The BULL Interview: Chuck Klosterman

The BULL Interview: Chuck Klosterman

Supplementing the full-length interview in BULL No. 1, Chuck talks about voyeurism, his latest book, The Visible Man, MFA programs and the future of publishing.


JYS: In The Visible Man, the title character wears a suit that renders him virtually invisible. I have to ask—would you put on the suit?

CK: Yes, I would.  Sure.

JYS: So would you, without legal consequences, go into people’s houses like this character did? We’ve been talking about perceptions of reality and wanting to get to the bottom of them, would you sneak into a house in order to discern reality from a front?

CK: I’ve always been interested in the lives of strangers. I’m very interested in a lot of my friends. So there’d be a real ethical quandary there. But at the end of the day, nothing is more interesting to me than the lives of my friends. If they want to go to the bar and just talk about what’s going on in their lives, I’ll sit there all night. If there’s someone I care about, there’s almost no detail of their situation that I’m not interested in. If they want to talk about high school, I’m always interested. So, if I had the ability to watch people, I’d want to watch my married friends and see what their relationships were like and if they were like my own.

JYS: Did you relate to the character then? He’s obviously unlikable, but did you somehow or another connect with him?

CK: He’s probably an amplification of the worst qualities of myself. And that kind of becomes the totality of the character.

JYS: It’s interesting because I think your voice comes out through your characters. I don’t mean that negatively—

CK: No, that’s great. I take that as a compliment.

JYS: Well, I feel like, in especially in your first novel, Downtown Owl, your voice was very strong throughout; it almost felt like nonfiction. But in The Visible Man, Y {the title character} sounded a lot like you. Did you wrestle with that?

CK: {pause} Okay. So, let’s say you take a creative writing class. You learn all of these characteristics of how to make your characters better, how to make your work better. And you’re going to practice. The one thing you cannot learn though, from anyone, is voice. It’s the most important and natural thing in writing. It’s an intangible talent that some people just have. And this is absolutely no credit to me, because I did nothing to achieve it, but I seem to have a natural voice. When people read my writing they seem to hear my voice. People who have never heard me talk will create a voice in their head and they will most of the time create a voice very close to my own.

That’s nonfiction, of course, and in fiction, for some people, that really gets in the way. Many people who didn’t like Downtown Owl thought all the people sounded like me. Well, I did fucking write it, so there you go. {laughs} I want the characters to represent the world in mind— these aren’t real people, I made them up, and they should talk the way I want people to talk. So I did this book {The Visible Man} and the main character does say things people could hear me say or things I might’ve said years ago. I think that a lot of the things the character believes are things that I believe. For some people, that might be a problem. They’ll say a novel’s created fiction, he should create different kinds of people, but I don’t know, that’s just part of it. You can only create books for the people who like them. It would be stupid of me to change my style for the people who won’t.

JYS: I found it funny that any criticism for Downtown Owl that I came across mentioned that there are these brief mentions of music or albums. I don’t know what they were expecting.

CK: Yeah. One thing that many people complained about was that the female teacher, at one point, talks about how she’s having an experience that relates to Metal Machine Music {by Lou Reed}, which is music she would have never heard. I’m not sure why that was problematic to people, besides the fact that I specifically wrote it. I think if someone else wrote that, someone who wasn’t associated with music or obsessing over the meaning of Lou Reed, or whatever, that would be an interesting detail. In a Lorrie Moore book that’d be an interesting detail. But because it’s me, specifically, people who are predisposed to disliking me are not going to like that because that’s definitely a detail I would write. But again, I want to write something that I would want to read. These allusions I make are things that I would think are cool.

JYS: Did all this make you anxious leading up to the release?

CK: It’s somewhat complicated by the existence of Grantland because it’s been so consuming. It launched in June and I was done with this book in December (of 2010). But also, this is my eighth book or whatever. The newness of the process has worn off. When I was waiting on my first book to come out it was probably the most excited I’ve ever been. My editor sent me the cover images and all of these things, and I was going crazy. I don’t feel that way now, it’s just how my life is.

JYS: It seems like you play around a lot with form, throw a lot of different things at the wall and see if they stick. In The Visible Man and Downtown Owl, especially—some chapters are just lists, others correspondence, and then there’s the scene in Downtown Owl where the teacher is talking and you go through each and every student in the classroom and tell us what they’re thinking at that exact moment. Is that an interest of yours, is it just accidental, or are you maybe trying to keep yourself entertained?

CK: A little bit of everything. It mainly has to do with the fact that when you write a book you have complete control over what structure is. I think a lot of writers fail to realize that, particularly writers who go through MFA programs or started their lives wanting to be another writer. I think a lot of writers feel like that, but I never have. They think that if you want to write a great novel you have to work under these conditions, and if you change the form too much then it’s becoming postmodern or gimmicky. But to me, I always think to myself, when I’m writing something, this is the one time in my life where I have complete control. I’ll come to a situation and wonder what the best, clearest, funniest way to do it is. And then I’ll do it, whether the form makes sense or not. A lot of people think I use footnotes too much, they assume I’m ripping off David Foster Wallace, and I certainly was influenced by him. I wasn’t influenced by the fact that he did it, but that this was something most books don’t have and it’s an easy way to get information, a lot of information, sometimes humorous information, across in the quickest way without interrupting text. Why wouldn’t I do it? It just seems like a more effective way to super-saturate content with ideas. And if I came up with another way to do that, I would add it as well. So the structural things I do that seem weird, or how in Downtown Owl I have these three characters talking and every once and awhile I’ll have a different character be the center, like the teacher or the kid who gets in fights, and I recall wondering if I could do it. And of course I could. No one was going to stop me.

