Literary Lights: Douglas Coupland


From The News Tribune (September 16, 2001)

by Mekeisha Madden

When Douglas Coupland's niece Siri came into the world two years ago without a left hand, her family felt anger and confusion.

The Vancouver, B.C., author used those feelings as the genesis for his latest book, "All Families are Psychotic" (Bloomsbury, $24.95), and a play, "Spike," which opened in New York earlier this month.

"This is what I had to do to understand the situation," said Coupland, 39, during a recent phone call on a tour stop in Madison, Wis. On Sept. 25, his tour will bring him to Seattle to read and sign copies of his book at The Elliott Bay Book Company.

"It started as her deformity and became our family's problem, our issue, because it was something we all had to cope with," he said.

"All Families are Psychotic" is a fictional novel that follows Sarah Drummond - an astronaut born without a hand - and her dysfunctional family.

Among the book's other characters are Wade Drummond, Sarah's lovably flawed oldest brother, and Bryan Drummond, her other older brother who is chronically depressed, suicidal and not very likeable.

Sarah's divorced parents, Janet and Ted Drummond, evolve throughout the book as their characters age.

Janet becomes increasingly confident and sassy, and Ted marries a younger woman and ends up penniless.

The family reunites at Cape Canaveral to see Sarah off to space. Unfortunately for the Drummonds - but not for the reader - their reunion ignites a series of crazy coincidences, launching the family on a journey filled with get-rich-quick schemes, foibles and funniness.

Coupland, one of four children, describes his own family as "idiosyncratic." Are the Drummonds a thinly veiled version of the Couplands?

"Not too much," the author contends. "All families have their Bryans and their Teds. But there are also Sarahs and Janets. Janet Drummond (the mother in the book) is my mother. Her name is even Janet and she's also 64. But it wasn't intentional. I wrote it and it was her, but I didn't realize what I was doing until I was almost done with the book."

Coupland said his mother isn't angry with the depiction.

"My mother read it and said, 'This woman should be a lot angrier and meaner, too,'" Coupland said. "I'm happy she liked her. Everyone else in the book is made up."

But there are differences. Janet Drummond has AIDS; Coupland's mother does not.

"AIDS is a medical metaphor in the book," Coupland said. "It's a growing condition that can't be changed or fixed. In our families, we have to accept that we can't change the people we love. When you realize that, it's a wonderful surrender of control, and suddenly you like them a lot more and they like you a lot more and your life gets better."

Coupland has written eight other books (including "Shampoo Planet" and "Microserfs"), but his first work, "Generation X: Tales From an Accelerated Culture," is his most acclaimed. The book, written a decade ago, helped coin the term "Gen X" and turned Coupland into the spokesman for a generation.

Coupland said he likes who he is today.

"I am more mature now and I hope it shows in my work," he said. "I took an informal sample, and everybody I asked said they hated their 20s, but are having the best time in their 30s.

"I wrote 'Generation X' when I was 28. At 39, I listen to people and I am not self-involved, and suddenly, I know more. I can rollick in life and in my writing now. There has also been a somber core to all my other books, but with this, I found myself laughing, and I felt for the first time, that I was writing a real satire."

At times, the mishaps and the misadventures in "All Families are Psychotic" seem like something in a Woody Allen movie. Coupland said he was following the lead of Kurt Vonnegut.

"I started writing and I could feel all the Kurt Vonnegut I had read coming through in my writing," Coupland said. "He and my niece were my biggest influences. This time it feels like I have really good characters. People with politics and religion and real issues - drugs, deformities, divorce, AIDS, born-again Christianity. These are the things that happen to us every day. I didn't want to write an airport book, where the characters live in a vacuum. I want people to read this book and feel something. Hopefully, they will."

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* Staff writer Mekeisha Madden covers entertainment. Reach her at 253-274-7380 or

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SIDEBAR: preview

What: Douglas Coupland will read from and sign copies of his latest novel, "All Families are Psychotic."

When:7:30 p.m. Sept. 25.

Where:The Elliott Bay Book Company, 101 S. Main St., Seattle.


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