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PLEASANT VALLEY SUNDAE - AN INTERVIEW WITH PLEASANT GEHMAN



"I've done every kind of horrifying job you can imagine! Maid, firework stand attendant, temp worker, stripper, kids birthday party clown, bartender… you know, I used to do like two or three jobs at a time for like six or nine months and then go travelling for like two or three months, you know what I mean? Just pay my rent and just go somewhere."

Vladik Cervantes interviews Pleasant Gehman (Photos by Gary & Pierre Silva)

COPYRIGHT © 2003, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Pleasant Gehman has made a name for herself among the great literary crowd of alternative writers that LA has produced in the last decade, and it's not just because of one or two or even three books she's written, but because she's managed to create four of them -- one of which spent nine weeks on the LA Times' Best Sellers List.

I've appreciated the literary work of Ms Gehman since the late 80s, before she even had any books out with official ISBN numbers, just self-published chapbooks. I read her column in the LA Weekly religiously and any other writing that I came across of hers in the various local LA papers that she often wrote for -- like The LA Reader, The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, BAM, and especially any of her poetry or short stories that appeared in the local underground literary rags, of which we've actually appeared in the same pages together a few times in the past.

I above all tried collecting the many chapbooks of poetry she put out either by herself or with her literary sewing circle, The Ringling Sisters, who would soon after evolve into a real band that dealt ferociously with the spoken word, as equally great live as they were in print. Her chapbooks appealed to me so much because of their DIY punk rock purity. Here was an insanely creative woman staying true to her underground roots. She was practically clamouring, "Fuck it! I don't need the establishment! I'll do it myself!" These chapbooks were like the fanzines that I myself published and obsessively collected. I was too young to ever come across Lobotomy, the LA fanzine she published during the old school punk rock days of the era when 'The Masque' and 'The Cathay De Grande' were the ultra-hip happening places to be, of which she was an all-too important part of -- hanging out with great legendary icons like Darby Crash, Pat Smear, Brendan Mullen, Craig Lee, and too many others to even begin to mention.

Plez comes from a large creative family (her parents were published authors with 9 children!) and is one of those rare multi-talented individuals who is a real master at everything she's good at, be it writing and music, acting and dancing, or sex and drugs. For a long time I thought that she only began to take her writing seriously after her band, The Screamin' Sirens, broke up in 1990, but I was wrong. Unlike many other alternative writers, she was actually writing before she got into music, of which she credits her drag queen babysitters of her childhood for. That's not to say that a lot of her literary following doesn't come from her Ringling Sisters days, but I'm willing to bet she gathered just as many a fan from her thick steady stream of articles, interviews, and other writings. Even though she's now a highly respected writer with four books under her (garter) belt, she still has the music in her and there's even talk about a Ringling Sisters Fundraiser reunion show this coming Christmas. But even though I love the music she's created in the past, I wanted the focus of this interview to be more literary than musical, so here is the interview with the current Pleasant Gehman: writer, poet, and literary princess of Hollywood.

3AM: Being a successful and talented writer, how much of it also has to do with having the right connections?

PG: Well, I don't know. I never really had connections, I just sort of made connections. My father died when I was like twelve and I hadn't seen him since I was four, so it's not like I got any help from him having been a writer. Once in a while I would get a letter from someone that had worked with him because they had seen my name in a magazine or something, and it said, "You must be his daughter because your writing is..." you know, that kind of stuff. The first time I ever tried to get published I couldn't even type because I'd been cutting typing class to get high. I just hand wrote some shit on notebook paper and sent it in, then it wound up getting published and they were like, "Can we see more of your work?" and then I said, "Well I can just send it in ink" and so I did but they were like, "Do you think you could type it next time?" [laughter]

Working, writing, and believing in yourself -- and not being scared to get your work out there or have it read or seen or that kind of thing. If your stuff is good and if you believe in yourself you will go somewhere with it, you know.

3AM: Tell me about Underground Guide to Los Angeles. Was it hard to be editor and choose the writers for that book? Did anyone get left out, or did you not have room to include others you would've liked to include?

PG: Actually, I just three or four days ago got done doing the second edition of that, and I also now have Tendonitis because of it! [laughter] Yeah, that was a little bit hard. I'd never edited anything before and people have always wanted me to edit things. They'd say, "You'd make a great editor because you're such a good writer" and I was like, "I don't want to edit anything." Then I did the Underground Guide and I really thought, "I'm never going to fucking edit anything ever again in my life!" because it's so much work and then by the time you do edit something and even if you show it to the people, a lot of the people will take some of the edits like really, really personally. It was just a matter of trying to get the whole book to have the tone that I wanted. I'd say to some people, "You know, I need this to be about 1500 to 2000 words." and then they'd hand me like 22 pages, you know? It's like, Hello! I'm going to edit it, you know? I mean, we're not doing the Encyclopedia Britannica!

