Heartburn and Brain FreezeInterview by Christopher Stipp
Pop culture needs more people like Chuck Klosterman.
Klosterman seems to have that rarefied ability to make astute, observational stances for any number of subjects. From football plays to deconstructing the time he spent with Val Kilmer, he is possessed with an uncanny knack for indulging a wide variety of subjects and making them relevant, most of the time insightful, to a reader who may never have thought to ask the question that seems to drive Chuck: How can I say something original about this? He may not ask himself that but I would dare any reader of his new book, Eating the Dinosaur, to try and work through why he would spend as much time in the opening salvo in this new collection of short essays to talk about the nature of interviews when he himself is an interviewer and one who is interviewed. It’s all very meta but Klosterman makes the subject fascinating to delve into and it’s like this throughout the rest of the book. He’s possessed like an animator who flips between sketches to see how to slightly change the art that came before it; it’s a continuation of what he’s always done before but it does show forward movement in the way he strives to keep evolving as an artist.
I talked with Chuck about his new book which is currently available.
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: Chuck, this is Christopher Stipp.
CHUCK KLOSTERMAN: How are you doing, man?
CS: I’m doing fine. Thank you so much for agreeing to do this. It’s the highlight of my week.
CK: It might be my highlight too but it’s too early in the week and who knows what will happen to you. (Laughs)
CS: Well, after reading Chuck Klosterman IV I knew I wanted to talk to you. When I was reading the opening essay in Eating the Dinosaur the very first chapter it deals with interviews - really breaking them down in a way I don’t think I’ve ever really read before.
CK: I hope in a positive way.
CS: Absolutely. I am really curious how you came upon the idea to break through the idea of what an interview is and what they really mean. To be sure, your talk with Erroll Morris was just fascinating.
CK: Well, thanks. I think it was by chance the way my career has went, I went from possibly interviewing people to being interviewed a bunch. And then it dawned on me that my perspective on this wasn’t necessarily unique but I was one of the few people that really had that experience. I started thinking about how the process of being interviewed changed the way I thought about how interviewing worked and how I would conduct interviewing other people.
I started thinking about the people I felt the most sort of – again interviewing people in public – Erroll Morris is the first person I thought of and I just spent a lot of time thinking about people’s motives because whenever people talk about how people are portrayed in the media or how they project themselves in the media they always talk about the details but the motive is glossed over. The idea intrigued me why people answer questions and I just sort of started thinking about all that.
CS: And you almost hear it inside your own head when you try to explain it to somebody else and I think you capture that rather nicely but like you said, the superficial intimacy, we’re having this conversation but both parties are looking to get something out of it.
CK: I think a lot of people think there is a non-natural reason for doing interviews. Like promoting yourself or whatever.
Now, I’m over thinking about my answer because I’m thinking about you asking me about being asked and it’s collapsing in on itself. I don’t know. There’s a special part of how we understand the world and if there’s anything that we use the media for it’s to try and understand these people that we don’t have access to. I always thought that somebody should write a book about interviewing because it’s always been intriguing to me about how many people I’ve met through journalism that really struggle with interviewing. It’s a very unnatural thing for them. And there’s so many books about writing and reporting but nobody’s really written about the conversation.
CS: I will let you know, there is one and I’ve read it. It’s utterly fascinating. It’s called The Art of the Interview.
CK: Who wrote it?
CS: Lawrence Grobel.
CK: Well, I’m not surprised that that exists. There’s definitely a market for it. I’m surprised I’ve never read it.
CS: It’s great. It helped me – I’ve been doing this now for 5 ½ years and it's provided an understanding of the back and forth in interviews and what should really come out at the other end. Do you find that doing something like this is like that first chapter? Has it helped you to – did you gain any insight into the process?
CK: Yes, although I have to admit that the insights are kind of disenchanting. With all the essays in this book the principle question is sort of trying to understand the difference between the extrication of things, the reality of things and how the hard reality gets twisted by a section of the past. I used to think that interviewing was the only way that a journalist could really understand everything they’ve written about, but now I’m not so sure that mentally that is not true. In fact, the opposite might be true. It might be possible that interviewing people actually makes what we write about more distorted.
