Chuck amok

. July 31, 2012.

Not only is Chuck Klosterman one of the most talented and wittiest writers working today, he’s one of the classiest. A few hours before I’m supposed to call him at his New York apartment, my voice recorder decides to crap out and since I’m in the middle of an especially busy work day, I will not have time to run to Office Max and buy a new one. I sheepishly email Klosterman, asking if he can call me at my office so I can record him with my iPhone. Within three minutes, he emails back, saying the same thing has happened to him before and he will be happy to call me. Outstanding. Outstanding, this guy.

Klosterman, the literary wunderkind who grew up in the sticks of North Dakota, is the hero to any nerdy writer who has ever pondered the philosophical implications of Pixies lyrics. His bestselling memoirs “Killing Myself To Live” and “Fargo Rock City” now rank as some of the first classic autobiographies of the 21st Century and his essay anthologies such as “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs” contain some of the best pop culture writing ever produced. Period. And you can’t forget the poignant advice he slings to people with moral dilemmas in his New York Times “The Ethicist” column. The guy just has this crazy ability to make you see the beauty and absurdity of the world around you, whether he’s writing about KISS, Chicken McNuggets, or the love affair between Southern California Latinos and Morrissey. In short, it’s like “The Matrix”—Klosterman is Morpheus giving us Neos the red pill so that we see the whole picture. And golly gee whiz, is America’s pop culture landscape a strange and wonderful world when you see it through Klosterman’s eyes. We got the man himself on the phone to discuss his new book “The Visible Man,” which has just been released in paperback.

So have you ever been to Ann Arbor?

Yes, I have. I gave a talk at the college bookstore and as I recall I got flown out to appear at what used to be the headquarters of Borders. I went to a bar—I don’t remember anything about it though—and I walked around the (University of Michigan) campus, which I remember being really nice.

So the protagonist in your most recent book “The Visible Man” is named Victoria Vick. Did you know that was the name of a little girl who was kidnapped in the ‘80s?

No, I didn’t! (laughs) In fiction I tend to like names that have a degree of consonance; I’m sort of like Aaron Sorkin in that way. I like it when first and last names have some degree of similarity. I’m pleased you told me this though, because in some reviews of the book, people have said that the name ‘Victoria Vick’ is implausible, so I’m glad to know there was a person named this at some point.

Yeah, I distinctly remember seeing her picture on a flyer when I was a kid. This was after the Adam Walsh case when there was that big paranoia about stranger abduction, and I remember I was terrified of being kidnapped. What was your biggest fear as a kid?

What age?

Let’s say…8 years old

Well, when you’re 8, you don’t really have a rational relationship to the plausibility of things. If you’re 5 years old, you might be afraid of things that don’t exist. You might think there’s a minotaur that lives in your backyard. But when you’re 8, you know what exists in reality and yet you don’t know how plausible it is that you could encounter such a thing. I remember being afraid that my house was gonna burn down. If I heard a strange mechanical sound at night, I would always want to investigate it because I would always associate that with a possible fire. Also, because I was watching television, I had this exaggerated fear of the possibility of my parents getting divorced. At one point, I actually asked my mom ‘Would you and Dad ever get a divorce?’ and she just laughed hysterically. My parents were very devout Catholics and they wouldn’t have gotten divorced if their marriage was awful. But that was something I worried about because it seemed to happen all the time on television.

Oh yeah. I remember watching “Kramer Vs. Kramer” on cable as a kid and that was like “Friday the 13th” to me. I totally had the same fear. So you’re Catholic and not Jewish, eh? I think I read once that you were Jewish, plus, with a name like ‘Klosterman’…

No, I’m not Jewish. I’m not shocked by that assumption though. I live in New York now and there are a lot of writers here who are Jewish and I’m kind of a neurotic person, so I have a lot of the clichés of Judaism. But I do think there’s some sort of strange artistic relationship between Judaism and Catholicism because I think those two religions have the most impact upon a person’s psychology even if they are not necessarily practicing the tenets of the religion.

