On Douglas Coupland’s website, there is a photograph from his art installation, Tropical Birds (2003). The installation includes a scene based on the reports of how the cafeteria appeared to rescuers and officials after the massacre at Columbine High School: backpacks strewn across tables and the floor, chairs knocked over, lunches unfinished. The accompanying audio track plays the sounds of birdsong. The piece was born out of rescuers’ comments that the sound of cellphones and pagers ringing in student backpacks – “like birds chirping” – combined with the gush of sprinklers to seem almost surreally tropical. Of course, the horror is that the phones and pagers announced desperate parents trying to reach their children.
The 1999 Columbine massacre was one impetus for Hey Nostradamus!, as it and other events, such as the École Polytechnique shootings and the attacks of 9/11, prompted Coupland to look at how we collectively deal with horror, grief and faith. Even the epigraph for the book, a passage from 1 Corinthians, is taken from a headstone of one of the Columbine victims. Though he did not have a religious upbringing, Coupland considers himself a very religious person, and over the years has found himself more and more interested in exploring questions of God and belief in his work.
Coupland approached writing Hey Nostradamus! like he does all of his novels: as he would an artwork – for him, the media are the same. As he commented in one interview, “What I do know is that there are certain feelings you can create within yourself and within someone engaging with what you’ve done that you can only get from looking at an art object, that you can’t get from words, and vice versa. And I don’t make that many distinctions in my head, I don’t see them as being very different from each other. I entered writing with words quite literally being arts supplies as objects, through Jenny Holzer and text art, and then the text art became long-form fiction, so in my head, I think of the new book, or the new novel, as being an art exhibition, and it’s different from the books that came before it.”
In fact, Coupland originally set out to be a designer and artist, in the conventional sense. He graduated from the sculpture program at Vancouver’s Emily Carr College of Art and Design in 1984, then attended the European Design Institute in Milan, Italy, and the Hokkaido College of Art and Design in Sapporo, Japan. In 1986, he completed a two-year course in Japanese business science along with fine art and industrial design. After taking on writing projects over the years, Coupland happened upon fame as a novelist when his first book, Generation X (1991), achieved unexpected and meteoric success. Since then he has published fourteen books of fiction and non-fiction, including the novels Microserfs (1995), Miss Wyoming (1999) and All Families Are Psychotic (2001), and the bestselling cultural explorations City of Glass (2000), Souvenir of Canada (2002) and Souvenir of Canada 2 (2004). In all, his work has been translated into 22 languages and published in 30 countries.
Douglas Coupland writes because it is something he simply loves to do. “What I found over the years is that 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.” However, when one interviewer commented on his seemingly prolific writing career, Coupland disagreed. “I’m not the least bit prolific,” he responded. “I look at people with hard jobs and kids, and to me they’re the ones who are fantastically prolific.”
Though he was born on a Canadian Armed Forces base in Baden-Söllingen, Germany, in 1961, Douglas 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, in a Ron Thon-designed house, where he works as a writer, designer and visual artist. His art has recently appeared in San Francisco, Milan and Vancouver, and will be featured in upcoming shows in Toronto, London and Montreal. He has won two Canadian National Awards for Excellence in Industrial Design, and Hey Nostradamus! was nominated for the 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (Canada & Caribbean) and won the Canadian Authors Association Award for Fiction.