CS: Like I said, it was the most jarring thing that made me fear, well, I shouldn’t say fear, it intimidated me to have this conversation with you today. (Laughs)
CK: I knew this would happen simply because that essay is first when people interview me about this book, very often and I totally understand this, people that are going to interview the author don’t have time to read the whole book from the beginning, the only thing they get from this book is that I lie in an interview. (Laughs)
CS: I tell you what, let me go further in the book. I really loved your writing about In Utero. I think that really was a watershed moment in alternative culture when that album came out. I was really interested in how you came to the idea of wanting to deconstruct about In Utero’s existence. Why did you target that particular release?
CK: There was a point early on in the process of writing this book that I thought it was going to be framed about the 1990’s.
That was kind of my original idea. It is not that but my idea was that I was just trying to find out if the 90’s were as good as the standards of the 50’s in a way. I also wanted to write about music and the memory of waiting for In Utero to come out. Then I would think about Kurt Cobain and then my mind would turn over to David Koresh and I would read about Branch Davidian stuff and then back to In Utero. So then I thought about this is how ideas about essays are started, how they are numbered and lettered in non-sequential order. The thing I wanted to do, what I was trying to do, is write essays that replicated how the mind works, specifically how my mind works. Which moves from tangent to tangent and are streamlined.
Start with a premise and end with a premise but the manner in which you get there is both connected and disjointed at the same time.
More specifically, if you are asking why I picked In Utero, I don’t know. I think, to me, of all the records it was the crudest example of the question I was trying to get at, which is why sometimes something is so bad and how the badness is understood by the artist and the consumer. The consumer needs to know In Utero isn’t conventionally good, but it was intentional to be that way.
CS: And you certainly point out some of the conspicuous consumption of people like Courtney Love buying a Lexus and, in the larger sense, what that purchase implied. Do you see that as just a rock star thing or is that something more, like you said, is it a conscious choice that she choose a Lexus of all things?
CK: Because of my age, I’m 37. I went to college in 1990, graduated from college in 1994, so those four years are when the average person is really engaged with culture. And because of the timing of it, starting in ‘90 through ‘94 I was really conscious of the move from heavy metal being the predominant medium in rock to grunge being the predominant medium and how in some ways those bands are similar but the difference being faction and motive but you really had to be conscious of the motive of alternative rock, that was a big part of it. So there are all these things you had to know about the music that was outside the musicality. Things like what kind of car Courtney owned became important in a way that wouldn’t have been important if talking about Guns N’ Roses or Motley Crue or something. A lot of the discussions I would have about Nirvana would not be musically based even though we love the music, it would always be based about who we really believe these people to be. It was more authentic than the music we listened to just five years ago. If you were talking about what kind a car an artist in the 80’s owned it didn’t really inform anything about how you appreciated the record.
CS: Actually, I remember a Details or GQ column that appeared in the early 90's. There was an interview with Courtney Love who called out Trent Reznor for driving a silver Porsche and now, fast forward 16 years, Trent is more relevant than ever.
CK: More relevant than ever?
CS: OK, OK, I'm overstepping. I think he went away for a while and somehow was able to surge back to popularity. People championed his ideas about music distribution, giving it away for free, essentially. But I guess he can afford to do that. He can afford to give his music away but somehow it sends the message of what rock is all about.
CK: He was a high profile artist. I don’t know if he invented anything interesting but lyrically he is always the first person to look at something new. The normal reaction from an artistic personality is to see your thing and immediately think this is somehow mitigating the ways things have been done in the past. I do think that over time we’re probably going to be able to say he was more in the thick of things than a lot of his peers.
CS: Do you think he’s the Steve Jobs of the music world? (Laughs)
CK: Kind of! David Bowe and Madonna are both like that. They are the first and quickest to adopt new ideas and add their personality and make it something that’s theirs. Over and over again.
CS: I don’t want to switch gears too fast but I do have to tell you how much I loved the chapter The Best Response. If I have a favorite chapter, that is it. Maybe I’m wrong but there seems to be a lot of apologizing in front of the cameras nowadays.
CK: And there is an expectation that that has to happen if something wrong was done.
CS: Right. You have to come out and issue a public apology. Donte Stallworth killed a man who was walking across the street. He was interviewed by ESPN but then there was an entire subset of sports talk show hosts analyzing the apology – was it deep enough – was it sincere enough – what did he say – what didn’t he say. And I’m just fascinated by this culture that people will analyze apologies.
