Culture Junkie

Chuck KlostermanâÄôs mind is like the inside of a clock factory. Now, IâÄôve neither seen nor heard about the inner workings of the clock industry, but I imagine the factories are busy, busy places. Whereas most of us blow off the mind-numbing flow of mainstream culture that blesses us with our Britneys and âÄúReal Worlds,âÄù Klosterman delves into the causation, psychology and deeper meaning behind the massive orb of pop culture. And in turn, asking him the low-brow questions thousands of trailer park dwellers and soccer moms are posing at this very moment, questions like, âÄúWhatâÄôd ya think about âÄòHigh School MusicalâÄô?âÄù yield not monosyllabic mutterings, but rather insightful verbal essays. And the entire time you can practically hear that glorious brain churning. A&E had the opportunity to sit down with the bestselling author to discuss his new book, the importance of media preferences and that pesky blogosphere. How did the writing process for âÄúDowntown OwlâÄù differ from your nonfiction writing? Mainly, it was just much slower. Journalism is a reactive art. So basically, if I were writing about this encounter IâÄôd look at you and write about your beard and your jacket. ItâÄôs much harder to sort of make up a beard or make up a table. The details are the slow part. But, when youâÄôre making things up, the details are the last thing you create. ItâÄôs easier to come up with a kind of person; itâÄôs really hard to come up with a specific person. I can probably write 5,000 words of nonfiction in the time it takes me to write 500 words of fiction. Is it something youâÄôd like to do again? Kind of. I like having written a novel, but I got depressed in the middle of writing it. IâÄôm not very confident about how good it is, where with nonfiction IâÄôm pretty confident because IâÄôve done it enough times. IâÄôm sure I will write a novel again at some point, but my next book is going to be a collection of essays. âÄúDowntown OwlâÄù is almost high-concept in how itâÄôs formatted (fragmented chapters, bookend scenario, three perspectives). I was wondering how you came up with that concept? It started with the storm, which was a real storm [The big N.D. blizzard of âÄô84]; I knew that was going to be the crux of the narrative. And I wanted to write about Gordon Kahl [The tax-evading U.S. Marshal murderer], who was a real person, and that happened in âÄô83. So those were the two bookends. I had to make a story inside of that. Honestly, the reason I broke it up into chapters the way I did âÄî maybe this didnâÄôt work âÄî but I did it for clarity. I know how people read differently now. A lot of people who read my books tend to be younger and their predominate source of the written word is online. Also, and this has nothing to do with young people, people are much more impacted, even in the context of literature, by television and film. So I thought to myself: I wanna write this in short little blocks of text, so that people feel as if theyâÄôre making headway. Once they finish one and theyâÄôll be like, âÄúOh, I can read six more pages.âÄù I wanted to move forward and backwards in time sorta like the way âÄúLostâÄù tells stories, partly because I was watching a lot of âÄúLostâÄù when I started writing this book. And I felt if I just said, âÄúEvery chapter is about this person,âÄù that people wouldnâÄôt lose track. Because one criticism I sorta get is, my [writing] voice âĦ they [would] all sound like me. I never walk and read at the same time âÄî itâÄôs a pet peeve. But with âÄúDowntown Owl,âÄù I was so captivated by the final part of the book that I actually found myself doing just that. I appreciate that. ThatâÄôs kind of a fundamental film rule: âÄúHow do you create tension?âÄù Well, you have time lengthen at the end of the film. In a lot of westerns, the first 90 minutes of the movies would be 10 days. And the last 10 minutes would be an hour. Like âÄúThe Good, The Bad and The UglyâÄù? Exactly. Like that. Also, three-fourths of the book spans three-fourths of a year and the final fourth is one day. What do you want the reader to walk away with when theyâÄôre done with âÄúDowntown OwlâÄù? I want them to say, âÄúEhh, I didnâÄôt hate it,âÄù I guess. I want them to be, mostly, entertained. IâÄôd love the idea of something say [a response like], âÄúWell, this resonated with my experience or changed the way I look at myself.âÄù But itâÄôs unrealistic to have that aspiration. I canâÄôt control the way people consume something. So I just tried to write something that they would want to finish âÄî an enjoyable experience. If they find meaning in it, awesome. ItâÄôs different with nonfiction. In nonfiction, you want to get an idea across. I have a principal idea, I have a thesis and you want that thesis to be the main thing people remember. ThereâÄôs really not a thesis to this book. I could say what I think it is, but I donâÄôt know if anyone else would think that. My main concern was that it wasnâÄôt boring. Do you think itâÄôd be revealing to know what kinds of media politicians consume to tell more about them as people? Apparently both Obama and McCainâÄôs favorite films are Marlon Brando movies. I think ObamaâÄôs is âÄúThe Godfather.