Books by Douglas Coupland:
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Though he's the first to play it down, Douglas Coupland has been blazing literary and cultural paths since the publication of his first book, Generation X, in 1991. "I just see the world the way I see it," Coupland shrugs when asked if the generation-defining career course he set for himself has brought any pressure. "It's just kind of the twisted way I look at the world."
Those twists have led to a string of bestsellers and, perhaps more importantly, a series of Coupland-created lenses through which many of us have viewed our world.
For someone who has created dystopic fictional microcosms with a style that has sometimes verged on the precocious, Coupland seems surprisingly even, modest and -- dare I say it? -- normal. The kind of figure he cuts wouldn't raise your head in a crowd: average height, average build, average mien. Soft-spoken and with a politeness that underlines his nationality, the things Douglas Coupland says demand more attention than the way he says them.
This is not true, however, of his latest book. In City of Glass: Douglas Coupland's Vancouver, Coupland's strong connection with design is as apparent as the words he chooses to share. An unofficial take on the city where his "memories start," City of Glass is a fast-paced tour with an alphabetized organization that includes sections on Beads & Granola, Couples, Dim Sum, Expo 86, Fleece (as in Polar), Greenpeace, Hemp and Japanese Slackers, to name only some of the entries between B and J. Says Coupland, "a lot of the things we take for granted here are just wanton to the rest of the world."
The book is illustrated with photographs that have as little to do with the tourist board as Coupland's take and vision. None of the photographs are by fellow-Vancouverite Jeff Wall, a photographer whose flatly lit and unlovely outdoor scenes have defined an international photographic movement, but Wall's influence can be felt, nonetheless. While photos have been culled from a number of local and historical sources, the work of Vancouver photog Una Knox features prominently in City of Glass. Unfinished houses on hillsides, stacks of shipping containers, the "yellow piles" (sulfur) in Burrard Inlet, a big sky cut by power lines and the tops of light standards. Knox' work, like Coupland's own, is understated and darkly humorous. That is to say, in both cases, the humor is deep and very much there, but you might have to work a bit to find it.
"Vancouver is a port city," Coupland writes in a section called Main & Hastings, "Heroin is a given. The corner of Main and Hastings is in the poorest postal code in Canada and is home to untold social ills, not the least of which is smack. Adding to its weirdness is its close proximity to perky, cruise-liner friendly Gastown, and to fastidious Chinatown." Clearly not your tourist board-approved prose. Nor is City of Glass all tongue in cheek or I'm-cooler-than-thou. Sometimes when you least expect it, Coupland waxes downright poetic on the undeniable beauty of the quirky place he calls home. In a section on nearby Grouse Mountain, Coupland writes that "the air is thin, the view is spectacular, and the presence of something holy is always just a breath and a glance away, off in the hinterlands."
Now 39, Coupland makes his home in the toney Vancouver suburb of West Vancouver not far, in fact, from said hinterlands.
Douglas Coupland: Let me ask you a question. You're from Vancouver, right? How does the book relate to your experience?
Linda Richards: You could tell City of Glass was written by someone who was from Vancouver, as opposed to someone who had been here for a long time. I know you weren't born here, but you are a Vancouverite.
My memory starts here. Yeah.
And I was actually born here.
Wow. VGH [Vancouver General Hospital]?
No. St. Paul's.
There's not many of you, are there? [Laughs]
So yes: the book is a fun tour guide. But, you define it.
Well, you know Scott? McIntyre?
OK. Well, he's a friend and he's been saying: You should do a Vancouver book, you should do a Vancouver book. For -- oh God -- four or five years now? Almost to the point where: Oh, God it's Scott, gotta run. And then a year ago I worked with Judith Steepman, she's a designer here. She was doing a show catalog for an exhibition that was down at the Charles H. Scott Gallery at Emily Carr [School of Art and Design] and that is subsequently traveling. It's going to Holland, I think. So what happened was, in the catalog she worked in a really distinct visual-type vernacular and I sort of said: Oh, that's what it should look like.
Then about eight months ago I was just deluged with visitors. They'd be coming in waves for whatever reason. And I really, well it was feeling like Groundhog Day. Because the people that come to visit Vancouver that I know, they don't want to see totem poles or anything like that, really. They'll say: Oh, I've heard all about nude beaches, what's the deal? Or pot or... and some of these very elegant men and women would want to go right to the hash bars and stuff. [Laughs] I mean, a lot of the things we take for granted here are just... [hesitates while he pulls for the right word]... wanton to the rest of the word.
You mentioned the hemp stores [in the book] ...
And dwelling on the seedy here: You mean they don't have to wear nipple tassels? Like, no G-string? Are you serious? And I'm not telling who.
No, no: but where does the surprise come from? Like in relation to where?
Like in the States where it's all kind of mediated. But also: What's all that yellow stuff over on the North Shore? [Piles of sulfur in the Burrard Inlet.] I mean, you know the questions. You've heard them a million times. And I was just tired of being in a repeat mode. And I thought: Well, OK, there's the tone of voice. And there's the look. And so let's do the book. It was a really organic evolution. It just worked.
And it's like Douglas Coupland's ABC book. How did that aspect happen?
Well, we tried to isolate 50ish dimensions to Vancouver that are idiosyncratic to Vancouver. I mean, I don't think Feng Shui would be a category in a book about Winnipeg. You saw the categories: you know what they are. And then some of the pairings: we were doing two color pages [followed by] two black and white pages. That's the way it went. And I think there were some images we just couldn't run because of the way the pagination worked. There was no way to stretch it. But some of the pairings!