CK: And it’s not just the analysis of the apology, it’s just that that the apology was written by a group of people. So, talking about Donte Stallworth’s apology or Michael Vick’s apology, people tend to think it’s all marketing. What they are really analyzing is not the person’s response but what becomes the acceptable way to apologize. What language are you supposed to use.
CS: Right. What’s constructed and what’s sincere. I’m jaded and completely distrustful of anything I hear anybody say now.
CK: If you hear someone’s apology on television and if we turned off the television and turned to the person that was in the room and said like "Well, I guess he’s sorry and knew it was wrong" the other person would immediately roll their eyes. That would be your visceral reaction.
CS: Exactly. And that dovetails into the NFL. I had no idea that you were so hooked on the NFL.
CK: The interesting thing is that there is a certain subset of people who read my work and think I’m only a sports writer.
The only thing they’ve ever read is things on ESPN. Then there are people who think I’m only a music critic. And then there are some people who think I’m some sort of humorist. And when I wrote this book I thought to myself there is a percentage of people who are not going to be interested in the analysis of pro football and college football. I can only write about things that are interesting to me.
CS: And for someone who is trying to understand these sorts of things I can say your writing makes me slow down. You may have written "if this is not your bag, go to the next chapter" but I slogged through it because I really am trying to understand what was so important. I’m curious to know what you think about a show like Hard Knocks on HBO. I’m utterly fascinated by it, in that you have some guys on the verge of making a lot of money and not making anything.
CK: Hard Knocks is an exceptionally well done kind of sports program. I’m not exactly sure why but Carson Palmer is much funnier than I anticipated, Ocho Cinco is predictable and interesting. And the thing you mentioned is really true. When you think about pro athletes you sort of have the picture of this person who is a multimillionaire. But it’s interesting for these guys who are on the cusp of making the team. There are not many situations in life where you have a two or three week tryout with the difference being, you’re going to make $750,000 a year and basically become a public figure and become a high profile person versus having no other career alternative. You could end up making nothing because you didn’t finish college.
It’s like watching these people have a job interview with a game. But here it has rewards and penalties greater than any other job in life.
CS: Right. And when you see these guys get cut and just kind of slink off, you kind of feel bad. Because you’ve been around it as a sports columnist. What do you know about these guys who are put on waivers and become free agents? For the guys that don’t make it… what do they fall back on?
CK: OK, Marlon Lucky was a tailback for Nebraska. What would Marlon Lucky do? He can try out for another team but that’s unlikely, because if you can’t make it with the Bengals you can’t make it anywhere in the NFL. So there are a limited number of jobs there. Unlike basketball, there are limited opportunities for guys to go overseas and play. So what he’ll probably do is go back and play for Nebraska. He may finish his degree I think -- and I don’t know anything about Marlon Lucky, but I know about people who play for Nebraska -- he could go back there and join a car dealership or something where the name Marlon Lucky means something to people within Nebraska, Omaha or Nebraska City. Then he sort of has to build his life around his reputation as a college player. It would be a strange thing because people have extremely short memories in Nebraska. Even if somebody watched him play 6 or 7 times on television last year or maybe followed him his entire career, many may not care at all about the fact that he exists in 6 months.
I hope Marlon Lucky doesn’t read this interview.
CS: The Q&A portion of your book, it reads like a stream of consciousness. What prompted the unsolicited questions and your own answers to them? Your own call and response.
CK: Well, you know, there are times when I am by myself and imagine conversations that never happened. I’ve always done this I guess. I imagine me interviewing someone or someone interviewing me, or a journalist interviewing a certain kind of filmmaker or certain kind of musician. I did one book where I asked hypothetical questions and I just decided I would kind of use fabricated interactions between people who in a sense, were talking about the same idea I was writing about. I don’t know if that’s a very clear answer. I assume some people would read them and think they are real. I assume some people would read them and think they are totally fake and have no relationship to anything.
Not sure if that answers your question. What was it you were asking?
CS: I was just curious to know why you decided to stick them where they are and the purpose of them.
CK: Well, the purpose, is whenever I do something like that the answers are all after similar core ideas about different topics. I sometimes feel like adding those little world questions to flash something in the reader’s mind that they unconsciously become more aware of. You don’t want to say this is what the essay is about. Anybody can do that. What I’m trying to do is get to the core question of whatever the question is. I thought it was funny, I don’t know. Compared to my other books, I suppose this book is slightly less funny but I wanted to have something in it that was entertaining because I think that people that read books want to be entertained. They want their books to be interesting and they want to feel like they are dealing with ideas, but it is a kind of entertainment. So some of that stuff is just for comedic purposes.
