I’ve read all of Douglas Coupland’s books. I love his seemless marriage of pop culture currency and left-of-center magical realism. He looks just beneath the curated lawns of suburbia to expose everything from Yuppies adrift (“Generation X”) to Boomer grow ops (“Jpod”) with a dash of wit, whimsy, and a light sprinkling of symbolic absurdity (plane crashes, meteor showers, the apocalypse). When I heard the author, screenwriter, and visual artist was going to be in New York City to promote his theatrical debut, I jumped at the chance to interview him.
As a grizzled entertainment media veteran, I loath movie junkets. Invariably, they coralle numerous television outlets through quickie interviews that inevitably yield vacuous, boilerplate interviews. “Ideally,” I told the film’s publicist, “I’d buy him a cup of tea and chat in a unique setting (ex: Bethesda Fountain, or Top of the Rock — somewhere that riffs on the films themes). More complicated, but way cooler.” We planned, then, on grabbing a quick bite near his hotel which I later came to learn was The Chandler on 31st & Madison.
I set out for the interview nearly two hours prior to our appointed time in an effort to case the neighborhood for a cool, contextual location to conduct our interview. I thought he might enjoy the irony of Shake Shack: highbrow chef, lowbrow food, in a park (the film is called, “Everything’s Gone Green,” after all). As I entered the park to be sure the wait wasn’t untenable, I noticed a huge crane lowering a gigantic sculpture into place. Perfect.
Unfortunately, Douglas was running late. My hour became a half hour. And when I proposed we take a walk to the park, he balked on account of being hard of hearing in one ear. The ambient noise, he explained, would make conversation difficult. And so we settled into a deep couch in the library of the hotel, and began talking.
I think it’s fair to say that Coupland and I developed rapport fairly rapidly. Our conversation was wildly erratic, bouncing from topic to topic like a slow-motion game of Pong. Still, we turned quickly to larger, more substantive themes. At the end of our conversation (which I crafted into an article, “Douglas Coupland On ‘Everything’s Gone Green,’ Beaver Dams, Siberia” on MTV News), he said, “Oh, I wish I could just stay here and talk to you.” And I think he might have meant it.
Benjamin Wagner: I was hoping to take you to this amazing public art work in Madison Square Park just down the street. There’s a lawn in the middle of all these trees, and in the middle of this lawn they’ve erected two, huge stainless steel trees! Like, life-sized fake chrome trees! It totally made me think of you.
Douglas Coupland: That’s so weird. I’m working on a chrome beaver damn for a park in Vancouver. We’re scanning them in and printing them up stereo lithography in the film and then putting steal in them and putting this space shuttle sealer chemical after which point you can chrome that, it’s really elaborate, it’s going to be beautiful it’s a parabola. Probably about feet across and there’s a slate flat surface where the water is sort of in an infinity pool and comes down. It’s really going to be something.
BW: So, that’s interesting that there’s this overlap, what struck me and it’s extra interesting that you’d already gone there — was the juxtaposition of the natural and the artificial, and especially the fact that your putting it in the exact same place: in the center of this park. Not that I planned on this being a dialogue on art cuz frankly that’s not my strength, but what made you think to juxtapose those two things?
DC: I’m from Vancouver, the neighborhood I grew up there’s this fence that surrounds the water shed and honestly if you go on the other side of this fence there’s nothing until the North Pole and then down to Siberia. It’s the absolute weird, binary cut off point between man and nature. I used to think nothing of it but now I think it really has made me sensitized to points and places like the chrome tree growing in the park there — where man and nature just collide. Sometimes beautifully and sometimes uglilly. Is that a word? I think that’s where that comes from.
BW: First, by way of transparency, as it were, I’m Executive Producer of MTV News, so my day job has nothing to do with this, I mean, I began in New York as an interviewer in the ’90s, but when the film popped up on my radar and the opportunity to speak with you came up I said, “I’m coming out of retirement.”
DC: Oh thank you! That’s very nice.
BW: Well, I’m a great admirer of your books, so I thought it would be fun to talk to you.
DC: I had a wonderful experience at your offices back in ’94. I was in there doing something and I was in Judy McGrath’s office and she was saying, “Do you want to go to a show tonight?” And I’m like, “Which show?” And it was Nirvana Unplugged. So she gave me like three ringsides and I’m like, “Oh my God.” And it was the premiere day of John Stewart’s first show and all the girls in the office were just swooning, “Oh, he’s so dreamy,” like Wilma Flintstone over Stony Curtis or something. ’94, that was thirteen years ago. How odd.