The other thing about non-fiction as opposed to fiction: it's a great book. Buy it: it's really cool. You don't have to get kind of cosmic about it? Which is new for me.
[He rifles through the book looking for something, stopping finally at two color pages: 88 and 89.] That spread. The cruise ship [on the left-hand page] has a log boom [in the foreground] and the log boom is the same color as the syringe packaging [on the right-hand page] and that the categories were Love Boats and Main & Hastings. There's that weird cruise culture that goes right up against the drug culture.
And sometimes they probably even intersect. [Laughs]
I don't know, I mean the cruise boat culture is pretty Tilley Endurable. I don't think there's much: Where can I get some fresh, yummy crack? I don't think you're going to hear that. [Laughs]
I was down in Gastown last night and you know what I noticed? The trees are really trees now. Remember when they went in in the 70s? They were like branches almost? Now they're trees. And it has not changed -- other than the trees -- Gastown remains impervious to aging or change.
I did a Web search on you before I came out today and it was pretty impossible to find anything of value simply because so many people quote you. So your name comes up a lot.
I never remember my quotes. Like, I'll say: Wow, that's really cool! I wish I'd said that. And someone will say: Well, actually, you did. [Laughs] OK. My memory is just turning into, like a cheesecloth. It's really scary.
It must be difficult because very early in your career you defined a generation.
Ten years ago now. Ten years ago March. [Generation] X came out.
Really? I thought longer ago.
No, it was March of 1991.
Does it feel longer ago to you? Or is it just me?
It feels like about 20 years. It really, really does. I mean, the 90s hadn't even happened then. And everyone thought it was going to be like a textureless decade. Like it somehow transcended texture? But no. We had grunge and we had the whole wired revolution. And grunge seems retro now: it's almost ready for revival. But it was exciting going down to Seattle ... on any weeknight and seeing these amazing bands that you couldn't believe they weren't huge and then the next week they were huge and then they were dead.
But has there been a lot of pressure on you because of Generation X? Or from the movement that resulted from the book.
I don't think so.
Do people look at you to perform, you know... I mean, they certainly do look at you for forecasting. People want to know what you're saying and thinking and writing about.
I just see the world the way I see it. It is idiosyncratic blends, it's not programmatic or systematic it's just the way I see things and, you know, that movie: I see dead people?
Yeah. Mine's like, I accidentally see things. And it's not necessarily the future, it's just kind of the twisted way I look at the world. It's been 10 years -- like 70 dog years -- since X. Really, high school seems like closer to here. Nothing very articulate.
That's because now you're over 30, so all of the memories that were worth having have already been had, right?
[Laughs] You're good! I remember saying that.
You said it in City of Glass. I read it yesterday, so don't be impressed. But that's a great story. I liked it.
Did you? I always liked it. Did I answer your question?
Yeah: I think you did. Because I'd asked if there's a lot of pressure being Douglas Coupland.
I live in Vancouver: there's no pressure. [Laughs] Everything I've done has always been really from a distance, geographically. Three days in Manhattan, I go crazy. A week in Toronto, I go crazy.
You don't see yourself leaving Vancouver?
As an aside, I'd like to live in London for six months. I want to do a house swap with someone, but how often does that happen?
It can happen.
Can you put that in your thing? "Looking for a house swap for six months."
OK: send us mail about Doug's house and we'll forward it along.
I love London! It's the only city -- other than Vancouver -- I'd like to live.
And it's so much bigger. But it's pretty civilized.
Yeah, because everything is three or four stories tall and it has villages connected by the tube and there's always something going on. Always. And it's always happening in your language: an added bonus. They seem to have skipped a lot of the homogenization that's gone on in North America. By which I mean, I use the example of driving through Fresno where there were 10 million orange trees in every direction and you stop at a diner and they serve you Florida concentrated orange juice. And I asked for fresh squeezed and it was like I was a communist or something. Like: Really? Why would you want that? We've got perfectly good frozen Florida orange juice here.
Are you working on anything now?
Yeah, yeah: this next book. I'm always working on something. I'm one of those people: I always wanted jobs. I grew up in the suburbs where the nearest anything was five miles away. So it was essentially rural that had gone suburban. I worked as a busboy at Ricky's Pancakes at Park Royal [Mall], now no longer there. Pat's Fine Dining. The Chevron Station up at Exit 7, for two years. I'm a car nut, or I used to be. I just loved jobs. I always liked working.
So it's about your work ethic?
I don't think so. No.
Wanted money to do stuff?
No. I just like the idea of doing stuff. I mean there's a really short distance between having an idea and implementing it. I think that comes from my Dad, with whom I have nothing in common except the fact that we both like to be occupied a lot. Like, he can't sit still. I can sort of sit still.
At least long enough to write stuff, anyway.
Oh yeah. But with writing, I mean you've talked to a million writers, you know. There's a discipline involved. You can't do it whenever the spirit just moves you, I mean you have to set aside X number of hours at a certain time every single day. Weekends included. Otherwise it's not going to happen. And I've also noticed, just in passing, that writers are either early birds or night owls. Again, I don't think I've ever met anyone who writes at three in the afternoon. And I'm a night owl. I think 75 per cent of writers are early birds, because there's that sort of freshness you get in the morning before the phone calls and the newspaper. | January 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of Death was the Other Woman.