How fame reinvented Douglas Coupland


From The Globe & Mail (January 15, 2000)

by Chris Dafoe

The aphorism king, and the man who launched a generation's label, is back with a book on the strange elixir of Hollywood, beauty pageants, redemption and the search for a soul.

In the late 1980s, back when writing was something he did to pay the rent on his studio, Douglas Coupland shared his thoughts on success with a few writers in his hometown of Vancouver. The secret to success, he argued back then, lay in the use of fame. As Andy Warhol (his boyhood hero) had pointed out, celebrity was a valuable commodity in and of itself. And one need only look at the shelves of the local bookstore to see that fame has sold more books than talent ever could.

Jump forward a dozen years and six or seven books. Coupland is without a doubt famous. Not so famous that he can't walk the streets or pop out for a couple of litres of milk. But famous enough to be a question on Jeopardy. Famous enough that when he guest-edited the January edition of Vancouver, the city magazine that gave him his start as a writer, his name appears above the title with the annotation A Very Special Issue. Famous enough that when someone says "Generation X" or "zeitgeist-surfing" or "microserf," it's his name and his long, pleasant face that come immediately to mind.

These days, however, the 38-year-old author seems ambivalent about the value and desirability of celebrity. In his latest book, the oddball mystery-romance Miss Wyoming, Coupland offers two characters from Celebrity Central -- a.k.a. Hollywood -- who are fleeing their fame as if it were a pack of rabid wolves. Susan Colgate, a child beauty queen turned sitcom and B-movie star, disappears after miraculously surviving a plane crash, trading her tawdry Hollywood existence for a life of suburban anonymity. Susan is pursued by John Johnson, a successful but ethically challenged producer who goes on his own walkabout in search of something that drugs and high-priced hookers can't give him. It's a story, says Coupland, that's inspired in part by his own encounters with the famous and near famous over the past decade.

"I guess a lot of it's residue from the fact that I've met all these famous people over the years," says Coupland. "Some of them became friends," he continues. "Some of them I met in passing, but I ended up with this huge reservoir of things [about fame] that wanted to be tapped."

It's just past noon, but Coupland, apparently not a morning person, is still a little groggy. He looks at the menu at Kamei Royale, a downtown sushi bar, then winces a little at the thought of raw fish for breakfast. He settles on the perfect Vancouver combination: a little sashimi, a little chicken, all washed down with a cup of black coffee.

He says he was particularly intrigued by his countless encounters with Hollywood producers who had optioned his books and flown him down for a million meetings without ever turning one of them into a movie. "Microserfs has become this sort of Marie Celeste [a reference to an deserted 19-century ghost ship], drifting from studio to studio," he says of his 1995 novel.

"I found it really intriguing to meet all these people who -- medically, biologically, epistemologically -- have no soul," he says. "I mean this coffee cup has as much soul as these people. And, I wondered, could they get one back? How could they find, not orthodox redemption, but some kind of redemption. That's what I wanted to write about."

His own experience of fame, he says, is a good deal less dramatic than that of friends who, as he says, are "famous famous. They can't even go to Mac's Milk without scrambling everyone's radar." For Coupland, fame has been a useful tool. It's opened doors and allowed him to meet interesting people. "So much of what I have done has been in the public arena, starting with Vancouver magazine, that it's a landscape I don't feel uncomfortable in," he says. "I've always thought fame was interesting, in the same way that punk rock was interesting. But I found if you consciously set out to get it, you're not going to get it. For me it was like Warhol said: the moment you stop wanting something, you get it.

Coupland says the moment came in Montreal in January, 1991, when Generation X finally broke. The book, which grew out of a full-page cartoon strip that Coupland had written while working for Vista -- the short-lived magazine published by autoparts magnate Frank Stronach -- turned him into a voice-of-his-generation. Suddenly, he was in demand for his insight into twenty-somethings (a term he loathed), the worker bees of the new information economy. The world stage beckoned and Coupland answered, jetting here and there and hanging out with the likes of REM singer Michael Stipe, and Richard Linklater, the U.S. film director who offered his own take on Generation X with films such as Slacker and Dazed and Confused.