BW: That was arguably they heyday when there was some relevance of the brand. I’m there because it affords me the opportunity to do creative things in and above and because I still believe in the possibility, but…
DC: It’s huge! How many channels is it now?
BW: I honestly don’t even know. Hundreds.
DC: What’s your background?
BW: Um, I’m from the Middle West. I’ve lived in New York City for about fifteen years. I’ve been a digital journalist, for lack of better word, for about that long. I’m a musician, a singer/songwriter.
BW: Oh really?
BW: I’m a writer with a web site. I probably write a thousand words every couple of days.
DC: Do you have a link?
BW: Oh, yeah. I’ll give you my card. It’s my name and then add a “dot com.” So, yunno, fundamentally, I’m a creative person in a corporate world — sound familiar?
DC: I think its something you can do there.
DC: It sounds like a very good place to be.
BW: So far so good. It has its moments.
DC: Um, this is going to sound weird, but it’s only because there’s this, like, scrim behind you, but, um, you’re ears are really asymmetrical.
BW: That’s so funny, yeah. One is squarer, right?
DC: Yeah, that one’s got a —
BW: You sir are the first person on Earth to point that out to me! But I’ve noticed it.
DC: The first person who had the bad taste to point it out!
BW: It’s funny that you should go there. Because — as I said — I’m a fan of your work. I’ve read all of your books. I’m a person who seeks meaning in symbol. And who, I hope, has some capability to observe detail and nuance, which whether we’re talking about this film or your written work — struck me as something that’s absolutely in fact, my last question, and I was going to save it for the bonus round, but the fact that you pointed this out to me tells me that you have a really, really keen ability to observe both on an aesthetic and a symbolic level and on an intuitive personal level.
DC: Did you read JPod? Because when I wrote Jpod I had to really investigate the world of autism. I really do believe that autism isn’t like an either or situation, there’s this whole spectrum, like, micro behaviors that define it. If you’re autistic, things have to be just right. Some kids won’t eat their food unless there vegetables are separated or whatever. And if it’s not right, it’s not right. I think it’s just, and this is probably where art school and everything else comes in, things either are right or they’re not right. I don’t want to pathologize completely the way I see the world. As I say, I went to art school and it really was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. I knew I was never cut out to have a job job, it just wasn’t going to happen. Trying to recreate that sensibility… And also it was the early ’80s, it was the end of the hippy era and the PC revolution was yet to happen, and there was still this openness and willingness to talk about anything which ended quickly after I left. And so I used to do the school paper and I worked in sculpture and interdisciplinary media studies and media theory — and that’s basically what I do right now.
You have great accessories. I dress like shit. I’m post-clothes. I just gave up on clothes a long time ago. But everything you have is good. But that’s because you’re a musician, they always dress best.
BW: Jeez, thanks.
DC: You know what I noticed on this trip to New York? I was here in once in 1980, which barely counts; it was two days. But in the late ’80s — you probably got the tail end of it — but that’s when insane. Crazy, mad, mental people with AIDS like spitting in your face and throwing poo at you, I mean it was really, just, like Gothic. And now it’s just so happy in New York! I was down on St. Mark’s last night, and you can see some of the old, crusty, salt and pepper, from the 60s anarchy people walking around and they’re probably wondering, “Wow, what the hell happened here?” I mean, where did all those people go? Is there some spot where the anarchic can go and, if not just be tolerant and indulge, at least fully express itself. I’m not sure if its here anymore. You might know.
BW: It’s Miami Beach around here: sterile, mirrored glass high rise apartments, spas, luxury everything. I have a day job and all, though of my extra money goes to making records, I can live in this. But I don’t know tenable it is, nor do I know that it’s the environment that I cam here for to your point. When I first started working in Times Square, Times Square still had an edge to it. I mean, I don’t mean to be nostalgic about edge, but there’s something lost in terms of why I came here to be a creative soul.
DC: Nostalgic for edge. That’s interesting.
BW: Right now I’d say the creative stuff is Outer Borough, it’s not Manhattan.
DC: What about Brooklyn?
BW: Even Brooklyn’s gone upscale. I mean, Soho has been radically transformed. It’s like the most upscale mall I’ve ever walked around in.
DC: It really is.
BW: And the Lower East Side which, fifteen years ago was pretty rough and tumble, has gotten so upscale that the cool stuff has gone across the bridge.
