If he had never published another book after 1992's Generation X, Douglas Coupland would forever be part of history: By coining that ubiquitous term, he was among the first to give that demographic a voice. But while marketing departments worldwide never made it past the title, Coupland's writing continues: He has written six books, including Shampoo Planet and Microserfs, in seven years; his latest novel, Girlfriend In A Coma, was conceived after a personal breakdown following an ill-fated European book tour. Coupland recently spoke to The Onion from his hotel room in St. Louis, expounding upon writing, TV, Karen Ann Quinlan, and starting life anew.
The Onion: You still live in Vancouver, right?
Douglas Coupland: Oh, yeah. I probably always will.
O: Is it as beautiful as everyone says?
DC: You know what? It probably is. You're catching me at a homesick moment, here.
O: After your last book tour, you were depressed…
DC: That's putting it mildly.
O: What happened?
DC: Without going too much into it, I traveled way too much in 1995. I went on this truly idiotic six-week tour of Europe. It was a combination of extreme loneliness, conversation deprivation, language glitches… Every country in Europe has a different way of doing things, and I just had to learn everything all over every time. And there was no one from the press division coming in and setting things up. It was a real grind. The last city was Geneva, and that was on Dec. 10, 1995, I think. I just kind of crumpled up into a little heap. Then, back in Vancouver, my dad just picked me up, and we went into the emergency ward.
O: Girlfriend In A Coma is a pretty dark book, though there are some light moments in it. Do you think your experiences on that book tour led to the dark mood?
DC: Oh, God, yeah. More the experience after that. I think what happens is that you go through something strange and weird for a long time, and the moment you sense that it's no longer absolutely vital—i.e., on the plane ride heading back—it collapses. Everybody has one or two of these things in a lifetime, where your body just tells you that, boy, you're doing something stupid.
O: The title of the book obviously comes from a Smiths song. Were you listening to a lot of The Smiths when you wrote the book? I kept coming across other references to song titles.
DC: Oh, those are Easter eggs. If you don't know The Smiths' backlist, they're fine, but if you do know [the songs], it's like, "Bing!"
O: I caught about five of them.
DC: Oh, there's more than that. [Laughs.]
O: Are there other tricks and in-jokes scattered throughout the book?
DC: There may well be. But I think that's it. Anything else is subconscious.
O: The publicist at HarperCollins indicated that you've encountered hostile interviews on this book tour.
DC: This tour? No. A few boneheads, but nothing hostile. For whatever reason, I tend to get reporters who are maybe in the middle of intense therapy, and they turn what's supposed to be a professional interview into therapy for themselves. They ask all these questions, like, "Is life worth living, and if not, what should I be looking for?" "What is your meaning, and what is this meaning?" And all of a sudden, my face goes slack, because I realize, "Oh, God, they're not even here for the book." And you can't be mean to them, 'cause then they'll go nuts. It turns into work-times-four just dealing with these people.
O: How tired are you of talking about Generation X?
DC: Well, no one's really talked about it much on this tour. This is book six; that book came out seven years ago, and I think "Gen X" is kind of a nickname for me now. Which I don't mind, because my name is kind of weird. All these vowels. I think that after the first two books, there was a sort of backlash, where people said, "Please fail. He must fail. We'll only be happy if you fail." But things are going pretty well. Now, people see me as just part of the book scene.
O: Does that take some pressure off?
DC: It's like the therapy thing. It removes another boring dimension of interviews.
O: As a Canadian, do you think the "Gen X" moniker was sort of adopted by the American media?
DC: Whatever. There's nothing I can do about that. It's not like they send me a dollar every time they use it.
O: Do you wish you'd trademarked the name?
DC: You can't trademark something like that! [Laughs.]
O: But I did notice in Girlfriend In A Coma that you devised a creative method of literally skipping over the years generally associated with Generation X.
DC: Oh, that had nothing to do with that. That was just the way the plot works.
O: Is the ending supposed to be happy?
DC: The readers seem to divide up 50 percent one way and 50 percent the other. But I'm not going to tell them. It's like a song: It makes you feel the way it does, and further attempts beyond that are all subjective. It can be both, I think, even for the same person, depending on where your head is at.
O: What inspired you to invoke a supernatural narrator?
DC: I actually wanted to do the whole book that way, but then I thought it would be better to break it up. [Goes to get more coffee, then abruptly changes the subject to St. Louis, where he's staying.] Hey, you know what I found in this hotel? Looking out the window, it's like the downtown of Kurt Vonnegut's Midland City, Indiana, exactly, but there's a Tums factory! Like where they actually make Tums!
O: Do you think they have the most calcium-enriched work staff in the world?
DC: [Laughs.] And there's always a group of workers wearing white bunny suits, waiting outside, having a smoke! You just want to walk up to them and say, "Thank you. Thank you, guys. Thank you for making Tums."
O: Your books seem to be regional, in the sense that we only get glimpses of what's going on in the rest of the world.
DC: I think that was a necessary by-product. I decided I really wanted the book set in Vancouver—and not just in Vancouver, but in my own neighborhood. In most fiction I read, where there's a war in Spain or whatever… If you put too much of it in, it looks like you put too much of it in. I just put in what I felt was the natural way people discuss the external world.
