I was fortunate enough to recently conduct my very first interview with James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency and most recently the novel World Made by Hand.
MS: What made you decide to write a fictional account of The Long Emergency?
JHK: Two things, really: first I wanted to vividly and graphically depict conditions in a future everyday America that I forecast in my previous book, The Long Emergency, which was nonfiction, of course. I wanted the audience to really sense the way this world felt, looked, and tasted — what it was like to smell the horses, and feel the tranquility of a place relieved of automobile traffic, and taste the cornbread fresh from the oven. I also wanted to put across the idea that, as different as this new world I depict may be, it is far from being a terrible place. In fact, the textures of life unmediated by electronic gadgets, free of incessant advertising and automobile traffic, begin to seem rather appealing when you spend a little time there, mentally. My second reason for writing this book is that I adamantly insist on being a “full-service” writer — I like writing fiction and I refuse to be pigeonholed as just a certain kind of polemicist.
MS: I think comparisons to Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ will be inevitable due to the subject nature. Have you read that book and how do you feel about any comparisons? Personally, I see them as two very different stories. McCarthy has written the Odyssean epic and you’ve something that has pastoral aspects to it.
JHK: Frankly, I avoided reading other “futuristic” novels while writing World Made By Hand — though I am a fan and a reader of Cormac McCarthy through No Country For Old Men, which impressed me with its sheer dramatic velocity. But I do know something about the story in The Road from all the web chatter, and I like to joke that World Made By Hand is the antidote to it. Yes, World Made By Hand was conceived consciously as a “pastorale” — a work saturated with rural themes, and hence located firmly in “nature.” It also has elements of a classic quest story, in so far as the central incident of the book is a rescue mission down the Hudson Valley to free four local men held in a hostage-for-ransom racket. But mostly it is the story of what has become, by circumstance, a rather isolated rural community in a land that has changed severely.
MS: What made you decide to bring in religion? Are you religious yourself? It’s interesting that though this sort of fundamentalist religious movement moves into Union Grove, they’re not what you think they are. In the end, they’re not the group that wreaks havoc in the story. Instead, their arrival brings about new growth to the town.
JHK: No, I’m not religious myself. But it seemed to me that religion would have to furnish much of the structure of daily life that will have been lost in the demise of corporate jobs, government at all levels, school, and all the other trappings of complex modern society that had sheltered people in their daily lives previously. In World Made By Hand, the townspeople of Union Grove are very involved in their church. It’s all they have left. Now that there is no more canned entertainment, no CDs, movies, iPods, the townspeople have to make their own music, and a lot of it is organized through and around the church. For all that, however, the townspeople are not very pious. The minister of the First Congregational, Loren Holder, is one of the few characters in the book who uses profane language regularly. Another side of this, of course, is the New Faith Brotherhood, the evangelical group from Virginia that has moved to Union Grove (and bought the abandoned high school) in fleeing the disorders down South. When I began writing World Made By Hand, I assumed they’d be the “bad guys.” But I grew fond of them quickly, especially their leader, Brother Jobe, a comically dark figure who is a combination of Boss Hogg and Captain Ahab, and I went another way with them. They display a good deal of competence, earnestness, and bravery, though they certainly have a lunatic edge to them. Interestingly, almost all their attempts to proselytize others end in failure. Their targets all say they’re “not interested” in one way or another. Way back in my days as a newspaper reporter, in the 1970s, I kind of specialized in investigating religious cult groups, so I am not unfamiliar with their ways. I enjoyed consorting with them, though not a few of them were dangerous characters.
MS: So you’re saying that people will use religion as a means to gather together for all sorts of reasons. Entertainment will be hard to come by with no television or movies, etc. Do you see people falling back into religion in a world without oil?
JHK: Only in the social sense that the church provides a place for the enactments of communal life. In the book, actually, many of the characters express anger toward God, blaming him for their losses and hardships. Yet they all understand why the church has become the focus of what happens outside the household. The other structures of everyday life are gone. The New Faith sect, led by Brother Jobe, appears to be organized as much for practical survival as for worship. They’re not especially rigid in their habits. The New Faith brothers are portrayed as enthusiastic drinkers (and very effective killers, when the necessity arises). The women are described as sensuous and possibly even available. For what is left of the “mainstream” folks of Union Grove, the Reverend Loren Holder probably expresses their attitude most emblematically. He’s a minister who has lost God but finds his fellow man.
