AN INTERVIEW WITH DENNIS COOPER
ĎSo you have to remove the soul and the intellect because you cannot possibly get to the bottom of that so they become these bodies and the bodies become completely interesting. Seeing them in the way that a kid does a toy, if someone overpowers you the only way to understand them is to take them apart and understand every detail and aspect of them. So bodily fluid becomes part of that information about them that youíre studying, whereby trying to understand why this person does that to you.í
Dan Epstein Interviews Dennis Cooper
COPYRIGHT © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
3AM: You have a five cycle of books that just ended.
DC: It ended last year with Period.
3AM: These books were somewhat inspired by your relationship with a childhood friend George Miles, correct?
DC: Heís one of the things that inspired them. Itís about that and itís about two other things, which seem dichotomous, my interest in sex and violent sexual acts. So itís both of those things colliding.
3AM: How did you first meet the real George Miles?
DC: I was 16 years old in high school, I hung out with a bunch of artsy, druggy rock music guys like me. We had a band and we were playing at a school dance, it was a private boys school that went from 5th to 12th grade. One of the guys at the dance said that his little brother was freaking out on LSD. I had taken a lot of LSD the summer before and had a lot of experience with bad trips. He asked me to go talk to his brother because heís losing it. I took George away from everyone else and talked to him for about 6 hours and brought him down. We bonded and became really really close friends and sort of like big brother, little brother.
3AM: When did you lose contact with him?
DC: I lost contact with him in the early 1980ís because I moved to New York City in 1983. That was the last time I saw him, we kept in touch by phone, then I went to Amsterdam and lost touch with everyone I knew for 2 and half years. Right before I came back to America he killed himself. But I didnít know about that until about 1997.
3AM: Did Period come out of George committing suicide?
DC: It was actually right when I was on my book tour for Guide that I found out. It did determine what Period was about.
3AM:: I read a review you did of the American Psycho movie in ArtForum magazine. Youíre constantly compared to Bret Easton Ellis. What do you think of his work?
DC: Iím a big fan of Bretís. It's weird because when his novel Less Than Zero came out, all my friends said ďdonít read this book because heís completely ripping you offĒ so I avoided reading it until I finished my novel, Closer. When I finished Closer and read Less Than Zero, I was pretty surprised. I really liked it and the parallels surprised me but I wasnít necessarily sure that I had been an influence. Then there was a period after that where we were constantly compared and I didnít know him at all. I think we were always asked about each other and it was kind of antagonistic. But eventually we finally met and it turned out we were really big fans of each otherís work.
3AM: What did you think of the movie?
DC: I liked the movie, it wasnít the book and I still thought it was really good. But one of my best friends is the star of it so I couldnít be completely objective. I thought it was a very adept film and I thought the decisions she [director Mary Harron] made were the best decisions that could be made. Considering that itís an unfilmable book I thought what she did was pretty good.
3AM: Your books seem obsessed with bodily wastes and fluid, why?
DC: I had developed systems and ideas for that cycle of books. One of the systems in it was ďWhat becomes god if there is no religionĒ. So I had this idea of creating a pragmatic philosophy around that and it would come down to other people, specifically people that you are attracted to and then specifically sex. If you get really pragmatic about it, if you really want to understand, you have to decide what is actually available to you and that is actually explicable. So you have to remove the soul and the intellect because you cannot possibly get to the bottom of that so they become these bodies and the bodies become completely interesting. Seeing them in the way that a kid does a toy, if someone overpowers you the only way to understand them is to take them apart and understand every detail and aspect of them. So bodily fluid becomes part of that information about them that youíre studying, whereby trying to understand why this person does that to you.
3AM: William Burroughs was a fan of your work. How did he influence you?
