Transcript: The Witch of Hebron Interview

Peter Golden Speaks with James Howard Kunstler

Peter Golden: Jim, you seem a lot more comfortable in this world you’ve created in The Witch of Hebron. How has this universe evolved artistically inside of you, and how was that realized as you started writing?

James Howard Kunstler: Well, I am comfortable in it. And the sort of shape and texture of the town and the relationships between the characters were established in World Made By Hand. And they were just waiting there for me to reenter the scene and pick it up.

The thing that I’ve tried to do in both of these books very consciously is to avoid being didactic. And telling the reader every last detail about what happened in this sort of post-oil, post-collapse world, I wanted the information about it to emerge as naturally as possible in the course of the action. And I wanted the story to really drive the reader forward.

Peter Golden: Well, that was the sense I got while reading it. One of the most remarkable characters you’ve created in this book is Billy Bones. He’s a young criminal. And I was curious, do you see many of these wandering the earth [laughter] in this post-collapse world?

James Howard Kunstler: Well, I see...I imagined that there would be a lot of people at loose ends—a lot of people who really had no vocation, a lot of people who didn’t have to show up for work, a lot of people who had lost their families, their places, the places that they lived.

And people...to me, in a way, it was similar to what happened, I think, in Europe in the Middle Ages, where the social disruption was so tremendous. And people were uprooted so badly that there were a lot of people kind of just wandering to and fro, just trying to get enough food to eat and keep going.

Peter Golden: Billy Bones sees himself as sort of the ultimate realist. Was that something that was intended, or was that something you looked back and saw artistically that you had created as sort of a logical result of this kind of character? But what’s striking, at least early on in the book, is that you're sympathy is, to some degree, with him, because you understand his plight very much, as you just said, about not having anywhere to land.

James Howard Kunstler: Well that’s very astute, actually. And it’s true. And it’s consistent with one of my rules for writing fiction, which is that you can’t really deal in black and white personalities—people who are all bad and all good. That if you don’t create bad guys or villains who don’t have some comprehensible reasons for why they do what they do, then I think you're failing.

And it’s important to understand what drives this person. And in the process of that, you do kind of hook the reader into at least empathizing with some of the situational things that are occurring, even if you don’t approve of the choices that these guys are making.

Peter Golden: Well one of the issues you’d talked about in your nonfiction, and it’s here again, is this notion of hoarding times. Billy Bones is, to some degree, a result of these hoarding times. Can you go a little into that and talk about the connection between the way you understand this through nonfiction and the way you’ve presented it here in The Witch of Hebron?

James Howard Kunstler: The way I presented it in was in terms of scarcity. That you're living in a society in which all of the normal things of everyday life are increasingly absent, and you become more hard pressed to just get on with everyday life.

And Billy Bones is more of the scavenger. He really doesn’t stay [laughs] in place. He’s roaming around. And he styles himself as a romantic bandit. He’s got a very romantic idea of what he’s doing. He thinks it’s really kind of an enchanted way of life.

And he’s got a song about himself that he adds stanzas to whenever he [laughs] commits a crime or hurts somebody. But he is essentially a sociopath. And he’s a very dangerous guy. He’s also a joker.

Peter Golden: And that’s a very interesting way of putting it. And to some degree, he has that kind of feeling you get from the dark portrait that the comic books used in portraying The Joker. With Billy Bones though, I’ve found, he had a tendency often to speak the truth about things.

James Howard Kunstler: Yeah.

Peter Golden: And what was disconcerting was, in light of his own view of the world around him, he wasn’t as pathological as you might have judged him, let’s say, were he living in the world today.

James Howard Kunstler: Well he’s very concerned about other people’s comportment [laughs] when he’s doing things to them. He’s traveling around with this 11 year old boy, more or less in his captivity.

Peter Golden: Jasper.

James Howard Kunstler: Yeah, who’s at the center of the novel; the son of the town doctor. And every time they encounter somebody and he sets about to rob them or in some way get into their life, he justifies what he ends up doing on the basis of what they did to him. “Of course I had to kill this guy. He tried to shoot me. He pulled a shotgun on me and pulled the trigger and just missed by accident. So I had to kill him.”

