"There's a risk of becoming the 50-year-old Fonzie."
An Interview with Chuck Klosterman
By Peter Madsen
Note from Pete Scholtes: Here's my colleague Pete Madsen's interview with writer Chuck Klosterman, a guy I liked even before I knew he was "that Chuck" (he left candies in the back of my Colt during the South By Southwest festival a couple years ago). His reviews and articles for Spin are some of the best music writing going, and he's a model of how to keep your voice in the over-edited world of glossy magazines. I haven't read his books, but Rex and Melissa tell me I'm "drinking guy" in his latest, Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story, while Keith Harris is "non-drinking guy." (All I remember from that night is being terrified that Melissa would fall off the roof and die. She's now happily editing at Spin. Hi, Melly!) Klosterman will discuss his book at Barnes and Noble in Edina, Minnesota, on Tuesday, August 9, at 7:30 p.m., 3225 W 69th Street (in the Galleria), Edina, 952.920.0633.
Going to the places where rock stars died or killed someone is an epic undertaking, but it's also something that I'm sure has been done before. What steps did you take to make sure your story would be different?
Well, I suppose someone else has done the story. I mean, I'm sure it's been done before, but I hadn't read it. So I just try to find the details about things that I think other people might ignore or miss. You go someplace like where the Lynyrd Skynryd plane crash happened. What's interesting to me, and perhaps what illustrates it in that particular anecdote, it's not like the actual rubble or the actual spot, it's the context of that place [and the people around there] in regards to the rest of America. The climate of the place. The details that aren't necessarily connected to the incident but end up becoming a part of the entire atmosphere.
So I don't know. Whenever I write anything, I really only have two goals, which is to be interesting and entertaining. I hope that the information is worth thinking about after the story is finished, but also that the process is sort of like having the experience itself. So I just write what's interesting to me and hope that other people like it.
On the cover you write that 85 percent of it is a true story. After I read the first page, I understood that you meant that journalistically it's all very factual. So is the other 15 percent your writing about your private life?
Things in my life, the girls I've dated, and growing up and all that, I can see that while I have a good memory, it's not going to be perfect. So those stories aren't exactly what happened, but they're how I remember them. So I guess I'm probably conceding that I'm only 85 percent correct. And plus, you know, the girls names are changed. If I quoted conversations, that weren't tape recorded or written down, if I'm just sort of working off my personal memory, I change the person's name.
So does that go for Diane, the character that works at Spin?
How did people in your private life feel about being characters in your book? That's got to be a delicate kind of thing to do with your friends...
Well, you know, there's three main female characters. And one of them was a little upset by her inclusion, one was sort of flattered by it, and one didn't care. And basically those are the three reactions I anticipated.
This question is kind of on the same note: Do you have pals that you like to have read your stuff as you're working on it, giving you feedback on your writing?
I basically don't show anything that I write to anyone I know until it's ready to publish. Like when I turn my book in to my editor at Scribner, no one else has seen it really, and at that point, it's done. So I'm particular about my writing. But it's very interior. I feel that the only person who can gage whether my writing is good or bad is me. So I'll show stuff to other people, you know, but the first person to see my stuff is always my editor, usually.
So even if a good friend of yours or a girlfriend asked to read something you were working on, you wouldn't give it to them?
I'll always let people... If anyone wants to read material, I'll always give it to them. I'm always interested in their feedback, or their insight. But it doesn't ever really affect what I end up publishing. Because basically, when I write, my goal is to write books that reflect the way I think about the world, like the way it's in my mind is the way I want it on the page. So even if people have good ideas, [they're] still sort of their ideas.
I want it to be my ideas reflected as accurately as possible. I guess I made one change in this book: I sort of had this dream sequence where the three girls are in the car with me and they're all talking. One of my friends who is also a writer read that and said, 'This seems like a little too, like, McSweeny's-ish, a little too self-indulgent...' So then I thought, 'Maybe he's right.' So I changed some of the elements of it so it was a little more self-aware.
For the most part, my writing might be good or it might be bad, but it's sort of like, I trust myself. Like, even if it's bad, it's bad in the way that I want.
Since you just mentioned McSweeny's, I was going to save this question for last because it's really just an annoying question. Now, I read Killing Yourself and then I read Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius And it's strange, because I see that you guys use some of the same sorts of techniques at times. Especially that scene you just mentioned. But when I was reading Dave Eggers, I was constantly trying to keep myself from pulling out every last strand of hair on my head. I just couldn't stand his writing at all. I mean, just as all the critics of Eggers say, his writing is too self-indulgent, it's kind of like propaganda of the self, but I haven't had that kind of beef with your writing.