DC: Burroughs wasnít really a fan of my work. We had a very funny sort of relationship actually. I think he begrudgingly sort of acknowledged that I was good and deemed to give me a blurb. Burroughs was really important to me because when I was growing up, to see something like that in American literature and from my naÔve perspective at that point to see his work being acknowledged as important literature. He was a way for me to see that I could do something really complex, thatís thereís nothing taboo to me. In the context of American literature he was important to me. But in terms of influence, I donít think there is an influence at all. People always think there is and I'm often called the new Burroughs. I totally tip my hat to his early work because Iím a big fan of everything up to Wild Boys. I think we happen to have some kind of psychosexual interest in common but Iím much more connected to European writers.
3AM: Why do you have a problem with most gay literature?
DC: The whole idea of gay literature is just ridiculous. I have a basic problem with the way the idea of gay identity has evolved. I have a huge problem with it in general. Most of so-called gay literature has no interest to me at simply because I donít relate to it. Just because Iím gay and theyíre gay doesnít mean I feel much commonality with their art, experiences or what theyíre trying to do. It just doesnít do anything for me. There has been some really good things that have come out, that have been called gay literature, but I just think that it is a real provincial notion to me.
3AM: People try to pigeonhole you.
DC: I write criticism so I know what that is about. Thatís what publicists and critics do, you need a handle, you need to sell the book. This whole genre arose, partially because there was a lot of it happening and there was suddenly a market for it. Before gay cinema and gay this and gay that arose, books were a big market to the gay community because there wasnít a lot of art going on in other fields yet. So there was this big market for gay fiction. It was just really convenient. I feel really alienated from the whole gay community, my whole life. Itís not my world or anything. I donít have any particular loyalty towards gay literature.
3AM: Why were you not part of the gay community growing up?
DC: Because it was about conformity and narcissism.
3AM: So you chose not be part of it, you werenít ostracized?
DC: Yeah, I couldnít relate. I didnít like disco, I didnít want to go to the gym and I didnít want to grow a mustache back then. I didnít think about going out and scoring every five minutes. I didnít want to hang around in bars. I grew up being into reading books, rock and roll, art and my friends were always really mixed people. Iíd go into that world to get laid just like anybody. It still doesnít interest me at all. Iím an anarchist by philosophy so Iím not interested in this collective stuff so it doesnít comfort me to feel like Iím part of some sub-group.
3AM: When you were 11 a friend split open your head with an axe. How did that happen and what was that experience like?
DC: (Laughs.) When I was a kid we had these things called dirt clod wars, I think kids still do them, you form your little gangs of neighborhood kids and gather hard pieces of dirt. You throw them at one another in those adolescent gang warfare male bonding shit that you do at that age. So we were doing that at my momís house. Our fort was in the front yard and we were digging a hole to hide our dirt clods. There was no shovel so I found an axe and my friend was digging a hole with the axe. I crawled out the wrong way and the axe went right into the top of my head. I was knocked unconscious for I donít know how long and my friends freaked out and took off. I woke up and blood was just spurting, volcanoing, all over the joint. I reached up and felt my brain. (Laughs.) It was horrifying, I almost died. I got to the hospital. Iím sure it had a huge influence on me like my interest in violence. But it was actually much more traumatic for the guy that did it. He was never the same. He became this really bad drug addict, it really fucked him up. I was cool with it. I knew it was this total accident but he couldnít really look at me for the entire rest of the time I knew him which was many years after it happened. There was nothing I could to make him feel better. It was heavy. I was out of school for a very long time and it hurt like hell.
3AM: When you were 12 there was a series of murders in the mountains behind your house. Tell us about how it affected you?
DC: I think it was when I was 13 or 14. I had this incredible epiphany when I read about it in my momís newspaper. It was absolutely fascinating to me. It ended up being one of the really well-known serial murders, Iím not sure which one. These three boys were killed and they were my age. They had been raped, tortured and killed. I was talking to my friends about it. They all thought it was gross and didnít want to talk about it. None of them seemed to be on the same wavelength as I was about it. I thought it was horrible but I also thought that there was something exciting and profound about it. So I coerced a friend of mine into going up there with me, finding out where it was, where they had done it and we camped there. It was kind of this communal thing. I donít know whether it had started or if it made me realize something I had already thought about. But it became this huge obsession with me for many many years and led to what I write about.
