interesting long-form articles. Boston / Cambridge at that time (1972) was a heavy radical politics scene. Since I regarded radical politics as idiotic, I focused my writing on Boston the Boston underbelly and its lowlife: mafia hit men, loan sharks, private detectives, various crazy people, transvestite caberet performers, charter fishermen…. I had my own little realm of non-political material. After that, I started working for legit daily papers… and, as stated above, finally dropped out at age 25 to write books.

 

Tell us about your writing process.

JKunstler HarrowsI have followed Flaubert’s dictum (I paraphrase): If you want to be wild in your art, be bourgeois in your habits. Except for the uproars of divorce, my life has generally been very orderly, though my composition method changed as I moved from typewriter and legal pads to computers. In the pre-computer days, I got right to work around 9:30 in the morning after answering the mail. I didn’t write on weekends. Never have. For years, around noon, I swam a mile a day at the Saratoga YMCA pool. For 25 years I also ran four miles a day later in the afternoon. I often had restaurant jobs in those days (between book advances) and I might have to report to work at five o’clock in the afternoon. I never suffered from “writer’s block,” though the work was sometimes heavy lifting. In the old days (typewriter) I wrote many drafts of a book, since it was physically impossible to do much cutting-and-pasting with that “liquid paper” stuff you painted over sentences with. With computer writing, I produce a bit less each day (average 750 words), but it comes out more polished. Basically, it’s one initial polished draft and then a quick run-through of the finished manuscript. I write in dramatic sequence. I only outline a scene or two ahead. I have been very fortunate to learn how to enter the mental state known as “flow” — full creative engagement. I have also been fortunate to be able to rely on my instincts and imagination — to develop real confidence in what I am doing. I have published more books in my 60s than any previous period of my life.

 

 

What is your favorite genre … to read … to write?

I read broadly, novels, non-fiction, biographies, tool manuals. My own non-fiction books required a lot of research… directed reading that can get tedious, a necessary pain-in-the-ass. In fiction, of course, you don’t have to be correct, only plausible, so fiction is more sheer fun to write. But I get a lot of pleasure from any kind of composition. As a polemical controversialist, I try to be deliberately provocative and I like to get cute with language. My weekly blog of the past 15 years (Clusterfuck Nation at www.kunstler.com) especially affords me rich opportunities for colourful, bravura commentary. My style there has become increasingly baroque and complex. I am also overtly comical, even in very serious books like The Long Emergency. Interestingly, the reviewers never noticed that my books were funny. Now that the reviewing industry is dead, nobody notices anything.

 

 

I’ve noticed. What are you passionate about?

Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation by [Kunstler, James Howard]Political and economic affairs, art generally, my own painting in particular, cooking, gardening, physical activity, women. I probably have more and better women friends than men.

 

The opposite sex is fascinating. They think so differently than I do. What is something you cannot live without?

 

You’d be surprised what you can live without. Probably everything except food and water. It’s more a matter of how you spend your time and what you pay attention to. There is joy to be found in many places and many ways, though it usually requires an effort. Even sex requires some effort, right?  I believe in making things happen and getting things done. All this requires serious self-discipline.

 

 

When you are not writing, what do you do?

Get exercise, practice the fiddle, get out and paint sur le motif, throw dinner parties, read, watch ballgames occasionally, ride my bike (while listening to podcasts).

 

 

 

Have you written any books that made a transformative effect on you? If so, in what way?

My first non-fiction book was transformative in as much I was then taken seriously as a social commentator… plus, I was invited to give talks and lectures at all sorts of venues (universities, conferences and symposia), which brought me back to my old performance skills developed on the college stage. I was good at it. I would have been a good demagogue… but the other chores of politics are too tedious and asinine. Anyway, the success of that book allowed me to write a lot more serious non-fiction and become a commentator of the contemporary scene, with an audience.

 

Where do you get the inspiration for your novels?

