A Conversation with Chuck Klosterman
Author Chuck Klosterman is a man of many talents and many jobs: journalist, essayist, critic, sports podcast co-host, and most recently, novelist. The Visible Man is his second foray into fiction, following the release of Downtown Owl in 2008.
I caught up with Chuck while he was here in Austin on his promotional tour, and it immediately became apparent that he was ready, willing, and able to discuss anything from sports (the conversation took place in Chuck’s hotel room so that he could glance at ESPN every now and again) to the subjective nature of reality. We talked about the new book, his own origin story, the differences between fiction and non-fiction writing, and his thoughts on the future of the industry. He even had a few helpful tips for aspiring writers. So strap in and get ready, because Chuck pulled no punches for this one.
JJ: The Visible Man is your second novel. Where did the idea for this story come from?
CK: I was teaching in Germany three years ago, and while I was there I was working on Eating the Dinosaur. One of those essays is about time travel, so I wanted to re-read The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. When I bought it on Amazon it came packaged with The Invisible Man, so I ended up reading both of them, and I was really fascinated by the personality of the Invisible Man. As a kid, I didn’t realize what a jerk he was. But that, to me, was a very prescient thing that H.G. Wells had done, because if you think about it, the kind of person who would have both the intellectual and mental ability to create a way to be invisible, and the lack of morality he would need to use it…he’d be someone who is sort of brilliant and also confused about social boundaries and the way society works. So I thought ‘that would be an interesting thing to write about.’ I was also very interested in interviewing. At that point I’d been a journalist for almost twenty years, but I’ve also had the good fortune of being interviewed, so I really see the inherent drawbacks of it. I was trying to think of a way it could be better and I thought, ‘I guess if you could watch someone and they didn’t know they were being watched... while that would be incredibly unethical, it would show someone’s true nature.' I do believe people are only really themselves when they’re not self-editing, when nobody else is in the room.
JJ: The minute we meet Y___ we know something’s off about the guy, and as the novel progresses, the more we learn about him and how he sees the world, the more it troubles us. But it also forces us to consider how much we identify and share with him. How did he evolve as a character?
CK: In many ways he was the primary thing I was interested in writing about. I like writing about personalities, and I really wanted the novel to feel as though it were someone’s attempt to document an impossible experience. So the qualities Y___ has represent my attempt at creating what I think a person like this would actually be like, in the same way that Vicki, the therapist, is kind of insecure, not necessarily brilliant, easily dominated by men…
JJ: And a really bad therapist.
CK: And a really bad therapist. But here’s the deal: if a good therapist had faced this situation, I don’t think the story continues, and I certainly don’t think that anybody would later write a book about it, so that character had to be flawed as well. So I had two characters that I don’t, in all honesty, imagine the reader relating to. And…[pause] from a commercial perspective, that’s probably dumb (laughter). People want to read a book and think ‘I love these characters! I wish they were in my life!’
JJ: You're most well-known for your work in non-fiction as a journalist, an essayist, a pop-culture writer…what spurred the jump into fiction?
CK: I spent the first part of my life writing about how other people see culture, interviewing musicians, filmmakers--artists, I guess--about how they perceived culture and what their experience with it was. Then I started doing a lot of memoir writing. The first three books [Fargo Rock City, Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, and Killing Yourself to Live] all have very strong memoir aspects to them, so I spent that period writing about culture the way I experienced it. Then at some point I wanted to write about culture in a way that would sort of be a hybrid of those two things without being either. In other words, I wanted to talk about ideas but not have those ideas directly attached to me. In The Visible Man there are long stretches when Y___ is sort of pedantically lecturing about his ideas about the world and for the most part, I suppose, it’s written in my voice, and not that distanced from my essay writing. But if I write those things in an essay, even as thought experiments, they immediately become attached to me because frankly, people have a hard time reading an essay and separating the writer from the work even if the writer is saying: ‘this is a thought experiment, I don’t necessarily believe this.’ So I wanted to have characters say things that I think of as interesting even though I don’t necessarily agree with them. Sometimes when I was interviewing somebody and they were talking about an idea, they just wouldn’t say what I knew they felt. I wanted to say ‘this is what you mean’, but you can’t do that. So I wanted to be able to have people in this novel say things in the way I always sort of dreamed that they might. Plus, it’s just fun to create a reality like that.
