"Cheap Wine, Plastic Chairs" is a weekly series that celebrates everyone’s favorite part of the author reading: the Q&A. This week, Chuck Klosterman discusses Yeezus and the literary value of 'shrooms.
Audience member: What keeps you writing? You could wake up and literally do anything else.
Chuck Klosterman: In some ways, I have sort of perverse desires, like food and shelter. I’m not going to be up here and be like, "It’s easy to write" — except it’s way better than working. I do not want to have a job. I grew up on a farm, and I saw my parents and my brother work. I was always like, "I don’t want a life like this. I want a life where I just sit around and go, [snooty voice] 'What is reality?"
… I know, I’m kind of giving an unserious answer because you actually asked a good question. What motivates me to write? I really do like the experience of it. I complain a lot while I do it, but, man, it’s really enjoyable to start with nothing and make something. There’s three aspects to life: eight hours when you’re sleeping, eight hours when you’re working and eight hours of your own time. My goal has always been to have the eight hours I’m working to be as close to the eight hours of my own time as possible. It’s very cliché, but the key to being happy is having a job that seems like it’s not work. Though writing is hard, I don’t view it as work. I would rather write a book than spend one day moving furniture.
Also, it’s interesting. I’ve said this before, but I feel like my mind is like a ball of yarn. All the thoughts are the strings, and they’re all kind of rolled up against each other and intertwined. The process of writing is straightening them out. That’s what writing is: typing out the yarn of your mind into a straight line. Because I’m interested in the experience of being alive and I’m interested in consciousness and the idea of why I think the things that I think, and more importantly, why do those thoughts cause me to feel the way I feel — it’s almost like I don’t understand things until I write about them.
Audience member: Have you heard the new Kanye record, and what do you think of it?
CK: I’m glad you asked this question. This is probably the most obsessed I’ve been with a record in a long time — probably since Separation Sunday by The Hold Steady — for many reasons. I said this a couple nights ago, but it’s the truth every time: I always think that at any given point, in any idiom of art, there is usually just one individual — rarely more than one, often it’s none — who is doing the same thing everyone else is doing but parallel to it. In other words, they’re using the same machinery, the same structure, the same narrative ideas, but it’s somehow outside of that.
I feel like in film right now, P.T. Anderson is like this. He’s making films the way everyone else is making films. They’re not experimental. It’s not as though you walk out of his films going, "I don’t know what happened." He’s making regular films, but he’s doing it similar to the way Stanley Kubrick was. There’s something about his understanding of the medium and how the medium is currently being absorbed by people that puts him alongside of it. I feel like in stand-up comedy, Louis C.K. is doing that. He’s not telling jokes about material that is totally different from other people. He’s working in the same milieu as everyone else, but he’s outside of it somehow. He’s doing his own thing.
[Yeezus] really convinced me, along with the interview Kanye gave to The New York Times that really made me realize that he is doing nothing unlike anybody else in hip hop right now, but he is separate. He has this heightened awareness of how his material is being absorbed by people. He’s also very interested in every aspect of the packaging, not just the sound but what it means to put it out now in an age when people don’t really buy CDs anymore. In that interview, he said things like, "I am the nucleus." That kind of makes him a crazy person, but he is the nucleus. It’s sort of like when Lou Reed was in the early ‘70s when he was making Metal Machine Music.
It’s interesting because something is going to happen, and it happens to everyone who does this. Another person who I felt was parallel to the rest of culture but still doing the same thing was Axl Rose in 1991. Well, the culture changes, and now Axl Rose seems buffoonish. He seems out of step and archaic, and it seems all of a sudden all the egocentric things he did that at one point were charming are now seen as tyrannical and idiotic. This will happen to Kanye, too. There’s going to be a period in 10 or 15 years, maybe less, when all of a sudden he’s like a joke to people. It’s going to take 25 or 30 years before people realize how fortunate it was that we experienced this apex of someone’s creative ability at this one given time. This is the record people are going to use as that example.
Audience member: One of my all-time favorite books is 1984. There’s an idea presented in this book about whether ideas can or cannot exist without the words to express them. I’m curious as to what you think as a writer and which side of the argument you’re on.
CK: Short answer: yes. Now the long answer:
If you’ve never taken mushrooms before, and someone’s trying to convince you to do so, they will say something to you along the lines of, "If you take these, you’ll be able to think whatever you want." Your first reaction is like, "I can already do that." And then you take them, and it’s true: You realize that the nature of being a person is to find structure in a chaotic world; we create these ceilings and walls that actually limit what we can think. Sometimes when you alter that reality through drugs, probably through other ways — I don’t know, praying? — you can move beyond that. You’re suddenly struck by the idea that you can think these thoughts, but then you come off the drugs and you can’t think them anymore, but you know that you did. You feel like there’s this extension beyond yourself, and of course you do drugs all the time to see if you can get back there and it never really works again.
I think it’s the same thing that you’re talking about. The problem for writing for me is, often, I can’t get exactly what’s in my mind on the page. I’m trying as hard as I can. I’m trying to be entertaining, interesting and, mostly, clear. Trying to take whatever I think and give it to someone else in a way that they can absorb it in the exact same way I’m feeling it, and that’s very difficult. So what’s really happening is really exactly what you’re talking about.
… It’s always great when you go to a foreign country, Germany in particular: They have some word that we don’t have — oh, this is the word that means you enjoy the bread, but you want water. They have a word just for it! I think there’s a lot of that. I sense the fact that you’re asking this question because you’d also say yes to it, and you’re trying to reconcile with the fact that there are things you feel that you can’t explain. It’s such a common thing that it’s gotta be universal.