Chuck Klosterman on Parsing Weird Ideas, Social Media, and “Raised in Captivity” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Chuck Klosterman on Parsing Weird Ideas, Social Media, and “Raised in Captivity”

A Creative Life

Aug 31, 2020 Web Exclusive Photography by Jason Booher Bookmark and Share

Best-selling author, Chuck Klosterman, is known for his sharp, pinpoint intellect. Part-philosopher, part-journalist, Klosterman is adept at picking apart nuances, offering opinions on both sides of the issue and doing so with humor, care, and precision. If there were surgeons for linguistics, he’d be an M.D. Klosterman, who was a New York Times columnist and has written a dozen books, recently released his latest, Raised in Captivity, on paperback. The work, which features nearly three-dozen short stories, explores often-complicated ideas that are discussed between two or three people in conversation. They’re almost like Socratic dialectics.

We caught up with Klosterman, who rarely shies away from parsing a complicated idea, to ask him about how he started writing, what he thinks about modern television, when he began thinking so uniquely and so much more.

Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): Hello Mr. Klosterman.

Chuck Klosterman: That’s me.

I read your whole book!

Thank you! [Laughs]

I have to admit when we first scheduled this conversation, I didn’t know the book was comprised of fictional short stories. I’m so used to your nonfiction work. It was a pleasant surprise, though, to read fiction again. I used to study and write it in college but it’s been some time now.

Yeah, I know. We’re kind of in a nonfiction era. But that’s, you know—those are stories, obviously, in that book. It’s obviously fiction. But I write them like nonfiction. I prefer to read nonfiction. I think most people do.

Nonfiction is certainly a big part of my world now. But, like I said, I grew up studying fiction in college. And I remember the transition in the early 2000s for me when I switched from caring a great deal about short stories and poetry to caring about nonfiction. It’s interesting how one is so much more dominant than the other now, even in movies and television.

Fiction has sort of been replaced in a lot of ways. I think changes in television have really—I mean, I’m not the only person saying this; it’s kind of an obvious thing now. But many people will note that the experience of watching television now, or at least, high-end television, is probably closer to what the experience of reading commercial fiction in the ’70s was. This idea of the interior lives of people and, sort of, a story to follow that is related to your life and yet, in another way, it’s completely alien. That’s kind of what most high-end television is now. It’s easy to understand why people gravitate toward that because it’s a passive experience, whereas reading is an active experience. You can’t relax reading the same way you can relax watching television.

It’s funny, though. At the same time, I’m watching The Wire again probably for like the sixth time. And my fiancée, she can’t watch a show like that because it’s so stressful for her. While it’s more of an escape for some, for me, maybe, there is a high level of stress where she can’t watch it at night before bed because it isn’t an escape for her. It’s so heightened a reality, such a reminder of many issues going wrong around us today.

Not just that, but, you know, when you’re reading a novel, say, you’re reading Moby Dick, or whatever, here are dramatic things happening in that story but you’re able to imagine that drama the way you want. Like, the level of graphic violence is what you imagine. The degree of tension between characters is how you interpret it. Whereas when you’re watching The Wire, for example, what you’re seeing is what it is. It is interesting; you do have less agency watching television. You have much more control as a reader than as a watcher. But you can’t zone out while reading a book. Or, if you do, your eyes are going to move over sentences without realizing what’s in them.

Let me ask a question I have written down here. When did books or words become especially important to you? At what point in your life did you find yourself caring more than just to complete an assignment maybe?

That’s a very good question. I mean, you know, when I was a real little guy, I was a big drawer. I was always drawing pictures. And now I think—or, maybe this is a retrospective idea—but I wonder if I was actually writing stories at that point, too. But it was just that I didn’t know how to spell. [Laughs] I was drawing pictures that were the equivalent of writing stories. But the reason I say it’s a good question is because it’s a hard question. I just read this book, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. It’s a Larry McMurtry book from 1999. It’s kind of the closest Larry McMurtry ever came to writing a memoir. I find it real fascinating because, in many ways, the experience he had growing up in rural Texas is very similar to the experience I had growing up in rural North Dakota.

One of the things that he writes in this book is his confusion over what made him want to do this. He was like, everybody around me was content to just sort of live the life that existed in front of them and think about the things they could see. And he was prompted to write about experiences he never had and to figure out the meaning of what these fictional experiences were. And I relate to that idea. And I don’t know why that is. Like, I didn’t know any writers growing up at all. None. There were none in my hometown. And then I worked in Fargo and I still didn’t know anybody who was a writer who didn’t work for a newspaper. It wasn’t until I moved to Ohio that I met people who had written books and I was 26 or 27 by that time. So, I don’t know when or why that happened. But I do know this: I was writing before I ever thought that it would be my life. I would write stories in high school and I didn’t think I was doing anything beyond passing the time.

