A Q&A with author Douglas Coupland
By Shannon Webb-Campbell
Vancouver author Douglas Coupland, who gave the world Generation X, has branched out into the visual arts realm and his show "PlayAgain?" is being exhibited at The Rooms in St. John's until September 17, 2006. Here Coupland, who's latest books include Terry (about the life of Terry Fox) and jpod (a fictional account of office workers trying to find meaning in the digital age) talks with Downhome magazine's Shannon Webb-Campbell.
Downhome: For those unfamiliar with the concept behind your show "PlayAgain?" could you describe what is being displayed?
Douglas Coupland: Much of jPod is about turning words and letters and numbers into visual art, a form of art show that follows the book's story. Like Warhol paintings. Sometimes a critic says I'm trying just to fill up pages, and when I hear that, it just reminds me of how far apart the literary and visual art worlds are.
DH: What is the motivation behind exhibiting your work in Newfoundland?
DC: Shauna McCabe asked me to do it there. Janet Cardiff is doing an aural work there at the same time, and I think the notion of words on a wall made for a nice compliment. You have to remember, I started out in art school and the art world, then went into writing and came back to art again. In the literary world I'm a mutt, but in the art world I make perfect sense.
DH: What are some of the challenges working solely with text in terms of creating art verses writing novels?
DC: Novels and fiction have so many rules. They have to if you're going to pull a reader through 80,000 words of story. Words as art can be very minimal and the effect they have on the inside of your head can be so different.
DH: In almost all of your fictional novels your lead characters seem to be questioning the meaning of their existence. How do you feel about your own place in the universe?
DC: I get very jealous that I'm not going to be able to see the future. 2100? I'll never know. It kills me. I believe in life after death, but I don't think it includes bus tours of Earth after you've left it. I'm just so staggeringly curious. Otherwise? It changes everyday. Isn't that like everybody? One day it's all for nothing and then you have a day like today where you realize that seeds you've planted- almost unwittingly - will grow into these trees taller than you could have imagined. In a word: humbled. On the other hand, there was this very funny line on the Sopranos on Sunday night. Tony says, "I know, I know, every day of life is a gift, but does it have to be a pair of socks?"
DH: Vancouver and the surrounding area is the setting for nearly all of your novels. What are the similarities between Vancouver and Newfoundland?
DC: For me, Newfoundland is very much about Terry Fox and the start of the Marathon of Hope. Terry's a Vancouver boy, and his experience there in Newfoundland was profound and set the standard for the rest of the run. Newfoundland is core to Canada's soul. And Vancouver and St. John's have more in common than perhaps any two Canadian cities. How's that for a new idea? And my days there last April for the 25th anniversary of the Marathon's start were the most charmed of my life. It's an honour to visit the place.
DH: Where do you draw inspiration?
DC: Everyday life! Even the cheesy stuff like bar codes or reality TV or junk food - but also nature and history and a belief in the ideas of love and redemption. The art world tells you that inspiration is everywhere - and it is. High culture and pop culture may not be equal, but they're both valid. I don't think this sort of generosity exists in the literary world. It makes me enemies saying stuff like this. But life is what you live! Imagine censoring your life, having to say that, for example, a TV show you love is meaningless because some freaks in a big city snigger. You can't live your life that way. What rocks your world is what rocks your world.
DH: What are your rituals while writing? Do you have a specific time of day or location where you write?
DC: I don't think I have rituals any more. All I know is that, whether first thing in the morning (my morning starts at 11:00 am) or last thing at night, I have to put aside 90 minutes where I enter the trance state necessary to create long-form fiction (aka: novels). Without that daily time, my life is over. Mordecai Richler once said that when he meets a writer, he asked them how and when they write. If the writer said, "Whenever the spirit moves me," Mordecai, in his head, would say, "Hack." The fact is that, unless you write every single day no matter what - and life throws a lot of whats at you - it's never going to happen. It's the one solid form of discipline in my life.
DH: Do you have any advice for aspiring artists and budding wordsmiths?
DC: Yes - finish the ***ing book! Since 1991 I've met ten people a year working on novels - so that's 150 people in total - and not one of them ever finished it. How's THAT for weirdness. Just finish the damn thing, and then we'll all talk.
DH: Your latest novel jPod has been dubbed as being an updated version of Microserfs.
DC: Not directly, but in spirit.
DH: Both novels highlight the struggle between embracing technology and loathing it.
DC: Well said! Can I use that elsewhere?
DH: Do you find writing about this period of extreme isolation and the age of Google a means of connection?
DC: The fact is that I made so many life-long friends writing Microserfs, and the fact is also that writing books is - well, ALL the clichés are true-astonishingly lonely - and I wanted to meet new people and just get out there into the world. And because of the historical accident of my being from Vancouver, and because computer games are part of the airy-fairy economy of what we pretend make here, I knew lots of folk in the business ...many of whom are from my art school here. We all fully expected to be dead of heroin or knife fights at 44. Instead we're doing okay. Trust me, back in the early 1980s, it's the LAST thing we ever would have expected for ourselves.
DH: How do you balance creating art and writing?
DC: I don't see them as different. They're both just art school, each of them different mediums that create different sensations inside your head.
DH: Does one usually take precedent over the other?
DC: No. Because they're also very apples-and-oranges. Doing one seems to make doing the other easier. So...it's better to do both.
DH: Do you work on both projects consecutively?
DC: Always, but never two books at one time. That's impossible.
DH: Would you ever consider writing a novel based in Newfoundland?
DC: Yes, but imagine all the people who'd write in and point out my fact-checking errors! I have a hard enough time setting books two streets down from my own!