"All I Ever Wanted Was to Control My Own Life": An Interview with Chuck Klosterman
Cultural critic Chuck Klosterman talks with PopMatters about his new book, Downtown Owl, his regrets about an old one, and that he might next get into making documentary films.
Downtown OwlPublisher: Scribner
Subtitle: A Novel
Author: Chuck Klosterman
US publication date: 2008-09
Fargo Rock City:Publisher: Scribner
Subtitle: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota
Author: Chuck Klosterman
US publication date: 2002-05
Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa PuffsPublisher: Scribner
Subtitle: A Low Culture Manifesto
Author: Chuck Klosterman
US publication date: 2004-07
Chuck Klosterman IVPublisher: Scribner
Subtitle: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas
Author: Chuck Klosterman
US publication date: 2006-09
On the very first page of Downtown Owl, you learn that a whole lot of people are going to die.
Dated February 5th of 1984, the opening newspaper clipping describes how at least 11 people are dead and several more are missing in the wake of a cataclysmic freak blizzard in the Red River Valley.
On the very next page, we are introduced to Mitch. The date is August 15th of 1983, and Mitch is attending high school in the small town of Owl, North Dakota. He is a remarkably average teenage boy, one who is by all means "normal" but still widely ostracized in his peer group.
Soon arriving at his school is Julie, a slightly introverted young 20-something who is going to be teaching a variety of subjects, including -- oddly -- the local history of a town she's only been living in for a few days. Julie will soon discover her love of being a barfly, drunkenly flirting with every guy in Owl but never taking any one of them home. These drunken exploits eventually reach the ears of an elderly man named Horace, who long ago lost reason to keep waking up on a day-to-day basis but does so anyways. just because it's what his deceased wife would have wanted him to do.
These three characters form the core of Downtown Owl, the first novel from Chuck Klosterman, the noted pop-culture essayist behind such delightfully comic tomes as Fargo Rock City and Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. At the end of his last book -- the odds-and-sods collection Klosterman IV -- Klosterman delved head-on into the realm of fiction with a story that featured a main protagonist not far removed from Klosterman's own personality, working at a small-town newspaper and getting heat for giving two stars to every movie he reviewed.
To some, the notion of Klosterman tackling a work of fiction will arch an eyebrow or two, but Downtown Owl is fundamentally Klosterman: whole passages are devoted to fictional town histories (as in how the Owl High's mascot used to be the Owl, making the team's name the Owl Owls), explanations of everybody's nickname (since everyone in Owl inadvertently gets a nickname that usually has very little to do with their life accomplishments or personality), and -- in a chapter in which Julie is aggressively courting mysterious barfly Vance Druid -- the words that are actually spoken between these two lost souls is interspersed with paragraph-length descriptions of "what he meant to say" and "what she was attempting to convey through means that made no sense". In essence, it's pure Klosterman, through and through.
Sitting down with PopMatters, Klosterman discusses how he felt it was important to set Downtown Owl in an age removed from the Internet, how the book is both informed by his life while simultaneously non-autobiographical, and even that one little regret he has about writing Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs ...
For being one of the world's most noted pop-culture columnists, what was the biggest challenge that you faced in writing a work of total fiction?
People keep asking me about the difference between writing nonfiction and writing fiction. I never know how to respond to this. I suppose I would have gotten the same question if I had written four novels and then a nonfiction book.
It was harder to write fiction, but maybe that was only because I'd never done it before. I can't remember if writing Fargo Rock City was hard or easy.
Certainly, it's harder to make things up than it is to respond to things that actually exist, so fiction is more creatively demanding. It's not necessarily hard to describe a person, but it's always hard to create a person. I suppose that was the hardest part: Just knowing that every single thing on every single page had to be psychologically built before I could type about it.
Why did you set the book in 1983/4? What is the significance of those years for you?
I did that for a handful of reasons. One was that two central incidents in the story (the Gordon Kahl shooting and the blizzard) happened during that period. Another was that the book Nineteen Eighty-four obviously plays a role in the narrative.
Another was that 1984 is really the first year of my life I can remember in detail, and I wanted to go back in time as far as I could without losing my sense of tangible recognition. But the biggest reason was that I find this specific period of America history interesting -- I wanted to write about the last major era when there were no cell phones and no Internet, before the proliferation of cable television.
After reading your fictional short attached to the end of Klosterman IV, I got the sense that your fictional alter-ego wasn't too far removed from your own personality. With Downtown Owl's Mitch, however, I feel that you picked a personality that was your polar opposite: a kid who is only marginally interested in sports, hated rock music, and is still a virgin.
How did Mitch originate for you? Did you find it difficult in motivating a character who is so deliberately unlike yourself?