So, it was almost like you had vague shadows of character and plots popping up in your head and you almost had to perfunctorily get them out? Is that what it felt like at the time? Because it doesn’t sound like you were trying to build anything specific then.

I didn’t even think of it with that level of depth. I didn’t. When I was, say, a senior in high school, the idea of writing a story was the same as the idea of going bowling. I mean, it was just something to do. Something that I enjoyed doing, you know? It’s odd—I found some old tablets of mine from high school. I realized that I often did something that I now remember doing that I’d forgotten, which was that I used to make up long interviews with fictional bands. Like, I would make up a metal band—one was called Leather Sasquatch, I remember. And I would do this long interview with the band about their career and their records and it was all made up. And what was the weirdest thing about it is that I would have these fictional artists say really cliché things! Like, these fictional interviews, I’d be talking to the guitar player and he’d just be saying things like, “Our next record is going to be bluesier, it’s going to be heavier.” But even in these made-up interviews, I made the musicians kind of banal! I guess in my mind I thought I was making them realistic? It was so funny when I found these, I had this feeling I was going to page through them and find all these original ideas that society would have stopped me from believing. But when I was young I could just organically do it. But that’s not really how it was at all!

Were there choices you made that helped you become a writer? You moved to Ohio from North Dakota but what were some of those maybe early choices that you made that, by accident or on purpose, got you to a place where you could grow?

Well, I mean, the biggest choice was the decision to write a book even though I had no idea how to do it or how to get it published. I mean, in retrospect I can’t really fucking believe that I did it. I was working at the Akron Beacon Journal and I would go to work, you know, at 9:30 and I would work until 6:00 and I would come home and write for four or five more hours that night! And work on this book. I’m not saying I wasn’t sure how to get it published. Like, I had no idea. None. I didn’t know; I didn’t have an agent. I didn’t know anyone in New York. I didn’t know how the process worked. But I just wanted to see if I could do it, I guess. That must have been my thinking? I’m kind of projecting that onto my younger self because, you know, it would seem impossible for me now to work a regular job all day—and it was a pretty demanding job—and then come home and write from 8 o’clock at night until midnight. I guess I was lucky that I had a very limited social life? If I had a girlfriend at the time, I wouldn’t have done that. I would have been like, “Well, we have to watch a movie now.”

Was there a moment when you became especially good at parsing weird ideas?

That came naturally. [Laughs] I’m now at a point where I’ve realized that the things I think about seem weird to other people. But they don’t seem weird to me and for a long time in life I was like, “This doesn’t seem weird. This is just how it is.” Now I understand that apparently the way I think about things is weird and that’s good. I mean, that’s to my benefit.

I don’t want to get too psychology personal, but is that scary ever? As someone who writes amidst an era when there is often loud backlash to anything controversial, is it scarier now to be someone with unique thoughts?

Well, you just can’t express them! It’s not that scary, I guess. It is disappointing in the sense that the culture, as it is, that we’re now in, is not comfortable with cognitive dissonance. The idea of holding two contradictory ideas in your mind at the same time—that used to be perceived as something that was difficult. Now it’s something that is unwanted. People do not want to, sort of, deal with the idea of thought experiments and that’s disappointing to me because that’s so much of what I’ve built my life around. But that’s just how it is. People are much more socially conditioned now than they were 20 years ago. And I suspect that people 20 years ago were much more socially conditioned than people 40 years ago. I think this is probably an ongoing process where the immersion in a mediated culture incrementally stops people from being able to have thoughts that contradict what seems to be the mood of society.

The only way you can do it successfully—and I’m just speaking extemporaneously—is to have a fake Twitter handle, a burner account.

But what does that mean? That’s like saying, “You can do whatever you want in society as long as you wear a disguise.” But in that case, you’re not really doing it. But that is part of the reason why these—like this book—any of these stories, the idea that I’m kind of pursuing could have been done through an essay. It could have been me writing a personal essay talking about an idea. However, to talk about those ideas, you have to sometimes discuss or, at least consider, problematic concepts that I might not fully agree with. But you can’t do that now because, if you do, someone’s going to take the part—they’re going to take the complicated part out of context on purpose. And they’re going to willfully misinterpret what you’re saying so they can forward their idea. And the next thing you know, nobody even cares what the essay was about. They only care about the one line that’s been removed. Whereas in fiction, I can have characters have discussions and they’re different people. And they can sort of present these ideas that, if I presented them, would immediately be something that would just become personal baggage. And that would distract from the overall goal.

That’s so interesting. I have to imagine that you thought about that as you were writing the book. It almost comes back to what we started with—like, fiction is not as prevalent. But maybe it’s going to be more so because it’s a way of dealing with concepts in a way that’s not attributable to who you are. Fiction is your burner account!

