Spike in Birth Defects Inspires Novel, Art Show


From The Oregonian (September 21, 2001)

by Jeff Baker

Douglas Coupland says the two may come from "different parts of the brain or soul"

Douglas Coupland woke up on Sept. 11 in a hotel room in Madison, Wis. He followed his regular first-thing-in-the-morning habit and clicked on AOL on his laptop. A picture of the World Trade Center popped up.

Why? What's going on?

"Then I clicked on the TV and there it all was," Coupland said. "My story's not that different from anybody else's. I was just in New York two days earlier, not far from where all that was, and now it's gone."

Coupland spent the next four days in Wisconsin, stranded in the middle of a book tour to promote his new novel, "All Families Are Psychotic" (Bloomsbury, $24.95, 279 pages). He made it to Portland by Sept. 15, in time for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association trade show, and said flying across the country was "pretty eerie, in a way you wouldn't expect.

"There was tons of security, of course, but what surprised me was that the planes were half full," Coupland said. "I thought they'd be jammed, just with people who'd been stranded, but there weren't that many people around."

Coupland was in New York to kick off his book tour and for an opening of his recent sculpture at the Totem Gallery. The novel and the artwork were inspired by the same event, which Coupland explained matter-of-factly.

"Two years ago, a little more than two years ago, my brother and his wife had a daughter who was born without a left hand," he said. "This was a very unusual and emotional situation, to say the least, and it really brought us together as a family. There was nothing we could really do about it -- there was no internal damage to my niece, no personality or brain issues.

"About 10 months after her birth, my dad, who's a doctor, was talking with some of the obstetric nurses at the hospital where he works and they said, 'You know, Dr. Coupland, we've never seen so many babies born with birth defects as we have lately.' Well, we started investigating all the births at some of the hospitals in our area, working with spreadsheets and all sorts of other things, and we found there had been a spike in birth defects. We don't know why -- there's almost no way to track it, really -- but it's there. My (art) show is called 'Spike,' and it's a critical response to a very complex emotional situation."

Coupland attended several art schools and has exhibited his work in the past. He's also written nine books but never has had a book and an exhibit come out at the same time. Is there a connection?

"No," he said. "Except for the inspiration that I talked about, they don't really relate to each other. The sculpture is a very visual way of thinking and the book is a very different thing. Maybe they come from different parts of the brain or the soul, I don't know. I know that for years I couldn't do art at the same time I was writing something, but a couple of years ago I was working on some furniture when I was writing a novel, and that kind of broke down the dam.

"I guess if I'm working with my hands during the day and my brain at night, one can kind of enhance the other. I don't know. I know that on paper it looks like I'm working like a maniac, but it doesn't feel that way to me. It's like that expression: If you want to get something done, ask a person who's really busy."

Coupland planned to finish the West Coast portion of his book tour, which includes a stop in Portland on Monday, although he wasn't sure how he would feel and how people would react after what happened Sept. 11.

"It's like, 'Yeah, I've got a book out,' but it all seems so unimportant," he said. "I don't know how people are feeling. It's like there's all this energy out there that's been thwarted."

Douglas Coupland is scheduled to read at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside St.

Jeff Baker is The Oregonian's book critic. He can be reached at 503-221-8165 or by e-mail at jbaker@news.oregonian.com.