Mike Palecek interviewed by Jason Miller
“I just look around and see people mowing their lawns on the same day we start to bomb
Iraq and it drives me wild.”
Having read and thoroughly enjoyed three of Mike Palecek’s novels, I felt particularly fortunate that he agreed to engage in a cyber-interview with me. His irreverent satirization of the myriad of ills plaguing the
United States is unparalleled amongst current authors of sociopolitical fiction. Palecek may hyperbolize, but his fertile imagination has afforded US Americans a priceless opportunity to stop and examine what we are becoming as a nation. And he has done so in a fashion that is both absorbing and entertaining.
In some ways Palecek’s offerings are analogous with Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. Though in Lewis’s case, he was prognosticating. Palecek is documenting what has already transpired.
Without further adieu, I give you the interview with Mike Palecek:
- Readers will note with interest that you went from being a seminarian to being incarcerated in federal prison. How would you explain this ostensibly glaring contradiction?Well, first off, I would say being a seminarian isn’t actually so great and being a federal prisoner isn’t actually so bad.
And going from one to the other is perhaps a natural progression, that is, if you are paying attention. If not, then, the progression is to parish priest and bishop, I suppose.
That’s all very cocky and vague, sorry.
Well, I went first on a long drive in my dad’s ’59 Chevrolet and my dog, and a cowboy hat I bought in
Fort Collins, after graduating from college, suppose it was everybody’s big journey to find themselves on a truth-seeking adventure. I ended up sitting in a monastery in
Oregon. I suppose I just drove past and went up and started asking question. They said I couldn’t keep my dog, so I went home, back to
Nebraska. I later parked the car on the curb and walked up to the rectory at our church and turned myself in, to the church, said I wanted to go to seminary. I mean, I remember being feverishly trying to find out what to do with my life, maybe it was for years, months, I don’t remember. And maybe I came to the point that this is where it all lead. I do remember the thought crossing my mind that I thought the priesthood was going “all the way”. My mother was very Catholic, going to Mass every day. I think my dad just went along. I’m sure part of it was that I knew I would be making my parents happy.
Okay, then I went to seminary up in
Saint Paul, again with dad’s car, dog stayed at home, cowboy hat, too.
And, well, Fr. Dan Berrigan came to speak at Macalaster, a college in the same neighborhood as
St. Thomas. I went over there, met him, he came over to speak at St. Thomas, and the things he said about the church, the United States, the gospel, all lit a fire inside of me. I’m sure I also fell for what I perceived as the glory of being a religious outlaw.
I went to
Washington, D.C. over Holy Week break, the Berrigans were there, lots of relatively famous people that I didn’t know were famous at the time. I saw Fr. Carl Kabat pour blood on the White House of Jimmy Carter, started reading, asking questions, finally left seminary, went to prison, went crazy, went home.
Anyway, I surely would not have had to leave the seminary to do these things. I don’t think I would have anyway, so it was not really a progression, but for me personally I see it as coming from learning, studying, maybe grace, who knows, to go from the seminary to prison.
2. Given your obvious disgust with many aspects of the fascist nation in which we live, how did you reconcile representing the Democratic Party in your bid for US Congress in 2000?
I don’t see the contradiction.
Okay, I’m trying to be clever again. I really do. Let me try to explain.
I was more of the anti-Democrat candidate.
As a child I remember asking my parents in the kitchen one day what we were. I knew we were American, Catholic, but were we Democrat or Republican? This was during Nixon, Kennedy, I think, but that would put me in kindergarten. Well, maybe kids talked about those things then. Anyway, we were Democrats, I learned.
As a protester in the 1980s in
Omaha I despised the Democratic Party. Actually, I also despised other protesters, the ones who did not “risk all”, go to jail, kept their liberal ideas and their lives intact, while I was losing mine.
Anyway, I lost my mind in prison. We left Omaha, came to
Iowa. One reason was that Ruth and I wanted to find a good, nice place to raise our two children. Well, we went to Minnesota for that first, then
Iowa. And for many years I did mostly nothing as far as protesting. I was a stay at home dad, trying to write novels, and had an early morning paper route. I would read about the local congressman and one day I thought, I can do this.
