The author of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs and Fargo Rock City, Chuck Klosterman is one of America's foremost authorities on pop culture. The Esquire columnist's first foray into fiction, Downtown Owl, hits stores Sept. 16. Klosterman talked to TIME about shifting to fiction, his best celebrity interviews and why Paris Hilton will one day define this strange era.
Tell me about the evolution of Downtown Owl. How did the book emerge?
If you'd asked me when I was 18 what I'd like to do with my life, I'd have said I'd like to write a novel at some point. But then I sort of fell into journalism. I guess sometime after Killing Yourself to Live, I kinda wanted to write long form fiction, and I had an idea for a story and I decided to try. This is retrospective: I've been asked this question many times, and I keep coming up with interesting ways to make up answers.
How difficult was it to transition from non-fiction to fiction?
It was harder than I anticipated. I can write non-fiction much, much faster.
Other than speed, how did your writing process change?
The thing about journalism and non-fiction is it's ultimately reactive work: you're reacting to something someone said or did, or placing something in a context for other people. In fiction, you're inventing everything. The creatively exhaustive part isn't the big stuff having to coming up with the people, or the town but the really detailed stuff. You're creating a table, and so you have to say how many glasses are on the table, and you have to build the glasses in your mind. In journalism the details are what jump out at you: the strange way somebody buttons their coat, or a weird way someone has of standing. In fiction those are by far the most difficult things to fabricate because it's hard to make those things seem real.
Since you're shifting to a new medium, will you take reader feedback into account more than usual?
I'd say less. Of course I want people to like the book, but at the same time, that matters less to me than it did in the beginning. You write the first book and it's just exciting that the book exists. The only people who talk about your first book are people who like it; no one's going to review a book they've never heard of to say it's bad. You write the second book and everything is different. At first, you'd think, if nobody buys this book, nobody will ever publish me again. Now that I don't worry about that as much, you're kind of writing for yourself. Here I just tried to write a book that I'd like to read.
Who are your three favorite contemporary writers that people may never have heard of?
One is Jon Ronson, a British guy who wrote a book called The Men Who Stare at Goats, which George Clooney is making into a movie. He's a documentarian, but a really good writer, too. There's a sportswriter called Michael McCambridge who wrote a really great history of the NFL called America's Game. I'd never heard of him till recently. I like Seth Mnookin, who wrote Hard News, a history of the New York Times [during the Jayson Blair era].
As a journalist, who has been your best profile subject?
Donald Fagen of Steely Dan was probably the best interview. I didn't talk to Gilbert Arenas [of the NBA's Washington Wizards] that much, but he was the greatest subject. Considering I talked to that guy for a total of 12 minutes, it was probably the easiest feature I ever wrote. Of anyone I ever interviewed, Bono loved the process the most he actually laid down on a couch like he was in a psychiatrist's office and wanted me to ask questions where he could analyze his own iconography. The person who's consistently the best interview is Marilyn Manson. He's almost more intellectually designed to be an interview subject than a musician.
You wrote a piece in 2004 about not being able to stand the Olympics. Did the Beijing Games cement that view or turn you around?
I actually didn't watch much. I don't feel like it's interesting to watch alternative sports like fencing. I also just feel weird rooting for people because they're Americans. I know basically nothing about these people. What I was really criticizing is how the Olympics affects television audiences. I don't like nationalism. Things like the Olympics sort of foster problematic qualities in people.
In the same article you said that as you grow older, you're less prone to having opinions. This struck me as an interesting statement, since you're someone whose success as a columnist depends on your ability to voice strong opinions.
I realize there's a contradiction in that. Unlike the vast majority of critics, I don't want to affect people's opinions. Take a George Will column or a Maureen Dowd column. I don't see either as having any benefit whatsoever to anyone. I think they're actually trying to stop people from thinking critically. I'm interested in hearing every side to an issue, but it's strange when somebody seems to be working from a position of certitude. It bothers me how and now more than ever that's rewarded by the media. When I got into journalism, one of the biggest things I focused on was overcoming biases. Now people seem to want biases they're only looking for information that validates what they already believe. The most successful media now Fox News, the Huffington Post are designed for people who already believe they're right.
What current pop culture phenomenon will be most shocking when we look back in 10 years?
That's a really interesting question. What cultural phenomenon from 1998 seems most ridiculous now? People thought electronica was going to be the new rock music. Death in Vegas and The Chemical Brothers were going to be the new Beatles and Stones. That never happened. Now? The biggest phenomenon, in a way, is the widespread [idea] that all these things people used to pay for should be free information, music. It's overlooking the fact that there's a cost of construction for these things. It'll be strange look back at this period and say, remember when we thought music was going to be free forever? I guess the easy answer to the question is something like, "Wasn't it ridiculous when Paris Hilton was so famous?" But I think people will remember Paris Hilton. She'll be a lasting figure because people will use her as a way to understand this weird time period.