Douglas Coupland is known worldwide as a writer with the ability to capture our techno-pop-culture existence to the page, as well as a deep understanding of the connections between people, and between all of us and our world. His work focuses on those moments in life where our material and spiritual realities conjoin, though it’s taken years — and a distinct rebalancing by Coupland — for this aspect of his writing to come to the forefront of his reviewers’ minds. But then again, who can blame them for strong preconceptions when Coupland’s first book, Generation X (1991), skipped the obscurity that is expected of first-time novelists everywhere and grabbed a central role in our culture’s vocabulary? Since then he has published more than fifteen books of fiction and nonfiction, including the novels Microserfs (1995), Miss Wyoming (1999), All Families Are Psychotic (2001) and Hey Nostradamus! (2003). His work has been translated into twenty-two languages and published in thirty countries.
Upon the original publication of Eleanor Rigby in November 2004, Douglas Coupland was often asked why he chose to write about loneliness, which is a major theme in the book. Coupland said his interest sprang partly from personal experience — he spent some time as a young adult trying to get to the root of his unhappiness, only to realize that he was lonely. But what really intrigued Coupland about the topic was our tendency to ignore what he considers to be one of the most common of life-stunting experiences. As he said in one interview, “I find lonely people aren’t allowed to exist, period. When you’re lonely, that’s all you can think about. Then the moment you’re not lonely, you run away and avoid lonely people altogether because you don’t want to be reminded of that part of your life. So we don’t talk about it. And when it happens, most people don’t know what it is. They think it must be clinical depression, or an allergy. I think because it is lumped in with depression and other medical conditions, people want to say, ‘Oh, just take your Paxil and come back when you’re feeling better.’ But it’s not like that.”
Coupland has also described Liz, the lonely narrator of Eleanor Rigby, as one of his most realistic characters yet. Not only does she exhibit the day-to-day preoccupations and sadness of our society’s less brilliant lights (i.e., most of us), but she also holds within her the seeds of her own spiritual transformation — a potential Coupland sees as inherent in all of us. Her character grew out of his thinking about another woman in his previous novel: “In my experience, the book you’re working on, the seed of it was sown in the previous book, which was Hey Nostradamus! and one of the characters was Heather. I really liked doing her character and thought she could be a bit more than she was, and that’s how Liz came about.”
Coupland has become as well known for his nonfiction and his artwork as he is for his fiction. After the success of his book City of Glass (2000), in which he used photographs and essays to illuminate Vancouver, Coupland broadened his lens and used the same approach for Souvenir of Canada (2002) and Souvenir of Canada 2 (2004), weaving together text and images of cultural objects to celebrate what it is to be Canadian. “I think it’s possible for objects to convey one person’s experience in a way that other people can tap into it,” he explained in an interview. “There is a way for objects to be the [touchstones] of shared experiences.” One of the photographs included in Souvenir 2 featured a worn and holey sock — the “lucky sock” worn by Terry Fox on his prosthetic leg during his Marathon of Hope. That book’s section on Terry Fox, combined with Coupland’s recognition of the amount of meaning that can be held by objects, became the starting point for Coupland’s most recent nonfiction book, Terry, which features photographs of Fox family memorabilia alongside moving text about Terry’s life. For Coupland, this project was one of the most meaningful he’s undertaken. He felt honoured to be able to contribute to Terry’s legacy by giving all Canadians another way of appreciating this hero’s accomplishments: “I can only look at this stuff for about twenty minutes at a time before losing it,” he said. “These images never lose their initial impact.”
For Douglas Coupland, writing is simply what he loves to do, so he does it. “Since 1991 we’ve been through massive cultural, social, technological changes, and the only thing that protects me or you or anyone, the only thing that can protect you in all this is figuring out what it is that you like to do, and then sticking with it. Because once you start to do what people expect you to do, or what your parents think you should do, or whoever in your life thinks you should do, you’re sunk.”
Coupland is also a visual artist and award-winning designer. In fact, he originally set out to be a designer and artist, not a writer. He graduated from the sculpture program at Vancouver’s Emily Carr College of Art and Design in 1984, then attended the Instituto Europeo di Design in Milan, Italy, and the Hokkaido College of Art and Design in Sapporo, Japan. In 1986, he completed a two-year course at the Japan-America Institute of Management Science in Honolulu, then ended up working as a designer in the Tokyo magazine world. Back in Canada in 1987, he showed enough promise as a sculptor to be given a show, “The Floating World,” at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Since then, he has exhibited throughout Canada and the world. His recent shows include “Canada House” at Toronto’s Design Exchange, featuring art and design objects that play with the notion of Canada, and “Super City,” at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, an imaginary cityscape made up of famous buildings such as the CN Tower and the World Trade Center, constructed from building toys such as Lego. Coupland’s art has recently appeared in Montreal, Toronto, San Francisco, Milan and London, England, and he has won two Canadian National Awards for Excellence in Industrial Design.
Coupland was born on a Canadian Armed Forces base in Baden-Söllingen, Germany, in 1961, the third of four boys — which may account for the major presence of siblings in All Families Are Psychotic and his other novels. Or perhaps it gives Coupland his perspective. As he once commented, “People with many siblings are much more open to the truth that the world is an essentially barbaric place and is always on the brink of anarchy. Single children are the ones who want to bring about world peace through hugs.” Coupland has made the Vancouver area his home since the age of four, and can hardly imagine living anywhere else. He currently lives in West Vancouver, surrounded by trees but blessed with big windows, in a bungalow designed by Ron Thom.