A Darker, Less Comical Dystopia: A Conversation With Miles Klee

I know that I went into 2012 thinking that the year the Mayan calendar ran out was going to be a landmark year for dystopian novels.  With that said, I think we should give Miles Klee’s Ivyland (OR Books) the award for “Best Book Where Everything Is Going/Has Gone To Total Shit,” and call it a day.

Klee’s debut is a darkly comical (more dark, less comical) book that takes place in a New Jersey where humanity has decayed into nothing.  This isn’t an Orwell’s Oceania; instead, it’s a world that looks like it could be our own, and as Klee tells me, maybe it is…

You were born in Brooklyn and currently live in New York.  Why did you decide to set Ivyland in New Jersey?

Actually, between those endpoints, I grew up in South Orange, NJ—about ten minutes’ drive from Newark—so it felt like the only place I was even half-qualified to write about. And unlike New York, Jersey’s not exactly a known quantity; it’s just nebulously weird and sleazy to most. That gave me the freedom to deform the landscape according to other needs. The geography of the novel is absolutely false, a funhouse. There’s an American town called Ivyland, but it’s in Pennsylvania.


Do you have any thoughts as to why dystopian fiction has become so popular on bookshelves again? 

Assuming it ever left? It seems obtuse to claim that we’re living in days of especially great upheaval, so instead I’ll suggest that, for my own part, when I see upheaval in the world, I’m most interested in what kind of “order” will eventually emerge—which powers are ascendant, or thriving on geopolitical turmoil itself. It’s not so much that I think secret cabals dictate the course of nations, though of course they try … It’s more that these entities, these corporations and intelligence agencies and sovereign wealth funds, are merging in virtual spaces, are beholden to no authority but their own cultish sort, and becoming the key agents of globalization as it occurs on the micro level. What I think about the years to come is in some sense irrelevant. What kind of future do theyimagine, that’s the question that keeps me awake.


With a book like Ivyland, I’m always curious as to how the writer pieces together such a story. How did you map out how this book would work, and what inspired you as you were writing it?

Aidan, Henri and Cal—three of the main players—had their arcs mapped out, scene by scene, as a standalone novel. But somehow I wasn’t satisfied and let the idea stew a while. Soon after, I was writing short stories at a feverish pace and found they were all mired in the same appalling world. Associations and affinities were emerging everywhere, thanks to my painfully limited subconscious. Finally I just supercollided pretty much all the fiction I’d produced over two years into an unreadable 700-page atrocity. Then I started cutting, savagely. I would say this was the most inspiring part, hacking through my own horseshit till I began to approach a more tightly sculpted work.

Something I really liked about the book was that it could be the future, but if you distorted things a bit, it could also maybe be the time we’re living in.  Was that a conscious thing?

I didn’t bother about time except in a relative, internally useful way—and in losing any historical markers that would date the story. For me it was an ‘alternative present,’ though naturally it’s more fun to wonder when we are. That’s a problem with the future, that it never gets here. Ten years from now you aren’t going to walk around thinking about how different life is, here in the future, so neither should fictional people.


How would you describe your outlook on life?  The reason I asked was because the book has been described as “apocalyptic,” so obviously you’re dealing with world going to shit scenarios.  Was it hard to detach yourself from that train of thought when you would finish working on the book?

I’m a benevolent nihilist. Ultimately none of this is important, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a jackass about it. You shouldn’t need a god to prevent violence, and you shouldn’t need wisdom to abhor ignorance. Even if peace and empirical progress are as bad as some so-called leaders insist, they’re better than the alternatives. If the book has any shred of morality—and I think it does, despite my best efforts—it’s that. I don’t have to detach myself after writing these sorts of things; the same train of thought endures, it just rarely applies in the comfortable niche I’ve whittled for myself. My wife says the book makes her too sad, maybe because there’s things in there that seem like my secrets, things I’d never say out loud. But I don’t have to. The book says itself.


What are you planning on working on next? 

Between the short fiction I’ve got cooking now, including a novella, plus a good deal of published material, I’d like to do a collection of stories. Ideally the connections between them will be purely academic.

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