Some people see James Wesley Rawles as an anachronism, others as a prophet. Perhaps he’s both.
The enigmatic author lives somewhere in the Inland Northwest, which Rawles considers part of “the American Redoubt” – a phrase he coined to describe a five-state safe haven for libertarian-leaning Christians and Jews concerned about threats such as pandemics, financial chaos or a major power failure.
Rawles encourages self-sufficiency on his popular survivalblog.com website and in novels and how-to manuals. His latest book is “Tools for Survival: What you need to survive when you’re on your own” (Plumb Book, $18).
During a recent interview via Skype, Rawles discussed why being prepared is good for individuals, as well as society at large.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Rawles: Livermore, California. My ancestors homesteaded in California in the 1850s.
S-R: What were your interests as a youngster?
Rawles: Hunting and fishing, primarily.
S-R: Did you have a favorite class in high school?
Rawles: Literature and honors English.
S-R: What career did you envision for yourself?
Rawles: I’d originally hoped to be an Air Force officer, like my father. But because of my vision, I knew I could never be a pilot. So I opted for ROTC at San Jose State University and became an Army officer.
S-R: How long were you in the military?
Rawles: Six years. I resigned my commission the day Bill Clinton was sworn into office.
S-R: Was the timing a coincidence?
Rawles: No. (laugh) I didn’t like the idea of him being my commander-in-chief.
S-R: What inspired you to write “Triple Ought” (later republished as “Patriots”) in 1991?
Rawles: That was more or less a message piece, encouraging people to prepare. My dad worked at what’s now called Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where they designed nuclear weapons, so I grew up in a community that was very conscious of the nuclear threat.
S-R: Do you still consider it a major threat?
Rawles: Yes. Although stockpiles have been reduced, the number of countries that control nuclear weapons is proliferating, and the threat of terrorists using a nuclear weapon increases every year.
S-R: What was the reaction to your first novel?
Rawles: It was very well received. I released it as shareware in the early days of the Internet, when military contractors were the main people online. Yet more than 80,000 people downloaded the novel before I eventually picked up a publisher in 1998.
S-R: When did your passion become your career?
Rawles: My full-time job as a technical writer paid the bills until 2006, soon after I launched survivalblog. That’s when I was able to devote myself full time to writing.
S-R: How has your business evolved?
Rawles: It’s grown enough to provide me with a pretty decent living, especially considering I live a very low-cost lifestyle. I cut my own firewood. We have a huge garden. We hunt. We fish. We raise livestock. And because I write at home, I don’t have commuting expenses.
S-R: What affects blog traffic?
Rawles: Interest in survival issues is countercyclical – when people start getting nervous about the economy is when they start thinking about preparedness. Also, every time there’s a major disaster, such as (the tsunami that struck) Fukushima or a geopolitical crisis, we see a huge increase in traffic. I launched the blog in August 2005, just before Hurricane Katrina, and that definitely helped get it in high gear.
S-R: How does it make money?
Rawles: I have a bunch of loyal advertisers, and I encourage readers to donate $36 a year – 10 cents a day – to help cover operating expenses.
S-R: Has your audience changed during the past decade?
Rawles: My core readership remains predominantly conservative Christians, home-schoolers and back-to-the-land families. But over the years, public acceptance of the prepper movement has really broadened. Nowadays, suburban soccer moms and Birkenstock-wearing vegetarians read my blog, because conservative Christians don’t have a corner on common sense. People across the board are realizing we live in a fragile world where an event that takes place a continent away can have far-reaching effects.
S-R: You also consult for $150 an hour. Between your blog and your survival manuals, you address almost every concern imaginable. What advice do consulting clients need?
Rawles: A lot of their questions involve security for their property – things like infrared detection systems and motion-activated wireless webcams. Some want advice about where they should build a survival retreat, but there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to that.
S-R: Have you thought about getting into real-estate sales?
Rawles: Actually, we have a spinoff sight – SurvivalRealty.com – run by my son. It lists about 100 remote, self-sufficient sites at any given time.
S-R: The New York Journal of Books’ review of your manual “How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It” noted your “obsession with precision.” Is that a fair observation?
