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Q & A With Chuck Klosterman: Drake, Twitter, and The Visible Man (plus The Death Of The Alt-Rock Dream)

I first read Chuck Klosterman’s work when I moved to Chicago in 2007. My boss game me a copy of Fargo Rock City, suggesting that he thought as an 80’s rock guy who was working at an alternative radio station, I could relate to it. He was right.

I’ve since read every word Klosterman has published, and it was a real thrill to get to speak to him about his new book The Visible Man, as well as some other things. I didn’t expect to discuss Drake.

There is an uncut version of the conversation on my podcast, and you can listen to that by clicking HERE. 

There are a couple of things I took from my interview with Klosterman, aside from the content itself. First, it seemed like every question I asked him, he’d thought long and hard about at some point. I couldn’t tell whether that was because he thinks a lot about everything, or I just asked him things other people have asked him. In any case, he always had a well thought out answer. But second, and more importantly, it seemed like even though he’d thought about these things so much, he was open to discussing and potentially interpereting those things differently. That comes through far less clearly in print.

For those who follow me on Twitter (@spikeeskin), you’ll find his comments about people who tweet too much particularly amusing, considering the interviewer.

The conversation began with him asking me what the interview was for, meaning website, publication, broadcast, etc …

Spike: Yeah, this is just for me, my website. The internet, where we don’t need “the man” anymore.

Chuck Klosterman: Who is “the man” though?

S: I don’t know.

C: No one’s met the man. I keep wanting to run into him at some party or something. And I can tell him that he owes me money. Or I owe him money … I don’t know.

S: Every time I bring up your name, there’s a more polarizing view of you than I expect. Does it surprise you?

C: It doesn’t surprise me because it happens all the time. It confuses me. I’m not just talking about the negative side either, I’m talking about the positive side too. It just seems really weird to me. I just feel like my writing is pretty straight forward. I feel like if anything, my perspective on things is borderline banal. I don’t feel like I’ve ever made a strong political statement. I don’t know why it happens. It must just be the way the information is presented. But when I write, my goal is just to be as clear as possible. Just interesting, entertaining and clear. So I’m not surprised by it, it’s just how it is. Now it doesn’t even matter really what I write. I think I could almost write anything, and somebody would love it too much and somebody else would hate it too much.

Now it doesn’t even matter really what I write. I think I could almost write anything, and somebody would love it too much and somebody else would hate it too much.

S: I remember in a piece you wrote you talked about things being overrated, underrated and properly rated. It doesn’t feel like anything anymore is properly rated. Everybody to make their point either overrates something or underrates it. When something hits critical mass, everyone feels like they have to have a distinct, black or white opinion.

C: Although I suppose you could argue that it moves everything to its properly rated level. Because if every possible opinion is expressed over a piece of art, you know, a record or a book or a movie, well then every opinion is there and then time just sort of dictates which opinions hold up.

The new Drake record is out today. I’ve been following it on Twitter. Hadn’t listened to it yet. But the people I follow on Twitter are nuts about this record. They’re just in love with it. So I’ve been listening to it and because I had that experience beforehand, where I was reading all of these sort of  really visceral over-the-top reactions, it seems a little overrated to me. It doesn’t seem as good as what they’ve been arguing. But that has nothing to do with the record.  It has only to do with my pre-existing perception and basically the fact that I happen to know people who have been listening to this record for a week and were pre-disposed to like it. So, will I ever know if this record is properly rated? That’s the confusing thing.

There’s really no consensus, so we’re all just sort of forced to let our very small circle of influence tell us if something is universally good or universally bad. So I think in a lot of ways, we have so much more information now, so much more access to things. We have more information and are yet less informed.

So I think in a lot of ways, we have so much more information now, so much more access to things. We have more information and are yet less informed. 

S: Does that opinion of the record being rated so highly, change how you actually enjoy the record? If you had not read that reaction, would you have felt better about the record?

C: Well I certainly couldn’t have thought it was worse. We’re kind of talking about two nebulous things. We’re talking about something’s real value and its perceived value. So they’re (the people on Twitter) saying these things about the record, and they’re saying they’re very moved by it. They’re saying it’s very important. So when I listen to the album, I’m not listening to it like “is this entertaining?” I’m listening to it for the import. And that really changes the scales, you know?

It’s really hard to compete with young people and their experience. Their experience is not to look for import, they’re having a “real experience with the sound.” When you talk about adults, the only reason we’d talk about music is that it means something aside from itself. That really detracts from he experience of “well that sounded good” or “I enjoyed listening to that.”

S: The new book is The Visible Man. How is the creative process different for you to write fiction rather than non-fiction?