DC: Someone bought Stuytown?
BW: Yeah, for like five billion dollars.
DC: I used to have a friend who lived there. This is back in like 1991, ’92, and you would walk in there and just wait for the detonators to come in and just get rid of these things.
Maybe the place is no longer geographical. Maybe it’s moved into the digital. I mean, this sounds like a conversation from Wired Magazine in the early ’90s or something, but I wonder if that spirit has entered the machine now and where you are physically is almost like a notation, a bookkeeping device. Having said that you’re not going to get me to move to Afghanistan or something!
BW: Well, since you and I stand, generationally, on both sides of that argument, I mean, literally in terms of our demographic you and I have one foot in the analogue and one foot in the digital — I’m a little reticent to fully let go of the geographical fully — despite my gear and despite my day job — so much of your work has been about seeking connection in a world that might push against our ability to connect.
DC: I would agree, yeah.
BW: So my concern is the ability to connect in a time when this sort of one-on-one, personal connection isn’t happening.
DC: You’re nostalgic for the analogue.
BW: I’m nostalgic for the flesh.
DC: Yeah. Hmmm… How old are you?
BW: For me, all of the meaningful moments — and I think the film gets at this — all of the meaningful moments in life are about people.
DC: I’m from Vancouver. So many of the forces defining the new century are playing themselves out at full volume there. Nobody makes anything. I call it pushing electrons around with a stick. We make video games. We flip real estate. Ryan, in the movie, is a twenty-nine-year-old who is a very 20th century person who hasn’t figured out that everyone else is in the new century. And he’s still trying to hold it together, though maybe not in the right way. But, man, I wrote that movie so long ago in 1999, so to be talking about it in 2007 is sort of strange to me. But I think everything that was happening in that movie has just gone on to become more pronounced. Have you seen it?
BW: That’s my experience with your work in general. You tend to have your finger on a pulse that only become more pronounced with time.
DC: Some smart aleck at People Magazine said,” He’s always forty-five minutes in the future.” That was kind of funny. [Laughs] In “Microserfs,” for example, which I wrote in ’93 or ’94, I remember I told my editor Judith — yes, the Judith Regan — that I wanted to write a book set a Microsoft. And she was like, “Micro-what? What do they do there?” And I said, yunno, “They make software.” And she was like, “Soft what?” So I took a big advance hit on that. And it came out the same week of Windows95 which seemed like some sort of coup but it was absolutely random. And i became this weird sort of Gorillas in the Mist sort of clique kind of grew and grew and grew until it absorbed the whole culture. Now I look back on that book and — I’ve been doing this for seventeen years now — instead of dating things it’s sort of become this time capsule, if anything.
I mean, you would know this because you’re at MTV, but the early ’90s were viable, they were just waiting to happen at any moment. That’d be a very good book for someone to do, a good period piece. What’s interesting for that for a lot of people is just how bad the technology was back then. The way everything was still diskettes. I remember watching “Melrose Place” — I’m love TV but I was never a fan of “Melrose Place” — and they work in this office where the computers didn’t even have plugs! It was like Pebbles Flintstone or a cassette deck or something. It would be kind of neat, in like a “Where’s Waldo” way, to play some sort of “Spot The Bad Technology.” Anyhow… we’re so far off track.
BW: I keep wondering if at some point I’m going to choose to step off this sort of technology treadmill.
DC: I think most people I know do. Probably not until you’re about forty-one. I mean, I asked you’re age not just gratuitously. Thirty to thirty-five are probably the best years of your life. Not that the rest of you’re life isn’t going to be fulfilling or happy. But you’re going to go through a really fucked up period for about five or six years now. Everyone goes through it: rich or poor, whether you live in the Indian Subcontinent or here. And here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to sit and micro-obsess on every decision you ever made, some of which you’ll be grateful for and others you’ll start having regrets over — this is when you start having regrets. You’re gonna become hyper-competitive with every guy you ever meet or read about. Like, you’re competitive but wait until that kicks in. And you’ll probably make one or two super-major life decisions. Usually it’s a geographical move. Like, you’ll move to New Mexico or something. And you’ll still do what you do, but you’ll learn something else. And you’ll turn soft and weak! [Laughs] I don’t know. I’m only forty-five right now. I’m at the other end of it. It’s over. Oh God, talk about hubris and tempting the Gods!