See, this is an overwhelmingly Republican district, so not many Democrats even want to run. I thought that by running, getting on the ballot, I could get the things that I thought were important on the table.
And so, I need to start cutting these answers down, that’s what I did. I got on the ballot and tried to talk about prisons, military, immigration, which I saw as the most important things. The Democratic Party did not embrace me, not at all. I think I embarrassed them. At least, I hope I did. They did and still do wish to put their ear out the window to find out what others are thinking and talking about and then make that their issues, rather than searching their hearts and making that their issue.
When I first ran, well, my mother had just died, I had some money from that, and I used part of it to buy a full-page, back cover, full-color ad on Easter Sunday in the Sioux City Journal. It said something like, Iowa’s Democrats say, shut down the 185th [Iowa’s National Guard unit in
Sioux City], kill the death penalty, welcome Mexicans, shut down prisons.
That’s what I thought Democrats should say, so I said it for them.
I was a registered Democrat, still am, and my campaign was a model for what a Democratic campaign should be, that was my belief.
Also, I felt strongly that my whole campaign was a model for American democracy. I was very much a nobody, someone who got up off the couch and tried to run for Congress.
I wrote about it in my novel, “Joe Coffee’s Revolution.”
3. What would you say to those who might assert that you hold an “anti-American” viewpoint simply because you have an axe to grind against the federal criminal justice system?
Great questions by the way. I love ‘em.
Yes, I do. I have an anti-this neighborhood out my window viewpoint.
I don’t love
America. I just don’t get that concept. I loved my dog. I love some people. I loved a 1956 Chevrolet station wagon, black and white. But I don’t understand loving a country. Maybe that would occur to me if I ever went to another country to live, maybe then I would understand. Right now I do not.
Okay. Well, they call lots of things anti-American and I just see that as stupidity, really. Lack of education, reading, perspective, whatever, too much TV.
Well, anyone who doesn’t hate the federal prison system just simply has never been to federal prison. You see it as benign because you don’t understand. Same with
America. You see it as benign because you don’t understand it.
It was the way I was as a high school senior. I would have gone to
Vietnam, would have done anything anybody told me to do. I was eager to please, to fit in, to be liked. I did not question.
And so, I see most Americans as still being tourists in
America. They run around in groups taking pictures of this and that, of the tinsel put up for photo ops, but they have not really been to
America. I have been to
I have walked down the side streets.
That’s not really true. I have not lived in real poverty. There is so much I do not know or have not experienced.
But even my tiny bit is more than those who run around with yellow ribbons from their antennas and call that being American.
4. How do you respond to critics who contend that you write fiction because reality does not support your beliefs about our “great nation”?
Actually, I wish there were critics who said this. I wish my books were discussed to this extent. In reality they are not read by anyone, not really.
This question would never come up, but it is a good one. I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer actually. It might be too deep.
I can try to answer by saying why I write fiction. There are lots of ways to answer this and none that I really feel I have command of yet, a real understanding of why I write fiction, but I’ll say whatever comes to mind as I type.
I write fiction because when I started in 1994, well, I wanted a way to tell my story, my personal story, and also to tell the truth about
America, to bring about justice and peace, and I wanted to do it in the way the great writers did.
I was never a real reader, and at that time I started to read, sat out on the back porch with Moby Dick and dug in.
That was after our small newspaper failed [same year it won newspaper of the year in MN] and just before we moved to Iowa when I got a job as an editor at a small daily.
I wanted to do great things. Be a great priest, great protester, great writer, great novelist.
I don’t think that feeling is so uncommon actually. I hope it isn’t.
And now, after much failure, I find writing fiction as being fun. After you go through all the crap about finding something to write about, and you are in the middle of something that seems to be working, it’s fun.
When I read Harry Potter for the first time my reaction was, how great it would have been to write this, what great fun to have been able to “live” in the writing of this school, this forest, this story.
And, I think a good novel is what is needed to bring down George W. Bush, or to bring down fascist or hometown National Guard hero
America. I think a good novel would be better than a non-fiction book. And by the way there are so many great non-fiction books out today. They do not need me, that’s for sure.
Do you remember Grapes of Wrath or a non-fiction article from a national magazine from that time?
Of course, writing Grapes of Wrath, that’s the trick, but that’s the goal.
