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Q&A: Chuck Klosterman
For this Spin writer, life's all about sex, drugs, and breakfast cereal.- September 12, 2003
Chuck Klosterman is an incredibly talented yarn-spinner. He knows so well how to build a story and wring out its punchline and significance that you'd think he was raised by an ancient tribe of devoted oral historians. He has sense enough to know that Saved by the Bell should be enjoyed both genuinely and also not. He knows this balance, and so his writing tows a line between mocking and praising his subjects, which is ultimately a characteristic of modern humor: irony with actual affection; not wink-wink irony, just, maybe, wink irony.
That's the real key to his success, but he was also greatly helped by a chance phone call from a rock star and a childhood in Fargo, North Dakota. From that childhood he mined his first book, Fargo Rock City, a tale of a young man's enthusiasm for 1980s heavy metal—particularly Guns N' Roses—that whimsically included his phone number in the introduction. David Byrne, of the Talking Heads, read the book, liked it, and called the author. That phone call led to other opportunities, and, soon enough, Klosterman was abandoning the Midwest for the high-flying life of a New York magazine guy.
Now a senior writer at Spin ("I go to all the meetings and I suppose, in theory, I help generate story ideas," he says of his responsibilities beyond writing) and an occasional contributor to The New York Times Magazine, he recently published his second book, a collection of essays called Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto. Despite his concern that he lacks any career advice, Klosterman recently spoke mediabistro.com, talking about his book, his background, and how to react when someone pukes on you.
Not too long ago you were writing for daily newspapers, first in Fargo and then Akron, Ohio. It's a pretty odd jump—maybe even a substantial one—to Spin.
I got to Spin because I put my phone number in the front of Fargo Rock City and one of the people who called me was David Byrne. He asked me to do a reading with Dave Eggers and Lydia Davis, and at that reading an editor from The New York Times Magazine who was in the audience asked me to start writing for him.
At about the same time, Charles Aaron, who also read "Fargo Rock City" and was at the reading, called me and asked me if I wanted to start writing for Spin. A whole bunch of months passed and I didn't hear anything and then he emailed and asked if I could do a little piece on POD and Queens of the Stone Age. Then I also did an Ozzy piece for him, and so I got hired. Everything happened really fast. I can't give people advice, because everything in my life changed completely in less than a year and it's still not something I am used to.
For a lot of people being a rock journalist is about meeting their idols. How do you make a good interview out of questions these people have probably heard a thousand times?
The person you're interviewing needs to know it's an interview. If you're writing fiction, there needs to be artistic tension. And if you're doing an interview, you need conversational tension. After you talk to them, you're not going to have a relationship with them, they're not going to like you, they're not going to be your friend.
One problem with magazine writing is that the people who do it often have not spent a lot of time doing hard journalism. I was fortunate that I was at newspapers for eight years, where I wrote at least five or six stories every week. You get used to interviewing lots of different people about a lot of different things. And they aren't things you know about until you do the story. The biggest problem in rock journalism is that often the writer's main motivation is to become friends with the band. They're not really journalists; they're people who want to be involved in rock and roll. Instead of being in a band, they figure, well I'll just become friends with them.
How do I put this? There are a lot of smart people writing about music but not a lot of people who are interested in journalism writing about music. To me, every interview, even if you love the artist, needs to be somewhat adversarial. Which doesn't mean you need to attack the person, but you do need to look at it like you're trying to get information that has not been written about before. You're trying to find new ideas in people. I always think to myself, what question I am least comfortable asking the person? And then I make sure I ask it early in the interview.
So that you have time to work your way out of that hole over the rest of the interview?
No. A lot of people have this strategy where if they have a hard question they wait to ask it to the end of the interview because they think the person is going to walk out. But what they have to realize is, is that if the person walks out, they have a pretty successful story.
Does this sort of adversarial tactic inform your essays?
The essays are different because ultimately it's things I'm interested in, and I'm really just writing about myself and using those subjects as a prism. The essays are very solipsistic and self-absorbed, I'm totally conscious of that. To me, book writing is fun, and I basically just write about things that are entertaining to myself.
