Interviewed by Leah Mol
With nine novels under his belt, Dennis Cooper has been called “the most dangerous writer in America,” (by the Village Voice) although he’s humbly stated that the tag is nothing more than a “journalistic convenience.” Along with his work as a novelist, he’s also published poetry collections, short story collections and nonfiction, has worked as an editor and publisher, and has collaborated on projects with artists of all kinds. His most recent collaboration is his seventh work with French director Gisele Vienne, a theatre piece called “The Pyre.” It will premiere in Paris in May.
Dennis is best known for his five-book George Miles Cycle (http://www.dennis-cooper.net/georgemiles.htm), which he planned for over a decade and then spent another ten years actually writing. The cycle was heavily influenced by and written as a result of his relationship with friend and lover George Miles. It’s been thirteen years since the last book of that cycle was published, but George Miles has certainly not been forgotten. Dennis is currently working on his tenth novel, a retelling of his real-life relationship with George, which he hopes will give people an opportunity to get to know “the real George.”
While working on both his theatre collaborations and a novel, Dennis still, somehow, finds the time to update his blog, which has become an artistic project in itself. You can read it here (http://denniscooper-theweaklings.blogspot.ca). He also found the time to answer some of my questions about his work and his life as a writer.
Was there ever anything you wanted to do other than be a writer?
Right before I decided to be a writer at 15, I wanted to be an archeologist. My parents arranged for me to go assist on an archeological dig in Peru for a summer, and the work was so tedious that I changed my mind. In my later teens, there was a period where I wanted to be a visual artist and filmmaker in addition to being a writer, but I didn’t have anywhere enough talent in those other two areas.
You started writing transgressive pieces as a teenager. Were you ever embarrassed or ashamed of the subject matter you were drawn to?
No, I was never embarrassed or ashamed, but it did take me a long time to feel confident enough to show that work to other people. It also took me a long time to figure out how to write interestingly and uniquely about transgressive subject matter¬—to find my own voice, as they say—and that made me keep the work secret too.
When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer?
At 15, I decided that I wanted to be a serious writer. I had written poems and stories since I was a kid, but, at that age, I discovered writers like Rimbaud and Baudelaire and Genet and many others, and I realized that the writing I had been doing was just casual junk, and I began to work much, much harder.
At Pitzer College, you took a writing class with Bert Myers, who encouraged you to quit school and write. Is this advice you’d give to young writers now?
It depends. Bert’s advice was perfect for me, and I ended up learning what I need to learn on my own, but I can be very disciplined and obsessive about writing and reading. I think some people might need the structure of learning to write in school and might be helped by the attention and the feedback you get in that context. If it’s a choice between being in a university writing program or having a taxing full-time job, I generally think the writing program is a better option.
How was your first book published?
If you mean my very first book, it was a poetry book that I self-published when I was 20. If you mean my first novel Closer, a friend of mine who was in the publishing industry helped me out by sending it around to publishers for me because I was living in Amsterdam at the time and had no idea how to get a novel published. It got rejected many, many times, maybe by 12 publishers in all. Finally, I got lucky because the publicist of Grove Press at the time was a fan of my writing, and talked them into accepting the novel.
And how have your ambitions changed since you published these books?
Well, on the one hand, I’ve become an increasingly better writer. I can do more with my work now than I used to be able to do, and challenging myself is really central to my work, so, in that sense, I’m more ambitious than I was. On the other hand, I’ve gradually realized what my talent and voice can do and can’t do, so, in a way, there are clearer borders around my work now.
You’ve also worked in publishing and editing, with Little Caesar early in your career, and Little House on the Bowery more recently. How does this kind of work differ from your work as a writer?
I’ve always had this side of me that wants to write. That’s always the most important part of me. But I’ve always had this other side that loves editing and curating and trying to encourage/support other writers in every way I can, especially younger or newer writers. I seem to need to do both. So, Little Caesar and Little House on the Bowery, and my blog, where encouraging and supporting other artists is a central goal, are some of the ways I’ve tried to do that.
Speaking of your blog, it’s become an important artistic project for you. How has your focus on this project affected your other work?
It has had a strange but ultimately positive effect, I think. It’s disconcerting to make myself and what I’m interested in and working on so public. It makes me uncomfortable, but I’m interested in the challenge. I think it has maybe also been a good thing because, for a long time, people would read my work and presume I’m some sort of horrible person and misanthrope, and I think people getting to know me through the blog has helped dispel that misconception. Because doing the blog is so time-consuming, it took me quite a while to figure out how to do that and also have the time I need to work on my fiction. For the first several years, my writing suffered from the loss of time, but I figured out how to organize my time a few years ago, and now it’s okay.
