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May 8, 2018

How Bestselling Author Douglas Coupland Writes

The iconic, international bestselling author of 14 novels, including the era-defining Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, Douglas Coupland, paid a visit to the show to rap with me about his latest collection, his strange ritual for starting a new book, and the timeless difficulties of getting published.

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Mr. Coupland started his career in journalism before rising to prominence after his acclaimed, bestselling debut in 1991. Since Generation X he has become an internationally recognized visual artist, designer, and author of 14 novels, two short story collections, a dozen nonfiction books, and scripts for the stage, TV, and film.

In addition to his many contributions to traditional and online publications including the New York Times, The Guardian, and Vice Doug has written and performed for England’s Royal Shakespeare Company and is a columnist for The Financial Times of London.

His latest, titled Bit Rot, is a collection of more than 65 thought-provoking essays, stories, and meditations “… on the different ways in which twentieth-century notions of the future are being shredded.”

The social critic and cultural observer has been prognosticating on how technology affects our brains since the advent of the internet.

If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews.

In this file Douglas Coupland and I discuss:

  • How a visual artist became a generation-defining fiction author
  • The writer’s love of serial journalism
  • Why listeners of this show have won the biggest lottery in history
  • How a Canadian professor in the ’60s predicted the influence of the internet we know today
  • The magic of writing on airplanes

Listen to The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience below ...

The Show Notes

The Transcript

How Bestselling Author Douglas Coupland Writes

Voiceover: Rainmaker FM.

Kelton Reid: Hey, hey, welcome back to The Writer Files. I am still your host Kelton Reid, here to take you on yet another tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of renowned writers. The iconic international bestselling author of 14 novels, including the era defining Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, Douglas Coupland paid a visit to the show to rap with me about his latest collection, his strange ritual for starting a new book, and the timeless difficulties of getting published.

Mr. Coupland started his career in journalism before rising to prominence after his acclaimed best-selling debut in 1991. Since Generation X, he’s become an internationally recognized visual artist, designer, and author of 14 novels, two short story collections, dozen nonfiction books, and scripts for the stage, TV, and film.

In addition to his many contributions to traditional and online publications, including the New York Times, The Guardian, Vice, Doug has written and performed for England’s Royal Shakespeare Company and is a columnist for the Financial Times of London. His latest, titled Bit Rot, is a collection of more than 65 thought-provoking essays, stories, and meditations on the different ways in which 20th century notions of the future are being shredded. The social critic and cultural observer has been prognosticating on how technology affects our brains since the advent of the Internet.

In this file, Doug and I discuss how a visual artist became a generation defining fiction author. The writer’s love of long-form journalism, why listeners of this show have won the biggest lottery in history, how a Canadian professor in the ’60s predicted the influence of the Internet as we know it today, and the magic of riding on airplanes.

If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews as soon as they’re published and do me the favor of dropping a rating in iTunes to help other writers find us. On with the show.

We are rolling today on The Writer Files with an esteemed guest. Douglas Coupland is joining us. Thank you so much for hopping on the show today.

Douglas Coupland: Well, thanks for having me.

Kelton Reid: If you aren’t familiar with Doug’s work, I’d be surprised, but he’s an artist, designer, international bestselling author of novels, short stories, biography, quite a bit of journalism out there in the world, I think. Yeah, you’ve worked in the visual arts, you’ve done a lot of design work, and I’m guessing that you did the artwork for your new book, the cover and …

Douglas Coupland: Oh, yeah.

Kelton Reid: I’m looking at the back of Bit Rot, the brand new collection of stories and essays, and your face is just kind of hovering there behind the blurbs, which is kind of cool.

Douglas Coupland: The whole author photo thing is just so corny and out of date. Usually most people just go to Google Images and see, Okay, got it, and that’s all they need. The cover, yes, I did do myself. Everyone thinks I used to do all my covers but I didn’t. Finally, the one where they sent me was just so dismal, I said, “You know what, I’m doing it.”

