One of my favourite writers Dennis Cooper was generous enough to grant me an interview last year.
Often introduced by William Burroughs’ comment: “Dennis Cooper, God help him, is a born writer”, and, less sensationally, by Edmund White who says: “Dennis Cooper is reciting Aeschylus with a mouth full of bubble-gum”. The late great critic Elizabeth Young describes his writing as achieving “Bliss – jouissance or rapture – in trying to speak the unspeakable” and who Vice magazine dub an “Abject-Lit god”.
The Californian author Cooper’s work, is usually (lazily) referred to as “transgressive” or “subversive”, “macabre” or “morbid” with is often represented as some kind of literary outlaw due to some of his fixations – obsessive love, dead boys, the body and all its effusions, hustlers, sex, drugs, homicidal fantasy. But his beautiful, intelligent and lucid writing transcends its subject matter to create literature of the most exquisite poetry and beauty.
At the centre of his novels are a blurred, drugged out beautiful blank boy, the paradigm of which being his best and beloved school friend and muse George Miles of Cooper’s eponymous five-novel “George Miles cycle” composed of Closer, Frisk, Try, Guide, and Period.
Why do I love his writing so much? I love its careful multi-layered and complex structure which underpins the – apparently – flat-lining, terse and darkly humorous prose, expressed in its teen Californian demotic.
I appreciate, and am moved, by his great empathy towards the damaged, unloved, forgotten and abandoned young men that inhabit his books. I believe Cooper is one of the most generous, open and compassionate artists working today. His commitment and talent is coupled with his sincere deep concern and regard for his readership, his blog The Weaklings and the supportive community that has emerged around its readers and commentators (the “dls” distinguished locals). Since the Cycle was concluded with Period in 2001, Cooper has continued and developed his themes in My Loose Thread, Ugly Man, The Sluts, and the highly acclaimed God, Jr.
Here is my interview that took place in March 2010.
FS: What led you to being a writer?
DC: I always wrote, and also did drawings too, as a kid. I was particularly interested in writing. But I didn’t take it all that seriously. I didn’t read serious literature. I just read junk. I really like novels that were taken from TV series like Batman, the Man From Uncle. There were terrible novels based on them – just junk. I read nothing else. But when I was 15, I discovered all this French literature like de Sade and Rimbaud.
FS: How did you discover them?
CD: De Sade? My family and I were visiting a friend in Washington DC and the son had de Sade on his shelf and that’s how I discovered him. And the other less lascivious stuff … Bob Dylan used to talk about Rimbaud and through that I got into French literature. I decided I wanted to be a serious writer after reading that stuff. I felt a real kinship.
DC: It’s hard to explain. With the de Sade, it was the explicitness of the material which was a mindblower to me as I had such a strange brain.
FS: Why is your brain strange?
DC: I was already making notes, like a private investigation, of every fantasy and they were violent and sexual. I was prying into a secret investigation of my brain. Literature is a place where you can investigate it and lay it out. I don’t know, I was just really taken with it. Rimbaud is a classic teen thing.
FS: During, or after your teenage years, did you go to art school or college? How did you develop your writing?
DC: Mostly on my own. I was at a private high school which I got kicked out of.
DC: I was part of this crowd of students that was complicated, artsy, weird and drug taking. And the faculty didn’t like us. There were four or five of us. George Miles was there and he was very close with me and the rest of them. He was three years younger. They, basically, kicked us out one by one on trumped-up charges. I was the last one. I hadn’t done any thing at all. It was just to get rid of the bad influences … We also knew a lot about the teachers.
FS: The dirt?
DC: Yes, we had a lot of dirt on them. So then I went to public high school.
FS: Where you living with your parents then?
DC: No, I had left my parents and was living with my first boyfriend in a city called Monrovia. So I went to the city college, Pasadena State College, for a couple of years. All I did though was take poetry classes. There were a few teachers who really supported me and thought I was really talented. That was huge for me. Then I quit and ended up going to the former Claremont College, in California, (now called Pitzer University). I never studied creative writing; I figured it out for myself.
My literary professor told me to quit. I was taking drugs and things like that. He said I was wasting my time. He said it was stupid to go to school if I wanted to be a writer.
FS: When was this?
DC: It was 1970 or whatever. So I quit school and apart from these poetry classes I never studied creative writing. I just did it myself.