Getting back to “The Visible Man,” the nameless patient in the book is simply “Y____.” Do you know Y’s real name?

Well, I could come up with a lot of complicated explanations for this, but in truth, I was just interested in the idea of a person only having one letter for a name. I think there’s some kind of abstract meaning when you identify someone when you only see this letter. Then, of course, the idea became ‘Which letter do you pick?’ and a lot of letters have already been picked. Like I was thinking of using ‘K,’ but that has two problems—one is that’s the last name of the main character in Franz Kafka’s “The Trial,” and also if I used ‘K,’ people would assume it was referring to myself. I thought of using ‘V’ at one point, but that was used in a Thomas Pynchon novel. I was thinking of using ‘X,’ but X seemed too obvious. I was thinking of using ‘Z’ and there’s actually a very early version of this story where the character’s name IS ‘Z.’ I was going to use ‘M’ at one point, but that had also been used before in other places. So I settled on ‘Y’ for two reasons—one, it’s a word in and of itself; there’s the letter ‘Y’ and the word ‘Why,’ and I thought using the penultimate letter in the alphabet would suggest something else even if I’m not necessarily sure about what that suggestion is.

The antagonist in the book, Y____, has created a real-life invisibility cloak, which allows him to be the ultimate voyeur. When you were a kid, did you ever want to be invisible so you could spy
on people?

Everybody asks that and I understand why they ask it because it does seem that if I was going to give a character a super power, it would be one that I secretly longed for or always desired. But that’s not what it was. The premise came from two things.

One was that in 2008, by chance, I was temporarily living in Germany and I happened to reread H.G. Wells’ “The Invisible Man.” I’d read it as a kid, but reading it as an adult, the main thing that intrigued me was how much The Invisible Man was such a fucking jerk. He’s rude to people for no reason, he’s narcissistic, and that’s an insightful thing that Wells stumbled upon—the idea that the kind of person who would be smart enough to become invisible and yet be sort of socially abhorrent to the point where he would use this for his own purposes, he would have to be this problematic figure.

The other thing is, I think a lot about the process of interviewing and how the goal of interviewing is to try to understand the person you’re talking to in a new way and to help people understand their work. And yet I’m very cognizant, both because I’m a journalist and because I get interviewed a lot, of the unreality of the interview. When you’re a journalist, you can ask questions you could never ask your friends five minutes into the conversation and when you’re being interviewed, you’re always ultimately promoting some kind of product, even if that product is just yourself.

So that made we wonder “What’s a better way to understand other people?” A focus group won’t do it because people behave differently in those situations. How do you get to point where someone is actually being themselves? Well, you could just observe them in life, but people edit their behavior because of the people around them. So I came to this conclusion that if I really wanted to understand someone who wasn’t me, the only way I could do so was to observe them when they’re by themselves and they don’t even know they’re being observed. This gave me the idea of this character who does this to try to understand what people are like.

At one point in the novel, you describe an experiment where the government was trying to create real-life Wookies in Greenland. Is that a real urban legend/conspiracy theory? It wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

Yeah, I just made that up, but you always hear about shit like that. In truth, it really wouldn’t be practical to invent a different type of solider. It’d be much harder than just inventing better winter gear. But I like conspiracy theories in general. I’ve always been interested in conspiracy theories as far back as 5th grade.

Which conspiracy theory do you find the most fascinating?

The one about the Bilderberg Group because it’s almost to the point where it’s not even a conspiracy theory. The people in the Bilderberg Group admit that they do meet in undisclosed locations and talk about finance, but the conspiracy part arises over the question of what are they actually discussing. Are they just discussing ideas or are they dictating how the world economy goes? I find that pretty interesting because I’m not sure if such a group would even be problematic. It might be better to have 20 really smart rich guys making decisions sometimes.

So you’re writing The Ethicist column for the New York Times now. How’d you get that gig?