JJ: Reading the book, it sometimes seems as though Y__ is a manifestation of one side of you- a sort of Mr. Hyde to your Jekyll- and that maybe in your darker moments you sometimes drift more towards his way of thinking about how people are and how they should be. Is that a fair assessment?
CK: It’s interesting that you say that, and I totally get it. A friend of mine who read a very early version of this novel came back and said ‘I read the book and at first I just assumed you were the therapist, but now I realize you’re the invisible man.’ I was like ‘I’m not really either.’ I guess I’m both though, because I made them up and these characters have certain qualities tied to me because I made them. In some ways, I suppose, the answer’s yes: that character is what I view as the worst version of myself, the worst qualities I have, amplified. It’s kind of like if the person I was when I was 20 had lived the next 20 years without changing, only maturing.
JJ: That sounds like it would be horrible for anybody.
CK: Well, yeah. If the person that I was when I was 20 had continued to get smarter and more confident but kept the same myopic view of life that I had...
JJ: Had no informative experiences?
CK: Yes. Or rejected them. Or believed with certitude that his ideas were right and continually tried to prove them. I want to be careful about how I say this because it could come off in a very unlikable way, but (pause)… I’m very lucky in the sense that… to me, the most important thing about having your writing resonate with people is having a voice. That’s the one thing you can’t learn, and can’t be taught: it exists or it doesn’t. Though my writing has lots of flaws it seems like it has a lot of voice. That becomes a slight detriment in fiction because I don’t know if it’s possible for people to read my work without injecting the pre-existing notion of my voice into it. I have to admit, I was a little bit disappointed at how many people said the characters in Downtown Owl sounded exactly like me, because I don’t really think they do at all, but I’m probably the worst judge of that. It will probably be an issue with the way I write any fiction, if I continue writing fiction. I don’t even know if it’s possible to change it. If people are going to perceive every piece of dialogue as me talking, regardless of what the content is, I don’t know what I could really do about it. But then part of me thinks that the reason I write these novels is because I want all the people in them to talk the way I want people to talk. If I have this ability to totally create a universe of people or create this reality that doesn’t exist, the people in it are going to think and talk the way I’d like people to think and talk, so maybe I’m doing it overtly.
JJ: Some of the themes in The Visible Man are present in a lot of your work, especially the idea of personality construction. It seems like one of the things to take away is this idea that not only can we never really know what someone else is like- we can’t even really know what we’re like, to a certain extent.
CK: That’s totally accurate. All my work is kind of focused on one question, which I think is the central question of this time period: what is reality and do we still have the ability to know? I realize this question has always existed, and for most people, it’s a question you stop asking around 20 or 21. You go through this kind of stoner period in college, think about reality a lot, and then you’re sort of like ‘well, we’ll never know, so I’m just going to move on.’ But I never moved on. To me it’s the most interesting thing about being alive, trying to figure out what it means to be alive. In some ways, this kind of worries me, but I can’t imagine writing about anything without that question being part of it.
JJ: Did the experience of writing your first novel, Downtown Owl, have any impact on the way you approached writing this novel?
CK: Of all the books I’ve written, Downtown Owl was the hardest to write by far. I knew I was writing about North Dakota, that there had never been a book about rural North Dakota in the ‘80s, and that the only one that would ever exist would be the one I wrote. So I knew that if I did a bad job I would be misrepresenting this time and place that would never again be written about. More so, I was very worried that I would write this book and it would not only not be good, but it would be so bad that I would embarrass myself in this profound way. When that book came out, even though you could argue that the response was mixed, it was great for me, because I didn’t get any response like ‘this is embarrassing’. The Visible Man, by contrast, was extremely easy to write. In fact, it was so easy it almost seemed like something was wrong. I feel like the ideas are more interesting, and I feel like the writing is better because I feel like I’ve gotten better as I’ve gotten a little older.
JJ: How did you get started as a writer?