BW: Dude, you don’t know how close you are. I got engaged six week ago …
BW: So it’s ALL changing. And for a typical ’80s kids raised on divorce who staked his claim on having a journalism day job and rock ‘n roll sideline that would overtake the day job, well, here’s the realization at thirty-five that it didn’t turn out like I thought it would.
DC: It’s like a hangover or something. [Pauses] Well, yunno, what is there to find solace in? In my twenties I wish somebody had told me that everyone else was going through the same thing I was going through. But we don’t do that in our culture. And by the time it was over, in your thirties, it’s like, “We didn’t we ever talk about that!?!” You can take solace in the fact that, it doesn’t end, but you get used to it. Which sounds sort of depressing or defeatist but it’s not. It’s the way we’re made. I’ve been thinking about religion a lot lately. And I think religion in the old days used to be about explaining why life is so short. Now it’s the opposite, really. We have to explain why it is we just keep on going and going and going. Oh, and time is going to speed up for you soon too. That’s the next thing. [Laughs] But I’ve gotta give you some good news, hang on, what can I tell you that’s good… Nah. You’re smart. You’re going to do fine. I can already tell.
BW: Your work suggests to me — and to what degree that’s a representation of you or my projection — that despite all that, that as we settle our lives, that its not the meteor or the plane crash or beached whale, it’s the engagement. Is that true for you? Where do you find your joy, your solace, your meaning, despite that?
DC: By the way, the beached whale scene is exactly what happened to me: where Ryan is in the film, the direction he’s riding his bike in, what was on the radio and the time of day, people in the work shoes coming down to the water. It was really haunting to see the dailies on that.
I find the joy … I would never … um, when I’m writing, actually. And that sounds like such a sucky answer, but it’s the one time it’s beach combing, just because you’re looking at objects and it turns your brain completely quiet. At least when you’re writing and channeling a character, you’re still in your own head, but you’re out of your own head. [Pauses sixteen seconds] Boy, that’s a real traffic jam of a question. Well, I mean, I’m not trying to avoid it but can I throw it back to you? Where do you get yours? In your music?
BW: It’s interesting that you use the phrase “out of your head” because I have a record called “Out Of Your Head.” It’s not my best, but, for me, the phrase is of value because I find it can be so cloudy and noisy up here —
DC: Oh yeah.
BW: That the moments that bring me great joy are the ones that are actually the most out of body.
DC: Oh, completely. I remember one of the best experiences I ever had. I mentioned beach combing because did you read Jpod?
BW: Mmmm hmmm.
DC: Ok, remember how there, like, twenty pages of random number pi or whatever?
BW: Mmmm hmmm.
DC: In this museum in Newfoundland we did this one room, it was a small room, called “The Pi Room” because we did pi to fifty thousand digits. And you walk in the room and it’s remarkable because your brain just turned off because you’re not verbal, you’re in the world of numbers. And I realized that it was just the same as beachcombing.
A friend of mine, Gordon Smith, he’s a painter he’s eighty-seven, and we chartered a boat and studied the tide chart and we just nailed this one beach on the west coast of this north island of Queen Charlottes which is insanely hard to get to. In fact, I don’t think anyone had been there in over a decade; it was so hard to get to. And we got into a little rubber Zodiac, and I brought trash bags, and the whole beach because all the storms come in over the winters and dump everything that floats — the whole beach was covered with floats. It was like the Easter Egg beach: just a half-mile of floats. It was like, “Mine! Mine! Mine!” I got this huge pile — I took a photograph of it — this huge pile of floats. I thought we’d find, like, four floats. We found about a thousand. It was an out of body experience, that sensation of, like, “Oh! Oh! Oh! This is the afterlife.” I hope that’s what it’s like.
I mean, if you’re blogging a thousand words a day, you’ve got to be getting something out of that, right?
BW: Mmmm hmmm.
DC: What is it you get? Is it a chemical sensation?
BW: Wow, no one’s asked me that. I imagine maybe it’s a little bit of a … there’s just a … there’s a moment when you know you’ve got it. And it’s just a moment.
DC: Ok. You know how you’re really hungry and there’s a great dinner and you eat tons? Ok, if you could take a pill that would give you that sensation, and you ate it and were like, “Aaaah!” If you could take a pill that made you feel like you’d just written your thousand words, how would you define that? Clinicise it.
BW: Um… weightless.
BW: But grounded.
DC: And the possibility that maybe you’d seen or thought or found something which has never been seen or thought or found before.