Interview: Ken Layne, Author and Blogger
Ken Layne is an accomplished political blogger, journalist, and author. He is a former editor and occasional commentator for the progressive political gossip site Wonkette, and is well-known in the liberal blogosphere for his acerbic wit and devastating missives on the state of contemporary America.
In 2011, Layne released Dignity, an epistolary novel set in a southwest United States of the near future; a region still reeling from the housing bubble collapse and decades of environmental degradation. It is a time of paranoia and persecution, where a deteriorating Federal government clamps down on civil liberties while neglecting social services. (Which, at the time of this writing, seems depressingly contemporary) At the center of the story is a group of community organizers led by an aesthetic known only as “B”, who encourages a host of small desert enclaves to rediscover self-sufficiency and community while breaking free from the spiritual alienation of the modern world.
And yet, far from being a belligerent tract condemning the modern age to ruin, Dignity is instead a quiet, contemplative novel that encourages its readers to question what is truly of value in the social contract. For all of Layne’s storied gloom-and-doom cynicism, the book displays a striking faith in mankind and community. It holds an optimism that our best hope of salvation lay not in large government, or big business, or high technology, but in that most fundamental of things: human connection.
In early 2012, Layne agreed to speak with me regarding Dignity, modern politics, and why living in a period of societal upheaval might actually be kind of fun.
Can you briefly detail your background in writing and journalism? When did you get started, and how far back in your life does your interest in political/social issues go?
I’ve wandered the media landscape for a long time, usually at the edges and rarely staying in one place for more than a year or two. Local newspapers, domestic and foreign radio stations, consumer computer guides, television newsrooms, glossy progressive magazines, the cartoon page of college newspapers, Washington wire service desks, expatriate post-Iron Curtain tabloids, sporadic appearances in respectable media, occasional musical endeavors, a few forays into traditional book publishing and a long chain of oddball news and satire websites — that’s how I’ve barely earned a living over the decades.
Everything I’ve done is about politics, and art, and the hole in our lives. And almost everything I’ve done so far has been Fun, so it’s not as awful as it sounds.
How long has your new novel Dignity been in the works? How long did it take to find a publisher?
Dignity began as a non-fiction book about the collapse of the Western U.S. housing market and the death of southwestern sprawl, back in 2007. It sputtered through a lot of different versions and went to war with a lot of other bigger concerns and interests, until I threw it all out last year and wrote the New Testament-inspired book of letters that eventually appeared. My experiences with Commercial Publishers have been pretty dismal so far, so Dignity was published outside the system. It was crucially important that Dignity reach the world exactly as written, presented as simply and quietly as possible, and that it find its audience at its own pace. It has been a very satisfying project.
The Utopian ideals espoused by the book’s main characters focus on a form of luddite hyperlocalism, a view that you have stated mirrors your own. This seems striking coming from a professional blogger. Having spent much of your writing career communicating on the internet, do you now feel that its ability to positively affect people’s lives is overstated? Has it become just another source of social and spiritual alienation?
The Internet served me the same way it ‘zines and mimeographs served writers outside commercial media in the past. I don’t expect it will survive this decade in any recognizable form comparable to the “publish whatever you like” cacophony of a dozen years ago. There’s a lot of foreshadowing in the U.K. government turning off mobile messaging during last summer’s insurrection, and the San Francisco BART system shutting down the cell signals when protests were planned against the transit police murdering people, and especially in the ominous “Protect IP” and “SOPA” legislation with the ever-rare bipartisan support in Congress. But if you like shopping and sports gossip and the “two sides” of politics, I expect the Internet will continue to serve those consumer needs.
As long as whatever’s on the Internet was clearly “just talk,” it was left alone. But as we’re seeing in cities around the country and world today, it’s no longer just talk. It’s no longer a harmless diversion, and enough people are frustrated and enraged right now that the Internet’s organizational power is going to be increasingly targeted by those in power.
The pervasive influence of American agribusiness is one of the main issues dealt with in the book. Can you talk a little bit about your interest in this topic, and do you think that the rise of the organic food movement offers any hope of an alternative? Or, will this simply be co-opted by big business?
