Kurt Baumeister Interviewed by Matt Norman for J.M.W.W.

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.

If Pax Americana sounds like something you’d be into, get it here, and let me know what you think.

thenormannation@gmail.com

THE WORLD OF PAX AMERICANA: AN INTERVIEW WITH KURT BAUMEISTER

Pax AmericaI 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.

Kurt BKGB:  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.

 

PAX AMERICANA Selected by LitReactor as One of the Best of 2017…So Far…

Halfway There: The Best Books of 2017…So Far
By Gabino Iglesias for LitReactor June 14, 2017

At the start of every year, I take a look at what books will be published and think “Man, it’s gonna be a great year to be a reader.” Then, every single year, I’m blown away by the quality of the books I read. This year has been no different, and despite having half of 2017 to go, there has been more than enough outstanding literature to make a decent list. Keep in mind that I read crime, horror, bizarro, poetry, nonfiction, and literary fiction, so what you’re about to read brings together a plethora of genres. Let’s get started.


‘The Weight of This World’ by David Joy (March 2017)

This is a gritty, violent, nasty, sad, heartbreaking, and absolutely beautiful novel. David Joy is at the top of the heap and occupies a special table where only folks like him, Benjamin Whitmer, and Daniel Woodrell get to sit. Appalachian noir is an amazing thing, but only when treated with the respect and authenticity that Joy brings to the table.

Buy The Weight of This World from Amazon here.

‘The Ridge’ by John Rector (April 2017)

One of the things I love about Rector’s work is that you never know what to expect from him, and The Ridge is yet more proof. The best way to describe this would be a cross between classic noir, a creepy science fiction thriller, and Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. I hate to use the term “readable” because I can’t explain it in a couple of sentences, but trust me when I tell you this is one of the fastest 300 page novels you’ll read this year.

Buy The Ridge from Amazon here.

‘Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country’ by Chavisa Woods (May 2017)

This one was one of those rare books that I learn about from a PR person, request a review copy, and immediately know I’ve found a gem. The title, the cover, the stories, the atmosphere…everything here works together to deliver a superb collection. Funny, sad, gritty, human, and dark, this is one of those books that you simply have to read before the year is out.

Buy Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country from Amazon here.

‘She Rides Shotgun’ by Jordan Harper (June 2017)

You’ll hear more about this one as the year goes on. It’s an impeccable crime novel with a giant heart, massive doses of hatred, vengeance, pain, and violence, and some of the sharpest, tightest prose you’ll encounter in 2017. Jordan Harper has written the kind of novel that makes me want to walk out of the house and punch my neighbor in the face because I know I’ll never write like that.

Buy She Rides Shotgun from Amazon here.

‘Beneath’ by Kristi Demeester (April 2017)

Confession: I have a soft spot for novels that feature fellow journalists. Truth: that has nothing to do with how good this book is. Word Horde is one of my favorite indie presses because they consistently publish unique books, and this one is a superb addition to their impressive catalog. Packed with dark memories and strange happenings, this is a tense, atmospheric novel you don’t want to skip.

Buy Beneath from Amazon here.

‘Black Mad Wheel’ by Josh Malerman (May 2017)

Saying “This new author knocked it outta the park!” is something that brings me joy. However, consistency is difficult, so in this case, saying “Damn, Josh did it again!” brought much happiness. This is weird and fantastic and tight and weird and scary and, perhaps more importantly, a bizarre love letter to friendship, music, and The High Strung. Pick it up today.

Buy Black Mad Wheel from Amazon here.

‘Pax Americana’ by Kurt Baumeister (March 2017)

If this wasn’t so well crafted, which is an obvious sign of the amount of time the author spent writing it, I would have guessed this was an outstanding narrative crafter with only one goal in mind: to show us a bizarre-yet-plausible religious/political future. As a bonus, Baumeister throws in plenty of humor and crackling dialogue to go along with the kindapping/religious/scientific mayhem. Another great novel from Skyhorse Publishing, who seem to be incapable of publishing a disappointing book.

Buy Pax Americana from Amazon here.

‘Borne’ by Jeff VanderMeer (April 2017)

The Southern Reach Trilogy was amazing, right? That thing blew up. There was no way VanderMeer was going to top himself. He was already too good, too big, too strange. Well, this is his literary “hold my beer.” I won’t go on and on about it because every other venue has already done so (and I have a full review coming). In any case, get with the flying bear before it makes all the best of 2017 lists out there.

Buy Borne from Amazon here.

