Editors’ Pick: Pop Culture From the Inside Out
Chuck Klosterman talks about morality, McNuggets, and Axl Rose
This story was originally published on BU Today on September 21, 2006.
Chuck Klosterman started his career as a film critic in the Midwest, wrote his first book — 2001’s Fargo Rock City — about growing up as a heavy-metal fan in Fargo, N.D., and got a job writing for Spin magazine when he published his phone number in the book’s preface and David Byrne of the Talking Heads called. Since then, he has published a book of pop-culture commentary (2004’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs), an account of his three-week road trip to the sites of music’s most famous deaths (2005’s Killing Yourself to Live), and most recently, Chuck Klosterman IV (Scribner, 2006), a collection of articles, essays, and fiction divided into three parts: “Things that are true,” “Things that might be true,” and “Something that isn’t true at all.” The book includes articles about Britney Spears, Robert Plant, U2, and Steve Nash, as well as essays about the Olympics, robots, and pirates.
Klosterman read from Chuck Klosterman IV at Barnes & Noble at BU, 660 Beacon St., Kenmore Square, on Monday, September 25, 2006.
BU Today: The subtitle is A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas. How did you decide which articles and essays to include?
Klosterman: I guess my thinking was if I felt this story was particularly interesting, if the person I was writing about was a significant cultural figure, like seemed to have a significance that went beyond the actual records they made, I’d put them in there. And I just felt like, I’m gonna include the stuff that I like. That seems like kind of a childish or overly simplistic way of doing it, but I didn’t know how else to do it. I did what seemed obvious to me. But maybe that was crazy.
What about an article like “To Be Scene, or Not to Be Scene,” which covers the underground rock scene in Fargo in 1995? You preface the piece by saying, “In many ways (in fact, in most ways), this story is horrible.”
I liked the idea of showing something that, in a way, was really dated, totally a period piece. So I had a friend of mine from Fargo send me the story, and I was reading it and it was hilarious to me, but for unintentional reasons.
Then I started thinking that every time anyone tries to do a story about a scene, this is what happens — it basically becomes this story. The times change, the genres change, the bands change, but all the issues are identical. So I thought, I’m just gonna run this story as it ran, but I’m just going to annotate it with sort of the things I realized that are terrible about it. I feel like then this story serves a purpose of reflecting how a time actually was, and how it feels in the present tense.
What’s the story behind the “Something that isn’t true at all” section?
I was thinking maybe I’d write a novel and I started with this idea, but then at one point, I decided I wanted to write nonfiction still, so I started writing essays, and that ended up becoming Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. But I kept it, and then when I was putting this book together, it occurred to me that there might be some insane people who actually have read everything I’ve published in magazines. I’m sure there’s not many people like that, but there might be a few and they’re the people who like my writing the most, and it seemed really unethical to rip them off for liking me, to force them to rebuy everything I’ve written. So I was like, I gotta have something in there that’s new, and I remembered the beginning of the novel.
It will seem autobiographical to people, because it’s about a person from North Dakota who’s a film critic in Akron. But it’s not autobiographical at all. Everything in there is fabricated.
You’ve taken on some pretty strange projects for your work, like living on Chicken McNuggets for a week (long before the movie Super Size Me), and visiting rock ’n’ roll death sites (for Killing Yourself to Live). Do you have any idea what’s next?
You know, not really, because even those projects were not things I thought about for very long before doing them. Whenever I think of something I want to do, I do it almost immediately, and I’m in a very fortunate position that people allow me sort of to pursue the projects that I find interesting, so the effect is that I don’t really have goals. I just kind of arbitrarily pick, and try to do things that I find interesting at the time. I don’t know if I would be interested in eating Chicken McNuggets for a week straight now, but I was then, and that’s how come the story exists.
How do you know when an idea’s worth pursuing and when you should let it go?
What happens is you have an idea for some kind of conceptual story, and sometimes the idea is great and then the story doesn’t work, because it was a better idea than it was a story — it’s sort of like you can just tell it sounds like the kind of story that people write about — and it doesn’t work out. Then there’re some stories when there’s no idea, and you’ve basically gotta construct the story as you go along, and that’s probably what I’m better at.
Like, my favorite fiction writer is Raymond Carver, because he wrote about nonevents — he writes a short story about two people making tea and waiting for the phone to ring and that’s the whole story, and you find meaning in these nonevents. And that’s sort of what I try to do. So I’m talking to Jack White [of the White Stripes], and maybe nothing’s happening, but there’s something meaningful about this nothingness. You can sort of get a better understanding of who he is and what he does from these small gestures, or his reaction to a conversation that’s not really happening.
What else do you read?
I mostly read nonfiction. I just read a sociology book called The Murderer Next Door that argues that the difference between the average person and someone who commits murder is not that great — that we’ve actually been biologically designed to kill. It’s interesting.
You’ve interviewed Robert Plant, Britney Spears, Metallica, Bono and U2 — who’s missing from your list?
I would love to interview Axl Rose, I’m probably the only person in America really qualified to interview him, or the most qualified person to interview him in the entire world, because I’ve written so much about heavy metal. [I’ve tried] tons of times; he doesn’t even respond.
What about a show you would like to have seen?
I don’t really go to live shows that much; I’m interested in listening to records more. But if I could see any show that ever happened, I would’ve been interested in seeing Jimi Hendrix perform. There was one tour where Guns n’ Roses opened for Motley Crue — Guns n’ Roses was touring for Appetite for Destruction and Motley Crue for Girls! Girls! Girls! That was the tour that [Motley Crue bassist] Nikki Sixx almost died on — I would like to see that. I have an old marquee poster of Kiss opening for Black Sabbath in 1975 at the Baltimore Civic Center. I would like to see that show.
Or maybe the first Arrested Development tour. I’m kidding.
Before each essay in the “Things that might be true” section, you present some sort of ethical dilemma — for example, asking readers if they would stop a bear from attacking a friend if it meant a lifetime of rain. Did you come up with all of these scenarios? And why did you include them in the book?
People really like those, for some reason, and I really like coming up with them — it’s just kind of the way I make conversation with people. There was this one section [in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs] where there’s 23 hypotheticals like this, so I figured I should put some more of them in this book. I wanted to make each one a hypothetical that didn’t necessarily reflect what was in the column, but sort of reflected the idea.
For the one about the bear, the actual question was whether it would rain all the time or Ginny Williams would be mauled by a bear and live. We have this friend named Ginny Williams, and we were sitting around in a bar one night talking about all this crazy sh*t, and the question came up and she was the example. See, Ginny Williams has a really good attitude, so I think she would love being able, the rest of her life, to kind of conversationally mention that she was attacked by a bear. I’d probably take that. I don’t mind rain either, but it would make it really tough to go to baseball games.
Jessica Ullian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.