I see I did not answer the question.
Well, I think my fiction represents our nation pretty close to accurately.
5. I understand that you, Andre Vltchek, and Tony Christini founded Mainstay Press as a publishing company “dedicated to social change”. Please tell us more about Mainstay, your partners, and your mission.
Well, actually I’m not with Mainstay anymore. My newest book, “The American Dream”, is with CWG Press.
But Mainstay was founded in the hope of bringing out some anti-war fiction in
America. Books by Andre, Tony and me are available on the website.
We got into a disagreement and I got kicked out of the band. But my book “Terror Nation” is available with Mainstay through June, then it will be cut loose, floating in space.
6. You are in the process of embarking upon a cross-country tour to, in your words, “read from my books, and try to fight the Bush government.” What do you hope to accomplish?
It’s a way to tell people about my books, for one thing. I’ll be quitting my job, losing my health insurance, trying to nurse a ’90 Honda around 50 states, trying to learn how to read a map. Marketing the Unknown Novelist 101.
Maybe I’m obsessive, but I just can’t give up on these books because I think they have merit, value. And it’s almost impossible for a small-time writer of anti-American fiction to make millions of dollars these days.
I’ll also be sending in a crossed-out tax form and letter to the IRS before I leave, as a protest against Bush.
And in my talks I want to talk about “The American Dream”, the idea that we don’t really know where we live. We think we live in a country that has done this and this and this, because we have been told those things are so.
But do you really want to base your life, your day, on what you were told in an American high school history class? Think about it.
And so I want to talk about, for example 9/11, landing on the moon, Waco, Gulf of Tonkin, anthrax, weapons of mass destruction, Iran, stolen elections, Pearl Harbor, Iran-Contra, Wellstone … so many times when we may have been lied to.
We don’t ask questions. Maybe we don’t want to know the answer, maybe that’s why.
It surely is easier to just change the channel, that’s for sure.
Calling someone a conspiracy theorist is how Americans send their dissidents to
7. How many books have you written and had published?
These are the novels.
Prophets Without Honor is non-fiction, written with Bill Strabala, actually Bill wrote pretty much the whole thing. I was along for the ride.
8. Having read three and reviewed two of your books, I know your work to be quite unorthodox, hyperbolic, intriguing, and critical of the status quo in the
United States. What has inspired you to write in this manner?
Anger. Hate. Growing up in
America. Looking out my window and seeing
America. Watching the news on TV while working the stair-stepper in
I guess anger really does fuel much of my writing. I just look around and see people mowing their lawns on the same day we start to bomb
Iraq and it drives me wild.
I used to – in the ‘80s – go out and hold signs, cross the line, civil disobedience – picket the Catholic Church – now I write. And writing seems to be such a vague, weak response to some of the things going on. I often think that a more honest response might be a rifle or pounding on a missile silo with a hammer. I’m not willing to kill and killing is wrong, I know that, so it’s not hard for me to dismiss that option for myself. But hammering on a missile silo … but then again, I choose to write … maybe I’m just lazy. That could be it.
I know that when Bush was “elected” the first time, I was so dejected. My thought was, of course they killed Kennedy, they can do anything they want.
I thought about tossing a concrete block through the windows of the military recruiters offices in Sioux City as some form of resistance to all this. I even drove there several times, about an hour away, to see how I might do it and try to get away. I even asked others if they wanted to join me, none did.
And so, to be overly poetic, I kind of weighed the weight of a concrete block against a piece of paper and chose the paper.
9. Which of your books is your favorite and why?
Would be hard for me to choose.
I like KGB because it tells the story of prisoners and conspiracy theorists and people slaughtered by Bush Sr. inHennepin Ave.
