Alan Kelly interviews Dennis Cooper.
Alan Kelly: Ugly Man is a departure from the George Myles Cycle, My Loose Thread and The Sluts. Although there are still traces of those books in there, Ugly Man still has the torture, sexual deviancy and boy annihilation but there is a darkly comic thread running through it. Was that your intention?
Dennis Cooper: My earlier work always had comedy in it, but I tended to bury it in the prose and use it more a device to, say, relax or distract people so I could sneak something disturbing into their thinking. With most of the pieces in Ugly Man, I deliberately set out to write comedic pieces. It’s something I’d always wanted to do. When I was a kid, and before I got serious as a writer, I mostly wrote parodies. I was known at my school for writing these weird comedy stories, and when I was 11, I edited a ‘zine called Flunker that was kind of my imitation of Mad Magazine. So working overtly with comedy was kind of a return to my origins in a certain way.
AK: With Ugly Man you’ve gone mainstream and signed up with Harper Perennial; can you see your work being consumed by a wider readership? Why not, AM Holmes was on the bestseller list for The End of Alice and Bret Easton Ellis for American Psycho?
DC: Well, I’m sure Harper Perennial would like to enlarge my readership, and that would be nice, of course, but I guess I’d be surprised if my work became conventionally successful. I’ve been publishing books for a long time now, and it’s never happened. I want as many people to read my books as possible, but at the same time, I kind of like that my work flies under the radar and doesn’t have to face a big outcry or get caught up in any kind of media-related craziness. The way things are, it keeps my work kind of pure and secret in a way, and I feel fairly comfortable with that. I think the only way I could get bestseller style success would be if a well liked movie was ever made of one of my books. That might make a difference.
AK: Besides The Sluts, Ugly Man is your most, and I hate this word, experimental work so far. Ugly Man is almost flash fiction: ‘Jerk’ combines script-writing with lurid reportage of consensual murder and mutilation while in ‘The Fifteen Worst Russian Gay Porn Web Sites’ you mine seriously bad smut sites. Tell me about the process of writing these short stories, was it trickier than your novel writing?
DC: It wasn’t really trickier. In some ways, it was much easier because, working with comedy, it kind of thins the writing out and makes its point much clearer, and with the shorter length, I don’t get to create all the kinds of complicated substructures and subtexts and things I tend to like to work into my novels. That’s not say I dashed the stories off or anything, because I’m a laborious and very careful writer no matter what I write, but I would say some of the stories in Ugly Man were more fun to write because in a lot of cases I was co-opting other forms rather than trying to invent my own forms like I did in, say, the George Miles Cycle books. Forcing fiction into script form or into lists or into the form of a copy-edited porn story was like solving a puzzle, and that was enjoyable for me.
AK: You’re described as the most dangerous writer in America, are you comfortable with being described like this?
DC: Oh, I understand why publishers and journalists pick up on that quote and use it for marketing purposes, but I think it’s kind of silly. I mean, the most dangerous writer in America would be some zealot on the political far right or some manipulative evangelist or someone like that. I’m just trying to get readers to confront and accept subjects and unusual literary forms that they tend to find disturbing and off-putting in a way that causes them to entertain the thinking and emotions behind violence and certain kinds of sex acts and things like that, and I guess I don’t see trying to do that as a dangerous act.
AK: Like you, Scott Heim recently picked up a Lambda Literary Award. Both of you have similar ideas but come from very different places as writers. Your both writing about “taboo” subjects but your writing is far more aggressive than Heim’s is. Do you still get death threats?
DC: No, I haven’t gotten a death threat in years. When I was first publishing books, people had this crazy fear that people might read my work and be inspired to rape and kill boys or something like that, which was based on this really dumb misunderstanding of my fiction. Of course that never happened, and in fact the most devoted readers of my work tend to be young people who relate to the young, attacked characters and feel strengthened by seeing their confusion and feelings treated with respect. Nowadays, I just tend to get these attacks that angrily complain about how critics claim that I’m a good writer, but that I’m overrated and actually just a vile smut merchant and things like that.
