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How Chuck Klosterman Became a Downtown Owl

The Quentin Tarantino of letters discusses his first novel

By Jason Gargano · June 24th, 2009 · Lit

Chuck Klosterman is the Quentin Tarantino of letters. The guy can talk. Words fly from his mouth at an anxious, wildly accelerated rate, which is ironic given that his writing is distinct for its clear, razor-sharp voice.

Klosterman’s hilarious and oddly touching Heavy Metal memoir Fargo Rock City catapulted him from unknown newspaper journalist to Spin magazine staff writer seemingly overnight. (To wit: He went from interviewing Akron, Ohio, bowling league participants to U2 in a single bound.) Since then he’s published three more books of nonfiction (Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, Killing Yourself to Live and Chuck Klosterman IV) and has written about culture for Esquire and The New York Times Magazine, among various other writing endeavors.

His first novel, Downtown Owl, was released last year. Set in the fictional town of Owl, N.D., the story centers on three characters, each of whom rotate chapters written in their first-person voice: Mitch, a third-string quarterback on the high-school football team; Julia, a recent college grad and Milwaukee native who takes a job teaching history at the high school; and Horace, a lifelong Owl resident and recent retiree who spends his days swapping stories over coffee with five buddies at the local diner.

Speaking by phone from his apartment in New York City, Klosterman — via a nearly breathless 45-minute conversation — touches on everything from the state of the music and publishing industries to the reason he retired his Esquire column (“At one point I just felt like I was writing the exact same column every month, it’s just that the nouns were different”) to whether or not Kelly Clarkson’s latest album is available on vinyl.

But let’s stick to our discussion of Downtown Owl, which, like Klosterman’s nonfiction efforts, is informed by his keen sense of popular culture and incisive sense of humor.

CityBeat: Downtown Owl is set in a small North Dakota town during the early ’80s, which would lead most people to assume that much of it is autobiographical (Klosterman is from tiny Wyndmere, N.D.). Is that the case?
Chuck Klosterman: It’s actually less than people assume. I totally understand why people would assume that it would be the case, but it’s much more a composite of not just my town but also particularly the towns of people I went to college with, stories about what their town was like growing up.

I’ve never read a book about that period and that place. I always thought it’d be interesting as a reader to find a book about a place similar to where I grew up and set during a time that I find very interesting, because it was kind of before the acceleration of technology. So I wrote it — there was no other way it was going to exist (laughs).

CB: Given your penchant for pop-cultural riffing, were you concerned that some readers would be alienated if they were unfamiliar with certain references?
CK: I’m never going to write a book that a million people are going to read. In fact, my books, both the culture I talk about and the tone of them, have a limited audience, and that’s totally conscious. I have no desire to write a book that a million people will read, I guess. So if I put references in there that seem very specific that might eliminate a certain kind of person, it’s never a problem to me. In fact, in a way it kind of manages the size of (the audience) I’m writing for.

Some of my other books, like the nonfiction books, I get asked the question about cultural references. They’re like, “Well, OK, if you make a joke about a Pixies B-side song and one of your readers has never heard of the Pixies in general, isn’t that going to eliminate their enjoyment of the book?” The answer is, “Yes, I guess it is.” But I’m not doing that to eliminate people; I’m more or less trying appeal to the kind of person who does want what I do.

CB: I agree that any contemporary novel will and should be informed by popular culture — it’s an integral part of our lives and how we build our personas — but at what point does its use, especially in a self-referential way, take away from or impact the reader’s suspension of disbelief?
CK: I never disappear into a book, ever. I never read a book where I thought I wasn’t in reality. If I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I never thought I was in Narnia. So I never mind self-aware writing. I always know it’s a book. When someone says they were taken out of the story — I don’t know, I’m taken out of the story by the fact that I’m alive. It’s reality, you know?

CB: Well, I’m specifically thinking of something like when Julia, while teaching her class, says she feels like she’s listening to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, an album that she’s never even heard of. I think The New York Times review of the book said something along the lines that the reference said more about you than the character.
CK: When this book came out, particularly in New York, there was going to be a consensus about what was good about it and what was bad about it, which always happens here. And, weirdly, the complaint I saw about this book was that the characters and the action sounded too much like me, that the things the narrators were describing sounded too much like me. Well, of course, I fucking wrote it (laughs). I don’t know why it wouldn’t.

Typically, when I read a book I’m impressed if there is sort of a clear voice. There are things I have problems with in my writing, but I don’t think I have a problem with voice. I think the voice is pretty clear. It seems weird to me that someone would essentially say, “The problem with the book is that the author wrote it.” If that’s the criticism, it’s totally cool with me.

CB: One of the recurring themes in the book is your seeming fascination with bears. What’s up with that?
CK: I like animals that can kill me. I don’t have a cat or a dog or anything — I’m not interested in animals because they’re cute; I’m interested in animals that can kill me. My interests are with bears, tigers, lions, rhinos, elephants, hippos, things like that. I’m obsessed with big-game animals. Urban society, like New York, would be better if they released like 25 panthers in town. It would humble humanity. So when I’m walking home from the bar, I would always have to think to myself, “There could be a panther around here.”

CHUCK KLOSTERMAN discusses his debut novel, Downtown Owl, and other things at 7 p.m. Friday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers. Get details here.



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