Interview with Dennis Cooper

by Alexander Laurence
(c) 1995

Q:
Serial murders have become more prevalent in American Society. Are you very interested in them?
Dennis Cooper:
To a degree. I don't think that they're interesting people, but I'm interested in the books about serial murderers, and the material you can get from their exploits. They're not real smart people.
Q:
William Levy wrote about your novel Frisk: "I was involved with a theurgical killing of a boy; it wasn't all that great: nothing worth doing again--no matter how pop it has since become." I think that Levy missed the point of the book entirely. What do you think about this misreading?
DC:
Sure. It's not a book about a murder. It's about a guy who fantasizes about killing people. It's a totally different thing. This character has absolutely no clue about how to kill people. He's never done it. He just spends his life dreaming about it. Presumably, it has no relationship to what it's like to kill a boy. He's not John Wayne Gacy; he's just a daydreamer. The point is: he's no different than the kid who daydreams about Tolkien. The book is not about a serial murder.
Q:
How was it living in Amsterdam?
DC:
On one hand, it's a great country. They're very humane. You get free health care. On the other hand, there's nothing to do there. It's very cold. They don't support art there. They're very conservative. They support artists born in Holland, but they make bad art. Socialism is great for human stuff, but Socialism sucks for art.
Q:
I always have this feeling that I'm reading what happened about ten years ago when I read your work. When did you write your novels and roughly what time frame are they set in?
DC:
Frisk was written around the time I lived in Amsterdam. It was my revenge on Holland for the unpleasant time I had there. Closer was set in high school. Closer had a couple of adults in it, but it was more about being a teenager. Frisk was also about being a teenager, and some experiences people have in their early twenties, and some of those expatriate things. Frisk was definitely about the distortions that arise in becoming an adult. I think of Closer being set in the late 1980s, and Try, set in now, 1994. In the book, Husker Du has already broken up, and it's before Sugar. Slayer is still around.
Q:
What are some of your favorite bands now?
DC:
My favorite band is Sebadoh. They're from Massachusetts. The bass player is from Dinosaur jr. That is the first great band for me since My Bloody Valentine. I like Pavement. I like that emotionally fucked up, slacker stuff.
Q:
You're into the body. Your books present the body as a bunch of tubes. The characters act out their will on the body, trying to uncover the truth of the other. Another person. Can you talk about that?

DC:
For all practical purposes, the body is a machine with all this stuff inside. I guess the characters in all my books are like this, though not so much in the new one, Try. Since they don't believe in religious stuff. You just see what's in front of you. And what's in front of you is this body, right? It has all this appeal to you, and you desire it, or you are fascinated by the body. In many ways, you are just like a kid, and kids try to take things like toys apart to see how they work. These are people who figure "Well, if I open up this body and look what's inside it, I'll know what makes me feel so overwhelmed, or so out of control when I'm with this person." It just that: trying to deal with people in a practical way. Even if you think that there's spirituality, or something; you can't take apart the mind and figure what it's like. These are people who objectify other people into being like that, as a way to try to figure things out, and they willfully ignore emotion and spirituality and all that stuff. The body interests me in that way, and it interests me that the text is like a body. I like the writing to be eviscerated too, opened up in different ways.
Q:
How much thought do you give towards spirituality? And what do you think of the idea of sympathy in your new work?
DC:
Spirituality? Not much. But I have a lot of sympathy towards everybody in the books. One of the things people don't like about it is that I don't have a moral stance in the books. The books are all really sympathetic. People can have their own moral outlook. The books don't have to reinforce it. That's what I think. Make up your own mind. Try has a little more sympathy obviously for the kids, but I think all those characters are sympathetic. It's just that I'm not sentimental about them. The books give them all a chance to speak, pick their minds, do what they want to do. The world sucks. People are fine. It's the world that sucks.
Q:
Television shows images of evil, to cause a robotic reaction in people, to make them say: "Let's do something" or "Let's crack down on crime." There are evil images without any reflection or thought. Your books show an erotic side of evil.