But there’s a very telling line late in the story where Jasper is still sort of hooked into him, can’t get away from him. And he says...they’re having a conversation and he says something like, to Billy Bones he says, “You gotta stop killing people.” [laughs]

And Billy says, “I don’t mean no harm by it.” You know, it’s not a completely [laughs] self conscious moment, but it’s not completely un-self conscious either.

Peter Golden: Right.

James Howard Kunstler: It does show that he is aware of the fact that he’s hurting other people and that he really doesn’t understand [laughs] the profound meaning of depriving another person of their life.

Peter Golden: If you strip away all of the verbal finery of this world you’ve created, aren’t you really longing for a world of more control and personal responsibility?

James Howard Kunstler: The reader might sense that, although it wasn’t conscious on my part. I think what we’re dealing with here is really a matter of scale. Everybody in our culture right now, whatever phase of modernity we’re in or we’re about to exit, lead very, very complex lives, subject to very, very large forces, and big corporations, and big governments, and things that they can’t control.

And when life devolves to the more local level of just your family, your town, your community with a very, very short reach beyond that, then it has much more to do with the choices that you're making, not the choices that other people are making for you.

Peter Golden: There also seems to be...I don’t know if I’d call it a longing at the end or an advocacy, but this notion that frontier justice was more efficient and, in many ways, fairer than the kind of legal system we’ve put in place today.

In fact, judging from what’s happening or not happening to many of the Wall Street bandits, one could make the argument that in The Witch of Hebron, people are dealt with far more fairly than they are today.

James Howard Kunstler: Yeah. Well...

Peter Golden: Especially the victims.

James Howard Kunstler: One of the things that annoys me and troubles me the most about what’s going on right now in 2010 is that increasing absence of the rule of law in all these things that are so important to us, especially the big things, like how the banking system works, and...even on the basis of ordinary so-called justice, the wheels of the law grind so slowly now that that in itself is just unbelievably cruel, to have to wait a year to go to trial for something. And then to have to wait a half a year to be sentenced for whatever the determination of that is, even when stuff works.

In the World Made By Hand books, the law has really ceased to exist as we know it. The courts are not working. And nothing connected to that is working.

And so, one of the issues in both books has to do with the character Steven Bullock, who is the largest landowner in the region and has a lot of people who depend on him who have become, in effect, his sort of live-in peasant brigade. He’s got about 50 people living on his very large farm in a village that he’s built for them.

The people of Union Grove have more or less asked him to be magistrate. He is a lawyer. He at first refused to serve, like General Sherman, you know, after he was elected. But he’s been induced in the previous book to take up his duties as magistrate.

In this part of the story, The Witch of Hebron, he undergoes a home invasion. A bunch of bandits, or “pickers,” as they style them in that world, have invaded his house. And he’s killed three of them himself. And his people are alerted by an alarm, and they round up the rest of the gang , about nine other guys. And he has them all hanged. And he does it pretty much summarily.

But even that is kind of...there are sort of comic elements to that. He, in effect, has appointed himself not only judge and jury, but [laughs] the lawyer for the people who he’s about to hang.

Peter Golden: I wanted to read you an excerpt from your book, and then I wanted to ask you a question. But, so that everyone knows what we’re talking about, let me read this. It’s beautifully done.

“It all happened so quickly. And then the United States itself got some kind of fatal thrombosis of the economy. And the people all over Scott County lost jobs and couldn’t pay their obligations. And the malls shut down one by one. And the oil stopped coming from Mexico, and Venezuela, and Africa, and wherever else it used to come from, until neighbor was fighting neighbor for it at the pumps. And then the pumps shut down.

And then things really started going downhill. The lights went out. Folks started shooting. The whole Sun Belt was boiling over with gunfire and with animosities that everybody thought had been left behind in the old century.”

Jim, is that your vision for what’s going to happen in the country? I know you’ve addressed some of this in your nonfiction. But now it’s come full-blown and beautifully done, and succinctly written in The Witch of Hebron .

