Chuck Klosterman’s latest book is The Visible Man. It is told from the point of view of a therapist who is treating a man referred to only as Y___. Y___ has the ability to make himself unseen by wearing an invisibility cloak. He likes to observe the boring lives of others, sometimes for hours, or even days. He is obsessed with how others behave in private and visits the therapist to deal with his guilt issues over this quirky and intrusive hobby.
Klosterman has written seven books and is probably best known for the essay collection Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs. The Visible Man is his second novel.
We sat at a small table in the back of Aub Zam Zam, a bar on Haight Street in San Francisco, for about an hour, shortly before he was scheduled to read at Booksmith across the street.
Tony DuShane: The concept of The Visible Man is quite unique. I know one of the worst questions to ask a writer is where they get their ideas from. But in this case, I feel like it’s deserved. Where did you get your idea for your protagonist? Or is he an antagonist?
Chuck Klosterman: I suppose technically the lead character in this book is the antagonist, even though he’s the principle character. In the book there are no likable characters. The main character is self-absorbed, narcissistic, and controlling. The other central figure is his therapist; she had to be someone unintimidated by self-confidence and comfortable with guys who are kind of domineering. Both of the two main characters are “untraditional”; these are not the kinds of people about whom the reader can easily say, “I relate to this person.” I was told it would be a marketing problem, that people wouldn’t buy the book if they didn’t like the characters. But that really wasn’t what I was thinking about when I was writing it.
And writers shouldn’t be thinking about marketing when they’re writing.
When you do this for a living a part of it does become businesslike. It’s impossible not to get involved with the idea of how books sell and how books perform, because that allows you to have this neat life. There is a huge difference between writing and publishing. I write because I like to. And I publish in order to be able to keep writing for a living. After I’d written my first book, I had this idea for a novel. A lot of people told me that I couldn’t have a novel that’s both funny and sad because readers will feel betrayed. It wouldn’t work if they really enjoyed the book and then at the end it was tragic. As a reader all of my favorite books are like that. One person used the example of the book High Fidelity. He said, “Look at this Nick Hornby book, you’ll really love this character and he has all these problems and these confusing situations, but in the end everything works out.” That’s how it was at the time. I hadn’t had enough success to argue that I wanted my book to be different. I dropped the novel and ended up doing another essay collection. It was the first essay collection I published and that ended up being relatively successful, and now over time I’m in a position where I can write these books the way I want. There’s less pressure to sell them because there’s this idea that there’s already an existing audience, so they won’t tank. I’ll be able to sell enough to keep doing this.
Let’s get back to the creation of the character Y___ and how you came up with the idea of him becoming virtually invisible.
A couple of years ago I was teaching at the University of Leipzig in Germany. I was over there and working on my previous book at the time, it was called Eating the Dinosaur, an essay collection. Cultural essays. One of them was about time travel. So I decided to reread The Time Machine, a fundamental text by H.G. Wells. I ordered it from the European Amazon, and the way it was packaged, it was in one of those classic collections where it was both The Time Machine and The Invisible Man, also by H.G. Wells. So I decided to re-read both of those. I had read them in fifth or sixth grade. And when I read The Invisible Man as an adult, it was a much different experience. When you’re a kid, it’s the idea of someone being invisible—that’s amazing. But when you read it as an adult, the overwhelming element of the story is that the invisible man is a jerk. He’s just this completely self-absorbed, mean-spirited person and I thought to myself, This is kind of brilliant. What kind of person would have both the mental capacity to achieve invisibility, and the psychosis and lack of morality to watch people when they didn’t know they were being seen? It would have to be a very complex person, someone who is very problematic, someone who is smart enough and confused enough to be authentically dangerous. So that was where the idea started. It was rereading the original The Invisible Man and not really paying any attention to the story. In fact, having reread it, I barely even remember a lot of the details of the story. But I really remember the personality of the character. So I did a modern version of that.
I just lost my thought. I was too involved in your answer. I feel like a Jim Jarmusch film sometimes, where it’s just silence. Let’s contemplate that.
People are confused by silence.
I kind of love silence. I’ll just sit there and look at somebody and be okay with it.
I feel like I have been conditioned by society to be uncomfortable with silence at all times, that even if I’m just in a room with my wife, if we’re not talking it seems weird, I feel an obligation to create conversation. I don’t know why I do that.