DC:
They acknowledge it. I try to show stuff. Allow it to be erotic, real scary. Allow it to be moving, all these different things, so it's not just presented as titillating or disgusting because that's the way it's usually presented. It's usually presented in a Friday The 13th kind of way, and that's fine, but that's a very superficial way to present violence. It just makes it sexy. And the other way is to make it disgusting, so you can't even look at it. So the idea of me, the way that I'm different, is that I actually present it so that it's visible. Make the actual act of evil visible, and give it a bunch of facets so that you can actually look at it and experience it. You're seduced with dealing with it. You have to decide what you actually think. So with Frisk, at the end of the book, when you find out that it's not real, it's like you decide. Whatever pleasure you got out of making a picture in your mind based on that letter of those people being murdered. You take responsibility for it. The writer is not letting you off the hook. It's fiction. The whole thing is a fiction. I'm interested in writing about that stuff, and in that way maybe I'll understand it.
Q:
The story gives you, the reader, a sense that it's still a book and words.
DC:
That's the best a book can do. It's a collaboration. That's why horror movies are so limited in what they can do. That's why Salo is, for me, not a very good film. You look at that, and think "This is silly!" These people don't look real. You can see that stupid makeup. When you read a book, and when you read that letter in Frisk, the idea is that you're creating the picture. You're the one that has to create the picture of what the kid looks like. What it would be like to look inside his body or whatever. So the idea is why do you think that way?
Q:
So the letter in Frisk is a metaphor for the writer's function: he provides the materials (or the fantasies) so the reader can imagine and collaborate?
DC:
Just like "Dennis" in the book is looking for someone to help him kill someone, the writer is looking for readers who feel the same way he does about violence. It's the same thing. In some ways, that book was like dangling bait to find out like if I wasn't insane. I really like this stuff.
Q:
You were talking about horror films earlier. How much has film influenced your writing style?
DC:
The editing stuff? It seems to me that filmic editing is way more interesting than the editing in traditional novels, which is so slow. The way film edit: chop, chop, chop. Cutback and so forth. I mean it's a lot easier. I'm more interested in that. And as far as horror films: I enjoy them, but in liking them I realize how limited they are. They're not giving you anything. It's like giving you candy. If you're interested in horror, horror films give you a little treat, but they don't tell you anything about horror or violence. To me, they don't. If your imagination is in the middle, at one extreme is an autopsy video, which shows you real violence, at the other end is Nightmare on Elm Street.
Q:
There was this group of writers during the 70s and 80s called "New Narrative." Steve Abbott and Kevin Killian among them. How do you fit in with them? How are you different? What is the New Narrative all about?
DC:
No one ever figured it out. There was a group of people, but there was never anything to be involved with. People started to characterize that group of people that way. I mean, I like all those people, including Bob Gluck and Dodie Bellamy. I like all their work. I think that it never went anywhere because no one could figure out what it was. Steve Abbott invented the term. All the work was independent and experimental I guess, and it's somehow involved with autobiography in a funny way. We all like each other's work. Sometimes, Kathy Acker is in the group, and sometimes she's not. And sometimes Lynne Tillman. It's a real blurry category. There is this new book coming out about New Narrative, this year. It's an academic book, so maybe they'll tell us what it is.
Q:
Is it like the Nouveau Roman?
DC:
Except that the Nouveau Roman is a little bit more specific. They at least had a credo. I don't think we have any credo. Nouveau Roman writers were all interested in the objective voice. Wasn't that their thing? I always thought that they were like that at the beginning. They all gave up on it. All of them sold out, or became better. I think that you're right: they're a little more alike then we are. I may be wrong. Maybe it's not for me to say.
Q:
I read recently a letter you wrote to Kevin Killian. I guess you were writing Closer at the time. Less than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis had come out and you panicked. Could you talk about that?
DC:
Where did you read that? At Kevin's house? It was published? Oh yeah! It freaked me out. It was weird. It came out and all of my friends said "Don't read this book, because it will really freak you out, because he writes so much like you" So I didn't read it. Then I finished Closer. Then I read it, because I was finished with my book, so I figured whatever. And I was really freaked out about it. Now I see the difference, but at the time I thought "Oh, this kid has done all this stuff that I'm doing, and this book is a big success, and my work is so artsy compared to this." I started to get weird. It really did freak me out. It seemed serious. When I read it, I thought that this was a serious book. There had never been a book like Less Than Zero. He did capture a certain thing. I was certainly impressed with it. Consequently, I have no interest in him at all.
