We’re Getting On: A Conversation With James Kaelan
James Kaelen’s We’re Getting On, a collection of interconnected stories following five people as they relocate to the Nevada desert intending to abandon technology, will be published by Flatmancrooked on July 2, 2010. The project is being billed as a Zero Emission book. In addition to sending his writing out into the world, Kaelen also plans on going on a West Coast bike tour without leaving a carbon footprint to promote the book and, in many ways, the ideology behind the book. He took some time from his busy schedule to talk with me about the book and the book/bicycle tour.
I am often skeptical about projects with a “green” or “sustainable” thrust. How does the Zero Emission project go beyond traditional attempts to create less of a carbon footprint?
I’d agree that you should view anything labeling itself as “green” with skepticism. In fact, because of the global nature of the production marketplace, it’s almost impossible to design and manufacture a product without — on the front end — adversely affecting the environment. Even a book like ours, printed on 100% post-consumer material, still requires that someone collect old paper, transport it in a truck run on diesel, pulp it, and then make new paper. Recycled paper is more “environmentally friendly” than new paper (no new trees get cut down), but it isn’t perfect. That’s why the Zero Emission Book Project concentrates on the rear end as much as the front. The cover of the book contains spruce seeds, which means that if you plant WE’RE GETTING ON in the ground, it will grow into a tree — or multiple trees, actually. If even one of the seeds germinates, the resulting spruce will offset any ancillary carbon produced during the construction and shipping of the books. This means people will have to actually plant the book ofter they’re done reading it, though. Whether they will is another story. But that dilemma — whether you keep the book on your shelf or plant it in your garden — makes for a nice commentary on materialism. What’s more important? The contents of the book or the physical book itself?
Do you feel that there is an ethical quandary to buying carbon offsets?
If we were buying the sort of carbon offset credits that allow companies to pollute more, I’d have a big ethical quandary. But we’ll be purchasing credits that support the planting of new trees in the cities through which we tour the book. Every city (save for Sacramento) could use more trees.
You’re planning a bicycle book tour which is really quite unique. In some ways, I’m more intrigued by the book tour than the book itself (though I’m interested in that too). What’s more important to you as a writer—the tour or the book? How do you plan on balancing the book versus the tour?
For me, and for this project specifically, the tour is inextricably linked to the book. The title novella in We’re Getting On concerns a group of kids from California who set off into the desert with the intention of abandoning technology completely. They aren’t concerned with carbon footprints so much as they are with wholesale digital purging. As someone who spends 12 hours a day on a computer, and the remaining waking hours on a phone, I’ve thought a lot about being perpetually “connected.” Electronic communication is not so much a drug as it is a modern food-source, as indispensable to first-world humans as vegetables. And yet we’re capable of living without any of our technological amenities; we did so for 100,000 years. It may not be professionally advisable to renounce computers and phones and cars and lights, but I want to try doing so — for about a month. During the touring of the book, though I’ll certainly go inside buildings where the lights have been turned on, I won’t personally turn on a light, use a computer, watch television, get in a car, take a hot shower, or talk to anyone whom my voice doesn’t reach without amplification. The tour, like the book, could be seen as an experiment in deprivation. I’m not, like Colin Beaven did for his “No Impact Man” project, trying to show the viability of a 100% sustainable lifestyle. I’m just primitivizing.
How did you decide on where to go on your book tour?
Initially, we were considering a trans-national tour. But by heading east immediately, we were neglecting the entire west coast — which happens to feature the literary cities of San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. So, in July, I’ll be heading north up the coast, stopping in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Davis, Sacramento, Chico, Arcata, Ashland, Eugene, Portland, Olympia, Seattle, and Vancouver, with a number of stops in between.
Are you intimidated by the prospect of biking, effectively, through three countries?
Of course! But people do it all the time. In fact, people race across the country, whereas I’ll just be leisurely pedaling — about 50 miles a day — up one of the most beautiful stretches of land in the world. Anyway, it’s an exercise in asceticism.
What kind of bike will you be riding?
Hopefully a major bicycle manufacturer will sign up to sponsor the tour. If so, I’ll ride that bike. If not, I’ll ride my own road bike, a Cyfac from France.
Who is your support team?
