Submit Response


Submit Response is a weblog by Jack Mottram, a journalist who lives in Glasgow, Scotland. There are 1308 posts in the archives. You can subscribe to a feed. This post was made on and belongs in the interviews category. The previous post was , and the next post is .

Douglas Coupland

Douglas Coupland writes books about the weirdness of modern culture and the effect of technology on relationships. His new book, Hey, Nostradamus! concerns the aftermath of a massacre in a suburban high school. He lives in Vancouver and as well as writing, sometimes makes tables. We talked to him about coincidence, change, and how strange R. Crumb’s upbringing was.

First off, why write about a Columbine-style school shooting?

Hmmm. [long pause] I talked about this last night with a writer named Matt Thorne. And we were talking about how you know when a book is ready to be written, and we both sort of came up of the notion of what it must be like to be pregnant. You just go oh, that’s the book. On one level you can plan things out but on another, it just comes out of nowhere.

You have to let it take its own course.

Yeah, but at the same time I don’t want it to sound precious and mystical and all’ooooh,’ which I think it may be a little bit, but sometimes it’s just ‘Ok, ooh, that’s it, better run with it.’

I suppose anything, any activity that is done in solitary and is then made available to the outside world is like that to an extent, in that it sounds a bit mystical.

I think so. I try not to be superstitious about it, but there is something superstitious about it as well. It’s also, I mean we’re talking about writing now, it’s a trance that you put yourself into for however long it takes to write the book. And while you’re in that trance, everything else sort of takes on an unreal quality, and then it’s over and it’s like’Oh! I’m not pregnant any more,’ you know?

You’ve given birth, as it were.

Haha! It’s strange, I’m sure it must be a little like that for women, having kids.

Something that isn’t necessarily in all your books, but in some of them, certainly, is the idea of there coming at some point A Change, and after that everything’s different. For example in Girlfriend In A Coma, it’s the coma, and then the end of the world, in Hey, Nostradamus! it’s the high school shooting, in Microserfs it’s the uprooting from Seattle to California’ is that a fair assessment, or am I reading too much into things?

Och, no, I don’t think so at all. I was talking about this with someone downstairs a few minutes ago, the notion that fiction - I personally wouldn’t want to read a book unless at the end of it, or within it, there’s the possibility of change or transformation within myself. And so I think okay, with any book I write, I would hope that someone entering it would come out a different person at the end, and I guess quite literally in the book, that’s what happens to the characters, so it’s a conscious decision.

A lot of the time, it seems to be focusing on not the aftermath, as such, but what happens after the change, how people do change.

I’m interested in growing up, hearing a story and they all lived happily ever after. I’m always interested in what happened after; who developed a drinking problem, and so and so began to cheat, and so and so got caught drunk driving, the everydayness of life that accrues after a certain transformation. So on one level you have people who have very average lives, which are suddenly changed for them, and within the sort of happily ever after, it’s like, well, here’s the nitty gritty.

A reminder that happiness is always transitory?

Well, what’s the expression? That happiness is the only emotion that you can make go away immediately simply by being aware of it. So yes, happiness is definitely transitory.

You said as well about the everydayness of things. Do you know about American Splendour?

No, last night, I saw something about it, what is it?

It’s about this guy from Cleveland who turned his life into a comic, drawn by Robert Crumb. Anyway, the reason for this tangent: his stuff is about the small things, and a reminder that the high-gloss happiness you see everywhere else in pop culture isn’t the way things are. There seemed to be a link there, between his stuff and yours.

Funny you should mention R Crumb. There was a documentary made about him, maybe about 10 years ago, and I went to go and see it with a number of friends, and coming out of the theatre it was a bit spooky, because no-one would talk to me, because the Crumb family was so close to my own family that no-one wanted to be the one to acknowledge that fact.

Did they know that you knew that they saw this?