Clearly other people seem to find you entertaining as well—though perhaps not the New York Press.
That was really weird, a very weird thing. I got an email that day that said, "This guy you've never heard of has written a piece for a publication you've never read and is attacking what you look like and claiming you're the anti-Christ." I still have a hard time understanding how I would warrant that. But, I don't know. It wasn't hurtful, it was just strange. I've been asked about this constantly, and I compare it to how if you're walking down the street and some schizo guy comes up to you and vomits on you: You wouldn't be hurt by that, you'd just think it's weird. I keep saying the word "weird" over and over again, but it's the only way I can describe it.
Given that your writing is so infused with your personality, what kind of editorial feedback do you get—and how has it differed when you've written for newspapers, magazines, and books?
Book writing is a little different because, in my case, my editor is a year younger than me and basically has the same sensibility as me. So he only really does big picture editing. I'm edited less when I write books than anywhere else. That's why writing books is so fun and I think everyone should do it. It's the only place you can completely express your ideas in the way that is closest to the way you think them. An editor at a publishing house's main job is acquiring, so if he picks something he obviously likes it already.
When you're writing for newspapers you have all these parameters. You can't swear, you have to use short paragraphs, all that. If you stay within those parameters, you have lots of freedom because you're writing for the next day. If you're reviewing a concert and it's 11 o'clock at night, basically anything you write is going to get through.
At a magazine, everything you do is edited by a bunch of people, by committee, and a lot of them are, were, or think of themselves as writers. Part of that is because magazines worry about their voice. I could write the same piece about the same thing for Spin, The New York Times Magazine, and GQ, and they would all be different.
But they hire you because they like your style. After Fargo Rock City, you're a personality and you come with a voice of your own.
Maybe, but I tend to be a difficult to edit because I am very sensitive about every word and every style of punctuation and every idea because I feel that when I write I've considered every alternative and chose the one that works best. I'm probably edited lightly and yet I probably over-react to it. I feel sorry for people who have to edit me. Which is why book writing is by far the most enjoyable. Really the only thing it's based on is whether it's good or not. No book editor, in my experience, is getting a manuscript and try to rewrite it.
You get typecast a bit as a pop-culture writer. Are you trying to beat that rap?
After Fargo Rock City I got all these offers to write about metal, and I thought, "Oh no, this is going to get me marginalized." Then I realized it's better to be known for one thing than for nothing. I mean, before, I wasn't doing anything. Five years ago, I thought I was going to write for newspapers; if I worked really, really hard I could one day work for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The biggest hurdle to writing Fargo Rock City was that I couldn't afford a home computer—I had to get a new job so I could buy a computer. It could all change though. In five years, I could be back at some daily newspaper, which wouldn't be so bad.
How did growing up in North Dakota temper how you write about pop culture?
People always say to me, "I bet when you were in college or growing up in North Dakota, you dreamed of working at Spin." I never dreamed of that. It didn't seem remotely possible. I had no idea how people got those jobs, I didn't know what the steps were, it never even dawned on me. It seemed so outside the realm of possibility.
I grew up on a farm, and we didn't have cable and only limited radio stations, so I wasn't inundated with culture the way people in other parts of the country were. But I was really interested in it. I was hyper-fascinated with it, with music and film and television, but in a way I had a more normal experience—that is, closer to the average consumer—than a lot of people in more urban areas. Even though I wanted to experience all these things I was interested in, I couldn't get them. So I had to think critically and culturally about what was available. In Fargo Rock City I talk about Guns N' Roses a lot, which might seem strange to someone who had a larger spectrum of music to experience, but to me GNR was by far the most interesting band that I had ever found. And because that was the best thing available, I really fixated on it. I probably thought more about GNR, Motley Crue, and KISS than anyone else in America.
It's just that what's important there is different there than what's important is here. Here, people care that you wrote a book or that you work in the media. In Fargo, they say, well, that's a job. How well do you get paid? For example, for this book I was written about in Entertainment Weekly, and it was kind of cool because my mom asked me if Entertainment Weekly was a magazine or a newspaper.
Chris Gage is no longer a stalker. Photo by Lisa Corson. You can buy Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs at Amazon.com.
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