Douglas Coupland

Interviewed by Jackson Weaver

Douglas Coupland is the author of over thirty books of fiction, non-fiction, film and teleplays, as well as a world-renowned visual artist with instillations displayed throughout Canada and abroad, including a major survey of his work at the Vancouver Art Gallery everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything. His breakout novel, Generation X, popularized the term that has since come to describe every person born between the early 60s and late 70s and, since then, has had a career spanning over 30 years of continuous publication and critically acclaimed work. He has been described variously as “iconoclast,” “exegete,” and “genius.” We talked about his past, an artist’s struggle, and never taking vacations.

You’ve written for almost thirty years in fiction and non-fiction, create and showcase visual art around the globe, and have a fan base that spans generations; that’s not a bad CV at all. That said, was there ever a time you were afraid an artistic life wouldn’t work out, or didn’t seem to be working out in the moment?

Not to be disingenuous but every single day. I have been, if nothing else, self-employed for 29 years, and the thought of not being free always keeps me on red alert. Having said that, there are moments like the past year-ish where I can’t imagine writing fiction. It will return — it always does — but what I write will be different from anything else I’ve ever written. Every book is different from every other book; I have no genre.

And you’re always creating something, even if it isn’t specifically fiction. In your movie, there’s an amazing little moment where you’re stuck in the production of the Canada House, the art instillation made from a rehabilitated CMHC housing facility, and give this aside:

“I have this rule which guides me through life which is ‘It has to be done and if you don’t do it, it won’t get done therefore you have to do it.’”

That’s quite a work ethic. In addition, I’ve read that you don’t take vacations. Is this still true?

It is. Almost. But last month I went to Chile, where I’ve been before, up in the mountains down south where the world fell away and I think it might have been the first holiday I’ve ever had and it was G R E A T. On the other hands, basically, well, yes, we’re given the gift of life and it only lasts for 72 years and then you’re dust again. Why waste it?

I think this might be a trait common among writers, and artists in general. I just saw Whiplash for the first time (I know, WAY behind the times), and was really affected by the drive and desire at the heart of it all. Have you always had that feeling, that drive, pushing you to create and experiment, even before Gen X?

One thing that art school teaches you — and it’s a very good thing — is to always experiment. Experiments can flop, but then there’s always the next experiment which may be great. You don’t learn any technical skills in art school except maybe drawing (which I don’t think they do anymore) or… I forget who said it …Fitzgerald? You go to art school to figure out your style. When you fall drunk into the False Creek at three in the morning, what quip do you offer to make light of it? These days you have to have science credits, language credits and …God. How hideous. You go to art school to figure out who you are.  I don’t even know if I got grades at Emily Carr. I guess I must have, but none of us every talked or thought about them. It really was better then. Sorry. Not something you want to hear.

It makes sense; you’ve said that becoming a writer is a process of luckily falling through cracks and coming into opportunity; that becoming a writer has always been hard and still is. Aside from luck, is there a choice you made starting out that, looking back, was absolutely essential to becoming a writer, or did it all just sort of happen?

For any writer it’s always luck. There are ten million talented writers out there, and not everyone gets a break, but you have to be ready for a break when it happens. And you have to take on projects that are out of your comfort zone, whether in form or content or material.

I have to say, your story, or the little I know of it, is more than a bit heartening for the average struggling artist out there. You speak about your twenties in your movie Souvenir of Canada:

In my twenties I was unworldly, and I didn’t know about all the things I know about now, and a fool’s luck saw me through the whole period. I mean I was incredibly lonely, I was miserable, I had an awful twenties—I think most people do.” 
I think that is really refreshing, really eye opening for other struggling artists. I would never revel in another person’s struggle, but there’s a solidarity there; feeling stuck and overwhelmed in your twenties is part of the journey, and—eventually—it ends. Is there anything you know now that you’d like to tell your mid-twenties self, or to writers and artists in a similar position now?

My worry about giving advice it that someone might follow it — and if it somehow doesn’t work out that means someone made bad life decisions and I’m to blame on some level. And remember, during my 20s there was no internet. There were just postcards, expensive landline phone calls and, if you were connected enough, faxes. That was it. And the radio and TV. From art school onwards I made the technically worst career decisions it’s possible to make in our culture then. From art and design (I was actually doing okay there) to magazine writing to fiction writing… all in an amazingly short period of time. I had no sense of the future.  In 1987 I was living in a bachelor suite in a building at the corner of Powell and Columbia. A year and a half later I was living in the Mojave Desert. I was eating oatmeal and hot dogs and it didn’t matter. I think having no sense of time – whatever that means — helped a lot. I also had Yuppie Flu — or whatever it’s called these days… Chronic Fatigue Syndrome? …during the entire 18 months where this all went down. You never hear about it any more, but when all of this was happening, I’d wake up, feel good for 45 minutes, and then feel like shit the rest of the day. It ended when I moved to the desert, which makes me wonder if it was something fungal snuffed out by the dry heat. I’ll never know what it was, but it was gruesome. So there’s much to be said for being young and clueless.

One thing that is common knowledge among agents is that they can always tell when a writer is trying to impress their university profs, and the moment they sniff that, they stop reading. It’s actually good advice. You have to take whatever you were given in school and take it further and to somewhere new. Otherwise… otherwise you really are just writing to please your university profs, and they’d rather see you take things further, too.

