Q&A: Catching up with Chuck Klosterman

Omnipresent pop-culture critic reminisces over McVey Hall, Wilkerson and how UND influences him still today

Chuck Klosterman

Prior to becoming a household name, writer and pop-culture critic Chuck Klosterman penned for the Dakota Student, the student-run newspaper of the University of North Dakota, which he attended in the early 1990s. Even back then, his stories – many of which sliced-and-diced rock music and sports – gripped the campus for all types of reasons – they were unorthodox, ambitious and downright captivating. Image courtesy of Chuck Klosterman.

With his auburn mop of hair, brushing over the dark rims of his spectacles and merging with his equally lustrous beard, UND alumnus and international pop-culture color commentator Chuck Klosterman is a familiar face bordering on iconic.

He’s a mainstay on the small screen, airwaves, print pages and the digital realm, all venues where he spills his always thought-provoking and often eccentric wit. His nonconformist ideas and journalistic knacks have permeated revered publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, GQ and Esquire among others – not counting a dozen books.

But elitist socialite he’s never been. A native of small-town Wyndmere, N.D., south of Fargo near Wahpeton, Klosterman somehow found a way to make the hair metal genre of his youth — cringe-worthy to his contemporaries — seem cool. No more deftly was this demonstrated than in his debut literary work Fargo Rock City. His hallmark always has been his uncanny ability to make the esoteric relevant to the masses — from sports to politics to classic hard rock.

Prior to becoming a household name, however, Klosterman wrote for the Dakota Student, the student-run newspaper at UND, which he attended in the early 1990s. Even back then, his stories – many of which fused rock music and sports – gripped the campus for all types of reasons – they were unorthodox, ambitious and downright captivating.

As the Buffalo News noted on the debut of his fourth tome, the fittingly titled Chuck Klosterman IV, “no omnivorous critic of American pop culture is more fun than Chuck Klosterman… wild, woolly and delightful.”

UND Today staff writer Dima Williams caught up with the prominent alum to talk about his time at UND, his career and … well, life.

What is the most important lesson you learned at UND that helped you in your career?

That’s a difficult question, because I don’t think most life lessons are particularly straightforward. As a writer, I suppose the closest equivalent would be the realization that you can’t create what other people want on purpose, because people don’t know what they want until they actually see it. There is no formula for anything creative and subjective. All you can do is write something that you would like to read yourself (and simply hope other people happen to agree).

And your most vivid memory of campus when you were a student?

The Wilkerson dining hall.

Was there anyone, more than most, at UND who had an impact on you as you?

I had a religion instructor named Scott Lowe. He was a really interesting, really smart guy. I took one of his 300-level classes on mysticism, and my final paper was about witches and witchcraft. At the time, I was working a lot at the Dakota Student and I was a senior, so I totally phoned it in. I did zero research and pretty much treated it like a creative writing assignment. When I got the paper back, Scott has given me a B-.  His comments were, ‘This is not your best work. However, I think you show real promise as a humorist.’ That was a meaningful moment for me. I remember thinking, ‘I didn’t work hard enough to make this good, and he clearly knows that. But he still thinks it was entertaining enough to give me a B-. Maybe I should build my life around this.’

How about your favorite class at UND? Why?

This is an odd answer, but I took an acting class in the spring of 1994 that was emotionally transformative. On the last day of the semester, everyone in the class hugged each other. I’d never had that kind of experience before.

How did the relationships you established at UND develop and impact you later in life?

The people who were important to me when I was in college are still important to me now. The impact is on-going.

What do you miss the most about being a UND student?

The thing I miss most was living in the residence halls. That was so incredibly fun. I actually look forward to spending my final years in a retirement home. Maybe it will be like living in McVey Hall.

What inspires you?

 If you’re looking for inspiration you’re in the wrong business. Being alive is all the inspiration any rational person needs.

What are you most proud of professionally?

My overall body of work. When I was in college, I never thought I’d write even one book. The fact that I’ve published more than 10 is crazy, even if none of them are as good as I’d like them to be. Also, I feel good that I wrote a novel about the experience of growing up in rural North Dakota during the 1980s (2008’s Downtown Owl). If I hadn’t written that book, a book like that would never exist.

Any current goals?

To stay alive, to be a good husband, and to raise my kids in a way that allows them to be happy and self-aware.

What fundamental question do you wish you had an answer to?

What is real?

What do you think is the biggest challenge of our time?

Grappling with the question, “What is real?”

Any parting advice for today’s UND community?

 Listen to the Beatles and Black Sabbath.