The Calgary Straight (January 27, 2000)
In which the gentleman author and voice of a generation finds new ways to speak
Douglas Coupland puts his hand on the tape recorder.
"You better do a test, 'cause almost every single one of these things has fucked up on this tour. I can't bear to see another downfallen face, you know, when the interviewer realizes nothing was recorded. Is this a Radio Shack?"
"Oh, isn't that like, slightly better than Radio Shack?"
"No, no. Marantz is the profession journo's best friend."
"Was Radio Shack ever cool? I mean, was Radio Shack ever good for anything?"
"They're good for cords."
"Yeah, and then they went and changed their logo."
Diversions like these decorate any extended conversation with Douglas Coupland, author of Generation X, Life After God, Microserfs, and Girlfriend in a Coma. Over the course of his first decade in print, he's been pegged as an up-to-the-minute cultural reference engine, interpreting the modern world in a manner most appropriate of those of us raised without religion amid the clutter of pop culture. His rudderless protagonists have navigated the 20th century with practised detachment - armoured in cynicism, armed with irony, speaking in sound-bytes, and occasionally stumbling into lucid moments of meaning and purpose. But the 20th century is over. Now Coupland is 38, touring with his new book Miss Wyoming, and craving the blank slate. The novel's two main characters, John (a jaded movie producer) and Susan (a jaded former child star and beauty pageant queen), both actively derail themselves from their lives and set about the process of reinvention. What results is a strong tematic and stylistic step forward for Coupland, a promising start to the next decade, the next century, the next life. The Straight talked with Doug in the stately Palliser Hotel lounge over coffee, juice, and a swingin' soundtrack of Strauss, Michael Jackson, and Paul McCartney.
straight: What was the writing process for Miss Wyoming?
doug: Up until the start of this book, I'd been doing a lot of research [for a book on] white-collar sabotage. And it was sorta the last gasp of my old methodology of working, which was to go through life with this notepad in my left pocket and a crappy pen and just take notes of everything. Like the way something about the wall struck me, or you used a word that was resonant, or whatever, and then a year later, chop them all up, like fortune cookie fortunes, and figure out voices and places and ideas and themes.
s: and then accrete them like coral.
d: Yeah, coral or a quilt. I was getting really fed up with that. It just felt like homework. So I guess what happened was, after years and years of doing notes, I just sorta internalized the process. Like [if] the two characters are talking in a bar, I wouldn't have to refer to a note about the types of things on the wall for detail, or the Strauss music in the background. I'd just know what would work.
s: You've built an instinct.
d: Yeah. It's like learning a language, it will become automatic. I understand that now. Didn't understand it at the time, but i just knew, fuck it, I gotta write something with no notes. So I wrote [Wyoming] from beginning to end, and part of the rule was, no going back and inserting.
s: It's really hard to get to that point where you just throw all inhibition out the window and write straight to the end.
d: Oh, it was such a relief though. Oh man, it was a relief. Oh!
s: Wyoming is the first book you worked on with an editor.
d: Yeah, the initial draft was put out for auction and I was like, okay, money, sure, but they've gotta supple some notes. You know, what did they think of this, where could it go, how can I evolve? Evolution being the key word here. And there were lots of responses, which was great, but the one from Knopf/Pantheon, it was like you're in Russia and you got this secret service report on what your neighbors have been saying about you for the past decade. It was fucking humbling, I tell you. And so I went with them. There are two characters who do not appear in the book because Jenny, me editor, said, "You know Doug, you don't love these characters, remove them." But Jenny, they're- "No no no. You don't love them. Think about it, and then remove them." And i was like, rrrr. And then I'd sleep on it. Oh God she's right. And they're gone. Or you know, I'd write a page-this is a great passage! -and she'd go, "Doug this is really Patch Adams, don't you think?" Oh God, she's right! and she was really right about a lot of things.
s: Another first: in the book jacket bio, you identify yourself as a sculptor and designer.
d: Yeah, you know, from 89 up until a year and a bit ago, 10 years almost, I didn't do anything, 'cause I was just so really [intensely focused noise], towards writing. But my favorite year of my life was third-year art school. And what's happened now is, all these years later, consciously and subconsciously, myself and all the people I went to school with, we've just re-created third year, except there's zeros at the end of it. I used to do the school paper, now I do books. I did sculpture and interdisciplinary design projects, [now I do] furniture sculpture. Prototyping's all done by my friends, who have their own metal and wood shops. And we can't believe we pulled it off! It worked!
s: How was your Y2K celebration?
d: I didn't want to spend another New Year's in my living room, or someone else's. So we thought, okay, let's do something conceptual. Let's get in the car, let's go to the most nowhere blank stretch of freeway we can find, which is between Burnaby and Coquitlam, and we wanted to see what kind of person cares so little about history or time that they would just be driving a car at midnight on the millenium. The roads were pretty empty, but there were still cars, and there were two categories: there were really, really old people in really old cars and I guess in their heads they're kinda like, they always expected to be dead by 1980 and here they are in 2000. And then the other was 20-year-old guys in vaguely threatening-looking cars, who didn't have any dates or friends or parties to go to. They were just sorta driving around. We were like, honk honk, and no one would honk.
d: And we're like, oh come on! Geez. And that was that.
s: So the 90s are over. Here's what we should do with the new decade: end cynicism and end irony. We've sorta run those ragged.
d: Yeah. I mean cynicism is just laziness, isn't it?
s: It's an excuse not to change.
d: Yeah. And irony's like a party trick.
s: It's an excuse not to find new meaning. And it's become a way of life.
d: Yeah, I think you're right. It's like, [heaving motion], chuck em.
s: You know, you've managed to pull of a book here that's irony-free. Sheesh, that music ["Ebony and Ivory"] is upsetting.
d: Especially when you know that Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney hate each other's guts.
s: The girl is mine, Michael!
d: And they made the suckiest video, just that horrible bideo that went with this. Oh God, the 80s were ugly. There's something I was gonna say. What was it? Ahhh!!! Okay. It's only years later that you can figure out with some accuracy why you did or didn't do a book. So the early books I can look at now, I can talk about them. Before, I didn't really know what to say, 'cause I wasn't clear in my own head. And I still think I'm a little bit too close to Miss Wyoming. I'm not trying to bail outta talking about it, but I'm a little close right now. In two years, I think I'll be able to really, really go into it. I can give you answers now, but they might not be... If you let the answers age in oak for a few years, they might be a bit better.
s: Throw me a bone.
d: Miss Wyoming, it's the bridge between two eras. In some ways.
s: Chin chin. I'll drink to that.
d: More coffee.