All Authors Are Psychotic
By Dan Epstein
After two changes in schedule -- and
then even after the disaster at the World Trade Center -- I was able
to get Douglas Coupland on the phone. Talking with Douglas Coupland
is like listening to an audio book of a William Burroughs cut-up novel
as read by Bob and Doug McKenzie. I wasn’t able to include our entire
dialogue because it was about 25 pages long (including 5 pages of going
off and talking about bad television shows and comic books…and the “uhs”
and ”I don’t knows” would have filled up 3 pages by themselves).
I was excited about talking to Douglas Coupland because this
is the first book I’ve read of his since Microserfs
came out in paperback in 1996. His new novel, All Families
Are Psychotic, really gives you a view of the kind of
families that the characters in Coupland’s first and most
famous novel Generation X might have had, if they were
mature enough to have families.
I felt the need to put in some of times
when i laughed out loud during this interview, but it would be impossible
to include them all.
A short synopsis: In the opening pages,
67-year-old Janet Drummond checks the clock in her cheap motel room
near Cape Canaveral, takes her prescription pills and does a rapid tally
of the whereabouts of her three children: Wade, the eldest, in and out
of jail and still radiating ”the glint”; suicidal Bryan, whose girlfriend,
the vowel-free Shw, is pregnant; and Sarah, the family’s shining light,
an astronaut preparing to be launched into space as the star of a shuttle
mission. They will all arrive in Orlando today – along with Janet’s
ex-husband Ted and his new trophy wife – setting the stage for the most
disastrous family reunion in the history of fiction. Florida may never
recover from their version of fun in the sun.
DAN: How much of
All Families Are Psychotic is autobiographical?
DC: The part about the mother [Janet
Drummond, the main character] for sure. Everything else is entirely
DAN: Really! Janet comes into Florida
from Toronto and you’re from Vancouver. You must have gone to Florida…
DC: Yeah, when I was doing research for
the book, I got a call from this Atlantic Center for the Arts…I don’t
quite know the technical name…colony. At the edge of Cape Canaveral.
I said” you’re where?!?! OK I’ll do it.” Talk about providence. So
I was down there and it was great. There it was, the hottest weather
they ever had and they haven’t had rain for years. The whole state was
on fire. It was really apocalyptic and freaky.
My one hope is that the book has a measured
pace and no slow patches.
In the states there seems to be a tradition:
books set on ranches, forests and streams, and everyone talks to horses.
Which is fine but I’m metropolitan…it just doesn’t click with me.
Getting back to your question about autobiographical
stuff. What happens with any character in any book… You give a book
to the people in your life. They roar through it and you think they’re
reading it really quickly, which used to really bother me. But no, they’re
just looking for themselves.
DAN: Ha ha ha
DC: Maybe a second time they’ll sit down
and actually read the thing. Always from the start. I have this policy:
if I know you and if you have a quirk or mannerism or something you
do that’s yours, I will always ask permission to use it. The punchline
being that when it came to Janet…um well ok…last October I did a reading
in Vancouver, and it was the first time I ever did a reading in Vancouver
-- no one at home had ever seen me do what I do on stage --
I said to my mother, “Mom, well, I think
I should tell you that just before you see me on stage…well mom, it’s
kinda you. It is you.” And, uh, afterwards I was fully expecting to
be disowned but she said, “Oh, make her a lot meaner and angrier.”
When I tried to get it right I didn’t get it right.
DAN: ha ha ha
DC: The whole game of fiction/nonfiction…I
think a lot of people want to know, like, “does everyone in your family
have a drug problem?” No, my family isn’t like that; you have to make
this stuff up. Hence the name “fiction.”
DAN: Just to have a drug problem in the
family isn’t that special anymore.
DC: Oh no! It’s the norm.
Dan: Your new book seems to cover a lot
of the same ground that trash talk shows cover: AIDS, suicide, abortion
and family reunions. Was this an unconscious act, or a comment on them?
DC: It was written when there was that
really magic window in film history, with films like Being John Malkovich,
Go, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and
Run Lola Run.
DAN: It was definitely an odd time for
independent film…almost mainstream very fast.
