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Twenty years on, Douglas Coupland reflects on writing Generation X

I sat down to begin writing Generation X — and it feels like 20 years ago, too — no tempus fugit for me.

The book is an updating of The Decameron — a story of people self-banished to the wilderness while waiting for a plague to end.

And it's odd that Gen X was the thing that would change my life, because everything about the book reeked of disaster and bad decision-making. I'd only begun writing less than three years earlier — non-fiction for magazines in Canada — and I was soon hitting that point in life where poor decisions come back to bite one. I was at the end of my twenties and it was becoming clear to me that my thirties were going to be a continuing mix of rootlessness and poverty.

Then, in 1989, a Toronto agent sold the idea of Generation X to both a Canadian and an American publisher. He promised the publishers a field guide to whatever group it was who followed the post-Boomer sensibility. One must remember that in 1989, nobody believed that there could possibly exist a post-Boomer sensibility. Seriously. It was a heretical thought.

The advance was enough for me to quit freelancing for a small while to focus on the book. But then one afternoon in April of 1989, I was emerging from Toronto's Davisville subway station — there had just been a rainstorm and the sunset was cold and tangerine — and a wave swept over me, one of those waves that occur not too often in one's lifetime. It was one of the few times I've ever heard "a voice" (whatever a voice really is), and the voice very clearly said to me, "Okay, Doug. It appears that you're going to be a full-time writer now. Good. But that means you have to write fiction rather than non-fiction, because fiction is purer. You'll have to clear all your decks and you're going to have to change the way you see both you and your future."

And then the voice left and I was just another guy standing on a wet sidewalk outside the Golden Griddle. But life was now different.

I foolishly took out a lease on a tiny bungalow in Palm Springs, California, for no other reason than that I'd been there once before and it seemed like a romantic place to write a book — oh, the naïveté of youth. And by locking myself into a lease in the State of California I'd shackled myself to a year of profound loneliness and despair, the grimness of which haunts me to this day.

This was 1989 and Palm Springs had yet to become hip or gay, or trendy, or a good real estate investment. It was a bell jar of a (by then) astonishingly geriatric way of life that had calcified around 1964. I was the only person under the age of 45 in the Coachella Valley (now the home of a genuinely hip music festival, which seems amazing to me, as, in 1989, the acme of Palm Springs hipness was a deli on Tahquitz Canyon Way that sold coffee until its 8 p.m. closing time.)

It was truly stupid to move to the middle of nowhere, to write fiction — I'd never written fiction — and somehow assume things would work out. Ah, youth and its protective coating of cluelessness.

And so I started to write the book. I remember spending my days almost dizzy with loneliness, also feeling like I'd sold the family cow for three beans. I suppose it was this crippling loneliness that gave Gen X its flavour. I was trying to imagine a life for myself on paper that certainly wasn't happening in reality. In the book there was the idea that people marooned in the wilderness could unmaroon themselves by telling stories to each other. That still seems to me to be a valid way of seeing the world.

There was also the notion that telling stories was a way of coping with information overload — hence the book's subtitle, Tales for an Accelerated Culture. In 1989, information overload meant 50 TV channels instead of 10, as well as push-button phones instead of rotary-dial phones — quaint now, but back then it felt real. What was really going on with the writing of X was, I suspect, the use of storytelling as a form of creative pattern recognition from which might erupt clues to psychic survival. That's possibly what storytelling is in a large sense, and it's what I do for a living, the most recent evidence of which is Generation A, a follow up to X where the cultural acceleration experienced by the characters is palpable rather than theoretical.

In any event, I FedEx'ed the manuscript to New York and Toronto on April 1, and then began to wait and wait and wait and wait for a response. None came. By summer the temperature was around 110 degrees every day, and my landlord kindly let me out of my lease and, being broke and Canadian, I moved to Montreal, a city where being broke and Canadian at least had some dimension of flair. By midsummer I learned that the book's Canadian publishers had rejected it outright. When the book wasn't published in Canada, a lot of people accused me of being unCanadian by going to the U.S. first. That rejection really hurt me on many levels, and it woke me up to how stupid and judgmental people could be who really ought to have done the tiniest bit of homework.

As well, the book's U.S. publishers were going to delay the book indefinitely. Boy, talk about giving a younger writer self-esteem issues. My good fortune was that the younger staff at the U.S. publisher became vocal in their demand that the book be published, which occurred ever so grudgingly in March 1991. A chewed up plastic courier bag holding two mangled copies of the book arrived in Montreal, and looking at them I noticed that its cover didn't actually cover the pages, which stuck out maybe 3/8 of an inch from the edge. When I asked my editor what were they thinking I was told not to be so picky.

Welcome to the overnight and highly charmed success story of Generation X.

It worked out in the end, but I still have dreams where I don't know what I do for a living and wake up in a panic. And I still wonder what might have happened to that painfully skinny, strangely clueless Doug who moved off to the desert in 1989, a parallel-universe Doug whose publishers never did, in the end, publish his book. Where would he be now? Would he be happy or sad or lost? I think of that Doug many times every day of my life, and when I write books now, it's that other Doug who is my audience of one, not me.


This blog post first appeared on the Guardian book club site.

Photo credit: Martin Tessler

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