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Douglas Coupland

CultAdmin's picture Posted by CultAdmin

Douglas Coupland

The Original Inspiration
Dennis Widmyer
Douglas Coupland

Hey everyone. Remember me? That Dennis guy who once interviewed author Max Barry and then Craig Clevenger soon after? You all thought I'd be a staple in this here section but I went and vanished on you. I let other people pitch in and carry the load of interviews for a while. Well, I'm back. And while I call it a "load to carry," I feel it's actually one of the most important features on our website. Interviewing authors such as we have is what makes this site tick. Hell, it's the reason why I started with my good friend Amy Dalton so long ago. And I mention Amy because it was her that got me into Douglas Coupland.

Yes, Douglas Coupland...

I shit you not when I say that the idea that sprung forward could just have easily become instead. I truly feel that he is one of the most important storytellers of our generation. His staying power astounds me and he has had his finger on the pulse for what our generation craves so many times now it's like he's a televangelist dictating to a crowd of believers.

This is an important interview, folks. A landmark interview for Or at least a landmark interview to me. I'm a big fan of Coupland's work and I want him to know (even though I told him a whole bunch of times) how much his books both amuse and haunt me. In the past 15 years, he has amassed an amazing work of fiction, non-fiction, photography and sculpture. His books include Generation X, Shampoo Planet, Life After God, Microserfs, Polaroids From The Dead, Girlfriend In A Coma, Miss Wyoming, City Of Glass, All Families Are Psychotic and what I think is his best work yet, Hey Nostradamus.

It's important to remember that before there was a Chuck Palahniuk, there was a Douglas Coupland. And you know what? There still IS a Douglas Coupland... and he's better than ever.

Now, let's get to the "interview." I put that word in quotes because you all may have noticed by now that I have a rather unorthodox (read: unprofessional) way of conducting my interviews with these literary geniuses. With Max Barry, we did the whole thing through Instant Messenger, and I purposely left the banter and "prose" of our conversation alone. Then, with Clevenger our raw interview transcript comprised over 25 pages of unedited Microsoft Word transcript. And since every answer that guy gives is gold, I had to turn our interview into a four page diary of days.

Well, with Douglas Coupland, I took my hesitant foray into the world of email interviews. Now, let me tell you that I fought Doug every inch of the way on this method of interviewing, but he was insistent that it would all turn out great... which of course, it did. (probably why he's the writer). So I have decided to present this interview in as close to the email format that the two of us shared over those few days of back and forth. You'll begin to notice a trend that I put Doug through that he constantly teased me on. And while I'm known for self-deprecation, this interview may bring me to an all new low. Enjoy!

The First Email > 5 Questions > Theme: Coupland's Roots

(i actually get away with 14 questions in this email!)

Hey Doug,

Dennis Widmyer here from I apologize for the delay in getting this interview off the ground. I was in Portland screening this little documentary thing we did on Chuck. I also took the time to hit up Powells bookshop and bought some very cool first edition, signed, hardcovers of yours, all for very affordable prices.

Okay, I'm sure you've heard this about 471 times already but I'd like this to be as unorthodox an interview as I can muster. Whereas I was sort of adamant about doing the IM thing for the spontaneity of it all... I have sort of fallen in love with your 3 emails... 5 questions per email... idea. Because now I can group together my questions by theme and tone. But first, a warning:

You're gonna not gonna get any original questions in this interview... I haven't read all your work...
I'm winging this...

Still, maybe I can shock and amuse you with my ignorance and naive charm.

My first five questions follow... as does Doug's reply:

Hi Dennis...

You dastardly thing. Your first question alone is actually five questions in disguise. I forgot to mention the "one question mark = one question" caveat. Here's a good start...

Dennis: Tell me about your college life.

Coupland: [Dennis, this is technically not a question. Questions have question marks at the end, harumph, harumph...]

When Americans say college, I think they mean university. I didn't go to one. I always went to tiny backwater specialty places with lax admissions policies and minimal bureaucracy. During art school I'd sometimes wonder if I was throwing my life away, and I'd drive to UBC and see all these people with Shetland sweaters and genuine textbooks walking around being smart and collegiate and... somehow I always came away being happy about art school. I think my school info's on a website somewhere. I don't have time to write down my CV.

Dennis: Tell me about your time in Japan.

Coupland: [Ditto] That would take too long. One year in Japan is like four years of art school. It completely forces you to rethink the options available to us inside a consumer democracy, usually in a doing-more-with-less manner, which always leads to creativity.

Dennis: Tell me about your first job as a sculptor.

