INTERVIEW WITH DOUGLAS COUPLAND
by Alexander Laurence
Douglas Coupland is a lucid Canadian writer who loves nature. He reminded me of that fact. “Whenever I smoked pot in high school it was always around nature.” He is the author of three books: Generation X, Shampoo Planet, and most recently, Life After God. His new book of short stories and drawings describes the mental framework of someone who grew up in a secular environment. Coupland is a frequent contributor for The New Republic, The New York Times, and Wired. For Wired he recently wrote “Microserfs” which was about Bill Gates and the Microsoft company.
Coupland was born on December 30, 1961 in a NATO base in West Germany. He now lives in Vancouver, where he grew up. He claims that the most important images in his life were Marcia Brady, The Poseidon Adventure, and Patty Hearst. His story, “Patty Hearst,” recalls the days of her captivity in a Western Addition room in San Francisco.
One of the Baudrillard-like comments by Coupland in his new book explores his new view of memory: “I believe that you’ve had most of your important memories by the time you’re thirty. After that, memory becomes water overflowing into an already full cup.” Coupland, as a writer, has always been short on character and psychology, and big on ideas and conceptual things. Many excerpts from his new book, can be seen on MTV. He may be one of the few contemporary writers who is guilty of too much thinking. His new book, MICROSERFS, will be out in June 1995.
I’d like to start off things by saying how sorry I am to have missed the reading last night at Cody’s Bookstore in Berkeley. How did it go?
Douglas Coupland: It was a mob scene. It was cool. I read one short story, then I read excerpts of the captivity tape recordings of Patty Hearst. Let me wake up here...
How has the tour been so far?
DC: Oh great. It’s been really enjoyable and the readings have been enjoyable. It’s been about a 12-city tour. I don’t know if Americans consider Canada to have real cities? New York was the second city that I went to. I read at Barnes & Noble, at 82nd and Broadway, upper west side. There was a snow storm and the troops came out. It was great. There’s that scene from Spinal Tap where they’re at the record signing. The band is asking “You did advertise this event, didn’t you?” It didn’t happen this time, but it happened once in Edmonton where they really did forget to advertise. They said that they would atone this time. This will probably be my last tour. I think the airlines are mechanically and institutionally unraveling. If I stop touring, it’s because of the airlines, not the bookstores.
I noticed that you refer to yourself in the second person. You say “you,” and not “I.”
DC: I always talk about myself in the second tense. I mean the second person. What’s “the second tense?” That’s something that will merit exploration. That’s a Canadian thing: speaking about yourself in the second person. I’d rather be Canadian than American. But then, Canadian publishing is a joke. I don’t know if Americans really care about Canada.
What do you think about the Information Superhighway, or more specifically, the SF Net, E-mail, the InterNet, and stuff like that?
DC: Is the SF Net a Pynchonian secret mail service? Have you ever seen how boring a chatroom is? “Hey, how ya doing?” “Great!” “Bye!” I have American Online which is a piece of shit. But I’m stuck with it. I use it to write letters to Wired basically. Even then, you’re not sure if they get through. One thing that I like about E-mail, as opposed to paper mail, is the people who at the moment have E-mail tend to be smarter and funnier and they’re written for you. Paper mail is usually someone who wants some money. Paper mail is like Mary Tyler Moore looking at a steak, and the price, and tossing it into a grocery cart. Whereas E-mail, when it’s to you, it’s to you, and it’s funny and it’s real. I don’t think it’s radically transformed the personal web of my own life. At 2400 watt, how can anything transform the world? And American Online keep lying and saying that they’re going to 9600 watt, like that’s some big improvement. I’m just so mad at those people. They provide terrible service and I don’t know why they get all the press that they do.
You did some “spoken word” spots for MTV that are now being shown. What do you think about “spoken word” and MTV?
DC: I don’t write poetry. I respect it, but I don’t write it. I don’t know anything about it. We don’t get MTV in Canada. It’s literally illegal. The RCP can throw you in jail for down-linking MTV in your house. We have this thing called “Lunch Music” which is like MTV on 1/1000th of the budget. I think that MTV is certainly moving towards the written word. They’re experimenting in all sorts of ways. I hope it works. They always try new things. Most networks don’t. You don’t see NBC or Fox experimenting with new ways in presenting the written word. In some ways, they’re reviving it. People are talking about poetry more often now.