James Howard Kunstler: I think it is pretty close to what I expect to happen in the USA over the next decade or so. And it may seem a little extreme; I think we’re headed for a lot of trouble. And I think that our economic trouble is going to very soon translate into political friction, political mischief, and political conflict, right here in the USA.

Peter Golden: One of the fascinating insights in The Witch of Hebron is the connection between the religious Brother Job and how religion served as an organizing principle of community. Can you talk a little bit about that?

James Howard Kunstler: Yeah. These are people who are living in a time when all of the other armatures of daily life have gone away, have disappeared. There’s no corporate structure anymore to hang your life on, to tell you to show up on time, to provide you with a regular, predicable income. All of the, really, other parts of the framework for people to lead a coherent life are gone, including the justice system, including the money system, and banking, and they’re really reduced to their household and the people around them.

The one thing that’s endured has been the church. And not necessarily the religion that dwells within the church, or that it was originally intended to be the dwelling place for. But the church has now become, really, the only social structure that’s left for people. And in the case of Brother Job, he’s running a very rigorous organization that’s taking care of a lot of people and doing it pretty well. In the case of the townspeople they have, really, the congregational church.

And it’s kind of a loose social structure, but it’s all they have. And they’re not necessarily religious either. In fact, I think the travails of the post-economic collapse time have made them really come to doubt the existence of God, or at least the existence of a God who cares about them. And this is one of the struggles that Loren Holder, the minister of the congregational church, goes through in both books, World Made By Hand, and The Witch of Hebron.

And for him the question really is, is his faith in God redeemed? And I’m not a very religious person myself, but I can see that if you were living...I can imagine that if you were living in a world full of sudden deprivations and troubles that these things would start to preoccupy you a lot.

Peter Golden: To some degree, people have already lived in that world. And it’s one of the features of this book which is marvelous, for anyone who loves 19th Century haunted American fiction, which this book bears an enormous similarity to.

James Howard Kunstler: Oh really? What did you have in mind?

Peter Golden: I would think something like some of the work of Washington Irving, some of the work of Hawthorne. There’s just this sense of a haunted land where death is poised around the corner, where nature is beautiful one moment and destructive the next.

And two points about this religious issue. I was struck by the fact that Mr. Bullock and Brother Job were really two sides of the same coin-- one entirely secular and one religious. Yet, they both provided organizing principles to the community. And again, I was struck by how 19th Century towns were organized. There was usually a religious leader and there is usually the richest man in town. And interestingly enough, you go back into 19th and even 20th Century America, you’ll find very wealthy men who oversaw the town.

In one town in Ohio I wrote about at one point, the wealthiest man owned the hospital and people who didn’t have any money were treated for free. That was their Medicare. People who didn’t have any food went to the general store, bought food, and it was put on the wealthiest man’s account.

And there is again, in this book, a kind of longing for community. And one of the striking things about it, which is one of the most rewarding parts of reading The Witch of Hebron is it gives you the opportunity to see what we’ve lost by living it in a more impersonal world. Now, that looks like there’s a fair amount of author intent there. And I guess that’s my question. How much intent was brought to that subject of reestablishing community and showing how important it was?

James Howard Kunstler: Well, it wasn’t just community, but I think you did pick up on something that’s really there. We, in our time, being Baby Boomers living in the late 20th Century, have lived not only in a time of moral and cultural relativism, but in a time where all hierarchies are suspect. And when you have that kind of a culture, then authority, it doesn’t mean much. And I think it’s fair to say that authority doesn’t mean a whole lot in our time.

Things seem to be taken care of for us to some degree. You and I don’t sit around everyday thinking about the national defense, necessarily. And all these mechanisms and institutions are out there, whether it’s Medicaid, or health insurance, or somebody taking care of the highways. But, on the other hand, we’re very suspect and usually offended by anybody who actually tries to assert some authority and make things happen.

And the thing about Mr. Bullock and Brother Job is that they both run fairly large organizations in terms of the scale that life has taken place. They have to direct the activities of dozens of people. And they understand what their obligations and responsibilities are. And they take them rather seriously. But what’s really also going on here is sort of a culture war between these southern evangelicals who have arrived in town and the old, established gentry, the landed gentry that Mr. Bullock represents.

