Chuck Klosterman visits the Triple Rock tonight
Taking a break from cultural criticism, Chuck Klosterman released his first novel this year, Downtown Owl. Set in the fictional town of Owl, North Dakota, in the year 1983, it's a tale of small-town mishaps, philosophical quandaries, and life-threatening blizzards. While driving up the West Coast, Klosterman took a moment to chat with City Pages.
City Pages: You've made a name with your writing on pop culture, music, and sports. Why write a novel? Is this something that you have always wanted to do?
Chuck Klosterman: Yes and no. I think that if you had asked me at 16 what I wanted to do with my life, I would have said that I had no idea; maybe I would like to write a novel someday. Then I just fell into journalism. I got used to writing nonfiction partially because it was my job, and because I enjoyed the process. I'm always impressed by musicians and athletes who can do lots of things well. With journalism, I had done long-form nonfiction. So I wanted to try long–form fiction. I thought it sounded like something that would be fun to do.
CP: So much of what you write is grounded in very detailed observations of reality. Was it difficult to create an entirely new world filled with made–up characters?
CK: It was incredibly difficult, way more difficult than I anticipated. The process was much slower. I guess I was a little cavalier about it going in. I knew it would be different, but I didn't quite realize how hard it would be. It seems obvious now; I sound like an idiot for saying that. But I was surprised at how difficult it was. I could probably write 5,000 words of nonfiction in the time it would take me to write 500 words of fiction. You have to make up everything. If I am writing a profile on someone, I just basically look at them and react. Nonfiction is a reactive art form, where fiction is a creative art form. The process is much more exhaustive creatively.
CP: Why so exhaustive?
CK:It’s just that you have to make up everything. Say I am writing a profile on someone, I just basically look at them and react. Non–fiction is a reactive art form, where fiction is a creative art form. So if I am talking about somebody’s apartment, I can just look at it and look for details that jump out at me. With fiction, I have to build those details in my mind.
CP: Why set things in 1983? Why not the present?
CK: I wanted to go back in time as far as I could, but still have access to personal memories of setting. So in 1983 I was 11 years old. Ideally I would have liked to set the book in the ‘70s, but I wanted to ground it in some kind of reality. So there’s the blizzard and the Gordon Kahl shootings. Those are the two real events I started with, and wrote the novel beside those real happenings. One of my motives was that I wanted to write about a period before the acceleration of technology. I didn’t want cell phones, the internet, cable television. That’s one way that the upper Midwest is different now. Why not the present? So much of my writing is tied to popular culture that I wanted to deal with people and situations that wouldn’t only be consumed as cultural criticism. I feel like if this book had been set in 2008 it would have been read like cultural criticism and not a novel.
CP: 1984 comes up in your novel quite a lot. Are you a fan? What are your thoughts on it?
CK: Oh yeah. George Orwell is my favorite writer. My opinion is certainly different than all of the characters. Mitch is a high school student that doesn’t want to read the book, the high school teacher is somebody who has read the book, but his interpretation of it is based solely on his own experiences on the world, and he’s a very myopic person. But my opinion on 1984 doesn’t even really matter in the big picture of the book.
CP: You wrote about the Sims years ago in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. Do you still play? The game has changed a lot since it’s first incarnation.
CK: I was playing the Sims when it was relatively new. Now games like that, where you can recreate your life in a virtual space are incredibly common. It’s no longer a novel idea. I haven’t played in years. I bet I would still like it though.
CP: What about the Real World? Has the show by this point stopped creating culture and started reflecting it, as people presumed early episodes and seasons would?
CK: The main thing that has changed about those types of shows is that now they are just jumping off points to making the Road Rules challenges. Now, that’s how those people make a living. These people essentially become these modern celebrities with no real skills. They’re not actors, not models, not musicians, they’re just somehow known. So how do you make a living? You have to create this character that can be brought back, so now you have to establish that you are one of the two or three most interesting of the seven people so you will then be asked to partake in the challenges where you can win $40,000 or so dollars.
CP: Your characters in Downtown Owl all have nicknames. Did everyone in your hometown have nicknames? What was yours?
CK: Most people did. Most people in small towns do. The town of Owl in the book is not exactly based on my hometown—my town was smaller and didn't have a movie theater or bowling alley—but that town is sort of a composite of towns around the area. The one unifying element seems to be that most people were defined by these nicknames that the rest of the community decided they would be called, and it wasn't even a reflection of their personality. It was mostly based on some random event that had nothing to do with their day–to–day life. In movies, characters have nicknames that signify who they are or what they are like in their lives, but in small towns that's not the case. Nicknames are given arbitrarily. I didn't have one, though. I guess Chuck is an easy word to say and people like saying it. Even people who have met me for the first time, and you think they would call me Mr. Klosterman, they never do. They immediately call me Chuck.
See Chuck Klosterman read 8 p.m. tonight at the Triple Rock Social Club (629 Cedar Ave. S., Minneapolis). With music by E.L.No.