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All families are psychotic
Author Q & A
1) How did you become a writer?
The older I get, the more I wonder. I used to think it was by accident, but now I don’t. In one sense it was because nobody in my life would listen to me, and if I didn’t communicate with somebody, anybody, I would go mad. I think this is still the case. Sure, in 2001 I know people will listen to me, but I think the early damage has been done. I still only feel I’m communicating when I’m writing.
2) What inspired you to write this particular book?
A very large and strange transformation took over my own family two years ago with the birth of my niece, who arrived with no left hand. Sounds simple enough, but the effect was deep and ongoing and in many senses turned my family inside out, like sleeping bags, letting us shake out the dust and bedbugs and let the sun do some healing. The family situation was aggravated by a spike in birth defects in the part of Vancouver where we live. Hence the title of the show [Coupland’s art show Spike]. The spike made the papers, and the spike was definitely there, but in the end there was insufficient energy, will and know-how on the part of the local medical authorities to ferret out the reason for this spike. There was no Erin Brockovich.
All Families are Psychotic was one way of trying to accept this situation and reconcile the fate of my family – and everyone's family – to those forces out there in the world that can scramble us at any moment. One character in the book, the daughter, Sarah, is missing a hand, but in her case, the cause was thalidomide in the year 1960 – a dreadful morning sickness drug that haunted Canadian mothers for years. Everyone else in the book has the same number of quirks and problems as any one else's family – yours, even.
Writing isn’t therapy – it’s a way in which we as humans can make sense of, and come to grips with, our experiences, of taking something intensely personal and rendering it universal.
3) What is it that you’re exploring in this book?
If the book has any moral, it's that in the end, I think we love each other just as much for what we are as for what we aren't. That's certainly been the big switch in my mind the past few years. Oh, what a release it was when I reached that conclusion – this load was released from my shoulders and it felt almost Biblical!
4) Who is your favourite character in this book, and why?
Janet Drummond – the 64-year old family matriarch who had thought she was of no familial or social value, and who ends up being very much the core of her family and the social circle around her. She thinks her life is over, and just then it becomes fantastically interesting.
5) Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book?
Hang in there for the first bit. You have no idea what’s going to happen. Trust me. That’s true of life, too.
6) Do you have a favourite story to tell about being interviewed about your book?
This book in particular? No – not really. It’s too soon in its life cycle. But I have a thousand other stories about other books.
7) What question are you never asked in interviews but wish you were?
I’ve been asked everything. I think. Wait – I know — people ask me how ”success” has changed me, and truth be told, it hasn’t. I’m maybe a bit more practical and wary of being used, and wary of sleazeballs who cruise the waters of intellectual property. But that’s it. But nobody ever asks how it’s changed the people around me. It really has changed them, and for years at a time, and mostly not for the better. It took about seven years for the people in my life to stop being so weird about everything. That was a long and lonely seven years.
8) Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?
I had the fortune and misfortune of never being edited for the first two-thirds of my career. I was indulged and encouraged to pioneer new forms – which is really the biggest gift you can have as writer. But after a point I got tired of making mistakes I didn’t even know how to identify. I’m a voracious reader, and when I write I simply try to write what I’d want to read myself. There was no distance for me. I’ve really had to “put myself through Harvard” the past four years, and have made huge qualitative and structural leaps in my work. But was this triggered by any one specific review or profile? No. I don’t read them – can’t read them – even when they’re over-the-moon great. But I can certainly pick up the background radiation of what they’re saying. People tell me. And for what it’s worth, people can be quite mean when they pretend to be nice. I was on the cover of Time and not one person phoned or e-mailed. Not one. But when a snippy bit of nothing, untrue gossip appears in a paper 3,000 miles away, my e-mail and phone go nuts. It’s human nature, but come on people – like I don’t notice this?
9) Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?
Jenny Holzer (she’s an artist who works with text)
10) If you weren't writing, what would you want to be doing for a living? What are some of your other passions in life?
Scultpure. Not even a moment’s doubt there.
11) If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?
It would be presumptuous of me to answer this.
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