Q:
Could you talk about your project with director David Lynch?
DC:
That didn't work out. Well, this guy who is David Lynch's assistant, his right hand man, he does a lot of work for David Lynch. His name is John Wentworth. He was making a movie. He wanted me to write this movie with him. It was going to be called Lethal Injection.. We started to work on it and we had totally different ideas how it should be like. It fell apart. We may or may not do another project. I wasn't interested in what he wanted to do. The non-collaboration lasted six months. Now, David Lynch is willing to give us the money. He's willing to put up three million dollars for a project, if we can come up with a project. Our ideas are so different about what we want to do. I'm not a filmmaker. So I said to John, "Maybe you should just do it yourself." The screenplay was going to be based on a novel called Lethal Injection, which is a Black Lizard book. It's a dumb book, but we were going to fix it. It's about a guy who gives lethal injections to prisoners on death row. Then, he kills this guy. He becomes really interested in this guy he's killed, and then he becomes involved with the dead guy's girlfriend. He becomes a junkie. All this stuff. It's that kind of story.
Q:
Your book Frisk is also being made into a movie. How is that going?
DC:
They're shooting it right now. How it started was three years ago, at the party for Frisk, this guy, Marcus, came up to me and said "I want to do a movie of this." I said OK. He optioned it for three years now. They had a few directors lined up to do it. including James Hebert, who's done a lot of REM videos. Now this guy, Todd Vereau is going to direct it. He's only done a couple of short films. He wrote the script for Frisk. The music is being done by Bob Mould. That's the part that I like the best. And Lee Renaldo of Sonic Youth is doing some music for it. They're shooting it right now. Steve Buscemi and Craig Chester are in it. Maybe I'll make a cameo. It's not much like the book. I have mixed feelings about it.
Q:
Let's talk about the new book TRY. Do you feel with this that you're doing something different stylistically from the other novels or is it all the same?
DC:
No. The only thing that's the same about my books is that I'm interested in the same kinds of people, but the books are really different I think. This book is more about emotion and less about the body. Originally, I wanted to write a book about Ziggy because I had known this kid. He was this really fucked up kid. Really great, brilliant, weird kid. He was adopted by two gay men. While I was working on it, my best friend got addicted to heroin, and it was a big mess. So I spent a year of my life trying to help him get off heroin. That got involved in it. I wanted to write about that. He and I became really close friends. It became a really deep and strong relationship. I wanted to write about that relationship, because it was the first time in my life that I really felt that I loved somebody a lot. It wasn't sexual or romantic. It was really not. I wanted to bring that into the work, because I was really feeling that and worried about it. So it came out of this weird emotional turmoil. The other characters are there to present a threat. It's different to me because it's really about emotion. In the same way I used to talk about the body, this time it's about how all these people with emotions are exploding out all the time. It's about how the emotions interlock with each other, and the way the writings, the different sections interlock, and the characters interlock with each other.
Q:
Since you've turned 40, you must have stopped doing drugs and drinking alcohol?
DC:
I'm not even drinking now. I'm eating better. I'm healthy. I was a mess for a while. I like drugs a lot. I like crystal meth and acid. I like mushrooms. I like all drugs except heroin. I'm trying to be productive. I just went through a binge, a year ago. I'm 41 and it takes its toll. You just can't do it anymore.
Q:
Your work seems to be the most complex explanation of how pornography influences the mind of a male and his sexuality. How did you become so interested in porno?
DC:
That's just the way it is. I started reading porno when I was really young. And like a lot of people, I read a lot of porno before I had sex. By the time I was having sex, I expected it to be like porno. When it wasn't, I invented porno to go with my sex, because while you're doing your limited little things with your body, there's all this stuff going on in your head about what could be happening. I think porno is interesting. I like the way it's structured. I've studied it through my writing. I like how fake it is. You can study it for how they really think about each other. It's like a science book. Sex is the best moment in life, right? If it's really good. I like porno. I buy porno all the time. It doesn't matter to me what is actually happening in sex. I like the types. I look for types of people that interest me.