3AM: Was there anyone who was really hard to handle? I mean, I can imagine Vaginal Davis being really hard to handle.

PG: Well, it was hard getting his piece in, but once it was in it was so great and sick and funny. Wait until you see the second version of the whole book, it's so much better than the first. I mean, I like the other one and it was actually on the LA Times' Best Sellers list for nine weeks, but this one is so much better than the first one.

3AM: Really, why? What's new in it?

PG: There's like seven brand new, totally new chapters that weren't in it and then all the other chapters are not just updated, but completely rewritten.

3AM: The book stayed in the LA Times Best Sellers list for nine whole weeks. How did that feel?

PG: Well, when it first was on the best sellers' list, that was like April 3rd, and my friend called me up and left me these long messages saying, "Oh, by the way your book's on the best sellers list" and I said to the phone, "Ha ha! April Fools!" [laughter] and then Jen (Joseph) called me the next morning screaming about it but then I was like, "Oh well, that's nothing because it's not the New York Times Best Seller list" but then everyone's going, "Oh my god! I can't believe -- " screaming about it. I kept thinking of that when I was in editing hell for the second edition, which will be out in September.

3AM: Did the idea for that book come about from the Top Ten lists you do for the LA Weekly? They're sort of similar.

PG: Yeah, it's kind of like that but I just thought it would be good to just have a whole giant book of everything for someone because whenever I have gone travelling I'd get guide books and they would always tell you about the most obvious stuff, and always the way I found better things was by meeting people in cafes or something -- you know, people that lived there. Or from like asking for directions and then, "Is there anything really cool going on tonight?" and then someone saying, "Well, you might want to check out that show but you should definitely go to this place" and that would always come from someone that lived there. That kind of stuff just doesn't make it into real travel books, or "legit" travel books.

3AM: It seems that you're always involved in so many projects, where do you find the time?

PG: Yeah, I don't know. It just seems that anything I'm interested in turns into something I'm working on, you know? I don't know where I find the time… but I don't have a TV! [laughter].

3AM: Well, that might have something to do with it! [laughter]

PG: And I don't sleep a lot. I mean, I'm starting to need to sleep more right now. I don't know, I just don't like to waste time. Actually, I'm kind of going crazy right now because I have these Tendonitis little cast things on my arms. I was bumming because I can't type, I can't play finger cymbals, I can't paint--I mean it's only for a few weeks but -- I guess that was from just being a workaholic. I just now completed the busiest, most insane fucking month I've ever had! I mean I was doing like three dance shows a night on the weekends plus teaching and rehearsing, and editing the book and doing regular writing assignments. I was just going nuts all the time, and in the middle of it I actually fell in love with someone that I've known for ages who I just saw for the first time in years. So it's been a kind of crazy couple of months.

3AM: I know you released two chapbooks in the past, one of which I actually still have: Esther's Orbit Room and Fire Engine Blue. Did you release many of these?

PG: Well, The Ringling Sisters did three chapbooks before we did a record or anything. We did The Ringling Sisters, and then one called Without a Nut, and then one called Three's a Charm. I did Fire Engine Blue, Esther's Orbit Room and Buena, Bonita, y Boracha. I had a couple of other ones -- one called Black Nylon. We used to do tons of chapbooks all the time. As long as I was working in offices or knew someone that worked in an office where we could steal Xeroxing, there was a lot of chapbook action going on. I mean that's how corporate America funded most of the American underground.

3AM: And you always released the chapbooks under the name 'Carnival Knowledge Press'. What about that? I almost expected that to go into competition with the other alternative publishers like Manic D-Press, Incommunicado, and 2.13.61. What happened to that?

PG: Well, it would be nice if it did but you know what happened it was like, the reason it never did was that I was always more interested in the creative part rather than the business part you know? That's like one of the ways that I divided my time or got time. It's like I would do something and then I'd rather have someone else put it out. I mean it would be nice if I could put it out but I could never afford a secretary or an assistant and I was always a little bit reluctant about having an intern because I work from my house. I didn't have a ton of money so if I would've put something out under Carnival Knowledge -- I, or me and Iris (Berry) would've had to do be doing absolutely everything and then that would've cut into the creative time. You know, if you're sitting there keeping track of sending things out, or orders -- I mean I know a lot of people can do that but people who do stuff like that usually they're a writer that has a press or something. They're not also running a couple of bands at the same time or belly dancing, you know what I mean? It was just too much for one person to do so I just would rather do the creating part than the marketing part.

