Chuck Klosterman’s greatest fears
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The first essay in Chuck Klosterman’s excellent new collection Eating The Dinosaur concerns the inherent lack of real truth to be found when interviewing famous people. As a guy who’s been on both sides of the journalist’s tape recorder, he should know, and in the essay, he does what he generally does best—asks himself a pointed but sort of unanswerable question, then examines it. (And brings pop culture into the mix to provide evidence and/or anecdotes.) So “Why do I give interviews?” and “Are people honest when they’re giving interviews?” are rolled around and left unanswered, and we’re all the better for it. It’s just the first salvo in a great set of pieces that also touches on Weezer, Garth Brooks/Chris Gaines, and ABBA. (Also: some sports.) So instead of doing a straight-up interview and then wondering whether Klosterman was telling the truth—or worse yet, rating the quality of our questions—we thought it’d be fun to keep the conversation centered on essentially one topic, in honor of Halloween. So Klosterman spoke with The A.V. Club about fear: his worries about pandemic disease, running over motorcyclists, and whether technology will end us all.
Chuck Klosterman: How are you feeling? Do you really have the swine flu?
The A.V. Club: I find out tomorrow for sure.
CK: What do you do if you have it, compared to a regular flu? Don’t get pregnant, I guess.
AVC: You do absolutely nothing different. The only difference between it and a regular flu seems to be that it hits you a lot faster and it’s super-contagious.
CK: You wanna talk about things that I fear, right? That is what I fear. I’m really an alarmist when it comes to epidemics. Swine flu now; when SARS was big, I was all freaked out about that, bird flu. That terrifies me. Today, I’ve been online looking to try and find somewhere I can get a flu shot; they’re out everywhere in Manhattan. Sometimes they give ‘em in the Chicago airport, and I’m flying tomorrow to Arkansas, so I’m hoping I’ll get one there.
AVC: So you’re still scared of it even though I just told you it’s really no worse than the regular flu?
CK: I really hate being sick. It seems inevitable that at one point, one of these predicted epidemics is going to be real. So often they come up, and there’s people like me that are freaked out, and the majority of people are just like, “You’re being idiots, this happens every other year.” And they’re always right, but they only need to be wrong one out of 50 times. And I just have this fear of a situation where even all the doctors and nurses are sick, so the hospitals are overcrowded, and there’s vomit in the street! You look out the window and you see people in their apartments, huddled over, and old people starving to death. Dead babies and stuff. That’s what I think of whenever this happens.
AVC: So you’ve given this some pretty serious thought.
CK: Yeah, because it happens every year or two! A situation comes up where there’s going to be this huge illness that’s going to sweep the country. And there’s a certain kind of person who always perpetuates that fear, and I am one of them. People always say, “You’re overreacting,” which is true, as long as it’s not that bad. But it only has to get bad once. There was that huge avian-flu thing in like 1918, where basically the structure of the virus, which was only in birds, switched and became this airborne thing that humans could inhale! I just keep waiting for that to happen again.
AVC: I think I’m the opposite way; I can’t worry about when that big one will come, because there’s nothing I can possibly do about a mutant virus.
CK: Those flu shots in O’Hare Airport, I’m always tempted to get one. Let’s say I’m going somewhere and I get one, sometimes on the way back I think, “Maybe I should get another one!” Because I’m tall, a big person, like 210 pounds or whatever. What if I need two shots? Maybe there are different kinds of vaccines, maybe they were mixed slightly differently, and it would be to my benefit to get both.
AVC: Would you consider this one of your biggest fears, then? The fear of worldwide illness?
CK: Worldwide illness that specifically affects my world, as in me.
AVC: Are you going to be one of those old people who wears a hazmat suit around? I ask that as if it’s an actual thing.
CK: In the Far East, it’s very normal for people to wear masks in flu season. I don’t know if I’d ever do that, though, because I don’t like having things on my face. Except glasses. That’s not a fear. When I’m walking around, I’m usually drinking pop, so I can’t have a mask on. That’s why I couldn’t be a surgeon.
AVC: Do you have a fear bigger than that one?
