Chuck Klosterman grew a beard a few years ago and his world will never be the same. "I listen to the Grateful Dead now," he says. "I guess I just relate to it more. You grow a beard and things change." The uptick in facial hair might also explain why, after four highly personal books about pop culture, the 36-year-old decided to take a stab at writing fiction; his debut novel, Downtown Owl, follows three verbose characters in rural North Dakota in 1983. We spoke to Klosterman shortly after he'd returned from a five-month professorial stint at the University of Leipzig.
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Time Out New York: What did you miss the most while you were in Germany?
Chuck Klosterman: I missed Mountain Dew a lot, because you can't get it over there unless you're next to an Air Force base.
TONY: Mountain Dew? Really?
Chuck Klosterman: I drink, like, three Mountain Dews a day. No, maybe not three. I drink two Mountain Dews a day.
TONY: You're a New Yorker now, though. The Dew is so not a New York drink.
Chuck Klosterman: Um, what is a New York drink?
TONY: I don't know. Seltzer?
Chuck Klosterman: Yeah, but why would I want to drink that shit? It's not good.
TONY: Okay, then. Your novel is set in North Dakota, your home state. No offense, but that seems like a strange place to have grown up.
Chuck Klosterman: People talk about how strange it must have been growing up on a farm in North Dakota. But I think kids who grow up in Manhattan have the weirdest understanding of what the world is like. They essentially don't even live in America. They live in this place where nobody drives, where you can get anything you want at any given time, where diversity is normal. A political moderate here is somebody who, like, doesn't want McCain to die. To me, that would be weird.
TONY: Why did you want to write a novel?
Chuck Klosterman: I wanted there to be people who weren't me saying things that I invented—but I didn't want their quotes to be attributed to me. Because if you write something in memoir fashion, anything you say is going to be taken as a literal depiction of how you view the world. If you place it into the mouth of a character, it's not that way.
TONY: So you've never thought, "I am worshipped by the stupidest people in the world"—a line from one of your characters?
Chuck Klosterman: I don't feel like I'm worshipped by stupid people. I don't feel like I'm even worshipped. But if people are worshipping me, I'm not going to call them stupid.
TONY: You are idolized, though. How has that affected your life?
Chuck Klosterman: At virtually every moment of my life, it's a complete nonfactor. You can fool yourself, though, because it's easy to forget that most people don't care at all. You go out in public and nobody knows who you are. But you see someone looking at you and for a second you think, Does that person recognize me? And then you realize that sometimes people just look at people.
TONY: If you could spend 30 minutes being someone else just for the pure joy of it, whom would you pick? And don't say John Malkovich.
Chuck Klosterman: [Laughs] Well, I can't play any musical instrument, so it would be great to play guitar for a half hour. And I suppose if I was going to play guitar for a half hour I'd want to get the most notes maximum. So I'd probably want to be Joe Satriani. I don't spend a lot of time listening to Joe Satriani's music, but it would be really cool to be able to shred like that.
TONY: I'm surprised you didn't sayTommy Lee.
Chuck Klosterman: Why is that surprising?
TONY: Because you really like Mtley Cre. And, well, the babes.
Chuck Klosterman: Here's the deal: You have the average person, and you have the famous person. What are the things that they can both do? Well, they can both have sex with people and they can both do drugs. So I'm not going to pick someone just to have sex with a bunch of girls and do a bunch of drugs. I could do that anyway if I really put my mind to it. I'd want to do something that I could never do. So if I was Tommy Lee for a half hour, it would be more interesting to play drums. [Pauses] Well, who knows? I guess if I was Tommy Lee for a half hour and all I did was play drums, it would probably be a wasted opportunity.
Downtown Owl is out Tue 16; Klosterman reads Sun 14 (Brooklyn Book Festival) and Tue 16.