In Generation X and Life After God, you explored the themes of nuclear threat and cold war fears. Why do you think that these themes of panic and paranoia still seem relevant to our everyday lives?
DC: The nuclear threat has never been more real or more serious than it is right now. You have all these nut cases (and I won’t even call them countries because they’re just nothings) with ICBM’s. Everyone thinks that the problem has gone away. It’s not gone away. It’s gotten worse. I’m always astounded when people say “How can you worry about nuclear issues when they’re so passé,” like they were go-go boots or something. There’s all these nut cases in charge of ICBM’s now. They all hate each other, and they’ve hated each other for thousands of years. They’re just itching to drop them on each other, and they will, next week probably. And that thought of “Everything is fashion” is going to sound ridiculous. It’s a reality that we all have to live with. I don’t think I’m going to write about it anymore. I think that I’ve dealt with it in my own head. But I wish people would stop treating the nuclear threat like it was the waif look. People of a certain age: they grew up with nuclear preparatory drills in school. Duck and cover. That kind of stuff. After a while, they gave up on that. Afterwards, there came this whole group of people for whom the bomb was still this enormous, looming, menacing, sexy, deadly presence, and yet there’s no mention of it anywhere in the culture. It’s not something parents could talk about because they grew up in an era of little bombs. They didn’t have the language to discuss these things. Next week, Tamponastan is going to drop a bomb on Armpitastan. And it’s going to turn into one big cauldron of venom. It’s just a fact of life.
What sort of religious upbringing did you have? Don’t you think that any culture is still reacting towards some religious orthodoxy, and cannot fully escape some form of religious ideology?
DC: I was raised in a totally secular environment. That germ of Judeo-Christian thinking wasn’t there to begin with. You can’t imagine it there. It simply wasn’t there. You are presuming that I’m some lapsed Christian. I’m not. I’m working from zero.
Are you talking about Atheism? How is a secular upbringing different from either an atheist denial or a Christian positing of God?
DC: Atheism is nothing new. That’s been going on for thousands of years. What is new, is that for the first time you had parents in the 50s, 60s, and 70s who found that it was liberating to raise kids without any religion. There’s a small group, like myself, who were entirely secular. There’s a larger group of Christmas Christians and Easter Christians who got those basic instructions about coping with the bigger issues in life, which in other cultures are simply handed to you on a platter when you’re born. Then you have people like myself who reach a certain age when adolescence ends. We protract it out to 30 years. But when it ends, you want to look for some sort of brainwork, or foundation, or underpinning to make sense out of your life, which is usually not too positive. If you didn’t have those Easter egg hunts or pictures of Jesus when you grew up, or something else to act as a pointer towards something else. So you have nothing. Ex nihilo. You have to construct some sort of empirically based, rational system of making sense of everything. And that is something I started doing two years ago. I haven’t had any major, mega-epiphany, or something.
Since you have turned thirty, what has happened?
DC: After you turn thirty, people begin to talk behind your back.
Isn’t any involvement with culture a replacement or a resemblance of a ritual like an Easter egg hunt?
DC: No, I don’t think so. It’s just a mini-version in a greater ritual in an orthodox system.
Has the use of “politically correct” language influenced you in any way?
DC: I remember in the late 1980s when Time and Newsweek both had within two weeks their PC mania issues. “PC: What is it?” What is this thing that has taken over our culture. I read a description of it. I said “Oh, that’s what Canada’s been like since 1968, at least.” Canada has been a working laboratory of PC a lot longer than America. Down here, it’s like some newly found thing. Up there, in Canada, it’s been fully functioning. Canada has been diverse for 25 years. People have stopped sentimentalizing the mono-culture a long, long time ago.
Is your writing a tool to make a greater sense out of the world?
DC: Yes. That’s the only reason. This accountant, Wayne, up in Vancouver, asks me “Doug, why can’t you write books that people can buy in airports, with car chases and stuff?” I said “Well Wayne, that’s not the way I write.” It would be lovely if it was magic and I could crank out something in 18 months, and make zillions of dollars. That’s not the way it works. That’s not the way I work.
How was your experience working for Wired?