CK: It’s kind of an interesting topic. I assumed you were going to ask me about, like, scary movies. I don’t go to scary movies. I don’t like the experience of being scared. I think it’s very weird that some people do. Obviously, humans are the only animals that do that. You don’t see a wolf walk to the end of a cliff and look over the edge to freak himself out. A few years ago, that movie Open Water was out. I can’t swim, so of course the idea… It’s really hard for people who can swim to relate to this. If you can’t swim, the idea of being in nine feet of water is terrifying, much less the ocean. So when I saw the trailer for that movie, I just couldn’t fathom seeing it. I get no pleasure from that. People who can swim just can’t get it. They’ll push you into the water, assuming that you must be lying.
AVC: Did you watch scary movies when you were a kid?
CK: The scariest scene in a movie I remember seeing when I was a kid was in Halloween, when the girl gets into her car, and she notices the window is fogged up, so she runs her finger against the glass, and then she gets killed. When I was a kid, I would come home from trick-or-treating, and my brothers would inevitably be watching Halloween, and that scene really stayed in my mind. I think as somebody who’s Catholic, The Exorcist is the scariest movie, because parts of it seem like the worst-case scenario of what could happen on Holy Thursday at church. The language is kind of the same. I was an altar boy, and there’s this one event in the religion where you take two candles and you hold them against every person’s neck, and that was sort of a scary thing to be involved with in reality. Sometimes The Exorcist reminds me of those moments. Because I was a teenager in the ’80s—and maybe I’m wrong about this—but it seemed like a bad era for movies that were scary. It was really the height of movies that were disgusting. I feel like there were lots of movies where people were slashed up and bled a lot. I went to one of the Friday The 13th movies in the theater, and I remember a scene where Jason Voorhees beat somebody to death inside of a sleeping bag. That certainly doesn’t seem scary to me; I remember thinking it was funny.
AVC: Going back to The Exorcist, when was the last point in your life where you were legitimately afraid of being possessed by the devil?
CK: I used to watch a lot of documentaries about Satanic possession—and I don’t know if this is racist or not—but in the documentaries, it never happened to Americans! It was always happening in Central America or South America; that’s where the priest was always going down to exorcise possessed people. So I didn’t have a lot of fear of being possessed by the devil. Because I was into Mötley Crüe, my bedroom was filled with pentagrams! [Laughs.] I guess I was really rolling the bones with that, but nothing seemed to happen.
AVC: It’s funny that you mention that: Most kids who are into metal also seem to be really into horror movies, but you weren’t.
CK: That’s true, there’s definitely a relationship. It’s very strange. When you’re young, the kind of person who’s into slasher films are like metalhead kids and kids who are into Dungeons & Dragons and stuff. But as an adult, the only people who care about horror movies are academics. No one loves to talk about horror films more than somebody with a Ph.D. in cultural studies at a university. Every horror movie seems to be about penalizing people for values. There’s a certain iconography of the vampire, a certain iconography of the werewolf, the zombie. That seems to be the core audience for slasher films—metalheads and collegiate professors.
AVC: Have you ever been scared in the course of doing your job?
CK: I’m bad at traveling, and every once in a while I would get nervous about places people wanted to send me, because they seemed sort of dangerous. Somebody wanted me to go cover the next World Cup tournament in South Africa, and now South Africa is one of the most dangerous countries in the world again. I don’t know if that’s a valid fear. There’s a lot of talk that if you go there as a member of the media, you should never leave your hotel alone at night… I get very nervous when I’m at a place that I’m unfamiliar with where I’m going, and moreso if I don’t speak the language. This kinda ties into film, I guess. The type of movies that disturb me the most are—you know that Harrison Ford movie Frantic? And there was a movie with Kurt Russell, where someone is kidnapped and no one believes him. No matter what you say, everybody just thinks you’re crazy. And I’m always afraid that’s going to happen to me when I’m in a different country. There’s gonna be some mix-up and I’m going to be the only person who realizes it, and something terrible is going to happen to me or my wife.
AVC: So how do resolve that? Do you just not do these things?
CK: I just kind of avoid them, I guess. I talk my way out of doing them. [Laughs.] There’s a Mitch Hedberg joke about how he would think of a really funny joke, but if he didn’t have a pen, he’d convince himself that the joke wasn’t funny. Well, if somebody tells me to do a story at a place I don’t want to go, I just sit around and convince myself that the story’s not interesting.