My thought came back! It was interesting how the book business swayed you at the beginning. The publishing industry tends have all their ideas of what’s going to be hot in the next two years.
If you write a book like this they’re saying, “It’s going to be very difficult to get the support of people in marketing. It’s gonna be hard to get a guy, the buyer at Barnes and Noble in Omaha. He’ll get a galley of this book and he’s going to perceive it as something. Even if he likes it, his first thought may be, ‘Well, this is not going to work with Joe Six-pack or Jane Twelve-pack or whoever.’” I was younger at the time. I guess I could have fought them on it, but at the same time I was also more emotionally flexible about things. Like when they said “This will be tough,” I said I’d do this essay collection instead. I was just so happy to be able to be writing books. It seemed so unbelievable to me, that I had gotten into that position. It still seems so strange.
So, you had this collection of essays in the early going. Were you writing for literary journals? Is that how it happened at the outset?
Well, what happened was I worked in newspapers. I’m from North Dakota, and I got a job at the newspaper in Fargo in 1994 and worked there for four years. Then I got at job at the Akron Beacon Journal in Ohio, and it was a bigger paper and had a union. So I was making twice as much money. For the first time in my life I could own a computer. And, well, what do you do when you move to a city where you know no one and have no friends and you have a computer? You start writing a book. I wrote a book that I initially assumed would be an academic book about the relationship between heavy metal music and the rural Midwest, particularly during the 1980s. Because at the time—this was 1998—the idea of writing a book about heavy metal was just nuts. It’s just so different now, as the ‘80s have been re-embraced by people and there are bands out there like The Darkness. Nowadays, Motley Crue puts an oral history out and it’s a huge seller, greeted with all this love and nostalgia. In ’98 no one felt that way. I knew all these people who listened to Guns ‘n’ Roses and Kiss and Bon Jovi and lied about it. They said they listened to The Cure. People would actually lie about their past. So I figured the only way I could do a heavy metal book was to maybe do it academically.
So I wrote about a 150 pages. Didn’t have a Master’s degree or anything, but I had a perception of what academic writing was, and I sent it to some academic presses, Harvard University Press and Duke University, and so on. I got this letter from a woman at the press at Columbia in New York. I owe this woman so much money. She wrote me a rejection letter that said, “We can’t publish this book for two reasons. One, you swear too much and this is an academic journal and there’s no way I can get this by people.” And the other thing she said was that the most interesting parts of the book were when I wrote about my own personal experiences. I was doing that out of necessity—at the time there was no real precedent for writing about Tesla and Ratt and such, so I had to use my friends as examples. She said, “You should do that.”
And so then I wrote another 100 pages, along with some pages of straight memoir, and I mixed the two things up and that became the book that came out in 2001. And when it came out it didn’t sell like crazy, but it seemed like everyone who read it was a rock critic, and I ended up getting hired by Spin magazine. I moved to New York in 2002. That’s when I wrote the essay collection Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, which is the only thing I’ve done in life that really was, I suppose, irrefutably successful. It has sold more than all the other books combined. That’s sort of when things really changed.
So you’re living in various places around the Midwest and then you make the jump to New York. What was that like for you?
Before I moved to New York, I had only been there twice. I had been there once to cover the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Induction Ceremony when I was working at the Akron Beacon Journal. And then another time to meet my editor when Fargo Rock City was coming out. I immediately felt more comfortable there than anywhere else I’d ever lived. It just sort of proves that I’m a weird person, because everyone in New York is crazy and it just felt completely normal to me. It’s like living in a different country where they speak English. It’s so unlike the rest of America. I guess San Francisco is somewhat similar in that way too, but at least in San Francisco people drive. In New York nobody drives, so if you’re raised in New York you have this idea that you’re living in this place where there’s public transportation and diversity and the ability to get whatever you want at any time. It’s just a very different place. Where did you grow up?
I grew up here [in San Francisco], so I can’t even fathom living outside of a city. I was married to a woman from Wisconsin, and we visited her town. It was beautiful, but if I had to live there I would kill myself.
I came from a town of 500 people and actually lived outside of that town on a farm. I would watch television and see New York, L.A. and Chicago. These were obviously not real depictions of those places. I’d watch Perfect Strangers, and it was set in Chicago. It didn’t really show me what Chicago was like, but I knew what it looked like. I knew what the apartments were like, the cliché city problems. I knew what life was like in Fargo, and I knew what life was like in Minneapolis. I don’t know if people can go the other way, from city to country. I’m always shocked by how exotic North Dakota seems to people in New York when I talk about growing up there. They almost seem to think I’m from Russia or something. They’re so shocked by it.
