I meet Chuck Klosterman in a Brooklyn Starbucks at 10:00 in the morning and we sit at a small circular table next to the window. Over the course of our intricate hour and forty-minute conversation, Klosterman and I discuss the true meaning of intellectual freedom, the dangers of empathizing with the Unabomber, and what it means to be perceived as a villain in our hyper accelerated culture, which is the subject of his latest book, I Wear the Black Hat. Within this crash course on thinking critically about pop culture, Klosterman continually warns me that we cannot control our own thoughts in a society that is oversaturated with media. Speaking to him in person is like reading one of his books. Chuck Klosterman is the author of two works of nonfiction, four essay collections, and two novels. He has contributed to Esquire, GQ, ESPN, Grantland, and Spin. Klosterman formerly wrote “The Ethicist” column for The New York Times.
So Mr. Klosterman, eleven years ago, you wrote that no woman could ever satisfy you. Now that you’ve been married for five years, are those words still true?
CK: The thing is, if you read the paragraphs coming after that, I write, “I’m sure that this will be asked of me,” and that I will say, “Of course everything has changed.” If you write non-fiction books about yourself, you’re giving other people the right to believe that your life never changes. In other words, I was twenty-eight when I wrote that, right? That book still sells. For all I know, you read it yesterday. It’s possible you read it yesterday. So for you, that moment in my life a decade ago is still the present tense, and you just have to accept that. So, I think I’m much better off not commenting on things I’ve written about in the past.
Well, the reason why I ask, was actually the fact that it’s personal non-fiction and that this is a problem that you run up against when you’re writing about your life, when you’re writing about pop culture and your relationship to it.
CK: Yes. It is. It’s probably the most awkward part of doing first-person writing, which is that you are essentially freezing your life on the page for people, and it is an unreasonable expectation to expect someone to read that work and also think to themselves, “Well, he must be different now, though.” Writing doesn’t cater itself towards evolution [laughs] and that’s on purpose. If that essay had said the same as it does now, but I had thrown in a bunch of things like, “It’s probably not true. I’ll probably be different,” Well, then the reader says, “Why am I consuming this?”
It loses the impact.
CK: It loses the impact, and also you want the person to feel as though they are talking to someone—they’re having sort of an intellectual conversation with someone who is alive in the sense that they’re not looking at their life as this novel or film that’s going to unspool and keep going on. You want to be in the now. That’s just the risk. The first book I wrote was about listening to hair metal. That seems like it was many years ago, when I started writing that, but to someone who reads that book, that was yesterday. They’re going to ask me questions about sitting in my apartment, drinking tequila, and listening to L.A. Guns as if I’m doing it right now.
But you’re not.
CK: Not often. [laughs]
You wrote about MTV’s The Real World in the same way that Roland Barthes wrote about pro wrestling and soap. How has our understanding of cultural archetypes evolved?
CK: Well, I would say the biggest change is that it is much more common to have a conversation about archetypes then it was, say twenty-five years ago, where that was still essentially a purely academic term. There are a whole bunch things now that we talk about all the time that in the past were kind of fringe, bizarre things. Even, to be honest, the whole idea of the importance of popular culture. There were people who were consumed by MTV in 1988, but if you asked them, “So you have an interest in popular culture?” they would say, “Oh, I don’t even really know what you mean.” So the idea of archetypes—we’re very aware of that now. If you read a film review in a daily newspaper in Omaha, Nebraska, the film critic might mention archetypes. The biggest thing that has changed is our “real-time” awareness of these things. Instead of looking at the culture in reverse and trying to figure out what happened, we’re actually trying to figure it out as it is happening now. That changes things quite a bit because the perception becomes less historical and more about how it feels.
When people talk about Taylor Swift now, they’re writing about how she released eight seconds of white noise. That is the kind of thing that in the past would probably have been discussed retroactively: “Why did she do that at this time? What was it reflecting at this time?” Now it’s talked about almost immediately. She’s aware of that. The artists are aware of archetypes in a way that they used to not be. Nobody in Led Zeppelin ever thought of themselves as an archetype. If there was a band like Led Zeppelin now, they would.
You have this one hypothetical question in Chuck Klosterman IV about the intelligence pill. You take it and your intelligence actually grows by ten percent but everyone perceives you as twenty percent less intelligent. You’re asking if the reader would take this pill. I felt that the way a person answers that questions reflects how much they care about the way that other people perceive them.
