Thursday, July 6, 2017
The World of Pax Americana: An Interview with Kurt Baumeister
Earlier this summer, I had the chance to interview novelist Kurt Baumeister about his fantastic debut novel Pax Americana. Part lit fiction, part thriller, part revisionist history, it’s one of the most unique books I’ve read in a very long time. Here’s a transcript of our chat, which appeared on JMWW.
I have a confession. Over the last few years, I’ve read fewer books than at any other time in my adulthood. Real life, with its needy children, unfinished novels in progress, and full-time job, has pretty much destroyed my reading time. And, what’s worse, when I do get time to read, I nearly always head straight for my comfort zone—lit fiction, set in the present day, often written by someone named Jonathan.
Recently, though, I broke out of my box with the novel Pax Americana by debut novelist Kurt Baumeister, and I’m glad I did. It’s set in the U.S. in 2034 after thirty years of right-wing presidencies. Part lit fiction, part thriller, part revisionist history, it’s a fun, funny, and often chilling look at a country in which diplomacy, evangelical thinking, and economic policy have all blended into one big, frightening mess.
The first book in a three-part series, Pax Americana is unlike anything I’ve read in a very long time. Below is a conversation between Kurt (KGB) and me (MN) in which we cover his inspiration for the book, some mutual Vonnegut-related gushing, how a manuscript becomes a book, and more.
Matt Norman: Whenever I read a book that I know I couldn’t write, I always find myself wanting to ask the writer a lot of questions. With Pax Americana, that’s how I felt. My brain just doesn’t work in a way that’s capable of creating something like this. The fact that you’ve essentially created an entire time period is pretty amazing. How did the book present itself to you?
Kurt G. Baumeister: Thinking back on how Pax Americanaevolved, it’s easy to get lost, easy for me at least. Best I can remember, this began as a short story idea, or maybe it was a short novel idea. At any rate…something short. This was fifteen years ago, maybe a year post 9/11.
I remember the early idea being that of a failed Armageddon, that Jerusalem had been razed in some sort of nuclear event. But, the apocalypse didn’t happen, which did a complete screw-job on religions far and wide. This is an idea that’s still very much operative in Pax Americana.
There was a young American real estate developer trying to put together funding to rebuild the Holy City. The idea of “God software” was embedded somewhere in all this. I was playing with the commercialization of the software, the rollout as a normal product and how that would all work. Though I was coming from a comic angle, as I tend to, I was still attempting to leverage my experience working in corporate strategy, which was what I was doing for money at the time. My developer wanted to create a whole “Jerusalem experience,” and this software and the rebuilt city were both part of that.
As the Bush administration wound on, and as world events went from bad to worse, I had the idea of a hyper-conservative America, one based on this crazy-ass synthesis of Christianity and capitalism. So, my thoughts moved to alternate history, to what the Iraq War might mean to America and the world. I wanted to play with the idea that even if Iraq had worked out “well,” it was still a terribly stupid idea long-term. And I think history has born that out.
MN: Well, that seems fairly ambitious.
KGB: Yes, I guess there is a lot of ambition in Pax Americana, though I feel I’ve toned things down a bit between the last draft and the one I wound up publishing.
MN: What was the publishing process like for you?
KGB: I took my first crack at getting this into print about five years ago. Instead of the beginning of a trilogy, it was a single book, about half again longer than Pax Americana in its final form.
That book had seven different narrators, all of them filtered through the main character’s (Ken Clarion’s) first-person account. There were three sections and a hundred and eleven chapters. The chapters alternated between numbers and titles. I think I was trying to say something about the nature of narrative truth. I sent it around to agents, couldn’t get any takers. I decided to try rewriting it as a more commercial book. Or, at least, what I thought was a more commercial book.
I spent a while doing that, rebuilding from the ground up. The agents were much more positive the second time. While I was doing this, my friend, James Reich, started a small publishing company, Stalking Horse Press. I had asked James to do a blurb for me, so he’d read the book. I loved the blurb he wrote, so I decided that rather than continuing to look for an agent, I’d just ask James if Stalking Horse would be interested. And they were. So, here we are.
MN: The idea of a “more commercial book.” Does that mean literary/commercial, thriller, mystery. Yada yada? Did you have it in a certain category?
KGB: All the advice I got was to try to work out a category for it, something other than “literary fiction.” Having made that effort, I’m not sure how much difference it makes to give yourself marching orders, as in, “I want to be literary or commercial, ambitious or popular.” You can try, of course, and some writers seem to be able to do both at different times, or even both at once; though I’m not sure it’s because they’re telling themselves what to do, but rather that the confluence of topic, energy level, luck, and individual talents leads to success. Ultimately, I guess we just write what we can write. Perhaps the truth about Pax Americana is that the commercial version is more literary, or ambitious or whatever, than I thought it was. I just try to come up with things I’m interested in writing about. That’s the only way it works for me.
MN: 15 years is a long time. You started during the Bush Administration. Then came Obama. Then…well, we all know where we are now. Did the “real world”—things like events and changing administrations—affect your writing at all?
KGB: You’re right. That is a long time. But, no, I don’t think reality has changed the basic story much. Perhaps I’ve mellowed out a bit in terms of religion. Even though I’m not a believer, in this last version of Pax Americana I was conscious of trying to develop some level of intellectual balance on the question of whether religion is good or evil.