Initially we were planning to have a full support team chasing the ride, but we decided that that sort of defeated the spirit of the project. Now it’s just going to be me and a cameraman — the filmmaker, and one of my oldest friends, Miles Kittredge. We’re leaving Los Angeles on July 2 and heading toward Vancouver. Along the way we’ll be camping at organic farms. If possible, we’re not going to buy anything along the route. The farmers are going to feed us dinner and breakfast, and then we’ll decamp for the next stop, like holy men limping from mission to mission.
How long will the tour take?
Right now the tour is scheduled to take 35 days, during which I have to ride 1,900 miles. I’ll be on a pretty tight schedule, but we shall see. Maybe I can cobble together some rest days.
We’ve talked a great deal about the tour so I’d like to ask you a few questions about the book itself. Tell me about We’re Getting On. How did you get the idea for this book and how long did it take to write? I read the excerpt, The Surrogate, at Flatmancrooked and really loved the wry tone of it. How does it fit with the rest of the novel?
We’re Getting On is actually a thematically-linked collection. But because there are recurring characters and an emotional/conceptual arc, the book functions like a novel — though each piece can be read separately. As with all compilations of fiction, the book developed organically, which is to say that I did not set out to write it. I simply realized, some time last summer, that in a faction of my work I was obsessing over the idea of discarding technology. I suppose I’ve always been part Luddite, but I’ve begun to analyze my social behavior — at first subconsciously, then deliberately. For some reason I keep returning to this idea of retreating to the desert, perhaps because for me the desert symbolizes, literally, a place where very little can exist. In other words, the desert seems like a good place to start over, at least intellectually. Now, this book is neither an emotional nor an intellectual desert. If it were, even I wouldn’t want to read it. But We’re Getting On is about premeditated abandonment of societal constructions (in the title novella five people move into the desert to discard technology), as well as the failure to abandon (in the novella “You Must’ve Heard Something” two people are left in a city that the rest of the population has forsaken). To be grandiose, the book seeks to wander into the desert, find itself, and leave.
To answer your second question, “The Surrogate” shares both the perspective and narrative tone of “We’re Getting On.” In fact — though please don’t hold me to this — the narrator from both these sections of the book might be the same man, as in Beckett’s Three Novels, arguably, Molloy, Malone, and the unnamed narrator of the Unnameable are all the same.
As a writer, do you put yourself into the stories you write? Are you getting on?
In the four sections of We’re Getting On, “James Kaelan” the author appears perhaps less than in any other stories I’ve written. What I mean, really, is that no characters in the book are modeled after me. Usually, in my more “traditional” fiction, I’m often the protagonist, and the woman my protagonist is in love with, I’m in love with in real life. But in this book that’s not the case. That being said, much of “A Deliberate Life,” the story that opens the collection, is based on real characters from Sacramento. In fact, the bar where that story is set is where I had my last drink. And I think when I stop in Sacramento during the book tour, we’re going to throw a party at the Flame Club. Maybe we’ll even watch some of Saddam Hussein’s trial on TV.
Regarding your second question, I am getting on, yes. The book tour is my attempt to, temporarily, abandon technology. It ought to be awful at first, but I hope ultimately enlightening.
I’m really interested in the design of the book. Who is responsible for the design? Did you collaborate with the designer? What kind of aesthetic did you want to cultivate with the book as a visual object?
I did the cover design and layout for the first edition (the one with the seed paper covers). My good friend Tom McCafferty did the illustration. He used to illustrate for Field & Stream, so he could probably tell you what species of coyote the man on the cover is brandishing by the tail.
I wanted a very stripped-down aesthetic for the first run. Practically, because we were doing a letter-pressed cover, it was cheaper to print using only two colors. But the book is also about deprivation and subtraction, so the cover needed to look simple, and at the same time, wild. I think the first edition definitely achieves that.
Many writers I’ve spoken too say that they learn a great deal when they write a book. What are the most important things you learned while writing We’re Getting On?
I learned, through working on this book, that I’m apparently terrified to have children. That seems the most concrete realization. I suppose I just feel like a child, still. But I faced, while writing We’re Getting On, the fact that I have to be an adult sooner or later. Perhaps this book, along with what I’ve already discussed, represents my failure, or inability, to grow up. That seems like a large statement, and is no doubt a reductive one. But the act of writing this crystallized in me the belief that I’m only content when I do whatever the hell I want.
You liken electronic communication to an indispensable, modern food source and I would absolutely agree. I often feel like I would choose to check my e-mail before I would choose to eat. What are the things that you find indispensable?