AVC: I researched some common fears, and I thought I’d just throw some of them at you: Fear of losing your job.
CK: I don’t have a job. No fear. [Laughs.]
AVC: You don’t fear that someday editors will stop calling with assignments?
CK: Then I would get a job! If you don’t have a job, you don’t have a fear of losing it. You fear having to get one.
AVC: Fear of loneliness. You just got married, so that’s probably not too big a concern right now.
CK: Yeah, and I almost never get lonely. I love being alone. I’m glad I’m married, and I love my wife. But there’s never been a situation in my life where my unhappiness was based on loneliness. Even when I was in a different country last year, I lived in Germany, I missed things about America, but the fact that I was there by myself wasn’t an issue. I’m good at being by myself. I guess if you’re a writer you get used to that.
AVC: Fear of making decisions.
CK: Hmm… Not a big one for me. I can be decisive if I have to be.
AVC: Fear of going to jail, especially for a crime you didn’t commit.
CK: I am fearful of this, but not for crimes I didn’t commit. I’m pretty sure I’d be dead in 20 minutes, unless I got a swastika tattoo on my face. Although maybe I could survive in one of those resort prisons where they house white-collar criminals. I’ve always wanted to get better at tennis.
AVC: Fear of success?
CK: Is that a real fear, or is that something people use when they’re having discussions with their therapist? I don’t know. How does fear of success manifest itself? Does it stop you from being successful, or does it stop you from enjoying the success you have?
AVC: Maybe the idea is that it stops you before you’re able to do what you want to do.
CK: That to me wouldn’t be so much a fear, but a real disorder, an intellectual disorder that makes the person feel like their real fear is not success, but failure. Or that they have some sort of strange interior monologue that always tells them that good things are bad and bad things are good. There are people like that. You can just tell, they’re not even conscious of it.
AVC: Let’s get a little less abstract. How about spiders or bugs?
CK: Spiders are unpleasant. I’m not really scared of them. I think that if I lived in a place where there were poisonous spiders… If I’m around spiders, my fear isn’t so much the spider, but my fear is that I’m somewhere rustic and that spiders are crawling around. I must be in the woods.
AVC: You’re not a camper?
CK: I look at camping the same way I look at horror movies. All the years that humans fought to get into caves and into shelters—it almost seems sacrilegious to go outside and sleep without a roof. We work so hard to have these things!
AVC: I feel the same way about stick-shifts.
CK: [Laughs.] They save you on gas mileage, at least!
AVC: What about other animals? Creepy-crawlies, snakes?
CK: I’m afraid of rats. If I see a rat, I’m gonna get away from it. They spread disease. They have no upside. They’re ugly.
AVC: What about heights or flying?
CK: Flying to me isn’t scary, it’s just incredibly boring. And I guess I have a fear of boredom, so in that regard, I’m afraid to fly. Heights is interesting. I do have one specific fear, which is getting on and off the top of ladders. I don’t mind climbing ladders; it’s kind of fun to be up high. But I hate the point where you have to get off the ladder, or get back on. I don’t know if that’s a fear of heights, or literally a fear of falling. I want to be afraid to fall. That seems like a good fear.
AVC: Most of your fears so far seem very rational. I’m trying to find one that has no good basis in reality.
CK: I’m sure I have some irrational fears.
AVC: Another big one is crowds.
CK: I don’t like crowds. I don’t know if I fear them. The definition of the word “fear” in this case is interesting. I don’t know if I dislike them because I’m afraid of them, or I just dislike them the same way I dislike being cold. I don’t like being cold, but I’m not afraid of it. Why don’t I like crowds? I suppose the worst possible thing I could say is that I don’t like people, and that crowds are just collections of people. That seems like a very nihilistic way to look at the world. I love sports, but I don’t like live sporting events, because I don’t like sitting in the crowd. I like listening to records, but I don’t like going to concerts, because I don’t like standing in the crowd. I guess I just don’t like being in the crowd itself. Oh, I have some fears of driving!
AVC: Do you drive much?