MS: How much research did you have to do to write about the details of daily life in Union Grove? They’ve gone back to a lot of what I always think of as the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ practices. Also, do you think people will really be able to function as well in a non-machine age?
JHK: Oh, I dug out the usual manuals of self-sufficiency and gardening and my girlfriend was a horse-owner and she was hanging out with the ox, mule, and draft horse crowd, so I picked up some useful information around that. I hasten to add that I am not myself anything close to being an expert — or even competent — in these skills. But in writing a novel, one’s job is, so to speak, to construct a “script” for somebody to run a movie in their own head. You don’t have to furnish the reader with encyclopedic information to accomplish this. (Moby Dick might have been a more successful book if old Herman held back some of those didactic chapters about butchering whales and rendering the blubber.) But I did think the reader needed a rich set of suggestions from me to bring out the sensual elements. For instance, I dwelt quite a bit on the cuisine of the “post-oil” age, partly because I am a good cook myself and interested in these matters, but also because it was a sure route to the reader’s sense-awareness. Mostly, World Made By Hand is an exercise in dramatic imagination. Personally, I am not what some might call “a survivalist” — I’m not hoarding brown rice in plastic tubs in the basement or acquiring an arsenal of firearms. I am an avid gardener.
MS: The social divisions revert back to the old ways: racial tension, a classist, almost feudal society, sexes go back to old labor division. Do you really see society reverting back to these?
JHK: I do believe that a lot of the “progressive” social relations that are normal for us today will fall by the wayside as our society stumbles into broad and deep economic distress. Many of the supposed triumphs of feminism, for instance, are, in my opinion, a product not of “higher consciousness,” but simply of overcoming age-old division-of-labor issues via the cheap and abundant energy supplies we enjoyed during the 20th century and a little beyond it. We’ll look back on that as a kind of odd luxury, I think. In World Made By Hand, however, none of the characters complain about the new disposition of those things. The corporate milieu no longer exists, so nobody’s concerned about the “glass ceiling” or hiring policies. They’re too busy surviving, and they’re all working within their obvious strengths and competencies. As for race relations, there are references to conflict in other parts of the country, but the news is so sparse that we don’t get a whole lot of detail about it. While I think there is plenty of potential for ethnic conflict in an unraveling USA — and I said so plainly in The Long Emergency — I didn’t see any benefit in dragging that onto center stage in World Made By Hand. Anyway, there’s plenty of conflict between the various local groups depicted in the story — the townspeople of Union Grove, the New Faithers, the crypto-feudal denizens of Stephen Bullock’s plantation, the lowlifes led by Wayne Karp of Karptown, who run the old town dump for salvage, and the gangsters who surround Dan Curry, boss of the Albany docks.
MS: The several factions that you mention above, are they archetypes? You’ve got Stephen Bullock’s peaceful yet rigid society, the chaos of Karptown, the more organized gangsters of Dan Curry in Albany, the religious folk of the New Faith, and the townspeople of Union Grove. Do you think that people will be able to survive at all on their own? It seems necessary for people to gather together in any way possible in order to survive. Is this how you see people reacting in the future?
JHK: The various groups are self-selecting factions. Wayne Karp’s followers are the lowlifes, petty criminals, and motor heads who have gravitated to each other by their predilection for trashy things (and it is no accident that their chief business is excavating the old town dump). Their community is not portrayed as “chaotic,” by the way — Wayne correctly states that he “rules with an iron got-damn fist” — but you sense that without him in charge, his tribe of followers would tend to act without a great deal of impulse control, shall we say. The people around the gangster Dan Curry are clearly in it to benefit from the order he imposes on the Albany docks (which is the city’s sole remaining center of business.) The people who live and work on Bullock’s plantation are portrayed as having “sold their allegiance for security” — in other words, they’re little more than landed peasants now, living under the rule of a rather benign feudal lord. The New Faithers have their obvious attractions to the Jesus myth and the security afforded by Brother Jobe’s charismatic competence. And so on. It is only the townspeople of Union Grove who are left without any obvious reasons for mutual allegiance other than the geographical happenstance of them occupying what remains physically of the town. They are the only group depicted in the book who are utterly bereft of authority, and suffering from it. As the one who created them in an imaginative exercise, I feel that they have an awful lot yet to work out in the years ahead.