Alarmingly, my computer and my phone are the two most indispensable things I own. If you took my books away, I could survive. If you disconnected my internet connection, on the other hand, or smashed my iPhone, I’m not sure I could. I’m being sort of hyperbolic, of course, but we require these media for our daily social and professional interactions. And because the presence of technology in our lives has become ubiquitous, I’m fascinated by the idea of isolating myself from those communication modes. I’ll either have an epiphany, or I’ll go insane.
What’s the last great thing you read?
I’m in the middle of Bolaño’s 2666. I’m only about a third of the way through, though. Thus far it’s astounding, even if “The Part About Fate” isn’t keeping my interest like “The Part About Archimboldi.” I wrote a hypothetical review of 2666 early last year in which I said “I haven’t gotten deep enough into 2666 to make a prediction such as, ‘Bolaño is Nabokov’s emotional equal,’ but what is striking in the first section of ‘The Part About Archimboldi’ is that I am as astonished by Bolaño’s intellectual heavy lifting as I am intrigued by the relationships amongst the four scholars: I like their brains and hearts equally, likely because, it seems, Bolaño prepared both organs with equal care.” I’ve also returned in detail to Beckett’s Malone Dies. That was a troublesome book when I read it back in grad school, but I owe a tremendous debt to Beckett, even when I’m trying to pretend he hasn’t influenced me.
You mention No Impact Man. I followed his blog for quite some time, I was fascinated and somewhat repulsed (given my addictions to all things consumptive) by his year of sustainable living but I also respected his commitment to the endeavor. What did you think of the No Impact project?
The No Impact Man project fascinates the hell out of me. I was late to the party, in the sense that seeing the documentary in theatres was the first I’d heard of Colin Beavan. But his project was a great source of inspiration for me. I’d already conceived of the Zero Emission Book Tour, but it was heartening to see that someone else had taken on a similarly absurd goal. He got to use a computer, though. I won’t. My experiment, after all, is quite different from his. I’m trying to make no net impact on the environment, but I’m also trying to deprive myself on the technological front. I haven’t entirely worked out, though, how I’m going to blog about my trip. Maybe I’ll just send letters to people during the tour.
What’s your worst habit as a writer? And your best?
To be perfectly honest, and apparently conceited, I don’t have any bad habits as a writer these days. I’ve been, for better or worse, highly productive for two years. I wrote two books, countless articles, a play, a feature film script, all while helping run a publishing company. Some time in early 2008, I just began writing in a constant state of inspiration. I think a writer has to think, even if he’s wrong, that his writing is more important than anything else in his life. He must prefer working in his room to every other potential distraction. I’m not sure that’s a healthy attitude, but it’s one I’ve adopted.
What is the one thing you want readers to take from Now We’re Getting On and the Zero Emission book tour?
On a conceptual level, I want other writers to look at We’re Getting On and the Zero Emission Book Project as a melding of promotion and literature, but a fusion that doesn’t detract from the latter. Too often writers and small publishers think (and nobly) that good work will sell itself. Sometimes it does. But when we spend years of our lives working on our books, we should be willing, too, to sacrifice our bodies for those books. Challenging, “serious” literature doesn’t often sell in this country. But it does in France, where 7 of the top 10 books any given day on Amazon.fr are “difficult” novels. The fact that literature doesn’t sell here is not a failure on the part of the potential American reading audience, but on the part of the authors and publishers who can’t reach that audience. I have no idea if the ridiculous lengths I’m going to promote We’re Getting On will really help sell it, but I (haha) may die trying.
I cannot resist asking. Do you want an iPad?
The Luddite wants nothing to do with the iPad. I, on the other hand, would love one.
About James Kaelan
James Kaelan received his MFA from Boston University where he studied with Ha Jin. Upon graduation, James returned to California where he teamed up with Elijah Jenkins. Together, Jenkins and Kaelan turned Flatmancrooked from a literary e-zine into a full-scale publishing house. The company’s website, which publishes fiction, criticism, and articles on the publishing industry, garnered such a following that Esquire Magazine named the site one of the top 5 online literary magazines in the country in 2009.
Last fall James stepped down as Managing Editor of Flatmancrooked to concentrate on writing, and to take a teaching position at Pepperdine University.
James now teaches, writes, and trains (he has a 1,700-mile bike ride to do) in Los Angeles. He’s just completed his second book, a short-story collection entitled Brute and Other Stories. In his spare time he writes criticism for TheMillions.com. His short fiction has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Avery, Flatmancrooked, Opium, Johnny America, and the anthology, Best New Writing.