CK: The center of that question is, “Why do we want to know things?” Do we want to know things because they make us feel better? Or do we want to know things because that changes our status in the culture? Having moved to New York, that question becomes more and more present in my mind. I often have conversations with people who start talking about books. I will start to wonder—about the person I’m talking to—if they read the book solely to have this conversation. If they had been told, “You will never discuss this book in public,” would they have even read it? Learning is supposed to be for ourselves. Is it? I don’t know. Is it valuable to know something if you’re the only person who knows it, or is the whole idea of learning to share the experience? These are things I’m still trying to figure out about my life.
The “Man in the Black Hat” first appears in Killing Yourself to Live. You’re stoned; you’re looking out the window and you’re studying the darkness. A variation of this scene is used to open your newest book. I was wondering how long this concept has been in your mind? How long have you been thinking about it?
CK: Huh. It is. In that hotel in Killing Yourself to Live.
It’s a Comfort Inn.
CK: Yeah, I was just at the Cracker Barrel. I had forgotten about this because I never go back and read these books! How long has it been in my mind? Boy, I don’t know, maybe forever. That really is an archetype or a trope, what you were talking about earlier. This idea of this guy who’s got a hat on that represents this entire character. That somehow you could understand this person because they are wearing this hat. I suppose maybe my whole life, I had this image and then over time it went from my unconsciousness, slowly climbing the ladder into consciousness to the point where it got turned into a whole book. So, probably always. I really love Alfred Hitchcock because I feel like his movies don’t involve characters as much as they involve character types—a type of person. The other details are kind of extraneous. It’s like the type of person who is interested in his neighbors or the type of person who wants adventure or the type of person who can’t tell the truth. I like that. I like the idea of stories built around people who are driven by one thing. A guy wearing a black hat, who is therefore evil, is that one thing.
Do you think part of the reason Hitchcock movies are so scary is because people can imagine themselves as that type of person when they watch it? Was that a bit of a breakthrough?
CK: The less specific you make a character, the more likely it is that the audience will be able to import themselves into that template. So yes, I think if you watch a movie like Rear Window or something, the whole thing is really based around the idea that Jimmy Stewart is too curious for his own good. Everything else about him is secondary: his relationship to his girlfriend, his profession. All of these things are secondary to the fact that he’s just nosy. So I think anybody who even has a grain of that personality can then become and inhabit that character in their mind because they share the thing that really matters, they share this one flaw.
For most of your work, you have used footnotes, but they are virtually absent from I Wear the Black Hat. What first attracted you to using footnotes, and why did you feel that they were unnecessary for this project?
CK: That’s a good question. When I was reading David Foster Wallace in the 90s and I saw that he used footnotes all the time, it wasn’t so much that I was trying to copy him—maybe there was some of that—but it was more the fact that I did not realize that it was an allowable thing to do, that you could use footnotes in non-academic writing. This is always an issue when you’re becoming a writer. You read other people’s work, you read books and you like them, and you forget that when you write, you actually have complete control over the reality. You can do whatever you want. It’s very hard to get over this because we’re sort of programmed to think that if we write a book, it’s supposed to be like the other books we’ve consumed. So when I saw that he was using footnotes and often for comedic value, it’s like he’s writing about something serious, and he uses a footnote to connect a joke to it. I thought, “That’s really brilliant, because it seems highly efficient to me.” I’m really into the efficiency of writing, getting the most ideas and the most humor into the smallest possible space. Footnoting seemed like a way to do that. It was also a way that if I wrote something kind of complicated, and then I realized that I needed to put something else in there, I didn’t have to tear the whole thing apart. I could just add a number, and then the reader could go down and check.
But then, I started to worry about two things: Was I growing too reliant on footnoting as a way to jam extra information into things? And I also started to wonder if it was distracting to people, and if a certain kind of person felt as though that added injection of information was just extra work. So how can I do this? How can I continue to use this style without relying on footnotes in this conventional way? What I tried to do with I Wear the Black Hat was to use bracketed information. The bracketed information is essentially what would have been footnotes in the past. But I thought, “What if I put the footnote into the text and I make it clear that it’s peripheral to what I’m writing, that it’s secondary, but you don’t have to look down or hit a button?” Especially with e-books now. I had to factor in the fact that the medium matters. So, if someone buys this book as an E-book or on a kindle, I don’t want to make it impossible for them to read because it has footnotes. So this is what I did. I put it in these bracketed sections.