FS: So you stayed in LA, writing and supporting yourself? When did you start the Little Caesar imprint?
DC: That was in 1976. I also got the idea when I was 15, or 16, to write the George Miles cycle.
FS: So you had that idea so young?
DC: Yes, I wanted to write a big cycle of books.
FS: At such a young age? Most people are very unfocussed in their teens.
DC: I am very driven and stuff. I do the fucking blog every day and that takes … so much time. http://denniscooper-theweaklings.blogspot.com/
FS: I want to talk to you about the blog.
DC: It’s weird. I didn’t know what it was going to be. It took me year and years and years to figure it out … but I wanted this big multi-part work. So, I was writing that and it was really, really shitty. My poetry was better, so I started publishing poetry but the fiction took a really long time to develop.
FS: What was it about George Miles that made you want to write the cycle?
DC: I don’t know. He was just massively important to me. We just bonded. He as the first person who I really believed loved me in some way.
FS: So you don’t believe your parents loved you? Or was this a different kind of love?
DC: I don’t believe in that kind of stuff, like it’s given, you have to. This was independent. It was the first time I felt like that about me – not based on obligation. In the end we were just really close. He was extremely screwed up and I adored him. He was very complicated – and so was our relationship. He ended up being diagnosed bipolar. He was a brilliant musician; we were in a band together in high school. He was iconographic to me in a certain way. It really bothered me that he was so fucked up and he probably wouldn’t achieve anything. So I had this idea when I was trying to figure out the cycle that he would be the emotional centre and main character of the work and I would write it for him.
FS: The books are very tightly structured. Did you plan that? I remember you have blogged about the structure.
DC: It took me years and years to figure it out. I made graphs and just thought about it. And experimented with different things. I had the basic form in mind. It got changed as I was writing it, though. It is more structured that it seems when you are reading it.
FS: It took you quite a while to get into prose writing? Did you start it when you were 28 when you lived in Amsterdam?
DC: I was living in NY in the early ‘80s and my prose started getting a little better them. And I published a book called Safe. I felt ready. And then I went to Amsterdam. I fell in love with this guy there. I had an awful two and a half years living over there. I was very isolated and this was combined with going over the top with the drugs. I started writing in that city as I was so isolated. It was there I discovered the nouveau roman.
FS: You finished the George Miles cycle in 2000.
DC: From starting to write the first novel to “Period”, the final one, took 12 years.
FS: How much work goes into each novel?
DC: Lots. Rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. That’s all I do. For me it’s all in the rewriting and editing.
FS: And that is still your approach?
DC: Yes, absolutely. I didn’t learn how to write so, I have to rebirth them and rebirth them. I labour over them and then I rework them. I envy people who can write from beginning to end. But I just can’t do that. I labour over them and rework them. I envy people who can write from beginning to end but I just can’t do that.
FS: Your writing does come across as very light and joyful. It doesn’t seem laboured, it is quite strange. I like it as there seems to be so much emotion underneath it. A few words have a lot of compressed meaning and inchoate emotion. It’s such an amazing skill to be able to do that.
DC: It’s hard to do.
FS: … and in your blog, I love the way you write your voice is very fluent and witty and brilliant. The commitment to your blog must be immense. What made you start blogging?
DC: I started it. It wasn’t exactly a dare but there is a website about my stuff made by a guy in Australia and he asked me if I had a website about my work. He set a competition on his site and one of the options in the contest was that I should set up a blog. And that is what most people who visited his website voted for. So I did one. I didn’t really know what it was going to be so I felt interested in it. It was when people started posting comments and I didn’t know what to do… so I started answering them.
FS: So what do you do? Do you read the comments and write notes and then complete a very long document to everyone’s remarks and put that up?
DC: No. I read it several times the day before. So I read the comments and absorb them. I get up in the morning and read them and I sit down and type answers. I go through them one by one and answer them. It really does take about three to five hours every morning to do.
FS: It is a huge commitment. What impact does this have on your writing?
DC: It’s a problem but it’s like I have no choice. It took me three years to start my novel. I can do it now it’s not optimal by any means. I can blog and write.
FS: “Ugly Man” was published since you have been living in France wasn’t it?
DC: Those were short pieces. I was working on short pieces because I didn’t have the stamina or the brain.
FS: So you are working on a novel now? How is that going?
DC: I started conceiving of it when I when I first moved here.