CK: I went to college in 1990 at the University of North Dakota. I didn’t have a major or any plan about what to do with my life. I guess I assumed I’d become a lawyer, because people always told me I should. I’m walking around campus the first week of school, at this sort of career fair for different extracurricular activities, one of which was the college newspaper. I was absolutely shocked to find out they paid people to write for the school newspaper. I couldn’t believe it! It blew my mind! I knew I was going to all the football games, so I thought ‘I’ll just cover the football team and this will be how I avoid having to get a job.’ So I started covering the football team as a beat writer. I had to pick a major at some point, and because I was working for the newspaper it seemed like an obvious choice to major in journalism. Once I had picked a major, I got a job on the editorial staff of the college newspaper and I just loved it. It was a very satisfying experience to suddenly realize that the one thing I was good at doing was also something I loved doing: interviewing people, thinking about writing, and thinking about ideas. So I just assumed I would be a newspaper writer my whole life. I worked in Fargo and Akron, and when I moved to Akron I had no friends. But for the first time in my life I could afford a computer, so I decided I would try to write a book, which became Fargo Rock City. To say I fell into writing would be inaccurate, but... it wasn’t a dream of mine. When I was a kid I would read novels and think that I would like to write one but…
JJ: It wasn't a singular obsession?
CK: Well, I also come from a town of 500 people. I’m the first writer my town ever produced and in the whole state of North Dakota, if you were looking for 10 professional writers who made their living that way I don’t know if you could do it. I never had any relationship to people who wrote books, so I didn’t know how it happened. When I got a job at Spin, everybody from college remembered that I used to read it constantly, and they were like ‘Ah, your dream has come true!’ I never dreamed of working for Spin because I never thought of that as a job you could get. I knew people worked there but I had absolutely no idea how that happened. So many things that have happened in my life are things that I never even fantasized about, and that’s a very weird thing. The things that have happened in my life are so much more interesting and so much better than what I had ever even hoped for. When I was in college my fantasy was that I would get hired by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune or the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, and if I worked really hard, maybe in my 50’s I would be able to write one book that would exist. And that, to me, seemed implausible.
JJ: Can you describe your writing process a bit? Does it change if you’re writing fiction or non-fiction?
CK: Working in newspapers probably helped my process because you get used to the idea of writing every day, or if not every day, three or four times a week. I pretty much just come up with an idea, think about the idea constantly until I know how to start writing it, and then I just do. I look at an idea as a ball of twine in your head, all knotted together, and the writing process is straightening the ball out. Usually when I’m writing something the idea is almost entirely formed in my mind, it’s just not organized, so when writing is going well, it’s just the organization of my thoughts.
JJ: Considering the increased amount of writers on the web, social networking, eReaders… do you think the industry of writing is changing? Is it a negative or positive change?
CK: It depends on how you look at it. It’s much easier to become a writer and more difficult to make a living as a writer, in the same way that the Internet has changed music. There’s never been a better time to start a band or have people hear your work, but it’s much more difficult to make a living as a musician and certainly much more difficult to get rich at it. If you look at writing from the perspective that it’s not in any way a commodity, then things are much better because there’s no one who can stop you from publishing: there’s almost unlimited freedom because there’s unlimited bandwidth. But if you look at writing as something you want to do that fulfills certain criteria that creates a life, it’s more difficult. It’s hard to make money, and in the future it’s going to be almost impossible to get a book advance. That’s going to have a downside, because the only people who are going to be able to write books are going to be people who are already rich. When eBooks become the dominant form, what’s going to happen is publishers will say ‘well, we’re not going to give a big advance, maybe we’re going to give no advance and you’ll just start making royalties immediately.’ And what if you want to write a book where you spend two years at the base camp of K2? The only person who can write that book is somebody who is so rich that selling books doesn’t matter to them. So I fear that what might happen in the future is the only books that will exist will be books by rich people, memoirs of unfamous people (because you can always write a memoir), and whoever the new Kafka is, who’s going to write regardless of whether they get paid or not. So maybe, on balance, it’s not that bad. To me, there’s a big difference between writing and publishing. Writing I love doing and I would do it even if I made nothing. Publishing I do solely so that writing can be my job and not something I have to make time for. If publishing disappears it might make the life of being a writer less plausible.
