In Downtown Owl, the pop-culture critic and Esquire columnist tries his hand at fiction by examining a small town in North Dakota.
You've published only nonfiction thus far. Why fiction now?
Nonfiction is reactive. You respond to what others have done or said. With my novel, I wanted to write a reality that I could create. I must admit I was a little cavalier about doing this. I thought writing fiction would be harder, but I didn't realize how much harder. Currently, I'm sitting in an apartment looking at a carpet. It would be easy to describe what this particular carpet looks like and what it could represent about this apartment to a stranger. But to invent and describe a carpet is extremely difficult. I'm primarily a journalist and a nonfiction writer, but the only way to tell this particular story was to make it up.
Most of your career has been spent focusing on pop culture. Why did you decide to set Downtown Owl in such a tiny unique town?
My nonfiction is built on mass culture and specific personal experiences. I wanted to do the exact opposite with the novel. I wanted to write about the American era before the last real acceleration of culture, before everyone had cellphones, cable and the Internet. I think that's an interesting lost time. 1983 is 25 years ago, but it seems longer.
You once said that people end up feeling alienated by their own normalcy. This book touches upon that theme. What made you want to focus on this idea in your novel?
One's condition in life doesn't have much impact on one's degree of happiness. Someone who is prone to depression will be that way regardless of wealth. If someone feels alienated despite the fact that, for all practical purposes, they are “normal,” I think that's an interesting problem. When people look back on the last half of the 20th century and the first half of the 21st century, this abstract alienation is the human quality that will stand out.
You've been criticized for examining the “common man's” interests. Your novel contains complex characters who on first glance appear to be common. Was this an answer to your critics?
I have been criticized for writing about low-culture but I have also been rewarded for it. I didn't think of that when I began writing this book. It wasn't an answer to the critics. The goal when you're trying to create a character is to create someone who seems completely ordinary but has very specific problems and ideas. Or you try to create someone who seems extraordinary but ultimately they're dealing with the most common of problems.