AMERICAN PSYCHO: AN INTERVIEW WITH DENNIS COOPER
"On a personal level, the novel cycle is a kind of ongoing argument with myself: why should or shouldn't I do the things I fantasized about doing? I wanted to figure that out for myself, and not rely on the standard moral, religious, and legal rights and wrongs, because I don't believe in the idea of a collective truth. I'm an anarchist, by philosophy. I believe everyone has everything they need within themselves to make the right decisions. Anyway, I'm less afraid now that I'll go insane and do something fucked up to myself or to someone else, but I'm hardly free."
Stephen Lucas interviews Dennis Cooper
COPYRIGHT © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
Dennis Cooper's books about predatory males who hack up beautiful boys, or dream about it, intimidate some people. Alex James of Blur pulled out of an interview with him, and Queer Nation issued him with a death threat. Even Marilyn Manson refused to let him write a cover story on him for an American music magazine.
But Cooper's books are more than gorefests. They're also romantic. The men take the objects of their desire apart in a bid to understand the awesome power they have over them. The Guardian hit on it when they said that a desire for love infects the carnage. And they're funny too. In Cooper's novel, Try, the central character Ziggy says to his foster father: "If you loved me you wouldn't rim me while I'm crying." Perhaps his work unsettles some people because it unflinchingly dissects his own dark fantasies.
Cooper was born in 1953. The son of a wealthy businessman, he grew up in Pasadena, California. At the age of 11 sex and violence linked themselves, quite literally, in the writer's head when a friend he had a crush on split Cooper's head open with an axe. At 12 he hiked to a place in the mountains behind his house where three boys had been raped and killed. Upon reaching the spot, Cooper found himself gripped by a feeling of eroticised fear and fascination. And in the ninth grade Cooper met his beloved friend George Miles. Miles had deep psychological problems and Cooper took him under his wing. Years later, when Cooper was 30, he had a brief love affair with the 27-year-old Miles.
The cycle of books (Closer 1989, Frisk 1991, Try 1994, Guide 1997 and Period 1999) came later, and were an attempt by Cooper to get to the bottom of both his fascination with sex and violence and his feelings for Miles.
3AM: Can you tell me anything about what you're working on at the moment?
DC: I'm between things, novelwise. I'm organizing a collection of short fiction pieces written over the last eight or so years, basically to kill time until I get inspired. I just wrote an XXX-rated feature film for the fashion photographer and video director Carter Smith. It's called Warm, and it's kind of a soap opera/love story/thriller. I think it goes into production this winter.
3AM: Were Closer, Frisk, Try, Guide and Period cathartic, or did they dig up more than they buried?
DC: Both, really. I started the cycle wanting to get the horror out of my mind in a reasonable way. By that I mean I wanted to understand my torment, but I also wanted to see if my thinking would make sense to other people. Just as importantly, I wanted to write novels as great as the ones I loved. On a personal level, the novel cycle is a kind of ongoing argument with myself: why should or shouldn't I do the things I fantasized about doing? I wanted to figure that out for myself, and not rely on the standard moral, religious, and legal rights and wrongs, because I don't believe in the idea of a collective truth. I'm an anarchist, by philosophy. I believe everyone has everything they need within themselves to make the right decisions. Anyway, I'm less afraid now that I'll go insane and do something fucked up to myself or to someone else, but I'm hardly free.
3AM: Did Period really bring that cycle of books to a close? Are you exploring different themes through your writing now?
DC: Yes, it did. I hope to do something really different. Or I should say I hope there's something else I can do well. My first post-cycle novel comes out next year. It's called My Loose Thread, and it's sort of about the recent high school shootings phenomenon in the US. It's not part of the cycle, and a different kind of book, but it comes from the same area of interest. Next time I'd like to do something completely new, but we'll see.
3AM: Some critics ask why you waste your talent dissecting (so to speak) slacker kids. Why do they fascinate you? What can you get at through them that you can't through adult characters?
DC: The so-called slacker kids in my books are the kinds of people I've known and been close to all my life. I was one, and, except for my age, I'm still one. There are adults in my books, and there are things I get at through them, just as there are things I get at through the young characters. I guess I see the adults as the kid characters' future. The adults' sophistication and detachment and obsessiveness is the damage inflicted by a culture that fetishizes and disrespects kids. I just tried to inhabit that viewpoint in an intense way, and protect the kids at the same time, and see what happened.
3AM: How did you protect the kids?
DC: Well, I used my late, beloved friend George Miles as the model for all the major young male characters in the cycle because he's the one person I would have protected at all costs. I think the way this protection panned out is that when most of the violence happens, the story becomes unrealistic and fantasy-like, as though it might or might not really be happening. Also, the young characters are always the most sympathetic. So I didn't manage to completely protect them, but the books (and I hope my readers) always care about them.
