Klosterman, a North Dakota native, attended the University of North Dakota at the same I did and I remember reading him in the Dakota Student. I've always been a little bitter to realize he's famous and I'm only famous to my friends. :) Of course to become published one probably needs to actually WRITE something and SUBMIT it for publication. Hmmmm....
Regardless, I do not begrudge Chuck Klosterman his success and I have really been enjoying what I've read of his book Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto. Normally I have night class on Tuesdays and Thursdays but my students were eager to attend the reading and so halfway through class we loaded up and drove to the Union to hear Mr. Klosterman. We were joined by one student's mother and interestingly, my own mother. He read an excerpt from his recent novel, Downtown Owl which is set in 1983-84 in the fictional ND town of Owl. The story centers around the lives of three characters: Mitch Hrlicka, a depressed high school student (often called Vanna by one teacher, as in "can I buy a vowel?"; Julia a high school teacher who just moved to town; and Horace, an old guy.
The segment read was from Mitch's perspective and it involved his English teacher informing his junior class that they would be reading a George Orwell novel entitled 1984. In fact, all English students grades 7-12 would be reading that book that year. Part of the reason Klosterman wanted to set his book in this era was because it was his first foray into fiction and he wanted to be able to be as authentic as possible about his details without massive research and these years were within his frame of reference. In fact, these years were pivotal in that he recalls the Gordon Call incident in the news and wanted this to be a subplot in the novel.
Before he moved on to his second reading he took questions about this one--paraphrased in my own cryptic way:
Q: Was he Mitch?
A: He was not. He can see where someone might have thought that since he writes a lot of memoir.
Q. What makes ND unique?
A. All places are unique. He liked that it was really rural, since culture on the coasts takes a while to move to the center of the country he believes that what ends up here is often the most popular and most reflective of the trends of the country.
Q. Why call it Owl?
A. No symbolism to it. He liked the way it would sound for their sports team. The Owl Owls. Of course, in the novel, they are in the midst of a school nickname name change.
Q. Why George Orwell?
A. Other than the obvious 1984 setting, he recognizes that within a small town it IS as if Big Brother is watching. In fact, within the Orwell novel, Winston Smith is able to rebel and do things unnoticed for a time. In a small town, that is difficult; yet, people often only know the superficial elements.
Q. Why go from nonfiction to fiction?
A. Doesn't everyone aspire to write a novel? He feels that nonfiction is a reactive art form. And in a world of newspapers and magazines his writing has limitations. He can only deal with reality. When he'd interview people he was often wishing folks would say certain things that they did not.
Q. His characters in Downtown Owl have a lot of nicknames. Why?
A. He felt that was an authentic reflection of the small town high school culture. A NY Times Review remarked that his nicknames were contrived and inauthentic. As in, what small town ND kid is going to be called "Grendel." Do they even know who Grendel is? What struck Klosterman as funny was that was the ONE nickname that was REAL. It was a kid he knew from Lidgerwood. Go figure. He noted that in this world people were often nicknamed for the most obscure random things and those names stuck for years and years. Once at 4-H camp...
Next he read an essay from his new book, due out next fall, entitled Eating with Dinosaurs. The piece was about music, film, sports and the problems with time travel written in a Stream of Consciousness technique. He read this very quickly. It was complicated and interesting and amusing. He spoke about HG Wells and his time machine and Terminator and 12 Monkeys and all sorts of time travel related pop culture. He spoke about the Cassandra Complex, the Bootstrap Paradox, and the Godfather Paradox. He read for us the seven rules of time travel. Most excellent. I found the whole essay fascinating and will certainly have to buy that book too.
The evening ended with a few more questions; here are some of those:
Q: How does he find his voice in writing?
A. He believes voice is inherent to oneself. Imitating others is stealing a voice. Every person has a singular voice and a way to express himself.
Q. Why write ND memoir? Who would be interested?
A. Why write any memoir? His books? They don't NEED to exist. But being from ND has actually helped a great deal. People act like it's in Russia. And for some reason ND seems more remote than South Dakota. For him, he simply tried to think of a book that didn't exist that he'd like to read and he wrote that. In the end, the only person who really cares about the writing is YOU.