C: Well the main difference is that fiction really is a creative process. Whereas journalism is more of a reactive process. That’s the central difference. I guess it’s kind of obvious but it’s true. When I’m doing, let’s say a profile of Noel Gallagher, a couple of months ago. Well that whole thing is based around meeting him, trying to explain to other people what that meeting felt like and seemed like.  And then also trying to sort of describe what the totality of this experience made me think about. But in all of these cases I’m reaciting to something.

Whereas in fiction you’re starting with nothing. Some people start first with character and plot. I start with the idea first, try to build characters and plot around that. But ultimately it’s just a blank space. It’s a white screen.

S: The idea for The Visible Man is about a man who can wear a suit that makes him impossible to see. What were you thinking when you decided to write a book about that?

C: I was still writing Eating The Dinosaur (2009), actually. I was writing about time travel in that book, I felt like I had to re-read The Time Machine by HG Wells. And when I got it, it came along with The Invisible Man. So I re-read the Invisible Man,  which I hadn’t read since fifith or sixth grade. And I twas just totally different book. When you’re a kid, you’re really interested in the idea of invisiblity like you’d be interested in a superheros or whatever.

When you’re an adult, the thing that struck me at least was the actual Invisible Man was just this incredibly self-absored ego-centric, kind of an amoral person. I thought that was very interesting, because if somebody had the ability to create an invisibility suit, or in that novel a potion, whatever the case, they’d have to be brilliant. But in order to use that, to employ it and spy on people about their knowledge or to live a life where you’re unseen in a world that is seen, you’d have to have a great deal of confusion over social boundaries, what is normal behavior, what is acceptable. You’d almost have to be kind of emotionally retarded. That’s an interesting sort of character. People who are extreme in two ways at once. So that’s why I wanted to write a character like that.

At the same time I was also thinking about interviewing, because I’ve been a journalist for 20 years now, and I’ve conducted 1000 interviews, but also because I’ve been interviewed quite a bit as well. So I spend a lot of time thinking about the inherent problem with the interview process. And the weaknesses of trying to get information from someone besides asking questions. And I thought “well, what would be other ways?” And one would be to observe people without them realizing they’re being observed. So in the novel essentially you learn more from the invisible man character talking to his therapist, than he learns from watching other people. Ultimately, even though it has problems, interviewing is the best way to understand people. There’s no way to get around the fact that interviewing is the only way to come to a conclusion, even though what they say probably isn’t completely real. 

There’s no way to get around the fact that interviewing is the only way to come to a conclusion, even though what they say probably isn’t completely real.

S: This book felt to me like a deparature. It was scarier than I imagined it would be. I don’t know if that was your intent. When you finished writing it and looked back on it, did it come out differently than you expected or something that you wouldn’t typically write?

C: Do you really think it was scary though? Or just scarier than you thought? I don’t feel it is scary. I mean I think it’s interesting when people say “oh, you’ve sort of written a genre novel.” Because I always assume they’re talking abot sci-fi. And then they’re like, “no, it’s kind of a horror novel.” And I suppose structurally it is.  When you write a novel, you have a voice and you have ideas, but you also sort of have to have story. You have to have narrative. And I guess, the way I built that narrative was like a horror novel, you know? I guess if you’re asking was I surprised it turned out that way, I would say no. I guess if anything I wished it would have been more terrifying (laughs). I think that would be to its advantage, not its disadvantage.

S: About 40 or 50 pages in, I legitimately looked to the front of the book because I thought I read the cover wrong. I actually went to look to see if it was Chuck Palahniuk. And then at the very end of the book, and I won’t give away what happens, but I had a very Paranormal Activity, is someone in the room with me, kind of fear that lasted the rest of the evening.

C: I gotta say that makes me happy. Your sort of interaction with the book is great in my view. It seems like that would be effective. I’m glad you felt that way. It’s very flattering

S: I don’t read fiction very often. At the end of the book, maybe it’s from movies or TV shows, or the fiction that I consume other than books, I always expect at the end of a work of fiction for there to be some kind of thing that I learned. “What was it about?” “What am I supposed to realize about people or humanity?” I think I got to the end of Visible Man and I felt like I wasn’t taught a lesson.

C: That’s true, I don’t really do that. In fact, in general, I’m not really interested in that process. To me, I’m interested in ideas about society and ideas about human nature and ideas about life, you know? But the idea that the complexity of the world and those issues could somehow be boiled down into one point, to me that actually takes me out the story. I want my ficition to seem like non-fiction when you read it. I want people to feel like they’re reading a non-fcition book.