All right, so here's the question: Do you think of yourself as a New New Journalist or as a sort of memoir writer? Or rather, do you see yourself as a part of a certain group, or do you resent any affiliation?
No, I don't really resent it because first of all, personally, I think Eggers is a really great writer. I mean, I think that what I like about him actually sort of seems to be what a lot of other people don't, which seems to be his self-awareness. But to me, that never seems annoying, that seems smart. I mean, when I read a book, I'm not the kind of person who's ever like carried away, and actually believes in Narnia, or wherever. The book never makes me feel detached from reality. So when I see a writer do that, to me, it just makes it clear to me that he or she also understands that this is a book. This is, like, an artifact. I don't think that I was so much influenced by Dave Eggers, I think that's just how I wrote.
I think the reason a lot of books seem similar to that is twofold: One, Eggers' book was so popular that now I think publishers have come to this realization that there is an audience for this kind of writing. But I think a bigger factor is that so many young writers, and I think this is particularly true of male authors who grew up in the 1980s, their engagement with culture is sort of always dependent upon placing it within the context of their own lives. Like, in other words, I'm 33, and I'm guessing you're 22?
Right, so we're basically in the same generation of people. And I think that the way that we consume culture is, in a strange way, much more active than previous generations. I think previous generations had a much more passive relationship with culture. Like you listen to songs on the radio, or you watch movies or television, and you just sort of... I think in the past people would just sort of sit there and say, 'Well, I like this, or I don't.' Like, 'Somehow this is apart from my sense of self.'
I think that people born after 1970 are so much more active in their appreciation of culture. And they are, I don't know, inherently conditioned to always place art within the realm of their own existence. And as you do that, you're always aware of what you're writing. I know I always am.
Like, there's never a moment in writing this book where I don't realize that it's going to be published. I'm glad that you said you didn't find it that annoying. I'm sure some people will. But I think maybe the thing that helps me is that 1.) I'm basically a journalist still. Like, I've worked in newspapers for 10 years, so I still have a journalistic perspective. And 2.) I've always been a really normal guy. I think when you talk about the literary community, they've always sort of imagined from the time they were ten-years-old that they would be authors. As recently as 1995, I didn't even dream of writing a book. It didn't seem at all possible. In 1995 I didn't even own a computer. So I don't think I'm that separate from the people who read my books.
I think you're right, and I think that's one of your assets as a writer. You're easy to relate to, and that seems like something you've very consciously honed in your writing.
When it comes to this book... Okay, okay. Like, everybody has had relationships that didn't work out yet they wished had. Everybody has heard songs that have meant a lot to them. And everybody has met strangers and has had a weird conversation. Everybody has taken a drive and has sort of communed with whatever album they happen to be playing. So all the things that I write about are, like, human generalities. They're all things that people have done. I just write about my specific circumstance.
So, you know, if I get the details right, and I really sort of plug in to the elements of my life that are unique, even though the macro idea is something that everybody has had, I think people think, 'Boy, this is interesting, I never would have thought this, yet that seems like it happened to me exactly like this as well.' You know? Eeeh.
Like I said, I find Dave Eggers annoying, but I really have to come clean. The reason I find him annoying is for fear of finding the same traits in my creative nonfiction. And, I don't know if it's due to hanging out with smarmy coffee shop guys who are six years older than me, but I've had it crammed down my throat that, like, Eggers is not how one's supposed to write.
I understand what you're saying. The kind of person who gets an English degree and is a very voracious reader yet is never going to write a book themselves, they tend to dislike reading books that, for a lack of a better word, seem plausible. The thing is about my book, I think a lot of people could read my book and be like, 'I could have written this.' And [the kind of person we're talking about] hates that. They want to read a book that they feel they never could have written, because that makes them comfortable with the fact that they haven't. Do you know what I'm saying?
Like the kind of coffee shop people you're talking about, like, you know, they want to read like James Joyce, because then it almost seems unfathomable. Like, 'There's no way this could be done.' And then they also don't feel bad about having a job at a coffee shop.
Yeah, those guys love Joyce. But what we've been talking about touches on something that's been an issue, something that's been bothering me for a while. For example, if the books that Bret Easton Ellis writes are successful in that he expounds a lot of truths about the '80s, then I think Eggers expounds a lot of truths about not only the '90s, but about being in your 20s. But Eggers has a better story than me, you know. His parents died and...
But you know, his parents' dying isn't the best part of that book. What's good about that book, for me at least... was that, you know, I've read books before by people that have been roughly my age, but they had been written in the '50s. So, all the cultural references and the worldview was real close to mine. And I think a lot of people felt that way. A lot of these young writers were like, 'He wrote the book that I actually wanted to.'
