Music critic and memoirist Chuck Klosterman visits Denver tonight (click here for details) to introduce his first novel, Downtown Owl. But before he greets the crowd at the Tattered Cover LoDo, he talked about his latest offering, and a whole lot more, during a generous, free-flowing interview with Westword that's reproduced below.
Klosterman acknowledges that novels aren't the trendiest literary form these days before revealing why he chose to tackle the form. From there, he shares memories of his North Dakota upbringing that inform the narrative, which chronicles life in a smalltown in the months before its struck by a killer blizzard; notes that he set the book during the '80s in part because he expects future historians to give the era short shrift; points out that he purposefully created a writing challenge for himself by having a major teenage character show no interest in music; divulges the origins of some not terribly flattering childhood nicknames; admits that he's at least a little bit worried that rural readers might be offended by his take on their lifestyle; and offers anecdotes from a recent stay in Germany that he'll likely expand upon in his next book -- a first-person effort as opposed to another novel.
It's his way of getting back to the real world, after spending time in an imagined one.
Westword (Michael Roberts): These days, it seems that memoirs of the sort you’ve written in the past are a much hotter commodity than novels – unless the novels are about teenage wizards or high school vampires. So why did you decide to take the novelistic plunge?
Chuck Klosterman: That’s an interesting question. Commercially, right now, it’d probably be smarter to just keep writing non-fiction. I mean, we’re kind of a non-fiction culture right now. People are more interested in basically anything that’s true as opposed to anything that’s created. The idea that you can sort of illustrate the human condition through fiction seems to be a less central part of writing now. But even though I know that, I guess I didn’t really factor that in when I started my project. I wanted to do a book where – how can I best describe this? I guess I worked in newspapers for eight years writing about popular culture as seen through other people’s experiences and how they described it. And then I did a lot of first-person memoir writing for about five years. So I sort of wanted to find a way to talk about ideas that I could create but I didn’t have ownership over necessarily, you know? So someone else was saying it.
I’m kind of giving you a complicated answer. I guess I didn’t factor that in. My agent and my publisher seemed much more aware of that than I did. That’s how I know this – through them. Maybe they were apprehensive that I was writing a novel. But you can’t let those things make your decisions for you.
WW: Have you been writing short stories or other novels all along and this is your first one to come out?
CK: No. I wrote fiction when I was in high school… I wrote one piece of fiction that I ended up including in that anthology that came out a couple of years ago [Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas, published in 2006]. But that wasn’t even really a serious attempt. I mean, it seems crazy that I published it seeing as it wasn’t serious, but that was just something I wrote in my free time while I was working at the Akron Beacon Journal when I’d get bored. And then I was putting out an anthology, I kind of felt bad only putting out previously published material, because I felt in a way I was kind of ripping of the people who liked me the most – people who may have actually read all of that shit I wrote. It was like they’d be reading it twice in this book. So I thought, well, I should try to give people something that was totally new.
WW: Sort of like a bonus track on a greatest hits album…
CK: Exactly. That’s exactly what it was like. So this is the first time I’ve ever seriously tried to write fiction.
WW: Was there a specific incident – something that spurred you to try your hand at fiction? Or was it more of a gradual process leading to the decision?
CK: Hmmm. I don’t know if it was an incident… The first book I wrote [2001’s Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota] was essentially long-form non-fiction and criticism. And then I wrote an essay collection [2003’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto]. And then I wrote a book that was sort of event-based that was a memoir [2005’s Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story], and then that anthology came out. I’m sort of interested in all kinds of writing. When I think of musicians, I like guys like Prince, who can play thirty instruments or whatever. And when I like athletes, I tend to like guys who can do all things well, as opposed to just scoring or just rebounding or whatever. So I kind of felt like, well, if one wants to be a writer, you should try to do all kinds of disciplines – every kind of idiom.
I thought about writing this book for a while. I suppose all people who feel like they have an understanding of a very specific experience because of geography or because of their age or because of something that happened in their life – they kind of think to themselves that it would be sort of fun and interesting to put this into a narrative. And this was just the time to do it. This would have been a hard book to sell if I was truly unknown. I don’t know if I could have published a book based around a fictional super-small town twenty years ago. I don’t know if that would seem especially exciting. But I’m in a position now where I can do it.
WW: You grew up in North Dakota, and you mentioned earlier that the setting of Downtown Owl is one that you knew very well. How old were you during the time period when the book is set – the early 1980s?