Technically, there are no autobiographical characters in this book. At the same time, every character was created by me, so I suppose they're all unconsciously autobiographical (one way or another). This is a good question. I really have no idea what the answer is.
The character of Mitch is supposed to be a representation of a type of high school student who is alienated (despite being normal) and depressed (despite having no real problems). I liked the idea of a teenager who hates rock music.
Obviously, it would have been easier to make that kid obsessed with some specific band, because I could have used the group's preexisting iconography to illustrate elements of that kid's personality. But I didn't want to do that. If I had wanted to write about a teenager who was obsessed with rock music, I would have just written about myself.
If there is anyone in this novel that actually thinks like me, it would probably be the old man [Horace].
I'm going to jump out on a bit of a limb here: personally, the book came across as a tribute to small-town life, and its increasingly finite possibilities. The characters all have flaws and vices, yet none of them seem to mind; it's as if all their dreams they had when they were younger just faded away once their lives settled into a daily routine.
Though fictional, I can't help but shake the feeling that this book was very much informed by many of your experiences in Fargo Rock City. How closely did your own life inform the creation of Downtown Owl? Growing up in a small town, did you really wind up having to change details all that much?
I would say my life completely informed the writing of this book. How could it not? What else would possibly inform it? But that doesn't mean this book is somehow real. I didn't want to write about my own life. That was the whole idea with this. However, I did want to write about a time and place I completely understood, because I needed the details to be exact.
The ending of the book takes the life away from at least one major character, but there is nothing special about this death -- it just happens. There are no dramatic movie moments at the climax: it's as if some people just get lucky and other people don't. Were you trying to provide a more realistic view of life (and death) with this book (i.e., almost "documentary style" as it were)?
Every time I reached a juncture of this story where I had to make a decision about how something tangible would occur, I tried to always pick the scenario that was most realistic. The parts of the narrative I like the least are any moments where the action feels fake to me.
When writing the stories for Mitch, Julie, and Horace, did a "favorite" emerge for you?
The Horace sections were the most fun to write, because those chapters are almost entirely interior. It was almost like First Person writing, which is always the most enjoyable.
At one point, you mention how Mitch and his friends begin talking on top of each other like an Altman film, though practically none of them would ever see anything by the cinematic auteur.
There was the unshakable feeling that this book could almost pass under the term "Altmanesque" -- an absolute cavalcade of characters are introduced, but very rarely do they ever cross paths (barring Julie saying "hi" to Matt in the hallway once), instead leaving us with three very distinct slice-of-life narratives that don't collide: they just run parallel with each other. What was the motivation for not bringing our central characters together at the end?
Well, first of all, I do think the characters are brought together at the end. But I know what you mean. It has been my experience that people who are familiar with each other do not necessarily have any relationship whatsoever. There were dozens of people in my hometown that I could identify and describe and categorize, even though I'd never actually spoken to them once. I knew them, but I did not know them.
The press release notes how the moral of the book is about what the definition of being "normal" is, but I didn't get that vibe as much; instead, I got the sense that these three lives -- one starting out, one at its supposed "peak", and one near its end -- were devoid of true purpose, either because meaning hasn't been brought before them or the meaning of their lives had been taken away, instead all of them toiling away, expecting for some event to happen that would shake things up.
Had the storm at the end not happened, do you feel like we could return to Owl at the turn of the new millennium and find that our central characters would be approaching fulfillment, or would their lives just be more of the same?
That's a great question, but I can't answer it. To me, fictional characters only exist in the story itself. I don't know anything that happens to the "Mitch" character that isn't already in the book.
When I read a novel or watch a movie or a TV show, I never forget that I'm consuming a false reality that was constructed by some normal person. When I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I never felt like I was actually in Narnia.
Now that you've tackled a fictional novel, audiobooks, essay collections, and multiple magazine articles, what can we expect next from you?
I am currently working on a new long-form essay collection. It will either come out in late 2009 or 2010. That's the next project.
And I only think one project ahead, so we shall see what comes after that. I'd like to make a documentary film, but I have no idea how.
Lastly: so far in your career, what's been your biggest regret, and -- conversely -- what's been your proudest accomplishment?
I wish I would have written Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs more slowly. I don't think I even re-read that book once before publishing it -- there are a few sentences in there that I have absolutely no memory of writing.
I suppose the thing I'm most proud of is that I've been able to have a professional writing career without doing any of the things people always insist are essential: I never went to a private college or lived off my parents' money. I never went to a writer's colony or started a web site. I was able to avoid networking completely -- I just wrote the books, and now they exist. All I ever wanted was to control my own life. There is nothing else I ever needed.