One of the great ideas I come back to as a writer is Milan Kundera’s concept of the novel (and novelist) as posers of questions, not dispensers of answers. I may have my personal biases about how legitimate faith is, but I’ve tried to balance those against the possibilities for atheism and agnosticism leading to the same sort of evil extremes. And they have in history, notably with the Soviets and Communist Chinese; though those certainly haven’t been the only examples. Perhaps, in the end, Pax Americana is about the dangers of extremism, regardless of what belief structure breeds it.
MN: I thought a lot about Kurt Vonnegut when I was reading this. If I had to guess, I’d bet he’s a writer who has had an influence on you, right?
KGB: Vonnegut’s work has certainly influenced mine. And having read (and reviewed) your We’re All Damaged, I’d guess KV was a significant marker for you, but in different ways. Truth is, this is one of the reasons I was so excited to have this discussion with you. Authorial influences are fascinating to me, and to think that we can leverage Vonnegut’s influence to very different ends is intriguing.
We’re All Damaged is a *very* funny book and it definitely has a political angle, but it’s much subtler than Pax Americana, not an over-the-top satire, more a realistic comedy. Much more accessible, too. All of which may explain why so many people have read it! I’ll answer the question, I promise… But, what about you? Has KV been a significant influence for you? How? And who else? I’d guess maybe Fitzgerald, but beyond that, I’m not so sure.
MN: Yeah, I love Vonnegut. But, if I’m being totally honest, I was never terribly moved by his novel plots. In fact, I doubt I could even give a terribly good synopsis of any of his books. For me, his brilliance was in his sentence-to-sentence writing. He had this amazing ability to pull you along with a series of simple, well-crafted, workman-like sentences. Nothing particularly special. Then, BOOM, he’d drop the hammer on you with a line so gorgeous and insightful and perfect that it’d take your breath away. He knew when to turn it on, you know. Simple. Simple. Readable. Then devastating.
I love The Great Gatsby, and I namechecked the hell out of it in We’re All Damaged, but I don’t think Fitzgerald has been a big influence on me. I always talk about Richard Russo being my greatest influence—mainly because he writes “serious fiction” that’s also funny, which is my goal.
KGB: I do see some similarities between Vonnegut’s work and mine, particularly in the ways Pax Americana echoes his apocalyptic book, Cat’s Cradle. Both books have broad casts of characters, technology that’s the ultimate catalyst for a sort of man-made apocalypse, geopolitical mayhem, heavy misinformation, and islands that figure significantly in their storylines. Not that those similarities are necessarily born of consciously “emulating” Vonnegut or anything like that. In addition to reading Vonnegut myself, I know his work was a significant influence for Martin Amis, particularly early in his career. And I’d say without a doubt that Amis is my top literary influence. Meaning there’s a bit of literary refraction going on here as well, that at least to a certain extent KV influences me via his influence on Amis. That’s sort of cool, right?
MN: Yeah, one of my grad school professors talked about that. He said Hemingway influenced EVERY writer after him. Even if you never read him, someone who influenced you had been influenced by him…and on and on. The Circle of Hemingway. But, enough about him. Let’s complain about politics. We’re living in a very divided time, obviously. For writers, it’s a Catch 22. If you avoid politics, you risk coming off as toothless and vanilla. But, if your book has a particular POV, you risk alienating tons of people. What are your thoughts on that?
KGB: Ha, well, I guess my first thought would be that I’m probably guilty as charged. I’m sure my book’s politics will alienate a lot of people. Which, as you say, is the cost of doing something like writing a satire about religion.
If you choose to do something like that, you must realize you’re going to make a lot of people unhappy. Probably, my touchpoint for that is Rushdie and what he went through with The Satanic Verses. That was going on when I first began writing fiction, and it’s certainly a memory that’s stuck with me. Maybe more than anything, that crystallized my belief we must stand up against religious radicals, people who would have their unseen, believed-in worlds become paramount to the reality we can all see and share. In fact, I’d have to say that even allowing believed-in worlds equal weight to what we can see is a big problem. These are the issues that make the reconciliation of Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Speech so challenging and important.
MN: How are Books 2 and 3 coming? Do you have them sketched out in your head? Are you organized like that, or do you just sit down and figure it out as you go?
KGB: I have lots of pages written, perhaps thousands. And I do have the overall arc of the story sketched. But there will be a lot of work in putting it all together. Honestly, I’m not a terribly confident person and that’s probably why it took me so long to publish Pax Americana. Maybe I should have just gone ahead five or even ten years ago and published something along the lines of Pax Americana. Instead, I tried to get an agent, then did the rewrites I spoke of above and tried to get an agent again. I mean, I learned a lot from the process, but I think I should have trusted myself more than I did.
I’ve got a lot of backlogged material already written—other novels, stories, poems—and I’m trying to trust myself a little more about just sending it out into the world. I’m not getting any younger, you know? Before I get back to Tuck Squires and Pax Americana, I have this other project (a novel) I’m working on. It’s a sort of comic crime fantasy narrated by the Norse god, Loki. I’m working to keep that streamlined, down to perhaps sixty thousand words. It’s mostly contemporary, told in first person, which is honestly my most comfortable writing voice.
Matthew Norman is an advertising copywriter. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Baltimore. His first novel, Domestic Violets, was nominated in the Best Humor Category at the 2011 Goodreads Choice Awards. His second novel, We’re All Damaged, was published in 2016. Visit his blog at thenormannation.com, or follow him on Twitter @TheNormanNation.