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Sat April 19, 2014
Writing The Wicked Ways Of The 'Worst. Person. Ever.'
Originally published on Mon April 21, 2014 12:26 pm
Douglas Coupland's latest book, Worst. Person. Ever., is a profane, shocking novel that centers around an awful guy named Raymond Gunt.
"Imagine there's this really bitter English guy who has Tourette's and swore all the time, except he doesn't have Tourette's, he just swears a lot. Like, a lot — to the point where it almost becomes like performance art," Coupland tells NPR's Arun Rath.
Raymond is struggling to pay off debt that he's acquired making bad decisions in his miserable life, and he ends up taking a job as a cameraman for a Survivor-style reality show.
This requires moving to an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Halfway through the book, he still hasn't made it to the island. But he has had two life-threatening encounters with tree nuts and two stints in jail. And that's only the beginning of the havoc-filled journey.
"Of all the characters I've done, he's the one that I don't know where he came from," Coupland says.
Raymond Gunt is truly a despicable character, with no redeeming qualities. But he doesn't take any responsibility for that.
"The essence of comedy is the difference between how you see yourself and how the rest of the world sees you," says Coupland. "And he, of course, thinks of himself as Jason Bourne, except he doesn't have a chin."
On creating a terrible character, as a nonterrible person
Is Angela Lansbury an ax murderer? The thing about characters — and this is weird, I mean, I've been doing this for 14 books now — is you start writing a book, and then about a quarter of the way in, usually the characters basically write the book itself and you're just sitting there channeling it.
In the case of Raymond ... "Oh my God, I can't believe he just did that. Wait, technically I just did that. Didn't I? What's going on here?" Of all the characters I've done he's the one that I don't know where he came from.
On the goals of the book
Every book I do is different from the ones that preceded it. They're always an experiment. Everything new should offer some chance to change the reader in some way. And with this book, I kind of want you to feel like what would it be like to be hit from fire hoses from seven different directions at full blast. And then, they turn off and you're sort of standing there, like, tingly, and little cartoon stars sort of flying around the top of your head.
One of the reasons I wrote the book is just because things have been sort of grim in a lot of ways and there's sort of this epidemic of earnestness. Why not just go against that trend and write something that, you know, might actually damage a person's soul if they read it.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Usually when I do an interview, I'm the one asking the questions. But when I sat down with writer Douglas Coupland this week, he had some questions for me.
DOUGLAS COUPLAND: Have you ever tried to get rid of a body?
RATH: Not a human body, no.
Some I was unqualified to answer.
COUPLAND: Why do different parts of the body taste different? Why does liver taste like liver and why does tongue, ugh, taste like tongue?
RATH: And for some reason, this.
COUPLAND: Have you ever done a musical? Like high school kind of stuff, I can't say.
RATH: I like karaoke.
COUPLAND: I live in fear of karaoke. My God, we're digressing. OK.
RATH: Digressing from our real topic, Coupland's new novel. It's called "Worst. Person. Ever." It's a profane and shocking book that centers around a completely loathsome individual named Raymond Gunt.
COUPLAND: OK, imagine there was this really bitter English guy who had Tourette's and swore all the time, except he doesn't have Tourette's. He just swears a lot, like a lot, to the point where it almost becomes, like, performance art.
RATH: Raymond is struggling to pay off debt he's acquired making bad decisions in his miserable life. So he ends up taking a job as a cameraman on a remote island for a reality show.
COUPLAND: Which is an extremely thinly veiled version of "Survivor," which is a show I love, by the way.
RATH: Raymond has no idea what he's getting into. He also has no clue that he really is the worst person ever.
COUPLAND: And, of course, he thinks of himself as being like Jason Orrin(ph), except he doesn't have a chin over the course of the book. Every woman he's ever really done wrong in his life magically appears one by one until they're all - and I hope this doesn't spoil things - trapped on an island together.
RATH: And Raymond, as you said, well he doesn't really think he's done anyone wrong. He tends to blame the world for what happens to him.
COUPLAND: Oh no, he thinks he's a fine, upstanding citizen, you know. Oh, by the way, no, I just realized I would like you to say, if you could, right now, that you found the book funny.
RATH: I found the book hilarious. I laughed out loud a bunch of times.
COUPLAND: I want to, like, leverage that it was funny out of you, because books editors can do this really naughty thing where they take a book and they give it to the complete wrong person to review it, which means a great review, but it just makes life difficult for the person on the receiving end.
RATH: It was hilarious. I don't remember the last time I read a novel and laughed out loud so many times.
COUPLAND: Ah, music to my ears.
RATH: But let me tell you though, that while it was hilarious, and while I literally couldn't put it down...
COUPLAND: You were entertained against your will.
RATH: I was - maybe there's part of that, because I don't quite know how I feel about this book...
RATH: ...meaning that it's hilarious, but it's 300-pages of vulgarity almost without lapse.
COUPLAND: I try and top myself as things progress.
RATH: Do you think it's an unfair description?
COUPLAND: My editor did say, like, well, can Raymond just have Tourette's, and that way it becomes cute and funny? It's like, no. He's just English and this is what he does.
RATH: You know, I've already seen some reviews of this book, and you've been attacked for it, because Raymond comes across, at least as misogynist and homophobic and misanthropic and, yeah, all these horrible things. And I don't know a lot about you, but as from what you've written and things that you've said, I don't think that you're those things.
COUPLAND: Well, that's sort of like is Angela Lansbury an ax murdered?
RATH: Right, right.
COUPLAND: It's the thing about characters, and this is weird - I mean I've doing this for 14 books now, is you start writing a book, and then about a quarter of the way in usually, the characters basically write the book itself and you're just sitting there channeling it.
And so in the case of Raymond, dum-da-dum-da-dum, like, oh my God, I can't believe he just did that. Wait. Technically I just did that, didn't I? What's going on here? And that was, of all the characters I've done, he's the one that I don't know where he came from or whatever. It's just, like, blah.
RATH: In a way I find that comforting because if you were here telling me that, oh yeah, Raymond, I know that guy. I'd be a bit concerned.
COUPLAND: I have no idea where he - well, that's characters in general.
RATH: Well, you're a literary writer, and, again, I couldn't close this book. I felt like there's a point to this, but it's not, like, there's no redemption.
COUPLAND: Oh no, there's no socially redeeming value whatsoever. Every book I do is different from the ones that preceded it. Everything new should offer some chance to change the reader in some way.
And with this book, I kind of want you to feel like, what would it be like to be hit from fire hoses from seven different directions at full blast, and then they turn off, and you're just sort of standing there, kind of like tingly and little cartoon stars sort of flying around the top of your head.
And one of the reasons I wrote the book is just because things have been sort of grim in a lot of ways. And there's sort of this epidemic of earnestness and why not just go against a trend and write something that might actually damage a person's soul if they read it?
RATH: So, thank you for damaging my soul. You'll have to...
COUPLAND: What's the opposite of a vitamin? It's like...
RATH: It's like a detramin(ph) or...
COUPLAND: No, it's like one of those hamburgers that has, like, chicken with, like, two meat patties in a bun.
RATH: A Big Mac.
COUPLAND: It is that.
RATH: Douglas Coupland, it's been a wild pleasure speaking with you.
COUPLAND: Well, thanks so much.
RATH: Douglas Coupland's new novel is called "Worst. Person. Ever."
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RATH: Again, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.