Grouchy, lens-shy, talented Douglas Coupland


From The Ottawa Citizen (September 25, 1992)

by Francine Dube

Douglas Coupland is strung out from lack of sleep. His face is ashen. The dark glasses don't help.

He's arrived at the door of the restaurant where we are to meet and he doesn't like what he sees: a photographer.

"Oh God, no pictures," he says emphatically, theatrically, shaking his head. "I only got two-hours sleep last night."

He and the photographer begin a strange kind of dance around Cafe Wim, swapping explanations and counterproposals. The photographer is clearing out his gear as Coupland follows him around, talking about his insomnia, apologetic but unyielding.

Ottawa is Coupland's last stop on a tour through the United States and Canada to promote Shampoo Planet , a novel about the life and times of teenagers whose first memories are of Ronald Reagan. Coupland's first book, Generation X , described the forgotten generation after baby boomers. Both books are best-sellers.


The photographer leaves, but Coupland still isn't satisfied. He says the music is too loud, and the room seems too bright for him. He wants to move to the courtyard outside.

OK. But wait, on the way outside he finds an even better room. Cool and dark and quiet, it feels like somebody's basement. We sit down. Now, he's ready to answer a few questions. But only the questions he likes.

Those who know him are not surprised to hear Coupland was_let's be delicate_grouchy. At home in Vancouver Coupland wakes up at 11 a.m., writes in the afternoon, and reads until about 2 or 3 a.m. Morning-hate aside, Coupland, 30, can be plain moody. "My impression is that he's very sensitive to criticism, that it's very important for him to be regarded as the best at what he does_that he's kind of volatile," says Rosa Harris-Adler, who met Coupland while working at the now-defunct Montreal Magazine in the late `80s. "I think he's quite vulnerable. People feel protective of him."

Getting friends to talk about Coupland is easy. They rave about his talent, his sense of humor, his dedication. But some worry the slightest negative inference will draw repercussions_Coupland has been known to snub those who have criticized him. He was born in West Germany, where his father was an air force pilot. Overachieving seems to run in the family. His father is also a doctor. Coupland himself was a successful sculptor before turning to writing. Writing paid the bills.

"Looking back on it now, I can see that there were these enormous flashing neon signs saying, `Doug, be a writer, Doug, be a writer,' which I didn't pay any attention to. It wasn't even until about two (or three) years ago that I even thought of myself as a writer and made the commitment and decided not to do (visual) art any more."

Malcolm Parry, a columnist for the Vancouver Sun , was one of those flashing signs. He was in charge at Western Living magazine in Vancouver when Coupland applied for freelance work in 1987.

"I felt from the beginning he was among the very best of the writers I had ever dealt with," says Parry, who had worked with freelance writers for about 15 years. "He always either impressed or astonished me with his invention."

Coupland's first assignment involved flying to Los Angeles to write a story about a Vancouver art dealer who'd gotten into trouble with the law. Challenging stuff for a debutante. But he pulled it off.

"I don't think people become, except in lotteries, luminous and well-known," Parry says. "His success thus far didn't come about as a result of some kind of accident. He intelligently and scrupulously went about to do as much as he could to ensure it."

When Parry was asked to take charge of the Toronto-based Vista magazine (also defunct), he hired Coupland.

"Some people missed both of them, they felt the office wasn't any fun with the two of them gone," says Rhonda May, who worked with Parry and Coupland at Western Living . "Doug was the kind of person who was always breaking out of the mould. He'd bring a saxophone and stick it on the wall, or spray-paint the wall around his desk with pink and white paint."

Once, he brought in a huge animal skull and propped it up between his and May's desks. It still had moss sticking to it. He brought in an electric keyboard and played Bach in the afternoon.

"He's a very private person," says Dale Hrabi, a friend and the managing editor of Flare magazine in Toronto. "In a sense that's one reason I'm glad he's writing books. For me, it's a real opportunity to have the equivalent of four hours of his mind straight."

When Generation X came out, Coupland promoted it aggressively, calling editors, dropping off copies to magazines he thought would be interested.

Promote himself

"Picture the classic pastoral novelist in Canada who puts out a thing in a little literary press, and then doesn't know what to do about it after that, and it sells 100 copies," says Jim Cormier, who was a senior editor at Vista in Toronto when Doug worked there.

"In Doug's case, after he finishes the books, he has tons of ideas about what to do to promote them and promote himself and build an image."

Coupland has appeared in the American press emerging shirtless from a lily pond. In a recent Saturday Night magazine, he appeared mowing the front lawn of a suburban home in flames.

"He's an unusual, individualistic guy, but if he weren't that, if he played by all the rules, well, he wouldn't have done any of this, people wouldn't be paying attention to him," says Cormier.

Generation X , the book, was published in March 1991. But it was a long time hitting the best-seller list. Word-of-mouth, not advertising, accounted for its success. Shampoo Planet is about the generation after Generation X, teenagers with liberal political ideals and conservative fiscal ideals. It's as hip as Generation X.

Coupland achieves the remarkable texture of his books by carrying around small spiral notebooks, in which he records thoughts and observations. Baby boomer Harris-Adler remembers Doug taking notes at a New Year's Eve party. She'd invited Coupland and, of course, other friends, who had come of age during the `60s.

"Doug got them talking about it. He began to take notes at this party. It was disconcerting to say the least. I felt kind of like an artifact almost."

At the bookstore, a long queue of Generation Xers has formed for the opportunity of a few seconds with Coupland. They tell him things like they love his book, the characters in it, and that their birthday is Saturday. Their admiration heals Coupland. He becomes chirpy, cheerful, expansive.

"If there's anyone who has to go back to work, come on up," he says, close to 1 p.m. "People trapped in wage slavery."

After CBC drops in unexpectedly, Coupland finally agrees to be photographed. He was right all along. The results are awful.