JJ: Is there anyone you’d consider an influence or inspiration as far as your own writing is concerned?
CK: This is a weird answer but (pause)… I don’t like giving a response to that question because I really feel that when people do that it’s a subtle way of bragging. They mention people who they hope are connected to their work and somehow that connection will elevate it. There are of course writers I read that changed my life, but if I say who they are it almost seems like I’m putting myself in that class.
JJ: Do you think you have another novel in you?
CK: My next book is going to be a long-form non-fiction project. I don’t want to talk about it too much. I would like to write more novels but (long pause)… I also have to be realistic. People like or at least buy my novels way less than the non-fiction I write. I still want to write them, but maybe my publisher won’t want to publish them. And if that’s the case, maybe that means I have to go to a different publisher or some other route. That would be a dramatic change. I’ve had the same editor my entire career, I’ve had the same agent for quite a while now, and I like how my life is and how my life operates. It might be that some time in the future I’m writing novels for the 10,000 people who care. That would still be great, but there are other things to factor in. Part of the reason I decided to write novels was that I always wanted to and I got myself in a position where I could. Scribner basically said ‘OK, you want to write a novel, you’ve never written one before, but if you deliver it we will publish and promote it and let you write novels under the same sort of parameters that you write non-fiction. You’ve got a track record of succeeding at this [non-fiction], you can try this [fiction].’ I wrote Downtown Owl and it sold…OK. I wrote this book which I think is better and it doesn’t really seem to be selling at all. So if I keep writing novels I’m going to have to do it with the understanding that not many people are going to be interested. But I’m still interested, and that’s got to be enough.
JJ: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
CK: That’s always so tough…because of technology and other things I almost feel less qualified and I definitely feel less qualified to give advice to say, journalists. Whereas ten years ago, if someone were to ask me ‘how do I make it as a journalist?’ I would have a very clear description of what to do, but now I don’t know what I would tell them. It just seems so different. If you want to be a writer you have to… this sounds so clichéd, but you have to really like it because the single biggest factor that will dictate your success is chance. Nobody wants to admit that. Everybody who’s successful wants to somehow think that it’s earned. The success I’ve had… while I’m not saying I’m not talented, talent didn’t matter as much as chance. Here’s the weird thing: success at writing is personal but success as a writer is totally dependent on strangers. I think there are three important things: being interesting, entertaining, and clear. Everything else is important, but really just a detail. If the writing is interesting it makes people think about themselves or the world or the topic at hand slightly differently. If it’s entertaining, that means the process of consuming it is pleasurable and propulsive and makes your audience feel good about the experience in and of itself. Writing is a communicative art, so clarity is really important: you need to be able to get your ideas across. So if your writing has those three qualities, it’s good. In fact it’s probably great. For the most part writers tend to be able to do two of those three things, but it’s hard to do all three.
Another thing I would say, that is almost impossible, but if you can get anywhere close it helps: you need to be able to hold two thoughts in your head simultaneously that are contradictory. You have to believe that what you’re doing- what you’re writing, what you’re thinking about, the ideas you’re trying to address- are the most important things in the world and that writing is the biggest part of your life and that it really matters what words you choose at the end of this sentence. How you punctuate it and how it all comes together. It has to be the most important part of your life, but you also have to recognize that it doesn’t matter at all. That it doesn’t matter in any way. That if you never existed and if your book never existed and no one read it, or all the reviews were bad, or if it didn’t sell at all, or if it sold just enough to be ridiculed… none of that matters. There’s no real import to anything in that regard. There’s no book that if it didn’t exist would change the world. Even the Bible or the Koran... something would have replaced those things. If Catcher in the Rye had never been written there would be another book that we use to describe the adolescent experience. So when you’re working, writing has got to be the most important thing, and as soon as you’re done, it almost has to be this release for you to realize that it didn’t matter at all. Which, of course, is an almost impossible thing to do, but it’s the only option.
Check out our review of The Visible Man.
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