Food is politics, food is commerce, food is health and well-being, food is community or the complete lack of community. Being aware of the food you eat is a very easy way to see how the modern welfare-capitalist state functions. I don’t have a tremendous interest in the specifics — I’m not part of the raw milk debate or whatever — but I think about what I feed my family and the conditions of the farm workers and the farm animals and the impact of these operations on the wider environment. Once you approach food this way, it’s impossible not to see the parts as a whole.
A number of prominent political bloggers have spun their online work into TV appearances and media consultation. Has this ever been something that has appealed to you?
You have been very vocal about your disenchantment with President Obama, from his stance on immigration, to civil rights, to the drug war, to foreign military intervention. Do you feel that his inability to further a more progressive agenda comes from his own failings and/or disinterest, or simply from the way Washington works?
I don’t care about Barack Obama, honestly. But the Wonkette readership is liberal, they vote Democratic, and there is a lot of residual affection for this guy just because he was an empty vessel to hold so many liberal dreams. So we crash up against that leftover good feeling from 2008.
As for the president and congress and all that, I have no hope for the whole system, other than hoping it falls apart, hoping it collapses and something better crawls from the rubble.
What is your take on the Occupy Wall Street movement? What were your impressions when you visited Zuccotti Park recently?
#OWS is encouraging, it’s wonderful, and I would be a fool to guess what it means or what happens next. I’ve been covering all kinds of protests since the 1980s, and there’s a sameness to them, the slogans and certain stereotypical elements. What’s interesting about #OWS is not the particular theater of the protest, which lacks imagination and is visibly hungry for new models. It’s interesting because so many people are suddenly drawn to these things despite the inadequacies of the form. This suggests something novel is going to burst out of the corpse, and that will be exhilarating at the least.
We are now a month or so from the crest of the first Occupy wave, and my guess is that something quite different from encampments in city parks will need to happen if the ultimate goal is to be reached. And the ultimate goal is readily apparent to everyone outside the media-industrial complex.
What else are you working on these days? Can you talk a little bit about your forthcoming book, “The Left Coast”?
The mechanics of the publishing interest are apparently fascinating to writers and editors, but I would guess most people – including book readers – don’t care much about all that. But a book of mine got caught up in some publishing business turmoil, the usual story of imprints closed and editors moving on, and now I’m working on the book again with a new editor.
It has now been a couple of years since I walked up the California coast from the Mexican border to San Francisco. And just last month, I went up to a cabin on a cliff over Muir Beach and started writing the entire book again. It’s about half done, now, and if the new editor likes it, she will hopefully get it through the sausage factory and into print.
Otherwise, I’m working on some stuff that is hard to describe, and I also don’t want my name to be associated with it. We put our names on everything these days, everything is branded to death.
Is there anything that you’d like to add?
At the beginning of 2011, I kept saying to my wife, “This goddamned year is going to radicalize me,” and it has proven to be true. It has radicalized a lot of people, this whole chain of crime and thuggery from the Koch Brothers’ tricks in Wisconsin to the American cops bashing peaceful protesters to Obama’s new year’s eve signing of the law to put Americans in military prisons forever without trial. The financial system is actually crumbling, and it went south for the overwhelming majority of Americans a long time ago. The weather has gone insane, we’ve got nuclear plants melting down all over the world, people are taking the streets, the wars are all lost, the money’s all being hoarded by a handful of people quaking in fear, and ultimately it’s just a wonderfully exciting time to be alive and be taking part in things, writing broadsides, hanging out at protests, closing down your consumer bank accounts, etc.
Everybody should be having more fun, and this is a good time to start. But first you need to cancel your cable teevee and figure out who your neighbors are and which of your neighbors will be your friends, because whether it’s mass insurrection or some extreme weather superstorm or the complete collapse of capitalism, few would argue that something very big and weird is happening right now. We are going to need to be serious, too, and we’re going to need to build some new structures to replace the empty horrors of real estate bingo and consumerism and the constant boom and bust of capitalism and the totalitarian nature of all state power.
Ken Layne’s website is: http://kenlayne.com/
He can be followed on twitter at @KenLayne.
Wonkette can be found at www.wonkette.com