3AM: What made you first come to New York City and why did you leave?
DC: I went to New York City in 1983 because I wanted to get out of my hometown. I was running this art center called Beyond Baroque and I was a really ambitious writer. I thought it would be fun to go to New York. I had a lot of friends there and it seemed really exciting to be a writer in New York. I just decided to move there. I left for two reasons, I went over to Holland to create this literary festival and I met this guy and fell in love with him. He lived over there and because I was so screwed up on so many drugs at that point and I was so incredibly broke that I couldnít pay my rent. I think that AIDS was starting to happen, people were getting sick and it was just so terrible that I just wanted to get away. So I went to Holland for two and a half years.
3AM: What happened in Holland that you were able to finish Closer? Did you start it in New York?
DC: I started it a little here. I was really isolated in Holland and I could not stop doing drugs. I went into my most intense period of exploring sex and drugs. Then I got German measles and was really sick for a long time. Which sounds so stupid but it was incredibly heavy. It made me realize that I had to start getting serious because I thought I was going to die. At first I thought I had AIDS and I was going to die so I started working hard and finished Closer in Holland.
3AM: Do you do drugs anymore?
DC: I havenít done drugs in a long time. Not that I wouldnít again, Iím getting older and I want to do work and doing drugs just wears you out as you get older. I never liked to drink. Like I said I could easily do drugs again but I havenít done drugs for over five years.
3AM: Would you advocate doing drugs?
DC: I just think people should do what they want to do. Iím of the personal opinion that heroin is pure evil. I think thatís a drug that I would never ever recommend. Iíve had too many friends destroyed by it. Thatís a drug Iím really not cool on. I think if you do drugs to explore your brain and the world I think that drugs are really helpful. Iím not anti-drug at all. Think crystal meth, Iíve done plenty of it but now if you do too much crystal meth youíll burn your brain out.
3AM: Youíve read the works of the Marquis De Sade when you were 15, how did you first get them?
DC: My family was on vacation and we were staying with this family in Washington D.C. The father was the editor of the National Observer newspaper. Their son was this brainy kid in a special school, he had that book The 120 Days of Sodom on his shelf, and he had claimed at the time that his school had recommended one of the stories in the book. Which now seems ridiculous to me. I just picked it up one day when I was bored, started reading it and again I guess I connected it up with the murders in the hills. I couldnít believe what I was reading it was a huge revelation to me. And that changed everything for me.
3AM: You wrote a version of that book using people from your high school. Has anyone ever seen it?
DC: No one has ever seen it. My mom had become a mess and I realized she was going through all my stuff all the time. I was so afraid that she was going to read it that I burned it. But one of the pages that I found years and years later went into my book of poems. I never talked to anyone about it. I didnít really have friends that I could talk about that kind of stuff. It was really private. I just did it because I couldnít help it. It was terrible, Iím sure it was just a rotten awful piece of work.
3AM: Bands are such a huge part of your novels. Do any of the bands that you mention so obsessively in your novels know of your work?
DC: Well with Guided by Voices, from talking to people that know them I know that Bob Pollard has read Period. Guided is my favorite band.
3AM: They are awesome. The new album is excellent.
DC: Iím one of those people that collects every one of those billions of things that they put out. They can do no wrong in my opinion.
3AM: It's nice that a lot of people are buying their new album [Isolation Drills].
DC: Iím so happy for them that they are getting such success. A lot of people I know that are die-hard say ďoh, thatís a horrible recordĒ. I think Bob Pollard has always wanted to do a record like that. I am so happy for him that he made such a beautiful conventional rock record.
3AM: The magazine you edited in the 70ís, called Little Caesar, launched a few names like David Wojnarowicz (7 Miles a Second), tell me about it.
DC: It was an offset magazine. I did like twelve of them. It had pictures. In the beginning it was really short then by the last one they got it up to 400 pages. They were just like poetry, fiction, art, photos and interviews with weird people. All kinds of weird shit. I wanted to combine punk and literature and then it sort of grew into this wild magazine. But it was so expensive to do it and I just couldnít afford to do it anymore. It was good, it wasnít bad.
