Some people hail rock journalist Chuck Klosterman as a pop-culture demigod. For half a decade, his divisive commentaries and music criticism have appeared in major magazines and books (Fargo Rock City; Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs; Killing Yourself to Live, and Chuck Klosterman IV), earning him a cult following among rock geeks nationwide. A columnist for Esquire magazine with a novel called Downtown Owl due out in September, Klosterman tells CCF about his time at the University of North Dakota, where he wrote for the school paper, gained new perspectives on life, and listened to Primus by the light of a kerosene lamp.
Name: Chuck Klosterman
Grew up in: Wyndmere, N.D.
College attended: University of North Dakota
Graduation date: 1994
How many schools did you apply to?
This seems crazy in retrospect, but UND was the only school I applied to. I didn't consider other options. And it wasn't even like I was obsessed with the school, because I'd only visited Grand Forks twice in my life—it just seemed like a normal decision to make. I knew I could only afford to go to a state school, and the University of North Dakota seemed better than North Dakota State University. That was pretty much the whole equation.
There were 23 kids in my high school graduating class, and I think five or six went to NDSU. Another three or four went to Moorhead State, and maybe six went to the North Dakota State School of Science in Wahpeton (which was a juco). I think one girl went to Concordia College, which was private and really expensive. Nobody went anywhere exotic.
At the time, I do remember thinking, "Historically, it seems like the interesting kids from my town always go to UND, so I will go there. Maybe that will make me one of the interesting kids." It has been my experience that the best decisions one makes in life are usually made arbitrarily.
What did you like most and least about the University of North Dakota?
The thing I liked the most was living in the dorms. I really loved that experience; it makes me think I will eventually love living in a retirement home.
The thing I liked the least was the weather. During the first two weeks of class every September, the campus would be filled with all these beautiful women...and then they'd disappear for eight months, and all you'd see were sweaters and parkas and weird hats. It was like living among the Eskimos. But then those same women would reappear during the last two weeks of school in May, and everyone would be like, "Where did these people come from? These are the women enrolled at this university?" It was madness.
How did you choose your major?
Sometime during my freshman year. I feel like I was already self-identifying myself as a journalist, somehow, so it just seemed practical. There wasn't a lot of second-guessing or confusion. I was a much more driven person when I was 18, at least compared to now. Life seemed completely clear to me.
So you did a lot of writing? Any other activities?
I worked for the student newspaper, and that pretty much became the focus of my life. I also played intramural basketball. One year, we went 9-0 during the regular season, defeating every opponent by exactly 4 points. That still amazes me. What are the odds of winning every game by the exact same margin? Sometimes I suspect the games were fixed.
Do you keep in touch with any of your college friends?
Yes, although not in the way I anticipated. During college, I was involved with two distinct social groups: a collection of my eight or nine closest friends (who I spent every evening with) and another group of people I worked with at the student newspaper (the Dakota Student). Upon graduation, I assumed the totality of that first group would always remain in my life, because we had a really intense—almost unhealthy—relationship with each other.
But that has only happened partially. I'm still in regular contact with half of that group, but the other half has completely disappeared. At this point, I don't even know where some of them live. I think what happens —probably to everybody—during college is that you forge all these unique, hyperdeep friendships very quickly, because the day-to-day collegiate experience is constantly transformative, and everyone is incredibly open to thinking about weird thoughts and examining every detail of their life. Plus, everyone is always drunk, so you're often having meaningful, emotional conversations about the nature of existence and who you are as a person. It makes it feel like you're inventing the idea of friendship.
But then your life evolves, and you slowly realize that certain relationships were mostly based on the time and the place and the shared desire to be really close to anyone who seems to be similar to you. That's been something of a sad realization, and it probably explains why I like the movie Kicking and Screaming so much.
But sometimes the opposite happens. Those people I worked with at the newspaper—who I did not view as particularly close friends during the time we were together—have now become people I communicate with almost every day. The seven of us E-mail all the time and get together once a year. We're much better friends now than when we were at UND. I did not anticipate that at all.
What was your favorite hangout spot?
We used to go a 24-hour Hardees restaurant on Gateway Avenue in Grand Forks and sit there all night, talking about Nirvana and Mike Tyson and especially memorable games of Dungeons & Dragons.
The best bar was in East Grand Forks. It was called Whitey's. We went there every Wednesday. But then Whitey's was destroyed by a fire that happened during a flood. They've since rebuilt Whitey's, and the new building was designed to look exactly the way it did before the destruction. But now it's too weird. Even though everything is technically identical, it feels fake. It looks like someone has constructed the set for a TV sitcom called "Whitey's." It's like getting drunk inside a simulacrum.
Were you a bookworm or a slacker?
Neither. I did not study very much, but I always showed up for class. A lot of my friends did the opposite, which seemed crazy to me.
Who were your role models back then?
Axl Rose and Bobby Knight.
What was the biggest obstacle you faced in college?
I think almost every important idea I had about life changed 180 degrees during those four years, so I suppose the biggest obstacle I overcame was myself.
Tell us about one thing you did in college that still makes you proud.
I purchased a kerosene lamp at Target. This was during an era when I really liked Primus. I have no idea why I am proud of this. I guess I just like to think, "You know, I used to be the kind of guy who sat around listening to Primus while pretending it was the 19th century." I feel like this is a good indication of what type of idiot I was in 1993.
Tell us one way in which college changed you.
Prior to going to UND, it had never occurred to me that it was possible to tell a story without a linear narrative. The concept had simply never occurred to me. But once it did, it changed the way I thought about everything.
If you could go back, what about college would you do differently?
Nothing. I have minor regrets but no major ones. I probably wouldn't have worn a baseball cap everywhere.
What were two things you did for the first time while in college?
Go to Canada. Eat Chinese food.