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Preaching to the Converted: Douglas Coupland Reads in West
by Tia Abell
Standing at the pulpit, Douglas Coupland looks out at the young
crowd gathered to hear him speak. "It's kind of exciting," he
says, his voice sounding a little husky from a cold, or maybe
nervousness. It's hard to tell. He rarely holds readings, so it's
no surprise people show up for the advertised reading of his most
recent book, Eleanor Rigby.
Laughter rings from the pews at St. Catherine's Anglican Church
in Edgemont Village, where the author/artist/cultural commentator/deep
thinker appears courtesy of 32 Books. He's on his home turf. Born
on a Canadian military base in Germany, Coupland grew up in West
Vancouver, graduated from Sentinel secondary school and studied
sculpture at the Emily Carr College of Art and Design.
To one who's never seen him in person before, his manner and
appearance are a surprise. Press shots often show Coupland clean-shaven
and tidily attired in a jacket, white shirt and tie-a look so
fresh, clean-cut and missionary-like as to be almost otherworldly.
But the 43-year-old who stands on the platform beneath the church's
silken banners looks like a regular West Coast kind of guy, a
little shy, dressed in green cargo pants and a long-sleeved cream
T-shirt. And he wears a slight beard, almost as if he forgot to
pack his razor.
He doesn't read from Eleanor Rigby after all. He reads from
Polaroids from the Dead and Life After God.
Nobody seems to mind. In fact, the audience is clearly his.
And all the places mentioned are just steps away-Capilano Road,
Capilano View Cemetery and the Cleveland Dam. Smiles flash across
the room as people recognize locations.
Introducing Life After God, Coupland notes "It got trashed in
the reviews... but I read it recently and thought, 'Damn, that's
a good book.'" He grins.
His fans have brought stacks of his books for him to sign, including
the fictional Microserfs, Miss Wyoming, Girlfriend in a Coma and
his non-fiction love-letter to Vancouver, City of Glass.
And of course, some have brought Generation X, the 1991 book
that identified the post-boomer generation and made the author
famous. Possibly his most well known work, Generation X wasn't
set in Canada, nor was his second book, Shampoo Planet. But the
rest are all-Canadian texts.
"All these books are set in North Vancouver and West Vancouver.
Everyone is saying, 'Wow, that's so real. He's got street cred.'
But no, it's just easier."
Yet it's hard to imagine a writer more concerned with Canuck
culture. Anyone having a look at his two Souvenir of Canada books
will likely recognize the old brown stubbies, ubiquitous red plaid
jacket fabric or ever-present Canadian geese as symbols with almost
But Coupland has topped this series with a new book about one
of the most beloved Canadians: Terry Fox. Set for an April release,
Terry: The Life of Canadian Terry Fox will be a fundraiser for
cancer research. Coupland will donate all his royalties, while
his publisher, Douglas & McIntyre, will donate part proceeds.
Coupland says a personal connection to cancer inspired the project.
"My wonderful friend and first editor, Mac Perry, came down with
a particularly evil form of cancer a year ago last fall," he says
during an email interview after the reading. "And the thing about
cancer, as any reader who's gone through such an experience knows,
is that you feel helpless sitting on the sidelines. And I remembered
something I read once that Terry Fox said, that miracles are fine,
but it's research that saves lives. I'm not an athlete or a researcher,
so books seemed like the best way to raise money for research
to fight cancer."
Coupland found Fox's "Canadianess" an inspiration. "He was such
a loyal Canuck. He never once mentioned taking his run into the
U.S. despite the potential money to be made...heroes come and
go, but myths come along once in a lifetime, and here's this guy
from a bland Vancouver suburb who changes the way the universe
operates. It's humbling. I put the photo of him in his grad suit
on the book's cover because it's so universal. I've worn that
same suit! We all have!"
Coupland in particular has a knack for finding the universal
in common everyday objects, things like a grad suit that can create
a sense of connection to where we live, something he says is important
to all of us. Not that he always felt connected, himself. "I always
felt like a Martian growing up. Not just weird, but literally
not from this planet. The Canada books have been a way of making
me feel more like a part of the human family."
Considering how separate he once felt, it's perhaps odd that
he's now required reading in some college-level English courses,
which may in part explain his youthful fan base, although he credits
"I just hope they get good grades when they write about me,"
he says. "I've been a Jeopardy! question twice now, and the thing
I always care about is whether the contestant wins in the end.
And being on required reading lists is such a strange thing. All
I ever do is write about life as it's lived in the places where
I live. I think the literary establishment really cripples future
writers by telling them their own lives aren't good enough. What
a load of crap!"
Coupland might just be the Canadian most passionate about his
country, and he makes a strong case for keeping an eye on the
Great White North's tender identity. "I'm neither right nor left,
but I do know that once you forfeit a dimension of uniqueness,
you never get it back again. Whoever you are reading this, please
fight tooth and nail and claw and blood to save whatever it is
that makes us US. Don't be tricked by short-term gain or illusions
of control. Once you give it away, it's gone. Period."
Back at the reading, Coupland comes across as warm and approachable.
His reading style is conversational, sprinkled with comments and
ideas. But he's hesitant to answer questions.
At Q & A time, he tells the audience that, usually, question
number one is dull, question number two is okay but question number
three takes everyone hostage and is often about matters best shared
with a shrink. By question number four, everyone makes for the
door, he adds.
"So let's go directly to the fifth question and skip one through
It's quiet for a moment, then a couple of brave souls dare to
raise their hands. The first question is muffled. Coupland answers
that he told his mother every house in the neighbourhood is a
grow-op. "And she said, 'Now I know why we don't get any trick-or-treaters
Coupland's Mom gets a laugh.
The second question is about the minimalist nature of his website
(www.coupland.com). "I don't want to get too bloggy," he says,
then asks how many people read blogs. A few hands show. Coupland
takes the opportunity to end question period, cheerfully directing
the crowd to the "joyless book signing chair."
He offers a final comment before sitting down. It's related
to a book he's reading about how culture develops in relation
to duplication technology.
"It really drives me nuts not to see the end of the 21st century,"
he says with a sigh. And you know he means it.
Tia Abell writes from Vancouver. Her column is reprinted
courtesy of The North Shore Outlook.