World Made by Hand: A Novel by [Kunstler, James Howard]My novels have all been very different in both style and content. In my younger days, I was going for bravura performance. I wanted to be noticed. So, for instance, I cooked up a meta-fiction like An Embarrassment of Riches, my 1983 tale set in 1805 about two bumbling botanists sent by Thomas Jefferson on a fool’s errand into the southern wilderness… narrated in the period voice of the 19-year-old main character. It was a wild story, full of improbable and entertaining buffooneries. It was also a commercial flop — but that having more to do with the publisher (an imprint of Doubleday) going bust the year it was published. In fact, Doubleday took over its publication and did a lousy job. It was what they call an “orphan” book — having lost its editor, a person interested in guiding it onto the market. Anyway, I was inspired to write that by reading the annals of James J Audubon, Lewis and Clark, Alexander Wilson, William Bartram, and other great American “naturalists,” as they were called. At the time, I was heavily into the fly-fishing scene here in upstate New York, and spent a lot of time out in the natural world observing birds, insects, fish, plants. For another example: my 2004 novel Maggie Darling, A Modern Romance. I wanted to write a women’s novel. The book was a roman a clef about the public figure known as Martha Stewart, the media goddess of hearth home, an archetypal persona. I liked the challenge of writing a so-called women’s novel. I may not be the best judge, but I consider it one of my best writing performances. That book was also a flop, for the weird reason that my publisher sometimes socialized with Martha Stewart and, after acquiring the novel, lost his nerve in publicizing it effectively. My World Made By Hand novels (a series of four), set in a post economic crash American future, were inspired by the wish to depict the aftermath of The Long Emergency in a vivid way that would get to people through their senses and emotions. At the moment I am more than halfway through a novel set on a hippie commune in 1968, narrated by a 19-year-old girl. I’m very happy with it. I was inspired in a flash on a drive through a particularly remote corner of southern Vermont, when I went through a ghost town. The story virtually came to me in the 60-odd seconds it took me to drive through the nearly deserted village.

 

What sort of research do you do for your novels?

The Witch of Hebron: A World Made by Hand Novel by [Kunstler, James Howard]Not much for novels. I make shit up — though, as stated above, my preliminary reading sometimes provokes me to construct a fictional world. These days, with the internet, it is fantastically easy to look shit up when you need to. On Maggie Darling, the fact-checker at my publisher got very upset when, after looking up all kinds of things in the book, she couldn’t corroborate the existence of anything — I’d made up everything: the names of clothing designers, brands of things… umbrellas, flatware, cosmetics, you name it.

 

So you’re avoiding copyright infringement. Sounds good to me, but then I’m a novelist too. If someone who hasn’t read any of your novels asked you to describe your writing, what would you say?

It has a broad range, stylistic elegance and panache, and is studded with comedy.

 

Do you have a special place where you write?

Mostly I report to a regular desk with a computer on top, and mostly have through all my career — except I wrote much of the second World Made By Hand novel — The Witch of Hebron — on a laptop in a coffee shop in Saratoga. That laptop died and I haven’t replaced it… the iPad tablet is a pain-in-the-ass to write on… and the little town I live in now doesn’t have a coffee shop. But it’s okay. I still engage in the task here at the home office… I still enter the flow state….

 

 

 

I like that state. Do you find yourself returning to any recurring themes within your writing and, if so, are you any closer to finding an answer?

 

Blood Solstice by [Kunstler, James Howard]Well, obviously I returned to the theme of The Long Emergency four times in my World Made By Hand books. But the subject of the future of civilization, of the human project, shall we say, was pretty fucking compelling. Otherwise, I have ranged around. I did write three books about urbanism-and-architecture — the human habitat — because the everyday world of America is such a goddam mess: the suburban wilderness we’ve created. It’s one of the things most responsible for the discontent of contemporary life, and fixing it is one of the enormous projects we face. I am still hugely interested in that issue, and still lecture on it here and there — though the social justice uproars on campus in the last few years have made the college scene uncongenial for controversialists such as myself. The little darlings don’t want to hear disturbing ideas. That’s a whole other discussion, but it’s a fucking disaster for intellectual life in this country.

 

 

Couldn’t agree with you more about the PC murder of discussion. Are you a plot driven or character driven writer? Why?