3AM: Do you think having a fanzine helped your career in any way? Because it seems that there's never really any money in it, it's always for artistic purposes.

PG: I think the only way that it even kind of did was because it taught me how to do stuff and taught me about writing -- but you know I have one now, it's called Puppet Terror. I mean this is the first time I've had a fanzine in maybe two decades or something. It's pretty funny, we just got written up in >Spin. We're on page 52 of the new Spin, which astounded us because you see that just started out as a joke and it turned into this full blown thing. It's a magazine for anyone who's ever been terrorized or terrorized others with puppets. Now people are giving me ventriloquist dummies and sending scary puppet pictures and albums and stuff. It's the same concept as the Ringling Sisters -- we called it the Ringling Sisters because we were scared of clowns and then people just kept giving us clowns all the time so now my house is like full of them.

3AM: Who are you doing that with?

PG: With Shawna Kenney, she wrote I Was a Teenage Dominatrix, and Iris Berry's involved too.

3AM: You've really worked with Iris Berry on a lot of projects.

PG: Yeah, I just saw her today and we were just talking about how insane it is that we've known each other for like 22 years and always worked together and we've lived together and been in bands together. It's a really awesome friendship!

3AM: Besides Iris, who else do you find yourself working with?

PG: Well, Annette I've worked with a lot,Annette Zilinskas -- who was in the Ringling Sisters. She was actually in an early incarnation of the Screaming Sirens, and then she was in Honk If Yer Horny with me, and we've done some other stuff together. I've worked a lot with S.A. Griffin, I did a spoken word tour with him and we've done a lot of readings together and I wrote the back cover for his last book that came out. I've been working a lot with Shawna (Kenney) lately, collaborating. Oh yeah, Clint Catalyst! I just did a story for this book he has coming out next year, Thrills, Pills, Chills, and Heartaches. I just did a reading with him in San Francisco -- also, Michelle Tea.

3AM: Some of the characters in your books are outrageous as are some of the people you work with, like Clint Catalyst and Shawna Kenney. What attracts you to that type of outrageous personality?

PG: I don't know, I guess it's because that's how I am too. It's the two birds of a feather syndrome! [laughter] Actually, the person that's my boyfriend now has a story written about him in Escape from Houdini Mountain.

3AM: Really? Which one?

PG: Coco the Zombie Clown from Heaven. I didn't see him for almost nine years and then he just got in touch with me out of the blue last year because he read the book.

3AM: Do you have any favorite local writers? Well, local and mainstream.

PG: Well, mainstream writing I love Joyce Carol Oates. I just read a couple of new Joyce Carol Oates books that I hadn't seen before. I totally love her. A lot of people don't even count her as a real writer because she's so popular and prolific, but she's completely amazing! I like Suzy Bright. I like Lydia Lunch. I just read a book called The Circus Fire that was a non-fiction book but the guy had done a lot of fiction before, he did this book called Speed Queen, but that book The Circus Fire just blew me away! Let's see, locally the people that I already just mentioned before -- Shawna (Kenney), S.A. Griffin, Iris (Berry), Clint Catalyst, I really like their writing. I mean that's how I actually met Clint, because he was on Manic D and my publisher gave me his book. As soon as I got done reading it I just called him up and said, "We have to know each other!" Then we met for lunch and he showed up with all my books and he said, "Oh, I've been trying to stalk you for years!" [laughter]

3AM: What's your work process like? Do you have any peculiar rituals or a special room you write in?

PG: Ha ha! My kitchen! [laughter] I keep a diary-my journal, and then I usually have a notebook going on with interview notes or notes of some personal story that I want to do, but I actually do write in my kitchen -- just because there was like a big wall there that I built a desk onto. My apartment's laid out really weird because it's like the back part of a house, but I just like to write there because it's sort of a big space.

3AM: And do you have to be alone when you write?

PG: No, I can function in complete chaos, because I grew up in such a big crazy family. I mean it's always nice to be quiet and alone and stuff but I could write in the middle of a party if I needed to.

3AM: Wow! That just seems so rare! I haven't met too many people that can do that. I certainly can't.