I also kind of thought to myself, “If somebody were to read this book and only read the bracketed sections, it would almost be an alternative edit to the book. So, it wasn’t that I felt that they weren’t necessary this time. In some ways, they may have been more necessary but I like the idea of being— this is going to sound like a real pretentious thing to say: I always hope that my books are slightly formally inventive, that there is something about the form of them that is new or different or strange. In Eating the Dinosaur, all the essays are broken up. There will be Section 1, Section 2, then Section 1A, then Section 3, then Section 1C. My hope was that the way it was structured would actually replicate the way my mind actually thought about these ideas, so that—if you wanted to—you could follow one thread, just all the ones, or twos, or threes, and see that this is sort of how it unfolds. With [I Wear the] Black Hat, the bracketing thing was the formal change. With [Sex, Drugs, and] Coca Puffs, it was the idea of making a book that was sequenced like an album, with these interstitial sections that were kind of like what was happening on Hip-Hop records at the time. Like on a Wu-Tang record there would be a song and then this little skit and a song and a skit. So that’s what the interstitial sections are. So whenever I write a book, I always first think of the idea, the thrust, and all these things I want to do, and then the second thing I think about is how I can deliver this in a way that is slightly unlike other books, without going so far that it seems like a gimmick.
Early on in I Wear the Black Hat you question if “good people” are the ones who accept what they’ve been told as arbitrarily true. This seems to fit your hypothesis that villains are the ones who know the most and care the least. Culturally, we like to think of heroes and villains as diametrically opposed forces, but is it possible to think that heroes are the ones who know the most and care the most?
CK: That’s a great way of thinking about it. It would be great if that were the case.
CK: The thesis in this book, what becomes the thesis, is that the villain is the person who knows the most and cares the least. Now, I didn’t start with that. I started by writing about these people and looked for a unifying concept, and that was as close as I came. I do work a little backwards compared to other writers. I think most people who write essay collections—or short story collections, even—start with a thesis and then all of the work is built around that. I write about what is interesting to me, then go back and look for a thesis. So that came last and was kind of injected back into the text. It’s not perfect, but it was close. Now, the thing that of course worries me about that is if the villain is the person who knows the most and cares the least, you could argue then that the hero is the person who knows the least and cares the most, which kind of makes heroes into people like Forrest Gump—this idea that a naive person who is ignorant to the world would have the biggest heart, and that that’s a real heroic thing. I don’t like that idea either. Your idea would be great if the hero is the person who knows the most and cares the most. In your mind, who is an example?
In Nolan’s Batman, you always hear the Joker saying—or in any hero-villain example—“We’re not so different after all. Come over.”
CK: Yeah, yes! That’s true, yeah.
That’s what makes me think that maybe that could be the case.
CK: I would say that this concept of knowing the most and caring the least…perhaps that’s just a reflection of this fear I have, which is that how people think and how people feel are connected and yet opposed. In Eating the Dinosaur, there is this essay about football. My ultimate takeaway is that the reason I love football so much is that it lets me be intellectually progressive and emotionally reactionary. Somehow, these two opposing things, because they’re happening at the same time, give me comfort. So if the hero is the person who knows the most and cares the most, you’re almost describing the ideal human. That would be the ideal president, for example—a genius with unlimited empathy. Now, Bill Clinton—Rhodes Scholar, very empathetic person, “I feel your pain”—that was sort of his big thing. That would seem to be what you are describing, and yet in practice, Bill Clinton does not seem very heroic to me. I don’t know. That’s a really good question. I wish I had a better answer, almost. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on it a little bit more.
To me, if you know the most, you are carrying this burden of having to decide what to do with the knowledge. In choosing to care the most, I think that’s the much more difficult decision, and that’s why ultimately becoming a villain, either culturally or otherwise, is almost the easy way out.
CK: In that book, I’m very rarely saying, “This person is definitively a villain.” What I’m mostly saying is that this person is being framed by the media culture as villainous. I think what has happened—what has clearly happened—is that in America, and really all of the western world, we’ve come to understand all things through narrative. Storytelling is the way that we understand everything, fiction or non-fiction. If you watch the news and you’re watching a piece on ISIS or on Ebola or whatever the case may be, the only way that we seem to be able to understand things is basically having an introduction to the players, a second act with conflict, and then a third act with resolution or hope for resolution. So if you’re going to use narrative to understand everything, you’re going to have to have a protagonist and antagonist. That is absolutely inescapable. So as a result, we have to have villains, and we have to arbitrarily select them. I think if someone asked me, “Why did you write this book?” a big part of my answer would be just to possibly introduce in peoples’ minds the likelihood that the things that they think about good people and bad people are both arbitrary and not necessarily created by their own minds. That’s the way culture operates now: It’s become increasingly difficult to control your own thoughts, to the point where I don’t know if it’s possible at all, for myself included. I fear that I have lost the ability to control how I think about anything. What’s the only way to combat that? Well, it’s to question everything you think and feel.