How a Visual Artist Became a Generation-Defining Fiction Author

Kelton Reid: I think it turned out very well. To say that you wear a lot of hats would be an understatement. Clearly, you do many different things. You’re kind of a … I wouldn’t really know how to sum it up. I mean, looking at your resume is very intimidating, but as a writer, you had this pretty storied career, and I’d love to take you back a little bit, maybe for listeners who aren’t familiar with your amazing journey. Can you take us back maybe to those moments before Generation X was commissioned and kind of all that craziness happened to you. How you got here, how you became this best selling author, of now I think it’s 13 novels, and all these other fantastic works. How did you get here, Doug?

Douglas Coupland: I think my story is similar to most other people I ve met who write long form fiction, which is that they were doing, and I was doing, something completely unconnected to writing, and then somewhere around 28 or so, something clicks in and, “Oh, I think I should maybe write some long form fiction”. I don’t think I ever met a writer who came directly out of the creative writing program or a masters lit program. There’s something about the world we’re living.

I went to art school and trained in sculpture and typography and spent a lot of time living in Japan, working there. I never really thought of words, one way or the other, and then in ’87, back when answering machines were still a big thing, like, “Now we got an answering machine”, I bought one and plugged it in and the first call I got was the editor of the local city magazine. “Come on down. We want you to write for us.” I’m a little … “I hadn’t written a thing in my life.” “Well, I read the postcard you sent to Don’s wife. It was on a refrigerator at a party last night. It was really funny so we think you should write for us.” “Okay”, and then two days later I was down in Beverly Hills, writing about this art called Scoundrel. Spent three days there, wrote the story in one day and, this was back when journalism paid a lot and, “Wait, wait. You mean, I had a lot of fun and enjoyed writing it, and I get paid for it?”

At the time I had a big sculpture studio in Vancouver. Anything to do with sculpture is expensive because it’s third dimension and the prices of materials and … Anyhow, it became a very quick enjoyable way of paying my studio bills. Then I realized there was something deeper that was going on. I went to Toronto about six months later and took a job working the business magazine as a junior staffer. Probably between that first phone call and moving out to middle of nowhere to write Generation X was maybe 18 months. That was all it took to go from zero to fiction.

I look back on that period of my life and what I remember most about it was chronic fatigue syndrome, which I don’t even know if it exists anymore. For that 18 month window, I’d wake up every morning and around an hour after waking up, I’d ugh, like being unplugged or something, and yet I got so much stuff done. It ended one day magically when I started writing fiction, so maybe there’s a connection there somewhere.

Kelton Reid: Interesting, interesting. Since then, since that trip to the desert, Coachella, I believe.

Douglas Coupland: Everyone knows about Coachella now, but back then it was this completely undiscovered, sort of Nixon era fantasy underneath a glass dome, meaning it wasn’t mid century, it wasn’t gay, it wasn’t trendy, it wasn’t Coachella. It was just this place where time froze, somewhere around when Pat Nixon had a bowl of Special K in 1971 or something. It was not the Coachella that people know now.

Kelton Reid: The one that people are dropping exorbitant amounts of money to go and visit and do drugs and all that stuff.

Douglas Coupland: The weather was just appalling.

Kelton Reid: Since then, you’ve published, I believe it’s 13 novels, collections of short stories, eight nonfiction books … I mean the list here is pretty intimidating, and a lot of scripts, both screen and stage, including a TV show that you produced, I believe. That’s pretty, pretty exciting. A lot of successes there. So, looks like the best place to find all of that agglomerated in one spot is your fantastic website, Coupland.com, and I’ll link to that. Is there anywhere else we want to point listeners to to see your work? I mean, it’s everywhere.

Douglas Coupland: I do a monthly column for the Financial Times of London Weekend Magazine. That’s out there. I mean, it looks like I do a lot, but in my head, I feel almost like I got locked-in syndrome. I really feel like I’m wasting my life, that I’m not using my time properly. Even picking up a sock is like, “Why am I picking it up?” It’s like I could be doing more permanent with that amount of energy.