Coupland: [Ditto] Making art work isn't really a job. It's what you do, and at one point in my life, everything else was just a way of paying the studio bills. I actually did well and enjoyed it, and I've been happy to be getting back to it the past three or so years. I used to think writing and visual/critical work were apples and oranges, but it's all art, one just happens to be made of bound paper and text. It's like a weirdly configured print that sells in large editions.

Dennis: What it was like making that transition into writing with Generation X?

Coupland: There was this point in early 1988 when I realized that writing wasn't just a bill-paying job, that it was actually something I do, and so I had to reconfigure my life to meet this change. I was too young to think about it as being hard or easy. It was simply life. With hindsight, I'm appalled by the chances I took. But that's why nature makes young people so dense.

Dennis: Before that, had you made any serious attempts at writing for a living, or did it just sort of fall into your lap?

Coupland: Fall into my lap? You're joking! Name one person on the planet who had writing drop into his or her lap. It's just not that kind of activity. I will say, though, that aside from deeper id/ego issues, I've always enjoyed writing, and I'll stop the moment I stop enjoying it. I have a rule in life. Basically, if it feels like homework, I shouldn't be doing it. That's why I never write book reviews -- I've done maybe 5 in my career -- because they feel like a ninth grade assignment.

Dennis: Besides being a writer, you are an accomplished photographer and designer.

Coupland: Yes and no. Again, it's the apples and oranges thing -- photography and design are simply another way if inflecting ideas. Remember that in the 1980s I worked happily and successfully as an industrial designer, baby cribs of all things. And I also studied photography the old school way in art school. So it wasn't a vanity thing ("Doug...the fragrance ...get it now") but simply fits into a continuum of what I do in life.

Dennis: Can you make comparisons between this field and the field of writing?

Coupland: You can look at a painting and know in five seconds if it's good or not. Books take longer. You can also listen to loud music when you're you're painting or cutting or gluing or whatever, but books demand silence. Book writing also require that you maintain a long, protracted trance state for over a year. In 1990-something I did a fund-raising Absolut ad for the Western Canadian Wilderness Committee. It was, like, a 400-word mini-story that raised $10,000 but everybody thought I took it all for myself. I really got fucked over in the press. It's the most generous thing I ever did, and instead all I got was grief and shitheads. Ugh. Fuck them all.

Dennis: Do you enjoy one more than the other... and if so, why?

Coupland: I don't know any more. I think they're the same.

Dennis: Describe your first book tour and what that was like.

Coupland: St. Martin's never supported X in any way, so I didn't start touring until 1992 with Shampoo Planet (a book I dislike eleven years later.) It was good to find out that I don't mind speaking to crowds of people, that it's actually pleasurable. I enjoy events that involve reading. They're great.

I also got used a lot in my early years. I had bad advice and no advice from the people in my life. Now I'm hyper-attenuated to anybody who might be trying to use me. If I even get a whiff, I'm gone.

Dennis: Do you find that you generally get a very different reaction from fans in the book world than you would from fans in the art and design world?

Coupland: There's no discontinuity between the two; people from both realms seem to click on the same things. So no, I don't think there's a difference. One thing I've noticed is how antique the book world is. In art school we were taught that everything is an art supply. In English programs they tell you that nothing is an art supply. People come out of English programs terrified to write about the world as they live it, for fear of pissing off some invisible 300-level English teacher that follows them everywhere they go. It's depressing. Imagine having a bitter fucked up ghost trailing you for fifty years.

Dennis: Any scary run-ins with fans, groupies, obsessed book nuts?

Coupland: Actually, no. I'm lucky to have civilized readers.

Dennis: Please describe your method when you write.

Coupland: [...not a question, Dennis] Longhand at night. Then input into a Mac in the day.

Dennis: Run us through your drafting process when you're in the thick of a new novel.

Coupland: Dennis, good God, how many questions are you going to ask? This is more than enough for the time being. Get back to me.

from Vancouver,

I'm sitting in Toronto, Canada right now feeling very cool. I'm in Douglas Coupland territory now. Granted, the guy's from Vancouver... many, many, many hours away. But at least I got the country right. Yeah, Coupland may have spent a part of his life living in Los Angeles, but he's true Canadian pride. I went to a bookstore and saw that he gets treated with a greater respect here - more face-outs on the shelves, and even a "Canadian's Own" feature tale stand in a nearby Chapters bookstore.

To celebrate, I brought Coupland's previous novel All Families Are Psychotic with me on vacation. It's a great read so far and I get a certain giddiness knowing I got to interview this guy for our site. I want people to lean over and go, "Ohh, you like Douglas Coupland too? What's your favorite book of his?" so I can ignore the question and go right to my, "I interviewed him for my website!" answer. Pathetic, I know.