I think that thought really crystallizes in Killing Yourself to Live when you’re thinking about Derrick and the Dominos, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. There’s this imaginary dialogue going on in the car between you and the three main women in the book. It was such an interesting device, and I feel like that was the moment where it cracked open for me. You’re almost pointing out to yourself what the essential problem with this worldview is, as it pertains to your interpretation of this one particular song.
CK: Yes, and the problem of this entire process, the problem of the entire process of trying to find a way to understand yourself through things that aren’t you. If someone goes into therapy, the goal, I think, is typically to get that person to really think about his or her self in a one-to-one way. Not how others view you, or not in the context of, “Are you successful?” It’s “How do you feel in this room right now?”—in a vacuum, in a closet, almost. You’re the only person there. How do you feel? KillingYourself to Live is kind of the opposite. KillingYourself to Live says, “You’re just passing through life, and all the meaning can be deduced or understood from the things that are constantly circling you.” If I choose to like “Layla” that must say something about me, that must say something about my agency. Of all the things to like, I pick this. I’m always trying to figure that out. I’m always trying to figure out why I like something or why I hate something. I think the common reaction is, “Well it’s good, and I like it,” or “It’s bad and I don’t.” But I can’t control these things. I know that I don’t have the ability to think freely. Its always kind of this war in my mind between what I actually feel and what I’ve been conditioned to feel.
I think that, ultimately, what that section, or maybe the entire book is raising, is how inescapable that is—that we’ve created a circumstance where you don’t have any choice to live outside of that. You’re presented with all these options of things that you can pull from. I can say, “My favorite band is Radiohead and my favorite movie is 2001: A Space Odyssey.” These things are supposed to say something about me.
CK: It’s a real terrifying problem to question. The last essay in Eating the Dinosaur is about Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. Now of course, it’s very dangerous to ever say, “I relate to the Unabomber” or “I understand his perspective,” and, yet, at its core, that’s what his manifesto was about: the idea that peo- ple, because of technology, have lost the ability to even really comprehend intellectual freedom. That’s often what modern freedom is, actually: a glass ceiling that we’ve accepted. And he said, “There’s a different kind of freedom beyond that.” But of course the only person who seems to access that thought is the kind of person who wants to blow people up through the mail. So how can that be better?
Regarding one thing you were saying earlier about this narrative we craft: Are those barriers starting to come down? You have a passage in your book where you write about Walter White. The way that we’re using narrative now is that these definitive, black-and-white understandings of “this is good and this is bad” are also completely devolving at this point.
CK: In fiction, yes. In fiction, we’ve taken on a much more sophisticated view of these things and have crept in a direction of almost emotional ambivalence—that if you’re going to make a sophisticated television show or a sophisticated film or a sophisticated book, you can’t have a character that is wholly bad or wholly good. Because if you do, it is consumed by people as unrealistic. But in terms of how we consume reality, I don’t think that has happened. In fact, the opposite might have happened because it is now more acceptable to have extremely strong opinions about issues we barely understand.
Do you think that, eventually, fiction is carving out a space for things in reality to move in that direction? That maybe twenty-five years down the line, that is how we will be thinking about the world?
CK: It’s possible. That’s very possible. I think that a person younger than me or younger than you, who is raised as a native in a culture where all fiction is based around the idea that there is no truth, will probably see less truth in life. But I also think that it’s just as likely that fiction will continue to do this as a means of intellectual escape so that people can have rigid views in day-to-day life and still feel as though they have a very nuanced view of reality. I don’t know if Breaking Bad and The Wire have had an actual impact on how people think drug policy should be. I think that peoples’ opinions on drug policy have changed, and as a manifestation this fiction exists and allows them to simulate a view of the world that intellectually they understand to be preferable or more reasonable. But I don’t know if it actually changes the way that they would perceive a drug dealer in their neighborhood. They might watch a show like The Wire and say, “Boy! The difference between a drug dealer and a cop is almost nothing. It’s just all sociology. If a cop is raised in the ghetto, he’ll become a drug dealer, if that drug dealer had been raised in a white middle class house, he would become a cop.” And they recognize this, and I think a lot of that is true. When they actually experience in life, that doesn’t carry over. Here again we’re talking about things where there is no data on this; we’re just talking about what we think.