It’s just gotten kind of weird inside my head lately. I’m finding it very hard to read. I don’t know if that’s something you’re experiencing as well, or if it’s just me, or is it some massive phenomenon where reading fiction on a Kindle or a book is just like, “Oh, get to the point.” It’s not fast enough. I feel like a terrible human being for reading a fraction of what I used to read in a period of, like in a month. Where did that part of my brain go? Is it me? Is it everyone? Is it all this, you know, the cloud? Where is this coming from?

Why Listeners of This Show Have Won the Biggest Lottery in History

Kelton Reid: For sure, for sure. It’s interesting that you say that, because I know you write a lot of about it, and in your observations of the modern contemporary syndrome that we’re all kind of facing, this speeded up, fast food of the brain, nation and world. With all this inter-connectedness, how do writers really stay focused and research? So, let’s talk about your process. How do you stay focused and actually produce writing for your column and then anything else you’re working on. Are you working on another book now or are you turned to more visual stuff?

Douglas Coupland: Writing takes place in time, and artwork largely takes place in space so I think it comes from separate and non-competing parts of the id, or the brain, or however you want to describe that sort of thing. I began writing this column, I guess you’d call it serial nonfiction. Every month I take a subject and analyzed it. I was very nervous in doing so because I’ve never actually done that kind of nonfiction before. It turns out I really loved doing it and I didn’t expect that. I’m happy it happened and now I find a lot of energies going to nonfiction.

A TV project I’m working on right now, as we’re all living the golden age of television and I’d like to be part of that. I’ve always enjoyed being in the world and out of the world. Every year I take on two or three completely unrelated writing projects because I meet people I would never otherwise have met and go to places that I would never would have otherwise been and experience all this life. I don’t know how old you are. I’m 55, and what I’m finding amazing is that it just goes so quickly. When I look in the mirror, “That’s not me!”

Think of all the planet we live on, and then the sun and all these galaxies. There’s trillions of them. Each galaxy has a million stars and there’s all this matter out there and antimatter. Out of all that matter, like you and me, and if you’re listening, all the matter in the entire universe, we got to experience life, whatever this thing called life is. It’s literally winning the biggest lottery in the universe, and knowing that, having the sentience to appreciate it, how we going to get the most of having been alive, or being alive here? It seems like this, not so much a gift, but a responsibility, I think. Which is why I always take on all these crazy projects and go to Russia, yeah, Russia, why not, for six weeks to do something. When I say it keeps life interesting, it, actually more than a figure of speech, it keeps this magical thing called life interesting. I think that’s my philosophy.

I have a home base here. I live in Vancouver. I’m away about half the time. I go out and have adventures and I come back. I think of myself as just an adventurer, maybe in a certain old-fashioned tradition. As the times change, as I change, fiction’s a part of it, but it’s fiction reconfigured into other formats, again like long form television, or nonfiction, which is quasi-fictional.

Bit Rot, which is the book we re here to discuss, I guess, is compilation of nonfiction pieces I’ve done, some published, some not. Fiction, which I thought was experimental, but as time goes on, I think it’s fiction that I want to create in the reader that same sense of weird magic you get when you’re online and you fall down a rabbit hole and suddenly you’re looking at a model railroad in the Czech Republic and then like vroom, you’re looking at Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Wikipedia page or something. I think that is very much a part of the modern experience, so how does fiction reflect that?

I don’t believe, I think, in some writers who are notorious for bunkering themselves and turning out the lights and focusing purely on the words. I used to do that a little bit, but now I think, No, no, no. You’re out in the world, write about the world as you inhabit it, so that’s what I do.

How a Canadian Professor in the 60s Predicted the Influence of the Internet We Know Today

Kelton Reid: You’ve actually written about it, and I’ll link to this piece, I’m actually at my happiest when I’m writing on a plane. I think it sums up what you’re talking about. You’ve written about this often, how everything has been turned into this, again, this fractal sense of what you said about falling down a rabbit hole.

