Few writers are able to capture our collective obsession with pop culture with as much bite as Chuck Klosterman. The North Dakota native has sharpened his piercing wit with gigs at Spin, Esquire, and, more recently, Grantland, and he's the author of several non-fiction collections including Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto and Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural Nörth Daköta. He just published his second novel, The Visible Man, about a psychiatrist who becomes increasingly entangled with a patient who can't be seen. It's an interesting departure from his usual, non-fiction subject matter, and he'll be reading and discussing the book tomorrow night at a special event presented by WORD bookstore at Public Assembly. We spent a few minutes talking to Klosterman about his book, the future of journalism, and why he left Manhattan for Brooklyn.
I couldn't help but notice that you have a New York area code. Yeah.
Are you here full time? Yeah.
I don't think I realized that because it seems like you're always traveling all over the place. I moved here in 2002. From 2002 to 2005 I worked for Spin. I guess, now that I think of it, I could've been working anywhere. Yeah. I moved out of North Dakota in '98, then I moved to Ohio and I was there for four years, then I moved here. I live in Brooklyn now. So I guess I'm no longer in Gotham. Am I technically in Gotham?
I think you're still definitely within the jurisdiction of Gotham. So if something bad happened I could technically still be helped by Batman?
Hopefully! I'll start by talking about your new book a little bit. I'm curious why you wanted to tackle invisibility. There have been a lot of books and movies and stories about invisibility. What attracted you to it? Well, it isn't so much about the concept of invisibility. I mean that's obviously a huge part of the book, but it wasn't like I was particularly interested in that superpower. I was sort of interested in the idea of how people live when they're by themselves, what part of people's personalities are constructed and in order to have someone observe someone by themselves, they have to be invisible. So, it wasn't so much like I started with invisibility and went on from there. I probably started with the idea and in order to a address the idea I need an invisible person.
Interesting, okay. So what would you personally do if you were invisible? Hm. I guess I would be interested in watching the argument that my friends have who are in couples. I'm curious to compare and contrast my other friends with my wife and me.
This is your second novel and I'm curious how you go from writing non-fiction for years to fiction. Well, everyone always asks that and I totally understand the question. I'm sure if I had written fiction first and then started writing nonfiction I'd get the same question in reverse. It's different, but not totally different to me. Like, I write fiction a little slow. It takes a little more time. It's a little more creatively exhaustive. But it's certainly more similar than different. The difference between writing fiction and writing nonfiction isn't as big a gap as say, writing fiction or moving furniture [laughs]. You know, the process is not totally alien from each other.
Why make the switch? What attracted you to writing fiction? Sometimes it's just things that you wanna write about that you can't in nonfiction because the conversation you want to create and the events you want to examine don't happen in real life. That's the thing. You write nonfiction what you're basically doing is reacting to the world. You're looking at the world and reacting to what people are doing and what people are saying within it. But of course you're limited by reality. You can't just have someone say something that's interesting if they elect not to. So when you write fiction you just have compete control. If I write an essay, anything I put in that essay is going to be tied directly to me. I can't just write anything as a thought or idea that people aren't going to perceive as my specific worldview. Whereas in fiction, I can have characters say things I find interesting even if I don't necessarily agree with it.
You're described a lot of times as this master of pop culture and this analyst of all these things that happen in real life. It seems like you have this uncanny ability to digest what happens in the world and spit it back out at us in an entertaining way. That's very nice of you to say, I appreciate that.
This doesn't have anything to do with your book, but I've always wondered how one reaches that point. Do you think that you ingest pop culture differently than Average Joe in the back row? Are you always analyzing or does it come later? Well, the honest answer is I have no idea because I don't know what other people's experience is like. I don't operate like this, I don't operate in a way like, "Alright I'm going to watch this television show at eight o'clock just for escapist entertainment and then at nine o'clock I'm going to watch it like a critic and I'm going to turn it up and look for subtext in everything and put it into context."
It doesn't really work that way. I kind of watch both the same way, and then if one is more interesting than the other then that's the one I write about. To me it's a very natural thing, you know. It almost seems problematic to me if I were to try to each things different than the average person. Because then when the average person reads my analysis it's going to seem very dissociated. So I don't know how other people watch things and listen to music. To me, that would be the ultimate thing to find out. What if everyone is hearing songs differently? I don't mean just listening to them differently, but what if they literally sound different to every single person. How would we ever know? We'd never know that.
Well, it's good to know you're not sitting there taking notes one everything going on around you constantly. You do cover so much. I've been following Grantland with some curiosity for the past couple months. How did you got involved with that and sports writing as a whole? Well, sports writing was actually the very first thing I ever did. When I was in college, that's how I began kind of professionally, as a sportswriter. So in some ways, it's the very first thing I did. I kind of fell into culture writing at my first newspaper job in 1994. The thing with Grantland was last summer, the summer of 2010, Bill Simmons said that he wanted to talk to me and wanted to know if wanted to go to an NBA finals game in Boston. So I went just assuming that he was making the offer but then we ended up having this meeting where he said he had this vision to start this site and he wanted to know if I'd be willing to be involved. It seemed way off in the distance, it didn't seem close to happening so I was like, "Sure, why not? Seems fun." He basically said that I would write whatever I would write for any other publications, but it would all be in one spot. That kind of seemed like a way to get some other writers I liked to get involved. And then for nine months it was just an idea, and then all of a sudden it became a reality. I guess it was one of these things that was really gradual until it was there.