FS: Do you think the blog has influenced it at all?
DC: I think it’s going against the blog. I think it’s something completely outside of it.
FS: I always see you as a very LA writer and that really comes across in your writing. How do you think being in Paris has influenced your writing and this novel in particular?
DC: This novel is like this weird novel that’s written in this big voice, complicated and artificial. It could be a disaster but I trying to do something different. It’s a novel about this French cannibal who speaks in this really pretentious voice.
FS: Do you think there is a French consciousness that is now imbuing your writing?
DC: To a degree. I’ve always been a Francophile. I love French literature or films. Being over here makes a difference. I know what it is to live here. I know the street, where the shops are. I know what a château is. So it is like my homage to French literature in a way.
FS: To return to your blog. Did it defy your expectations?
DC: I had no expectations.
FS: I love how supportive and encouraging it is of people. On the internet, it seems to me, people can conceal themselves behind the cloak of anonymity and be very snarky and unpleasant, but on The Weaklings, you never get nasty or snide remarks. And if anyone does cross the line at all, you defuse it in a very gentle way. I think that’s amazing.
DC: I am really surprised there aren’t more people coming in who want to toss bombs or something. Occasionally they do, very rarely. And they have left. It is a special place. I don’t really know why it happened but it’s very precious. It has a huge readership. I feel like I should keep doing it.
FS: You help a lot of people there. Lots of commentators get mutual encouragement. And get their work out there.
DC: I try yes. There are people who have been there a while and they are starting to their work and publish their books. I think the community makes some small difference.
FS: I can’t imagine someone like Martin Amis doing something like this. They are so careerist. Why do you think you are different to those kinds of writers?
DC: Because maybe because I never went to school, because I’m from LA, because I’m an anarchist. I’m not a snob at all. I don’t know. I have a caretaker side like the George Miles thing. It’s a combination of things. I have no interest in that kind of literary career. I’m not into cocktail society or kissing ass … I alienate people.
FS: It is difficult.
DC: Yes it is economically. But it’s all about eternity, isn’t it?
FS: I seem to have jumped from the George Miles cycle straight into “Ugly Man”. But when you were writing “My Loose Thread” and “God Jr”, these are standalone novels. How was it to write them outside of the arc of the cycle?
DC: It is very refreshing. It makes each book more difficult because I have to start from scratch. But I’m enjoying creating super structures that are standalone now. In some ways, the George Miles cycle was very helpful in terms of just keeping going. It’s a little more difficult but I find it interesting.
FS: Where you satisfied with each one?
DC: I don’t publish things unless I am pretty confident. I liked them. I mean each of them have things I like about them and things I wish I could have done differently. The only one that bothers me is “My Loose Thread”. The publisher, Canongate, didn’t publicise it properly to say the least. That was the only bad experience I have ever had in publishing.
FS: Music plays a big part in your writing. Why is that?
DC: I’ve always been interested in music and seeing bands since I was a kid. It speaks to me, or whatever.
DC: It’s self-evident. I have always been a huge music guy since I’ve been a kid. I’ve always seen bands. I’ve always been like that. I think pop or rock music or whatever you want to call it, is the most advanced medium.
FS: More than art or sculpture?
DC: Yes I do.
DC: It’s self-evident.
FS: I don’t know. I find rock music and the rock scene passé. I think guitars look archaic.
DC: It depends on the band.
FS: When you see a band on stage, male or female, with guitars, it seems to me like something in a museum or something (perhaps that’s just me).
DC: I know what you mean. I think that is a sign of getting older. I feel that in myself. It’s hard to maintain belief in it too. But it’s a huge field. For me it’s always seemed really vast. It’s instant. You make it. It’s done. So, formally, I’ve always studied it as a way to work differently when a band is referenced pretty heavily in a novel, it’s usually because I’ve studied their work and I’ve tried to implement their aesthetic in the writing of the novel.
FS: What are you listening to at the moment?
DC: Just a hotchpotch. Last year, I liked the XX album. I like Bradford Cox. If someone says something is interesting, I instantly download it.
FS: I notice in your writing, you don’t have any texting, despite you using and referencing emails and instant messaging a lot.
DC: That’s because I sent my first text message two months ago. I had a really shitty old phone. It’s a Russian one, my boyfriend’s so I couldn’t read the letters on it. I got an iPhone about two months ago so there will be texting in the book I’m working on at the moment.
