Monday, July 29, 2013

Chuck Klosterman, author of 'Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs,” riffs on villains, LSD and McNuggets

With shaggy auburn hair swirled around his bearded face, Klosterman looked a little like a grown-up Peter Brady. Despite his recent crossover to the bad side of forty, in his cable-knit sweater and jeans Klosterman could have passed as a young grad student. His footwear was, of course, black Converse and those shoes never stopped moving. In someone else that might have been a sign of nerves, but the author of “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs,” seemed at ease, if not brimming with energy. Klosterman gesticulated to add punch to his points, and moved around the podium as if in conversation with a few hundred of his closest friends.

Klosterman, author of five nonfiction books on popular culture, a few novels, and the “Ethicist” column in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, said he never reads his work to audiences, but usually free-forms his talks, expounding on pop culture and answering questions without a script. The winter evening he spoke at Butler, he said, would be an exception. His book, “The Black Hat,” a collection of essays that explores villainhood, was hot off the press, and he would read us the two pieces that bookend that work. But first, Klosterman spoke off-the-cuff.

“It's impossible to out weird me,” he said of the unusual audiences he tends to draw. As an example, he was once asked if he would rather have fingernails in place of hair, or vice versa. “For some reason,” he said, “I seem to get a lot of LSD users.” Once, he said, a clutch of acid-droppers showed up early to one of his talks. “It was at a bookstore, a great place to kill time—like a library without homeless people,” he quipped. But instead of perusing the shelves, the fans chose to fill the extra time by taking LSD. He looked up at us, grinned, and added, “I’ll bet that doesn’t happen to Rushdie.”

The ease and speed with which Klosterman conveyed his novel analysis of pop culture, both in his off-the-cuff remarks and in the essays he read from “Black Hat,” was dazzling—ideas cascaded rapidly like a column of carefully-spaced dominoes. My first inclination was to describe his delivery as a manic stream of consciousness, but Klosterman's remarks were measured, analytical and thoughtful. And just plain smart. He wasn't manic at all. He simply had an intense interest in pop culture and had a lot to say about it.

At the Q&A with creative writing students the next day, Klosterman shared some thoughts about craft.

On writing essays: “I take two things that are fundamentally dissimilar but have a unifying characteristic.”

On the three things that make writing good: “One,” he said, “be interesting.” The point is to show readers how to look at the world in a different way. “Two,” he said, “be entertaining.” One way to achieve this would be to organize the material of the piece to mirror what you’re writing about. “Three,” he said, “be clear.” This where he spends most of his time, making his sentences clearer and clearer with each pass.

On trying to capture the truth in writing and the problem of cliché: “True things tend to be clichés, and clichés tend to be true.” Klosterman tries to arrive at the clichéd truth from a different place so the principle seems clear in a way it didn’t before.

On how he deals with writers' block: “I assume it's part of the writing process and just assume it's going to happen.”

On process: “Ideas and thoughts are like balls of yarn in your head. Writing untangles this.”

On revision: “Don't get hung up on the idea that there must be multiple drafts for a piece to be successful.” Klosterman said that in the old days, using typewriters, the idea of drafts was real, but now he simply revises as he writes.

On his “Ethicist” column: When first approached about taking this on he first had to distinguish between etiquette and ethics. Answers to etiquette questions are either yes or no. Answers to questions concerning ethics are more complicated, more gray area.

On interviewing: “I think it's best to interview people at the beginning of their careers or at the end—they don't know or they don't care.” Two of his favorite interview subjects were musicians: Jeff Tweedy from the rock band Wilco and Bono, the face of U2. One of his least favorites was Mike Stipe, lead vocalist for the rock band R.E.M., who Klosterman found arrogant. When commenting on his famous Esquire Magazine interview with Brittany Spears, he said society couldn't reach a point of clarity about the pop star, as she had no insight into her fame or her life. When asked who he would like to interview, he listed Axl Rose, David Letterman, and Prince.

On reviewing: “It's easy to write good bad reviews but harder to write good good reviews.”

Klosterman on about pop culture. “People use culture to explain their lives to themselves.” The conversation naturally veered to social media. Referring to the heated, venomous posts sometimes seen on Facebook, he said, “Social media gives people a haven to be insane as it removes the possibility of others becoming violent as a result of something they've said.”

In Klosterman's meta essay on pop culture in Esquire, he wrote about Morgan Spurlock's documentary “Super Size Me.” Spurlock's 100% McDonald's diet had him vomiting by the second day. As he continued, his weight ballooned and his cholesterol skyrocketed. Klosterman embarked on his own McDonald's diet, eating only Chicken McNuggets for seven days and visiting the doctor at the start and the end. Klosterman found not only that his cholesterol stayed the same, but he lost eleven pounds, and so suspected Spurlock had begun his project wanting to show a specific outcome and may have falsified the results. “I hate it when people begin a project with a pre-ordained idea of what they are trying to do,” said Klosterman. The New York Times knew what they were doing when he nabbed Klosterman for the “Ethicist.” His insistence on honesty was as strong as his fascination with dissecting pop culture.

“People care way too much about what I say,” said Klosterman. “No one cared what I said before 1999, before (his breakout book) “Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs.” He spent time pondering the concept of popularity and concluded that, “The main thing that makes you popular is being popular.”

As Klosterman spoke I could almost hear the whir of his brain, his intensely curious mind, its gear stuck in overdrive. Which may explain the answer he gave when someone asked him if he could be any villain, which would he would be. “The Riddler,” he said. “I like the question marks.”

Want more? Check out Chris Speckman's excellent interview with Klosterman in the June issue of Booth, Butler's literary magazine.

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