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Monday, February 8, 2010

A Q&A with Up in the Air author Walter Kirn

Posted By on Mon, Feb 8, 2010 at 6:45 AM

Walter Kirn’s novel Up in the Air came out in 2001, just months before the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. As a result, sales of the novel, which depicted an airplane engulfed in flames on its cover, plummeted. The book got a second life, however, when Juno director Jason Reitman decided to adapt it into a movie starring George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, the novel’s central character. A postmodern nomad who doesn’t really have a home because he works as a corporate axeman, Bingham flies around the country to fire people and the film plots his trials and tribulations as he traipses from airport to to hotel and office and back again. A native of Akron, Kirn recently phoned in to discuss the novel and its transformation into an Academy Award-nominated film.

You were raised in Minnesota, but I was told you were born in Akron. Is that true?
I was born in Akron, and my mother grew up in Shaker Heights and a lot of my family on both sides still lives in Akron, Cleveland and Columbus. Almost all my extended family lives there. I was just there just a little while, about a year. My dad was an engineering grad student at Ohio State and my mom was at nursing school there and that’s where they met. Then we moved from place to place and ended up in Minnesota. I’ve gone back regularly throughout my life to see cousins, uncles and grandparents.

I’ve read that Up in the Air was loosely based on a conversation you had on a plane with a guy who told you he traveled 300 days a year. Is that true?
Yeah, it’s a true story. The ringing part of that conversation of that was when I asked him very simply where he was from and he said, “right here.” Jason kept that line in the movie. My follow-up question was like what does that mean to be from here, a plane. Once he described his life a little bit. I thought I had discovered a new species, like a zoologist who went into the Amazon and found a new monkey or bird. I went home and tried to imagine the rest of this guy’s life. I also wrote an article for GQ magazine in which I hung out in a United Airlines executive flyers club in the Denver airport. The more I talked to these guys, the more I realize they were the future. They had given up what we traditionally call home for what they call the life. Isn’t it amazing how human beings can adapt to any environment. You force them to live in a shopping mall and they will find a way turn it into home and turn the clerks into friends and security guards into their family. Because it’s fiction it had to ask and ponder larger questions like how do you eat at Chilis restaurants every night. It turned out to be a very fertile setting. I also wanted to know how is it that people will make pecking orders or hierarchies out of every situation. We’re a competitive species and here I was meeting people who weren’t competing for prestige or money or satisfaction. They were literally competing for first class seats and upgrades. It became a metaphor for me for addiction and for disconnection. You can be constantly in the middle of everything and nowhere at all. In the book, when people ask Ryan Bingham “Where are you,” he says, “What does it matter. I’m right here.”

I read countless reviews about how it’s a zeitgeist film. Do you think that’s true?
That’s ironic in that it was written ten years ago. Even Jason’s script wasn’t written for this very moment. It just fell into place. I look back on it and that’s kind of inevitable. Both the book and movie attempted to describe life as it is lived nowadays. They aren’t high concept works of art. They didn’t start with what if the world was about to end and an asteroid was coming our way and we had three days to stop it. They simply observed the massive changes going on in our lives in technology and business and social relations. To call it a zeitgeist movie trivializes it a little bit. A zeitgeist movie tries to capture a moment in music or fashion. This is just a movie about the way we do it these days.

Obviously, the film version is its own entity but do you feel some sense of accomplishment and pride in the fact that it’s been nominated for so many Academy Awards.
I feel huge accomplishment and pride. But it’s the kind of pride that a parent feels when its child becomes a doctor or something. You already did your job and because you did your job, someone else is succeeding at their job. I get a lot of glory without any of the responsibility and I get a lot of the attention without having to do any of the work. I’m willing to bask in the reflected admiration for the movie and frankly it comes at a time when book publishing is very hard and the writing life is very hard. To have a movie come along and give a book you wrote a second life is kind of like finding a lottery ticket in the pocket of an old winter coat. That’s how I feel.

The timing of the book’s initial release just before Sept. 11, 2001 didn’t do well for sales. It must be good to get a second chance to sell some copies.
It came out about two months before September 11 and was reviewed prominently and selling well and then after September 11 people thought airplanes equal airplanes crashing into buildings. I had been hired to write a script for Fox studios by Jay Roach who made Meet the Parents and the Austin Powers’ movies. They had to go through with it but it was clear that such a movie wasn’t going to get made in such a climate. When I realized new people were trying to make it, it was kind of miraculous. This movie has a strange guardian angel and I’m not sure if it’s good or evil. The book came out at a time when there was one disaster and now it is a movie during another catastrophe. That is the economic catastrophe. Jason was light enough on his feet and alert enough to know the world has changed. He reacted accordingly. There has been some criticism of his decision to put real people who had really been fired into the movie. The criticism is that he’s using them or that it’s exploitative. I couldn’t disagree more. I think American movies do the escapism job really well. They can bring us to other planets and show us what it’s like to be a super hero really, really well. But can they actually look around the world that the audience lives in to find interesting stories to squeeze real feeling from people’s situation. This movie does that and I think that’s a bigger accomplishment than coming up with a world of blue people where there’s a war going on.

Are you working on another work of fiction?
I’m attempting to write fiction again and as you might gather from my first story, it’s not a premeditated process. I go around and look around and feel what’s going on and talk to people. It’s like stumbling around a dark room looking for the light switch and feeling the wall. You find the switch and turn it on and everything lights up. I can’t say that’s happened yet with my new book. It’s a lot of stabs in the dark.

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