’13 Views of the Suicide Woods’ by Bracken MacLeod (April 2017)

I read the first story and couldn’t put the book down. MacLeod writes short fiction with the same powerful voice he uses for longer work, and the result is commanding literature that dances between genres and can go from poetic to sad to creepy to bizarre in just a couple of lines. Like other books on this list, I’m working on a full review of this collection, and finding words to describe the variety present here is proving to be a challenge.

Buy 13 Views of the Suicide Woods from Amazon here.

‘Heathenish’ by Kelby Losack (April 2017)

This is one of those books that crack your chest open and squeeze your heart. Even better, Losack does it while telling a real, depressive story full of hope, desperation, booze, rage, and drugs. The passages dealing with kids? Those will stay with you for the rest of your life.

Buy Heathenish from Amazon.com

‘The Twenty Days of Turin’ by Giorgio De Maria (February 2017)

This one is a true cult classic that’s been translated and released for a new generation of readers. Atmospheric, tense, paranoid, and extremely dark with a few touches of cosmic horror and insanity, this one stuck with me despite being one of the first books I read this year.

Buy The Twenty Days of Turin from Amazon here.

‘Exit West’ by Mohsin Hamid (March 2017)

Very few narratives offer such an honest, magical, brutal look at both the immigrant experience and the inevitable spiral into entropy that all relationships go through. Hamid is a gifted writer with a knack for crucial details and for giving readers access to his characters’ innermost thoughts and feelings.

Buy Exit West from Amazon here.

‘Entropy in Bloom’ by Jeremy Robert Johnson (April 2017)

Of all the books on this list, this is perhaps the one I most wanted to read at the beginning of 2017. Johnson is a gigantic figure in bizarro and indie lit in general because he can deliver outstanding short stories in whatever genre he wants. With this collection, he’s breaking out into larger markets and telling the world that one of the best in indie lit is also one of the best wherever he goes. I guarantee you will be seeing this on best of 2017 lists, so get on it.

Buy Entropy in Bloom from Amazon here.

‘Tell Me How It Ends’ by Valeria Luiselli (April 2017)

Luiselli produced a short book that manages to explain the immigration crisis while simultaneously giving it a face and shining a light of its most horrifying aspects. Emotionally devastating and well researched, this is a necessary book, especially given the current political panorama. Read it now.

Buy Tell Me How It Ends from Amazon here.

‘The Rebellion’s Last Traitor’ by Nik Korpon (June 2017)

If you tell me a crime author is going to switch to science fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction, I’ll probably shake my head. If you tell me that author is Nik Korpon, I’ll drop a “Hell yeah!” Why? Because he has been bringing together the best elements of whatever the hell he pleases for years with stellar results. This book is no different, and it signals the arrival of a commanding new voice in science fiction.

By The Rebellion’s Last Traitor from Amazon here.

‘There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé’ by Morgan Parker (February 2017)

Funny and touching and sarcastic and feminine and strong and wildly entertaining and unapologetic about race and messed up things and pop culture, this is one of the best poetry collections I’ve read this year, and one you should definitely check out.

Buy There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé from Amazon here.


The scariest thing about this list? Well, it’s actually two things. The first is that I am somewhat human and thus have been unable to read everything that’s been published, so I’m sure there are many books missing. The second is the novels I’ve read/am reading for review that haven’t come out yet are just as strong as these. The second half of 2017 promises to be amazing as well. What will you be reading and what have you loved so far? Let me know in the comments so I can keep adding books to my long, long wish list.

Gabino Iglesias

Column by Gabino Iglesias

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of ZERO SAINTS, HUNGRY DARKNESS, and GUTMOUTH. His reviews have appeared in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, 3AM Magazine, Marginalia, The Collagist, Heavy Feather Review, Crimespree, Out of the Gutter, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, HorrorTalk, Verbicide, and many other print and online venues.

Pax Americana Reviewed by Jennifer Spiegel for Live Oak Review

PAX AMERICANA by Kurt Baumeister

Reviewed by Jennifer Spiegel

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When I started the process of reviewing this book, my own small world was not exactly on my mind. More than anything, I eagerly opened my copy to see the workings of the indie press industry. How is Small Press America (there might be a pun buried in here) doing in 2017? There are, of course, a plethora of bookish offerings, but this particular one landed on my radar.

The funny thing is that my life inadvertently encroached. As I began reading this political satire, my husband and I finished another weirdly timed thing: a TV binge of “The West Wing” (a show that ended in 2006)—having ventured into it accidentally, without a thought about the current political climate. We just wanted to see it. Additionally, I was listening to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale on audio for a future review with Snotty Literati, another dystopian-political-kind-of-book. And, well, we can’t exactly ignore the world into which this book was born, for better or for worse: the, um, “Trump Era.” Lastly, I’m a practicing—albeit unorthodox, rakishly anti-Trump, mildly castigated by more than a few—Christian. (Poor Baumeister! Should I even touch his decidedly anti-Christian political prose?) These things worked on me as I read this novel.