Rawles: Yes. In fact, details occasionally get in the way of my storylines. For instance, my first novel included instructions for how to make a high-temperature welding powder called thermite. But most people tend to read my novels twice – once for entertainment, and a second time while taking notes.
S-R: Tell me about your new book, “Tools for Survival.”
Rawles: It is not an instruction manual, per se. It’s a starting point for people to take off on their own studies of traditional skills. There’s a strong emphasis in the book on 19th century technologies that don’t require electricity and are fairly easy to maintain.
S-R: Besides making New York Times’ best-seller lists, your books have been translated into half a dozen foreign languages. Do you ever go on tour?
Rawles: No, because of privacy concerns. I don’t want people to track down where I live.
S-R: What do you like most about your career?
Rawles: I love my lifestyle – that I’m able to live in the wilderness and raise my family in a very pristine environment. We don’t worry about crime or smog or traffic.
S-R: What do you like least?
Rawles: The isolation. If you’re out of an ingredient for a recipe, you don’t just run to the store. Going into town is an all-day adventure.
S-R: Your blog contributors cite a plethora of potential catastrophes – everything from anarchy to asteroid strikes. Is it possible to eliminate all risk?
Rawles: No. But from an actuarial standpoint, the Inland Northwest is statistically one of the safest places to live, in terms of natural disasters. And because of our isolation here, we’d probably pull through remarkably well in the event of a socioeconomic collapse. I wouldn’t want to be living in downtown Spokane, I suppose. But most people in the Inland Northwest live closer to the land than people on the coast do.
S-R: Some preppers make significant sacrifices for the sake of preparedness. If a major catastrophe doesn’t occur in the next 10 or 20 years, what have they gained?
Rawles: A better, healthier lifestyle, probably a longer life span, and a closer sense of community than they would have had otherwise. But the flip slide of the so-called expense of preparedness is that, in some ways, it’s a money saver. If you buy rice in a 1- or 2-pound bag at the grocery story, you’re paying eight or 10 times as much as you would if you bought it in a 50-pound sack and stored it in plastic buckets. So there are some economies of scale that go along with self-sufficiency.
S-R: What’s a typical mistake survivalists make?
Rawles: Overemphasizing one particular area at the expense of others. Generally that has to do with people’s backgrounds. For example, a doctor may create their own surgical suite at home, while a hunter might overemphasize firearms. If all you have is a huge pile of guns or medical equipment and no food, you’re going to end up a statistic, like everyone else. People really need to balance their preparations.
S-R: What other basic advice do you offer?
Rawles: Water filtration is at the absolute top of my list, because the one common denominator of any natural or man-made disaster is the interruption of civic water supplies.
S-R: What do you consider the biggest threat we face today?
Rawles: The increasing dependence on technology. If there were a major disruption of the power grid, I don’t think our society could convert to 19th-century technology without first experiencing a significant population die-off – something on the magnitude of more than 50 percent.
S-R: Do you hear from skeptics?
Rawles: At lease once a month, I get an email from someone accusing me of living in a big city in my mom’s basement. They assume anyone who has time to write novels like mine must be living some kind of fraudulent lifestyle.
S-R: What’s ahead for you?
Rawles: I’m writing the first book of a new science-fiction series set in the mid-21st century. It’s a complete departure from my “Patriots” series – there’s no preconception that there’s been a disaster.
S-R: If someone sitting next to you on an airplane asks you what you do for a living, what do you say?
Rawles: Again, this gets into the whole OPSEC issue, as we call it – operational security. If I’m traveling incognito, I’ll say I’m a technical writer. But if I’m a long distance from home, where I don’t think they’re going to be dropping in to see me, I’m generally fairly open with people.
S-R: Do they pump you for information?
Rawles: Sometimes. I also get calls from people pretending to be potential advertisers, when really they’re just after free consulting.
S-R: Maybe that’s what I’m after.
Rawles: (laugh) I don’t mind. When it comes down to it, I’m still a man on a mission, because every family that prepares represents one less family that’s going to panic and clean out the grocery stores at the eleventh hour. Well-prepared families are part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
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