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LITERATURE





AN INTERVIEW WITH DOUGLAS COUPLAND

"In the other books I’ve written, characters tend to ponder and wonder and think, and I just thought, 'Fuck it. I’m just going to write something that starts at 90 miles an hour and never slows down.' And once the characters were born, which didn’t take much time at all, they essentially shanghaied the whole book. And I thought, 'This is really scary, the characters have taken over the book. Wait those characters are me, I made them up…AAAHHHH!'"


Dan Epstein Interviews Douglas Coupland

COPYRIGHT © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED



After two changes in schedule -- and then even after the disaster at the World Trade Center -- I was able to get Douglas Coupland on the phone. Talking with Douglas Coupland is like listening to an audio book of a William Burroughs cut-up novel as read by Bob and Doug McKenzie. I wasn’t able to include our entire dialogue because it was about 25 pages long (including 5 pages of going off and talking about bad television shows and comic books…and the “uhs” and ”I don’t knows” would have filled up 3 pages by themselves).

I was excited about talking to Douglas Coupland because this is the first book I’ve read of his since Microserfs came out in paperback in 1996. His new novel, All Families Are Psychotic, really gives you a view of the kind of families that the characters in Coupland’s first and most famous novel Generation X might have had, if they were mature enough to have families.

A short synopsis: in the opening pages, 67-year-old Janet Drummond checks the clock in her cheap motel room near Cape Canaveral, takes her prescription pills and does a rapid tally of the whereabouts of her three children: Wade, the eldest, in and out of jail and still radiating "the glint"; suicidal Bryan, whose girlfriend, the vowel-free Shw, is pregnant; and Sarah, the family’s shining light, an astronaut preparing to be launched into space as the star of a shuttle mission. They will all arrive in Orlando today -- along with Janet’s ex-husband Ted and his new trophy wife -- setting the stage for the most disastrous family reunion in the history of fiction. Florida may never recover from their version of fun in the sun.

3AM: How much of All Families Are Psychotic is autobiographical?

DC: The part about the mother [Janet Drummond, the main character] for sure. Everything else is entirely fictional.

3AM: Really? Janet comes into Florida from Toronto and you’re from Vancouver. You must have gone to Florida…

DC: Yeah, when I was doing research for the book, I got a call from this Atlantic Center for the Arts…I don’t quite know the technical name…colony. At the edge of Cape Canaveral. I said "you’re where?!?! OK I’ll do it." Talk about providence! So I was down there and it was great. There it was, the hottest weather they ever had and they haven’t had rain for years. The whole state was on fire. It was really apocalyptic and freaky.

My one hope is that the book has a measured pace and no slow patches. In the states there seems to be a tradition: books set on ranches, forests and streams, and everyone talks to horses. Which is fine but I’m metropolitan…it just doesn’t click with me.

Getting back to your question about autobiographical stuff. What happens with any character in any book… You give a book to the people in your life. They roar through it and you think they’re reading it really quickly, which used to really bother me. But no, they’re just looking for themselves.

3AM: (Laughs.)

DC: Maybe a second time they’ll sit down and actually read the thing. Always from the start. I have this policy: If I know you and if you have a quirk or mannerism or something you do that’s yours, I will always ask permission to use it. The punchline being that when it came to Janet…um well ok…last October I did a reading in Vancouver, and it was the first time I ever did a reading in Vancouver -- no one at home had ever seen me do what I do on stage --

I said to my mother, “Mom, well, I think I should tell you that just before you see me on stage…well mom, it’s kinda you. It is you.” And, uh, afterwards I was fully expecting to be disowned but she said, “Oh, make her a lot meaner and angrier.” When I tried to get it right I didn’t get it right.

3AM: (Laughs.)

DC: The whole game of fiction/nonfiction…I think a lot of people want to know, like, “does everyone in your family have a drug problem?” No, my family isn’t like that; you have to make this stuff up. Hence the name “fiction.”

3AM: Just to have a drug problem in the family isn’t that special anymore.