As a writer who has produced work in so many genres, how do you decide what form an idea will take?
My first impulse is always to write fiction and, ideally, in novel form. My short fiction pieces are usually novel ideas that didn’t go the distance. When I’m feeling very emotional, I tend to write poetry. My poetry is always very emotion based for me. The writing I do for theater is on assignment, and it’s always based on ideas generated by the director I work with, Gisele Vienne, so that’s very different. I only write nonfiction on assignment. I have no natural impulse to write essays or journalism, so they only happen when some venue asks me for a piece.
Your novels focus heavily on structure and systems, both thematically and in the actual layout. Do you spend a lot of time outlining and planning before you write?
Yes, a long time. It’s impossible for me to write a novel without having worked out a complicated system and structure for it in advance, and doing that can take ages, sometimes a year or even more. For the five interconnected novels “The George Miles Cycle,” I decided I wanted to do something like that when I was 15, and I didn’t actually start writing it until I was in my thirties, so that took me a very long time to plan out. I think that way of working might be a result of the fact that I never studied fiction writing. I’ve never taken even a single writing workshop. So, I don’t have any basic idea of how to lay out and structure a novel in a conventional way, and I need to invent a new system and style and voice for each project that will help me realize what I want to do.
Can you read while you’re working on a writing project? Any writers you go back to, or avoid reading while writing?
When I’m working on a novel, I try not to read other books, if I can, or, if I do, I will deliberately read things that will have no relationship at all to what I’m writing.
How have other art forms—music, visual art, film, etc.—affected your writing?
I think my work is more influenced by other art forms than it is by writing, ultimately. Music has always been a huge influence. I’ve always studied music and tried to figure out how to translate the forms and style and structures in the music that I like into fiction writing. It’s a much more advanced and inherently experimental and quickly evolving art form than fiction is, and it’s a great place to learn new techniques and ways of representing things. Film is very influential for me too. My all-time favourite artist is the filmmaker Robert Bresson, and, when I discovered his films in the late 70s, I consider that discovery to be the most important thing in my work’s development. Visual art, and especially sculpture, has been a key influence and area of study for me too.
It seems like wherever you’re mentioned, it’s accompanied by William Burroughs’ quote, “Dennis Cooper, God help him, is a born writer.” Did you have a relationship with him, and do you think his comment helped your success?
I only met Burroughs twice, I think, so I didn’t really know him. Obviously, it meant a lot to me that he liked my work. I’m sure the quote helped draw readers, but, at the same time, it got me tagged as “the new Burroughs” by a bunch of critics and journalists for a while, and that was a very mixed blessing. The comparison is very flattering to me, but I don’t think my work is related to Burroughs’ work much at all. His work wasn’t a big influence on my writing, actually. I think the early, constant Burroughs comparison led to a misunderstanding of my books that took years to dissipate.
You’ve gotten into the heads of some very confused and often disturbed characters. How do you deal with this, and has it ever affected you personally?
I’m actually a rather confused person, so that part is me. I’ve often said that I think confusion is the truth, and I believe that. I’m not sure if I’m a disturbed person. I don’t really think that I am. I’m drawn to people and things that confuse me and scare me, and I’ve always used my writing to try to understand them and to find and identify my exact relationship with them. Going to those places while writing affects me a lot because I’m going places that have no connection to my real life and to my day-to-day values. It’s both very exciting and very lonely.
You’ve also admitted to going through periods of extreme drug use and sexual experimentation. What do you consider the darkest period in your career?
I don’t consider the periods of experimentation with drugs and sex to be dark periods. They were explorations that I undertook to understand myself and to help me write about certain things with some authority. They were never destructive to other people or self-destructive. The darkest period for me by far was when I discovered in 1997 that my great friend and muse George Miles had committed suicide ten years before. I was in the midst of writing the Cycle for him, and I had believed he was alive and knew I was creating that tribute to him when, as it turned out, he had killed himself before the first novel in the Cycle was even published. His death is the hardest thing I’m ever lived through, and it changed my work and me as a person profoundly. Almost all of my work is about him in a deep and fundamental way. Because of his suicide, my work is always in some way about the horror and tragedy of his early death. My work and my emotional life have never really recovered from that.
Have you ever considered giving up on writing, or doing something else?
I have a daydream that I might stop writing novels after I finish the one I’m working on now. It’ll be my tenth novel, and I think ten novels by one author is more than enough. I’m not at all sure that I’ll be able to stop. The idea scares me a lot, even if the challenge of making myself do something else is very exciting theoretically. I think my most recent novel, The Marbled Swarm, is by far the best thing I’ve ever written, and I have a feeling that I might have peaked with it, and I’ve never felt that before. I don’t want to keep writing novels if I don’t believe the one I’m working on will be my best.