DC: It was wonderful. I just loved that
energy so much. And in the other books I’ve written, characters tend
to ponder and wonder and think and I just thought, “Fuck it. I’m just
going to write something that starts at 90 miles an hour and never slows
down.” And once the characters were born, which didn’t take much time
at all, they essentially shanghaied the whole book. And I thought,
“This is really scary, the characters have taken over the book. Wait
those characters are me, I made them up…AAAHHHH!”
DAN: Ha ha
DC: And, um, which is the way it should
work in some situations…certainly this one. Time is receding…I finished
it a year ago and I can’t remember now. I start writing it for one reason,
and now there are other reasons I wrote it. And I’m sure next year I’ll
think there are different reasons I wrote it. There’s endless revisionism
with any project you do.
DAN: There’s the school of thought where
characters seem to take on a life of their own and you no longer have
control over them. How do you feel about that?
DC: Well, you should never start a book
without knowing the exact last chapter.
Getting there, you know…roughly the map
you’re going to take, and there’s a few detours and stuff. That’s wonderful
when that happens. I love that. The analogy I can think of is the visual
arts; the form or the shape or the appearance or the nature of the object
is defined by the critical impulse behind it, which I’m all for. And
then from that point you work backwards into the spectrum of emotion
or undigested experience. Or semi-undigested experience. Until you
reach the opposite end of the spectrum, which is like a Jackson Pollack
painting. And, um, so I think you have to be aware of that, if it’s
happening by itself. At least you’re aware of it…you have to have that
I think. At least I have to I have it, I think.
DAN: Why did the launching of the space
shuttle seem like a good event to bring a family together?
DC: I thought of it for one reason but
now I’m wondering if that was even it at all.
I mean, my book
Girlfriend in a Coma was a very dark book. And it ends with,
uh, the mother and the daughter leaving the group of people and going
to the top of the mountain. Sort of ascending to heaven.
DAN: So this is going to the top of the
mountain and then jumping on a ship.
DC: It’s the same myth, or the same understructure
as that one. I wasn’t even aware of that until it was pretty much in
galley form. Like, oh ok, well, this is something that is pretty significant
to me. I don’t know why; I still don’t know, it’s something that I do.
DAN: Do you know the author Carl Hiassen?
DC: I know of him. I read…someone gave
me a book he wrote about the dark underbelly of Disney [Team Rodent].
DAN: Everything he does is set in Florida
and it’s always seamy. Like the book you mentioned.
DC: Oh, well, you’ve been to Florida…
I try to actually stay true to the state. Florida is a land of extremes,
which is nice for this book here. The highs are higher, the lows are
DAN: A lot of critics compare you to
Fight Club’s Chuck Palahniuk. What’s your take on that?
DC: I feel he’s the only other writer
out there who’s doing something like I’m doing…the same sort of direction.
I loved Fight Club. And the movie was very good as well, very
close to the book.
DAN: The family in
All Families Are Psychotic gets together to provide moral support
for Sarah, the one successful member. Who is the one successful member
of your family? Is it you?
DC: Oh no, I don’t think so. I don’t
think there is one in my family.
Everyone’s flawed. That’s the nice thing
about last few years for me…the realization it would take too much energy
to try and see my family as normal.
DAN: There are no more normal families
DC: I don’t think there ever were any.
Well, when you look at the history of the smile in the photo…up until
World War II most people in photographs had their normal faces. And
then Kodak and other camera people and filmmakers always had their people
smile, and then they we entered this cult of the smile collectively.
If you try not smiling when people are taking your picture they basically
tell you to fuck off and start smiling.
DAN: When people look at those pictures
they always ask why you aren’t smiling.
DC: In the future people are going to
look at these pictures and wonder what was wrong with these people.
“Are they idiots or something?”
DAN: A number of the Drummond family
members are drawn into the story when a messenger gives them a letter
in Disneyworld and promptly has a heart attack. Everyone seems to have
his or her own Disney theme park horror story.
DC: Our family never went. We could
barely be in the same car, let alone on vacation.
DAN: You didn’t even go for research?
