Q & A With Ken Layne On His Book ‘Dignity’
Yes, the headline is correct: Wonkette editor-in-chief Ken Layne has finally published his second novel. He has also spoken about it with your book reviewer, via Gmail chat. Oh, and Layne is making good on his vow to leave his typing desk at Wonkette again, which will be the third time in five years. What is this book about? What is happening with your Wonkette? Presumably, you all have a lot of questions about this. I certainly did, and they're answered after the jump. PLUS, stuff about Bob Dylan and The Lorax!
Composed as a collection of letters from a character called "N," Dignity is set in the ruined housing tracts and bountiful desert of the American Southwest. The housing crisis has emptied the subdivisions, and the economic collapse has filled the cities with chaos and despair.
As Layne writes:
Like villagers in a medieval town visited by the Black Death, the Californians were huddling together in terror, burying their dead, and doubtful they could care for more young. The long Western boom had staggered to a halt.
In the midst of this apocalypse, a few resourceful people form self-reliant desert communities in their region's foreclosed houses and abandoned strip malls. From the shells of this collapsing civilization comes a new way of life: The citizens of these new communities grow their food, school their children, create art, take long walks through their gardens and the surrounding wilderness, and enjoy a sane and balanced relationship with their natural surroundings, themselves and each other.
After the exodus to escape persecution in the city, the communities find they've been followed into the exurban ghost towns. As the mysterious character "B" says: "In their sickness, they will strike out at those in good health."
Greer Mansfield: This question might be a bit dumb/obvious, but what the hell: Is Dignity your vision of present-day America, or a semi-prophecy about what's to come?
Ken Layne: The book spans 13 years. And the timeline of the narrative -- which is intentionally disjointed, because it is told in a collection of undated letters found long after the events described -- begins at an inexact point in our current economic/national collapse.
But in 2008 I began writing a regular column/essay about the Mojave Desert for Los Angeles CityBeat, and I spent a lot of time prowling the abandoned housing developments. Lehman Brothers' last big tract was close to where I lived at the time -- "close" being a relative word in the expanse of the American Desert. (It was about 40 miles away but visible from a mountain behind the place I used to live.)
GM: It's always seemed like effect of the housing/economic collapse on the culture and land of the Southwest is one of your Big Subjects. Do you think the housing crisis more or less ended a particular way of life?
KL: Yes. And we are only about a fourth of the way there, as far as the eventual change to the Southwest's cycle of property booms, suburban and exurban rings, driving 80 miles a day to work and back, etc. So if there's any prophecy in the book, it's in the view of things a few years out from today. But there's no need for dystopian fantasy because the situation is intensely weird and very depressing right now.
GM: That's actually one of the most interesting things about the book. It's not dystopian so much as utopian, in some ways. The self-sufficient gardening/meaningful work/contemplation communities that grow out of the wreckage in Dignity sound pretty appealing, I mean. How close are the fictional communities to your personal ideal society?
KL: Well, they are my ideal, not in a utopian sense but in a realistic "there's nothing stopping this from happening today" sense. What are we waiting for? Housing prices aren't going to turn around, good jobs aren't coming back, schools won't get better, and what little money you have is eaten up by inflationary pricing of fuel and food. What's the point? There is no point. It's just motion and desperation.
And in the time since I finished this book -- while it went through editing and revisions and got to this final incarnation -- it has become increasingly clear that government and industry are decoupling from the discarded masses of unnecessary and increasingly unemployed citizens. This is happening much more rapidly than I expected. Of course there will be pullbacks, but the pullbacks will be minimal and the end result seems to be something more like the decentralized government and intense poverty of India today rather than the stable Western Europe of the late 20th Century.
And that means most of us will be utterly on our own.
GM: Fancy. Would you say Edward Abbey is an influence on the book? While he's very different from you in some ways, I found myself thinking of him throughout. There's even an allusion to his famous culture vs. civilization line (or so I thought).
KL: Yes, that line was quoted from Abbey -- from memory, so I don't know how much I reinterpreted it. But the argument that we must either take everything from industrial technological capitalist society or we get nothing at all, that has always sounded like insanity to me.
As for Abbey in general, I have loved his writing more than the work of nearly anyone else in American literature. But I also have no real interest in his style, which to me is of a very particular and very dated egocentric male narrative voice. Abbey's books are kind of like the Old Testament, in that way: crucial, influential, still very important, but not anything anyone should try to imitate.
