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interview

Douglas Coupland on Being a Visual Artist, the ‘Torture’ of Interviews, and Unintended Side Effects

Douglas Coupland built a reputation as an author-futurist nonpareil with his first novel, Generation X: occasionally glib or fuzzy but often prescient, never dull, and certainly never idle. Today the former art student spends more time on visual work, including large public projects all over Canada and his own line of furniture. Currently preparing for his first big solo survey in his native Vancouver — where he lives in wooded mid-century splendor with his architect partner and acres of Pop Art — Coupland also happens to have a novel out. Worst. Person. Ever. follows the bizarre exploits of a nasty cameraman named Raymond Gunt. Sent to Kiribati to film an awful reality show, this evil amalgam of Larry David and Mr. Bean endures misfortunes hilarious, disgusting, and well-deserved. Coupland spoke by phone about that, the “torture” of interviews, and much more with Boris Kachka.

Last week you did a Q&A at the New York Public Library with Chuck Palahniuk, which involved glow-lit beach balls and 100 rubber severed arms. Was that a typical book event?
Well, it was Chuck’s event really. He has a circus around him always, and he’s always giving out limbs. But can I ask you a question?

Of course.
I’m this writer who lives in Vancouver who did this small bonbon of a book for a certain kind of person in a certain kind of mood, and I work in the Canadian art system. Are you sure I’m a fit for New York Magazine?

Well, you wrote Generation X and other best-selling novels; you’re hailed as an artist and pop theorist; people want to hear what you have to say about modern culture. But let’s start with the book. What made you want to write a naughty farce narrated by the world’s worst human?
I think it’s the coalescence of a few things and — by the way, I’m going to make you feel uncomfortable and ask if you liked it or not.

I found it really … funny.
Good! That’s all it’s supposed to be. It has no deeper meaning. Two years ago, or whenever I started it, the world seemed just so earnest and serious, still in that post-9/11 hangover of glumness. I just wanted to write something to pull a certain kind of reader out of themselves. Did you ever hear Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s “Derek and Clive”? I’m sure you can look for it on YouTube. I think it’s the two of them getting drunk in the studio one night, after England changed its language laws on swearing, and it’s just this master class in how to be English and swear with great verve and nuance.

Your narrator has a knack for it.
It just seems like no one swears anymore. People still swear a lot on HBO, but the public discussion about swearing seems to be over. I do find it funny when people say, “I’m just so fricking mad.” Okay, you just took my brain to so many places by saying that. I think Raymond dissects that whole construction somewhere in the book.

Have your books grown less earnest since you’ve begun pouring so much energy into art?
Writing is all about time, and art is about space, and literally that dimension of my life wasn’t being addressed 13, 14 years ago. A lot of the time that I would have been putting into books I’m putting into art now, and it seems to be a shift I enjoy.

You also write nonfiction, including a book about a theorist dear to you, fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan.
And this other book I did, which won’t come out until September, on Bell Laboratories in New Jersey and Shanghai. But, honestly, my life is just in the visual-art world. Just sitting here talking about books is kind of like that dream where you’re back in high school. Wait, I graduated — what’s going on here? I’ll still be doing books, but it’s changed. Withdrawing from the book culture, it’s been very good for the way I approach books.

You went to art school and fell into writing with Generation X. Yet it’s your reputation as an author that helped you become an established artist …
I’ll take anything that speeds up the process.

Your survey at the Vancouver Art Gallery includes a sculpture of a giant head. Is it yours?
That’s Gumhead. It’s definitely my head. We scanned it six weeks ago — mainly a foam interior with a thick quarter-inch of polyester resin on the outside. It’s going to be black, and it goes outside the gallery, and people are invited to put chewing gum on it. So it becomes time-based art, social sculpture, landscape, still life, a lot of things. What makes it look strange is the eyeballs. You have to use a classical technique, making them convex and then carving a deeper pupil.

And why is it your head?
Because it’s my show! I don’t mind having the piss taken out of me; it’s fine.

Would it offend you to say that your frantic multidisciplinary activity makes me think of James Franco?
You’re not trying to make me into a monster, are you? If you knew me, you’d know that my life is anything but frantic. I live out in the middle of nowhere, and I’m not patient but I am disciplined and I enjoy everything I do. You only go around once, and it seems impossible to imagine being alive on earth and having the gift of sentience and to not explore it as much as possible. I don’t think I’ve industrialized my life. I’m industrious.

Are there deeper connections between your art and novels?
They’re so interconnected. You can’t just kill one Siamese twin. Part of the survey is a [section] where books become objects and then objects turn into words. And each of my books has all sorts of suggestions of either sculpture or installation or time-based art. In Microserfs in particular, there’s all those word clouds. The premise was What if your hard drive was dreaming? And guess what? Twenty years later, word clouds are just the way we file information now. For a decade I got people saying, “Gosh, Doug, your writing is very, dot-dot-dot, visual isn’t it? And I was never sure if it was a put-down or put-up. I realized what they’re telling me is “Doug, I’m not a visual thinker, and your books are written that way so it’s very hard for me to get into them.” I think nonvisual thinking is spread around the human race in a 2-to-1 ratio to visual thinking. Inasmuch as there’s a book world, I’ve never felt a part of it, and I don’t think I ever will.