In reading your book, it feels as if we're reading the words as you're writing it on your laptop screen. You know, like a 'As I'm writing this sentence, so-and-so calls on the phone, and...' sort of feel. So what was the writing process like? Did you drive while speaking into a tape recorder or...
No, I was writing in hotel rooms pretty much every night, basically about 50 percent of the book was written in real time, like, as it was happening. And 50 percent was written retrospectively. But, I mean, the only reason I really decided to do the book was, well... One of the reasons, not the whole reason, was I didn't intend to write a book when I started the trip. And at one point I just realized, 'Wow, I've only been traveling five days and I already have 10,000 words, there's no way [this is going to fit] into the story [assigned by Spin].' So I basically took out all the personal stuff and talked about just the rock deaths for the Spin story, and saved all the other stuff for later.
This book takes place during the summer of 2003 and now it's 2005. You're a very busy guy in your writing for a handful of magazines. How did you find the time to write the book? You're schedule must be hectic.
Yeah, you know, but writing's my job, and everything else is secondary to that. I write for Spin, I write for Esquire, I do some things for the New York Times Magazine, and I write books. And that does seem like a lot, but the fact of the matter is: All that comes first. So if you want to be a writer, you have to write. That's the thing. So when people ask me about the amount of writing I do... It's interesting to me, because if you want to write, that's the whole thing. It's typing. That's like 90 percent of the experience.
So when I'm sitting at home on a Friday night and I want to begin writing a story, or sketching some characters, I start thinking, 'You know, my friends are downtown at a bar having a good time. How can write about life when I'm cooped up in my room sitting in front of my stupidly archaic typewriter?' I think a lot of novice writers feel this way. So when did you feel like you had enough life experience to hole yourself up and begin writing?
Well, I know what you're saying and I can answer the question. In a way, your philosophy on this is good. You're like, 'I need something to write about.' Like, 'I need to experience life.' But the thing is, life happens everywhere, all the time. I mean, whatever experiences you have had, whether they're going to the bars with your friends, sitting in your apartment worrying about your life, talking on the phone to your mom, playing kickball because there's nothing else to do--I mean, whatever the case may be, that is life. Being alive is experiencing life.
When I moved to Akron, Ohio, in 1998, I had a new job and I didn't know anybody, I thought to myself, 'In Fargo, I didn't own a computer and I went to the bar every night. Now I can afford a computer, and I don't know anybody. So if there's ever been a time to begin writing seriously, it's now.' And I wrote the first half of Fargo Rock City in the first six weeks I was there. And I wrote the second half over maybe six months, because the second half was harder. But you know, writing is not about, 'What happened.' You don't need to have an exciting life or an exciting experience to write about it. What you need are ideas. In other words, it doesn't really matter if you spend a year backpacking through the Himalayan mountains or you spend a year sitting around Iowa, listening to records. Now, it's easier to sell the first book, probably, because a publisher would be like, 'Oh, wow, that's sounds exciting.'
But what [writing] is about is how you think about the experience you have. You can have as many ideas as you sit about your living room as you can, you know, sailing a hot air balloon around the world. What's great about writing is that it's an interior process. You have complete control over what you type. They're your ideas, it's your vision, you decide what is or isn't interesting. You've had life experience you're ready to write about when you want to do it.
In your book, you write that it would take 400 years to cover every notable rock and roll site. But I was bummed that you didn't visit the place where John Lennon was shot in New York, or go to L.A. to find remnants of Tupac's entourage. I mean, there must have been a point where you had to say, 'I really can't fit that into the book.'
[The reasons for exclusion] are all travel-related. I wish I would have gone to Cincinnati where people were killed at a Who concert in the early '80s, or maybe it was the late '70s, where there was a riot and a bunch of people got trampled. I wish I would have gone there, but it didn't work out. And if I had known that I was writing a book, I would have stayed [on the road] longer. At the time, I was writing an article for SPIN in 5,000 words, and I was thinking I was going to have too much.
Did you think about taking off the summer of 2004 for the same reason?
Um, no. I wanted the book to be compact. I mean, 21 days is perfect, each day is a chapter. I feel it's a book you can read in two days if you want, you know, maybe less. I like thin volumes.
As we talked about before, in Killing Yourself you focus not so much on each given site, but more on the people surrounding it. When you were in Minneapolis you went to the apartment where Bob Stinson died and knocked on the door, or when you went to the Chelsea--
I don't even know if it's the same door. So if the room doesn't exist, I wouldn't even know where to look.
