Maclean's Interview: Neil Strauss

Bestselling author Neil Strauss talks to Julia McKinnell about fear, survival, and lessons in character building

Maclean's Interview: Neil StraussNeil Strauss is a former music critic for the New York Times and bestselling author. In his new book, Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life, Strauss describes how he grew up believing that America was the greatest country on earth until he lost faith in the Bush government and began to fear another terrorist attack. He set out to learn how to shoot a gun and hunt for food. Along the way, he met wacko survivalists and a New York billionaire, who urged him to get out of the U.S. Strauss went so far as to acquire a second passport.

Q: Your book is, in a strange way, like a self-help book, “How to Survive the Apocalypse.” About halfway through, you make the statement, “It’s a strange time to be an American,” and I thought that’s it—that’s the whole nut of the book, right?

A: Yes, that’s a great question because that’s what the entire book came out of, people being born in the ’70s and ’80s, who grew up with a silver spoon in their mouths. America was the lone superpower. All the problems of the world seemed to happen to other people. It seemed like the future was this bright, shiny, optimistic place where anything was possible.

Then, starting with 9/11, all of a sudden everything we thought couldn’t happen to us, happened to us. We had an act of war occur on American soil which hadn’t happened since Pearl Harbor. We had this constitution, which is kind of a holy relic, which makes us the best, freest country in the world, all of a sudden open to interpretation, and these things could change in the name of national security.

Q: And then there was hurricane Katrina.

A: Right. I think that was the real turning point. Katrina wasn’t like 9/11. They knew a disaster was going to strike and even then with advance notice they still couldn’t help anyone. You never think you’re going to see bodies floating in the street, ignored in America. That’s when I realized . . .

Q: You’ve got to look after yourself?

A: Exactly.

Q: You collected anti-American souvenirs for a while. Do you remember the first item in your collection?

A: I think it was the postcard in Belgrade of the Serbian soldier pissing on the American flag and saying “Oh, what a feeling.” I kept finding these things and it was sort of shocking to see the American flag, for example, desecrated by people.

Q: But you didn’t take their hate seriously at first. You said that you collected propaganda “in much the same way a singer confident in his talent makes a collage of bad reviews by hack writers and hangs it on his wall with pride.”

A: You can see hostile postcards about America and you’re okay with that. You say, well, that’s their problem. They’re just resentful. But then when you see someone actually beheaded for being an American, then you’re like, whoa, that’s serious.

Q: You write that hope can make us blind and vulnerable.

A: I think that’s very true. Even if you separate hope from politics, and look at relationships, probably every one of us has female friends who stay in these horrible relationships because they hope the guy is going to recognize their value and love them and treat them like they deserve to be treated and they cling on to .01 per cent of hope. I think hope is an emotion that sometimes causes us to cling to things we should really let go of.

Q: That’s interesting since you’ve just elected a president whose whole platform is hope. Do you think Americans are too hopeful right now?

A: You can’t tell the future. That’s why I wanted backup plans. I think everyone’s very pessimistic now. You’re at the gas station paying three times as much as you used to pay, and the house you bought for $500,000 is now worth $350,000, and you’re still paying the mortgage on it. I think maybe people have hope, but they’re hurting.

Q: You mention Paul Kennedy’s book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Do you really believe the crumbling of the American empire is an inevitable fate?

A: Yes, I think if you read Paul Kennedy’s book, you see that the writing is on the wall for America. He makes the argument that America is on its last legs as a superpower but that doesn’t mean if the great empire falls, everybody dies and it’s the sack of Rome. When Britain ended as an empire, it didn’t mean Britain was wiped out.

Q: Tell me about your billionaire friend whom you call Spencer Booth. How did you meet him?

A: Spencer Booth had read my last book called The Game, and he wanted to meet me. I’d never been to the Hamptons so I looked him up. We were just talking about life and politics and all of a sudden he said he was getting a second passport, and not only that, his friend, a huge mogul in his own right, had just gotten citizenship to Austria for the same reasons. I thought I was alone in doing this [getting a second passport] and it was kind of crazy but here are these people who are smart and successful, who are doing the same thing, as a business decision.

Q: So is this a trend among American billionaires? They’re all getting second passports so they can flee?

A: I don’t know what it is, but so many of those guys are not just getting dual passports. I spoke to Spencer today, and he said almost all his money is out of American dollars.

Q: What’s he afraid of?

A: He believes in the next month worse things are going to hit the economy. By the way, when I met these billionaire guys, very conservative-thinking, sober-minded businessman, they all thought that the Canadian passport was the best one to have.

Q: Really? You don’t mention that in your book.

A: Spencer Booth says that Canada would be the ideal country because if anything happened in the States, you could just walk across the border whereas it’s hard to get to St. Kitts.

Q: I want to ask about some of the things you did to prepare for an emergency. You wrote that now you can draw a holstered pistol in 1.5 seconds, aim at a target and shoot it twice in the heart. That you can find water in the desert, fly a plane. You also learned to ride a motorcycle but then you crashed it twice.

A: I know. I thought about that afterwards. The truth is you’re much more likely to die in a plane crash or shooting accident than a terrorist attack or a natural disaster or an economic collapse, and what it comes down to is, the book is about the fear of death. It isn’t about being scared to die, it’s about not having control over it.

Q: Do you have any tips for urban dwellers facing a city-wide emergency?

A: If you’re in the city during an emergency, you should have two plans: one to stay at home and one to evacuate if your home is in danger. So at the minimum, you should store a week’s worth of non-perishable food and water, which is a gallon a day per person. To stay warm, have a kerosene heater or a wood-burning fireplace, plus enough fuel to get you through seven days. As for evacuating, have a plan that includes a safe place to go, a rally point for family members who are elsewhere, and a bag ready to grab with copies of important documents and a few days of survival supplies plus some cash. Finally, always keep your car tank above the half-full line. You may not be able to get gas when you need it.

Q: I just talked to a guy who’s building a greenhouse so he can grow his own food.

A: Yes, there’s a movement of people and I’m doing it as well. If you hear the baa’ing in the background, it’s because I have goats.

Q: I thought you had company.

A: No, that’s the goat. And yes, I have goats so if something happens I have milk and meat. But the truth is, it’s kind of fun to milk your goat and use it as cream in your coffee. And a chicken is coming soon, too, for eggs.

Q: How many goats?

A: It was one goat but she was pregnant so now there are three. The funny thing is, I learned how to be an Emergency Medical Technician because one thing you want to know is medical skills to take care of people in an emergency, so I actually got to use my EMT skills to deliver the babies.

Q: I was going to ask you about that goat you killed. You stabbed a goat, skinned it. I guess in case you ever needed to kill for food.

A: I think there are a lot of things in the book I did that I’m ambivalent about and I think killing an animal was one of the most horrific things I’ve ever done in my life.

Q: So you wouldn’t kill a second goat?

A: Only if I was dying of hunger.

Q: You said you wanted to add something.

A: Yes, I wanted to add that what began in the book as fear and escape actually became incredibly character-building. I’m part of the search-and-rescue team now. I have a pager on my hip. If it goes off, we go try to find a missing child. I never knew how to do practical things. Knowing how to make a fire and and how to identify wild plants, if nothing ever happens, if the world hopefully carries on splendidly, at least I’ll be a cool dad or a cool grandfather and I can take my kid camping—which I never could have done before.