What would you say ”impress your prof” writing sounds like? Asking for a friend…

You KNOW what I mean: emulating the writers you know they like; blanket disliking all the things you know they dislike; going to parties and using their words as if they’re yours. I do convocation speeches, and the one thing I always say is that a good teacher will tell you how to find things you love, and a bad teacher will train you to hate all the things they hate. It’s good advice.

In your case, your novels run the gamut on subject matter, from the themes of loss in Life After God and fear of international crisis in Generation X, to the existential angst and tragedy of everyday life in The Gum Thief, Hey Nostradamus!, and Girlfriend In A Coma, to your modern works more grounded in technology and its effect on people. Have you ever felt there’s a common thread to what you write, something you continue to return to or question through different lenses?

I have few opinions. This is good not bad. I have perceptions, not opinions. I base what I think on what I perceive. This means I’m open to all ideas. You will meet all kinds of people but I’m the one who will actually listen to you. People with strong opinions often freak me out, as it means they’re closed to new ideas. Why is it people who have extreme opinions are always the ones who pretend to listen to new opinions and possibly be swayed by what they hear? They’re just faking it. They’re never going to change and we all know it. Swing voters have open minds. They really will listen to you. I will listen to you.

I don’t have any scary psychopathologies that I know of except for seasonal depression, which is somewhat (and only somewhat) fixable, so I have few excuses for my personality — and I think that’s the situation for most people. I do have a few brain anomalies that facilitate what I create. For example, I have an off-kilter sense of time which, over the years, has spun itself out into writing fiction as well as thinking about the future more than most people do. I have a strong sense of space and colour and form (I did go to art school), which, especially since 2000, has taken the form of visual art. And a few times the two tendencies alloyed to create film or TV. But writing is mostly about time, and art is mostly about space, and they’re different parts of the brain. You can’t argue that.

The only thing I or any other writer or creative person has to offer is their point of view. I’ve always thought of myself as the ultimate neutral voice — I know, stupid — but I’m realizing that the more idiosyncratic I become, the more I enjoy what I do. Nothing cosmic there. It’s good advice for anyone creative.

A kind of staying true to your own voice; sharing an idea for the idea’s sake, not for getting that larger audience. You’re past the stage of art school, but is there anything you try to remember now—or try to avoid—to keep from drifting towards the insincere?

The thing about writing is that you can’t fake it. It’s either you or it’s not.  I actually can’t imagine what it would be like to write something insincere. It either is or it isn’t.

You often speak about the influence of the internet on our society, how we’ve been ”retribalized” by electronic technology connecting us so completely.

It was Marshall McLuhan who used the term, ‘retribalized.’ Read The Gutenberg Galaxy. It will blow your mind.

Do you think there’s a large difference in how authors can—or should—engage with readers than twenty, thirty years ago?

The constant has always been that, as a creator, you love doing what you’re doing. If you don’t love it then don’t bother. Deliberately looking for a larger audience is never going to work.

In your case then, which was the most difficult of your books to write?

The Marshall McLuhan biography for Penguin. I knew nothing of his work going in — that ended up being the title of the US version: You Know Nothing of My Work …it comes from a line McLuhan spoke in a Woody Allen movie. Almost a decade later I’d like to rewrite the whole thing. But that was the deal with that series of books. It was organized by John Saul and he wanted the writers to be way out of their comfort zones writing them — which I certainly was — but it changed my life, all for the good. It really is important to experiment always.

I’m very impressed by how you do all the stuff you do… you’re a pretty productive guy yourself.

Thank so much, I’m really just trying to create as much as I can in as many different venues as I can. I’m working on my first novel right now, which I am absolutely sure you hear from every twenty-something writer who interviews you. How did you go about crafting a novel in the early stage of your career?

How old are  you… 25-ish? My experience is that most people who write novels were usually doing something else until around 28-ish and then they said to themselves… hmmm… I think I need to write a novel. The message here? Be gentle with yourself until about 29. As my life shows, there’s a lot to be said for being fully plastic and fluid until your late 20s. Here’s something to remember: most people never finish the novel. For ever one hundred people who tell me they’re writing a novel, only one finishes it. There’s a lot to be said for just writing the damn thing.

It seems the main thing is just getting it out there somehow, and getting it seen. Is that true?

Don’t worry about getting reviewed. Go work on a fishing trawler or work in a bowling pin factory for a few years. Your subconscious needs two years to digest and process everything you’ve been doing. Don’t develop a drug habit of ANY sort and make sure you always have two quiet hours ONLY TO YOURSELF every day.

To end off, I’m honestly reluctant to ask this question; asking “Where do you get your ideas?” feels wrong, almost like asking where you get your sentences. That being said, I am curious to know, do you have a particular process when working on a project, and bringing an idea to fruition?

I’ve never not had ideas. Double negative! But I can’t ever remember not having ideas. They’re everywhere in my head always, and if I’m feeling like I’m not getting my usual number of ideas I’ll go out and read (or reread) a book like Gutenberg Galaxy which forces me to slow my brain down to pre-internet levels and hyperfocus on one sentence — or even a fragment of a sentence — at a time. It’s good advice. The problem for everyone these days is slowing down the brain. Books are the one place left where you can still have your brain pretend it’s in the 20th century.


Jackson Weaver is a musician, cartoonist, and writer from Vancouver, British Columbia, currently studying creative writing at UBC. His comics can be found at www.diein.space, samples of his work at www.jacksonweaver.ca, and all else under @jacksonWweaver

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