Of Vampire Junkies and Slutty Teenage Hobos
Grace Krilanovich interviewed by Maxi Kim.
3:AM: In Steve Erickson’s introduction to your book The Orange Eats Creeps he describes how “For some time now . . . North American fiction has struggled for a way to matter.” Erickson points out how since the 80s fiction has either been “pronouncedly theoretical” or seduced by brand culture. He ends the introduction by identifying your book as an alternative to semiotics and theory, describing your book as a “savage rorschach of a book etched in scars of braille.” Readers have pointed out the multiple ways in which one can read your book: Orange as a feminist rape revenge narrative, Orange as a coming of age story, Orange as an art school insurrection, etc. Can you talk about how The Orange Eats Creeps was originally a wager with a classmate and how you see the book thus far? In a related note, how was your experience at CalArts? How much of CalArts is in the book?
Grace Krilanovich: Indeed it was a wager, with John Ross, who was at CalArts to write screenplays. I was thinking I’d write a screenplay too, something crass and breezy, like Russ Meyer. Really rich stuff, with a bunch of B-movie adjectives. Part of me was thinking Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, another part saw it as a collision of The Lost Boys and the Boxcar Children. I wish I could find the original sheet of paper where I listed those first few ideas – along the lines of “Ancient Egypt High School,” “Teenage Vampire Junkies” and “Slutty Teenage Hobos.” Ross said, “why don’t you combine those two – and write it as a short story.”
CalArts was great for bouncing ideas off people whose work was way different than yours, who worked in wildly divergent media. In the writing program itself you had the full range of writer-types, from highly abstract art experimenters to novel and short story people, poets, YA and comics people. There wasn’t the expectation that you would choose a form, say fiction, poetry or non-fiction, and stick to that for the duration. Had that been the case I would’ve had a very different experience, because I expected to write strictly non-fiction. I can’t speak to how it compares to the “average” MFA writing experience, because I never researched or visited any others. I actually wasn’t looking to do a writing program at all. I was thinking of something along the lines of American Studies or Cultural Criticism or History of Consciousness or some such thing, to continue with a certain kind of critical writing about music and movies. I don’t know, maybe my early 20s brain was spinning into overdrive, over-thinking but strangely not thinking at all. I imagine I was pretty impulsive and fairly stubborn back then. But I was entranced by the website text, the program description, and the fact that Dick Hebdige was at the helm (he’d left by the time I started). So CalArts was it, the only grad program I planned on, applied for, anything. I didn’t even visit campus or speak to any faculty or students. I just showed up for orientation and that was that! How weird! What would I have done if I got there and it was a bust? Luckily, it wasn’t a bust; it was fantastic and transformative. That experience changed everything!
3:AM: Many reviewers have pointed out the pulp horror dimension of The Orange Eats Creeps. Much has been written about Lars von Trier‘s recent horror film Antichrist and its extreme violence. Are there certain aesthetic boundaries that one shouldn’t cross? In a story about “teenage vampire junkies” and “slutty teenage hobos” how did you distinguish between genuinely horrifying elements, and tasteless crassness?
GK: This is a really great question, one I feel strongly about. There may have once been a time when I could watch violent movies, scenes of horror, degradation, torture, and general menace. Fake and real. I took an Arab cinema class as an undergrad where we watched completely graphic unvarnished documentaries drawn from news footage I don’t think you can see any way else in this country. Almost punching yourself in the stomach with “the truth.” Back then I felt like it was a cop-out to admit you had limits to how much you could take. Consequently, the older I get the less I can watch, like: I wouldn’t watch the von Trier movie. These days I don’t want to see any of that shit.
I think where a line can be drawn is in the salacious or pornographic intent. Violence with the purpose of wish fulfillment on the part of the filmmaker and the viewer, or that which strips the human subject of its inherent value, body integrity, dignity, wholeness, etc. I am anti-pornography but I appreciate and value explicit content. Is that strange? I think you said it all when you mentioned “aesthetic boundaries,” perhaps that’s the whole thing, if you’re talking aesthetics of violence that’s already getting into a territory where people don’t matter. It’s just bodies then, in the service of an aesthetic sensibility that’s limitless in terms of how far it can go. And, is it proper to say it matters who is making the images? Like, who are you and what are you and who are you torturing in your movies?
