Douglas Coupland
By Johan Conrod

From Gadfly May/June 2000


Douglas Coupland is best known for his first work, Generation X. Despite his protests, the title has come to stand for an entire cohort of Americans who are now in their 20s and 30s. But as Generation X grew up, so did Coupland. While his later works haven 't created the kind of cultural waves Gen X did, Coupland continues to give fresh perspectives on everything from life at Microsoft (Microserfs) to post-Apocalyptic North America (Girlfriend in America).

His latest book is Miss Wyoming, the bittersweet tale of a beauty pageant queen turned TV star turned washed-up celebrity. This book 's mature themes reflect a more pensive Coupland, an author dealing with the questions of life after slackerhood. Gadfly talked with Coupland during his book tour through the Midwest to get a first-hand analysis of his work in a new century.

Your earlier books like Generation X and Microserfs seemed to have a youthful optimism. Now, it seems like your work reflects more world-weariness.

DC: I don 't know if I would call Gen X an optimistic book. I think that if all seven books were lines on the ground, they wouldn 't be heading in any direction. They would just look like the Alps. But there are two big reasons for why the work I am doing now is different, Miss Wyoming in particular. But it 's not like a one-sentence answer and it 's not like a manufactured answer. I call it the dead battery tour because it takes a while.

So, are you talking about methodology?

I think part of it is methodology. When I decided I was going to write fiction and stopped doing everything else, I became a compulsive note-taker—which I have now found out is one of the first things they tell you in any creative writing workshop or journalism school. Just notes, notes, notes, and I burned through one of those little pocket-sized notebooks every 10 days for like six and a half to seven years. The way I looked at it was that every day you or me or anyone else will see one or two things, or hear one or two things, or have one or two ideas, which at the moment don 't seem to have any larger meaning other than the fact that they just have resonance.

But if you take a year 's worth of collected note pads, cut out each individual notation, and arrange them on a dining room table, you 've got thousands and thousands of these little fortune cookie-like pieces of paper. I think these papers represent the subconscious that 's been working full time.

Are you saying that your writing has become a subconscious process?

As you sift through these little fortune cookie papers, certain voices appear and things and places and ideas that you weren 't even aware that you were really focusing on during that year. So the books were quilted, I guess. About 1996 or 1997, I stopped. I began losing interest in taking notes and stuff like that. And it was just that the note-taking process had become internalized. I think that if you studied for a language for six, seven, eight years suddenly one day, boom, it just works for you. And I began to really resent notebooks—they were looking like homework.

When Miss Wyoming began, I told myself, "I am not going to use one single note in this entire book. I 'm not going to sketch anything out. It 's going to be like completely out of my head. " That 's one reason why it has a very different texture from earlier books.

Are there other reasons for this different outlook?

No one gets to be 38 without family stuff and people dying and all sorts of weird things happening. But now I 've got to figure out a way of addressing the fact that the world can be a really crappy place for very nice people, and making some kind of moral sense of all these things that can go wrong in life. I think that is a worthwhile challenge.

A lot of your books can be summed up by the title of your short story collection, Life After God. It's almost as if you're trying to make moral sense of this new place without any religious traditions to be signposts.

My parents decided—and it was the only anthropological experiment they ever did in their life—to raise myself and my brothers without any religion or any politics so that whatever we found when we were older would be something that we discovered on our own. It wasn't a decision made lightly. My mom was a comparative theology major.

What you don't grow up with you don't miss, so I don't have this yearning for an orthodox religion or for partisan politics. But human beings are political. On a sliding scale of one to 100, I am probably around 27. Yet we also have an innate sense of yearning for something transcendent or better than ourselves. I think on a sliding scale of one to 100, I am 100 on that one.

Your characters often have unique or even quirky perspectives on life. How does that relate to your own personal perspective?

In Calgary, Alberta, they had this exhibition at a local museum where they recreated 100 years of prairie living. They had Conestoga wagons from one period, and in another period they have old Model T's and old washing machines, and then they had things from later on like fast food cups. As we left the museum my friend said, "Wasn 't that just a great show?" and I said, "You know, I never really left it."

I mean the show continued; it's all one big museum. That's just the way I go through life. If I try to look at the world like it's normal without a protective irony coating, and without a protective humorous coating, and without a protective collection of distancing lenses, the world is carnivorously boring. And I just refuse to be consumed by mundaneness.

Who do you consider your artistic peers?

The only other book writer that I know is William Gibson [Neuromancer]. But lately, there has been a lot of new work in narrative, and I feel like finally someone else is doing it too. Spike Jonze, a good friend of mine, made Being John Malkovich. And there 's Fight Club, which is a great movie—and a great book. I think for the first time in 10 years, I feel like there are kindred spirits.

It's interesting that you find community in other art forms.

Because of my background in art school, my viewpoint on the creation of artifacts is different. In the art world there is no passport required to go from high culture to pop culture. But in the literary world there has never been any connection between literary culture and pop culture. And I think what 's going on right now is probably the same sort of catharsis that happened in the late '50s when everything suddenly shifted from these existential painters and went pop.

I think writing is going very pop right now. That 's great. I have always been. And I think a lot of people are still confused by it—a lot of people are kind of scared by it, too. A lot of people have a lot of their identity or tenure based in maintaining the old guard. I think it is a fractious period right now in writing, which had been almost comatose since TV usurped the primacy of reading as the dominant means of gaining a societal overview.