DC: Oh no! It’s the norm.

3AM: Your new book seems to cover a lot of the same ground that trash talk shows cover: AIDS, suicide, abortion and family reunions. Was this an unconscious act, or a comment on them?

DC: It was written when there was that really magic window in film history, with films like Being John Malkovich, Go, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Run Lola Run.

3AM: It was definitely an odd time for independent film…almost mainstream very fast.

DC: It was wonderful. I just loved that energy so much. And in the other books I’ve written, characters tend to ponder and wonder and think, and I just thought, “Fuck it. I’m just going to write something that starts at 90 miles an hour and never slows down.” And once the characters were born, which didn’t take much time at all, they essentially shanghaied the whole book. And I thought, “This is really scary, the characters have taken over the book. Wait those characters are me, I made them up…AAAHHHH!”

3AM: (Laughs.)

DC: And, um, which is the way it should work in some situations…certainly this one. Time is receding…I finished it a year ago and I can’t remember now. I start writing it for one reason, and now there are other reasons I wrote it. And I’m sure next year I’ll think there are different reasons I wrote it. There’s endless revisionism with any project you do.

3AM: There’s the school of thought where characters seem to take on a life of their own and you no longer have control over them. How do you feel about that?

DC: Well, you should never start a book without knowing the exact last chapter. Getting there, you know…roughly the map you’re going to take, and there’s a few detours and stuff. That’s wonderful when that happens. I love that. The analogy I can think of is the visual arts; the form or the shape or the appearance or the nature of the object is defined by the critical impulse behind it, which I’m all for. And then from that point you work backwards into the spectrum of emotion or undigested experience. Or semi-undigested experience. Until you reach the opposite end of the spectrum, which is like a Jackson Pollock painting. And, um, so I think you have to be aware of that, if it’s happening by itself. At least you’re aware of it…you have to have that I think. At least I have to I have it, I think.

3AM: Why did the launching of the space shuttle seem like a good event to bring a family together?

DC: I thought of it for one reason but now I’m wondering if that was even it at all.

I mean, my book Girlfriend in a Coma was a very dark book. And it ends with, uh, the mother and the daughter leaving the group of people and going to the top of the mountain. Sort of ascending to heaven.

3AM: So this is going to the top of the mountain and then jumping on a ship.

DC: It’s the same myth, or the same understructure as that one. I wasn’t even aware of that until it was pretty much in galley form. Like, oh ok, well, this is something that is pretty significant to me. I don’t know why; I still don’t know, it’s something that I do.

3AM: Do you know the author Carl Hiassen?

DC: I know of him. I read…someone gave me a book he wrote about the dark underbelly of Disney [Team Rodent].

3AM: Everything he does is set in Florida and it’s always seamy. Like the book you mentioned.

DC: Oh, well, you’ve been to Florida… I try to actually stay true to the state. Florida is a land of extremes, which is nice for this book here. The highs are higher, the lows are lower.

3AM: A lot of critics compare you to Fight Club’s Chuck Palahniuk. What’s your take on that?

DC: I feel he’s the only other writer out there who’s doing something like I’m doing…the same sort of direction. I loved Fight Club. And the movie was very good as well, very close to the book.

3AM:The family in All Families Are Psychotic gets together to provide moral support for Sarah, the one successful member. Who is the one successful member of your family? Is it you?

DC: Oh no, I don’t think so. I don’t think there is one in my family. Everyone’s flawed. That’s the nice thing about last few years for me…the realization it would take too much energy to try and see my family as normal.

3AM: There are no more normal families left.

DC: I don’t think there ever were any. Well, when you look at the history of the smile in the photo…up until World War II most people in photographs had their normal faces. And then Kodak and other camera people and filmmakers always had their people smile, and then they we entered this cult of the smile collectively. If you try not smiling when people are taking your picture they basically tell you to fuck off and start smiling.

3AM: When people look at those pictures they always ask why you aren’t smiling.

DC: In the future people are going to look at these pictures and wonder what was wrong with these people. “Are they idiots or something?”