I get the impression that you actually did a lot more footwork that you say you did. I mean, maybe you did make it past the snake-infested thicket to see the debris of the Lynryd Skynyrd plane crash. But maybe it didn't tell you anything at all. Were there a lot of things you cut out because you felt you'd already gotten to the bottom of the story before you physically got there?
Um... no. That story is exactly how it happened. The things that got cut out were when I went under the bridge in Aberdeen, Washington, where Kurt Cobain supposedly hung out. Well, a friend of mine was actually with me, but there wasn't really anything to add to that, so he just kind of got cut out. Are there other things? Not really. It's a pretty short book [chuckles]. Like, if I had had anything else I would have put it in there.
Is the "nemesis" in this book the same guy who was the "raw hotdog eater" in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs?
Yes, he is. Yeah.
In this book you write that you don't really read because "you know, no one's really paying you to read." I mean, you're joking, right? You do read...
Yeah, well, that's not true. I do read a lot.
What sort of writers did you grow up reading?
When I was young in North Dakota I went through a science-fiction phase in fifth, sixth, and seventh grade, and for awhile I got into a really intense African-American phase where I was reading Black Boy, and Native Son, and Black Like Me, and Invisible Man.
That's remarkable for a kid growing up in North Dakota. [Editor's note: It is?]
Yeah, I just got into if for some reason. For a long time I read a lot of sports books growing up. I was into George Orwell for a while. Now, I mostly read nonfiction. I'm the kind of person that buys all the big nonfiction books, like Freakanomics, and Moneyball, and all those books. I tend to read those. I'll read novels, but I find nonfiction more interesting and weirder. Like things happen in nonfiction stories that if you put in a novel would seem implausible. You know, it's almost like reality is weirder than fiction. I mean, that's really true.
Have you read the new book by Tom Wolfe? It came out last year.
No, I haven't. I've heard about it but I didn't read it.
I was curious about what you might have thought about it. I thought it was a real slap in the face to anyone going to college.
Yeah, it sort of sounded like Tom Wolfe realized, you know, 'Oh, wow, college kids have sex.'
I mean, it was very bold of him to try to write a book like this...
Yeah, you know, that's something... It's interesting you bring this up. That's something that sort of worries me, m'kay? So much of my writing is dependent on my engagement with popular culture. What is it going to be like when I'm 50? I'm not sure. I mean, this is like the perfect time for me as a writer. I've basically experienced culture from age 15 to 30. Now I'm finally at the point where I'm smart enough to understand a lot of it, you know? But what's going to happen when I'm 50, and I'm no longer listening to every record and watching every movie, and thinking about the meaning of advertising, and all that shit that I sort of used as literary devices. I do think there's a risk of becoming the 50-year-old Fonzie. Where you're basically trying to be the voice of young people, but you don't really understand it anymore. And, you know, has it happened to Tom Wolfe? I don't know, I didn't read that book. But a lot of people that wrote about it seemed to indicate that.
Yeah, that seems like dangerous territory. Something that you touched on before is that your books are definitely written with the benefit of hindsight, which I think is an asset. Some people will say that your books are dated, but you're approach seems to be very intentional.
Yeah, well... Will some of [my books] become dated? Certainly. Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs will become dated. There are certain things in that book that are set in the present tense. But you're right when you say that seems intentional, because you know, if someone reads that books 25 years from now, and I don't know if it'll even be in print, but let's say it is, okay, I'd like to believe that he or she will be able to understand what it was like to live in the year 2003 in a very real way. Like, I want it to be a period piece in the best possible way. Look at a movie like Dazed and Confused. Now, I love that movie, but it's not really about the '70s. That's about someone remembering what he'd like to think the '70s were like, retrospectively. It's not how it was like, but it [captures] the clichés and generalities of the time.
Whereas when you watch a movie like Saturday Night Fever, on the surface it seems dated, but that's really what 1978 was like. That's actually an accurate depiction of what people thought was cool at the time, not what people decided was cool later.
A couple years ago you wrote a little blurb for Esquire about the Suicide Girls when they were kind of a big thing...
That struck me because I'd written this story about the events surrounding a burlesque show the Suicide Girls did in Iowa City. I had an estranged girlfriend at the time and I ran into her at the show. And right, it's sounds like bad fiction, but I spent the night trying to figure out how I should feel about the ex, while the whole time I'm competing with the Suicide Girls, three of whom end up having group sex with my ex-girlfriend in the bathroom...
You want to send it to me?
Do you want to send it to me? I'll read your story, man.
Well, yeah, I still would.