DC: For research I did, but never with
my family when we were growing up. We weren’t a Disneyland family.
As a kid, I kind of liked Donald Duck. But Mickey Mouse…no one likes
Mickey Mouse. He’s a boring character and his cartoons suck. They should
have any character but him, but that’s really trivial and silly.
DAN: Janet contracts AIDS when a bullet
is fired through an AIDS-infected person into her. How did you come
up with that story?
DC: Well, its certainly medically possible.
I checked with some doctors and they all said it was medically possible.
DAN: I don’t believe you’ve ever written
truly evil characters before this book. Why now?
DC: Well, they’re without a moral compass
and I don’t know if that comes from bad training or whether they’re
just bad seeds. I don’t know, I don’t think that they’re evil. Osama
bin Laden is evil…calling a normal everyday person “evil” is just too
strong a word. Be careful where you use it
DAN: It must be fun to write people who
don’t have a moral compass.
DC: I think most people are without one.
That’s something, when you say it, that people will deny it stringently…”I’m
superior, I’m perfect”… well, are you?
DAN: When did you decide “I’m going to
write a novel?”
DC: Summer 1989. I always knew I was
never going to have a job -type job. I was 28. I thought, “I’ve been
writing for magazines for about 2 years” -- well, in hindsight, all
the signals were there saying “write” and I finally picked up on them
– “oh, ok, I should be writing fiction.” And yeah, that was a big decision
to make. Fortunately I was young; it’s easier to make big decisions
when you’re young. And I still had this protective naïve coating.
DAN: Many critics have said that your
novels are very well-suited for cinema. One even described them as a
fusion of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and
American Pie. What films would you compare your novels to?
American Pie? I think that’s very patronizing and rude. I know
you didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, but how's that supposed to make
DAN: I think Altman is a good comparison.
Who do you think would be a good director for your new book?
DC: Spike [Jonze] would be good for that.
Or David O. Russell. [Three Kings, Flirting with Disaster]
DAN: I know that Michael Stipe [along
with his production company Single Cell Productions] just optioned it.
Are you going to write a draft?
DC: No, because I’m not a screenplay
writer. No, that’s another skill
Steven Spielberg asked you to brainstorm for his new Tom Cruise movie
Minority Report. What did you contribute?
DC: Spielberg wanted to do a version
of the future that was plausible instead of the usual
Mad Max or Blade Runner and, uh, yeah, that kind of thing.
And it was like mental calisthenics really: what’s the future of domesticity,
pets, the way you look at outer space, the way you look at time, everything.
Its all pure speculation. I’m curious to see the movie; I have no idea
what he actually did. I haven’t talked to him since then.
DAN: How much was
Catcher in the Rye an influence on you?
DC: It wasn’t an influence really. I’m
Canadian…we don’t really get that stuff up there. It’s like an American
thing. I’ve read it. It’s not like a big deal or anything. There’s
a sort of cult of Catcher in the Rye down in the United States,
which I can’t quite figure it out…why people are so into it.
DAN: I agree I thought it was just a
DC: Yeah, but its like one of fifty books
that you read in high school.
DAN: You’re famous for the similes you
create. How much time do you put into making them?
DC: They just happen. I used to keep
notebooks, but I don’t do that anymore. Um…I just don’t want to plan
too much. You have to work every day. Every writer is either a night
owl or an early bird. I’m a night owl so I work every night from 12am
to 3am. I talk to early birds and they say that the best thing about
writing in the morning is that no matter how crappy the rest of your
day is, you got your work done. Then, yes you’ve achieved, which makes
a heck of a good sense, but I’ve never been able to wake up in the morning
in my life. I don’t think that’ll ever happen.
DAN: You’ve had several bouts of severe
depression. What caused them?
DC: If you knew you’d be a very rich
man. It’s something that’s out there. It could happen tomorrow, for
all I know.
DAN: No pills for you, then…
DC: I’m very wary of drugs; I look to
Nancy Reagan for that issue. I’m all for them to get you over the bad
patches, but it’s like…I call it going to Antarctica. There’s no Duane
Reades in Antarctica. I always want to be ready to go there on a moment’s
notice, and you can’t go if you’re on stuff. I would get it from the
DAN: Do penguins get depressed?