And there’s one particular telling scene where Brother Job has come to see Mr. Bullock about a stallion. And they're sitting beside a pond in a Japanese teahouse that Bullock had built for him some time back. Brother Job remarks that it looks like it’s a good fishing pond, like it’s probably full of bass. And he remarks that he was the winner of a couple of bass championships back in the old days, in the old times, and actually won a lot of money doing it, and what a noble fish the bass is.

And Mr. Bullock says, “Oh, well, bass. We consider them trash. This is trout country.” And that kind of defines their relations.

Peter Golden: Personally, I’ve always thought you seemed to have an affinity for Halloween. You wrote a novel once called “The Halloween Ball.”

James Howard Kunstler: Yeah, I’m a Halloween kind of guy, I guess.

Peter Golden: Yeah, I think you are. But one of the things I found very moving in the book was the community celebration of Halloween. And I’ll tell you why. My family, we’ve lived in the suburbs. We’ve been through Halloween, which is, to some degree, looked upon as a great imposition. Comes in the late fall, kids come home from school, you’ve got to have enough candy. Wife comes home from work, you're home from work. Who’s going to answer the door, make sure somebody’s there? And there’s almost a kind of sense of obligation about it.

James Howard Kunstler: It’s sort of like a logistical obligation more than a real ritual with meaning.

Peter Golden: Right. And as a child, I remember it more, visiting your neighbors. One of the problems, of course, with Halloween today is you can go next-door and not even know the person who lives there.

James Howard Kunstler: For years they’ve been the next-door neighbor and you don’t even know who they are.

Peter Golden: I remember as a child, you would go in and you’d see the woman answering the door happened to have been your first grade teacher. Or the guy answering the door happened to have been your little league coach. And they often were glad to see you. And they got a kick out of these kids as they were watching them grow.

James Howard Kunstler: And now it’s more like, “Here are your Milk Duds kid, now get lost.”

Peter Golden: Oh, more now it’s like an economic enterprise. The kids are checking out what you're giving. Everybody wants to get the same amount. And I guess this is why we [laughs] have so much Type II Diabetes.


But the point I’m trying to make here is one of the things you underscore in this book is the importance of these holidays.

James Howard Kunstler: Oh yeah, these ceremonies. And they're very, very conscious of living in a world where you have to celebrate the seasons, and the rituals of the harvest, and the rituals of renewal in the springtime, and the celebration that food is actually being grown, that it’s actually coming out of the ground and is there for you, and...

Peter Golden: And everything the kids collect for Halloween is made by somebody.

Peter Golden: It’s not just in bulk at the local supermarket.

James Howard Kunstler: Right, yeah. Exactly. Yeah. They’re not getting Milk Duds and lollipops, and cheese doodles. And also there’s...another thing that’s going on is that it’s not only a holiday for the kids, or ritual for the kids, going Trick or Treating, but another big component of it is that when the kids come home from going around town getting their little treats, the adults have a party. They have a ball.

And a rather formal one, too, where it’s set up in the town hall for dancing, and music, and it’s not just a cocktail party for standing around and chit-chatting and making small talk.

Peter Golden: So again we’re back to that sense of community, which seems very important.

James Howard Kunstler: Yeah, and the formal sense of it. And I think that if you do look at history and just simply the way people behaved under different circumstances, when they’re not distracted by so much, everything from television, to their computers, to their handheld devices, to all this stuff in the world that all of a sudden, you have to fill up your world with something else. And different kinds of ceremonies develop.

Peter Golden: One reviewer mentioned, when they were reviewing World Made By Hand, that what separated your post-apocalyptic fiction from most of that genre is that it’s so hopeful, as opposed to some that is not. That was particularly noticeable in the Halloween celebration. And I guess my question here is, do you see...one would almost have the feeling that you think more would be gained by this kind of life than lost. Would that be accurate?

James Howard Kunstler: Yes. What the people in my fictional town are gaining and what they're losing are things that I think Americans sense very deeply but maybe don’t know how to articulate. They're losing a lot of comfort, maybe, convenience, but they’re gaining so much more in personal relations with the people who live around them, and the depth of those relationships.