In I Wear the Black Hat, you write about the cultural history of tying women to railroad tracks and D.B. Cooper, the man who hijacked the plane in 1971 for two hundred thousand dollars. What does your research process look like when you’re starting to map out these ideas and then you pull from these places?
CK: Women being tied to railroad tracks was a hard one to research in some ways. It’s easy to do shallow research. It’s easy to put those search terms into Google and see what comes up. Then I went to LexisNexis and did the same thing. Then, I just started looking for the earliest reference to this happening. When I found that, I tried to figure out if those sources were imaginative or based in reality. It looks to me like they were pretty imaginative and that there were instances of people tying women to railroad tracks, but for the most part this activity was seen by people who were writing plays or people who were writing films as a really clear indication of evil.
The D.B. Cooper stuff: I saw an episode of a TV show called In Search Of, which was hosted by Leonard Nimoy, the guy who played Spock. Every week, there was an episode about things like the Loch Ness Monster or Sasquatch or Aliens, and one of them was on D.B. Cooper. I saw that when I was probably eight. For some reason, I remembered everything about it. Throughout my life, every time I saw a reference to D.B. Cooper, I read it. If I saw a book about him, I bought it. If I saw an article about him, I read it. If there was an anniversary of that happening, I read that. So when I decided to write about him, I had “accidentally” spent a lot of time researching him, never knowing I would write about him. It turns out I did.
I don’t have a lot of advice for people, but I would give writers this advice: Readers are oddly sophisticated at deducing two things: One, they can tell when a writer trying to be controversial on purpose. This is what hurts a place like Slate, in the sense that they now have that reputation, and people actually go into it with the preconceived notion that what they are about to see is an attempt to jar them or be salacious. If you try to be controversial on purpose, people can usually pick that up. You can maybe get away with it once. That’s it. The other thing is, audiences can tell when a writer is trying to figure out what he assumes that audience wants to read about.
This is really motivated by the publishing industry. The publishing industry is always trying to figure out what subject for a book will be huge. But people can tell when the writer thinks that way. People can tell when a writer is pandering to their alleged desires and trying to sell them the exact book or article or story that they supposedly want.
So, I have absolutely stopped trying to do that. What I do is just write whatever’s interesting to me personally and hope other people coincidentally care, which I think is the only thing that you can really do. You can’t figure out what to write about in a way to be successful. You can’t strategize a way to make people engaged. All you can do is follow the path that you organically, naturally find yourself compelled by. Your fascination is authentic. It’s not constructed. You’re interested in this, you write about it, and maybe other people will say, “I am interested in that. That is intriguing.” So, with D.B. Cooper: That was just some guy who I had always been into, and I saw an opportunity to write about him in this book. So I did. I would really always recommend staying away from trying to figure out what your audience wants because they don’t even know. They don’t know until they see it. People don’t know what they’re interested by until it’s too late [laughs]. So, just to get back to your question: To me, researching D.B. Cooper was something I did accidentally for thirty years.
When you started writing that particular chapter, were you like, “[claps hands together] this is the D.B. Cooper chapter.” Or did you start writing it and you’re like, “here is the moment.”
Did it just make sense?
CK: I don’t know. I suspect the first one that you said. It wasn’t that conscious. This is also the thing that is always mysterious. I don’t want to say mysterious because that makes it seem like magic, but it is mysterious. I almost try not to think about it too much. The things I think about are the subject itself and how to make the writing clear. Can I take a complicated idea and make it more straightforward? My dream is that when someone reads any of my books, they almost feel like they’re writing the book with their own mind. The book is totally blank when they start, except for first sentence. They read the first sentence and the second sentence just appears on the page and they’ve done it with their head and they often feel like the book is coming from them. That’s the thing I worry about, creating that feeling. I realized that my books would probably be reviewed better if I wrote in more of a dense style. I’m trying to make my books as accessible as possible while talking about inaccessible ideas. That’s what I think about in terms of the writing. It’s more that I just think every person thinks about the world as they watch the world happen. They’re watching TV or movies.They’re reading the newspaper or whatever.They’re looking at the Internet.They’re watching the world and they have all these ideas in their mind and those ideas are like a ball of yarn that’s all woven together. Writing is just straightening that ball of yarn out. Just taking that string and making it one long piece, as opposed to this muddled, Byzantine quagmire of yarn.
That’s how I feel about writing. I’ve always had thoughts in my mind that just happen to get there because I was alive and writing is straightening them out.