Interview: Novelist Douglas Coupland on surviving the technological revolution

He uses chocolate to beat writer's block, cooks and packages his own crisps and has a body to dispose of. Some of this may even be true
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The Independent Culture

The interview is over." Fortunately Douglas Coupland is talking about the form rather than kicking me out of his room, but it's still an awkward moment. The first time I met Coupland, in September 2001, he told me never to interview anyone because then, he said in a vaguely Warhol-esque way, "they don't want to interview you any more." Since then, he's broken his own rule by interviewing Morrissey (more of a series of observations), and written that it is worth interviewing someone you really want to interview. And I really want to interview Coupland. But he's making it difficult. "That Seventies concept of a definitive interview. The Playboy thing. That's gone."

There's no author it'd be harder to do a "definitive interview" with than Douglas Coupland. I've met him three times and on each occasion he seemed completely different. The first time I met him I was misled by his outfit into thinking he was the hardy outdoors type. The second time he was wearing a Paul Smith suit, but quickly got the designer's name wrong and claimed he'd got it from a photo-shoot. He's an odd combination of urbane and old-fashioned, incredibly polite, but capable of turning on you, albeit in a mischievous way. When he notices I haven't eaten the crisps in front of me he feigns offence and claims he baked and packaged them himself. What's more, he's refusing to take our roles as interviewer and interviewee seriously. He just wants to have a chat, asking me if I've seen all the new pictures of Princess Diana in the paper and if I know where they came from. Also, I'm taking notes to back up my recording, and this is upsetting him. "What are you writing?" I tell him I'm noting what he's saying. He seems to find this absurd, but allows me to continue. "As long as you're not describing me."

The best description of Douglas Coupland is by the author himself in the novel JPod, where he depicts himself as having eyes that look like "wells filled with drowned toddlers". Of course, this is the fictional version of Coupland (in the novel he hints to the main character that he has a body to dispose of), and at the time it seemed like this evil version of himself was intended as a deliberate contrast with the more lovable Doug who wrote the early books and is worshipped by a fan-base who drive great distances for his readings (which are more like one-man comedy shows than the usual stilted events) and have been visiting his website ever since the author established himself as an early internet presence. But his last two novels, JPod and this month's The Gum Thief, to my mind far and away the best novels he's ever written, have seemed like exactly the sort of books an "evil" novelist might write.

While JPod was a semi-sequel to Microserfs, with Coupland examining how the lives of computer workers are different in the early 21st century to how they were in the mid-1990s, The Gum Thief is deliberately lo-tech. Initially the novel seems to depict the existence of a group of workers at a Staples stationary store, which must be the most explicit objective correlative for a blocked novelist since the blank page of Melville's white whale. But it soon turns into an example of old-fashioned postmodernism, a meta-narrative that features so many writers (amateur and professional) that you aren't sure exactly who is telling the tale until the final page.

Douglas Coupland recently wrote about how chocolate cured a seven-month period of writer's block. I was curious as to whether the two latest books had been written after the blocked period. But Coupland tells me he's "not talking about books". Worried about what else I'm going to do in an hour-long interview to promote his latest novel, I nervously glance at my notes and wonder whether it's time to ask him what he thought of The Simpsons Movie (he liked it). But while I've been shuffling papers, he's jumped up from his seat and gone over to shut the partition of our room in the hotel library so we're not disturbed by "the cackling of the geriatric Toby jugs" a few tables away. He tells me that he's extremely troubled by noise, especially the crinkling of paper as I tear off another sheet to continue transcribing.

Recent Coupland projects have included a sculptural exhibition constructed from 50 books that he's read more than once (from Quentin Crisp's The Naked Civil Servant to David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas), and a project where he chewed up his novels and wove them into beehives, with the intention of taking books out of "cultural time" and into "geological time". Given this artistic use of books, I ask him whether there's been a change in the process of his recent writing rather than the content.

He tells me that he has recently switched from writing at night to writing in the morning, and that his biggest regret in putting his art work on hold is that in hanging out with "word-people" he's lost a social decade. "I'm a visual thinker. Research tells us that only 20 per cent of people think visually. So what about the other 80 per cent? Don't they think in pictures? I mean if you imagine washing and preparing potatoes you visualise the process, right?" He shakes his head. "I shouldn't hang out with word people. I have no idea what they think. It's like critics. Hearing that critics have read my book is like hearing people on Mars have read my book. So what? Why are they the way they are?"

Coupland is frustrated by the fact that while all art critics are interested in the avant garde, and the division between mass culture and high culture was obliterated in the 1950s and 1960s, this isn't the case in literature. I ask him if he thinks there's anything that unites his readers as a social group. "They're Mac users. That's the main thing. At my event I ask who uses a Mac and everyone puts their hands up."

Although he tells me that he has no sense of nostalgia and thinks in technology cycles (greeting an old friend he once said, "I haven't seen you since eBay"), he says he fears that one day he'll wake up and see in the paper that "the book-killer" (an ebook that might achieve iPod-like ubiquity) has finally arrived. "We're 10 years away from the age of infinite memory and that's gotta be spooky. The future now feels like the future, we're caught in a change warp. But I'm pro-forwards. Do I want the Seventies to come back? No. The haircuts were terrible. Everyone stank. The food was awful."

What about the mid-Nineties, I ask, an era that in many ways Coupland helped to define. "I miss the silliness of the Nineties. What would society be like if 9/11 never happened? If that silliness was extended forever? It's interesting, living an hour and a half from the US border, how random and chaotic the US is right now. No one has a clue. It's being run by bandit special interest groups. It's going to get worse before it gets better."

And England? I ask. Are we going through the same problems? He considers this. "England's more cohesive. It's weird being here without Tony Blair. It's like the volume's turned down a bit. The pianist's taken a break and we can all breathe a sigh of relief." Given Coupland's sensitivity to noise, I understand exactly what he means.

The extract

The Gum Thief, By Douglas Coupland (Bloomsbury £10.99)

"...I had to take an English course in creative writing – it was hippie stuff like, 'Pretend you're a piece of toast being buttered. Write it from the toast's point of view.' All I remember from the course is everybody almost going insane having to wait until it was their turn to read their stuff out loud. And when people started reading their stuff, it was like they were taking the class hostage"

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