And what about international travel? How long were you in Germany?
Four months. In Leipzig. Which is in East Germany. I really overlooked the difficulty of moving to a foreign country alone. In East Germany, for the older people, their second language is Russian. So I could teach a class in the American Studies program very easily, as all the students spoke fluent English. But I couldn’t mail a letter because no one at the post office understood me. It was isolating.
You’re married now. You have obligations beyond your art. Do you ever look back fondly on your experiences as a single guy, when solitude was easier to come by?
‘Fondly’ is a weird way of saying it, because I would never do it again. I hated it while I was in Germany. I mean, I’m very glad that I went over there, had that experience. I know a lot of people who have traveled abroad, and it seemed like half the staff at Spin had lived in Ireland or somewhere for a year. What I really primarily do is I write about the popular culture of America, so it seemed like a mistake to have only lived in America. I thought it would be valuable to view the country from a distance, through the prism of people who see America so totally differently than we do.
Yes, I am. My dad was German and my mom was Polish, but I never felt any real relationship to that. There’s no aspect of my personality that’s Germanic or Polish as far as I can tell. I did spend this time in Germany, but that was totally coincidental. If I had I been asked by Sweden to teach, I’d have gone to Stockholm. It wasn’t any attempt to get in touch with my roots. I’ve never been interested in genealogy. Not really sure why. I’ve always felt at odds with this idea that you’re a product of the past. It doesn’t seem real to me. I know that I have the DNA of my parents, and that the DNA goes back to Europe and all these things. And there are probably certain core qualities in me that I don’t realize I have and maybe other people see. But it doesn’t seem real somehow. I feel like I have no relationship to any past before my life. My life is when existence begins for me.
How do you deal on a day-to-day basis? Are you good at staying present? Are you a worrier? Do you reminisce about the past a lot?
You know, people always talk about living in the present. I feel like I never do. I feel like I live exclusively in the past and the future. I like to think about things that have happened. I wonder about what’s going to happen next. But I don’t have a high degree of awareness when it comes to the present. Even as I’m talking to you now, I find myself wondering about this book reading I’m going to do in an hour, and I also find myself thinking about describing this interview to other people when I get back to New York. It’s very weird. I almost feel as though I’m talking to you, but I’m watching myself talk to you in the future, like I’m watching a film of this later. I don’t know why that is. I often feel that way. I often feel like I’m having conversations with people and it seems like journalism to me, even though it’s not, even though I’m just living. I feel like I’m talking to them and then somehow attempting to interview them for a story that’s going to someday exist. I guess it’s good I went into journalism.
As you answered that question I envisioned you writing a piece about it later.
I guess it’s maybe the kind of stoner lifestyle I lead or something, but I spend a lot of time thinking about reality. And I know that seems like something you’re supposed to get done thinking about when you’re, like, 16 or 17, but I’ve never stopped. The main thing I think about is: What is real? What is reality? What is happening? I’m constantly aware of how perception colors reality. The way you and I describe this encounter later on is ultimately going to be more real than what’s happening right now. The one X factor being that you’re taping it, so we’ll have a record of what’s really happening. But even outside of that record it’s going to be my memory of the event and your memory of the event. I will describe you to other people, you may describe me to other people and those descriptions will end up becoming truer and truer over time.
It’s like when you ask somebody: What’s your best memory from 7th grade? Very often the person will know immediately and will start telling you. But they’ve thought about this story a lot. It’s their best memory. So what they’re really remembering is the last time they told this story and the previous times they told it. And the event is no longer anything except a way for them to recreate this memory in different iterations over time. I find that to be a very disturbing part of life. I think it’s a really weird thing that so much of what we believe to have happened is this thing we constructed because we have no ability to really remember what happened.
We’ll do this interview and tomorrow it’ll be like it never happened. I’ll have the archive and then I’ll start editing it, but for some reason the reality will be gone. No idea why.
