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Miss Wyoming
Douglas Coupland
311 pp.



The Wag Chats with
Douglas Coupland

Douglas Coupland discusses the similarities between fiction and the visual arts and tells us why it doesn't bother him to be called a writer rather than a sculptor.

You've taken a somewhat unusual road to become a successful novelist: you started out as a sculptor, began writing to pay your studio fees and switched to fiction-writing at the age of twenty-eight.

Coupland: I finally this week figured out the gist of the switch (unfortunately the day after the tour ended), and you know what it is? In 1989 I suddenly saw words not just as words, but as art supplies. And that's when everything changed for me. I suppose Jenny Holzer was the biggest influence. And of course, Warhol.

WAG: I know you're busy promoting Miss Wyoming now—

Coupland: Actually, for the next week not at all.

WAG: But when you're at home, how does your day break down, roughly, among sculpture, furniture design and writing?

Coupland: I'm a night owl writer, and I do most work in the three hours before sleep. This leaves around thirteen extra hours to fill. Most of it vanishes, and I wish I knew where to. And as for the work part, well, it's not really work. It's not. It's what I do as much as a bird builds nests or ants anthills. And visual work doesn't touch the verbal nodes of my brain. So I'm always fresh to write come eleven p.m.

WAG: Do you consider yourself primarily a visual artist or a writer?

Coupland: Writer. I don't know about you, but I go through my life with 'subtitles' superimposed on everything I hear, see or say. For example, If I were to say out loud, "Jennifer, please pass me the salt," I'd actually see the words in front of me, as though my life were a foreign film. Visual art and gardening are two of the few means I know of turning off the subtitle switch. So yes, writer it is.

WAG: Do you believe there's a common thread between creating visual art and writing fiction?

Coupland: God yes. In my case the biggest crossover is the use of Pop culture in my work. It took me a good eight years to figure out this one. People have always been saying to me, "How Can you put Pop culture into your work? How can you do that?" My response has always been, "Well, how can I not put Pop culture into my work? It's what we live in. It circumscribes pretty well all aspects of North American middle class life." In the visual art world, high culture and Pop culture got married in about 1955. The marriage is only now happening in the literary world.

WAG: The Pop Art movement glorified the iconic images that drive American popular culture—

Coupland: I disagree! It made those images larger than life and shook us into awareness of their existence, but much of the work was deeply critical of the culture—critical in the critical theory sense.

WAG: —and the same affection for pop images of the late 1950s and 1960s can be seen in your furniture designs as well, I think.

Coupland: That I would agree with.

WAG: But Miss Wyoming seems to be more ambivalent about the role iconic images play in society—particularly as they are created and maintained in Hollywood (although the beauty pageant world doesn't come out sparkling either). One character in Miss Wyoming—an agent, no less—even says, "I don't want to be disloyal—they pay the bills...but how much more energy is it worth to make five grizzled Liverpudlians with teeth like melting sugar crystals look like sexual and moral outlaws for kids maybe two decades younger than themselves? It's obscene past a point." Is it somehow contradictory to revel in pop-culture icons (however ironically) while at the same time worrying about its 'man behind the curtain' deceptiveness?

Coupland: No.

WAG: While its storyline is straightforward, Miss Wyoming's narrative structure is rather complex, with a lot of flashbacks delivered out of chronological order. How did you approach it as a work-in-progress?

Coupland: The whole book was written longhand on scrap paper (a superstition of mine—phone bills, pizza flyers) and written forward only—no going back and inserting. I've always thought that was cheating. This is the first book in which no notes at all were employed in the writing process. Earlier books were in some sense quilted together from thousands of notes.

WAG: Did you let the narrative structure evolve freely as you wrote or did you map out the transitions before actually writing the individual sections?

Coupland: No mapping. Instinct only.

WAG: Is this how you usually approach a new novel?

Coupland: Nope. This was a first.

WAG: A character in Miss Wyoming says that each person, over the course of his lifetime, is "going to be four or five different people." Moments later, he adds "We're all ebbing away. All of us. I'm already looking backward. I'm already looking back at that Ryan that's saying these words." You yourself are noted for your willingness—perhaps need?—to change, at least as a novelist, from project to project.

Coupland: True. Willingness, not need.

WAG: Are you giving us some heart-felt philosophy in Ryan's voice?

Coupland: I never thought of it that way, but perhaps, yes. Again, it's the art school tradition—experiment with a new form, learn from it, then progress onto new forms. It's unshakable in me.

WAG: And doesn't this suggest at least one of the dangers of being a celebrity like Miss Wyoming's Susan Colgate?

Coupland: Hmmmmmm...No.

WAG: That is, doesn't it imply that the iconization process makes the celebrity so rigid and inflexible that they aren't allowed to grow naturally into fully mature adults?

Coupland: No way. People love a second act. And a third and fourth. I always thought that Fitzgerald quote about Americans having no second acts was hooey.

WAG: What about the average, unknown Joe or Jane: is having to play 'Dad' or 'Mom' equally constricting?

Coupland: Ask any parent—nobody plays at being Mom or Dad. It's too overwhelming an experience, and utterly unfakeable. It constricts, but it also liberates, and the liberation is far more often than not a far better trade.

WAG: For that matter, does it bother you to be popularly deemed a novelist rather than a sculptor or designer?

Coupland: I've never even thought of that until you asked it—no. Not at all. Being a novelist is a fine thing to be.

WAG: What advice would you give a young writer just starting out and wondering where to begin?

Coupland: Be gentle on yourself until around twenty-nine or thirty, and then, if you're really serious about writing fiction, attack if like a pit bull. Most novelists I've ever met were something else first. So don't be afraid of not writing for a few years. It won't leave you. Also: never schedule a book reading on Oscar night. It won't work.

—Interview conducted by Doug Childers

Posted March 1, 2000


Photo Credit: www.coupland.com

Douglas Coupland is the author of seven books, including his latest, Miss Wyoming. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he works as a designer and sculptor.



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