CK: Eleven. I picked that period for a couple of reasons. One is that 1983, 1984 was kind of the first period of my life that I can tangibly remember. I can really remember the details of that time. And I wanted to go back as far as I could without having to guess. If I’d set it in the ‘70s, I was alive, obviously, during that time. But my memories of the ‘70s are much more of a construction than having these firsthand memories. Plus the blizzard is real. Even though it’s the end of the book, that’s sort of where the process of writing this book comes from.
WW: Do you remember specifically being in that blizzard?
CK: Oh yeah. It was fucking the craziest storm I’ve ever been involved with. I have a very vivid memory of it.
WW: Were you inside or outside when it struck?
CK: I was in the house. It was kind of late afternoon and it had been really nice that day. In my hometown, Wyndmere, there was this thing called the Crop Show. It was one of those events that was a sort of celebration of local agriculture or whatever. And I’d gotten home from that and my sister had gotten home and my mom had gotten home, but my dad was still at the bar. It was nice out, and there was a college basketball game on, and then you’d look at the window and see that it was kind of getting gray outside – sort of lightly snowing. And the phone rang and it was my sister – another one of my sisters – calling from Fargo. And she said, “Is everybody in the house now?” And my mom was like, “No, actually. Your dad is still in town.” And my sister said, “Call him right now and tell him to stay up there.” I remember my mom saying, “Why?,” and the minute she said, “Why?,” this wind hit the house. And it felt like the whole house was going to tip over. It was tornado-like, suddenly. And it was windy like that for hours. And it snowed like crazy and it got really cold. So I do really remember it, yeah.
WW: How long were you stuck outside and separated from your dad?
CK: Oh, a day.
WW: Were there deaths in the immediate area?
CK: There were deaths in Fargo, which was, like, fifty miles away. What happened, and I think I allude to this in the beginning of the book – there are these underpasses in a town like Fargo, where there’s a road, the local traffic, goes underneath the interstate. And because people couldn’t see anything, they stopped, and they got stuck under there and died. So there were some deaths, yeah.
WW: I read that a real-life murder in 1983 also had something to do with the time period you chose…
CK: That was all the Gordon Kahl stuff – the tax-evader. That’s all real, too. [Kahl killed two law enforcement officers before taking his own life.] And that was also part of it. That had happened in the spring of ’83, so in the context of the narrative, people are talking about it. It’s a recent memory.
WW: Your main characters are Mitch, a teenager who grew up in Owl, Julie, a teacher who moves there, and Horace, and old-timer. Why did you decide to split up the viewpoints among three player rather than building the narrative around a single character?
CK: That’s a good question. A few reasons, I guess. One is that people have this idea about small town life. They assume that because everybody knows who everyone is, and because everybody knows everyone else’s business, they all must be sort of interconnected. And that’s not the way it is. It is true that they know who everybody is and they know all this stuff about them. But they really have no interpersonal relationship. When I grew up in my small town, I knew who all the old guys in town were, but I never spoke to any of them. And I knew all the young couples and could identify their vehicles and knew what their lives were like, but I never really spoke to any of them. So I wanted to have these three people are sort of having an identical experience, but they’re not really overlapping at all.
And also, I had this kind of fear that because I was writing about a town that was certainly very similar to where I came from, and because I’d done so much first-person writing in the past, I suspected people would think that if there was one character, that character must be me. And there really is no character in this book who’s me. I really wanted to try to write from sort of a creative perspective. So I picked three different people and tried to figure out how to write in different voices. And that’s hard. I don’t know how successful that was. I’m sure people will argue that the three main characters in some way sort of think alike. And I’m doing all the thinking, so I guess that’s probably true.
WW: Even though the setting is so close to the one you grew up in, did you find yourself identifying with Julia’s outsider perspective more than some people might expect because you’ve been gone for such a long time and have had very different experiences since then.
CK: Possibly. I suppose. I identified with all the people, though. It would be strange if I wrote about someone and I was like, “I don’t even fucking understand anything about them.” All of the characters are sort of me, I guess. But I guess what you’re asking is, is the way she perceives town closer to the way I perceive it now that I’ve left it? Possibly – but that’s now, like, twenty-five years ago. And to me, it seems longer. It seems that so much about the world is different. Just the acceleration of technology. When I go home to North Dakota, it doesn’t seem like the people in this book. The setting in this book isn’t that way anymore.
