Interview: Douglas Coupland, Generation A

Long silences during interviews are almost never a good sign. They’re particularly dangerous in those conducted over the phone, where there are no visual cues to help the interviewer figure out whether he’s about to be yelled at, or hung up on, or both.

Just such a silence occurs a few short minutes into my conversation with Douglas Coupland, on the line from a hotel in Toronto. Except the prolific local author and artist isn’t bored or outraged. On the contrary, he’s doing something that’s actually kind of extraordinary, given the circumstances: he’s thinking.

Coupland has just been describing how, while writing his newest novel, Generation A, he was commissioned by John Ralston Saul to write a biography of communications theorist Marshall McLuhan, as part of Saul’s Extraordinary Canadians series. McLuhan, Coupland learned, was very interested in the idea of voices, and considered the one you hear in your head completely different from the physical one you use to say those thoughts aloud.

“Here I am, talking to you, blah blah blah,” Coupland says. “Where am I pulling these words out of the air from?”

What about, I suggest, the voice you use to write?

“I would say writing is a more intense version of what you think with,” he quickly responds. “But now that you mention it… You’ve thrown a monkey wrench in my system.”

Cue silence.

What’s remarkable about this moment is how obviously Coupland lets his natural curiosity guide his responses. Interviews, by their very nature, are stilted affairs for both parties—each with a clear job to do, and all ensuing charisma at least a little premeditated. But Coupland shrugs this entire convention away. He’s fully engaged with the questions, and doesn’t simply lapse into telling the same old anecdotes.

Then again, perhaps this extra effort isn’t surprising, coming as it does from the man who once wrote, “To me, interviews are mostly about trying not to make the interviewer think I’m too much of an asshole.” Mission accomplished.

As likable as Coupland is one-on-one, it’s the charm displayed in his books that has won him a global fan base. Since his 1991 debut Generation X, which introduced “McJob” into the vernacular and accidentally named an entire generation, Coupland has written nearly a dozen novels, each full of light, snappy dialogue, odd facts and figures, and an acute awareness of the increasingly pervasive role technology plays in our lives.

Now, with Generation A, Coupland is explicitly revisiting some of the ideas from his first novel, nearly 20 years later. He also returns to that book’s format, where a group of characters tell stories to one another that they’ve made up on the spot. But Zack, Sam, Julien, Diana, and Harj aren’t simply bored, as was the case for the trio in Generation X—instead, the new group lives in a near future when bees are all but extinct, and when each of them gets mysteriously stung at the same time. They’re brought together and studied, allegedly in the name of science, where a leading theory supposes that telling stories makes the brain secrete a special chemical that can bring the bees back.

“I knew very much that the theme of the book was the decline of the romantic notion of your life as a story, or having a narrative arc—the collapse of that myth and its replacement by future myths of the self,” Coupland says later in the conversation. “Especially with social networking—it seems like a much newer, more fluid, and more hit-driven way of looking at the self that really is quite alien to people who don’t share that same opinion. That’s fascinating to me.”

One thing that comes through loud and clear in the new book is the sheer glee created by spontaneous storytelling. Whether it’s cocky Zach’s parable “Superman and the Kryptonite Martinis”, or Diana, recently excommunicated for hitting on her pastor, spinning a yarn about a religious cult that murders the Channel Three News team, Coupland and his characters’ pure love of narrative is captivating.

He breaks his silence regarding McLuhan and the voices in one’s head after roughly four seconds (though it feels much longer). He’s thought about it, and has reached a conclusion.

“When you write, it’s just a much more crystalline, compressed version of the voice you think with—though not the one you speak with,” Coupland says. “I think your writing voice is your laser-guided missile. It’s the poetry part of you.”

It’s then suggested that many writers would disagree with him on this point. The Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov once quipped: “I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child.” Again, Coupland considers the information. The next silence is shorter, but just as heavy.

“If you have a great idea, you should be able to communicate it as well,” he concludes. “It’s like the sound of one hand clapping. You have a great idea but aren’t able to express it—well, how great was the idea?”

Coupland adds, “I’m pretty clear in my head on this.”

At this point, there is no reason to doubt him.

Random House, 320 pp, $32.95, hardcover

(interview originally appeared inThe Georgia Straight, September 17, 2009)

[UPDATE: An excerpt from this review (well, one word, blown up really big) is blurbed in the Canadian paperback edition of Generation A, in stores March 2010. Woohoo!]