CK: I don’t own a car, but when I go places, I have to rent a car, and I get lost a lot. I’m just a really bad driver. This is a pretty rudimentary error, but I often just stop paying attention. I’ll start looking around as if I’m riding, because I really like riding in cars. But I’ll be driving around and looking at the scenery, or thinking about things, maybe playing with the radio, and I’ll soon realize that minutes have passed and I’m still driving the car. Knowing that I do this kind of makes me afraid to do it at all. Here’s the thing that makes me scared when I’m driving: motorcycles. I hate motorcycles. Because if I hit one, even if it’s not my fault, if I’ve done nothing wrong, I’m not charged with manslaughter, he’s gonna die, because he’s on a motorcycle. So I have to live my life knowing that I killed this guy. I’m probably going to have to get out of the car and examine his corpse, he’s probably going to have some excruciating deformity now, maybe he’s decapitated entirely. And even if it’s not my fault, I’ll have to live with his death, because he didn’t want to buy a car. He wanted to have a motorcycle and be free. I hate motorcycles, because I fear hitting them.
AVC: I think we found your irrational fear!
CK: Why is that irrational? To me, that seems very rational.
AVC: The chances just seem pretty slim, and it’s very specific.
CK: It’s 50-50, I will or I won’t.
AVC: Another common fear is fear of storms.
CK: I like storms. I would say I actively like stormy weather. I would not be afraid of them. I think that if I had not pursued journalism, I think storm-chasing would’ve been a really fun career.
AVC: But a storm is kind of the villain in your novel, Downtown Owl.
CK: Yeah! That’s probably part of the reason I put it in there. Maybe in my book, the storm is the hero.
AVC: And the people are the bad guys?
CK: [Laughs.] I could rewrite it from the storm’s perspective.
AVC: Another big one is fear of the future, whatever that means.
CK: To me, fear of the future means fear of technology. I have a little bit of that. I still use it, but I kind of see technology as this harmful thing that’s so ingrained in my life that it sort of dictates and controls my relationship with it.
AVC: Is there a particular piece of technology that you see as a harbinger of bad things?
CK: Nothing in particular. I think that most technology is positive in the short term, and negative in the long term. I wonder, if somebody looked back at the 20th and 21st centuries a thousand years from now, what their perception of the car would be. Or of television. I wonder if over time, they’ll be seen as this thing that drove the culture, but ultimately had more downside than upside. When you think about it, cars are the most central thing in America, in a lot of ways. They’ve probably influenced the way we live more than anything else, and yet every really big problem—whether it’s the environment or who dictates the international economy because of oil—is all tied to cars. Ultimately, cars are bad for civilization. I don’t know if they’ll end us. That’s always the thing when somebody asks you if something is good or bad. You say something is bad, they’ll be like, “Oh, you think that’s going to end society?” No, but something can be bad without ending society! [Laughs.]
AVC: The conservative answer is that if it’s good for us immediately, it’s good, but the liberal answer is that the earth is going to be destroyed, and we should think in the long term.
CK: It’s hard to decide. I guess I would be on the side of the people who agree with the liberal perspective while living in the conservative way.
AVC: Going back to the Halloween theme, did you have any memorable costumes as a kid?
CK: I had a conundrum always when I was a kid. October 31 in North Dakota would often be extremely cold. I remember many Halloweens, it snowed. One year when I was very young, I dressed as Superman, and my mom made me wear a coat, which really downplayed the super element of the hero, you know? I remember one kid saying to me, “Superman would not need a coat.” That was a good point; I couldn’t argue with it. So I decided that I needed to come up with a costume that would not be affected by the weather, so for four years in a row I dressed as Daniel Boone. My mom made me this coonskin cap, and then you could wear whatever old jacket you wanted. You just had to carry around an old gun or a musket. Then I think the last thing that I actually dressed up for Halloween—this seems really weird now—but me and my friend were terrorists. Which was very different in 1982 or whenever, like the kind of guy who hijacks Pan-Am jets or whatever. I don’t think I had any idea what a terrorist looked like, they were just sort of in the news. Not a very popular costume now.
AVC: So you’re not the kind of guy who dresses up for Halloween as an adult?
