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Bro Crush: James Nulick in Conversation with Mike Kleine

By James Nulick.

Mike Kleine is a writer based somewhere in the American Midwest. His most recent publication, the computer generated Lonely Men Club was excerpted at 3:AM in May 2018. Here his admirer, Seattle-based author James Nulick, lives out a personal dream to sit down and chat with Mike. Their generously hyperlinked conversation follows:

Intro: Hey Mike, thank you for doing this, brother. I didn’t read a single thing about you online, other than your brief bio on Goodreads, so I’m coming at you with fresh eyes, a writer approaching another writer with his own unfiltered questions, so please forgive me if you’ve answered a slightly different version of these questions before. And maybe I have a slight bro crush on you. Just so we’re 100%.


James Nulick: We both have these weird, dissociative, nebulous backgrounds. I grew up in Phoenix, but I’ve bounced all over the United States, and now I live in Seattle. I’ve been in Seattle five years, but I don’t like it. It’s too white. I’m a Mexican adopted by white Southerners, the people who gave me my surname, and you grew up in West Africa. Were you there for most of your childhood? In which part of West Africa did you live, if you don’t mind? How old were you when you left?

Mike Kleine: I was born and raised in Dakar, Senegal. I grew up in West Africa for most of my childhood (with a very brief stint in England). I had a dog, and his name was Bingo. (Not a joke). And then I when was either twelve or thirteen, I left, to come live here in the United States, full-time. We’d come back to the United States every other summer though, while I was growing up, so there was absolutely no culture shock for me, so-to-speak. More, I think I brought the culture shock to those around me.

JN: Alright brother, as you know, I lived in Iowa from 1988 to 1992, while attending Coe College in Cedar Rapids. I graduated with a B.A. in English. I then lived in Iowa again from 2002 – 2003, when I wanted to disappear while working on my first novel, Distemper. How did you end up in Iowa, Mike? And you attended Grinnell? That’s posh. Us losers at Coe College, which we nicknamed Joe College, because any dumb Joe could get in, always thought of Grinnell as high class, the college rich kids attended who couldn’t get into Harvard.

MK: Haha. Harvard. Oh, man. I only ended up in Iowa because I was accepted into Grinnell. My father went there. My parents, from a very young age said to me, “You’re going to Grinnell when you get older.” I mean, I applied to, I think, six other schools (which I will not list here) and got into most of them. But my parents laid out an entire schema for why it was more reasonable to attend Grinnell, so I did. If it weren’t for Grinnell, I truly do not believe I would be in Iowa. I think my father had this grand idea, for what I would be doing, once I finished undergrad. He passed away the very first semester of my senior year so I will never know what that was. I only took one week off school, to take care of what he’d left behind. It happened immediately after Fall break. Literally, I was in New York City at the time, visiting some friends, and on the flight back to the Midwest, on a Sunday, my mother showed up late to the airport (which she never does) and there was a patrol car out front. Both of my parents have always been very methodical in how they approached my upbringing and education. The fault in this is that my father took care of one very specific aspect and then, the same with my mother. After he passed, it was very hard for us to try and pickup from where he had left off—try and continue with the plan so-to-speak. We had to handle things neither of us had ever handled. We’re still discovering hidden somethings, all the time.

JN: One of the reasons I went to Iowa was to be close to the Iowa Writers workshop, without actually attending.  Kind of a contact high (or low, depending on your point of view). Iowa City is only forty minutes from Cedar Rapids, so close enough. One of my writing professors knew everyone in town so I met writers like Gwendolyn Brooks, Frank Conroy, and Chris Offutt. They’d come to Coe, out of respect, I think, for Paul Engel, who founded the IWW and also happened to attend Coe College. I applied to the workshop after I graduated from Coe but they politely said ‘thanks but no thanks.’ I honed the anger of rejection into the Satanic fiction known as Distemper. Did you ever entertain the idea of attending the workshop? Did you apply? Were you rejected? Or did you not bother?

MK: I don’t ever think about the Iowa Writers workshop. I couldn’t even tell you where it is (on the campus). My mother, I think, had a brief sit-down with me about it, sometime in 2012 or 2013 (upon my returning from France), but then that was it. I never applied. I don’t think I ever will. I honestly do not see what it could do for me right now. Like I said before, I really had no idea I would end up living in Iowa. It just sort of happened like that.

JN: I’m trying not to be too intrusive, but oh well, what year did you graduate from Grinnell? (James places RPG crosshairs on Mike’s age). When I graduated from Coe, at twenty-two, I went back home to my mother’s house in the dusty nothingness known as Casa Grande, Arizona, because I had zero prospects with my newly-minted English degree. I lived with her and her boyfriend in a very tiny house, got a shit job at Circle K, where I permanently destroyed my fingers because I worked in the walk-in freezer, stocking alcohol, without wearing gloves. After I swept, mopped, and polished the floors, I’d read magazines. Time, Newsweek, People, all the physical media that’s more or less dead now. Were you totally lost after you graduated from Grinnell? What did you do? Did you immediately get a shitty job? Or did you take time off? Did you do any traveling? What was life like for you after Grinnell?