I opened the book—all Jed Bartlett-infused, Trumped-out, quaking from Atwood, and Christianized at heart. And, lo and behold, I just went with it. I went with the crazy. Politics as they are, imagination shaken, faith under fire, I read this indie offering. What did I find?

It’s a rollicking good time of wild satire, enmeshed with keen observation of rightwing ideology, and full-bodied (as in full-bodied coffee) prose. Prose that is alive. Prose with bite. Prose like a smack in the face.

Baumeister envisions a 2034 post-Bush America. He didn’t even know about Trump’s presidency yet, but it’s impossible to read it apart from The Donald now. (I did wonder if the timing of publication helped or hurt the book.) Part James Bond (with one tiny nod to 007 within its pages), part Austin Powers, part Arthur C. Clarke’s “Hal” in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and part Jerry Falwell, the narrative takes a humorous tone, but it’s almost as if Baumeister has read democracy’s entrails—the lingering odor of prophesy trails after each sentence.

Just look at some of the features of this new America:

The big evangelist is married to his fourth wife, named Kelly Anne!

The dominant economic ideology is Christian Consumerism, which includes “Christian banks and Christian department stores, Christian gun manufacturers and, of course, Christian defense contractors.” Christian businesses get tax breaks. “Vanderbilt’s Pat Robertson Seminary for Christian Capitalists” is one place of study. There is a “Virtual Jerusalem.”

Comically apt name-dropping runs throughout the narrative. Some Cheney here. Some Putin there. “Slick Willie,” “his wife,” and “the Kenyan” are all referenced.

And, best of all, there is “Righteous Burger,” an echo of Chick-fil-A. Blood of the Lamb Shakes and Freedom Fries are available and a Christian consumer might sit in one of the “Never Walk Alone two-seaters” with a “life-sized hologram” that sermonizes. Its bathroom is marked “HETEROSEXUAL MEN.”

Apart from the barbs at religion, though, clever innocuous commentary abounds. Having run through the gamut of the ordinarily named hurricanes, hurricanes are now given such creative monikers as “Biffy, Poffy, Tippy, Albertine, Screwy, and Lu-Lu.”

But the crux of Pax Americana is Symmetra, which is the computer software that might be said to meet the human need for meaning. Baumeister writes, “The dream was of no more cookie cutter gods. Everyone could have their own god, and that god would be Symmetra, and if everyone had it there would never be need for war again. And that dream was enough on its own.” The problem of world peace, then, is the most critical problem (as opposed to the problem of evil or the problem of existence). Consider this long-ish passage:

“The answer lay in the middle ground of coexistence, in finding a way to get past religion. And that was where Symmetra came in. Symmetra would break the old paradigm; free the world from men whose ideas were static and ancient—stupid at best, wicked at worst. It would free humanity from consequence-based religions, from the rigid stupidity of belief in opposites, the fundamental inability to understand the flexible nature of truth. That was what could save humanity, maybe the only thing that could, because the realization that everyone was wrong also meant that everyone could be right. . . Symmetra would change the meaning of spirituality.”

Intriguing, yes? You can see what’s at stake in this book, right? So, despite a plot that takes up the screwball antics surrounding global political machinations, the White House, spies, and private islands, there’s a philosophical conundrum at its heart. Though Symmetra is presented vaguely like a Magic 8 Ball, it is also like the Ark à la Indiana Jones. Yeah, it might be construed as anti-evangelical. But let’s be honest: right now, in America, the evangelical church has rendered itself out-of-touch, a little mean-spirited, jingoistic, and in pursuit of a bottom dollar-defined line. And I say this as one associated with evangelicalism. Baumeister certainly offers up an implicit challenge.

Make no mistake about it. Baumeister writes well. There’s quite a bit of dialogue—energetic, fast-paced, and character-oriented. There are colorful characters throughout—equipped with silver spoons and secret pasts. International espionage and old flames flicker. At times, he crafts pretty sentences with vibrant imagery, planting himself firmly on literary terrain. So, while we’re satirizing a mildly familiar reality, we’re also steeped in good storytelling.

With such a promising debut showcasing a range of literary talents, my guess is that we’ll see more from this author.

Jennifer Spiegel is the author of two books, The Freak Chronicles (stories) and Love Slave (a novel). She’s also half of the book-reviewing gig, Snotty Literati. Her website is at jenniferspiegel.com.