CK: No. I loved Halloween when I was young. Now I sort of hate it, because if you go to a party where dressing up is optional, the people who do dress up will come up to the people who don’t and basically act like you’re ruining the party. Some people get really into it, like they’re more into it now than when they were kids. They’ll dress up in some kind of abstract, conceptual costume, like they’ll come as a volcano. They’ll have this huge volcano outfit on with dry ice coming out of the top or whatever, and then I’m just wearing clothes. And they’ll come over and ask you what you’re dressed up as, and then you make a joke and they get mad. It makes the whole party seem uncomfortable. I don’t even mind being chastised, but you can tell you’re making them enjoy the party less. Because in their minds, this is their one chance to be weird or whatever. I find that the people who like to dress up for Halloween are the people who, in life, are less weird. You see this a lot in the goth community. People who are into goth love Halloween, so much so that they make it part of their social life. But when you see goths outside their goth clothes, when you see them during the day—except for the fact that a lot of the time their hair seems fucked-up—they seem particularly straight. They don’t seem weird at all. A lot of people who are really into dressing up, it seems to be inversely proportional to how creative their day-to-day life is.
AVC: Like the straitlaced lady dressing up as a slutty nurse every Halloween.
CK: Was that always how it was, or is that relatively new? Did that happen in the ’50s? In some ways, Halloween is much easier for women. They can just dress as sluts, and it’s kind of a costume, if they never do any other time.
AVC: The real sluts must get very upset on Halloween.
CK: It’s sort of like how people who really drink hate New Year’s Eve, when all the amateurs come out. If you’re a real slut, you hate Halloween because all the fake sluts are around. And they’re competing for the same market share, and because they’re not normally sluts, no matter how they dress, they’re going to seem a little fresher, you know? They’re going to be more desirable to the person seeking the slut. “This is a new slut, I can tell!”
AVC: Is there anything in your new book that relates to our conversation about fear? The first piece, about being interviewed, made me a little apprehensive about interviewing you in a more traditional way. It felt like a message to potential interviewers that you’d done them a lot before.
CK: I’m not really sending the signal to people who might interview me that I’ve done it before; however, I might be sending out the signal to people who read interviews—from me or anyone else—that no matter how skeptical they are, it’s probably even less accurate than they think. It’s a very common thing, I do it all the time. You often judge the accuracy of an interview based on how talented the writer is who’s writing everything else. If they make the piece seem alive, like if they’re interviewing Celebrity X and you’re getting the sense that Celebrity X is a real person, people then tend to believe the process of the exchange between the reporter and the subject as being more accurate. That’s not really true. It was sort of a sad thing to realize over time, but some of the best profile-writers are the ones who do the least accurate job. Because they’re the best at creating their own reality. They’re able to take somebody that they haven’t spent too much time with—at most a few days, and with the subject completely aware that this is being done for media purposes—and take that little window of time and make it seem like a very real, authentic event happened. So when I read an exceptionally good profile, I’m now more skeptical of its value than when I just see someone just, almost in an amateur way, putting quotes down on paper. While that person might be less skilled as a writer, maybe they’re actually getting closer to what the person said, and what those words meant in context.
AVC: Are you scared of a world in which Weezer is viewed as part of the classic-rock canon? You write about them in the new book.
CK: I would like that, although I would have to concede that if that happened, the rock canon would have to be a lot bigger. I’m a fan of Weezer, but if they’re looked at as one of the greatest bands of all time, we must have expanded the definition of greatness. Which is always happening a little bit. The rock canon is bigger now than it was in the ’70s, and it’ll always get a little bigger. We add people more often than we kick people out.
AVC: I can’t think of any that have been kicked out recently.
CK: I feel like The Doors are on the cusp of being kicked out.
AVC: I would kick The Doors out. Would you?
CK: I would be one of the people advocating their removal from the canon. [Laughs.] As if I have any say in it!
AVC: I think you do.
CK: You do? You think I can dictate who’s in and out of the canon?
AVC: I think it’s time to flex your pop-cultural muscles and find out.
CK: Maybe I should write to my congressman. I was thinking of who my congressman was, and I was thinking of the guy in North Dakota, but he has no power. But maybe the guy in New York does.