Do you like writing long format pieces? Yeah, I do. I think most writers do probably. It was odd because say 20 or 30 years ago, it was just assumed that if you wanted to be a writer, you would write longer complicated pieces. It's only in the recent past where the idea of being able to write super short and packing a lot of humor in one idea really fast. That's sort of a post-2000 thing when blogging became so popular and the emphasis shifted away from long form writing. So the thing with Grantland is it's kind of the attempt to see if this will work. Is it possible to have a site where the stories are like regularly between four and five thousand words? Nobody knows if people want that.
At Gothamist we just tried out our first long-format piece and it went over well. I have a friend who has a theory that in the next couple years all our information will be either extremely short format, like Twitter or extremely long format, like Grantland. That seems to already be happening. My prediction: I think in the next five years that something is going to come along that's going to be an even shorter version than Twitter. I think it's going to be a ten-character thing. Its going to be like twitter but there will only be ten characters and the idea will be you will just basically write what you're commenting on and basic reaction. You'll just write, "30 Rock. Underwhelmed." Because here's the deal, every kind of media like this, as people use it, gets smaller and smaller and smaller. And the thing is, people sort of like that more to a degree because 1) it allows anyone to do it. A lot of people would not have felt comfortable writing and article. Then some people thought, "Well, I couldn't write an article, but I could write a blog post," and then it was down to just a tweet and very few people feel uncomfortable with that. But if it were even shorter, where there was actually no emphasis whatsoever on sentence construction or the level or humor, all you're basically doing is saying this is the content and this is my take on it. I think people would love that.
Do you think you could do that? You who write these 5000 word articles and these novels and these collections of short stories. Well, could I do it? I know I could do it, but would I like it? I'm not so sure. But I mean, that's the thing, anyone can do it. I remember before I got on Twitter, I would talk to people who were already on Twitter and I would say, "I don't know, it doesn't really interest me," and they would say, "I don't think you get Twitter, you're not getting this." Well what's to get? You write sentence about something and you hit a button. It was very easy to get, it was just something I didn't think I would like. And now that I'm on it, I still don't' know if I like it, but it seems impossible to avoid it. The big upside to it is it always changes. So if I'm bored, I might check my email and maybe nobody's sent me anything. But I know twitter has changed, even if I looked at it 30 seconds ago I know if I check again, it'll be different. That's sort of its underlying success—it's never static.
For my last questions, I'm going to switch back to Brooklyn because Gothamist is a New York centric publication and yes, Brooklyn does fall under the Gotham umbrella. So, what neighborhood do you live in? Um, I think it's Boerum Hill.
Oh, do you live in that weird intersection of BoCoCa? Well, no, it's sort of like I live pretty close to Carroll Gardens but I don't live in Carroll Gardens. I'm like closer to Manhattan, so think it might be Boerum Hill. I'm not sure what qualities I like about it; I don't know what the qualities of Boerum Hill are supposed to be. I've only lived in Brooklyn since January.
That was actually going to be my next question: why Brooklyn? I lived in Manhattan from when I moved here and I really liked it, but all my friends moved on here and then over time it seems to be a more reasonable place to live when you're like, 39-years-old. I don't know why, it just does. The thing was, living in Manhattan, at the end of my period there; I wasn't really utilizing the fact that I was in Manhattan. I wasn't going out in the Lower East Side till three in the morning. It was happening so rarely it didn't seem like it was worth it. I was just spending more and more time at home. In Brooklyn, it's easier to have a nice home for what you pay.
Any favorite neighborhood spots you'd like to recommend to the masses for general ways to spend your money? Food, shopping? No way! I wouldn't want tot tell anybody the places I go. I already got to worry about them being too full. I always think it's interesting when people are talking about the restaurants and bars they like to go to. The only result of that would be more people going.
Don't you want to make sure the places you like going to remain in business? I mean, I don't know. Yeah of course, but I suppose if they go bankrupt I'll look back on this interview and I'll be like, "Oh man, I really blew that opportunity." But I don't think I have that much power over the consuming base of New York that if I mentioned some place that they're suddenly going to avoid bankruptcy.
Okay, well we'll see. Six months from now we'll revisit this and see who's still up and running. [Laughs.]
You've got this event on Wednesday and I know you've done a lot of public speaking, but do you still get nervous in front of crowds? Yeah, you always get nervous a little bit. You always get nervous that no one's going to come. I have the event on Wednesday, then I'm doing one at Barnes and Noble at Astor Place on Thursday. And in both situations the main thing that will concern is that I will show up and no one will be there. Because then it's a little disappointing and it's also difficult. It's very easy to give a speech to a large crowd, because if you say one thing that's even marginally funny but there's a lot of people there, even just a smattering of giggling seems like laughter.
The toughest book readings to do are when there are six people because then you never know what to do. Do you just sit down and have a conversation with the six people or do you still do the actual book reading? Because the fact of the matter is, if only six or ten people show up they're authentically interested in a thing that not many people care about. In many ways they deserve the book reading, but it seems very odd to do it then because you feel kind of strange. It's kind of like being a stand up comedian in an empty room. Or you're in a band in a bar that's totally empty. It's just weird feeling to it. But you actually need to care more because those people are your realest fans or whatever. At this point when I give readings, some people do come, so I shouldn't be worried about it, and I always am. And of course you're always worried you'll say something idiotic or be boring. The challenge is not to bore anybody.