So it sounds like your writing process is pretty broken up, but it’s working for you because obviously, it traverses a lot of that terrain. There’s so much in there and it’s been called binge-worthy reading of the Coupland brain. Yeah, it’s so cool that it really is capturing everything that you’re talking about, this ephemeral nature of where we are now. I have the McLuhan biography that you wrote here. I was just checking it out as a reference and he was talking about that moment that I think we’re all experiencing right now so-

Douglas Coupland: The thing about Marshall McLuhan is most people under the age of 40 really probably don’t know him, or much about him. He has the two famous sound bites. There was “We all live in a global village” and “The medium is the message”. So he was this crusty fuddy duddy guy who was teaching at the University of Toronto in Canada in 1962. He was quite retrograde. He was quite religious. He didn’t really like the physical world very much, but through a chain of never-to-be-repeated circumstances, he was able to anticipate the Internet, and what it would feel like and how it would change the way our sentences work.

Tom Wolfe famously wrote an essay where, I think it was Esquire, called What If He s Right? back in the early ’60s. What’s happened is McLuhan was right about almost everything, except he didn’t know the interface of what this new thing was going to look like, or feel like. So he’ll use 18th century pamphleteers in England to describe what we would now call PayPal, or eBay, or online dating. He actually anticipated the pornography explosion. He said that the world would be turned into a bordello without any walls. That was like his He had to approach everything metaphorically or through literary culture, which made him sound kind of nuts, but if you can be right up to 2017, the chances are he’s going to be right as we move further on. I got dragged kicking and screaming doing that biography, but I’m really glad I did.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, that’s pretty fascinating, that you can try and do that and then do fiction. Are you turning to episodic TV as an outlet for the part of your brain that wants to do fiction? Or are you actually working on another piece of longer fiction now?

Douglas Coupland: I’m working on, I call it 100 sermons, but I think maybe I’ll make it 99, ’cause 99 is a more interesting number. And I m actually doing, I suppose you would say, secular theology, addressing head on the ins and out and ups and downs of the soul, or trying to locate the soul. The art world, they talk about imminence, I suppose you would talk about that in alternate worlds as well. That’s where all the philosophers always get hung up and start becoming angels dancing on the heads of pins. I think most of us have this sensation that there is a holiness that pervades certainly life on Earth, and we talked about a bit earlier, but how does that holiness operate?

I’m also very scientific, so is it the gravitational field? Or is it an inaccuracy, like one of the up or down quarks? How does holiness exists? I believe it does, but I’m also agnostic so … I think that’s where 100, excuse me, 99 sermons is coming from. I know Stephin Merritt was actually going to write his 100 love songs except the project came to an organic conclusion. He called it 69 love songs, which was sort of cheeky. So who knows what the number will finally be. That’s what I’m working on now.

The Magic of Writing on Airplanes

Kelton Reid: It sounds like you’re a writer who just kind of … You’re practicing some kind of productive procrastination, that s something that Austin Kleon talks about. He’s also a visual artist who’s a writer and he has an office where he’s got three different desks set up so he’s doing the visual art, then he’s doing the writing part, and then he just will kind of move from one thing to the other as the muse pulls him around the room. Is that how you find yourself working? I know you talk about writing on planes, you talk about writing, if you’re on a deadline, you’re working in a hotel room oftentimes.

Douglas Coupland: Writing is, I think, best done in the morning before everyone arrives at the studio or other workers arrive. You ve got that magic lucidity window of maybe two and a half hours. That’s where most conception happens. The only other place I can really conceive … there’s two other places. One is on an airplane, which is great, because there’s no wi-fi, to be honest, and there’s this super focus. Also, it’s a chemical thing. You get one or two glasses of white wine on a plane with decreased oxygen and it’s like magic. The words just flow and then of course, two hours later, it’s over.

The third place I like to get writing done is in the International House of Pancakes on the north side of Interstate 15 in Las Vegas. I had this tradition of starting books there. So I’ll go down, I’ll check into my booth. Yes, that’s right, a writer who has a superstition, who’d have thought? I like to begin it there. Las Vegas used to be this piddly little thing and now it s just morphed into this massive place but the IHOP continues to exist, so I will continue going there.

Kelton Reid: That’s awesome. I will ask you about writer’s block. How do you feel about it? Is it a thing? Have you ever experienced it? Is it a myth?