Writers’ finances often come from various sources. How do you make your living?
My income has always been a combination of things. I get some money from my books and theater projects. I write journalism to supplement that. My late parents would always help me out when my financial situation got dire. I’ve resisted getting a teaching job, which is probably the only way that I could have a steady income, because I don’t want to be tied down and have my life as structured as that. I’ve never had more money than just enough to help me get by, and that’s been okay for me.
What’s your favourite thing to spend money on?
I kind of hate spending money. It’s probably part of my longstanding fear that I’m going to run out of money and be fucked. Honestly, the only time I like spending money is to buy gifts for people I really like or to help them out. That’s the only situation in which I have no qualms and feel no guilt about letting money go.
You’ve said before that you’ve never considered yourself part of the gay community. Why is that? Do you think being part of a subgroup like that can benefit a writer’s career?
Being gay has never been a big deal to me. I’ve never felt like that was an especially important thing about me. I’ve always had friends who were both gay and straight, and I’ve never felt any difference between the way I loved them, and I’ve never felt less close to and comfortable with straight people than I have with the self-identifying gays. I know that being gay is very important to a lot of gay people, and I respect that, but I don’t feel like my desire and romantic feelings for people of my own sex are a particularly important part of my identity. The “gay writer” tag is a very mixed blessing. It helps readers who happen to be gay, and to whom gayness matters, find your work, but, obviously, it marginalizes you too, and it puts a kind of sign on your work that says, in effect, this work is specialized for gays and/or people who are interested in gay identity. For me, I’m not sure if that tag has been good or not. My readership is very diverse. Easily as many non-gay people read my books as gay people do. I guess my attitude is that I can’t control how my work gets tagged, so I just try to let whatever happens happen.
Much of your work is self-reflexive and Dennis has been a character/narrator in many of your novels. Why did you make this choice?
When I use my own name in my novels, it’s because I feel like I need to take more responsibility than usual for the novels’ content and implicate myself as explicitly as possible in whatever aggressiveness I’m using in the novel’s presentation. I feel, in those cases, that I need to put myself directly in the reader’s view and line of fire, I guess.
Why is sexuality featured so prominently in your writing?
For a lot of reasons. Depictions of explicit sex have a strong push/pull effect, and it’s a difficult but powerful effect, and it interests me to negotiate and work with that power. I’m very interested in trying to find ways to articulate deep, private personal emotion in my work because emotion is inherently at odds with language, and, during sex, people access and feel emotion in an especially charged and inarticulate way, and I find the challenge of uncovering that emotion and unifying it with language compelling. I’m also very interested in the dangers and imbalances and selfishness that often arise when people objectify others who are physically attractive. I find the way that sexual attraction causes people to view whom they’re attracted to in a superficial way, to lie to themselves and to the person they’re attracted to out of an uncontrollable need to want to possess the attractive person, disturbing and complicated in a way that draws me in as a writer. There are a lot of other reasons too. Too many to go into one answer.
What’s the most extreme reaction someone has had to your work?
I was sort of famously the recipient of a death threat by a gay activist group in 1991. I was told I was going to be killed for the crime of “killing” gays in my novel Frisk. The group distributed leaflets calling for my death. Eventually, a leader of the group agreed to talk to me on the phone, and it turned out the group had not read the novel but just a very vicious review of it. I explained what the novel was actually trying to do, and the group withdrew the death threat. That was definitely the most extreme reaction.
You’ve been called “the most dangerous writer in America.” Who do you think are the most dangerous writers in contemporary literature?
Oh, you know, that “most dangerous writer” tag is such a crock and journalistic convenience. I don’t think any fiction writer could be the “most dangerous” writer. It’s absurd. To think that any fiction writer could be as dangerous as Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh or those kinds of writers is crazy.
Any advice for young writers just starting their career?
Hmm, well, when I started writing, I always thought I was writing for the distant future. I grew up reading and loving writers who were long dead and who had often been considered weirdos and unsuccessful marginal writers in their own time. I always wrote imagining that my books could end up like theirs, and that they would ultimately live a long time and outlast the more conventional works that are admired in their own time but which don’t have the originality to inspire the kind of passion and personal identification that keep books alive and relevant and distinct beyond their immediate context. I looked at the works of earlier times that had lasted, and they were always works that were unique and strange and did something that no other works had done, even if that something was a small thing. I guess that approach worked for me, so I recommend it.
Leah Mol is an MFA student in the Creative Writing program at the University of British Columbia. She has published short fiction and memoir, and is currently working on her first novel. She is originally from Ontario, but is currently living in Vancouver.