PG: Well, that really was because of the way I grew up. There was always like dogs and cats and kids on tricycles peddling around, dinner bubbling over, the phone ringing and the TV on.

3AM: Your poems almost seem to have a punch line to them. Do you have any foresight into how the piece is going to end or does it just come out that way?

PG: Both ways, it works both ways. Like sometimes I have no idea how it's going to end or sometimes it's just something I type and sometimes I already know exactly how it's going to end. Usually I think of how it's going to begin first. Usually if I get the first couple of lines down into any story or poem then the rest of it just almost writes itself, and a lot of times I'll just let it sit for a few days and then sometimes I make revisions… and sometimes I don't. Once in a while something will come up exactly the way it should be and then other times I'll just write something stream of consciousness.

3AM: The earliest poetic work that you released was a spoken word compilation in 1983 called 'Voices of the Angels', and then there was long gap after that. When did poetry actually become an integral part of your artistic career?

PG: There wasn't a gap for me, it's just that stuff wasn't really -- the first chapbook wasn't that long after that, there wasn't that much of a market for it. I was doing a lot of live readings and writing constantly but you know, that was just a different time period when there wasn't a lot of avenues for publication, and the band was going on too--so we were touring a lot and I was really concentrating on that. But I was writing a lot too when we were on the road and in the studio. Actually, I was writing a lot for the LA Weekly too, so I was doing a lot of journalism at that time as well.

3AM: Do you have any plans for a new book now?

PG: I'm working on another book right now. Actually, I'm working on a couple. Someone just contacted me right now and wants me to do a book of either short stories or poems and it's probably going to be poems, but I really don't want to say who that is right now. And then I'm working on another book of short stories and I just started working on my memoirs, and then the Underground Guide book, which I just got done with.

3AM: You've been getting paid for your writing for a long time. Was there ever a time when you didn't get paid for it?

PG: No, I've been getting paid since I was like fifteen. Unless you count stuff like Puppet Terror or my own fanzine! [laughter] I mean just stuff that you do for like your own personal pleasure.

3AM: I love the line in one of your pieces: "the idea of a straight job is like the idea of a straight jacket." Did you go through your share of the nine-to-five slave shift?

PG: Oh, totally! I've done every kind of horrifying job you can imagine! Maid, firework stand attendant, temp worker, stripper, kids birthday party clown, bartender… you know, I used to do like two or three jobs at a time for like six or nine months and then go travelling for like two or three months, you know what I mean? Just pay my rent and just go somewhere. Finally, I guess about 1989 or something, I just decided that I couldn't fucking work in an office any more and I was like, "Okay, I'm either going to be like a bag lady or I will make a living off only doing art" doing whatever, like painting murals or writing or dancing, you know. Then as soon as I made that decision I was really starving for a while but it's been functioning pretty well ever since then. I just felt like I was wasting my brain you know? I really started realizing that a lot of people can't do the stuff I did. I kind of thought that everyone could do this kind of stuff but then I'd be talking to people where I was working at in offices and they were like, "Well, you do this and you do this…" So it took me a long time to realize that not everyone does that. Just because it seemed normal in my family and with me, and I'm not saying that in a snobby way, it's just that when people go home they don't work on something that makes having a day job sort of worthwhile. Then I just started getting really resentful and thinking, "I am really wasting my brain". I tried and tried to figure out a way to get out of it.

3AM: I heard you say you get flak for flaunting your sexuality and calling yourself a feminist, but have you experienced people not taking your talent seriously or discriminating against you or your work beforehand?

PG: Well, I think before they see it they always do. It's pretty funny but a lot of times people don't know what sex my name is. I wrote a lot in the past year for this gay men's magazine called Genre, and I think people just assumed I was a man until one day in the contributors section there was a picture [laughter] and then a bunch of men were like up in arms, "How can she write about that, she's not a gay man!" you know what I mean? A lot of people -- I don't know, they just get the wrong impression I guess, in all different ways, but I mean it doesn't really bother me. I think it's kind of funny because you know, you can look any way and what you look like doesn't have to do with how your brain is functioning. My book was taught at Cal State SF last year, it was part of the curriculum of the class and they all had to write term papers on it. Before their finals I came up and did a reading. The teacher of the class sent me all the term papers back and that was pretty fucking eye-opening hysterical! [laughter] It was weird because I thought it was supposed to be really academic, and a lot of the papers were academic but some of them the people just brought their own crazy issues into it. One of them was so sick that I wanted to use it as a quote for the cover of my next book. It said that I had "tempting eyes and a body built for sin." and if there was cheerleaders at the gates of hell that I'd be at the top of the pyramid! [laughter] I was like, "Okay! That sounds pretty cool!" but then someone else said, "I felt ripped off by Pleasant Gehman's book in the same way that I feel ripped off when some pretty girl walks off with my bindle at a club." [laughter] The teacher's comment on that paper was, "Let's just stick to analyzation of writing here." [laughter] It's weird because a lot of people think that most of my writing is fiction.