MK: I graduated in 2011. I wouldn’t say I was lost. I opted out of studying abroad while attending Grinnell (I didn’t see the use of leaving the United States—I’d just come to it after having lived overseas, practically all my life). But I thought it might be nice to satisfy my advisor so I told her I would spend one year in France and teach English. So the school hooked me up and I lived in the south of France for one year and taught English. I did not do any traveling. I didn’t even go to Paris. Literally, I told myself, “I’ll do that some other time.” I really don’t enjoy traveling unless it is with at least one other person or persons. I realize I like to comment a lot on what is happening around me, at all times (something the partner of John Trefry, who runs the indie press Inside the Castle, noticed one day), and to do this purposefully, I need someone else to talk to. So I’d rather not travel at all, if it means I have to internalize all this.

JN: Did you have any plans to further your education after you graduated from Grinnell? I had this grand idea of getting my PhD in English, then teaching writing at the college level, but when I found out I needed to learn a second language— which is ridiculous if one’s plan is to teach English —so I said forget it. There would be no Volvo in the faculty parking lot, no blazer with elbow patches, no seducing sophomores for me. How about you, Mike?

MK: I did. Or, rather, my mother did. She kept asking me, “When are you going to grad school?” I think about money a lot. Perhaps, too much. I didn’t want to be in debt anymore. I had my student loans, a car loan and that was it (which to many, isn’t much) but I don’t need to be that person who continues to live with debt, in perpetuity. I mean, I could have toughed it out and could right now be complaining about looking for the right position somewhere with this PhD in English that I have, but I didn’t do it. And I am not going to beat myself up over it. I doubt I could have written Mastodon Farm, Arafat Mountain, Kanley Stubrick, The Mystery of the Seventeen Pilot Fish or Lonely Men Club in the last seven years, if I had been focusing on just my education. I am glad I wrote those books. I regret nothing.

JN: Legally I have a surname that is mine, but then it isn’t mine. I was adopted. And my last name is kind of this goofy, Germanic last name. An aunt in New Jersey once confided that ‘our last name might have Jewish roots.’ Subsequently, maybe because of the whole adoption thing, or maybe because of the Jewish thing, attachment to surnames seems silly. Kleine sounds German. Is it German? How does a young man from West Africa procure a German name? If you want to go halfers with me, I’d gladly pay to change both our last names to Smith, then we could be brothers. But seriously Mike, why Kleine?

MK: Kleine is 100% German. My father is German-Irish. That’s how Kleine happened. They arrived to America on the boat (my great grandparents) and the person at the port who wrote down everyone’s names didn’t fudge up their spelling and they didn’t try and hide the spelling of their name once they made it out to whatever neighborhood they decided to live in. My father was BIG into the Ancestry.com stuff. I don’t care too much about that stuff right now. I also, to my knowledge, am the last Kleine in my lineage to carry the name. Also, I don’t want Smith. Smith is boring. I don’t need boring, right now.

JN: I’m genuinely curious—what book or books had a big influence on you? For myself I can answer this pretty quickly. When I was nineteen, I read The Rainbow Stories by William T. Vollmann, and it blew me away. I’d never read such a document before, it was like the book was speaking directly to me, and to me only. It was powerful, monolithic. Was there a book that did that for you, when you were younger and just starting out?

MK: Unfortunately, I have yet to find a book that’s spoken to me yet—in the way you describe. The closest I have come to that is films and comic books and photography books (but none of that Golden Ages/superhero stuff people usually associate with the term, “comic books”). More, works like: Parallel Lives by Olivier Schrauwen and Everywhere Disappeared by Patrick Kyle and Reteat by Jaakko Pallasvuo and Illuminance by Rinko Kawauchi and Patience by Daniel Clowes and Black Rat by Cole Closser. Maybe, the closest I have come to this in literature is Satin Island by Tom McCarthy. And I think the memory of reading it and what I had going on in my mind as a result of having read the text (more than what the text was really about) is what was magical to me. Of that same token, Antwerp by Roberto Bolaño, why not? That REALLY had a strong influence on how I was writing Arafat Mountain. And films? I could go on and on about that… So yes, I am still searching for that ONE book.

JN: I’ve never admitted this before, but numerology and other esoteric influences inform all my published works, with numerology probably being the most obvious. If a reader reads my work carefully, they will see it. I like to think it’s hidden, but readers are smarter than that. Is there an esotericism to your work? Is there scaffolding or latticework behind your writing that a toe-dipper wouldn’t be able to see right away?

