1992 Douglas Coupland Interview Transcript

I remember picking up a copy of Douglad Coupland’s Generation X at a book store on Granville Street just after it came out and reading it cover to cover immediately. In fact, I remember finishing it on the 246 Highland bus in North Vancouver, just before I got home from school.

Around that time I was a student at the Emily Carr College of Art and Design and I was writing for the school paper, The Planet of the Arts, along with Paul Shoebridge and another guy named Mohammed. I somehow learned that Coupland was a graduate of ECCAD. And then I somehow figured out how to navigate the wall of publicists, agents, and lawyers to gain access to Coupland for an interview about his time at ECCAD. I was invited over to his west end penthouse apartment for a chat. I remember him being cautious, maybe even paranoid, but very gracious and very interested in the subject of ECCAD.

When I heard about his new book, Generation A, it reminded me of that interview that I was lucky enough to do with one of Canada’s very best writers when he was just beginning to discover fame. So I went and dug up this transcript and, after reading it, thought that other people out there might enjoy the information it contains. It’s about how Coupland evolved into a creative professional and, almost accidentally, took up writing. It’s also an interesting insight into the earliest days of ECCAD and Granville Island.

Transcription of Doug Coupland Interview

Conducted: Thursday, February 20, 1992; 4:30-6:00 p.m.

DC: Okay, ask whatever you want.

AR: The whole focus is on why you went to Emily Carr and how it was and how you ended up doing this from Emily Carr.

DC: Chronologically?

AR: Yeah, start with when you started–you asked me why I went to Emily Carr, so why did you?

DC: Hmmm. Well, it was sort of an accident–it really was. After I graduated from high school, um; like; I was one of those kids who was in the physics Olympics, the ones where you’d, y’know, build bridges out of spaghetti and —–graph generators and that sort of thing. So I did a year of Physics at McGill University in Montreal and…uh…didn’t like it. And I came back. I had arranged a summer job in Europe working as a spot welder in a Mercedes Benz factory (strange but true). I was back in Vancouver for a week Between McGill and Germany…and…knew I had no intention of going back–but this is  when you’re young, you don’t even think of shit like this. I knew I wasn’t going back to McGill (I had no idea what I was doing) and I was over at, well, it used to be called ‘Casper’s’; now I think it’s just a Pharmasave in Edgemont Village.

AR: In North Vancouver?

DC: Yeah; and I bumped into my old Art teacher from high school.

AR: What high school?

DC: Sentinel. He said: “Oh! Doug! Today’s the day that they’ve just opened up that new Art school! I believe today’s the day They’re taking applications, you should give them a ring.” And so I phoned them up and they said: “Actually, we’re doing first year interviews this afternoon.” So I called my friend Dean, because I didn’t have a car and…um…got together those horrible things–you know those embarrassing things you do in high school? And went down. It was Sylvia Scott and Gary Lee-Nova…did the interview and said “you’re in”. So I came back, this all happened within hours. I waited until the day before I left for Europe to say: “Oh, by the way, I’m going to Art school when I get back.”

AR: This was to your parents?

DC: Yeah. Mom was thrilled because my brothers were getting kind of—Dad was horrified because I was supposed to be the Physicist.

AR: Were you the oldest?

DC: Number three. So that was it. You didn’t even think about what would have happened if I didn’t get in. It’s just like, when you’re young, no Lou Grant here, you don’t even think of the ‘what ifs’. But it worked out okay, that’s nice. So I came back, went into first year, did all the first year stuff. This was 1980 and the school was brand new. I mean–

AR: This was the first year?

DC: The very first year down at the new location. All there was on the Island was the school, a fraction of what the market now is, and the Arts Club Theatre. It was, like, really was just abandoned warehouse buildings and marshland and junk. It wasn’t like Epcot Centre, it was [phone rings]. Let me just…

[Tape Stops]

DC: No, the Island; I think that did effect the way people went to school back then. So the place was different.

AR: Have you been down there recently?

DC: Hm? A few times. You could park your car anywhere you wanted. The make up of the students was different, too, in two ways. One, there were half the students were senior students where you had twenty-five and over and there was a lot of ex-hippies still going to Art school. And myself, like yourself, I was basically a kid from the ‘burbs a year or two out of high school. I was, like, a rarity. I mean, that was as colourful and unusual as being a 37-year old ex-BC Hydro worker who dropped out of the rat race and joined Art–you know, I was just as unusual as that. I think nowadays, from what I hear, it’s just basically mostly kids straight out of high school.