Speaking of pathetic, it was about this time in my email interview with Coupland that I began calling him "Dougy C." I did this same thing with Chuck about 4 and a half years ago on the site and it seems to caught on. (yes, I'm taking credit for the Chucky P. thing right here and now, damn you!!!). Anyway, I think Doug was so stunned by the nickname that he found himself unable to properly respond to it.

Regardless, our interview continued. Join me now for part two, where I try and create a new "theme" to my "questions."

The Second Email > "5" Questions > Theme: Coupland's rise to mythic generational stature.

Hey Doug,

[Amusing email banter from my end to be filled in soon. You see I don't have my desktop computer with me here in Toronto and so cannot access my saved emails to Doug which had my witty yet obnoxious comments in them. So you'll have to trust that they were witty and obnoxious and just enjoy the actual interview part of this specific... well... interview.]

My five questions follow... as does Doug's replies:

Hi Dennis...

This is great. don't worry. Here we go...

Dennis: You mentioned that in hindsight you no longer like Shampoo Planet. Is there a book of yours since then that has become your favorite over time, and if so, why?

Coupland: Probably Life After God. It came out back before people realized what I was doing with books (and to be fair, I'd put myself somewhat in that category back then.) I think if someone else had written it, it'd be a beloved cult classic. Because [when] I did it at first it became something else. There are a few things I'd change here and there, but it holds up beautifully. It comes from a dark, fucked up part of my life, and is probably the better for it. Some sort of weird writing law.

Dennis: I read somewhere that you grew up in a family without any religion yet you tackle this topic a lot in your work. What are your views on religion in our culture today?

Coupland: Dennis, could your questions be any broader? You have to narrow this one down. Put yourself in my shoes! I don't want to feel like I'm in an exam hall with a clock ticking above me.

Dennis: How do you feel technology has influenced your writing?

Coupland: On a mechanical level, not as much as people might think. I write longhand, I can't type, (two fingers) and before I start any book, I know exactly where I'm going, and so I never go back and insert and much around.

In a broader sense (and you know I dislike broad questions, Dennis) people think I love technology and use every chance I get to put it into my books—which is just plain weird. Inasmuch as it's a part of life, I write about it. All my characters now use Google, because it's a part of our real world as it is lived. But this gets back to what I said earlier, about how schools strip you of options and limit your art supplies. Because people are so trained to believe they can't use the real world, when someone does, like me using technology without being sci-fi, it seems shocking.

Dennis: Generation X came out in March of 1991, the same year that punk broke big...

Coupland: It was the year grunge broke big, but I was also there for punk back in 1976, in high school, too. Fuck, am I old.

Dennis: ...and "alternative culture" was ushered into the mainstream. Do you think that "outside influences" like music affected your success? (a big fan and fellow journalist named Will Tupper asked me to ask this one)

Coupland: {Hi Will} As for music, grunge was simply what was happening. You could go down to Seattle and see Nirvana, Alice in Chains and just about everybody at RCKNDY and the clubs. When it broke big, it was weird because to people in the PNW it was simply life as normal, not a statement. Did it help 'put me on the map'? Probably. I'm not dumb. But again, it wasn't an engineered thing. It was simply life. Same thing with Microsoft and Microserfs.

Dennis: Yeah, thrice now, you've sort of had your finger on the pulse with what is going on with our generation(s).

Coupland: ...SORT OF?

Dennis: I refer to Gen X, then Microsoft in1995 with Microserfs, and then most recently with the rise of video games and your examination of the Lara Croft phenomenon. Do you find you've got a good ear for what our culture wants at the moment?

Coupland: The Lara Croft book was a quickie I did because friends worked there and it was fun. It's not a book, but sort of a protracted introduction to a gaming guide.

At the moment I'm doing the sequel to Microserfs, which I'd best not overly discuss. It involves people in tech, but that's now about 87-percent of my friends, so... it's simply my life. That's the only way to do it. Nothing's worse than a book where the author sought out a trend and milked it. You can always tell, and they only sell 17 copies anyway. Books are good because they're cynicism-proof. I have this expression: the only things you can't fake is competence, creativity and sexual arousal. To this I might add cynically conceived books.

I demand more questions.

Q: What can you tell me about Postcards to the Future?

Well folks, all good things must come to their good end. I hope you all enjoyed this awesome bonus to the site. As a fan of Coupland's work for many years, this interview represents a high point for me. I really didn't know what sort of person Coupland was going to be. In approaching him, I used humor as a shield because I was sort of nervous and intimidated by him. He has a quite persona in many of his pictures. Like he's haunted by something. And it definitely shows through in his work. He has an invisible style when writing which never overbears you, yet transcends the page and stays with you long after.

