"Generation X" author on high-tech book tour


From Reuters (June 6, 1995)

by Martin Wolk

SEATTLE (Reuter) - Douglas Coupland does not like telephone interviews.

"I hate hate hate hate hate foners," said the author of "Generation X", who also is not keen on in-person interviews, for that matter, calling them "dull and predictable."

So Coupland's current tour to promote "Microserfs", his new novel about the young software developers driving today's computer industry, strays from the norms.

First, Coupland asks that reporters -- even those in the same room -- interview him electronically. "Even if my interviews are stupid, at least they'll be new," he said in an interview, conducted, naturally, by electronic mail.

And rather than reading from his novel at stops on the tour, Coupland will screen a 25-minute documentary that chronicles his adventures in California's Silicon Valley and other technology hot spots.

Coupland, 33, came onto the scene with his 1991 novel "Generation X" that bestowed a label on millions of overeducated, underemployed Americans under 30 searching for meaning in their lives. By now the Vancouver, British Columbia, author and sculptor is tired of being cast as a spokesman for that post-Baby Boom generation and he recently declared in a magazine article that Generation X is dead.

In its place, apparently, there is a world of "Microserfs" where highly educated people in their 20s and 30s try to get a life between "flights to Australia," as they call their 36-hour software coding binges.

The first chapter of Coupland's book, which appeared in Wired magazine last year, got the attention of Microsoft Corp executives by describing the firm's software developers as crazed post-adolescents sharing houses in the Seattle suburbs college-style and slipping each other "flat food" under office doors. The depiction apparently stuck close to home because in an interview with Wired, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates' only complaint was that the story was not labeled as fiction.

"What were they thinking it really was then?" Coupland asked. In any case, Coupland, who spent six weeks living "among and with various Microserfs" to research his book, counts himself as an admirer of the software company and its billionaire chairman.

"Microsoft used to be the underdog, and so everybody rooted for them," he said. "Then suddenly, almost overnight, IBM tanked and Microsoft came to define the computing industry. Microsoft came to define the next stage of The Myth. By default it also became this big target for journalists everywhere."

Gates himself permeates "Microserfs" although the bulk of the novel takes place in and around Palo Alto, California.

"I was almost amazed by the extent to which 'Bill' has a hold upon the archetypal consciousness of his employees and now, it would appear, the world," Coupland said. "I hadn't expected this before I went down. I thought that people blew his presence out of proportion, but as it turns out they haven't."

In fact, after spending several months in Silicon Valley researching the novel, Coupland came to the conclusion that Gates is precisely what sets Microsoft apart. "Microsoft employees really tend to focus their ambitions, talents, drives and financial cravings through the psychic lens of 'Bill,"' Coupland said. "Humans, in spite of technology, are still all too human when it comes to charisma."

He said the search for meaning by his characters reflects the rise of technology, which has led to "all sorts of new devices to replace relationships." But, Coupland, a contributing editor of Wired, is a big fan of high technology and a believer in the promise of the information superhighway.

"Sentimentalizing the recent past is stupid," said Coupland, who refuses to read any pre-20th century literature because it falls below his "minimum technology threshold." "By broadcasting your unwillingness and/or inability to enter recent worlds of newness, you broadcast your own obsolescence," he said.

So when he is struck by the muse, does he boot up one of his two Apple computers before transcribing his inspirations onto the screen? Not at all. He sits with pen in hand and scribbles his first drafts on paper, the old-fashioned way.

"Quality control," Coupland explained. "In front of a keyboard I'll just spew."