GM: Interesting. He is a very "male" writer, I guess you could say
KL: Like Hunter Thompson's style, it is a style that is conducive to blogging, which I share some of the blame for spreading around the Internet. And I worked very hard on this new book to wash all of that away from my own writing. One thing we certainly don't need in 2011 is more ego. It would be satisfying if Dignity turned up in 15 or 20 years as some lost bit of text rescued from the last Kindle, and slapped with some half-remembered name from the fading past. "Palin," maybe.
GM: That brings me to my next question: you've never made it a secret that you don't really ENJOY writing about ephemeral DC nonsense. Do you see any distinction between your blog-writing and your novels?
KL: I see a stark difference now, but it has taken more than a dozen years to get there. (I started writing full-time for Internet magazines in 1997, and sold my first novel in 2000 -- both after a decade in "straight journalism" -- so the blogging and fiction writing have been fighting each other from the beginning.) Dignity is the first thing I've written that I've been able to read again in published form and not just cringe and curse. Not that I don't see things I wish I would've done a little better ....
GM: I hear what you're saying (I look at my stuff and cringe and curse), but I would love a book collection of your columns from over time (Tabloid.net, etc.) even though I understand that's not where you're AT right now. Anyway ... when do we get to read your California coast travelogue?
KL: It is a mystery. The imprint that contracted me to write The Left Coast went under in early 2010, and both the book and its ostensible editor moved to the mothership publishing house. I turned in a first draft in February 2010 and they just ignored it for an entire year, which I guess is somewhat common in these situations. I'm working on a very different version of it now, because there's another book entirely within my 100,000 words of notes from that months-long hike up the California coast and through its economically devastated coastal cities and accidentally preserved natural areas. This will be a story that closely fits the approach taken in Dignity, assuming the coastal hike book is ever published. (Never assume anything!)
But I've never had any luck with publishing companies. Nobody has, really -- discounting the handful of Famous Bestselling Authors you read about in the NYT. It occurred to me, a few weeks ago, that I personally know about forty people who have sold books to big or medium-sized publishers, and their experiences are all the same: Long after you've written it and long after you've spent the advance on food and rent, a forgotten little bundle of words with an inscrutable cover is released in the night, you might do a few readings in empty Barnes & Noble stores on a weekday, and then four or five years later you still can't get a simple accounting record. Very few writers will mourn the end of the New York Publishing Industry.
GM: I wouldn't doubt it. That brings me to another thing I wanted to ask about Dignity: Is titling your book after an abstract noun a response to that Franzen book everyone was so excited about? Not specifically TO that book, but to America in its indignity? I mean, we hear very little about "dignity" in the public discourse unless people are simply equating it to not doing immoral sex things. We hear a lot about freedom, faith, godliness, family values, responsibility. But never dignity.
Basically, I guess I'm asking you if you think our culture is lacking in Dignity. And why is Dignity so important? What's so magic about "dignity?"
KL: The kind of fiction [Jonathan Franzen] writes is not really my thing. I'm not interested in the pointlessly complicated lives of wealthy yuppies or whatever.
GM: Hear, hear.
KL: The title is actually borrowed from a Bob Dylan song -- a leftover song from a late 1980s album that was performed live for a televised concert. And it's a very buoyant song that nonetheless captures the grave lack of dignity in our American culture.
GM: Which Dylan albums are your favorites? Or is it a "different album for different atmosphere" kind of thing?
KL: They change with the years. My six-year-old son really loves John Wesley Harding right now, so we hear that a lot. The ones I listen to most often these days are Modern Times and Love and Theft.
GM:: Really liked those two recent ones. And JWH is amazing. One of my favorites.
KL: But the wider question about dignity is this: Why do we seem so able to recognize it from afar -- in the Arab Spring protests, at Tiananmen Square, through the lens of the past to Selma and to Malcolm X and Chavez -- and yet we live such tawdry, cheap lives?
Why not have dignity today, for ourselves? We don't need to wait for a Gandhi or Bobby Seale for this. You wake up, regardless of your circumstances, and you have a pretty open book. You can turn on the teevee and have some people yell at you, and then get in the car and have people yell at you, and then feel bad all the time, and then come home and flop on the couch or in front of the computer, and eat fast food that you know is rotting you away, and then go to bed exhausted and depressed and repeat until death .... or you could not do any of those things, because you're going to choose personal dignity instead.
GM: ... which is probably a good segue into this "leaving the Internet" business.
KL: Haha, yes. In one sense, I'm not "leaving the Internet" at all. I will still listen to Pandora stations and my classical station online because the signal doesn't reach out here. Online bill pay, Google maps, that's all fine with me.