3:AM: I love the idea of having a soundtrack for your debut novel, and I really enjoyed your Book Notes music playlist for The Orange Eats Creeps. Can you talk a little about your relationship with punk? Lately I’ve found myself flipping through old copies of Punk Planet from the 1990s, and re-reading Jessica Hopper‘s columns. There’s that revolutionary punk pathos that both you and Jessica are so good at capturing. I also just love the idea of doing a book that captures a certain 90s “end of history” zeitgeist, it was certainly an enigmatic decade. Why did you choose the 90s as the time period for your novel?
GK: That playlist for Largehearted Boy was tons of fun to make. I had been thinking about a possible OEC soundtrack for years, as I was writing the novel. Some refs are more obvious than others, in keeping with the time and place. Others are simply influences, things I was listening to at the time. I have a habit of writing down lyrics I’ve misheard because the new version always sounds so great and unusual.
If I had grown up in the 60s or 70s I would have written about that time period. But I was a child of the 90s, a little young even to really be a participant (I was 10 in 1990). But I knew enough, I watched and observed closely. I’ve made mental notes my whole life, just preparing for this book! I would go out on a limb to say that in the 90s there was the sense that this was a shabby time, a definite lack of freshness, but that you urgently needed to freak out because it was the only way out of the mess. Keep in mind that the assortment of regional punk movements of the late 70s/early 80s had captivated and inspired the 90s bands, fortified their indie resolve and antagonistic ways, and also laid a framework for giving credit and citing influences and helping their heroes. Mudhoney and Nirvana were very open and generous with their 80s punk-metal favs (Black Flag, Motorhead), their antecedents (The Seeds, Roky Erickson), both in the bands they covered (Vaselines, Fang, Dicks) and those they sought to bring out of retirement to tour with (Meat Puppets, Wipers).
So with Orange it was my desire to say something about the 90s scene – which happens to be the only one that I had any real firsthand knowledge of anyway – because it hasn’t been done too many times yet. The Nirvana song ‘Negative Creep’ kind of says it all; on a subconscious level, there it was, lurking in the back of my mind all those years. By now all the clichés are well-worn: the cred-obsessed underachieving generation robbed of its steady manufacturing jobs, affordable housing, nuclear families – and therefore, purpose. It’s “bad” to achieve success, have good posture, be religious, too functional… But it was the enigmatic characters in the punk world the captivated me as well: the L7 chicks, with their missing teeth and dirty tights, kicking around the scene for many years even before that band started making records, Henry Rollins and Greg Ginn, naturally (an Ernie/Bert dyad if there ever was one), and then there’s GG Allin’s gross sloshy garbage-body, Texacala Jones killer style…
Part of it was about capturing the last time music was “real,” as in real threatening, dangerous to like. The possibility, as an audience member, of not knowing how things were going to turn out, if you were even safe. People are cool now, so savvy, pre-acculturated; the stance wields knowingness like armor.
3:AM: I hear that you’re now working on a new novel, a “historical romance, stricken with nightmares.” How far along are you on the new book? Have you given any thought to writing science fiction or cyberpunk fiction?
GK: The new novel, which isn’t so new anymore, is set in the old weird California of the 1870s. It’s been in the works for three years. I hope to finish in the near near future.