I hope that if, nothing else, this interview will turn a lot more fans of Chuck's work onto Douglas Coupland's. The men are both fans of each other's. And it's obvious why. They are both completely of our generation. Call them torch bearers, but they both just know how weave moving, poignant, and hysterical stories with eccentric, unforgettable characters.

Okay, enough ass kissing. Let's wrap this baby up.

The Final Email > "5" Questions > Theme: What theme? Let's just have some fun with the guy, for pete's sake!

Hello once more, Dennis...

Dennis: Hello, Doug. Who are some of your favorite writers?

Coupland: I'll list a few, but to American readers they won't make much sense. Canadian schools and libraries tend to skew almost entirely toward the UK rather than the US. So from a younger age, you're more familiar with Evelyn Waugh than the ultra-American writers like John Cheever who basically doesn't exist in Canada. (I know, that sounds bad, but it's pretty much true.) So my list would include Martin Amis, Muriel Spark, Margaret Drabble, David Lodge, Evelyn Waugh, Jean Rhys, Nancy Mitford and, of course, J.G. Ballard, who is amazing. Please tell me you're familiar with his work.

As for non-Brits, there's Kurt Vonnegut, Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Tony Kushnir, Sherwood Anderson, John O'Hara and, of course, Chuck.

I'm not familiar with most canonical texts, simply because of the way my education went. But every time I hear somebody under 60 say their favorite writer is Henry James, my inner alarm bell goes off that this is someone trying to impress their long dead college Lit teacher.

Dennis: What are some of your favorite books?

Coupland: Off the top of my head ...Winesburg, Ohio, The Ice Age, Answered Prayers, Slaughterhouse Five, Nice Work, Appointment at Sammara, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Angels in America, Running Wild ...and Fight Club, which was also such a great movie, and the studio did the worst job of representing it when it first came out.

Dennis: What's your favorite foreign cover of one of your own books? (and link me to it if it's on the web)

Coupland: The Japanese cover of Life After God
The UK paperback cover of Life After God
The US cover of Hey Nostradamus!
The Hebrew cover of Generation

I don't think there are links. I'll try and get you some jpegs.

Dennis: I know you designed the cover for the trade paperback of Miss Wyoming, (which I fucking love, by the way) [thank you.] Have you designed/photographed any of your other book covers?

Coupland: As of now, they've finally realized that it's just easier and better if I do them. Eight books later. It's important to remember that up until about 2000, the art departments of all New York publishers were rarely even in the same building as editorial offices. Art and editorial were insanely jealous and hyperprotective of their turfs. So, to say, in 1995, that you wanted to come in and do your own cover was honestly impossible. Today, editorial won't hire you unless you know Quark and PhotoShop. I thought the day would never come.

Dennis: If they were willing to let you, would you design all your future book covers?

Coupland: Oh yes.

Dennis: I hear that Michael Stipe's company "Single Cell" purchased the rights to All Families are Psychotic. [True] What stage of movie development are some of your novels in?

Coupland: All over the map. I don't follow it any more. On the up side, because sooner or later everybody films something in Vancouver, I've made some really good film industry friends over the years.

Dennis: Have you ever participated in writers workshops?

Coupland: Not as a student. I've dipped my toe into the water once as a teacher (won't say where.)

Dennis: What is your take on them?

Coupland: My experience is that the students wanted free therapy, and a temporary father figure to toy with. I think that would appeal to certain types of people, but not me. These people really wanted to be bullied. It was odd.

Dennis: How much of an effect, if any, did the Columbine shooting have on the inception of Hey Nostradamus?

Coupland: Most Americans are unaware of a shooting that occurred in Montreal on December 6, 1989. A nut case named Marc Lepine went into the Ecole Polytechnique (a trade and engineering school) and shot 14 female students dead. I was in Montreal when it happened.

I've never mentioned it in interviews before now, as I didn't want it to look like I was capitalizing on it. When Columbine happened, the ground had been well tilled and fertilized.

Final Words From Doug:

Dennis, hasn't this been a much more satisfying interview than an instant mail or a phone call? Not only that, but you now get to go in, re-sequence, do spellchecks and (added bonus) you don't have to write the damn thing -- it's already done.

I'll try and get those scans your way. Please send me a copy of "Postcards From The Future." It sounds terrific and worth all of the post-production effort you put in.

What else... say hi to Chuck on my behalf, and email me if I can help you in any way.

Wishing you a Krusty Khristmas 2003,