AR: Well, they certainly cater to that age group.

DC: Well, that was because–well, I don’t wanna get into that [drinks mineral water: Clearly Canadian Raspberry]. So there  was a motley mix of people. Also, punk was just happening in Vancouver back then, too. So I remember, you know, first day of school, the most glamorous day of my life; so you had Barbara Athen, Michelle Normwell, dressed up as, like, cat-woman punks with all the haircuts. Back then it was so shocking to see a mohawk in 1980. Oh, it was just, like, so racy. All the kids would dress like [blah blah blah].

AR: What sort of person were you then? What was your attitude towards all this you saw?

DC: Oh. You know, I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t go to Art school. You know, I shudder to think.

AR: Actually, that was one of my questions. What would have happened? Would you be spot welding in a Mercedes Benz factory?

DC: What would I be doing? I think I’d be a lot unhappier. Yeah, I think now, I think everyone should go to art school. Um…Not street smart at all. Not that I am now but…uh…pretty narrow-minded. I think there’s a certain attitude that says you’re going to…how to be more succinct about this? You think you know a lot about Art when you go to Art school and you’re young but you basically know fuck-all. You just know nothing, you really don’t. It’s this whole weird arrogance of youth that, in one sense, you completely have to be de-programmed of. And I think that’s why Foundation is really important in doing. I mean, you can have a good brain and you can have a…good intentions and a good heart and everything but you’re basically, you’re coming from the suburbs and you were fed, sort of, the Province and morning colour cartoons. And that’s your history but it’s not enough to structure your thinking properly. So, Foundation was good. I remember hating Susan Hillman because she was really brutal about telling this stuff. I mean, I love her now, but. I was angry at everyone the first semester. The thing, too, is, like, all the Foundation teachers, Worstchek and Sam, I mean, they’re friends now for the rest of your life. Here it is twelve years later or whatever and I still see them all the time.

AR: I guess what puzzles me is your history; you went from Physics to Art to writing.

DC: Well, what happened…y’know in high school I was sort of the Physics goof-ball, a bit…

AR: Were you to Arts, too, then?

DC: Art was just something I took, I mean, it was never…it was just like “Oh, I’ll take Art.” It wasn’t like I liked it. Um…What happened then…I sometimes wonder, like, how I ended up doing what I’m doing now, too. Life has certainly been a lot of falling forward. In retrospect, just because I didn’t like English in high school, or didn’t do very well at it, for that matter…doesn’t mean I didn’t like writing itself. There’s stacks of letters I’ve written and, some of which, aside from grammar or spelling, I could have written yesterday. So, y’know, it’s always been there. In 1982, students were fantastically apathetic and there was a Student Society back then and no one in the entire school would run.

AR: It’s still the same, you know, they just had elections and just nobody wants to do it.

DC: I mean, no one was into anything. It was just dead beat, like, leave me alone. That was, like, the official motto. And so myself and Angela Grossman and Derek Rude(?) and another woman, Melanie Lamontia(?), we decided, well, what the hell? Why not just run for Student Society? We got in by acclimation.

AR: So what’d you do?

DC: What’d we do? Oh, well, we had absolutely no political credo, I mean, we couldn’t have been less political if you, like, if we consciously tried to be less political. We spent all the money on pub nights. That was our motto. We had a Christmas 1982, we had the…all this money we should have been spending on, you know, well, who knows what they do with that money nowadays…

AR: They give it to the POTA.

DC: Well, you know, we rented a great big, six-tiered, Liberache punch fountain with lights and stuff…and went out and we bought, oh gosh, 8000 bucks worth of free booze. We had 54-40 come in and we had what feminist contingent there was at the school back at that point: Josie Cain and someone else did mud-wrestling to make a point. We had, uh, what’s his name? Bill Featherstone came in dressed as Santa. And we spent another 500 bucks on, like, toys and stuff, like, little paint brushes. Bill came through… He was just sort of “Take your Fucking presents”, like this. The theme was, it was very Slim Whitman. Somehow, from the 3-D department (this was the beginning of irony)…the whole notion of, like, Slim Whitman having a Christmas, this failed, sort of lounging, you know, joke of a singer. It just got out of hand, like, “Christmas with Slim” will you be there? Everyone started making costumes. It culminated with Glen Mosely from 3-D, I don’t know where he is now. We phoned Slim at his house in Tenessee…on the stage, we had it hooked up to speakers. It was sort of like: “Slim, we’re phoning from Vancouver.” “Fuck off!” click [hearty laughter]. It was just great. Made the CBC National news. Down on the Island it was exotic, there was nothing else down there. It was really fun.