In fact, without going too much into it, the Beatles come up a lot in the book. And the reason I did that is because I’m sort of actually against the idea of clear symbolism. In a play for example, they often say if the gun appears in the first act, it needs to go off in the third act. Things just happen in life, and we create the symbolism for it, even if there is none. We’re trying to sort of understand what it’s like to be alive.  So we create symbolism, symbolism is not inherent. So there’s a lot of things in this book that are consciously trying to contradict the idea that if A happens, it means B. 

Things just happen in life, and we create the symbolism for it, even if there is none. We’re trying to sort of understand what it’s like to be alive.  So we create symbolism, symbolism is not inherent. So there’s a lot of things in this book that are consciously trying to contradict the idea that if A happens, it means B.

S: Are the characters in the book, at least the two main ones, at least loosely on specific people?

C: Pretty close to entirely made up. When you’re trying to imagine, trying to make up a person. You certain have to imagine a body, and what they look like, and that to a degree is a composite of people you’ve seen. You know, when I guess though in truth that both of those characters are probably more like me than anyone else. Even though neither one is like me exactly.

S: How do you think you would handle that ability if you were given this ability to be invisible, what would you do with it?

C: Well, you know, not much. It’s not like I have a huge desire to do that. I’m married, and my wife and I have a lot of friends who are couples. I’d be interested to watch our couple friends when they’re fighting. Because I’m always very intrigued by the interior world of relationships. No one really knows what’s happening in a relationship besides the people involved. Recently, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth broke up. After being together for something like 30 years. People in the alternative music community were just devastated by this. It would seem like it was kind of the death of the alt-rock dream. There was this unspoken idea that because of their interestes and personalities and to a degree the music that they played and the art that they made, that they could have an adult normal relationship. And then of course they break up. But really the thing, the lesson from that should have had nothing to do with that. The lesson should have been, it doesn’t matter what someone seems on the outside, it doesn’t matter what you know about someone’s relationship from watching them. The only reality is the one that they’re sharing that’s private. So it would be interesting to see my friends fight. I’d like to see what they fight about.

S: I always  wonder when I see two people start to fight, when I see it brewing, how it ends. You know, who wins?

C: Of course the truth is that if someone wins, no one wins. It’s gotta be a tie. If somebody clearly wins an argument like that, they both lose, always.

At this point I made the connection between what Chuck said and the NBA lockout. Because the lockout has since ended, I took that part out of here. I did leave it in the podcast, which you can listen to by clicking HERE. 

S: I remember you and Bill Simmons talking about your apprehension to joining Twitter. Especially for a writer. You’re not terribly active on there, but has your view of Twitter changed since you started using it?

C: Well it’s an interesting question. The main reason I first got involved, is becaue I write about stuff like this. And it just seemed inconceiveable to me that I could write about it without experiencing it. So pretty much now whenever there’s a new sort of medium like this, I’m going to sort of wade into it.  Also there’s a degree of pressure on joining Twitter, if you know, you try to make a living writing. It is a pretty successful way to promote a book. Because the people who are following you are pretty much up front admitting, “I am interested in what you’re doing. That’s why I’m following you.” And you can really reach them directly in a a way that no other medium really does. And thirdly, and this is probably, you know, the biggest thing I’d say about it, is you know sometimes I’m bored. And you know, when you’re bored, you check your email. But my email doesn’t always change, Twitter always changes. It’s like an interesting kind of distraction. And I do get news from it.

You know, like so many things, they start one way, and it becomes something else. You know, initially when people made fun of twitter. They were like “well you know, I don’t want to read about someone having a sandwich. I don’t want to hear that you went for a run or whatever.” It was sort of the equivalent to when people  used to say that all bloggers lived in their parents basement. It was the defacto thing you said. But of course, as soon as more people started joining Twitter, that behavior generally stopped. Because those kind of people don’t get followed. And that kind of action moved to Facebook. So now facebook is this thing that’s more inward looking. Like, “here’s a picture of my baby.” Things about my life. Twitter is more outward looking. It is “here’s story link, I think this is important.” Or, “I saw something on 30 Rock tonight and I hated the commercials.” So I actually do find it pretty useful, you know. It’s maddening. It definitely, I would say the worst thing about it is, you know in the past if you were a cynical person, you’d say “you know, most people are dumb. The world is crazy.” You didn’t really mean that, you just kind of said that because how did you know? You just kind of felt that way. And then Twitter does prove that people are idiots and the world is crazy. 

And then Twitter does prove that people are idiots and the world is crazy.

S: Not everyone should have their opinion out in the public I guess. It doesn’t benefit anyone.