3AM: You hated the movie adaptation of Frisk.
3AM: Who would be the perfect film director for your books?
DC: Well he doesnít do fiction films but Errol Morris [The Thin Blue Line, Mr. Death]. I love his work. I donít know exactly who would do my work well. Any director I admire would be great. Frisk was just a really terrible experience. Itís not like I have a thing against films being made of my books although I think itís a stupid idea. And people are making movies with different things in mind right now. There are directors I really like, but anyone who has a really interesting idea of how to take those books and turn them into something cinematic that doesnít necessarily have anything to do with the book is fine. That movie was just this stupid-ass literal translation of my book with all the brains left out. It was just so dumb.
3AM: What directors do you like right now?
DC: Well my favorite director and artist in the world is Robert Bresson [director of Lancelot of the Lake and Trial of Joan of Arc] but heís dead. I like lots of people. I like Wes Anderson, David Lynch. Obviously I like Jean Genet and Jean-Luc Godard from the past. Harmony Korine (director of Gummo, Julien Donkey-boy) is great. Iíd love it if he did a movie of one of my books.
3AM: So youíve read Crash.
DC: Yes, but my favorite of J. G. Ballardís is The Atrocity Exhibition. Thatís the one that was most important to me.
3AM: J.G. Ballard named the protagonist in Crash after himself. He likened it to the fact that Crash was his true inner autobiography. Was that what caused you to name the main character in your books after yourself?
DC: Yeah in way. Itís the way to keep myself honest. The books are my mind and some of that stuff is true and some isnít. Guide is the most autobiographical but even that isnít autobiographical. Iím lying all the time in there. But thatís true, itís my internal world. Itís a way to take responsibility for it as well. To do that work it could so easily become really pretentious, really cheesy and pornographic. I felt if I located it within me and I only do it those two books (Guide and Period). It just seemed like I had to do it that way. The book (Guide) is like this gradually dismembering of a novel anyway. I have so many structures that I worked with to make that cycle. At certain times it has to become about me to make that whole structure work.
3AM: Youíve been called the voice of the Blank Generation, how do you react to that title?
DC: I used to be called that (laughs). Back when people used to use that term. Now they call me the most dangerous writer in America. Isnít that weird? Thatís a sad statement on American literature.
3AM: After a reading of Frisk in San Francisco you received death threats from Queer Nation, were you afraid to go on writing at all?
DC: First off it wasnít Queer Nation, it was some subgroup. Well, at the moment it was really scary. The whole tour had been crazy because right when that book came out American Psycho had come out a month or two earlier, Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested and Queer Nation was at the height of their stupidity and reactionary power. All of it combined and I had been really attacked throughout the tour. It had been a mix of people really liking it and people really hating it and hating me. So I was already a little unnerved when I was given the death threat. It turns out that when I met with the head of the group that he had really simplistic reactionary unthoughout politics. When we spoke to each other, he admitted that he hadnít read the book and lifted the death threat. I realized that the threat was just some symbolic gesture. He just wanted to scare. But in the flyer they sent me it said ďwe know where you liveĒ.
3AM: Thatís always the way.
DC: Exactly. He lifted the death threat. I realized that the threat was just some symbolic gesture. He just wanted to scare. But in the flyer they sent me it said ďwe know where you liveĒ. It spooked me and the only thing I think it did was that I donít think I would have written Try the way I did if it wasnít for that. I knew beforehand that Try had to be the one about the heart. Different books are about the mind, the heart or the libido and Try was about the heart. I knew it had to be that way. I did really let myself write something emotional to prove something to myself. I think thatís the only effect it had. I knew when I published that book I would be living it down forever and I still am and itís a big drag. People associate me with that and I get dismissed as this shockmeister. That whole time around that, I think caused me problems in the way that people think about me. In terms of me personally I think maybe one other effect was the way I emphasized humanity in Try.
3AM: Many authors consider writing therapy; you went into therapy after the publication of Try, how come?