Douglas Coupland: Oh, writer’s block is real. I don’t know of any other profession that has an analogous syndrome. The thing about writer’s block is that, obviously you can’t write, but you perpetualize it, you catastrophize it, and “Oh, my god, I can’t write, my life is over.” Of course, it always comes back in the end.

I’m curious to hear what other writers have to say on this subject. I think in the end it’s probably something really banal, but beneath surface, like maybe you changed your brand of B vitamins or something. I think they forgot to put B6 in a new batch or something. I think that … is it Occam’s Razor?… the easiest to answer is probably the right answer. I think it s something very of-the-world which causes writer’s block, unless it’s cosmic. You’re always bargaining in your head, maybe it is something, oh curse those muses.

The Importance of Doing What You Enjoy

Kelton Reid: I know that the writers that I’ve spoken to kind of run the gamut from it’s total bullsh*t. It’s kind of like impotence. We don’t talk about it, but it is real. Before we wrap up here, do you think you can define creativity in your own words? I know so much of what you do involves some elements of creativity.

Douglas Coupland: Creativity? A few things come to mind. My hair went gray and white prematurely and so I look a lot wiser than I maybe am. I get asked to do these speeches for graduation ceremonies. The question I get a lot, mostly from the parents who are worried about their kids, is, “You know, what can we do to future proof the kids?” “What do you mean?” “Well, there’s this assault of new technologies coming from every direction, impacting all parts of our human experience. How can you make yourself safe from all that?”

What I say is, “You have to find out what it is you enjoy doing and then do it. If you don’t enjoy doing it and you succeed, you’ll be contemptuous of your success and you won’t enjoy it. You have to accept that maybe you enjoy something that’s not going to make you a billion dollars. Maybe, you like working with shoes, just work with shoes.”

There’s something about the creation of new images I’ve always liked, and whatever it takes me to get me there is what I do. I like creating new ways of working with words, ditto. I think they should have a course starting in kindergarten, “What do you like doing?” You might have students who spend 12, 13 years and they might still don’t figure it out what it is they like doing. Okay, well, get working in advertising then.

Also, the other thing too, if you have 10 ideas, one of them is going to be a hit, one of them is going to be an absolute disaster, two of them will be pretty good and two will be like eh, one or two will be like, Don’t talk about it, and one is just a flaming disaster. So sometimes people get the flaming disaster first and they just have to realize it’s actually more of a probabilistic situation. That if they try it again they’ll probably get one of the better responses.

It’s so easy for me to psych myself out with people in general, and I don’t know where that comes from, but whenever I find myself trying to psych myself out then I should really be doing it. For example, the Marshall McLuhan biography, I was like, “Uh, why do I uhhhh.” Phone calls to my agent and stuff. I learned so much from that experience. Yeah, just shake it up. Not everything’s gonna work, not everything’s gonna fail. It’s a mix.

Kelton Reid: Words of wisdom from Douglas Coupland, whose fantastic new collection traverses the workings of Doug’s brain, more than 65 thought-provoking essays, stories, and meditations on the different ways in which 20th century notions of the future are being shredded. Finally, do you have any advice for your fellow scribes on how to keep the ink flowing and the cursor moving?

Douglas Coupland: One thing I noticed about publishing or being published … where it’s been going on like 28 years now for me, is that it’s always been just as hard to get published as it is right now. That if it’s not one thing then it’s another, but it’s almost like Avogadro’s number or Pi or something, that the difficulty in getting published factor. In some ways it’s easier now, some ways it’s harder, but it averages out about the same amount. So I don’t think you can say there was once a golden age of new writers getting published. It’s always been the same.

Kelton Reid: Yes, and thank you so much for taking the time. We really appreciate you doing this, and best of luck with all your future endeavors. Please come back and talk with us again.

Douglas Coupland: It’s a joy to have met you. Thanks a lot, Kelton.

Kelton Reid: Thanks so much for joining me on another tour of the writer’s process. If you enjoy The Writer Files podcast, please subscribe to the show and leave us a rating or review to help other writers find us. For more episodes, or to leave a comment or question, you can drop by WriterFiles.FM and you can always chat with me on twitter @KeltonReid. Cheers. Talk to you soon.