It’s one of those situations where, you, it’s a hard thing to talk about:’your family’s that nuts,’ we talked about it and obviously it was fine. I think with the Crumb family, though I’m not quite sure about the American Splendour movie, he had this scientifically generic middle class family, which had weirdness visited upon it. I think the case with the Crumbs was just a DNA that just wanted to do something quite odd. It’s’ I’m interested in average situations which become un-average.

That ties in with the idea that, with everything that looks average, there’s weirdness under the surface. It comes back to the original conception of the gothic, almost. Harold Pinter once said he wanted to write about the weasel under the cocktail cabinet’

Hahaha! [loud, loud laugh]. It’s not nasty but it’s quite often interesting. Today at lunch in the restaurant, there was this thing going on, this guy was talking to this woman and she ran out in tears, she came back and gave him a lecture, and they were dressed for work, obviously having some sort of affair. And once they were over, they walked to the lobby and brushed their hair down: and it was’back to normal’

All these little insights?

Yeah, there’s always something going on, for better for worse. Sometimes it’s very funny, and then you meet people’ I know a lot of people, I’m gregarious in a certain way, and the two men in my life who I thought had it all together’a good job, beautiful wife, kids, good family, plenty of money, all that’hanged themselves. And so I’m always suspicious of when things are too good. And I miss them, [I think] how could they do that? Come back to life for a minute just to tell me what you were thinking.

That’s the hard thing: not just the fact of what happened, but that you’re never going to know why.

It’s not that you know why, it’s just’what’s this front you’re putting on?’ It’s not just them, it’s everyone else that knew them. Like,’Harvey, you’re the perfect person, and if it’s bad for you then what are we supposed to think?’ So anyhow’ that was a few years ago and I’ve seen more weirdness, so I’m used to it now, but not used to it at the same time. I’d just rather have them back, actually.

Something else: after Generation X, did you feel pressure to’be Douglas Coupland’?

I’ve never, hehe, never really known what it was I was supposed to be. I think if I was living in Manhattan or something I would have had lots of people telling me. But I’ve lived, and continue to live, in Vancouver, which is fortunately I think removed enough from the world that you can still basically live a’ a life without expectations. You have to remember that, when I wrote that book, which was published in March 1991, I had no expectations for it.

It wasn’t going to be a book, originally, was it?

That’s true. Of all my books. I had no hopes for it whatsoever, and I just do what I’m going to do, and I think, you take what we were just speaking about, and you stretch it out, broaden it and clarify it’ What I found over the years is that since 1991 we’ve been through massive cultural, social, technological changes, and the only thing that protects me or you or anyone, the only thing that can protect you in all this is figuring out what it is that you like to do, and then sticking with it. Because once you start to do what people expect you to do, or what your parents think you should do, or whoever in your life thinks you should do, you’re sunk. And that applies to my life. Microserfs, [which] I was writing it in 93, 94, even my editor in New York was like,’Microwhat? Software? What’s software? Seattle? Doug, don’t expect a big advance on this one.’ But it was interesting, I saw a few people there, I thought it was fascinating, I wrote it, it came out the same month as Windows’95, and everyone thought I had pre-engineered this huge coup, and it was’Good God, no,’ it was just interesting. People expect me to be something, I just write about what I find interesting.

Happy coincidence of Windows’95 and the book, arriving at the same time?

Well, unhappy coincidence for the planet. All your readers should switch to Mac right away!

I’m with you on that; I’m a devoted Mac user. Anyway, soemthing like Microserfs, concerned with the way technology affects personal relationships, culture in general, that’s a big thing for you, isn’t it? Assimilation of information, and interaction with each other?