Q. Does he follow pop culture since he writes so much about it?
A. No. Not really. He feels no responsibility to follow it. For example, he's never seen Grey's Anatomy. If he starts to feel like he NEEDS to follow something for his writing he fears it will all just become contrived. If he investigates it, he is constructing a feeling and people can see through it. He listens to what he wants, watches and reads what he wants. It's real. Is he more engaged in some aspects of pop culture? Yeah, he's weird. :)
Q. Does he think the Internet will change the remote and isolated aspects of ND life for its youth?
A. He'd just talked about how the fact that ND seemed less media soaked when he was young helped him as a journalist. And he wasn't sure the impact the internet was going to have on young people but now they were being impacted with more access to music for sure. He talked about how in his small town the only place to buy music was at the local drug store and they only featured the most popular... Motley Crue and Cher. There were no Indie bands. Nothing like The Smiths was available. Now anything is available through the Internet to sample and to purchase. When he was young, he recalled having six cassettes he listened to again and again and nearly wore out. Now kids have too much... thousands of individual songs downloaded to itunes but they never really listen to them more than a couple times before they buy something else. They lack the depth even though they finally have the breadth of music at their fingertips.
Q. What is his writing process?
A. He has no set ritual. He is always mentally writing so that when he sits down to the computer it just pours out. He finds the process of writing fulfilling. He revises as he writes and then does revision only minimally afterward. "Mistakes are me too." --Jimi Hendrix
Q. Is it hard for him to sleep, to turn off his mind?
A. Yes. Yet, he is very good at sleeping from 5 am to noon. One great thing about his life? No one tells him when to go to bed or when to get up.
Charles Baxter, Memorial Union
UND Writers Conference Friday April 3, 2009
UND Writers Conference Friday April 3, 2009
I didn't take such copious notes on Mr. Baxter. I think I was just ready to soak it all in and he was lovely. His first reading was a piece called "Gryphon." In this one a fourth grade boy is captivated by a substitute teacher who told them fantastic things: Beethoven was not deaf--it was a trick to get famous. 6 x 11 = 68. A student argued and she explained, "Substitute teacher. Substitute facts." Diamonds are magic. That's why women wear them... they have the magic and that's why men fall in love with women but women do not fall in love with men. the greatest mystery of Venus is what is beneath the cloud cover, but she knows.. it's angels. And she told them about an Egyptian animal that was half eagle and half lion, a gryphon. Baxter said that after this was published he got tons of letters about crazy substitute teachers.
I haven't actually read any of his work. I did manage to see The Feast of Love, quite unintentionally awhile back. Though he spoke about how he was disappointed in the casting of the film, citing Philip Seymour Hoffman as a better pick to play Bradley than Greg Kinnear who he felt was just too good looking. His readings from that book include the scene in which Bradley tries to retrieve his dog from his sister who insists they are keeping the dog, "they've bonded." and he reads a scene with Chloe and the fortune teller she visits to find out the truth about her boyfriend Oscar.
Q. It sounds like he really like what he does.
A. His response. "I do. I'm the happiest guy in the world... What else would I rather be doing?"
Q. How much of his life goes into the work?
A. Not much lately. He's tired of himself. He used it all up in the first few books.
Q. Some reviewer compared Feast of Love to A Midsummer Night's Dream. Was that deliberate on Baxter's part?
A. Sure. He didn't want to write a story about mature love. He wanted to write a story about people who are spellbound. People who fall in love with the wrong person--people who are matched with the wrong person before the right person.
Q. How did he capture the nuance of the relationships?
A. He's been around the block a few times. It was his first first person novel and he really wanted it to be spoken.
Q. How hard is it to let go of a work and watch it get filmed?
A. It would have been harder when he was younger.
Q. How does "wit" show up in his work?
A. The way sentences are put together. He thinks of wit as a pleasing incongruity that allows a new perspective on something. He feels that wit at someone's expense is not the best form. He thinks of Oscar Wilde as a wit... his dying words? "Either this wallpaper goes or I do."