Volume 94, Issue 69
Thursday, January 25, 2001
|ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT
A conversation with...Douglas Coupland
Photo by David John Weir
"I DON'T READ ANYTHING ABOUT MYSELF, I CAN'T WATCH MYSELF ON TELEVISION, I CAN'T HEAR MY RECORDED VOICE AND I HAVEN'T READ A REVIEW SINCE 1997..."
By Matt Pearson
Douglas Coupland's world is alive.
The 39-year-old is in his kitchen, drinking coffee and peering out his back window into a densely beautiful British Columbia rain forest. "It's sunny and warm here. It's like a Disney cartoon in the driveway because I feed the birds and the squirrels and there's woodpeckers and blue jays and crows," he remarks. "Pretty soon they'll all be coming into the kitchen to help me do dishes. Did you know when animals get trapped in a house, the first thing they do is shit? You look at a painting and up on the top of the frame, there's a big bird shit, but that's part of living with nature, I guess."
These observations esoteric comments on the modern world which seek to blend nature and pop culture into one, and are at once bizarre and brilliant are trademark Douglas Coupland.
Born on Dec. 30, 1961 on a Canadian NATO base in Germany, Coupland was raised in Vancouver, where he had an average childhood as the third of four sons. His parents still live in the house he grew up in.
As Coupland says, "I didn't have an unhappy childhood. My parents were deeply involved in the whole Cold War drama and they consciously raised us without any religious influence whatsoever. I grew up in a suburb over West Vancouver, where the house abutted right against wilderness so I had this wonderful freedom."
Coupland's most recent work, City of Glass, is a photographic expose and his first foray into the world of non-fiction. Perhaps more telling than the title itself is the sub-title: "Douglas Coupland's Vancouver," a comment alluding to the quirky sensibilities of the author and the locales he finds most captivating within the city.
But this love for the city waned in Coupland's early days as he vividly recalls a yearning to escape. "I did that 20s thing," he says. "I thought, 'If I go to some other city, my life will be instantly fixed.' I lived in a lot of really great places, but in the end, the salmon swims upstream. Vancouver is the best of all worlds and your hometown is always the greatest place."
Though most recognize him as a fiction writer, Coupland actually received his training in the fine arts. He recently designed a line of simple, yet sophisticated furniture for a Canadian manufacturer, but contends this was merely an entry point back into the art world.
"I have quit design, and I'm just doing art now. Design was the gateway back into the material world. [Art] is what I set out to do in school and I didn't do it for 10 years, and then I started doing some design work and it tickled awake all of these neurons that had been sleeping for a decade," he explains, adding he has recently acquired a new art studio.
It's a good thing, too, because his first show at a gallery is this fall in New York City a gallery far removed from the world of publishing houses, where Coupland says he doesn't really fit in. "I don't think the literary world and the art world meet very much, but if I had to align myself with one, it would be the art world, absolutely," he claims.
Although Coupland has made a name for himself in the literary world, his decision to write novels came to him intuitively. "I didn't even think twice about it," he recalls. "I never wanted to be a writer. I meet young people who want to be writers and I don't understand that impulse I fell into it entirely by accident."
This accidental auteur, who has been compared by critics to the likes of J.D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut and Jack Kerouac, seems uncomfortable discussing his literary accomplishments, despite writing 10 books in as many years (the tenth is due out this September). "I wish there were 48 hours in a day because I look at my work and I think, 'I could have done more.' I don't want to seem like some kind of machine, but life is so interesting and there's so much I want to do. I mean, technically, I'm unemployed."
Since Generation X, his first published work, arrived on bookstore shelves in 1991, Coupland has written both short stories and novels. According to him, though, novels remain a much more enjoyable experience. "I like the novel. A novel is essentially a very long document and your job as a fiction engineer is to pull the reader through this and have them emerge different in some sort of way."
Despite his commanding presence on literary scenes at home and abroad, Coupland realizes his work may not fit into the stereotypical motifs abounding in mainstream Canadian literature. In fact, he seems at ease with the knowledge that each subsequent book is vastly different than the one before it.
"I don't know where I fit in, really. I used to think I would like to fit into Can. Lit., but I can see now for very evident historical reasons, forget it. I'm not unhappy about that it's just the way it worked out."
Coupland also realizes that nothing would make his publisher happier than for him to become a genre writer. "If you're a genre writer, publishers don't have to re-explain things to your audience every time. I've been lucky that I've been able to experiment with each book and can continue to do so," he admits.
Like many fiction writers, Coupland's work revisits common themes, including the concepts of fame and celebrity. Take, for example, his 1999 novel, Miss Wyoming, which chronicles the life of a beauty queen turned B-grade movie star, and follows her as she takes advantage of a unique opportunity to slip into anonymity.
In Coupland's own life, fame is something he dismisses outright. "I don't read anything about myself, I can't watch myself on television, I can't hear my recorded voice and I haven't read a review since 1997 because that's all part of seeing yourself as an object, which is something I really have trouble with," he explains. "Do I think about fame a lot? No, I live in the wilderness. If you think about it, it will paralyze you and I've met people who've been paralyzed."
As for being the spokesperson of his generation, collectively known as Generation X, Coupland says he is not interested in the job. "The moment you become a 'spokes-' anything, you cease becoming a person. You become an object and because you're an object, people treat like you one. I realized that right from the start. I'm a person, I write books and that was one of them, and I'm glad I wrote it, but I don't dwell on it. I'm not a cynical person and I never have been."
Having based his novel, microserfs, on the world of Bill Gates and his Microsoft campus in Seattle, Washington, Coupland himself is the pre-eminent "microserf," tied to the advents of 21st Century like feudal serfs tied to their land in 18th Century France. He has contributed frequent articles to the magazine Wired, and is currently in the process of re-vamping his personal Web site. He also spoke at this year's TEDCity conference in Toronto, a symposium for technically-savvy, pop culture debutantes with a vested interest in technology, design and the future of both.
As for other advancements of this nature, Coupland seems more apprehensive, especially with respect to e-books. "I want them to go away, but they won't," he laughs.
Like many of his protagonists, tragic figures who spend their lives searching for a deeper meaning in an off-track world, Coupland admits there is a lesson in all of this.
"What I've learned is that the deeper part of yourself is way more powerful than you ever gave it credit for. There are these things that you aren't even aware of at the time, but you put them on paper and look at them and realize you know what it's about. What did I learn through all of this shit? Just trust yourself. That sounds like Oprah or something, but you're young, impressionable and you think anyone older than you must know stuff way better than you do. That's a crock of shit old people are just young people in disguise."
And then he was gone off, one presumes, to feed the birds and do the dishes.
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