3AM: A number of the Drummond family members are drawn into the story when a messenger gives them a letter in Disneyworld and promptly has a heart attack. Everyone seems to have his or her own Disney theme park horror story.

DC: Our family never went. We could barely be in the same car, let alone on vacation.

3AM: You didn’t even go for research?

DC: For research I did, but never with my family when we were growing up. We weren’t a Disneyland family. As a kid, I kind of liked Donald Duck. But Mickey Mouse…no one likes Mickey Mouse. He’s a boring character and his cartoons suck. They should have any character but him, but that’s really trivial and silly.

3AM: Janet contracts AIDS when a bullet is fired through an AIDS-infected person into her. How did you come up with that story?

DC: Well, it's certainly medically possible. I checked with some doctors and they all said it was medically possible.

3AM: I don’t believe you’ve ever written truly evil characters before this book. Why now?

DC: Well, they’re without a moral compass and I don’t know if that comes from bad training or whether they’re just bad seeds. I don’t know, I don’t think that they’re evil. Osama bin Laden is evil…calling a normal everyday person “evil” is just too strong a word. Be careful where you use it.

3AM: It must be fun to write people who don’t have a moral compass.

DC: I think most people are without one. That’s something, when you say it, that people will deny stringently…"I'm superior, I'm perfect"… well, are you?

3AM: When did you decide “I’m going to write a novel”?

DC: Summer 1989. I always knew I was never going to have a job-type job. I was 28. I thought, “I’ve been writing for magazines for about 2 years” -- well, in hindsight, all the signals were there saying “write” and I finally picked up on them – “oh, ok, I should be writing fiction.” And yeah, that was a big decision to make. Fortunately I was young; it’s easier to make big decisions when you’re young. And I still had this protective naïve coating.

3AM: Many critics have said that your novels are very well-suited for cinema. One even described them as a fusion of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and American Pie. What films would you compare your novels to?

DC:American Pie? I think that’s very patronizing and rude. I know you didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, but how's that supposed to make me feel?

3AM: I think Altman is a good comparison. Who do you think would be a good director for your new book?

DC: Spike [Jones] would be good for that. Or David O. Russell [Three Kings, Flirting with Disaster].

3AM: I know that Michael Stipe [along with his production company Single Cell Productions] just optioned it. Are you going to write a draft?

DC:No, because I’m not a screenplay writer. No, that’s another skill

3AM: Steven Spielberg asked you to brainstorm for his new Tom Cruise movie Minority Report. What did you contribute?

DC: Spielberg wanted to do a version of the future that was plausible instead of the usual Mad Max or Blade Runner and, uh, yeah, that kind of thing. And it was like mental calisthenics really: what’s the future of domesticity, pets, the way you look at outer space, the way you look at time, everything. It's all pure speculation. I’m curious to see the movie; I have no idea what he actually did. I haven’t talked to him since then.

3AM: How much was Catcher in the Rye an influence on you?

DC: It wasn’t an influence really. I’m Canadian…we don’t really get that stuff up there. It’s like an American thing. I’ve read it. It’s not like a big deal or anything. There’s a sort of cult of Catcher in the Rye down in the United States, which I can’t quite figure out…why people are so into it.

3AM: I agree: I thought it was just a good book.

DC: Yeah, but its like one of fifty books that you read in high school.

3AM: You’re famous for the similes you create. How much time do you put into making them?

DC: They just happen. I used to keep notebooks, but I don’t do that anymore. Um…I just don’t want to plan too much. You have to work every day. Every writer is either a night owl or an early bird. I’m a night owl so I work every night from 12am to 3am. I talk to early birds and they say that the best thing about writing in the morning is that no matter how crappy the rest of your day is, you got your work done. Then, yes you’ve achieved, which makes a heck of a good sense, but I’ve never been able to wake up in the morning in my life. I don’t think that’ll ever happen.

3AM: You’ve had several bouts of severe depression. What caused them?

DC: If you knew you’d be a very rich man. It’s something that’s out there. It could happen tomorrow, for all I know.