AK: Most of your characters are damaged youths or predatory older men, a subculture that is frighteningly only a mouse click away. Do you research much before you start a new project?
DC: It depends on the project. Often I write about things I’m already fascinated by and have been following closely – whether it’s sex on the internet or certain bands or art or subcultures or video games or whatever – so the research already exists due to my natural exploration. For the George Miles Cycle books, I did all kinds of research for years and years while trying to figure out how to write them. For instance, I was already a damaged youth, so I understood that aspect, but I did a lot experiments and things to try to understand and inhabit the predatory male characters I wanted to include. I did some research on high school shootings for My Loose Thread, and I’m currently researching cannibalism and the culinary arts for the novel I’m writing now, which is about a 22 year old French cannibal. But it’s not the kind of research where you sit in a library or something. It’s more just following my fascinations with more intricacy than usual.
AK: God Jr. was an exploration of the impact and consequences of grief and one or two critics described it a more mature work. Does it annoy you when they don’t take into consideration that the events that happen in My Loose Thread and The Sluts are commonplace and that this particular activity happens everyday?
DC: Yeah, critics declaring God Jr. a more mature work because it excluded explicit sex and violence and the world perspective of the young annoyed me, but it didn’t surprise me. I’ve long realized that a general puritanism in the US and a fear of difficult subject matter and a deep disrespect for the minds and ideas and emotions of teenagers and so on were going to be a problem my work would always face. The generally held idea that the kinds of things I write about aren’t ‘serious’ or aren’t what a truly serious literary work would concentrate on is just an insurmountable and boring enemy that I accepted would be there for all eternity a long time ago. It interests me to try to sneak through and around that prejudice. That’s the only way I can think about it.
AK: Do you still do much journalism work?
DC: I haven’t lately because I’ve been concentrating on this blog I do, and it’s such a huge amount of work that I haven’t had the mental space to write much criticism and journalism in the last four years. Most of my impulse towards that kind of writing goes into the blog. I’d like to get back to doing more non-fiction again, and a book of my non-fiction is coming out next year, but I haven’t quite figured out how to fit it into my life because between my blog and my fiction and the theater collaborations I’m doing with a French Director named Gisele Vienne, I just don’t have any time.
AK: Are you writing much poetry; tell me a bit about The Weaklings?
DC: I was writing a lot of poetry for a while just before I put The Weaklings together, and I’m still writing a little because The Weaklings is going to come out in an expanded, non-limited edition version, and so I’ve been writing new poems to fill the book out a bit. Basically, The Weaklings are all the poems of mine I’d written since my selected poems book the Dream Police came out in the mid-90s that I thought were good enough to go in a book, which wasn’t all that many, it turned out. I wrote a lot of poetry when I was in my teens and twenties before I got more interested in writing novels, but, ever since fiction preoccupied me, the poetry has come pretty rarely.
AK: Michael Cunningham said you’re likely to go down in history as a latter day Jean Genet or Flannery O’Connor. Are you a fan of either writer?
DC: Sure, I’m a fan of both of those writers, I suppose of Genet a little more than I am of O’Connor, but of course I think they’re both major. Neither are among my, like, top ten all time favorites, but I’m honored to have my name share a sentence with theirs, and it was very nice of Michael to say that.
AK: Could you tell me a bit about Little House on the Bowery and any new writers to look out for?
DC: Little House on the Bowery is an imprint I edit through Akashic Press. Its concentration is on emerging fiction writers in North America, and I tend to publish two to three books a year. I love doing it because encouraging and helping younger writers is a big passion of mine, and the series seems to have gone pretty well so far. There are so many new writers I’m excited about, way too many to list. I think this is about as exciting a time for new fiction by new writers as I can remember. I’ll just recommend reading the books and authors I publish through Little House on the Bowery as a way to start.
AK: And finally, is there anything you’d like to say to your detractors – Marilyn Manson you have been warned..
DC: Relax? Get a life? What’s your problem? Let’s hash this out? Mind your own business? Peace? I don’t know … One of those, I guess.
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