3AM: That's exactly the next question I was going to ask you about. I've read your stuff and I don't know if it's because I'm also a writer, but it all sounds completely autobiographical to me, even though it says 'Fiction' under the category.

PG: Well, it says 'Fiction' on Houdini Mountain because that was a decision on the publisher's part because Memoirs doesn't sell as well as Fiction. And you know, names have been changed--some of them, not all of them. None of that book is Fiction, none of any of the three books: Señorita Sin, Princess of Hollywood, Houdini Mountain. They're all completely one-hundred percent true!

3AM: I thought so. Going back to the sexuality question, is that just the most lethal and powerful combination for a woman to have? Sexual confidence and intelligence?

PG: Yeah, I guess it is. I've been really lucky that way I've got to say. I mean it's never been any kind of a hindrance. It's just weird to me that some people can't see beyond certain societal signals, but I mean I used to have that problem in punk rock. You know like when you're younger and adults will like totally misconstrue something you're doing, like something really important will be going on and they'll think, "Oh, you're just going through a phase." or you'll be wearing all black and they'll say, "What are you trying to prove?" and you'll be like, "I'm not trying to prove anything, I just like the color black!" or they'll go, "What kind of political statement are you trying to make by dressing like that and wearing that makeup?" -- "I'm not. I just think it looks cool." No one says that if you're a writer you have to wear like a Brooks Brothers shirt. At least I don't think that you have to look or act any certain way. I mean I like to try to be polite to people and stuff and I like to dress appropriately -- like I certainly wouldn't wear something that I would wear to a club to someone's afternoon wedding or something. If I feel like wearing a t-shirt and jeans to a reading of mine, I will -- but if I feel like showing up at one in lime green feathers and sparkly eye makeup I will do that too, you know.

3AM: Who else do you think has this combination?

PG: I don't know, I think there's a lot of people that have that, and not even necessarily writers. I mean there's a lot of really intelligent women that have that, maybe not literary writers but feminist writers, like Germaine Greer or Susan Faludi are really beautiful women, you know? No one says you have to look like Betty Friedan or Doctor Ruth Westheimer to be able to write about gender issues or sexuality. Madonna has always been really pretty and really sexy and maybe she doesn't make the most intelligent music on Earth but she's a really intelligent woman. Look at Ru Paul! Ru Paul is a guy and looks like a black version of Zsa Zsa Gabor and anytime you read an interview with him it's completely cerebral and spiritual. Dolly Parton, you know? There's tons of examples of people that look completely over the top and that are really talented and intelligent.

3AM: Since you're an experienced journalist, what would you ask yourself if you were interviewing Pleasant Gehman?

PG: What the fuck were you thinking? [laughter] I don't know, probably just what I've learned from all of this. I'm still finding out what I've learned from it. I'm still amazed that I can have sort of an innocence but I actually do.

3AM: If you had to choose only one of your talents to keep, which one would you keep? Writing, music, dancing?

PG: Oh, my god! I don't know, that's like a greyish area. Well, if I could only keep one it would be the ability to make people see things differently. I hope that doesn't sound too pretentious.

3AM: I read an interview you did with Pamela Des Barres and I'm going to blatantly ask you the same last four questions that you asked her:

1. Do you keep a diary or a journal?

PG: Hell yeah! Since I was 13.

3AM: 2. Do you still get high?

PG: Yes.

3AM: 3. Are you seeing anyone right now?

PG: Yes.

3AM: 4. Have you started a new book yet?

PG: Yes.




ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Vladik Cervantes is a Los Angeles writer/poet whose work has appeared in a wide variety of print and online publications, including Retort Magazine, Lummox Journal, Silverlake Local, Circle Magazine, Damaged Goods, Altered Mind, Flipside, and Streenotes (the online exhibition of XCP: Cross Cultural Poetics). His latest chapbook is entitled Poignant Torsi and he is currently at work on his first novel.



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