Kind of, I guess. But not really. I just—you know, I’ll admit, I’m very lucky. I mean, I don’t have to admit it, but I’m a very lucky person, right? It would be hard for an unpublished author to publish this book. Because there isn’t a high degree of clarity within some of these stories. They’re very easy to read. They’re very accessible. It’s very easy to understand what’s going on. But a lot of people read them and go, like, “Well, what was that about though?” And that’s not how you sell books. Like, when people invest in time, when you’re reading 250 pages of something, they want to know what they’re supposed to know [Laughs]. They want to have, for the most part, they want to feel comfortable that they got the book. And that’s not always how it is. And I’m real happy that I get to be able to do things sometimes that aren’t as straight-forward, you know, as a typical piece of fiction.

What do you love about sports?

I started as a sports writer in journalism. I played sports growing up in a small town. So, I was able to play football and basketball and run track and play some baseball. I was able to do all those things. So, it was the principle relationship I had with my dad and my brothers, too. I would come home from school and my dad would say, “What’d you do in school today?” And I’d tell him whatever. He’d be like, “Well, you know, the most important part of school is academics.” And then we’d talk about basketball practice for two hours! There was no balance! Even though one was prioritized over the other, there wasn’t any real balance. So, sports have just always been a big part of my life. Let’s say if my wife says, “Hey, let’s go get dinner with this new couple we don’t know.” This would never happen now because of COVID. But before that. And we would go and have dinner with this couple and the whole ride to the restaurant, all I would be thinking is, “I hope this fucking guy likes sports!” It’s the only way I know I’ll be able to talk to him. Like, if he doesn’t like sports, it’s just kind of random. Because the thing is, sports are so culturally unifying. An 8-year-old and an 80-year-old can have a conversation about sports.

When you were sitting down to write the book, as the stories were coming to you, how did you begin? Do you have to do a lot of research or are there elements you want to make sure make the story? Or do you just start writing and edit after the fact?

This is kind of an odd answer but, okay, with this book, the original conception was that I was going to write 100 stories that were all exactly 1,000 words long. That was what I thought was my genius, brilliant plan. So, initially when I had this whole list of ideas, what I would do was anytime I ever had a weird idea or I’d come up with a piece of dialogue that I thought could work somehow or maybe even just the title of the story, I’d put it in the notes section of my phone. Pretty soon I had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of these, like, one-line descriptions of stories or one-line descriptions of ideas. And I was going to take 100 of those and turn them into short stories that were 1,000 words each. So, the early part of the construction of this was always built around that idea of how can I have these stories be this exact length.

But it ended up not working out that way for a couple of reasons. One was that all of the stories were either getting stretched out to 1,000 words or pushed down to 1,000 words. Nothing was its natural length. Then I also realized that the stories would go through an editing process and that would adjust the length and I’d have to go back in and add things or remove things to get it back to 1,000 words. And then the third point was that I just realized this is stupid! Nobody cares how many words are in a story. Like, if someone was told, “Hey, this book is 100 stories and they’re 1,000 words each.” They’d be like, “Oh, interesting.” But that’s as far as it goes! Nobody likes a record because every song is exactly four-minutes. It’s like a formal idea that doesn’t matter.

You live in the Northwest now, near Portland. Is it odd or creatively inspiring for you to live there at this time during protests when so much is going on in the city?

I’ll tell you what. If all that stuff wasn’t on the news, I wouldn’t know what’s happening at all. It has absolutely no interplay with where I live, you know? It is strange in the sense that part of the reason I moved to Portland was because it was an easy place to live, you know? I don’t know if anybody would say that now. But it doesn’t feel close to me. It feels like something that is happening in a simulation and I happen to live in relatively close proximity to that simulation.

And, I don’t say this in any pointed or accusatory way, of course, but you don’t feel compelled to go out in the streets or anything like that at this time?

I mean, I’m 48-years-old. I’ve got two small children. My life is pretty insular, especially during COVID. My life is very small now. My life is very small. There are many days when my kids and my wife are the only people I talk to.

What do you love most about writing today?

You know, it’s a rare thing. It’s a legitimately creative life. I mean, I sit down in front of a computer and I create a kind of reality. And it’s not collaborative at all. Granted, I have an editor—sure, all of that is going to happen later. But during the working process, I am in my cabin by myself. If I was a musician, it would be like I was writing, recording, and producing the entire record alone. And I love that, you know? I could not be a TV writer. I could not be working with nine other people, collaborating on the same idea. I love the idea that if I produce something, what’s good about it and what’s bad about it is only me. There’s nobody else and nothing else involved.

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September 3rd 2020

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