AVC: Did we cover everything you wanted to get off your chest, or do you have a hundred interviews about Eating The Dinosaur coming up?
CK: To be totally honest, it seems as though I have less now than I used to. I’m wondering if the period where people really liked interviewing me is waning. I’m not worried about it, I’m not complaining about it, I’m not happy about it, but I wonder if the natural trajectory of any career… My books will come out, people will still read them, or the same number that did before. But I wonder if my period of doing lots of interviews is over.
AVC: Maybe it’s like the record industry used to be, where you could only put out a record every three years, because that’s how often the media wanted to pay attention to you. Maybe you’re off-cycle because Downtown Owl was fairly recent.
CK: Possibly. There were more obvious questions to ask about that book, because I had never done a novel before. And I do think that writing about the hopelessness of being interviewed, I suppose that makes some people less willing to do it.
AVC: I think you might scare some people off with it. Then again, you could do a whole bunch of interviews about the process of being interviewed.
CK: It’s strange. I’ve only been writing books for eight years or whatever, but during that time, things have changed. Doing publicity matters less. It’s just easier for people to find out about what they want to; it’s harder for them to find out about things they don’t know they’re interested in yet. But it’s much easier for them to pursue things they’re already obsessed with. It’s pretty hard for me to imagine somebody that would want to read my book now that didn’t know it existed. The kind of people who buy my books tend to be into bullshit pop culture, and reading the news, and being on Twitter and all that. It just seems like they would know. I don’t know how many people I would possibly be able to convince at this point, if that was my goal.
AVC: There’s always the next generation, right?
CK: I have eight nieces and nephews. Two of them are really into music, some of them are really into reading, one of them’s really into Entourage. But to be totally honest, none of them are into anything as much as they’re into social networking. The process of discussing the bands they like or TV shows they like, or Harry Potter books, or Stephenie Meyer’s books, I get the sense that the process of doing that is the backbone of it. It does seem like in terms of being informed about your preexisting interests, it’s pretty easy to do now.
AVC: Is it the increasing narcissism of the interactive world, where if you can’t participate in something, you don’t want to do it?
AVC: Does that make you sad and/or scared?
CK: I’m pretty ambivalent about it. It’s one of those things that I think is bad, but I’d be totally lying if I said I was losing sleep over it, or that it was the central problem in my life. Am I afraid of it? I guess I’m afraid of it for an incredibly nihilistic reason, or maybe just a self-indulgent reason. I have this fear that as it becomes the normative way to receive and understand culture, I won’t understand it anymore. The way that young people now are engaging with music and television and sports and stuff—it’s changing faster than I have the potential to change.
AVC: That may be true of every generation, though.
CK: But every generation is more influenced by technology, which is always changing faster. My oldest sister is 18 years older than me, and I would say, growing up, I was easily impacted 10 times more by culture than she was. But when I talk to kids that are 18 years younger than me, they seem 50 times more impacted by culture than me. And I have no doubt that the kids who are 18 years beyond them may be impacted 250 times more, because the evolution of any species can happen in spurts, but generally happens slowly, whereas technology only changes in these rapid spurts. We’ll never be able to evolve as fast as technology.
AVC: So when you and I are 70, the kids being born will be robots.
CK: Either that, or they’ll know how to build one immediately! Or they’ll be delivered by a robot. That seems crazy, but I’ll tell you what, man: Somebody born in 1903 and who died in 1998, they were born before there was human flight, and they died when there have already been two space shuttles that blew up! We were traveling in space so often that it was becoming normal to have them explode. So the idea of how life is going to be when we’re 70—I don’t know if we can speculate wildly enough. I don’t know if we can come up with a speculation that is crazier than what it probably will be.
AVC: I’m going with children born as robots.
CK: Not crazy enough.
AVC: More crazy than Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis?
CK: That’ll probably happen in six years! I’m looking forward to 2012, the movie and the year. It would be weird if that come true, obviously, but especially so because however long it took for the world to end—20 minutes or four days, whatever the window is—it would be interesting to walk up to people and say, “Fuckin-A, man, the Mayans! Who would’ve guessed? That was the apex of society! I never would have guessed it was the Mayans!”