DC:: I had always been suspicious of the idea of therapy. A lot of stuff was happening in my life. Try is in a way about a close friend of mine who got really strung out on heroin and I got incredibly involved in trying to help him get off of it and it was a big fucking nightmare that didnít work. It consumed my whole life and I always had been what a therapist would call a caretaker, someone who tries to help people, kind of a big brother figure. The George Miles thing had kind of galvanized me in that way because that was about that too because he was so screwed up. I had always been like that and I still am, but now I try to help young artists rather than help them personally. That was really bad and the whole thing with helping my friend helped break up a long-term relationship I was in. I was doing a lot of drugs again. It just seemed like I was so fucked up I just thought what the hell, so I just tried therapy for a few years. Of course it was no deal and in a pragmatic way it did help me out. I worked it into the novel, because I usually write about whatever is going on in my life at the time.
3AM: When David Lynch first went into therapy the doctor told him that it could affect his work. So he left. Do you think it had a negative effect on you or your work?
DC: No, I think it had a beneficial effect. Iím really interested in systems and structures in my work and Iím interested in that regarding my head too. It was all about repeating structures and recognizing things that are mirror reflections of things that you did before and that youíre just automatically doing things because you did them before. It made me think about that and that made me feel better. I think one of the reasons my work in the cycle becomes more systematic after that is because I got really interested in the way life, impulses and the mind are structured. I think it affected me that way more than anything else.
3AM: I spoke with Scott Thompson (of The Kids in the Hall) recently and heís a big Eminem fan. What do you think of him?
DC: Heís a really talented guy. I think heís cool. Itís not really my thing. I have nothing against. I donít give a shit about how he talks about gay people. Itís just provocative. I like anything that pushes peopleís buttons. Heís just such a fucking big deal, I like things that are undervalued. Heís not someone thatís been important to me as an artist.
3AM: When researching Period did you visit chat rooms?
DC: Yes, like I said I always write about what interests me at the time. I had waited a really long time to get on the Internet I just didnít want to do it. I had just gotten online and I was still in that early stage of thinking it was magical and mysterious. I was exploring it like one tends to do really exhaustively. I actually donít really like chat rooms at all. I instant message. I was really interested in the Internet in the same way that I was interested in rave culture when I wrote Guide. Period is very much influenced by certain video games and just an ongoing interest in haunted houses, mazes and spooky things.
3AM: Why were you expelled from private school?
DC: I had this group of people I mentioned before, we were artsy, crazy and really into music, did drugs but we were really smart. We had to be careful about it. We were just bad kids in a private boy's school and we were considered bad influences. And because of George, the younger kids became friends with us too. The school authorities were panicked because of the weird hippy degenerates having all these twelve-year boys hanging out with them. So they just started picking us off one by one and I was the last one. The whole group got kicked out of school for different reasons, and they couldnít really get me because I was too smart. So they finally kicked me out of school because they told me that I had to get my grade point average up to an A minus by a certain date or they would kick me out. I did get it up but then they kicked me out on some trumped-up charge. Their reasons were insane, since I was a vegetarian they thought that was subversive. It was really crazy. The head of the school who threw me out blew his brains out with a shotgun the next year. I thought that was sort of nice. He was a miserable fuck. Mr. Fascist. It was a weird school I mean the teachers were really fucked up. There was a lot of weird shit between the teachers and the students. Like doing drugs and my favorite teacher killed himself in class while I was there. Teachers were writing mash notes to students, having sex with them, it was a weird place.
3AM: What is the craziest thing a fan ever sent you?
DC: This boy sent me this whole box of him. His shit, his vomit, his pee, his spit, his hair, pieces of his skin and naked pictures of himself. He was basically saying to me that I could have him and kill him. So that was pretty odd.
3AM: People want you to do things like that to them sometimes, right?
