interview by Markus Miessen
MARKUS MIESSEN Doug, when I say “pop,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
DOUGLAS COUPLAND Roy Lichtenstein’s Whaam!
MM What is pop’s legacy?
DC I see this huge schism between what’s allowed in visual culture and what’s allowed in written culture. In visual culture, you go from Pop to Povera to Minimalism to Nothingness and then back to the other side of the spectrum. An inability to, at least, consider these approaches is considered a mark of failure in the visual world. In the written world, nothing is allowed. I don’t mean minimalism; I mean nothing. Which is why the written world feels static, insular, and dead.
MM How does this surface in current cultural practice?
DC Galleries are more interesting than bookstores. The population in general wants to see what visual artists are doing and kind of wants to be pissed off—but also, as Warhol said, pissed on. I think younger visual artists are way too self-limiting because of the harshness of theoretical training in most of the schools. When I meet younger artists, they spend 80 percent of their time telling me what they can’t do and what’s not allowed. It depresses me. Do your fucking job and stop censoring yourselves. You’ll be dead soon. Live.
MM I write in order to share ideas or knowledge in order for those ideas to be hijacked, amended, or corrupted. How about you?
DC I write because there are these sensations and perceptions that come to me that can’t be externalized any other way. The same goes for everything I do. I can’t believe I, you, or anyone gets the gift of BEING ALIVE and doesn’t want to make the most of it.
MM From your experience of the late ’90s and early 2000s, what constitutes the biggest threat directed at society and coming from the internet?
DC It pretends to make young people unique and empowered when it’s actually making them generic and uniform. The “individual” was created by books printed using the phonetic alphabet. Individuals aren’t being made as much any more. Who knows—maybe too many individuals was bad for the planet.
MM How have your social relationships changed since the internet was created?
DC My relationships are more asynchronous and less urgent, but in a way that doesn’t spell the end of human contact. I feel more knitted into a community. It’s also been many years since I got a letter on paper. If somebody sent me one, it’d be pretty spooky. And you and I are having this wonderful discussion now over the Internet. That could never have happened even a few years ago.
MM Your work often champions the act of reading and storytelling as one of the few defenses we still have in a world drowning in information, driven by societies obsessed with consumer culture.
DC It didn’t start out as a deliberate campaign. It was only after a decade of writing that I connected the dots and saw the shape they were making. Now it’s a conscious thing. It’s also McLuhan 101, but looking for patterns is one of the few psychic strategies one can employ to preclude being alienated from the larger culture.
MM You have worked on numerous projects, ranging from written work to furniture design, large-scale installations and multimedia work. What differentiates the work processes of concentrating on a novel as opposed to an installation?
DC A Henry Moore retrospective makes my head feel the exact same way it does when I reread Joan Didion’s nonfiction or J. G. Ballard’s fiction. Suddenly, there are options and new ways of existing.
MM Would you agree if I claimed that the fact that you have a background in the visual arts makes you approach the production of a book in a more autonomous manner than a writer might usually have?
DC Last month I had a long talk with my doctor, who’s also a trained psychiatrist, and we decided that I have visual/verbal synesthesia. Which is to say, words and images are the same thing in my head—like that British guy, Daniel Tammet, who sees shapes and colors instead of numbers. A synesthesia diagnosis means that I don’t have to pretend that making something out of wood and writing a paragraph are different activities anymore. They’re the same in my head. I think it was really fucking me up for decades trying to pretend I was doing different things, and I dreaded that part of the interview when people asked how I juggle it all. It’s not juggling. It’s all the same thing.
MM Yes, it’s all one thing manifesting itself through different formats, voices, and species of communication. Do you write differently when you write fiction as opposed to non-fiction?
DC I have several non-fiction voices and every novel is a new experiment in voice and point of view. Non-fiction feels more like homework. Fiction allows me to enter emotional territory more quickly. I like that.
MM Do you tend to read a lot yourself? Do you have a preferred genre?
DC Fiction. I read a few hours a day now, and usually there’s a non-fiction book running
alongside. And I can’t sleep without reading fiction first.
MM At your house in Vancouver, you have an amazing archive—a world of the indexical and encyclopedic. How did you start this process of accumulating objects?
DC What one collects is a crystallization of one’s brain; there’s a lot of churn inside my brain, and so a lot of items emerge. But the thing about collecting is that when you start, you’re doing it instinctively, and as time goes on, you get a better sense of what you’re really hunting. I’ve trained myself to figure out very quickly what it is I want.
MM Most archives are divided into different sections of themes. How do you divide yours?
DC 1) Shape, 2) Color, 3) Pop, 4) Death and disaster.
MM What are the most challenging parts of the archive?
DC Showing as much of it as I can. I like looking at these crystallized ideas we call art and design objects. Every single time I see my Japanese plastic cleaning bottles, I get a hit of serotonin.
MM Does there have to be a spatial limit to it? You have two houses next to each other—one of which is almost entirely used as an archive. What will happen once you run out of space?
DC No idea. Space is expensive in Vancouver, even after the meltdown. And as I’m making more things, I’m needing more workspace, too.
MM When Steven Spielberg was working on Minority Report, he asked you to be involved as a future consultant. I wasn’t aware that this job even existed. How did you advise them?
DC Steven didn’t want a cliché future, but rather one that was plausible. So I had to ignore the glitzy stuff and ask questions like, Is the future quiet? What sort of pets will people have? Last week, I bought a “Grapple,” an apple that smells and tastes like purple grapes. That’s futuristic.
MM How has Ebay changed the way we live?
DC It has democratized curation and accumulation to an astonishing degree. Why oh why oh why has nobody ever done a show on this subject? It’s the best show of the decade waiting to happen.
MM How do you excite yourself to start something from scratch?
DC I don’t excite myself. It just happens. I don’t get cosmic about it. I love mass culture, pop culture, global culture, and “high” culture. Sooner rather than later, a synthesis is bound to emerge.
MM What are you working on at the moment?
DC I’m working on 4-hour mini-series called Extinction Event in which a group of characters has to endure a perpetual cycle of the end of the world in order to figure out why this is happening to them. I’m also doing something called the “Massey Lecture,” which is non-fiction and fiction combined. And finally there’s the next novel, called Survivor. The 5,000-word skeleton of the story appeared as a story in edition 31 of McSweeney’s.