O: When you write, do you isolate yourself from your friends and family? Do you just lock yourself in a room?
DC: I have a studio, which I have to walk across the driveway to get to. It's only 20 feet, but it's a big psychological break, because I'm no longer in the house. I put in triple-deck walls, so it's deadly quiet in there. And I write in the mornings. What I found from talking to my friends and other writers is that most people start out as night owls, but in the end, after a few years, everyone starts moving to the morning to do their work. I think that in the morning, your brain is dewy-fresh and clean, and by two, it's got scratches on it, it's full, and there are dubious levels of operation. Definitely a regimen. Whenever someone says they write "when the spirit strikes me," I go (ahem) "hack." It's all discipline. And it's not about just getting the words out. But doing anything over and over and over, you hopefully get better at it. You start noticing and learning things that you would never have learned, no matter how much someone tried to teach you.
O: One of my favorite scenes in the book has Karen being interviewed for a Barbara Walters-type special. I always wonder why these people on TV always cry, and here you wrote this vulture of a character essentially chanting, "Cry, cry, cry!"
DC: [Laughs.] Twinkies are more natural than most TV-interview shows. I think any producer and any anchor from a show like that won't enter that situation until they know [how it will turn out]. Basically, everything has already been written before you go on. It's really horrible. But TV is all about hair. And then skin. And then clothing. And then it's about your voice. And finally the report, what you're actually saying. And 99 times out of 100, it never gets past the hair. How many times, when people are presenting Academy Awards or something, does the announcer go, "Oooh, what's with her hair?" I think that's natural. That's just chimps sitting up in the banana tree, picking nits out of each other's fur. TV equals Twinkies.
O: The plot of Girlfriend In A Coma was inspired by the real-life coma of Karen Ann Quinlan. What did she strike in you?
DC: I first heard the story back in 1975. All these things that you hear when you're really young stick with you for a long time. I suppose what marked that case more than any other was the fact that there was just that one photograph of Karen Ann Quinlan, and it was this strange, generic, high-school yearbook photo. I remember looking at the expression in her eyes, and thinking that if I were just a bit more aware, or had a little more hindsight, I would be able to know what's going on in that head, or what it is she's seeing, wherever she is, in her coma. The lack of information was the most intriguing aspect, initially. She died almost exactly 10 years later, and then I got to thinking, "Well, what if she had lived another 10 years after that?" And that reminded me of this thing I did years ago for Wired, and that was a reverse time capsule. Say I'm speaking to someone who's in the year 1978, and I'm a 1998 guy. And the assignment is to name all the things right now that would sort of "weird out" someone in 1978, that they never would have known would happen. So that's what you put in the time capsule to show people in 1978. Generally, we put stuff into a time capsule to show people in the future. We were trying to think of stuff to put into a time capsule, but everything we thought of was lame. Oh, a poem written by the mayor's wife. A letter from a congressman wishing people of the future well. Most time capsules, when they're unearthed, are really awful. There's nothing good in them. So I thought it would be better to put things in for the past instead of focusing on the future. Which is a long way of saying, "Yes, it was a very strong influence on me." Also, the idea of total transformation, of completely reinventing yourself while you're still alive… I think everyone probably wants to change a lot; that's just part of us.
O: At the start of the book, you mention a statistic that claims the average person can only change his or her personality five percent over the course of a lifetime. How much would you say your characters have changed by the end of the book?
DC: Hopefully radically. I'm not going to put a number on it; that would be stupid. Even then—especially in part three, which is obviously an exaggeration of so many things—it's just amazing how hard it is for people to change, even when these amazing things happen. It almost reinforces who you are instead of making you change.
O: Do you think it's possible to change yourself, or do you need to face some sort of event?
DC: It's rare when you're older—you know, late teens and onward. Before then, your brain is still forming, and you're far more moldable. After 20, the concrete sets. It does happen. I know people who were so sick of everything in their life that they just said, "Fuck it," and set fire to their house, metaphorically, and said, "I don't want to be that person anymore." Having done that, most people then don't want to lose everything and everybody they had before. I know quite a lot of people, and this might be a statistical anomaly, who have been in accidents: They had their head clunked, and when they came out of it, they still had all their faculties and capabilities. But their personalities were completely different. I didn't feel like I knew them anymore, and the new personality wasn't interested in the old people anymore. They were looking for new people. And it ended up that I haven't talked to two of these people for years now. And it's not from malice; it's just that they're not the same people anymore. So that can happen. Of course, one of the ironies in this situation is that the more you want it to happen, the harder it becomes, because you have obligations and relationships in the real world that you just can't cast off or shirk.
O: Do you think the disastrous tour of Europe was the proverbial knock on the head that turned you around?
DC: Whoa. I think it probably was, but it wasn't the first knock on the head. I think what happens in life is that you make a mistake, and get away with it, and then you make it again, and you get away with it. Then your body thinks, "Hmm, I'll make it bigger this time," and maybe you'll listen. And you live through it. Then your body says, "Fuck it, I'm going to go for the big Mount St. Helens here," and boom. You have no choice but to deal with it.