Writing. The school paper.

AR: What was the school paper? Was it Planet of the Arts then?

DC: No, no, no; it was me. I did the school paper. You couldn’t get people to write; it was like: “Here’s trillion dollars, write an article.” Silence. At the time I was doing part-time art doing paste up and lay-out. Just a small company, long, long out of business down on Cordova Street. They had a printing press there. I thought, okay…this is how I approached it: “What a great excuse to use a printing press.” Because I liked the idea of, like, mass produced words on paper. I didn’t want to do it for no credit so I got Charles Dobson…it was a credit course, like, “School Paper”.

AR: You got credit for the school paper?

DC: Yeah, it was, like; it was wonderful. I mean, best education I ever had! [Drinks mineral water]. It was because no one else would, or could, or wanted to…I mean, you couldn’t drag them to do anything, you had to do it all yourself. Which was fun. And again, it was so apolitical, that were was no…I mean an issue never entered any issue. Sam or Tom might have a few copies lying around. I’ll go see afterwards if I have one lying around here. I did six of them and each one had a different theme. Like, one was scratch and sniff one was…uh…a page of Harlequin Romance. It was always sort of a gimmick. They were fun to do. And we had collating parties and Student Society paid for the beer. That’s how you get people to collate, by the way: beer. It’s the only way you can get people to collate. We tried everything; free food: nope. Free food won’t work. It has to be beer, free beer. So that was ’82-’83. Wonderful, wonderful year. I think everyone agrees. What else was happening? Myself and Derek and Ange were in Graphic Design and I moved into 3-D and they moved into Painting…and then Graham Gilmore moved into Painting. And Ricky Lukacs came from Alberta and he joined Painting. And just suddenly there was all this fun…and the painting was happening, too. Down in 3-D all the Post-Modern stuff was happening. It was just wonderful, it was an exciting period to be in school.

AR: Is that what the Young Romantics came out of?

DC: Yeah. Up in the third floor in what is now the Design department. It wasn’t spread out, everything used to be in that one building. Because it was just so…it was like nuclear material or something, like, kaboom, it was really intense. In late ’83 I did the Japan exchange. I don’t know if they still do that. ’84 was just working…work…it was great. Question, sorry…

AR: Did the Physics take you to the 3-D?

DC: 3-D. How did 3-D happen? 3-D happened because in the summer of 1981 or 19… summer of ’82. Sam Carter had to drop off a station wagon to someone who was living in L.A. and he didn’t want to go down there all by himself. So myself and Angela and Derek sort of drove down with him in the station wagon. We were driving around L.A. looking…and I wanted to buy a map to the stars homes. We found one, sort of these Bad News Bears-type brats at the corner of Douheaney and Santa Monica. I wanted to send it up to Vancouver and I was sitting there, like, “Duouy, how am I gonna put this in the mail?” Sam got a piece of cardboard and folded it up in a triangle and said: “Look! Unless you start getting 3-dimensional really quick people are gonna begin talking!” I said “Gasp!” And I came back and signed up for 3-D…because I didn’t want people thinking I was not 3-dimensional. [Offers to get things to show me later].

AR: So, in the general scheme while you were at Emily Carr things were…things went for you. You didn’t say this is what you’re gonna do or anything.