They’re working with people they know on things that matter directly to their everyday life and to their ability to survive. And it’s just a much more directly experienced world than the mediated secondhand experienced world that they have left behind. And I think that they occasionally feel little twinges of nostalgia for it, but on the whole, nobody is necessarily really agonizing over what has been left behind. Most of them seem to be fairly comfortable with their new situation.

Peter Golden: So your view would be that faced with this deprivation, human beings would wind up, or most human beings would wind up being more adaptable than they maybe think they are right now?

James Howard Kunstler: The ones that survive will. One of the elements of this story is that there are an awful lot of people who haven’t made it or haven’t survived. There’s been a lot of attrition.

Peter Golden: Well that leads me actually to my next question. You seemed much clearer in your mind in this book, with The Witch of Hebron than in World Made By Hand about what has happened to the world.

James Howard Kunstler: Well I didn’t spell it out very directly. And most of....

Peter Golden: More so here than in World Made By Hand. Here we’ve talked about a great Middle Eastern war, we’ve talked about bombings in Washington and New York. What else had you had in mind? How has that evolved, actually, as the writing has gone on?

James Howard Kunstler: It’s evolved more in the sense of what you're really seeing on the landscape. And in this part of the story, the main character, this boy Jasper Copeland, who’s committed a crime and run away from home, is at large in the county. And he covers a lot of ground. And we begin to get a pretty good sense of what it’s like around them.

And we travel down the desolate strip malls, and they do...a lot of the action takes place in a town that’s near here called Glens Falls, New York.

Peter Golden: Which our listeners should know is a real place.

James Howard Kunstler: It’s a real city. It used to be sort of the papermaking capital of Upstate New York. And I guess it had a population of about, I don’t know, 30, 50,000, something like that? And in The Witch of Hebron it’s been reduced to a much smaller place with very little activity in it. The main industry now is cutting cord wood; gathering cord wood from the forests and having it cut, and then distribute it to the people who need it, and that’s about it.

And the population’s shrunk. But all of the vestiges of modernity are still lying out there in the landscape all around it. You know, all the donut shops and the convenience stores, and the big boxes, and the shambles of the world that we know now.

Peter Golden: One of the great challenges in reading The Witch of Hebron was not to eat compulsively while you were doing so. I thought I would treat everybody to a little excerpt. “She had fed him a super of smoked trout chowder, little dumplings of acorn squash worked into cornmeal, and fresh cheese in sage and butter, sausage sautéed with apples, and a pear pudding.”

Now this is a normal kind of dinner. We read a lot of this; there are many passages in the book that deal with what people eat. So, a couple of questions here. One, are you interested in cooking? [laughter] Two, will there ever be a World Made By Hand cookbook?

James Howard Kunstler: [laughs] Yeah, I am interested in cooking, and have been for a long time. Part of it comes out of my experience as a starving bohemian writer having to work in restaurants for years and years. And I worked as a line cook, as a dishwasher, as a waiter, as a bartender, as a prep guy, as a bread maker, and I did all of that for many years, and I know how to do it.

I do think that people who are reading about this kind of world would be interested in what these people are getting for lunch and dinner, because there’s kind of the supposition that they are living in a world of hardship.

But on the other hand, eating is so central to the human experience. And that would be one of the things that I believe people would adapt to most quickly, is they would adapt to whatever the local palate of ingredients really is. And they would really have to learn what to do with them, because you couldn’t buy prepared stuff anymore. There are no supermarkets.

And since eating and dining is so important that if you were going to make that part of your life “OK”, you’d have to go to some lengths to actually do it right. So yeah, I paid a lot of attention to it. Also, it is a way for me to connect sensually with the reader and really give them a sense of the textures or flavors of this world that they’ve entered.

Peter Golden: I’ve been sort of reluctant to talk too much about the story, but you’ve raised the issue of Jasper who’s a young boy.

James Howard Kunstler: Yeah. He’s at the center of the book.

Peter Golden: Right.