3AM: No pills for you, then?

DC: I’m very wary of drugs. I look to Nancy Reagan for that issue. I’m all for them to get you over the bad patches, but it’s like…I call it going to Antarctica. There’s no Duane Reades in Antarctica. I always want to be ready to go there on a moment’s notice, and you can’t go if you’re on stuff. I would get it from the penguins.

3AM: Do penguins get depressed?

DC: They get blubber. How do penguins even happen? It’s preposterous, they’re not even birds. You’re cute, you’re easy to draw, and you eat minnows.

3AM: They’re food for more interesting animals.

DC: Like those documentaries where the polar bears [makes munching noise] eat them whole…

3AM: Walruses are really cute, then they bite you on the arm. That’s a life lesson, don’t mess with the walruses.

DC: Those reality TV shows are really great, um, where you see these people and you can’t believe how dumb they are, holding out a peanut butter and jam sandwich to a grizzly bear. What’s the bear’s point of view? “Who are these people?” Stupid people are probably juicier or something. The ones that are running the bulls in Pamplona or bullfighting…they’re being gored or tossed in the air…it’s like, what were you thinking?

3AM: When you said “reality shows” I thought you meant like Big Brother. They should just drop a walrus in the house.

DC:That’d be great.

3AM: They would go, “Oh my god, there’s a walrus in the house,” and then “to be continued” would come up on–screen.

DC: “Tune in next week and everyone’s dead.”

3AM: You wrote a public letter to Kurt Cobain after he committed suicide. What did you hope to accomplish with it?

DC: It was a really a eulogy for a certain part of my life. Lately I’ve been reading that you can’t tell anything about a person except by what they write. I think they’re probably right... You caught me on a weird day. So I’m being kind of weird, tomorrow I’ll be different, in three days I’ll be older.

3AM: Your first book, Generation X, was published a decade ago, right before your 30th birthday. What do you want your 40’s to be like?

DC: I'd like them to be different. I had a great 30’s…couldn’t ask for a more interesting ten years.

3AM: Some of your sculptures are going on display in New York City. When and why did you start sculpting?

DC: Writing is more art school than anything else. I didn’t go to college or university, so for better or worse, if I have to ally myself with some sort of academia it’s the visual arts. I think of my books as something you put on a wall first, then you experience performance art. These words are art supplies, really. I’m aware of critical theory…I’m more interested in how it applies to the visual, rather than a document.

DAN: Are you involved with get coupland.com?

DC: I just send them stuff, whatever I feel like putting up. It’s art school. I don’t go to the web that much. It’s an ongoing inventory…not a journal, not a diary…it’s a good indicator of your psychic state at any one period. I got this phone call and this person said, “We registered www.douglascoupland.com and if you pay x dollars we’ll give it back to you.” It's so fucking sleazy.

3AM: That was the big scam in the mid-1990’s.

DC: It’s so fucking parasitic…it’s just disgusting.

3AM: I’ll just do a dot org.

DC: No one goes to dot org, when was the last time you went to a dot org?

3AM: I don’t remember.

DC: There you go, that proves my case.

3AM: What’s your take on the attacks on the World Trade Center?

DC: My take isn’t very different from anyone else’s. When I talk to people in New York, anything I have to say seems trivial compared to their recent experiences.

I’m doing this book right now on Canada. Being Canadian means comparing yourself to America to some degrees. I really thought -- and I was wrong --America seems like a nation divided against itself. I’m glad to see that go away and to see people come together.

3AM: I heard that Spielberg is thinking of changing A.I. because there’s a scene at the World Trade Center and he wants to keep it current.

DC: That’s silly. That would not be a good thing to do. I have a pretty strict philosophy on that: when I read books, they’re always set in the immediate present. When it goes out of date, it kind of makes it more real somehow. He should keep the towers in; it says something about when the movie was made.

I think you know enough about me now.

3AM: Thank you so much.

DC: It was a pleasure.




Contact Dan Epstein.





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