JYS: I kind of agree with you about what you said about MFA writers. I’m one of them—

CK: I didn’t mean that offensively, so I hope you don’t take it that way. A lot of the time they go through these workshops and they’re motivated to give constant feedback. And a lot of the time they’re motivated to give feedback on the qualities that are most unique in writers’ work, whether positive or negative, and I do think it makes writing kind of the same. It pushes people to write in a way that’s unified with the class or its concepts.

JYS: It’s not an offense. I came out of the programs and I got the feeling that there’s a real risk of homogenization. For a while there all the literary fiction was similar and I think it’s led to a lot of boring writing. You said you don’t read a lot of novels—is that part of it?

CK: Yeah, well here’s the strange answer to that, but it’s truthful—if I read a bad nonfiction book, at least I got the information out of it. If I read a really poorly written book about—oh, I don’t know—the 1974 Kentucky Wildcats, and the book is terrible, and there aren’t any major factual errors, at least I learned something. If you read a bad novel, all you do is waste time. And if I start reading a novel and I’m not enjoying the experience, if it’s pure work and I feel like I’m doing something as an assignment, I’ll usually stop. I recently read that book The Imperfectionists (by Tom Rachman) and it was great. As I was reading it I was thinking, this is the kind of novel I would like to have written. I read it in one sitting, straight through, but for the most part I don’t read a lot of fiction. I like writing it more than reading it.

The thing is, I think this is pretty common. I have this conversation a lot. We’re in a nonfiction period right now, and by saying that, people will ask the first question you asked—why are you writing a novel?

JYS: Do you think the novel’s dying out then? Are we seeing its swan song?

CK: There will always be some form of it. Here’s my prediction—it’ll never be as secondary as poetry. There are just certain things about reading that are too central to culture, that are too integral. For instance, there’s a difference between saying someone’s “well-read” instead of saying they’re “smart”—there’s never going to be a period where someone doesn’t want to be described in that way. What worries me is that the culture of the publishing industry is really going to polarize what books exist and I feel like what’s happening with the industry is going to eliminate the middle class of writers. And so the only kind of people who are going to write books are going to be those who are already rich and can write a book without an advance, or whoever is the new Kafka who writes because he loves it and has to. We’ll be left with a thin sliver of masterpieces and memorable memoirs. Or thinly-veiled in a not-novel form. You know though, I would be really surprised if novels disappeared. Technology is the only thing that gets replaced. I can go online now and find whatever record there ever was. Records disappeared for awhile. If someone said to me in 1995, can you listen to the band Pato? I would’ve said, I don’t think so. But now you can. Records still exist, how could novels not?

JYS: I collect records myself and I think there’s something nicely antiquated about that form, books too. And I have friends who are writers and publishers and they have a very pessimistic view of the situation and say that the novel is going to die, newspapers are gone, we’re moving toward a text-less culture, but at the same time, it seems like culture revolves around text now.

CK: Here’s what’s going to happen—the novel is going to die in the way the album died. In the sense that it is going to die off for all the secondary people who made a living off it. Music has not really been harmed by the rise of the Internet. I was one of the people who thought it was because I thought culture would be splintered because we weren’t going to have these universal albums, and it sort of has, but it’s easier now to get a record made and get known than ever. And that’s because there isn’t a guy in a suit at Capitol records who decides that Radiohead needs new artwork or something. So people in the publishing industry are going to disappear. The first person will be the agents. They seem to be the ones most aware of how publishing is becoming more an online, easily-trackable venture and that the novel is going to lose its advance and be more on the royalty side, meaning the agents are going to have to pursue successful writers to survive. Unless I’m totally wrong about how young people view the world, and I totally could be, I think that’s how it’s going to work.

JYS: I still feel like we’re losing something music-wise. Probably the biggest album of the last five years was Suburbs by Arcade Fire, meaning it sort of gathered fans and critics in saying “this is a great album.” In books it was probably Freedom, by Franzen. Don’t we gain something by having these figureheads? Hemingway and Mailer used to be on the cover of Time Magazine, or you had Springsteen with “Born to Run,” these figures who spearheaded art. Aren’t we losing something by not having them?

CK: Yeah, they’re not perfect analogies because bands very rarely make money off records. Sure, Metallica or Britney Spears do, but most of the time you make your money on tour and with merchandise. Books are different because you can only sell books. You don’t see people wearing Jonathan Franzen t-shirts. Malcolm Gladwell could probably charge twenty bucks to have people come hear him talk about his books, but I don’t know if Padgett Powell could do that. So books are a little different because if you can’t sell money off books, you can’t make money. With Arcade Fire, all they have to do is to get their music out there, even if it’s being stolen, because if people hear it they’re going to have to pay to go see them. That’s what the publishing industry is dealing with now, in the sense that they’ve got to find a way to keep the value of physical objects.


Get (much) more from
Chuck Klosterman in
BULL No. 1


About the Author

Jared Yates Sexton is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University and the author of the book An End To All Things. His work has been featured in Salon, Hobart, PANK, The Southern Humanities Review, among others, and has been nominated for a pair of Pushcart's, The Million Writer's Award, and was a finalist for The New American Fiction Prize.