DC: There has been that, yeah. There are people who are on the opposite side of my fantasies. Because my books have these oppositional fantasies, like this guy thinks killing this perfect boy will be the ultimate thing and then the kid who lets himself be killed. So some people envision themselves as that character. Iíve also had people want me to give them twelve year old boys to fuck or tell them where they could get snuff films. Thereís that whole group of fans. Most fans are people who totally relate to it emotionally, itís more like they feel that someone understands them. They understand that itís about fantasy. As the cycle went on, I think it became clearer the difference between the real world and the fantasy world.
3AM: Do you still go to Disneyland every year and why?
DC: Oh sure, at least once. Itís just sublime. Itís a great piece of art. I grew up near Disneyland. Disney hadnít yet become this monster capitalist nightmare of the world. Itís a perfect place. I love amusement parks, I love rides. I just find them beautiful. I like being there. I totally relax. I love spooky houses. It's just fun.
3AM: Youíre writing about Kip Kinkel, the boy who killed his parents because he couldnít handle their disappointment in him. What attracts you to that story?
DC: Itís not about him exactly. Itís a fiction novel loosely based on the recent high school shootings. I was trying to figure out how to write about it. I had sort of agreed to write a book about it and I had sold a book that I was going to write about it. I was finding my way into it and there was a Frontline episode about him. In the course of it they played his confession and it was one of the most amazing things I had ever heard. Hearing that confession is was inspired the book. It just keyed in exactly how I could do it. Itís a very slight and very intense book. Itís narrated by this kid thatís losing it. It's this building horror and terror and emotional breakdown leading up to a school shooting.
3AM: It sounds like itís going to be very different from the five-book cycle.
DC: Definitely. Iím in a period right now where I want to change my work completely. I donít know if I can do it or not. This book isnít a complete change but it is really different. For one, it's totally linear, I write it from beginning to end. It appears to be extremely simple. I tried to make it as artless as possible. Itís very impressionistic. I thought it was really straightforward and people might still think itís really experimental but itís not on the surface. It's not about men and boys. Even though one of the motivations of this boy is this incestuous relationship he had with his brother when he was younger but thatís as close as it gets. Itís not explicit at all, it is very much about kids. I will probably always write about kids because I have tremendous sympathy for them and I think itís really important to write about them in a serious way.
3AM: I think that will be really interesting.
DC: Well, weíll see.
3AM: In 2000, New York University hosted a conference to celebrate you and your work, what was that like?
DC: It was nerve-racking and weird and a very big honor. It's great to be recognized. Some of my heroes like Stephen Malkmus (Pavement) and Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), and John Waters stood up there and read my work. It was overwhelming. I feel like Iím such a weird figure in American literature and Iím never going to get the recognition that I thought I would when I was a kid. But thereís a lot of things happening now with people reacting so well to my work. They actually understand my work very well in Europe. Thereís this art show traveling all over the world that opens in February thatís all artists doing work based on Guide. There are very strange forms of recognition that are happening that are fantastic. With the event in NYC, I was thrilled to death and very self-conscious. Anything any normal person would feel.
3AM: It's been said that your friends wonít read your books, why not?
DC: Iím the sort of a person that doesnít like to be the center of attention. I'm more interested in listening. A lot of people that are friends are people that were my students or people that have written to me. I seem to be a very good father figure. It's that kind of relationship, itís not about me. I do have friends that read my work, of course, but some of them donít have any interest at all. Then Iím sure I have friends that donít like my work at all but who are still my really good friends. It hurts me that some of them donít read it, but I understand. It's not like my work is light reading.
3AM: What authors are you a fan of now?
DC: I like Chuck Palahniuk (author of Fight Club). The closest Iíve found to books that scare me and that I feel competitive is Eden, Eden, Eden by Pierre Guyotat. Itís really experimental and really intense.
3AM: My favorite sick book and Iíve read two of your books is Cows by Matthew Stokoe. I first read about it when I discovered your books in the English magazine Bizarre (check out their website at). A quote from the Gay Times says ďForget Bret Easton Ellis, Poppy Z. Brite, and Dennis Cooper. That's kid's stuff. If you want something truly repellent, try this.Ē
DC: Well fuck them, but I definitely want to check it out. Iím actually turning on my computer right now.
3AM: Thank you so much.