CS: What kind of an audience are you writing for when you sit down to cobble together a book like this?
CK: I am less conscious of the audience or less conscious of any response to the work in a weird way. When I wrote Fargo Rock City I was not only conscious of the reviews that the book got, but I was very conscious of the process. Even when I was writing it, it was very difficult to write without being sort of aware of how someone might review this work, think about this work, might respond it or even how I would respond or criticize the work. But as you get older, I don’t know, it just sort of disappears. Not sure why. I changed.
I would think it was insane when I would read an interview with an author and they would say "I don’t read my reviews" and think they are all lying, but now I totally understand how that happens. It’s not like at one point you think reviews matter and at one point you don’t. It’s just that you become less interested in how people respond to your work. I think it’s been a process but it definitely seems to happen. And I can see it in other people I know who are writers. I can tell from reading what they write, or talking to them that the maturation process makes them much less interested in how people respond and that really kind of goes against the direction that media is going now.
On the internet the commentator culture is more important than the original piece. The blog culture and people who do all their writing on the internet are hyper conscious of response. Now, if you write a piece in New York Times, a whole list of commentators are responding to it. And it’s starting to feel as though the whole thing is centered on the readership. What I do like about books is that it’s still the way it used to be - sort of - and you can still sort of do things, not in a vacuum, but more in a vacuum than anywhere else.
CS: Correct. There is not a lot of misspelled, poorly worded, bad grammar commenting...
CK: Everyone always thinks when you talk about commentator culture they always assume you are talking about negative feedback. But I’m even talking about positive feedback. I think even positive feedback in journalism in commentator culture is a detrimental thing because, the same way that being attacked online bothers people, being preyed on online makes a lot of people happy. It makes people think that if people like their story, this guy who liked my story can write up this comment of how well done it was or likes the position I took. There is an unlimited number of possibilities online to write in any voice you want and any perspective you want. It’s actually becoming more modernized than print media was. It seems like I see the same style of writing and the same kind of perspective and same opinions now than I ever did, almost as if the bylines don’t even matter now. It’s kind of like there’s this voice and I think it’s really the effect that most people who write for the internet are conscious of people who like their work – immediately.
CS: Help me understand a little bit further – what would you offer as sort of a 20 second idea how somebody should write for an audience online? Is it basically just write what you feel? Is it as simple as that and don’t worry about what anybody says? And, further, don’t even listen to what anybody says?
CK: It’s really hard not to listen. You’ve got to be tough. In an interview it really is a problem. Let’s say somebody writes and they decide that I’m not going to be impacted by what the commentators say about this or what people say about that. They are still going to get a sense of what stories generate the greatest response and they will unconsciously want to do that again.
They obviously care about the public, right? So there is an awareness over what stories get read the most and elicit the most reaction. Even if they kind of take their eyes off the actual reviews, I do think its changes them. I don’t know what the answer to this is because also if somebody wants to success in online media, it would be a mistake to tell them not to pay attention to it because the emphasis in online media is creating public discourse for the other side of the story itself. So if I told somebody, don’t even pay attention to how people respond to their story, it might make them a better writer but it might make them less analytical. I think people are finally realizing this, but the difference between writing online and writing in print is actually vaster than people realize. That’s the whole thing. Initially they say, "Hey, it’s the same journalism it always was, it’s just not on paper. It’s a better medium." It’s not. It’s not the way it is. It’s a little different. But the relationship between the two things is more complicated than that.
CS: I think you touched upon it a little when you talked about the process of feature writing. If you have an article due on Wednesday and you write it on Monday and look it over on Tuesday that would be pretty much it. An article in a print product feels like there is more attention given to it if you're getting paid well. Ostensibly, you want to get re-employed by the people who hired you. The weird thing online, and I'm interested in your opinion, is that you hammer it out and push POST.
I feel like there is more care put into something going in print than when it’s published online.
CK: Hmm. That’s interesting because I feel the opposite.