C: Well it benefits no one. It literally benefits no one. It doesn’t even benefit the person who is venting. Because all it does is make people perceive them as crazy. You’re right in that I don’t go on Twitter that much, because the people who do, are unaware of how they’re looking, how they appear to other people when they do that. It makes people appear that they’re both totally self-involved with their own ideas and also obsessed with subjecting those ideas into peoples’ face. It’s like the worst combination of qualities. It’s like somebody who is screaming at you about how they’re ego-centric. It’s just crazy. So I  try to do it just enough that it’s not a waste of peoples time to follow someone, but I don’t like people who Twitter too much. I don’t think anyone does. And the easy response is “just don’t follow them then,” but it’s more complex than that somehow.  I don’t know why, but it is.

S: Once in a while, once in a month, something happens that makes me wonder what life would have been like before this. This week it was the Penn State thing. Even forgetting about the reactions to it, which ranged from interesting to inane, but  just how quickly it escalated from point A to point B. I just went and thought “think about 20 years ago.” When I would have had to wait until watching the news at 6 o’clock, and to get an update on the story, and to get more than my friends opinions. I just thought about what this would have been like before social media. 

C: Here’s the key difference though, ok? This either indiciates that there’s no difference ultimately, or that the change has been sort of negative; you’re right, you wouldn’t have gotten everyone’s reaction to this instantaneously. You would have gotten a reaction from a smaller number of people, who would have spent more time thinking about it. And what you would have read then, is maybe a couple versions, there would be a news version that would be just information. And then a few editorial takes on this that would have been nuanced and more sophisticated than Twitter.

Now with Twitter you get it all at once. You get all of these perspectives basically from people trying to first react immediately, and then a second wave always of people arguing about how the narrative is going. You know how “everyone feels this, but maybe we should feel that.” So in a way you’re getting information faster and from more sources, but you’re actually getting it in a less efficient manner. It’s almost sort of like, instead of reading the New York Times, if you were to get every draft of people working on their story. Let’s say there was a way you could hook into the main frame of the New York Times computer system. So instead of reading the paper, you would get everyone’s draft. You would see all of the editorial responses from their editors, and get all of these different things. In some way you would have more information, but would it be a more effective way to understand the world? Probably not.

S: I just think generally people aren’t prepared to deal with things like Twitter. That technology has moved too quickly for us.

C: It’s hard, maybe problematic to make broad statements like this, but I think we agree it’s true. Just about all technology is beneficial in the short term and detrimental in the long-term. I mean if you look at something like television. I love telelvision. I’m watching it right now as I’m talking to you. I’m watching Baylor and San Diego State, it would be a big loss in my life if television didn’t exist. But is the long-term impact of television on society positive or negative? If you really think about it in broad strokes, I think it’s a very difficult question to answer. I don’t know if it’s been more positive than negative. Although in the short-term, it’s always positive. There’s no way to get around the fact that I can see this game, that’s happening in Texas. If TV didn’t exist, I would have never seen, I may have never seen the state of Texas before, except in a photograph or a painting, you know? 

Just about all technology is beneficial in the short term and detrimental in the long-term.

S: Well technology is invented by smart people and most people aren’t smart. The toys are too complicated for regular people to deal with. The result of technology is the problem that it’s invented by people who understand the best way that it should be used.

C: I don’t know if I agree with that though. I think that often technology is invented by people who are interested in technology. And the guys who invented Twitter, whomever they are. I suspect that the people who invented that were mostly interested in the mechanics of it, and how it would work. How many characters is the right number? For some weird reason the number of characters they picked seems about right for the way we use it at least. And I think that they probably had lots of ideas of how it could be used, but for the most part that was secondary. For the most part, it was like, “we need to make that happen.” Other people decide how it’s used.

Steve Jobs is a great example of this. My wife’s reading his book right now and she’s kind of talking to me as she reads thorugh it. He was someone who was really interested in science and he was really interested in philosophy. So one could argue that here’s a guy who is that person you’re describing. He had this sort of utopian view of how this technology should be used. And sometimes I wonder like, “is succeeding at technology simply a matter of being able to put the parts together in a way that other people can manipulate for their own purposes?” Can you really control how people use something?

S: Thanks for all of your time, I thought Viisble Man was really cool, I was surprised by it, but I thought it was really cool.

C: Well thanks for doing this interview, they were good questions.

Yes, I kept the last line in there because I was happy he said they were good questions. Sue me.

You can purchase The Visible Man on Amazon HERE. 

You can purchase The Visible Man on iTunes for your iPhone, iPad or iPod HERE. 

You can visit Chuck Klosterman’s website, and get information on his other books HERE.

You can follow Chuck Klosterman on Twitter @CKlosterman.

 

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