FS: Architecture is also a big theme for you too. For instance the house in “God Jr”.
DC: I have a really strong interest in sculpture and it is a big influence on my conception of space. I also have a huge fondness for haunted houses and spooky houses.
FS: Why is that?
DC: They really, really interest me. I study them. I think about them in terms of aerospace, particle physics and neuroscience. And I get them from sculpture too. That’s where the house interior and the monument in “God Jr” come from. I like combining those two. In the new novel I have these chateaus with these crazy passages and so on. That’s something to do with sculpture again, creating spaces and passageways. I don’t like straightforward narrative. I hate that stuff. I use it in a subversive way, but you have to sometimes. If you have secret passages ways through things, it’s like the novel being a piece of architecture.
FS: You also refer to video games a lot in your novels.
DC: Yes, I like the structure. They have a kind of weird narrative to them which is very loose and open. I am interested in progression, propulsion and momentum. I am not interested in narrative or plot or suspense or all that crap. So I am interested in ways of making them move along. So I am interested in video games and spooky houses. Why you want to play a video game. It’s not really narrative that compels you. It’s the same with pornography. It’s another thing. I think pornography is really useful as it has no narrative but it’s really compelling. I am looking for ways to get around the stupid boring shit that fiction is becoming.
FS: Are there any writers that you like at the moment?
DC: There is a huge wave of brilliant fiction writers in America right now, that is just mindboggling – Blake Butler, Shane Jones, and Justin Taylor. Ben Brooks is British – I really like him.
FS: Are they influenced by you at all? Do you have any relationship with them?
DC: I have a relationship but I don’t think they are influenced by my work or me. But they respond to my methods of experimenting. A lot of my influences are very close to them I think. I think they see me as a kindred spirit. Maybe they are influenced by me or may be they are not. Even though they are much younger than me, I feel they are peers of mine.
FS: Writing is a very isolating process which requires a lot of solitude. But now you are collaborating with the French theatre director Gisèle Vienne. How did that come about?
DC: I was coming to Lyon to do a lecture in 2003 and she wrote me a letter asking if I would be interested in trying out collaboration, working on some sketches and see what happens. She sent me some DVDs of her work which were very interesting. I had done some theatre stuff in America but not for a while. So I came over and worked with her for three or four days. We worked well together. It was so easy and such a pleasure and the piece was received extremely well. So it became this long-term collaboration. I love working with Gisèle. I love the interaction with people.
FS: How did Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))) get involved with your collaboration with Gisèle?
DC: We were in the early stages of making this piece Kindertotenlieder and she suggested hooking up with Stephen because I love Sunn O))). He was really interested enough to check out what we are doing and has been working with us. He did a piece (Eternelle Idole) with Gisèle last year.
FS: How long have you been in France?
DC: Five years.
FS: Do you like living there? Or is it a necessity because of the visa situation (of his boyfriend).
DC: It is a necessity. But I do love it. It is the most beautifully constructed city, everything about it is beautiful. I love French people.
FS: How are they different to Americans? What do you love about them?
DC: Everything. They are much more talkative. They have much more sense of who they are, their mortality, what they can do and can’t. I feel very comfortable. They are very trustworthy. It’s quite nice to be away from America. I’m very happy not to be there at the moment.
FS: I guess being an anarchist isn’t too easy in the US.
DC: It’s a philosophy, so it’s fine actually. I’m not utopian. It’s a really good philosophy.
FS: What do you mean by you being an anarchist?
DC: It’s too complicated but basic things. There is a phrase, “As soon as you get power, disperse it.”
FS: You certainly do that with your blog. I don’t suppose you think you have power (in terms of politics), but you do have a reputation. You have spent many years refining your work and writing. You don’t abuse your position impose your views, or whatever. You welcome everyone – regardless of their opinions, talents, interests and so on. Would you call that an anarchist approach?
DC: Sure. I think that that’s the way I approach the blog. It’s just a basic analysis of power structures. Anarchism is a very simple thing, and there is a million ways to be anarchist.
FS: It’s also quite tough, in financial terms, though, isn’t it? It doesn’t pay well does it?
DC: It would be wonderful to have all that money as it would be great to set up a foundation to support a bunch of other people. But it doesn’t torture me.
Dennis Cooper has curated a show of work from contributors to his blog at Five Years Gallery in London, that opens June 11, 2011.