DC: They get blubber. How do penguins
even happen? It’s preposterous, they’re not even birds. You’re cute,
you’re easy to draw, and you eat minnows.
DAN: They’re food for more interesting
DC: Like those documentaries where the
polar bears [makes munching noise] eat them whole…
DAN: Walruses are really cute, then they
bite you on the arm. That’s a life lesson, don’t mess with the walruses.
DC: Those reality TV shows are really
great, um, where you see this people and you can’t believe how dumb
they are, holding out a peanut butter and jam sandwich to a grizzly
bear. What’s the bear’s point of view? “Who are these people?” Stupid
people are probably juicier or something. The ones that are running
the bulls in Pamplona or bullfighting…they’re being gored or tossed
in the air…it’s like, what were you thinking?
DAN: When you said “reality shows” I
thought you meant like Big Brother. They should just drop a walrus
in the house.
DC: That’d be great.
DAN: They would go, “Oh my god, there’s
a walrus in the house,” and then “to be continued” would come up on–screen.
DC: “Tune in next week and everyone’s
DAN: You wrote a public letter to Kurt
Cobain after he committed suicide. What did you hope to accomplish with
DC: It was a really a eulogy for a certain
part of my life. Lately I’ve been reading that you can’t tell anything
about a person except by what they write. I think they’re probably right...
You caught me on a weird day. So I’m being kind of weird, tomorrow I’ll
be different, in three days I’ll be older.
DAN: Your first book,
Generation X, was published a decade ago, right before your 30th
birthday. What do you want your 40’s to be like?
DC: I'd like them to be different. I
had a great 30’s…couldn’t ask for a more interesting ten years.
DAN: Some of your sculptures are going
on display in New York City. When and why did you start sculpting?
DC: Writing is more art school than anything
else. I didn’t go to college or university, so for better or worse,
if I have to ally myself with some sort of academia it’s the visual
arts. I think of my books as something you put on a wall first, then
you experience performance art. These words are art supplies, really.
I’m aware of critical theory…I’m more interested in how it applies to
the visual, rather than a document.
DAN: Are you involved with coupland.com?
DC: I just send them stuff, whatever
I feel like putting up. It’s art school. I don’t go to the web that
much. It’s an ongoing inventory…not a journal not a diary…it’s a good
indicator of your psychic state at any one period. I got this phone
call and this person said, “We registered www.douglascoupland.com and if you pay x dollars we’ll give it back
to you.” It's so fucking sleazy.
DAN: That was the big scam in the mid-1990’s.
DC: It’s so fucking parasitic…it’s just
DAN: I’ll just do a dot org.
DC: No one goes to dot org, when was
the last time you went to a dot org?
DAN: I don’t remember.
DC: There you go, that proves my case.
DAN: What’s your take on the attacks
on the World Trade Center?
DC: My take isn’t very different from
anyone else’s. When I talk to people in New York, anything I have to
say seems trivial compared to their recent experiences.
I’m doing this book right now on Canada.
Being Canadian means comparing yourself to America to some degrees.
I really thought -- and I was wrong --America seems like a nation divided
against itself. I’m glad to see that go away and to see people come
DAN: I heard that Spielberg is thinking
of changing A.I. because there’s a scene at the World Trade Center
and he wants to keep it current.
DC: That’s silly. That would not be
a good thing to do. I have a pretty strict philosophy on that: when
I read books, they’re always set in the immediate present. When it
goes out of date, it kind of makes it more real somehow. He should keep
the towers in; it says something about when the movie was made.
I think you know enough about me now.
DAN: Thank you so much.
DC: it was a pleasure.
Check out Coupland.com for some weirdness and go to Amazon.com to get the new
book All Families Are Psychotic.
Dan Epstein is currently an associate producer for The Daily
Beat on Metro TV (metro.tv) a New York City regional music
show that focuses on the New York rock scene. Dan is also
a columnist/reporter for davidfincher.net and a guest columnist
for ifanboy.com, a comic book website. Dan lives on the Upper
West Side of Manhattan and will never leave New York City.
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