There were moments when listening to journalist Chuck Klosterman read from his debut novel, Downtown Owl, inside Book Soup felt like watching a performance from the late comedian Mitch Hedberg. It was all in the pacing, with a simple pause and a slight shift in pitch turned simple observations into one-liners that drove the crowd to riotous laughter.
In Downtown Owl, Klosterman finds beauty in the ordinary, weaving together three different experiences– those of rock music-hating teenager Mitch, new teacher Julia and widower Horace — of life in the fictional small town of Owl, North Dakota. As with the non-fiction pieces that have made Klosterman an icon amongst music geeks and pop culture freaks, he does this by highlighting his subjects’ eccentricities in a thoughtful fashion– never mocking, never condescending.
Photograph by Shannon Cottrell.
The Klosterman event was part of September 23rd’s double-header at Book Soup completed by an appearance from noted director Spike Lee. Promoting his upcoming film Miracle at St. Anna and the just-released screenplay, which look at the Buffalo Soldiers of World War II Italy, Lee fielded a handful of questions prior to the book signing. These ranged from background details of the film shoot to matters of race and war to his thoughts on the Yankees. It was the Yankees questions that seemed to perk up Lee.
Prior to the event, L.A. Weekly had the opportunity to catch up with Chuck Klosterman for a few questions.
L.A. Weekly: In Downtown Owl, according the book jacket, the bigger question of the novel is what makes a person normal. You asked a similar question in your essay “Something Wicked This Way Comes” [about the goth outing Bats Day at Disneyland, found in the collection Chuck Klosterman IV]. Was that essay part of the inspiration for the novel?
Chuck Klosterman: No. There are some core questions I write about it. The question of what makes someone normal is one of them.
L.A. Weekly: As a journalist, how did you approach developing the characters in the novel?
Chuck Klosterman: The idea, for me at least, was to come up with a certain type of person that sort of seemed universal– a type of teenager, a type of young woman, a type of old guy– that transcends time and place, that is always going to exist, and then, within those parameters, make somebody that never existed before. I’m always trying to create unique people that still feel universal, or the inverse, universal people that are unique.
L.A. Weekly: Did you feel a special affinity for a certain character?
Chuck Klosterman: I enjoyed writing the Horace character the most. Affinity is an interesting word. The person isn’t real. The person only exists in my mind. If I wrote the characters and I felt an affinity for them, it’s almost like saying that I fell an affinity towards myself, which seems weird. I mean, these people aren’t real. I always think it’s odd, listening to a writer talk about their book and they’ll talk about the characters as if they are real. They’ll say, “Bill is like this” or “Frank is driven by this.” To me, I always say the Mitch character or the Horace character, because I know they aren’t real. It’s nice when someone reads the book and says that the characters seem alive to them, but they don’t seem alive to me. They seem like things I made up.
L.A. Weekly: In terms of the setting, were you drawing upon your own youth in North Dakota?
Chuck Klosterman: Well, having never written a novel before, I wanted to make sure that I got the details right… I needed to create a place that I was familiar with, so it was a composite of not just the small town I came from, but a lot of small towns in North Dakota that I had either visited or had been explained to me when I was in college. I set it in 1983 and 1984 because that’s as far back as I can go while still having vivid memories of the time itself. It would have been nice to have the book happen in the ‘70s, but that would have been more of a construction. I was eleven in 1983, so I could remember what was on the radio and what kind of pop people were drinking.
L.A. Weekly: I thought it was interesting that Mitch [the book’s teenage character] hates rock music.
Chuck Klosterman: I know that because I’ve done so much music writing that people would think that this character was me. I didn’t want it to be like me. Basically, I took a lot of things about my life and almost inverted them. I wanted to have someone that wasn’t interested in popular culture. It would have been very easy to say, I’m going to have this kid’s favorite band be AC/DC and then every time I wanted to explain about him, I could use the iconography of AC/DC or I could do an AC/DC song that he was listening to. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be detached from the idea of using music or music culture to sort of explain some of these things…
If I had set the book in 2008, everyone would have read it as cultural criticism instead of a story. They would have taken everything in it, every band that I mentioned, all of those things, and they would have perceived it as my way of writing about music or writing about sports in the present tense. Moving it back, I feel like a lot of those ideas or artifacts were already defined, so it’s not going to be consumed as criticism. It’s going to be consumed as narrative.
Words by Liz Ohanesian.
Check out our slideshow from last night of Chuck Klosterman and Spike Lee. Photographs by Shannon Cottrell.