Well, when Grantland (Ed.—Klosterman writes about sports and pop culture for was launching last year it was about the same time that a new guy was taking over the New York Times magazine and at the time they wanted me to write a column; it wasn’t The Ethicist, it was something in the front of the magazine. But at the time, Grantland was launching and I had to say no. I told them “I’ve got this new job and I don’t know what it’s going to entail.” But (The Ethicist) was the column I’d always been intrigued by, so it was just a situation where I’d always wanted a job there and eventually it just kind of worked out. You don’t really apply for a job like that.

What’s a typical day like for you?

Well, I get up when my wife gets up. She works at Entertainment Weekly, so if she gets up at 7:30, I get up at 7:30, she gets up at 9, I get up at 9. Then I’m just in the house by myself and I can’t force myself to write well. I can force myself to write badly, but if I’m writing about something that’s meaningful to me, I just have to wait for it to happen. I do all the other things that normal people do—I sit in front of the computer, I read a lot, listen to music, and I’m always just waiting for that two or three hour window when I have an idea and I feel motivated to write. Then I try to get as much done as I can before that window closes. I used to be able to write super fast. I mean “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs,” I must have written that whole book in four months. But I can’t do that anymore. I would have thought as I got older that writing would be easier, but it got harder. As I talk to other writers, I sort of realize that’s sort of a common evolution. 

You’ve written for lots of big magazines—SPIN, Rolling Stone. How do you get those assignments? Do you pitch stories like every other writer or does your agent get you work?

Well, I have a rather circuitous past. I worked in newspapers for eight years and while working for a newspaper, I wrote my first book. Because my book was about music it didn’t sell a ton of copies, but it was read by lots of people in the music media, so I got a job at SPIN based on that book. Just before I took the job at SPIN, I did a book reading in New York and by chance, an editor from the New York Times magazine was in the audience and he came up to me afterwards and said “You should write for us.” Then “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs” came out and I got interviewed for that book by Esquire and then after that piece ran, the guys from Esquire were like “Would you be interested in writing a column?” and I said “Of course.” So I didn’t pitch anything. I don’t know if I’ve ever pitched anything to a place that wasn’t already publishing my work. I’m kind of at the tail end of that sort of thing, because I don’t even know if that sort of thing could even happen now because the Internet is more dominant and the way it works now is that networking is actually more important than it used to be. Things like Twitter and Facebook—that seems to be more how people get jobs now, but I was sort of in the last part of that period where somebody else would just read something else you wrote and just ask you to start writing for them.

I’d like to wrap this up by asking a few random pop culture questions. Why do hipsters like bacon so much?

Well, it seems like bacon is more popular because a) there seems to be an understanding that you can add bacon to anything and it only makes things better and b) it seems to be the one meat that vegetarians can’t say no to, and a lot of hipsters are vegetarians. I remember David Letterman talking about bacon a lot in the ‘80s so I actually think the affinity for bacon has always been around. It’s like cocaine. Everyone is like “Cocaine is back!” But it never went away. That’s how I feel about bacon.

Say it’s the ‘70s and you’re going through a bisexual phase like everyone did back then. Who would you rather sleep with — Mick Jagger or David Bowie?

David Bowie. It’s not even close. David Bowie is really cool and Mick Jagger is cool just because he’s the lead singer of the band. I mean, he’s a good lyric writer and he’s a good vocalist, but I don’t really like Mick Jagger. Mick Jagger is probably my fourth favorite member of the Stones. And also I think I’d have more in common with David Bowie.

Can you explain why people hate Nickelback so much?

I actually wrote about this. It’s a curious thing. Nickelback has become something to reflexively hate. People hate Nickelback without really giving a reason and when people just hate a band like that, whether it’s Nickelback, Creed, or Stone Temple Pilots, or the Spin Doctors, what people are really saying is that “I don’t like the kind of person who likes this band. But I can’t really hate a demographic, so I’m going to put this arbitrary anger in a missile and direct it at this band.” But I have to give the band credit—Nickelback doesn’t seem to care; they seem to think it’s partially funny. If you hate somebody and the person doesn’t mind being hated, it means your emotion isn’t having an impact and that makes people even more upset.