âÄù IâÄôm not sure what McCainâÄôs is, probably like âÄúOn the Waterfront,âÄù maybe âÄúApocalypse Now,âÄù but thatâÄôd be really weird. ItâÄôs a very good question. I do think it has value, but not if taken superficially. ItâÄôs easy for people to think they understand others through what they like, but what are really important are the reasons they like them. I would be very interested in what films, music and television Sarah Palin likes. However, not just because if she said she likes âÄúThe Wire,âÄù IâÄôd trust her more. Like, Obama enjoys âÄúThe WireâÄù so a lot of my friends in New York âÄî because we all love âÄúThe WireâÄù âÄî were like, âÄúSee, see, heâÄôs just like us!âÄù What I would be interested in [about] Obama is what he liked about âÄúThe Wire.âÄù I donâÄôt know what Sarah PalinâÄôs favorite television show is, but IâÄôd be interested in what her motives for liking it are. It would sort of reflect what role she thinks culture is supposed to play. As IâÄôve gotten older IâÄôve realized [itâÄôs important] to be less judgmental about, say, what kind of art someone consumes and what we can learn from it. Say you go to a party, thereâÄôs a playlist and somebody wants to play all rap-rock. Now, itâÄôs very different if theyâÄôre like, âÄúIsnâÄôt it hilarious IâÄôm playing rap-rock at this party?âÄù I might like that person âÄî some of those songs are not actually that awful. But if their reason for wanting to play all nu-metal was because, âÄúIndie rock is for [expletive]s; this is real music,âÄù then I probably wouldnâÄôt want them to be president. In all the criticism I write, itâÄôs not really about the art. ItâÄôs about what the artistâÄôs motives were and how the audience responds to it. Bands like Vampire Weekend and Black Kids have become sort of products of the blogosphere and have blown up really quickly. What are your thoughts on becoming overly famous overly fast, and does it hinder credibility? ItâÄôs a huge problem. Particularly Black Kids have been unfairly penalized for something they had no role in. Pitchfork decided they like the name âÄúBlack KidsâÄù and they like this EP, and they thought itâÄôd be interesting for them to throw their support behind a band because Pitchfork now self-identifies as this organization that can âÄúmakeâÄù a band. So they do that before the first record even comes out, and when it does get released, Pitchfork, like, apologizes with a picture of a puppy on their website [as a review]. So essentially, Black KidsâÄô career âÄî which was built around this blog culture âÄî was over before it even started. It didnâÄôt really have anything to do with them. ItâÄôs a new kind of media stronghold that canâÄôt necessarily affect how much your album sells, but can affect the amount of conversation about it. I never wanna come across as someone who, like, hates the Internet because you sound like youâÄôre 90, but I see a lot of negative manifestations around it. ThereâÄôs always been an element in pop music of, âÄúWhat makes a band popular?âÄù Well, the first thing is, âÄúWhat do they sound like?âÄù The next thing is, âÄúWhat do they look like?âÄù And thereâÄôs, âÄúWhat is their social posture or âĦ who are their fans?âÄù And the fourth thing is, âÄúHow new are they?âÄù because people always like a new thing. WhatâÄôs changed about the Internet is that fourth element has now become the biggest element. The newness of a band is now the biggest deciding factor in how it is received, explained and appreciated in the blogosphere. And because of that, all these bands have this weird glass ceiling because you can only be new once. So if one of the principal reasons your band is successful is because people havenâÄôt heard it before, thatâÄôs really going to change the meaning of art. Why is it that Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer (âÄúEpic MovieâÄù/âÄùMeet the SpartansâÄù) get to continue to make movies? Why do they get to? Well, I think itâÄôs probably because they are occupying the safest commercial genre there is, which is: Incredibly broad, satiric, ironic comedy that comments on celebrities. ItâÄôs strange because those movies seem awful and idiotic. But, last night on TV, âÄúAirplane!âÄù came on and it struck me as pretty funny. And IâÄôm wondering, what was the response to this movie from, like, a hipster when it came out? ItâÄôs a little different with these movies, because theyâÄôre so tied to peopleâÄôs relationship to the knowledge of what theyâÄôre writing about. IâÄôm guessing, like, Britney Spears is in these, itâÄôs almost as though theyâÄôre relying on the fact that, ya know, someone in a movie studio is saying, âÄúWeâÄôre trying to appeal to teenagers.âÄù WhatâÄôs something all teenagers know about? And right now, pop culture is the only thing everyone knows about. ThereâÄôs always going to be movies that are bad. And some of those bad movies, weâÄôre gonna be wrong about. Ten years from now, weâÄôre all gonna be like, âÄúI guess this was good.âÄù I donâÄôt think it will be those movies, though. But who knows? Sometimes people ask me, âÄúWhat things from today will we remember in 25 years?âÄù I always think the best answer is: 75 percent of the stuff weâÄôll obviously remember and the other 25 weâÄôll never remember no matter how long we talk. *For much, much more with Chuck Klosterman, check out the A&E blog.*