The science fiction/speculative/fantasy response to The Orange Eats Creeps really took me by surprise. I was not aware of writing a SF novel at all. And, not having read that much, (I’ve never read [Philip K.] Dick or [William] Gibson, but I’m ¾ of the way through Dhalgren) I’m definitely not feeling very knowledgeable about the major works, or the latest. Although certainly I am aware that there’s been a new freewheeling approach to genre, a vanguard for bending the rules – or alternately, for blending genre elements into your “unmarked” literary fiction work. It’s only realistic to allow for ambiguity, and it’s in the gray areas and the fringes where things are sparking, really getting vital and interesting. It seems like Steve Erickson’s books can go either way, as can just about any story with dystopian or post-apocalyptic elements… I’m just trying to visualize books on the shelf in a bookstore: what could I envision here and what could I see over there? Keeping all this in mind, I can understand and appreciate how Orange could be chosen by Amazon for the year-end sci-fi/fantasy list. I think it’s killer! Sci-fi fans are totally wild, devoted and passionate readers. This book has straddled so many different scenes, with people coming at it from such far-flung quadrants of the lit-scape: Amazon Sci-Fi and Nylon Magazine; HTMLGIANT and the National Book Foundation; Aspen Public Radio and 21C Magazine. I’m going to have a literary identity crisis!
3:AM: I imagine you sat through alot of visiting writer readings and visiting artist talks while you attended CalArts. How does it feel to finally be in that position? If you haven’t already, I imagine you will read at CalArts in front of emerging MFA students. Is there a certain amount of “I’ve arrived” type emotions? Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard the news that your book made the Amazon for the year-end Sci-Fi/Fantasy list? And when you found out you were the recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Honor?
GK: I’ve learned so much about publishing – the industry and the process of making a book – in the last year. It’s kind of staggering. I’d say one upshot is the demystification of things like touring, giving interviews and getting your book’s name out there, generally and then all the daily tasks that come along with it. Selling your book in 2010, I see it as a wonderful challenge, and I love being busy with this kind of stuff. I love giving interviews; it gives me a chance to widen the discussion and give context and expound on the book’s worldview. I’d say I feel great and cheery and optimistic because the book is doing well so far, very well actually. It has exceeded the modest indie expectations I had for it so at this point the fun part is seeing how far it will actually go. Who can I get to pick it up, which skeptics can it convert? That sounds kind of sinister but that’s my line of thinking. To answer your question, no, I haven’t done a reading at CalArts yet, but I’m game. I remember there being some great visiting writers: Dodie Bellamy, William Vollmann, Terese Svoboda, Ben Marcus…
It is reassuring and endlessly validating that, at the very least, I will have seen this novel into print. That that has been achieved I’d say a large percentage of my book dreams have already come true right there. That’s not to say that I don’t want to write many books, it’s just this one in particular, that it saw the light of day, counts a great deal towards the feeling of “having arrived.” Sometimes I can’t even believe that Orange was not only published but that it was done in a way that was consistent with what I wanted and that it’s gone on to win people over.
Both announcements, for the Amazon Sci-Fi/Fantasy Top Ten and the 5 Under 35, I got when I was at home, just doing my thing, the routine. I make my morning 20 oz of Groundwork or LAMILL coffee in the Chemex, and sip leisurely out of a 1940s restaurantware cup while I look at five or six pages of an art book, before I check email or anything like that. I got the email from Jeff VanderMeer, one of the editors in charge of that list, and I was shocked! Then I became stoked; that’s damn huge! The 5 Under 35 phone call from my publisher was a trip too, he called me when I had just settled in for a nice listen of Lou Reed’s Berlin, my favorite album. I hadn’t heard it in several years and it sounded so good. Anyway, Eric Obenauf called me and told me the good news. It was hard to imagine he was talking about me, my book, and that I’d already been selected – it wasn’t like I was in the running or anything, it was a done deal. And the fact that I was selected by Scott Spencer. Just larger than life! I still think about it every day. It changed everything, truly.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Author of One Break, A Thousand Blows, Maxi Kim’s forthcoming book Did Somebody Say North Korea? confronts one of the pervasive myths of our time: that North Korea is a Confucian-Communist regime led by a Stalinist dictator that will, with time, disintegrate like the Soviet Union. In fact, North Korea, in our standard ideological spectrum is much closer to Nazism than to Marxism. Much like Hitler’s Third Reich, Kim Jong-il’s North Korea can’t be understood without understanding its racial worldview and “fascist” aesthetic principles. Debunking the current “end of history” model of international relations promoted by both humanist academics and the current political establishment, Maxi Kim offers Art as a new road map for “returning to history” by confronting East Asia’s totalitarian slave state.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, January 5th, 2011.