But Coupland also decided not to abandon Vancouver for somewhere bigger and more glamorous. The city became his refuge. For the longest time, he wouldn't do interviews in his hometown. "You spend your 20s roaming. At least I did," he says. "Staying here was a big decision. I really think it's a great place to live and if I wasn't from here, I would have come here to live. And part of living here was I won't do stuff here."

He still won't do readings here, but he is giving interviews. In fact, much has changed about Coupland's life recently. After dropping art in favour of writing -- he showed enough promise as a sculptor in the mid-1980s to be given a show at the Vancouver Art Gallery -- he's embraced it again by creating his own line of furniture, whimsical pieces inspired by sources as lofty as Henry Moore and as popular as Hockey Night in Canada (see sidebar). He's also become more serious about writing, a change reflected in his decision to part company with his long-time editor, Judith Regan at HarperCollins, and jump to Random House.

"I was with Judith for all the books except X, and I love her dearly," he says. He wasn't happy, however, with the way he was being edited. "I have no idea what divorce is like, but it must be something like this. It was really awful."

For the first time in his career he hired an agent, Eric Simonoff, and when his former publisher lost the right of first refusal on a technicality, Coupland shopped the manuscript of Miss Wyoming to a number of publishers. "I told Eric, 'Money, yeah sure, but they have to write up some kind of editorial notes, where they see things going and not going.' And we got this thing back from Random House, that was like reading your Stasi report. It was from Sonny Mehta and all these senior people: 'Here are a long list of the things you are doing that are acts of self-sabotage and here are the things you do that are really great that you don't take advantage of. Here are some things we've noticed about your other books. Here are some germane facts about Miss Wyoming. For example, when you're looking for a random number you always choose 11. Are you aware of this? Is it perhaps a joke between you and your long-term readers?' "

Coupland shakes his head in amazement. "They weren't the highest bidder, but I knew that was where I wanted to go."

Rather than have Coupland come to New York for the final editing on the book -- "I can only do three days in New York before I get psychotic and have to leave" -- Random House flew Coupland's editor to Vancouver. There, they did editing sessions up at the Grouse Nest, a popular tourist destination at the top of the Grouse Mountain gondola. "We took out a lot of repetition and some unnecessary and tangential characters. Most of all, we focused on the removal of sentiment, letting the readers form their own emotional bond and not hot-wiring it for them. It was everything I thought a writer-editor relationship should be. And as a result, I don't have the reservations about this one that I had about other ones."

If Coupland's approach to writing has changed, the critical response to his work hasn't. Like most of his earlier books, Miss Wyoming has received mixed reviews.

In a lengthy piece that described the author as "a one-man simile-producing machine," The Toronto Star's Philip Marchand called Miss Wyoming "the most tightly and artfully constructed of any of his works" and praised his "acute sensitivity to the highly artificial, consumer-driven, media-soaked details of our environment." A reviewer for Time magazine described the book as a "witty and hyper discourse on celebrity" and as "a brilliant set of riffs that passes as a novel with mixed success." A reviewer for Publisher's Weekly, on the other hand, described the writing as "frustratingly uneven, sometimes deftly jokey, other times hopelessly muddied" and wrote that Coupland's characters, "for all their spiritual crises, are about as introspective as cell phones." Reviewing the book for The Globe and Mail, Peter Behrens dismissed the book as "ringingly inauthentic" and wrote that Coupland's prose "steams with all the freshness of day-old pizza."

For his part, Coupland is so excited he's already started work on two new books. His next novel, he says, will be about a family from Vancouver who have a daughter going up on the space shuttle. "They're all camped out in Florida, doing all these crazy family things," he says. "Families who are really good to each other, I've noticed, tend to dissipate, so I wonder how awful a family would have to be to stick to together. So far, at least, all of the people in this family are really evil."

The other book, a project for Vancouver publisher Douglas & McIntyre, is a personal look at his hometown. "There are all these book about Vancouver that talk about the aquarium and the mountains, but there's nothing to tell you how people live there feel about the city," he says. "So this will be like [The Simpsons's newsreader) Kent Brockman -- my two cents."

Douglas Coupland is reading from Miss Wyoming at the Glenn Gould Studio at the CBC building in downtown Toronto on Monday, Jan. 17 at 7:30 p.m.