DC: Well, that’s what Art school is all about. I mean, you come into it…it doesn’t matter where you’re coming from you’re so pre-programmed about…dumb ideas about what Art is. I think the first year and a half, two years is just simply, you know, like chopping your head off and shaking out all the junk and, like, y’know, getting a clean slate then…I don’t think people really know until third year what they really really want to do, anyways. And I think there’s a certain healthy amount of people doing what I, or a lot of people, did is, like, trying out design first and then–we used to have Interdisciplinary, I think it’s gone now. Finally by about Third year, okay, yeah, you realize what it is you, you know, want to do. But it takes a bit of time and I don’t think you go in there knowing exactly…I mean now they’ve got computers and the computer animation which I think, if I was a student now, I might be gravitating towards. No, I think if you told me in 1979 that a few years later I would be graduating in sculpture I’d just go: “You’re mad.” Y’know, no way. I think, also, as long as, you know…if you’re enjoying something, y’know, pursue it; that seems to work. To pick up a few years later…um…writing…um…in 1987 I started writing. Well, every few years Pacific Press goes on strike and when they do the local ad papers like North Shore News and the Vancouver Courier will clean up because they pick up the ads that go in the Sun. So a group of very cynical investors had put together this small paper called The West Side Week which is in a place over down near CKVU. About two months before the scheduled talks and scheduled strike and so they would have a paper in place. They hired Don Stanley who used to be at Vancouver magazine and…um…they had to fill it up with as much of the cheapest, cheapest, cheapest writing they possibly could have. And so they phoned me up and said “Well, y’know, you went to Art school.” And I go, “Uh, yeah.” “And my wife saw a postcard you wrote to a friend and it was really funny.” And I go, “Oh, thanks.” “Would you like to write about Art for us?” And I’m, like, “Gasp! You want me to write?” And so, chat chat chat, and “How much would you be paying?” And he’s like, “Um, twenty dollars?” And I’m, like: “What a sucker!” And he’s, like, “What a sucker!” So I ended up doing this column writing about art. Which I had been doing anyways in Emily Carr, so it was just no big deal. There was no strike, they all lost their shirts; and I didn’t find out what they were really up to until years later, anyways. Mac Perry at Vancouver Magazine had me do, actually, I’ve got it here. Come in the work room! [Coupland rises and goes to another room]

AR: Okay.

DC: …it’s only in the past week I’ve managed to start getting organized.

AR: [About a poster on the wall] Oh, look, it’s the elements.

DC: Oh, that’s, uh…those are going out with the next book…um…if you look, it’s not really the elements, it’s the…

AR: Oh, yeah…[Long pause] Is this book out yet?

DC: No, it comes out in August. Here.[With magazine]

AR: Oh, I saw this issue…

DC: Oh, you did. Okay. So you saw the Doug—- story. Well, that was the very, very first thing I ever wrote in a real…um…

AR: Weird, because I read this…

DC: Did you? That’s the fake Rauschenberg Eric and I did…I started doing a story a month for them [Vancouver Magazine] and that paid really good money…and then with me it was just a way to pay the bills. It wasn’t like WRITING, it was just a quilting device. And then…um…that was while I was doing a lot of big, heavy duty sculpture for the VAG show.

AR: How much did you do for the VAG?

DC: Oh, gosh, it was pretty big. [Moving back to living room]

AR: Was it one show or a bunch of shows?

DC: It was just one show.

AR: And it was in the children’s gallery, wasn’t it?

DC: Yeah, yeah.

AR: Oh, boy, slides…

DC: Yeah, I haven’t looked at these in a long time…

AR: So, this show came how long after… what year was this show?

DC: Uh, ’87…sorry, I just can’t…I shouldn’t have even have brought this out.. I can’t. Basically I moved to Toronto, I got a job in Toronto; that was just a means of getting to, you know, be artsy in Toronto. Again, it wasn’t until ’88, or ’89 that I realized “oh! yeah, well I’d much rather be writing.” And fiction at that. So, you know, it was, like, another two years of poverty.

AR: Living in Toronto?

DC: I had left Toronto, which, actually, I didn’t mind. I have a lot of good friends there now. I got a small advance for Generation X so I moved to Palm Springs, I took out a lease–I was trapped. And moved there…I did it. And then moved to Montreal, which is a great city to live in if you’re poor. Really nice, that was last winter…and then…back here.

AR: So how come you came back here?

DC: I’m from here, I mean, you can’t stay away for long. I don’t think anyone ever does leave.

AR: Not Vancouver, other places…Vancouver is funny.

DC: Imagine if there were like two 32 year old guys living in, like, Armpit, North Dakota and it’s like January and it’s, like, minus 57 degrees out and they’re in a basement. There’s like half an inch particle wallboard and pink insulation coming out and, like, a crying baby upstairs and, like, they’re watching ESPN and they’re sitting there and they’ve had four beer a piece and they go “Y’know, we’re really lucky we grew up in Armpit because, y’know, if we hadn’t grown up here we’d move here anyways–’cause it’s the best place to live in the world!” So, I think that Vancouver, it really is the best place to be from. It doesn’t matter, y’know, what happens in your life, y’know, everyone seems to move back here. Besides, when I walk down the street I know half the people on the street from either high school, Art school or work or something…so it’s nice. There was a lot of really stupid McJobs along the way, too, y’know. But fun…I mean, you do them and you realize that it’s a McJob and realize it’s really stupid…but you enjoy it because it’s not the end.

AR: You’ve gotta be careful not to get caught in a cycle like that.