Right but I meant you must just get a lot of just random shit like this, like the guy who sent you that letter from prison. I mean, do you read all your mail? People must ask you really weird things.
Yeah, most people, of course, just send email, so yeah, I get a lot of emails from people. I get a lot of bizarre Friendster messages from people. I always look at them, but I don't always respond to them. I don't always look at everything a publicist sends me, but if it's a real person I'll look at it.
When it comes to your writing, you're very good at deconstructing something you don't like and explaining why it doesn't work for you. Are you conscious of how you construct your arguments or dole out praise?
Well, maybe I'm not [conscious of it]. To me, it's pretty easy to know what I like and what I don't like. I can make that decision without even intellectualizing it. I mean, I can play a record and like it or read a book and hate it or watch a movie and think it's okay. The writing part of it is: Okay, now why do I not like this, or like this? And I mean, I feel appreciating something is natural.
I want to talk about what makes your writing accessible. When I read Fargo Rock City, I didn't know most of the hair metal bands you were writing about, but I could appreciate what they meant to you. But you must be aware of the fine line you walk between an everygeek's music geek and a pretentious record shop clerk.
I think this is the best way to describe it. The way I look at life, I think there are a lot of people in America who want to think critically about art that's important to them. They want to think critically about 'Why does this move me' or 'Why does this not affect me.' The only problem is that the only venues that typically do that well don't address the art that they have any relation to. In other words, the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly and NPR and stuff like that have all this great writing and thinking. But the problem is, for a lot of people it's like, 'You know, I've never listened to Yo La Tengo,' or 'I've never seen movies from that period,' or 'I have no relationship to abstract painting,' or 'I've never even seen this book, so I certainly don't have any reference for it.'
So what I like to do is to think about, you know, Motley Crue in the same way that a lot of other people would only think about the Velvet Underground. Because everything is interesting, you know? Everything can be interesting if you start trying to explain why it does or doesn't work. I happen to be the kind of person who, for whatever reason, is interested in things that a lot of people like. But I think about it in the same way that most people like me would think about avant-garde art. Like, I just think KISS is way more interesting than the Magnetic Fields. They're both good artists, but KISS is more interesting because the effect that KISS has had is sweeping. It touches people's lives who couldn't even name one member of KISS. But the identity and the iconography of KISS goes far beyond what's on a record. And that's kind of how I look at it.
I mean, it's so interesting when I read reviews of my books. Some people will say, 'I like this' or 'I don't like this because he has no irony.' And then some people will write 'I like this' or 'I don't like this because he's an ironist.' I mean, people have a hard time figuring out if I'm trying to be ironic or unironic. That makes me very happy, because I'm trying to do neither. I mean, that's why I feel like if I read a review of something I've done, and two people [have divergent conclusions] I know it was successful.
Some writers say they never read the critics, but you seem to welcome them.
Oh, I read them all, I just don't care. I find it interesting, but it doesn't affect me. Because the way I look at it is like this: If you get a good review, you can't let that make you feel good. Because if you do, then you also have to internalize the bad reviews. So if you get a review that says you're a genius, and you think, 'Wow, that's great. I love being a genius,' and you read another one that says you're an idiot, you can't pick and choose. So I basically read them all, and I'm never interested in what their opinion is. I'm only interested in why they make the argument that they do. And it's always nice to get a nice review... but if the person who wrote it is a very bad writer or a very poor thinker, then it almost bums me out more than a bad review by someone smart.
I want to see people write reviews of my work that show me that they've thought about it, even if they hate it. The fact of the matter is that a lot of reviews, positive and negative, aren't really like that. It's just a person who says it's either good or it's bad, and they just try to use bombastic language to prove the point. What I'm always curious about is somebody who deconstructs my deconstructions of things.
Right. But there's more to your writing than why you don't like something.
Yeah, I'd like to believe that. One part of the book that bothers me a little bit is the part about Led Zeppelin. Because sometimes when I do read that, I wonder, am I really just saying, 'Zeppelin is awesome'? Because sometimes I feel I put a whole bunch of work into saying 'Zeppelin is awesome.' You know, I sometimes wish there was something that was a little more insightful.
Yeah, at times I kind of found myself picking up on that. And at first I didn't notice it, but then it kept popping up. But I guess this is one of the main struggles in talking about art.
Well, yeah. Essentially it's very easy to talk about things one doesn't like. When you talk about what doesn't work, what doesn't work is whatever you don't feel: It could be anything. When it comes to the things you really like, in order to write well about those things, using the tools besides pure enthusiasm, you need to really understand why you like it, not just realize that you do. Then you're a pretty good writer.