Oh yeah, I think the interesting thing about technology and change is that it’s going to visit itself upon you no matter how hard you try and run from it. I look at things like’ What have we had? Fax machines are almost over. Mobile phones, the internet’ Ask yourself, how many people do you know who have met and gotten married, or met and gotten together, through the internet? How much money did you spend shopping on the internet last year? When was the last time you wrote an actual pen and paper letter? The changes are very subtle, but over time they accumulate and all of a sudden you realise that you can’t go home anymore. There’s, South Park, that cartoon in the States, there’s this one episode where this guy Steve was frozen for 2 years and then brought back to life by the other characters, and he couldn’t cope with all the changes that had happened in the last 2 years.

Did you read about that guy who woke after 19 years?

I did. every time someone wakes up from a coma, my email inbox is flooded.

Somebody’s woken up! Email Doug!

Yeah, basically.

You write non-fiction and do sculpture and so on, as well as writing fiction. Does it all come naturally? Is it a case of thinking, well, I think this idea that I want to explore is suited to this particular medium?

I think’ Hmmm. Okay. I was raised without being raised, really.’Here’s a hot meal, there’s your school, and have a nice life,’ which sounds quite strange but it was quite liberating. It meant I could do what I wanted, and it trains you to be introspective and think about things maybe more than you might otherwise, and so now I have this theory that everything’s an art supply. What I do know is that there are certain feelings you can create within yourself and within someone engaging with what you’ve done that you can only get from looking at an art object, that you can’t get from words, and vice versa. And I don’t make that many distinctions in my head, I don’t see them as being very different from each other. I enetered writing with words quite literally being arts supplies as objects, through Jenny Holzer and text art, and then the text art becamse longform fiction, so in my head, I think of the new book, or the new novel, as being an art exhibition, and it’s different from the books that came before it. Hopefully I’m bringing something from the prior books but I’ve done something new in this, and then will go on and continue to produce something new. Which is the opposite of what I think my publisher wants.’Can you please have every book more like the one before?’ Because that way it’s easier for them.

People find the familiar a lot easier to deal with; when things start changing that’s when they start freaking out a bit.

Well, Leon, I’m lucky. I think at this point in my career that the one thing people do expect is change. And my God, what’ eight novels, sometimes I just feel like a robot or something. Actually that’s not fair, I love every word of every book, but once you do get that track record of continual change or evolution, people take sort of comfort in the routine of change.

Paul Auster once said something, whilst being taken to task about coincidences in his books, to the effect that there are coincidences in his books because that’s what real life is like. Full of coincidences.

I think everyone gets two coincidences a day, that’s like the universal soup pot: here are your two daily coincidences, your ration. And once you get them it’s like’oh good, I’ve had my day,’ and if you don’t get a coincidence during the day it’s like’ooh! where’s my coincidence? I want my coincidence.’ And then it’s almost strange that we don’t get more coincidences’ you think of all the billions, quadrillions, umpteen zillions of things that could happen, and all we get is two? That’s almost’ unfair. On the other hand life is wonderful, life is marvellous, every second’s a coincidence, I’m quite aware of that, probably because I’m aware that, [I made] the decisions in my life to do what I did, probably to forego what might have been. I was a smarty pants, I had options, I could have gone the scientific route, where I was working in a laboratory somewhere in a parallel universe, or alternatively, I’m living down on main street, I’m using dirty needles, and life is basically over. I’m grateful for what’s happened, and I’m very aware of what could happen as well, and coincidence has played a large part in my life.

Is a belief in coincidences not necessarily the opposite of, but [pause] sorry, I’ll rephrase that.

Coincidence is only a symptom.

Okay: is an acceptance of the fact of coincidences an acknowledgement that you’re not in control of everything?

Well, that’s an interesting way of putting it, I never thought of that.

You know the way people like to plan their lives down to the last minute detail. To the last second, and will not brook any change in that plan whatsoever.

Ooh, then they’re setting themselves up for a big unhappiness.

Exactly. I don’t know whether you could say accepting coincidence is even the acceptance of a power in the world that is not you, or some sort of higher power, I don’t know if you could extrapolate that far, but I think it might work along similar lines.

Hmm. [long pause].’.Hmm’. [longer pause] we can edit out the silences, right?