 

Character driven, because if you create credible persons on the page, they will instruct you how they behave in a given situation, and plot is behavior.

 

 

Absolutely! Do you write from an outline or are you a discovery writer?  Why?

 

Fiction is a self-informing process. The first sentence will inform you what the next sentence is, and the first paragraph the second, and so forth. Confidence in this process is the key to my ability to construct these works. I am often surprised at how things actually turn out. But I am even more amazed at how things manage to come together at the end. My method in the World Made By Hand novels, which involved a very large cast of characters, required the weaving of multiple sub-plots in each book. I was kind of astounded that they all worked out, like the resolution of a symphony. I had a kind of religious faith in the process. You allow things to unfold, to flower. You are just a medium to bring this into being.

 

What point of view do you prefer to write, and why?

Thunder Island by [Kunstler, James Howard]I’ve employed both first person and third person narrative successfully. The catch with first person is that the narrator has to be present in all the dramatic scenes – where things actually happen… the action! — whereas third person is much more flexible. But there are reasons for both, especially if it matters to develop a distinctive voice for the narration.

 

Do you head-hop?

If you mean skip ahead in the story, no, never. I roll it out as it plays.

 

 

 

I’m going to drop you in a remote Alaska cabin for a month. It’s summer so you don’t have worry about freezing to death. I’ll supply the food and the mosquito spray. What do you do while you’re there and what do you bring with you? If you’re bringing books, what are they?

 

I actually wrote much of my 2003 book, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, in a remote Adirondack cabin on a lake, accessible only by boat. I wrote it on one of those pre-tablet, pre-iPad, hand-held mini-computers, a Psion, with a teeny-weeny keyboard, running on two AA cell batteries. I managed to get comfortable with it. I even built a little wooden lap-desk to work on it. I sat up on a bed writing much of the book, surrounded by a dozen open reference and research books on cities on the bed. There was no internet up there. You could boot the file from the Psion into your desktop with a cable once you got home. That summer was especially rainy, so my memory of the experience was of sitting cozily on a bed under a quilt happily typing away on this tiny machine. I regard the book as one of my best.

 

 

So you would make good use of the cabin. Talk about your books individually.

 

I pretty much have already. Perhaps the only interesting story is that my then-agent refused to sell The Long Emergency in 2003. He thought it was too depressing. I had to fire him, and I couldn’t land another agent. The others I approached wrinkled their noses at it. So I sent it out to two of the few big-time editors I actually knew. Both of them were interested, but one of them got pissed off when I told him it was a multiple submission — which, at the time, was one of the great no-no’s of publishing. Anyway, I sold it to the other guy and then made him eat my still unsold novel Maggie Darling, too, for a two-book contract. The Long Emergency turned out to be my best-selling book to date.

 

 

Was it your intention to write a story with a message or a moral?
The messages in my non-fiction books were self-evident: e.g. the shitty-ness of the American built environment (and the better way to construct towns)… the perils of late-stage industrialism, etc. Of my novels, only in the World Made By Hand series was there an overt message. My not-so-hidden agenda was to depict a post-industrial world that was actually a very charming place, despite its hardships, so that people wouldn’t fear the direction we were heading in.

 

 

What do you want readers to think or feel after reading one of your books?

 

That it was worth reading. That they were entertained and/or edified by it. That it gave them some pleasure, perhaps some direction, and a few laughs.

 

 

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3 responses to “Interview with James Kunstler

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  1. Thank you! It is good to see the man behind the writer…..😉

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  2. I read The Long Emergency in 2005 (with a dictionary by my side) and reading it caused me to change my life. It is probably the most influential book of my life. It tied up many of the geopolitical and energy events I had been pondering most of my life. Up till reading it, I was amazed that almost nobody I knew was looking at these things in a serious way. Today, I live almost off grid, grow a lot of my own food, and marvel of the view from my front row seat, via the Interwebs, of current events. Mr. Kunstler’s latest book, Harrows of Spring, is, IMHO, the best of the World Made By Hand series. I read it while continuously munching on Cheez Doodles. Yum! 😉

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  3. Reblogged this on Daermad Cycle.

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