But I started at Gawker Media at the beginning of 2005, and have been working for Wonkette since 2006 -- originally as a "guest editor" with the heroic Alex Pareene. And that somehow turned into six years of my life. As I get older, it's harder to justify losing six years typing about gross people you wouldn't otherwise give any thought. I am trying to learn, finally, from the many Wonkette writers and editors who figured out that two years of this is quite enough.
It has been fun, but I've also mostly just wanted work to be over, so I could do "real writing." And that never happens unless you take a lot of time off, because otherwise your work writing uses up all your potential real writing juice. And then one day you're old, and then shortly after that, you die. Is that cheery enough, Greer?
GM: It's all very TRUE. I have a feeling some of the readers will have a hard time stomaching it, though.
KL: Well, they know it's true, too. We have a remarkable ability to know exactly what things we're doing are harmful to us .... and then we keep doing those things, until we decide to stop.
For anyone who feels this Internet emptiness chewing at them, I would say, do a little test. Go outside and take a 15-minute walk -- around the block, through the park, just a short walk. While you're doing this, clear your mind of work and of home. Just look at things, birds and cars and trees and the clouds and buildings and dumpsters, and when you think of something internal just say "thinking" to yourself and go back to walking and breathing. Then return to your computer. Do the usual things you do on your computer, like check the news and your email and the blogs you read and whatever people post on Facebook and Twitter.
Do this second part, the computer-looking-at, for just 15 minutes. You can set one of those web timers ... hang on, I have one in my bookmarks.
When this stopwatch beeps, honestly ask yourself how you feel. Compare this to how you felt at the end of your 15-minute walk. Ask yourself what, if anything, you learned during those 15 minutes of wasting time on the Internet. Did it help you in some way? Are you better off? This is a question often asked by political challengers: Are you better off than __ years ago? Well, are you better off than fifteen minutes ago? If not, don't re-elect the Internet.
GM: That's a slogan for our time!
KL: Yeah, a Cafe Press t-shirt!
Anyway, the answer is almost certainly going to be No, you're not better off. But you're going to be agitated now, both restless and slothful, and you're either going to feel something negative about somebody you don't even know or you're going to want something you don't need, because you've been bombarded with advertising the whole time, even in the corner of your vision while reading your gmail.
GM: Are you going to still have some kind of Web presence? Occasional posts on your personal website, etc?
KL: First, I should make clear that Wonkette will be in very good hands with Wonkette Junior. Wonkette Jr. is legion. And besides making an occasional appearance here, I'll do an occasional blog thing on my Amazon author page and the GoodReads.com author page. And I am hoping to have two regular things I'll be writing on other sites, but not about politics. Anyone who actually reads my posts on Wonkette will not be surprised by the topics that actually interest me, because I've never been very good at keeping them out of posts about Katie Couric or Rick Perry or the Tea Party or whatever.
GM: Indeed. What are these two regular things?
KL: I can't say yet, because we are negotiating. As always, I need a certain amount of these Ameros to feed my children organic cheese and pay my nine-dollar Netflix subscription we have in lieu of cable or satellite. (The kids in this household are allowed one hour of DVD or Netflix per night, as long as I've approved the movie. They've got The Lorax on DVD loan right now.)
GM: Good old Lorax.
KL: "I am the Lorax! I speak for the Trees!" It is a wonderful book. The cartoon version is dated by the groovy late 1960s Hollywood studio band soundtrack, but it's still all right. But I'll post the links to these new columns here on Wonkette shortly, or maybe I'll post them on my own site. Meanwhile, if the good Wonkette people would like to support this weird path I am taking, I am not ashamed to say "buy my book." (In paperback now, too.)
GM: Oh yes, BUY the book, kids! So you won't be living exclusively from book sales?
KL: Haha, that depends on if I win the lottery! But I'll have another novel out by the end of the year and another one after that, probably next spring. And The Left Coast will hopefully be published, eventually.
GM: So you're strictly a novelist now. No plans for a memoir about your days in Central Europe or in the SoCal roots rock scene?
KL: Haha, no. I'm just not interested enough in trying to reconstruct my past into art. Maybe in 30 years, when I'm in my 70s, and leading a revolutionary brigade to get Medicare.
GM: Well, I think that's a wrap
KL: Good! I have to take this dog for his lunchtime hike. I can tell he's ready, from the terrible bored sighs coming from the vicinity of the sofa.