James Howard Kunstler: And I do have to make it clear that it is the same town as World Made By Hand, and it’s the same cast of characters for the most part, although there are some new ones introduced. But some of the people who were in the foreground last time are now in the background. And not all of them. Some of them are still in the foreground. The action takes place four months after the action that took place in World Made By Hand.

World Made By Hand was set in late June, early July of the year that concerns us. And this one takes place in the week around Halloween.

Peter Golden: Jasper commits a crime, runs away, and for a variety of reasons, everyone starts looking for him, some out of vengeance, some out of concern. And the issue of what ultimately happens and the notion of redemption is such a large part of this book. And again, I see a lot of it having to do with redemption of communities, redemption of individuals. How conscious was that?

James Howard Kunstler: Very conscious. The boy himself, he’s 11 years old, which is an interesting time in the development of a person. He’s really old enough to know what’s right and wrong now. He’s got a pretty vivid sense of that. And he’s a smart kid. And he knows that the things that he’s done have placed him in real jeopardy of losing his, really, the course of his life.

And in fact, through the book, he’s struggling to get himself on a course in life that will redeem him. And he describes himself more than once as a lost soul. So he knows what’s at stake. And I think that’s the main issue for him in the book and for the reader. Really, the central question in the book is, this is a boy who seems to have lost his boyhood, and prematurely. He really wasn’t ready for it and it all happened very suddenly. And the question is, can his boyhood be redeemed? Can he redeem it for himself, or will it be redeemed for him in some way? And all of the action of the book revolves around that question.

Peter Golden: The Witch of Hebron is described as a World Made By Hand novel. And so I get the feeling we’re going to see more of this. So I’m curious as to what you're writing now, and will there be any more installments of this story?

James Howard Kunstler: Yeah. I intended all along to write one book for each season of the year and to carry the story through the hardships of winter and spring, and I’m halfway through the job. And so I hope to resume it very soon. I’m under contract to write a nonfiction book that is concerned with things like the diminishing returns of technology and where we’re at now in this long emergency.

This is kind of a critical juncture right here. We’re about to enter the fall of 2010. And there are a lot of things out there, a lot of pieces that are about to tumble, or happen, or advance this set of problems that we face and make them more and more critical. You know, in the energy realm, and in the banking and finance realm.

Right now what’s going on out there is a kind of neck-and-neck race between the banking fiasco and the energy predicament to determine where things will go. And in fact, it looks like for the moment the crisis in money and finance and banking is winning.

And that crisis is liable to affect the energy problem pretty severely. Because when there is less and less capital available, there’s going to be less drilling for oil, and in fact, we may not be able to keep up at all with the ongoing depletions out there. And the scarcity of oil is going to, in turn, feed back into the economy and create additional problems in the real economy.

It’s really quite a fatal feedback loop that’s going on out there. And the speed that it’s going around is accelerating. But I would like to get back into the World Made By Hand cycle and finish the last two before the publishing industry [laughs] falls apart. And I mean, that’s one thing that can happen. The publishing industry is in quite a bit of disarray right now.

They were publishing too many books that weren’t getting read, and the industry has fired a lot of people, and a lot of companies have shut down. And relationships that have existed for decades about how books are distributed and sold are changing pretty radically.

We don’t even know if people are going to continue reading books! I mean, we may get to the point where we realize, & “Oh, the book, too, was a transient phenomenon of the modern age.” Maybe from here on we have a different way of telling stories. I think that human beings will always need stories. It’s such a, just a huge part of the construction of culture. The construction of culture is all about narrative itself. It’s so basic to us.

So stories will be told and transmitted, but they may not be in the commercial form of a book that costs $22 or whatever.

Peter Golden: Well fortunately, none of that’s going to happen before September...?

James Howard Kunstler: Yeah, I think that this one will probably make it.

Peter Golden: Yeah, this one will probably be online. You’ll be able to buy it, and certainly at your local bookstore. The name of the book is The Witch of Hebron. It is the second installment in the World Made By Hand series, and I highly recommend it. A beautifully done job, and a real joy to read.

James Howard Kunstler: Thanks Peter.

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Cover Art: The Witch of Hebron, by James Howard Kunstler