WW: Today, of course, Mitch and his peers would have the Internet – which would provide at least some kind of a window onto the outside world…
CK: An even bigger element was the proliferation of cable television. And in terms of the high school experience for people, the addition of cable TV I think was really huge. And not just because of MTV, but because of the idea that, if your only sort of view of the outside world is the media, going from three channels to sixteen channels or whatever – that’s like making your world five times larger.
WW: You mention MTV, and if I remember correctly, it launched right around that time…
CK: It was 1981.
WW: I grew up in a small town, too, although not as small as yours: Grand Junction, Colorado. And we were among the first to get MTV, and I remember sitting around with friends watching this small number of videos over and over again – even live .38 Special videos. And yet that opened up our musical universe in a way that’s hard to explain to people now.
CK: It is. That was a big part of why I wanted to write about this period of American history. I kind of feel like it’s going to be a lost period of time. I have the sense that when future historians look back at the last half of the Twentieth Century, they’re going to be very interested in the ‘50s and ‘60s because of civil rights and the counterculture movement, and they’re going to be extremely interested in the ‘90s and beyond because the Internet explodes and all of a sudden everyone has a cell phone and communication expands exponentially. But I feel like this period – the post-punk, post-disco era up until the Clinton administration – is going to be almost a forgotten time. It’ll be sort of thought of as the time when Reagan was president and people used cocaine.
So I thought to myself, especially in a rural area, obviously the changes there are even more dramatic, because everything’s on a small scale. I wanted to have at least some sort of imprint on that era so it doesn’t just disappear from the historical record.
WW: One of the interesting things for me, especially considering how much you’ve written about rock and roll over the years, is that Mitch has no interest in music whatsoever. Was that a challenge you set for yourself? That you wouldn’t be able to use music as a crutch when writing about him?
CK: Pretty much. That’s almost exactly it. It would’ve been really easy to say, “I’m going to have Mitch’s favorite band be Cheap Trick, and every time I want to talk about something, I’ll have him listen to a certain Cheap Trick song, and we can use the iconography of the band to kind of illustrate what his personality was like.” But I didn’t want to do that. I kind of wanted to create the experience that I think is probably pretty common where a teenager is just sort of abstractly depressed. They’re just sort of depressed about nothing in particular. It’s not like their life is in shambles or they’re in the middle of some big tragedy. They wouldn’t even use the word “depressed” to describe how they feel. But I wanted this person to sort of be devoid of interesting culture. It’s sort of the same reason I wanted the Vance character to only like one band.
WW: Not only just one band, the Rolling Stones, but to only like the least critically respected albums by that band more than any of the more acclaimed albums.
CK: Sort of. But there are people who do. I wanted this person to be completely unaffected by the world of criticism. The opinions he has about the Rolling Stones has nothing to do with anything anyone has written about the Rolling Stones. It’s just his firsthand experience. These are the records that this character bought when he would have been at a formative age, and he thinks they’re the best ones.
WW: Is that something you see as a positive, having grown up in that environment? That you were able to form your musical tastes without having to wonder, “Am I supposed to like this band?”
CK: Absolutely. That’s been a huge advantage in my career as a rock writer. It’s probably among the single biggest advantages. I had a really normal experience with music, except that I liked it more than the average person. I’d get Rolling Stone at school; they got it in our school library. And all I really remember is going through the review section, and I’d think to myself, “They hate every band I like. And they think Talking Heads is the best band in the world.” I remember reading that in a review. Now, at this point in my life, I can completely understand that argument, and why that argument was made, and I could go back and read that review again and it’d probably be very different for me. But I just remember them saying the Talking Heads were the greatest band in the world, and I remember thinking, “Any publication that thinks Talking Heads are better than Van Halen – I have no relationship to this.” That not only is it wrong – it was that this person had to be an idiot.
Because I only listened to metal at the time. I had a very myopic view of music. So when I went to college and started to listen to all this different type of music, I was also having those experiences at a time when I was older and could think about it a little more cognitively. When I first started listening to R.E.M., I was already in my twenties, so I was thinking about it differently than I would have if I’d have heard it when I was thirteen, I suppose.
WW: Another thing you write about in the book is nicknames, and I understand that you had several: Curtains, Headface or Facehead or Joaquin Andujar. Could you elaborate on those?
CK: Well, my given name is Charles, but because I’ve always just been called Chuck, I guess in a way, I always had a nickname. But I really didn’t have a nickname as much as some other people did – although I did among my family members, my older brothers. They initially called me “Shmucskt.”