Panama and women and children in jail visiting rooms and other stuff. I like Joe Coffee because it tells the truth about the Democratic Party and about farmer revolutionaries and farm kitchen tables. I like Twins because it talks about a prison burning and about the Twin Cities, which I love, and about robbing Twin Cities banks to give the money to the poor on
I like Outlaw because it talks about a reporter in a small town doing what a reporter in a small town should do, pay attention to the commas and oppose the construction of the prison near town. I like The Truth because it was written in the run-up to the current war and was written in a rage against pre-war stupidity in
Iowa. I like Bigfoot because I think there is a Bigfoot and I think Bush did 9/11 and I think the CIA killed the Kennedy’s, and I like baseball, a lot. I like Terror Nation because I think it would be cool to be a small town sports reporter who was put into the local mental institution for writing anti-Bush letters to the editor. And a dream of mine would be to cover
Iowa sports or coach baseball and have that be good enough. I like The American Dream because it’s like punching
America in the nose, it’s like punching George W. Bush in the nose and Karl Rove in the nose. And I think those two pussies need to be punched in the nose.
10. Which of your books do you believe has had the greatest impact?
At this point in my “career” I don’t think I have had any impact whatsoever.
I have received some very kind reviews/responses, and I have appreciated those. They have given me the hope to keep going, but as for impact, I don’t see any.
Not enough people know about me at this point.
And, I believe in my books, so I’m going on tour.
“Sabu must tour or forever rest.” – John Prine.
11. In your most recent book, The American Dream, you write of a United States which has immersed itself almost completely in the ills of fascism, corporatism, consumerism, militarism, racism, and virtually all of the ills plaguing our country to one degree or another. Was this a cautionary tale? Your notion of the inevitable future of the
United States? Or was it something else?
It was just me crying out against what I see out my window.
It was me throwing a concrete block through my neighbor’s window, the windows of the local church, the city hall, the National Guard unit.
That’s what it was meant to be.
12. Please name some of the people whom you admire most and tell us why.
I really admire the people who have given us the truth, mostly over the Internet [capital “I”? I can never figure that out], in the Bush years. Lori Price at Citizens’ for Legitimate Government, Bartcop, Lisa Casey at All Hat No Cattle, Marc Ash at Truthout, and all those people in the 9/11 Truth Movement.
I think the big story, the big mystery, the big wonder of our time is 9/11 and the fact that our government did it.
Well, it’s not a fact, I guess. It’s a maybe, I guess. I saw Karl Rove on C-Span yesterday and I just stared at him and he is amazing.
He is so cool, so smart, so glib, so controlled — and to think that maybe-maybe, he was in on the stealing of elections, the murder of Wellstone, planning 9/11, all that.
And if that is true, what a supreme monster I am looking at, and what a wonder at the same time. To think that someone with that on his conscience could walk into a coffee shop and shake hands and smile as if he hasn’t a care in the world.
Wow. To me, that is just so interesting.
And so I watch it all unfold on my computer screen every day and sometimes I write about it in made-up stories. I’m writing one now.
And so maybe I admire Karl Rove, ha, that’s interesting to be saying that.
13. Howard Zinn praised you for your “profound social conscience”. When did you first realize you had a social conscience and begin acting upon it?
Howard Zinn has been kind to me. He has given me two nice blurbs. I think he gets bugged about blurbs by a lot of people. If he actually read The American Dream I appreciate it, but I suspect he was trying to do me a good deed.
Well, in the seminary, one day at announcements, before Mass, they asked who wants to go to
Chicago for the arms bazaar protest. And my hand just shot up. I found out that I wanted to go. I had never gone to anything like that, did not even know what a “nuke” was. But I went to Chicago, sang hippie peace songs and carried a sign, something we almost never did on Friday nights in
And then on the way home somebody said Dan Berrigan was going to be in
Minneapolis and I should meet him, and so I did.
14. Why did you serve time in a federal prison?
During the 1980s Ruth and I lived in a “resistance community” called Greenfields [Irish anti-war song Greenfields of France] – founded by an Irishman from
Wisner, Nebraska named Kevin McGuire. We “crossed the line” at Offutt Air Force Base, south of
Omaha, many many times. I served 10 days, 30 days, 50 days, six months, six months. Lancaster County Jail, Douglas County Jail, Pottawatamie County Jail, MCC [
Center – Chicago], Terre Haute, Leavenworth [overnight], El Reno, La Tuna [
All were federal misdemeanors – stepping over a white line – trespass.
15. Why did you leave the seminary?
Well, becoming radicalized about war and the poor was one reason. I pinned a manifesto on the bulletin board by the elevators when I left talking about the seminary being on a rich Catholic campus and how I needed to be with the poor, right now. I went to the New York City Catholic Worker for a short time after leaving.
