Interview with Dennis Cooper
by Alexander Laurence
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- How was it living in Amsterdam?
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- What are some of your favorite bands now?
- 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
- 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?
- 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.
- How much thought do you give towards spirituality? And
what do you think of the idea of sympathy in your new
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- The story gives you, the reader, a sense that it's still
a book and words.
- 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
- 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?
- 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.
- You were talking about horror films earlier. How much has
film influenced your writing style?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- Is it like the Nouveau Roman?
- 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
- 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?
- 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.
- Could you talk about your project with director David
- 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.
- Your book Frisk is also being made into a movie. How is
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- Since you've turned 40, you must have stopped doing drugs
and drinking alcohol?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- Who's your favorite porn star?
- Who's my favorite porn star of all time? Pierre Buisson
is my favorite. He's in Cutting Nose films.
- Does anyone come up to you with some strange porno or
snuff films and force you to watch?
- 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.
- How do you feel about the idea of porno being cerebral?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- What kind of books do you like generally?
- 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
- I think that S&M is more visible in the culture. Do
you have any interest in that practice?
- 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
- 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?
- 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.
- 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
- 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.