CK: I feel that whenever I write anything online the response is still immediate and it amplifies the sense of how much it’s actually being consumed. In other words, if I write something online for ESPN or something, there is this immediate reaction with all these people who are linking to the story and they are commenting on their content. It gives the writer an accurate understanding of how important their work actually is. It makes people think their work is more important too. You can sort of close your culture down to a degree. People know who you are, making you feel famous. That is one huge difference now when it’s very easy to sort of create the parameters of your world so that, in a much smaller world, you can be a much greater public intellectual and sort of assume that the world you created is the work itself. I think that’s why a lot of people who – actually it’s a dangerous thing – it causes people to live in a sense of self. A lot of people want to feel like their ideas are valid.
CS: Do you see yourself more comfortable in the written, physical page than you do in the electronic ephemera?
CK: Um, yeah, I do. That’s just a product of when I started doing this. I was lucky in the sense that I kind of got into it, Fargo Rock City was just before – the Internet existed but just before it exploded. I was kind of able to establish an existence in the old world of media which I think is much more difficult for a new writer to do now. I feel like there is a belief that you have to establish yourself online to have the ability to write for Esquire or GQ or any of the traditional places of print media.
CS: Do you see a convergence or do you see a demise of the paper product, of newspapers?
CK: Absolutely. There is no way around it. I think it’s really expensive to gather news. It’s expensive to put out a publication. Now with this realization from advertising that in the past, if Levi's wanted to pick a demographic, they would go to a magazine or maybe buy an ad in a newspaper and now they sort of realized, and are starting to get it; that the amount of money advertising costs the advertiser is not worth the return.
So, I don’t see – I think maybe someone will come up with a new way to make this work - but I just don’t see how it could.
I don’t see what’s going to change that is going to re-inflate the value of writing enough to pay for the things that really cost money – like having someone being embedded in Afghanistan or sending three reporters to the Super Bowl even though your local team isn’t playing.
CS: One topic I didn’t hit on yet was something I found really fascinating and I was wondering if I could get your input. In the book, you talk about the absurdity of Sting releasing a book of lyrics, of his own song lyrics. I was reminded of a long time ago where Michael Stipe was on MTV giving an interview about his own rationale for not including lyrics. His answer was something to the effect of, it is kind of what you think it is. I found that, and still do, to be a very satisfying response.
CK: Michael Stipe?
CK: I think we read the same interview. He mentioned how in "Losing My Religion" the line "that’s me in the corner" at one point was "destiny in the driveway" or something. He was consumed by it but the impact of the song would have been the same if he would have used driveway. People are going to make a decision about what driveway is supposed to mean. Is it a physical driveway? Is it a metaphor? It’s totally true. When you listen to a record like Murmur, or listen to any song, if a song is good and you like the vocalist but you don’t understand what’s being said, you are going to construct meaning from bits and pieces.
CS: It felt OK. And I don’t know why, but it still does today. I think if there’s anything I’ve taken away from music it’s that, if I understood what the artist was doing then I get it, I'm fine. I don’t want to analyze what something truthfully means because it doesn’t change what the song means or what it is.
CK: But sometimes if you know what something means, it does change. That’s the thing. I don’t know if I necessarily agree in totality in what was said on this because, say for example, are you familiar with "The Boys Are Back in Town" by Thin Lizzy?
CK: Do you know what the song is about?
CK: What do you think the song’s about?
CS: On a very superficial level – Some boys are back in town to raise a ruckus.
CK: That’s what I thought. The guys came back from college, maybe they were high school guys and now they are back. As it turns out, I was watching television and one of the stars of Thin Lizzy is talking and he didn’t really know what the song was about, only had a vague idea, but they found, off the recorded demo, in a storage center, realized that the original title for the song was G.I. Joe and the song itself is about guys coming back from Vietnam. So I kinda looked into this and found out that "The Boys Are Back is about guys returning from Vietnam.
Now that I know that, the song does seem very different to me. I like to analyze lyrics. Me and my friends' favorite kind of hobby is to sit around and talk about the literal meaning of lyrics and look at the lyrics as real conversations for people. "The Boys Are Back in Town" even sounds different to me. The guitars seem to be more relieved. Obviously the song is the same. Nothing about the song is different. But to my knowledge the song has changed. How I feel about it, and that’s kind of what this whole book is about, that process. Learning things intellectually can change your reaction to something – like football.
CS: It’s still the same game. It is still guys on a field throwing a ball in a game of football. But knowing the intricacies of it adds such another layer of understanding, that it does shift your third eye in a way.
CK: Yes. I always try to find ways to make life more interesting.