MK: All of my books are set in the same universe. I simply cannot leave the world (or worlds) I have created and start all over again, fresh—whether my next project is a book, or play or visual poem. Every single instance that takes place in my books is of the same world that originated in Mastodon Farm. There are ramifications and consequences to everything and a close reader will be able to pick up on these changes. But this is not something I consciously set out to do—not at first. And I don’t challenge people to try and keep track of all these things. It’s simply a neat little extra something for those who really want to delve into the lore of my books. The characters in my books are not wholly aware that their world is slightly different from ours either. But it is still very similar to the world we live in. What I mean by this is, take for instance, my first book, Mastodon Farm, the main character (an unnamed protagonist) travels from California to Seattle and it only takes a few hours. This would not be possible in our current world. Another example, in Arafat Mountain, it is said that Cormac McCarthy releases Blood Meridian 2, things like that. So this world my characters inhabit, is, for all intents and purposes, the same world we are living in, right now, just, they are living in it at the same time, in parallel universes, where different events have (and have not already) taken place. It is very unlikely that I will ever write something that takes place in our own timeline, but who knows? For now, I prefer to explore these other timelines, where things, I feel, are genuinely a bit more interesting. Am I crazy? Does this make me crazy?

JN: I know we’re not supposed to get too personal with these things, but how is your love life? Do you have a girlfriend or a boyfriend? I’m a crossing a line? Do you have anyone you come home to at night?

MK: I don’t have anyone right now. And it’s funny how we say that: have. I was in a relationship a while back that lasted a little while (multiple years) and then it made me realize how great it can be but also how not great it can be (Kanley Stubrick, in a way, was written as a sort of response to this). I’m not a player either. I don’t play dress-up every Friday and Saturday and go out to the bars to try and pick people up. On some weekends, I will leave the house (just to leave the house) and I’ll go sing karaoke, by myself, and then come home after closing. And then that’s it. I have this fear of sexually transmitted diseases. I really do. People say you need to release every now and then. Sure. I release, man.

JN: Your work has a musicality to it that almost reads like mathematics. Or, to be more precise, your work reads like twelve tone serialism to me. Are you a musician? I picked up on it because my character Jace is also a musician, so I’m thinking like him these days, except not. I have no musical talent whatsoever, my musicality is all fakery. How about you? Do you play an instrument? You seem like a keyboards man, which is what Jace is! He considers himself to be a technician. Are you a keyboards person? Please tell me I’ve guessed this correctly.


MK: I don’t call myself a musician but I have released some music, yes. I was a guitarist first and then realized I didn’t have much patience for other people’s particularities (in a band setting) so I had my dad buy me a keyboard the summer before college and that was that! My father, for a moment, was a math teacher, so it is funny you mention mathematics. I am not interested in numbers or mathematics, to be clear. I never was. I took piano lessons with my childhood best friend so many years ago and then did independent music theory in high school. I was going to take some advanced music classes at Grinnell, without taking any of the intro classes. I emailed the professor and showed him my work and he basically said I was in, but that he would not hold my hand in case I ran into any snags. I got scared and didn’t do it. Instead, I signed up for classical guitar for two semesters and enjoyed that (I also focused on English fiction courses during this time).

I did end up touring for a bit, in Europe. I got anxious about it all. One of my first shows was supposed to be with Das Racist but then the week of the show, they broke up and announced they were done. At these shows, you show up for soundcheck in the AM and then fuck about in the green room until midnight or after midnight. And then you go on stage. When it’s just you, this gets to be really bothersome. I couldn’t see myself doing this forever, so I left the concert/live performance circuit shortly after. To date, my music has appeared in a few car commercials, extreme sports stuff and just recently a Vimeo video made by Vimeo (or something). There’s been talk of film stuff and Netflix documentaries, but this is all very slow-moving. I don’t hold my breath. I guess a few of my tracks became very popular over the years so people are still actively listening to music I made so long ago. I get emails and Facebook messages every now and then. I always wonder if I shouldn’t maybe release one more thing before turning in the Fancy Mike name for good. But then offers keep happening so I’m just like arrgggghh and keep keeping the project alive. I also make music under a few other aliases. Big picture: I play music, mostly, these days, just to pass the time and entertain myself. I have no grand ideas and don’t plan to become the next Cliff Martinez or whatever. I think I am too old for that now, anyway. People like things when a young(er) person is doing them. I’m not that anymore.

JN: Which of your books is your favorite? I hope I’m not putting you in a tight spot here. I’m always striving, always building worlds, so my favorite novel is the one I haven’t published yet, my Jace and Elizabeth novel. Which of your children is your favorite? Are you able to quantify, or is it unfair to the other kids?