CK: I don’t even know how you’d spell it. I guess it’d be S-H-M-U-C-S… I don’t know. That’s when I was really little – when I was four or five. I guess it was some kind of derivative of “Chuck” or something. And because I knew a lot about dinosaurs when I was five, they started calling me “Little Wonder.” And that changed to little “Little Won-dar.” And then that became just “Won-dar.” And then that became Joaquin Andujar, who was a pitcher for the Cardinals. And then one started calling me “Facehead” and “Headface” interchangeably, with no meaning.
WW: So further investigation won’t solve that mystery?
CK: That’s the thing. You see this a lot in bad mob movies where nicknames are a part of it, and the nickname is always so central to something about that character. Whatever the defining aspect of their lives, the nickname comes out of that. And it was my experience living in a town where everybody had a nickname that they tend to be completely arbitrary and if they define people, they inevitably define them by an aspect of their life that was completely meaningless. Based on something that happened one day, and people thought the nickname was funnier than the event itself.
WW: In terms of your portrayal of the town in general, was there some fear that it would come across as too critical? Or did you think your basic affection for these people would balance things out?
CK: I had that fear. I still have that fear. I’d hate for people from my hometown or towns like it to think somehow I was criticizing that world. I don’t know. To me, in my mind, the depiction isn’t negative, but that might not be how it is to some people. So yes, that does worry me.
WW: If you broke down the story to its simplest elements, and perhaps had a chip on your shoulder, you might say that Downtown Owl is the story of people in a small town who lead small, meaningless lives and then they die and hardly anyone notices.
CK: But where does that not happen? Everywhere on earth, people lead lives where not much happens to them that is meaningful to other people and then they die. That’s just how it is. I meet people from, say, Chicago or Philadelphia or New York, and they have this almost stupid loyalty to where they come from. They almost seem to want to convince you that they live in the greatest city in America. When I lived in Akron, Ohio, it was weird that people were so proud of Akron and always wanted to convince me that Akron was this great place. When I grew up, no one thought Wyndmere was awesome. It wasn’t like a Tom Cruise movie where everyone’s desperate to get out – like, “We’ve got to get out of this factory community.” But no one was talking about how wonderful it was. There’s depression everywhere, I guess.
WW: Overall, though, I gather that you don’t feel your worldview is grim. You see it as realistic.
CK: Hmmm. Probably both. Probably both grim and realistic. But I’m a pessimistic person. I view myself as being a realist, but everybody who says that, by other people’s views, is a pessimist.
WW: And yet there’s so much humor in the book, too.
CK: I hope so. I hope it’s funny.
WW: Now, I understand you spent fourteen weeks teaching in Germany recently. Is that right?
WW: What was that experience like?
CK: It was, at first, extremely difficult. Not the teaching part, because I was teaching American Studies to students who spoke English very fluently. But I was in East Germany – I was in Leipzig, Germany, and everyone over the age of forty – not only didn’t they speak English, but they usually spoke Russian as well as German. So it made things very complicated. I guess I stupidly underestimated how hard it would be to move to a country where you don’t speak the language. I didn’t speak German at all and I still don’t speak German at all. At the end, though, it was really great. I ended up becoming friends with some of my students, and that was really fun. But I suppose I couldn’t have become friends with them right away. That would have been weird, to immediately have an interpersonal relationship with kids who I was technically teaching.
But I never really traveled around when I was in my twenties. I never had money to do that. A lot of kids in college travel around Europe, but I never had the money to do that. And when I’m in my forties, I’ll probably be married or something, and I won’t be able to do that then, either. So I thought this is probably the last chance I’d have to just go somewhere for three months and really kind of be by myself.
WW: Do you think we’ll be seeing the different perspectives you learned about over there in your future writing?
CK: Well, that was part of it, too. I write so much about American culture. I thought to myself it’d probably be valuable if I lived in a non-American country for a while. So I’m working on a book of essays now, and I think a lot of people probably assume that I was going to Germany just to write a book about it – and that wasn’t what I was doing. But I’ll bet unconsciously the experiences that I had there will affect how I write about culture.
WW: The essays will be in the non-fiction mode?
CK: Yeah. I’m not just going to be a novelist now. I might write a novel again. It was really hard to write this one. I enjoy writing non-fiction more. I can do it much faster. That’s probably still going to be the backbone of my career or whatever. But who knows. I don’t really think more than one project ahead, usually.