You used to be very private about your personal life, and only came out less than ten years ago. But by 2009, you were photographed at home with your partner. What’s changed?
I’ve never been asked this. Let me think about this. How old are you, Boris?

38.
Oh, you’re entering a tricky patch, be careful. Just warning you. Around 40, everyone makes two and a half really bad decisions. So why do I no longer care? It might be because I’m 52, and you really do stop caring about what people think after a certain age.

How would you compare today’s millennial or hipster culture to its grungy forebears in Generation X?
I saw that Time recently did [a story on] “The Millennials. Who are they, what do they want? They’re useless, etc.” And it was literally everything they said about X, verbatim almost exactly, like 20 years ago. This is one theme in our society that reasserts itself every two decades. The difference between 1994 and 2014 is, everything’s just actually a bit better. There’s more variety, there’s better cultures. I remember being in California and trying somewhere, anywhere to find good coffee. All that really mundane-level stuff has gotten better.

And on a less mundane level?
Do younger people feel differently? Of course they do. Their brains have been molded by all these technologies and algorithms. The people that are going to be really interesting are going to be the people born after 1989, who have nothing to unlearn, no baggage to shed, and they will see far less difference between the real world and the internet.

Does it still surprise you that the title of your first book has worked its way, essentially, into world history?
When I wrote it, I honestly thought — and I had such a bad publishing experience with it, too — that maybe 11 people on the planet whom I went to high school with over a two-year window might understand the book. To this very day, I’m still surprised that people got it, get it, what have you. I think I’ve talked about this a million times before.

It’s kind of like: When you’re in someone’s house, do you look at electrical outlets? Probably not. At this point I just don’t even notice it anymore. It’s invisible to me.

Your 1995 novel Microserfs also anticipated the first Web boom. What would a Douglas Coupland internet-culture novel look like now?
I think current Silicon Valley has become so hypermonetized, as opposed to 1994, which was just so idea driven. After the bust in the early 2000s, the second wave was Google driven. This stuff was absolutely changing our society, literally changing our brains. And now I think with 3.0, it’s very hard to get a temporal advantage over someone else because everything explodes so easily these days.

That makes the novelist’s job harder too, right?
I don’t think so. I always set books in the extreme present, and all the writers whom I really, really enjoy, you can tell what week they wrote the book practically. Joan Didion or Vonnegut or Evelyn Waugh. In Microserfs there’s a pitch meeting for CD-ROMs, and it’s wonderful that it’s all been kept. I think that as time goes on, that becomes one of the big attractions. Man, you can’t believe what life was like in 1994 — read this! So is culture happening too quickly to chronicle? I don’t know, because human nature remains the same. But we used to have these things called trends that went on for a year or two years, and now we have these things called memes that just come and go in a day. So it’s like, Yeah-yeah-yeah, that was great last week, but I’m going to go to Reddit and find ten new memes immediately.

Maybe a term like “Generation X” wouldn’t last 20 years if it were coined today.
Oh no, it would last three and a half days. "Gangnam Style"!

You don’t seem to come down one way or another on whether all this change is good or bad.
I don’t think of things that way. “Unintended side effects” is my official term of the year. I was in Shanghai talking to the vice president of the Communist Party there — it was for the book on Bell Labs — and he said, “Do you know about our new five-year plan? By 2017, we want every citizen in all the ten major cities to have one gig of connectivity per second, and then in all the secondary cities we want 250 and in the tertiary cities we want 50 and then in rural areas, five” — which is probably what anyone in New York City gets with Comcast now. And, of course, it’s China, so it’s going to happen. And I said, “Have you thought about the unintended side effects? Take cars. When we imagined cars, who would have known that dogs like to stick their heads out the windows? Or with radio — with radio you get Hitler!” And he said, “All we know is it’s going to happen, and if it’s going to happen anyway, we might as well be first.” Looking at unintended side effects, looking at things that are so big they’re invisible — that’s what I end up being most fascinated by, and that’s never going to change. In everything, that’s what I feel like I was put on this planet to do.

That’s your reason for creating?
I don’t normally sit about hypothesizing. I don’t usually talk this way when I’m doing an interview. You’re actually exploring a rare and artificial side of me. I don’t know if anyone actually sits down and thinks of themselves in an abstract and linear manner. A friend of mine went on leave from teaching at an art school in Vancouver 15 years ago, and so I took over for a little bit. And all the students really, really wanted to know at the end was “What’s it like to be interviewed?” Seriously, and that’s why you want to become well known?

You’ve written about your distaste for interviews — especially in a piece on declining to record an interview with Morrissey. You wrote: “If you don't want people thinking you're an asshole, it means you allow your interviewer to torture you.” Am I torturing you?
You’re not torture, Boris, though I think you had some notions of what I might say, but I didn’t say them. It’s sort of like a speed-dating version of therapy or something. I always thought they should be paying you by the hour to have this phone call. I’m actually learning something about myself I haven’t thought about before.

Photo: Keith Beaty/Getty