Another reason was that on summer break I got my teeth cleaned back home in
Norfolk, Nebraska and I wanted to marry the dental hygienist who did such a great job. I guess I just liked clean teeth.
She’s at work now, as I sit here drinking coffee.
16. Given the fact that Bush, Cheney, et al are simply pathological symptoms of a deeply diseased socioeconomic and political system which enables their egregious crimes, what do you see as a potential “cure”?
I have no idea.
Public funding for elections? A viable third party? Ralph Nader?
That’s a good one. I really don’t know.
17. Do you believe that Israel and the United States will launch some sort of military strike against
Iran? If so, what form do you think it will take?
I suspect that we will.
Though I heard maybe yesterday that there were some talks scheduled, but this reminds me so much of the time leading up to the attack on Iraq, it was already planned, but they went through the motions.
That’s part of why I’m going on my trip. I told Ruth, they are going to attack
Iran, maybe use nuclear weapons, we have to at least do something.
18. Chalmers Johnson and numerous others have asserted that imperial overstretch and bankruptcy will cause the collapse of the American Empire. Assuming this prediction is accurate, what are some of the things you would anticipate happening as a result?
I think that is beyond me. Maybe I should think about that, but I don’t.
19. Considering that both Nixon’s and Clinton’s crimes paled in comparison to those of George Bush (and Dick Cheney for that matter) and that the Democrats now control Congress, how do you account for the stagnation of the movement to impeach Bush and Cheney?
I think the Democrats suck, that’s why.
They are frightened. Look on Bartcop.com and see the Democrats in pink tutus, that’s why. Hillary and Obama are no cure. They are the same damn thing.
That’s why when I was the Democratic candidate in 2000 I endorsed Nader over Gore. The Democrats weakened welfare, kept the sanctions against Iraq, attacked Iraq, attacked
Yugoslavia, NAFTA, all that – and you want me to endorse that?
I just think the Democratic Party, the individuals in the Democratic Party, don’t have any guts, any fire, and they want to protect their own comfortable lifestyles, and so they do just the little bit that won’t piss anybody off and gets them elected.
And that is a crime against humanity.
20. As a fellow writer (and publisher) who shares your deep desire for social justice, I often receive correspondence from frustrated readers who recognize how corrupt and badly broken our system is, but feel powerless to make a difference. So I ask you what I am often asked: What can an individual do to help spur an evolution toward peace, humanity, and respect for the Earth?
Well, maybe I don’t think about that enough, either.
And I don’t think anybody should be told what to do, should have to be told what to do. I wouldn’t give an answer to that if someone asked me. I’d say something like, I dunno, and then try to change the subject.
And if you take the time to give a measured response, that person is not going to remember a thing you said.
I probably asked Berrigan way back when, what should I do.
I don’t remember that he answered or gave an answer that I recall. I do know that he burned draft files, escaped the FBI, went to prison, and wrote.
I think you can only do what you can do. People have eyes, ears, they should be able to figure it out for themselves, what they should do.
Jesus said, come follow me. And then he healed the sick, gave money away, overturned the money tables in the temple. That’s pretty good stuff. I don’t think I can improve on that. I’ll just say — what he said.
Thank you, Mike, for ending on that powerful note. It would indeed be quite difficult to top the example set by Jesus. I wrote a piece examining the teachings of Christ and their potential applicability toward healing our very sick nation. How perverse that we have the audacity to call ourselves a “Christian nation” as we rape, pillage, and plunder the rest of the world via military and economic weapons.
It has been my privilege to further acquaint readers with a truly unique and inspiring author and activist, Mike Palecek. His efforts for peace and social justice provide a brilliant illumination in a world which is growing quite dim.
Mike Palecek is an activist for peace and social justice. He served time in federal prison for civil disobedience and has run for US Congress. He has authored a number of books on behalf of the cause.
Jason Miller is a wage slave of the American Empire who has freed himself intellectually and spiritually. He writes prolifically, his essays have appeared widely on the Internet, and he volunteers at homeless shelters. He welcomes constructive correspondence at email@example.com or via his blog, Thomas Paine’s Corner, at http://civillibertarian.blogspot.com/