Q:
Who's your favorite porn star?
DC:
Who's my favorite porn star of all time? Pierre Buisson is my favorite. He's in Cutting Nose films.
Q:
Does anyone come up to you with some strange porno or snuff films and force you to watch?
DC:
Usually it's the other way around. But I don't have it nor know where to get it. People want me to tell them. That's it. Everybody wants it, but no one has it. So everyone comes to me figuring I know where it is.
Q:
How do you feel about the idea of porno being cerebral?
DC:
I think that using porno is cerebral. Yeah. Sure. Apart from the components of the parts of the people that are involved in it, you can do whatever you want with it. It's all about filling in a blank. Animating these bodies that are frozen or if it's video, I don't know what you do. You're always filling in these people with whatever content you want to make them more desirable. I don't know about it being cerebral. But the use of it is. It's like a study. It's like a text.
Q:
During this tour you read from a section from the middle of Try about Ziggy interviewing the heavy metal kid. You said that this is the only section that I can read from. I wanted to ask you what was the reason for that?
DC:
Because I found that it's really impossible for me to read it. Most of Try is fast changes from person to person, and I can't do it. I've tried it. It doesn't work. I can't do the voices. The section that I've been reading is the only long section written in one voice and one scene. That's why. This book has more dialogue in it. I wanted to see what it was like to work with dialogue. Now, not at all. It's more difficult for me to read aloud than the other novels. I have a hard time reading dialogue. It doesn't sound like it because I worked so hard on reading that section. It's not something that I feel comfortable doing. I think it's sort of silly. These are just configurations in the prose, they're not people. When you read it aloud, you have to make them people and put emotion in their voices. I always feel that's kind of false. It's fake. You have to do that to make it work, to get people involved in it. I feel like a showman, and I don't like that so much.
Q:
What kind of books do you like generally?
DC:
I don't like literature that's like mine. I hate Paul Russell. John Rechy compared me to Russell. Rechy lives down the street from me. Yeah. He's a prick. He's an idiot.
Q:
I think that S&M is more visible in the culture. Do you have any interest in that practice?
DC:
No. No interest at all. It's not my thing at all. I have total respect for it, but I'm interested in insanity. I think violence is an act of insanity and chaos. When it's ritualized, it's fun but it doesn't particularly interest me.
Q:
Many of your books have the situation of older men and younger kids. That whole concept is still rejected by society. What do you think about it?
DC:
That's a real complicated one. I have real mixed feelings about it. I don't know what I think about it. I think that people should do whatever they want to do, and it's totally plausible to me that a 10 year old could have a fulfilling relationship with a 40 year old, but I'm also really suspicious of adults exploiting young people. So I'm really torn about it. I don't think that they should stop NAMBLA or anything. There are plenty of examples of relationships that have been fine. All my friends had sex when they were young with older men, and it's fine. I'm suspicious of the power imbalance. It's really scary to me. It makes me nervous, but I don't think that they should regulate it or anything. In my books, it's not presented as the most positive thing in the world. I have friends who are pedophiles, and it's fine.
Q:
It seems like many serious writers are now writing for magazines like Esquire, Harper's, and Spin. How have your experiences been with doing journalism and working for magazines?
DC:
You don't make much money from writing. I don't like doing journalism at all. I did an interview with Keanu Reeves. That was fun. Interview magazine is the best, but I haven't done anything with them since. They give you all this money. You get to interview a star. They transcribe the tapes. It's amazing. I need to do something to make money, and I don't mind doing it. It's not something that I really wanted to do. It was fun hanging out with Courtney Love. I liked it. Spin magazine flew me out to Seattle, and I interviewed the band. I hung out with her, then I went over to Courtney's house. I played with Francis Bean. I talked with them till 5:30 in the morning. All this shit, while they did a photo shoot. It took a couple of days. I wish that I could make more money with my books. I wouldn't do journalism. I don't think that I'm very good at it, but I think I'm getting a little better. There are people who are real good journalists. As a journalist, I wish that I could write like the early Hunter Thompson or the early Tom Wolfe. Their journalism is real good. The Gonzo journalism is real great. Maybe the best thing about being a journalist is that you get free stuff.


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