DC: Wired was good. A lot of other magazines wanted me to write about Microsoft, but what they actually really wanted was a piece about Bill Gates, like it hasn’t already been done. The magazines would say “We’re looking forward to your Microsoft article.” They really just wanted me to spy on Bill Gates and write about that. I told them “I’m not spying on anyone. You don’t want a Microsoft piece, you want a Bill Gates piece, right?” And I said that I wouldn’t do it. For a couple of magazines, I had the same experience. Names I won’t mention here. They strung me along. I got Wired And John Battelle to write it into the contract that I was to write a piece about Microsoft and not Bill Gates.
What kind of drugs have you used?
DC: I quit drinking and smoking five years ago. I’ve never done coke, acid, or ecstasy. I smoked some pot in high school. Vancouver is one big drug cesspool. Ecstasy must have some evil side effects? Like you lose 3 million brain cells. That’s how a Canadian thinks. There can’t be any pleasure without some penalty. Even the writers who are romanticized as bad alcoholics, from what I’ve read about them, the only thing they ever wrote that stood the test of time, was written in that one hour period in the morning before they got tanked. I think lucidity is valuable. It’s obviously very easy to get distracted in our culture. remaining reflective and keeping lucid is and evasive state of mind. It’s something that I try to locate.
You’ve mentioned your dislike of cities, and like of nature. What is that all about?
DC: In cities, there’s no nature anywhere. I live next to a park. I go hiking once or twice a week in Vancouver. That’s the one granola aspect of my life. I have to be near trees all the time. In cities, I start losing it. That’s how I ground myself. In the 1970s, in high school, when I did smoke pot, it always had to be around nature. But that was 70s pot. It was useless. Now, it’s half-a-toke-and-you’re-dead pot. I get paranoid when I smoke pot. It was all peer pressure.
Why do you think that you never got involved with the drug culture? Terence McKenna said recently “Going through life without taking LSD, is like going through life without having sex.”
DC: When I was in high school, drugs were common. Only losers did that. I was opposed to all that. Pot was the only OK forbidden substance. Watch those drugs! People do notice.
I thought that you said “Thought is the only forbidden substance.” Maybe you did. So I was interested in your adolescent experiences. How were they different than for most Americans?
DC: My experience was more unusual than most people in North America. I began kindergarten and finished high school with the exact same group of people. My parents aren’t divorced. It was very stable: the community was incredibly intact. Once the kids left, the parents tended to move away, At the time, it was an amazing uniformity of view. It was literally the last suburb. There was a cyclone vent between us and the wilderness, which is the rest of British Columbia. Being from where I am makes you hyper-aware of yourself as an organism and your connection to nature: A. that you’re a part of nature B. that you’re a human being and there’s a part of you that transcends nature. What is that transcendent thing? Is it that people need our lives to be stories? My favorite quote is by Tennessee Williams. He says “Nature is not created in the image of man’s compassion.” What is human compassion? It’s something that I’ve been really thinking about. It’s all that I think about. Trying to locate the better side of ourselves, because we’re in this odd period right now where it’s like Science Fiction. Machines are making machines, especially in the Silicon Valley, that are making people if not unnecessary, then besides the point.
There’s also some form of information Darwinism taking over.
DC: As the tree is being shaken, it’s causing a lot of cultural fallout. The most important of which, at the moment, is Fifty-Somethings dropping out of the economy at a frightening rate, which I mentioned in the Wired story. Now the Forty-Somethings are starting to fall out of the economy. The 90s are becoming this enormous battle. If there’s anything that defines this decade, it is the battle for staying and keeping yourself relevant. Are you relevant? Are you an information have or are you an information have-not? Are you a geek? Like a geek is suddenly the coolest thing you could be, because at least it means you’re not losing the race.
You have machines on the one hand and nature on the other. Do human beings fit into the picture anymore?
DC: It’s not like without human beings, the earth would somehow fall apart. It’s quite the opposite. Structurally there’s nothing cool about us. There’s something different about human beings that allows us to perceive time differently. Futures, pasts, stories, histories: we’re so lucky to have it. It’s the mystery of life. In the frazzle of modern life, which is getting faster and faster, there’s no denying it, the ability to reflect on it is getting lost. The characters in Life After God are middle class people who were leading perfectly normal lives until some form of loss enters the picture. They were literally forced, bumped on the head, to reflect on it, about real fundamental issues.