3AM: I liked the part in Guide when you just hit the typewriter keys, frustrated that some emotions are so out there they can't be articulated. Was Period the moment you finally nailed down those emotions, or the moment you let them go?
DC: I think Period is both the ultimate expression of those feelings and an acknowledgement that language and art can't convey them. Period is basically a disappearing act, a magic trick. The cycle doesn't so much end as collapse in on itself, and all that's left is a writer, his memories of a dead boy he loved, and the books that tried and failed to understand and express that love.
3AM: I read the mutilation in your stories as a sweet way of trying to get closer to someone. Is there more to it than that?
DC: It's sweet in the sense that it's done out of awe and fascination, not out of hatred or resentment. I think my characters see it as a way to understand and create an ultimate form of intimacy with the boys they mutilate. The problem is, they're not really interested in the individual boys. They're only interested in the power that a particular brand of cute boy has over them, so the boys themselves are just specimens and examples. The men are seeking a huge answer to their questions, but the answer is so small and personal they don't even notice it.
3AM: I heard Alex James wouldn't meet you. Is that true?
DC: He's a central figure in Guide, and some magazine in England got the idea to have him interview me about that. At the very last minute, he backed out. My impression is that he was advised to back out by Blur's management. I can't say as I blame him, since Guide is very obsessive about him, and he probably thought I was some kind of psycho.
3AM: Who else have you scared? Does it piss you off that people don't make a distinction between you and what you write?
DC: The main situations where my reputation has preceded me in a negative way is in my work as a journalist. For instance, Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson both refused to let me write cover stories on them for Spin Magazine because they were afraid I'd out them as poseurs. They consider themselves to be very daring and extreme, and I think the fact that I'm more daring and extreme intimidated them. My work intimidates a lot of people, and that certainly has done me and my work some harm, and it does irritate me. But it would be really disingenuous of me to whine about that, since I brought it on myself. I think as time goes on, the sweetness in my work will be more clearly understood, or I hope so.
3AM: I'm reading Wrong: Stories at the moment. I liked "He Cried" for the same reasons I like what AM Homes writes. It fucked with my head. But I get the feeling you and her write from very different places. Her writing's academic and yours is more raw and humane may be. Where were you mentally when you wrote "He Cried"?
DC: People have compared AM Homes and me, but I feel no connection to her work at all. Her approach is too conventional and qualified for me. "He Cried", like a lot of the work in Wrong, was written as a kind of experiment while I was trying to figure out how to start the cycle. It seems really innocent to me now, but I think maybe that innocence is its plus. It kind of describes who I was as a young teenager: fascinated by serial murderers, and awestruck by a certain kind of physical beauty, and confused about all that and lonely because of it. "He Cried", like lot of the pieces in Wrong are from my crazy, drugged out days of exploring every extreme I could with my mind and my body, then using literature as a sounding board.
3AM: I also really liked "Introducing Horror Hospital". Are there any bands around at the moment that come close to conveying something real?
DC: Thanks. Introducing Horror Hospital was the beginning of a novel I never figured out how to write. It got expanded into the graphic novel Horror Hospital Unplugged, and right now it's being made into a movie in Australia. Punk rock is great for unabashed realness, and I'm sure there are a lot of bands out there doing intensely real work. It's hard to find them right now, because rawness isn't in fashon. But I think realness can come in lots of forms. Personally, I look for originality and a kind of purity. Right now, off the top of my head, I'd say I see that in artists like Cat Power, Bjork, The Flaming Lips, Aphex Twin.
3AM: Kathy Acker published first drafts of things, wrote at the point of orgasm in order to hit on something true, but you polish and refine. Would you ever go down the automatic, exquisite corpse sort of route?
DC: It wouldn't work, because my first drafts are crap for the most part. I try to let myself go all out at first, then go back and rip apart what I've written then rebuild it, then shred it again, and so on. My real voice isn't exact or careful at all, and I spend much, much more time refining my prose than writing it. On rare occasions, a piece will come out nearly perfect the first time, but almost never.
3AM: Who's the best person you´ve interviewed? Who would you like to interview/meet?
DC: At the time I interviewed Bob Mould, that was a really big deal, because I'd just written Try, which is kind of a tribute to Mould's band Husker Du. We ended up being friends, so that interview stands out to me. On a completely different level, interviewing Leonardo Di Caprio was quite interesting because he was at the height of his fame, but not yet inaccessible. So I got to see through the incredible myth around him. I liked him. If I could interview anyone right now, it might be Kip Kinkel. He was one of the American kids who went on a shooting rampage at his high school, and he was kind of my muse for My Loose Thread.
3AM: What three animals would you most like to be? (Cooper asked Stephen Malkmus of Pavement this question. The first animal is said to represent who you want to be, the second who you are, and the third, your ideal lover. Whether he has this in mind when he answers I don't know).
DC: Giraffe, Loch Ness monster, polar bear.