Plant This Book: A Conversation with James Kaelan


James Kaelan’s first novel, We’re Getting On, has a cover made of birch seed paper — so when you’ve finished reading it, you can plant it to make a tree. Not only is his book (at least partially) reincarnatable as forest, but Kaelan is embarking on a Zero Emissions Book Tour to support it. He plans to bicycle from city to city, sleeping outdoors and eschewing all technology for the duration of the tour. Part of his mission is to prove that publishing — with all its paper (and whiskey) usage — can be a sustainable industry.

Published by the independent house Flatmancrooked (which Kaelan co-founded), the book is a deliciously uncomfortable first effort with a distinctive and timely point of view that has landed Kaelan on the cover of this year’s Poets & Writers “First Fiction” issue. Not bad, we say. And he’s a pretty cool dude to boot. Click through for a video trailer for the tour and our interview with Kaelan.

So, what inspired this project?

Do you know Opium magazine? Opium is this [literary journal] run by Todd Zuniga [also of Literary Death Match fame]. Last year they released their eighth issue, which they called their “Infinity Issue.” On their website they have the estimated reading time of all the stories they publish. You know, “this one’s going to take you 3 minutes, this one takes only 30 seconds.” And [in this issue], there was a story on the cover with an estimated reading time of a thousand years. What they’d done was — it was this great low-tech idea — they had printed graduated layers of blank ink over these words on the cover, and when exposed to UV radiation the ink would degrade. So over the first word there was one layer of ink, and over the second word there was two, and so on. And each layer would degrade over a century. So, hypothetically, if you keep the book for long enough and it’s exposed to sunlight, it will reveal a new word each century. Whether or not that actually works, the concept will probably outlive the actual material that it’s made of.

Deena [Drewis] and I were having dinner and we were like, how can we learn from this? She was telling me that she’d been at SXSW earlier that year, and some girl had given her a song download card for her band, and it was printed on this paper that when you planted it in the ground it turned into wildflowers. So I [found a company] who said that they could put birch seeds in the cover, and that was sort of the foundation of it.

Is the physical concept related to the content for you?

I knew that the book was about this sort of retreat from technology and sort of, I don’t know if ludditic is an adjective actually, but… So it seemed thematically in keeping. Not to give away the end of the title novella, but it’s sort of approaching rejuvenation or at least enlightenment through extreme deprivation. Maybe? So the idea of renewal, the idea that at the end of this book, which is sort of caustic and dystopian, you could recover from it by turning the book into a tree, seemed like a really cool idea. And then it was just a logistical nightmare to make this thing happen. Then of course the other part was to tour the book and stay in keeping with the themes. So during the tour, obviously I’m doing it by bike, but I can’t sleep inside, I’m in a tent like the characters in the title novella, and they can’t use a phone or watch TV or anything like that.

Do you expect to be as miserable as they are?

No, I expect to be much less miserable, because I’m not trying to atone for any crimes. I think it’s going to be a struggle, obviously. It’s going to be long, I’m going to be tired, I’m going to want to sleep inside and not get on my bike the next day. All that stuff. The filmmaker [Miles Kittredge] and I are staying at friends’ houses up the coast but we’re also staying at all these organic farms. When I started contacting farms about us sleeping on their facilities and having them give us a little bit of food, they were so cool. Everybody I asked said yes. We’re getting support from them all the way up the coast and we’re going to be meeting with all these local growers and eating their food, and I expect it’s going to be sort of a purifying experience. My hope is that when I’m done I’m kind of sad that the tour’s over, rather than wanting to get back on Facebook or something.

I’m sure that won’t be your first move.

Yeah it might be to take a shower or something.

Oh yeah, how are you going to take showers?

Hopefully at some farms, or maybe in a stream or something.

You’re going to know who your real fans are.

Yeah, exactly. They’ll be inside and I’ll read outside, so they don’t have to be in an enclosed space with me.

Okay, on to the book. It’s billed as a novel, but it’s not exactly a novel. It’s more like inter-connected stories/novellas.

We’re calling it a composite novel. You’ll see that there is a direct connection between say “The Surrogate” and “We’re Getting On,” and there’s also a direct connection between “A Deliberate Life” and “We’re Getting On,” in fact arguably they’re sharing some of the same characters. And it’s definitely loose; I’ll accept that criticism.

Well, I’m not saying I don’t like the idea. Daniel Handler did something similar in Adverbs, and I quite liked that. I think it’s a very modern way to approach the novel.

It’s funny, because this book is sort of thematically and structurally much more experimental than what I’m working on now. I’ve always been the kind of guy who, in grad school or when I was working in publishing or editing and looking to publish other people’s work, I’m always looking for a much more traditional style of fiction. You know, Cheever’s probably my ideal. I’m looking for a short story from the next John Cheever, and now I’m putting out this book and it has nothing to do with Cheever. It has something to do with Beckett, maybe. This is by no means a book that is going to appeal to everyone, but that’s totally cool. The only thing I don’t want from from the book is for people to be ambivalent about it. Ambivalence is, as you know, the death of art.

We’re Getting On hits shelves today, and Kaelan kicks off his tour tomorrow. Check out the trailer below.

Zero Emissions Project from Miles Kittredge on Vimeo.