MS: Death is more commonplace in your book. People die from basic diseases and also from violence more often. Today, in America at least, we don’t lose people that often. Do you think that the end of oil will bring society’s numbers back down in some sort of Malthusian episode?
JHK: Oh gosh, the America of our time is hugely violent. For starters, we have the 45,000-odd souls killed in traffic accidents every year — almost as many as died in the Vietnam War from 1963 to 1975!!! — and this doesn’t count the ones who survive the car crashes to live on merely maimed and brain-damaged. For the past year we’ve had a spate of campus shootings — including the one with the highest death toll to date, at Virginia Tech — and one just last week over at Northern Illinois University. Drug gang violence is going strong in LA, Miami, and many other metroplexes. The sheer demeanor of everyday people is startlingly bellicose – you should see the tattooed, Road Warrior-looking freaks at my local small-town gym! The nightly cable news is a veritable Grand Guignol of savagery (and that doesn’t even include what happens overseas, in Iraq and Afghanistan). The violence in World Made By Hand pales in comparison and scale. But what’s a bigger problem is the absence of the rule of law. At the center of all the incidents in the story is the fact that authority is no longer present. The police and the courts are not operating. The government is a memory. Nobody knows who to turn to when something bad happens. The restoration of authority — and of order and justice — is what concerns many of the characters most. Now, the question, what do I expect to happen demographically in “real life” is somewhat separate (and academic). I think it’s self-evident that Spaceship Earth (as we used to call it so quaintly) won’t support the current crew of 6.5 billion. In World Made By Hand, epidemic disease has enforced a powerful rate of attrition. Between that and the other “usual suspects” — war, and famine — the population has collapsed by better than half. Medical care is not what it used to be. The doctor lacks antibiotics and advanced anesthesia. Life is fragile.
MS: Are you optimistic about new alternative fuel technologies? Sales of solar panels are on the rise, more people are moving to smaller cars, biodiesel, composting, etc. At the very least, people are thinking about the impact of oil. Do you think oil is already on the way out and we’re just kidding ourselves? Or do you think we could avert some sort of big disaster by moving away from our oil independence?
JHK: I tell college lecture audiences that we will be hugely disappointed in what so-called alt.energy can do for us. Across the nation right now, a delusion reigns broadly that some mythical “they” will “come up with new technologies” that will allow us to run Wal-Mart, Disney World, and the interstate highway system by other means than oil. Ain’t gonna happen. The popular political war-cry for “oil independence” is a companion delusion. There’s a lot we can do to get our collective act together, but we’re not going to run Phoenix on ethanol, solar, wind, and used-french-fry-oil. There’s a lot of confusion out there aggravating the wishful thinking. People think that energy and technology are interchangeable, substitutable, — if you run out of one, just plug in the other. We’re about to find out the hard way that that isn’t so. There’s no question that oil is on the way out. On top of the sheer geological limits to a finite resource, there are new geopolitical sub-plots developing that will aggravate the situation hugely, for instance the only-recently-recognized oil export predicament and the new oil nationalism — topics perhaps too complex to get into here. The bottom line of all this is that the basis for civilized life as we’ve known — cruisin’ for burgers in the good ole USA — it is about to wobble. At the very least, we’d better prepare to live a lot more locally and self-sufficiently so — and by this I mean in the community sense.
MS: I want to ask about the title World Made by Hand. How did you come up with that? I see it as sort of a double entendre. In the book, the people must create everything by hand now that the machine age is over. At the same time, the current world was made by the hands of man with the misuse of oil. Is that accurate?
JHK: Well, you’ve kind of got it. On the one hand (no pun intended) there’s the line from that old American gospel song I use in the epigraph about God’s holy city — “…and it’s not (oh no it’s not) not made by hand….” And then there’s the apparent situation in the book that the townspeople of Union Grove have been left both without the comfort of belief in God, and faced with the task of keeping their world going absolutely by hand. Whatever they make of their little corner of the world, Washington County, New York, will be a world made by hand.