I was on a plane today. I was in Portland yesterday, and I’m flying in to San Francisco earlier today, and I’m looking out the window and I’m seeing the city. I see the bridges and stuff as we’re coming in. I’m thinking to myself, I’ve been here three or four times. And I was trying to piece together what happened while I was here, and of course some of the memories get combined and it’s like, Did that happen the first time or the last time or was that a different trip entirely? Did that actually happen in Seattle? And I was like, wow, here’s this major cosmopolitan city that I’ve managed to visit on either three or four occasions, it’s kind of a meaningful thing. And I can’t remember it. You know, in the 18th century the idea of going from New York to San Francisco would be, like, the one thing big you did in your life. And here it’s happened a bunch of times and I can’t even remember what I did or why I was there. It depresses me.
Do you feel like we’re bombarded with too much information these days? Maybe this is what makes things so hard to retain.
Well, that’s absolutely true. There’s no question. When people talk about acceleration of culture, what they’re really talking about is the idea that we’re experiencing so many different slices of culture simultaneously. It’s almost like Phil Spector’s wall of sound or something, where it feels like one experience but it’s actually all of these miniature experiences combined. We don’t really think about any of them.
So let’s get back to your book. Did you have a full name for Y___ in your head?
No. What actually happened was, I knew I wanted it to be one letter with an underscore. But it was an extremely difficult letter to pick. Many letters have already been used. V has been used by Thomas Pynchon, K has been used by Kafka. Plus, with K___, my name is Klosterman, so people would think I was referring to myself. Same goes for C___.
At one point I was using M___, because in a lot of old French novels that’s how they referred to Mister. But I finally ended up using Y___ for two reasons. One, it’s a word as well as a letter. Two, because as far as I can tell there’s no pre-existing name that people relate to when they see the word Y___. They don’t immediately think Yiore or Yale or anything like that. It’s a rarely used letter. I guess I felt that if readers were going to put any kind of meaning into it, I wanted it to be their own.
It usually drives me absolutely nuts when someone uses an initial as a character’s name in a book, but with The Visible Man it felt right. Consistent with the premise of the book.
You know, it is interesting; I used to hate that, too. I remember reading Kafka’s The Trial in college, and I remember thinking it was so weird that he was using the letter K. To me it seemed too overt, the fact that he would actually refer to himself. I remember not liking it. It’s strange sometimes how things that you don’t like about other people’s writing, you very often adopt as your own.
I remember when I was young, being frustrated or annoyed by the use of footnotes. And now I use them constantly and I love them. There aren’t a lot of footnotes in this particular novel, but a lot of my essays are loaded with them. I suppose at some point I go from being annoyed by something to dwelling on it. I kind of dwell on my annoyance and end up changing my thinking 180 degrees.
My favorite character that Y___ observes while he’s invisible is the stoner woman, the over-eater who obsessively exercises. Was she a fun character to create?
It was fun. That was the first character that I really thought about in terms of who he would observe. And I thought, I’m going to take this situation where someone is living a static and very unhealthy life, smoking pot constantly in order to eat food gluttonously, and then they’ll work out every other minute in order to sort of be normal. This is a person who is trapped in her life, yet also happy. Someone who enjoys smoking pot and enjoys eating and who will put up with the work involved with the exercise in order to live that kind of life. From the outside looking in, you might think, this is awful, this is terrible. But to me, as I’ve grown older, I’ve found that I’m much less judgmental about what constitutes a “good life.”
I have a lot of self-esteem issues, especially when it comes to my work. Especially with novels, they never feel done. How do you get through that?
The idea of self-loathing is often applied to writers, musicians, filmmakers, and artists. In all likelihood it should just be applied to humans, generally. There are things about yourself that you like and things about yourself that you hate, and that’s probably natural. But of course criticisms always seem more real than compliments. But, like, what if you fix air conditioners for a living? Can you self-loathingly install an air conditioner?
When young writers ask for advice, the one thing I always tell them is to make sure that they’re comfortable with the product, that they feel good about it. Because in thirty or forty years they’re going be the only person who cares. Unless you’re J.D. Salinger or something and the book lives forever. Even if you have a book that is huge, like Jonathan Livingston Seagull. This was a huge book in the 70′s, and nobody’s really reading it anymore, nobody’s really talking about it. If they make a reference to it, it’s the way I just did as a sort of an example of something once famous. But to the author, it’s still important. My books will always be important to me, even after they’re totally forgotten by everyone else. At some point it’s just going be a book on the shelf that only I care about. So, if I’m not happy with it, eventually no one will be.