North Dakota native Chuck Klosterman forges career as book author, essayist, pop culture critic
Growing up on a farm near Wyndmere, N.D., Chuck Klosterman never pictured himself becoming a successful writer or author.
"No, I didn't really think like that," said Klosterman. "The idea of being a writer didn't even seem plausible, because I had never met a writer in my life."
Yet the farm kid from the Red River Valley built a career, writing for media outlets including the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal; ESPN; Spin, GQ and Esquire magazines; The New York Times; and The Washington Post.
Klosterman, 46, initially gained notoriety for his writing on rock music but he's also written extensively on sports.
"Now I do almost exclusively books," said Klosterman who moved with his wife, Melissa Maerz, and two children from New York City to Portland, Ore., last year.
The author and essayist, whose work focuses on American popular culture, recently completed his ninth non-fiction book, "Raised in Captivity," scheduled for release next summer. It's a collection of 35 short stories.
"It's about science fiction, but not in space," he said. Each story is "kind of like a 'Twilight Zone' episode."
Klosterman has written 11 books, including two novels and a collection of original pop culture essays, "Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto."
The collection "is not my best book, by any means," he said. "In many ways, I sometimes think it's my weakest book. It's my least favorite book of the ones I've written. But the artist is always the worst judge of his own art."
It was well-received.
"That book was probably more popular than all my other books combined," he said. "It came out in 2003, that's when my life really changed. We thought maybe it would sell 12,000 copies. It sold 500,000 copies—it's crazy. "
'Read a lot'
Born in Breckenridge, Minn., Klosterman, the youngest of seven children of Florence and William Klosterman, was raised on a farm near Wyndmere, N.D.
His interest in writing started with reading, he said. "I would read a lot as a kid."
When he began writing for his school newspaper, the reactions from others fueled his interest in writing.
"It seemed like people really responded to what I did," he said. "It was always surprising to me. "When other people notice what you're doing, it kind of becomes part of your identity—you know, when other people give you the sense that what you've written is interesting to them and you can see that it affects them."
At UND, where he majored in journalism and wrote for the student newspaper, The Dakota Student, that perception was reinforced, he said.
In school and beyond, Klosterman never had a mentor, he said. "I just sort of wanted to do it the way I wanted to do it, and—while I suppose there are some downsides to that—I think, in general, it's how you end up becoming original."
"I've come to the conclusion that you don't really become a writer until you no longer want to be influenced by other people," he said. "At some point, you don't want your writing to be compared to anyone. I think that's kind of when it really starts."
After graduation from UND in 1994, he went to Fargo to work for the Forum and, four years later, joined the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal.
There, in the evenings after his workday, he wrote his first book, "Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota," which was published in 2001 and was about growing up in North Dakota and listening to metal music.
"That was probably the first time I became serious about doing this," he said.
The book, which was widely reviewed by music writers, led to a job in New York City where he was senior writer and columnist at Spin from 2002 to 2006.
North Dakota influence
His upbringing in North Dakota influenced his writing, Klosterman said, "because it made me the person I am," he said.
"As a critic, it was very beneficial because, being on a farm in a place that rural, in the middle of the country in the 1980s, the only culture I was exposed to was mass culture."
"As a consequence, I can write about mass entertainment in a way that not necessarily takes it more seriously, but understands it in a more natural way," he said.
"I see small differences in things that to a lot of other critics don't even seem worth considering. So I have a very populist style of criticism."
The course of his career, and the success he's earned, seem to have taken him somewhat by surprise.
"What do you do when your actual life exceeds any dream you had?" he said.
Looking back, "when I got the job at Spin, friends said, 'Oh, your dream has come true,' " he said.
"I never had a dream of working for Spin. When I was working at the Dakota Student at UND in the early '90s, I would read Spin all the time in the office. I knew people wrote these articles, but I never thought of them as actual people—that that was a job you could have."
As a senior in college, "if someone would have asked me what my dream career was, what I wanted to, I would have said maybe, somehow eventually get a job at the Minneapolis Star Tribune," he said.
"And if everything works out perfectly, maybe I'll one day publish one book, when I'm 50."
Although he left North Dakota 20 years ago, he still recognizes the ties to his home state.
"I am real proud that I'm from North Dakota," Klosterman said.
"It's an interesting thing. I've lived in Ohio; I lived in New York for 15 years. When people ask where I'm from, I always say I'm from North Dakota. I never say where I live now."
Klosterman is pleased with the place he occupies in the state's literary landscape.
"I feel good about having written the books—'Fargo Rock City' and 'Downtown Owl'—that involve North Dakota. If I had not written them, no one would," he said.
"North Dakota is still part of who I am."