DC: Yeah, I think Opus Framing…something about Opus Framing people never leave there.

AR: Yeah, I took a pre-college course at ECCAD five years ago and there’s the same two guys at Opus.

DC: There’s something about that place…

AR: Will you ever work with 3-D again? Or is it writing from now until the end of time?

DC: Oh. I think when you’re in your twenties alot of your life is, like, if you had half a wit about you, you can do pretty well anything you want to do. Being in your twenties is like “What am I gonna do with my life? What am I gonna do with my life? What am I gonna do? What sort of thing am I gonna do? What am I gonna do with my life?” It’s just, you keep on asking yourself “Am I gonna do this? I don’t want to do that, I want to do that, and that.” And finally around your late twenties, early thirties–I’m noticing this in my own life and people I know–you seem settles about this is what you want to do. If you do to things, if you’re, like, a writer and an artist, or you’re a race car driver and…a botanist or something people think you’re…..and they don’t respect you, they don’t pay attention to either activity. But also, it’s how committed are you?

AR: It seems schizophrenic…

DC: It seems schizo, it seems uncommitted and…uh…if they’re going to trust a project or an activity to a person they’re going to do it to someone who, at least, maybe they’re not as good as you but they’re committed to it. So, they’re probably justified in that. I think, certainly, your twenties is all about having as many idiotic jobs, as much stuff as you can cram into it.

AR: You said on the phone something about 25…

DC: Twenty-five, twenty-five, worst year of my life. Like, never, ever, ever, ever…but it certainly makes you a better person.

AR: When you were at ECCAD did you read a lot?

DC: No….now, I read three papers a day. I read the Enquirer, the Mirror and the NY Times…I read everything–I don’t have a tv. Never did have one–because I knew that if I had  a tv I wouldn’t have a life. Because I go to my parents and watch–

AR: That’s what felt funny when I walked in here.

DC: Yeah, because, y’know, you watch CNN for five minutes and, like, BZZt two hours is gone. It’s just so tempting. Here I have dead space and I’ll do something–‘do’ being the key word. If I had a tv, oh, Sally Jesse Raphael or something.

AR: This is definitely a low-tech place.

DC: Oh, yeah. I still write long hand but, you know it’s…

AR: You write long-hand?

DC: Yeah, and then I input second drafts into the computer. You’re twenty-one?

AR: Twenty.

DC: Twenty…people my age, I’m thirty, when they went to high school, I mean, there were these computers, we had these cards and we had to pencil in, like, little squares. Like: “Let X equal 5X minus 3Y.” Subsequently pretty well everyone between, currently, between 28 and thirty four is really traumatized about computers. And suddenly they discover a Mac or something and “Hey! This is great!” Which they are, they’re wonderful. Emily Carr……..certainly among the best years of my life and I would do it all over again exactly the same way. Wouldn’t change a thing.

AR: I guess more about what was happening around there. About the Young Romantics…how much were you involved in that?

DC: Well, they were my best friends, they still are. That’s Derek’s piece right there. Derek lives next door with his wife. At the time we were, it seems now…we were extremely ambitious. I mean…if you were to have met us and you were to say “What are those guys like?” you’d think, “God, they’re really ambitious. But it was, like, in a fun way. I mean, it wasn’t like… We also had post-modern fun with the whole concept of ambition…See, Diane Farris started up her gallery in ’83 or ’84. It used to be called the Euston(?)-Farris Gallery. She started up with Sam Euston who is of the Euston family who are responsible for developing Northern native arts and crafts. Sam came in and … he wanted to…he needed a backer, which he had in Diane, so they started the gallery together. Sam was the one who sort of collected all of the artists together. So he would come through the Art school and go through the Painting department and say, like, “You, you, you, you.” And so he chose those four, sort of like, Rick Lukacs, Graham Gilmore, Angela Grossman, Derek Rude(?). Along with Charlie and Nina and Phillipe and…who else was there? Vicki, Vicki of course. It was so exciting because, you know, after a while you get jaded obviously because you get used a few too many times and you smarten up. But back then…it was so exciting. Oh, god, it was so glamorous and fun and Vancouver was sort of on the map internationally. On which it has stayed ever since, especially with the….”photo based conceptualists”. So it was really…in one sense we had done the student society…everything revolved around (A) having fun and (B) getting somewhere. We didn’t…that was really part of the 80’s madness, it was so exciting. But you know it ended quickly enough. Expo seems to have killed it, actually

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