MK: This is a fair question. Mastodon Farm is still my favorite book. It’s less to do with the content and more with my personal connection to the work. I told myself early on that I would 100% write the book I wanted to write. It’d be in the second person. There’d be nudity-stuff and sex moments. Lists would appear all throughout. People would be extremely wealthy and popular culture would essentially exist as one of the characters. And then so many other things… Since this was my first book, I was afraid it wouldn’t get accepted anywhere and that if it did, it would get heavily edited. I am happy to say that absolutely no cutting (other than my own) was done to the work. Furthermore, I only submitted to two presses and both accepted it! So I sincerely believe that the “success” of Mastodon Farm truly helped me continue writing in the way I am writing today. I do not think I could have started my writing career with a book like Arafat Mountain or even Kanley Stubrick. For how inaccessible Mastodon Farm is said to be, it certainly is my most mainstream book. And I am proud of that because I 100% wrote it to be anti-mainstream. (It also gave me the most anxiety). As a matter of fact, just recently, the French translation was featured at the Librairie Le Port de tête in Canada. So, Mastodon Farm is doing kind of well (for itself).

JN: You recently published a seven-hundred page computer generated novel. I don’t know what that means, but it sounds terrifying. Are you working on anything now? Are you working on a novel? I tend to fall in love with writers when they say ‘I’m working on a novel.’ So are you working on a novel, Mike? And when should I expect to see it? I’m shooting for late 2020 for my new novel, how about yourself? And can you share with us what it’s about? Don’t give away the entire story, just let me lick the icing off the beaters.

MK: I’m working on a novel, sure. Well, let’s back up a little bit, first. I literally just finished something with Dan Hoy. It’s called, Where the Sky Meets the Ocean and the Air Tastes Like Metal and the Birds Don’t Make a Sound. It’s a full-length text. Here is the synopsis: detectives Michael and Daniel try to solve a murder on planet Earth. There’s some pretty dope stuff, like: the characters only listen to MiniDiscs and cassettes of excellent artists (for example: Tommy Wright III, William Basinski, Gerogerigegege, Sunn O))), etc.), people cast magic spells at each other (as well as inanimate objects), centaurs appear, betrayals happen, there’s lots of cars with tons and tons of driving, Freud’s oceanic feeling-stuffs, the Architects of Q’Noor are here, ultraviolence occurs (repeatedly), desalination and people playing tennis, rising tides, expensive clothing, leaderless resistance, prayer mats out in the middle of the desert, company towns, wormholes, tornado sirens, Tokyo trees, a sinister (primary) cave, metaphysics, Jane from Yesterday and the Man of One Thousand Years, NDAs …the list just goes on and on. We’re both pretty excited about this one. I am also working on my next novel. This one is going to be spectacular; I can feel it already. Spectacular, in the sense that it’s going to be about something I never thought I would write about. I’ve been doing research for years, man, for this one. Expect: large empty warehouses, plenty of house musicks and uhn tiss uhn tiss moments, voguing, mention of Oumuamua (& discussion about exceptional asteroids), patternicity, interpassivity, druqks, klangfarbenmelodie, the cycle of life, VHS tapes, solo violence, snorkeling near active volcanos (after the oceans have literally just burned), pastiche moments, dying as a young(er) person, fatherless mountains and several abysses (full of rotted-out corpses).  Also, the format—how I am writing it …I am so excited to (eventually) share it with the world! I am taking yet another risk with this work and am curious to how people are going to respond.

I am also working on my next play. This one is going to be super odd (which is saying a lot) and people are going to be hitting each other on the arm and going, “huh” and “whu???” It’s either reallllyyyy going to click with a good number of people or it’s just going to drown drown drown. The play is going to tackle: the idea (and significance) of female leads/protagonists, esoteric cosmology, soft science fiction, low fantasy, hyperrealism, misandry, the darq magicks, drowned politicks, the impermanence of life, the primordial self, sultans and sheikhs, techno musicks as well as the fashion industry (naturally). I am not sure when any of these are going to see the light of day. The elections are coming up. A lot of energy gets put into the elections. I spoke on the phone with Jarett Kobek about this not too long ago. I think Jarett is someone who is able to predict the next big thing, every single time. He is able to look at what’s been happening the last couple of years and determine what’s going to be talked about in the following couple of years. Seriously. It’s crazy. When he releases a new book, read it and then look back on it five years from the date of release, and you’ll realize he was right on the money. He writes about things before they become things. What I am trying to say: people might not be paying attention to books too much, during the elections. I might hold off on all these, until after the elections. Perhaps ONE might come out soon, like, relatively soon …at least, before the elections. There’s definitely a lot happening right now (both for me and in the world).


Outro: Mike and James move forward to shake hands, then James closes in and embraces Mike instead. Mike returns the embrace. Sorry man, I’m a natural hugger.

James Nulick is a writer based in Seattle. He is the author of Haunted Girlfriend.


First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 22nd, 2019.