It’s not for broadcast, it’s for print, so it doesn’t matter.

Oh, right, sorry, of course. Good, I can make all sorts of scary noises now. We were talking about coincidences, and you can certainly ask anyone who knows me, I’m no control freak. Um, it almost gets back to what we were talking about a few minutes ago, if there’s some higher order and it’s messing with us, the only thing that can protect you is following your instincts, your likes and dislikes, and again, looking at all the people in life’ not because they made it, but the people who seem content are the people who decided,’I like working with wood, therefore I’m not going to try and be a millionaire, I’m going to work with wood.’ You know,’I get this,”I’m going to get involved in agriculture,’ whatever. And, I think, science will someday determine a test, like a litmus paper, [to determine] whether or not you’re happy, and I think those people would score happy. My phone just made a little noise, I don’t know what it’s about. Just between you and me, Mal Maison’s going downhill. I was here the week it opened, and now it’s just exhausted.

It’s been a while since I’ve there. Maybe it’s sliding.

Yeah. Maybe I just got the bum room or something, sometimes it happens. But it’s not just the phone; the toilet doesn’t flush, you know? But I’m only here for one night, I’m not going to get too upset about it.

Posted at 8pm on 14/09/03 by Leon McDermott to the interviews category.
Permalink · Add to
Tags: , ,

Comments are closed

Comments are currently closed on this entry.
  1. nice interview len. i think my microserfs book hangs together with ageing cellotape, one of those, i dunno, “comfort books” i pick up and read when i can’t be assed reading something new and effortsome. did he seem an odd character? saw him in a tv interview and he seemed a little, well, odd…

    Posted by g.ape at 8am on 15.09.03

  2. Good scoop!

    Posted by Donny at 10am on 15.09.03

  3. Douglas Coupland interviews

    Two interviews with Coupland on the launch of ‘Hey Nostradamus!’.

    Posted by Phil Gyford at 12pm on 15.09.03

  4. “We Are All Themeparks”

    Douglas Coupland on Windows 95, scary noises, fiction as art and personal transformation via literature — hat tip to the spool….

    Posted by neuroblog at 12pm on 15.09.03

  5. you are a lucky man Mr Len…

    Posted by brat at 1pm on 15.09.03

  6. Nice interview, Len.

    I really should read more of his books, what with him quite obviously being right up my street…

    Posted by Jack at 2pm on 15.09.03

  7. Aye, Jack, don’t know why you’ve not read more of him. The new one is really quite something, too. Oh, and Mike, yes, he was a little odd, but in the nicest way imaginable.

    Posted by Leon at 2pm on 15.09.03

  8. yeah, what i thought. always pictured in suit and side parting, never good. smart cookie no doubt, always find it odd how his aphorisms in text are integrated into my perspective on life, prime example being micoserfs and generation X.

    my sister had a stroke at aged 8 and the end of microserfs always brings a tear to my eye.

    lasers in the sky, pool cleaners and slow taps ona keyboard as a way of reaching out to those you cannot reach.


    Posted by g,ape at 11pm on 15.09.03

  9. good interview. wish i’d had the chance for a good wee chat with him.

    when he was at waterstones, he said something that made me think “bingo!” — about how he hates hot food and cold food, and can only eat lukewarm.

    i am exactly the same. my mother cooked dinner for me on sunday, she made pasta with cheese sauce — chemical burn scaldingly hot. i was so annoyed that i put the plate in the freezer and sat there in the huff, for 5 minutes, until it was cool enough to eat.


    Posted by tickle at 12am on 16.09.03

  10. Mike, you’ve just made me all emotional and tearful with that. Which is something I never thought I’d say about a comment on a weblog. Ever.

    Posted by Leon at 12am on 16.09.03

  11. blimey, someone from the sub club … i did their website 7 years ago …

    Posted by neuro at 1am on 16.09.03

Recent Posts