An Interview with Dennis Cooper
Dennis Cooper’s books, like his young male protagonists, tend to be slender. Cooper offers up the stripped bones of stories in polished, gleaming prose: he conjures radiant skeletons, violent with life. He’s written about extreme fetishists, sex-murderers, rock stars, incest, heroin, school shootings, love and metafiction. (I’ll leave it to the reader to decide which of those topics is most discomforting.) His writing is some of the darkest and most unsettling that you’re likely to come across, but its true power lies in more than mere willingness, or perhaps eagerness, to plumb the depths of taboo. His texts wage a radical inclusivity, opening themselves to all aspects of desire, like a map of voting districts gerrymandered by an anarchist. As well, his work is tempered by unlikely moments of comedy and a wide-eyed, perpetually teenage love of music.
Cooper is the author of the novels Closer, Frisk, Try, Guide, and Period, (all published by Grove Press) which together form The George Miles Cycle. He has also written a volume of short stories, the novel My Loose Thread, a number of poetry collections, a nonfiction collection, and collaborated with Nayland Blake (Jerk) and Keith Mayerson (Horror Hospital Unplugged), among others. The graffiti artist Todd James illustrated his latest novel, The Sluts, published by Void Books. This year he’ll put out a couple more novels, as well as see a book of essays about his work published. He has more editorial credits than I have the space to get into.
When I had the chance to talk with Dennis Cooper recently, I was surprised at how laid back he was. Not that I expected him to embody his writing, but I think that I had been subconsciously expecting someone… intense, and maybe creepy. Instead, I found him to be engaging, entirely unassuming, and very kind. He seemed as interested in asking me questions about myself as in discussing his own work. We talked about his writing, how the publishing industry has changed over the years, and a host of other things. If there was one way in which he fit the stereotype of his literature, it was that he got most excited when the talk turned to music.
[A note on the text: This interview took place in an AOL instant message window. I met Dennis in person, for the first time, a few days after the interview at his reading for The Sluts at the Accompanied Library in New York. He and I agreed that it made sense to preserve the IM format. Cooper used this format in his novel Period, and most of The Sluts takes place online. Furthermore, as you’ll see, the tone and flow of our conversation was clearly shaped by its medium, so we figured why not embrace that? Other than minor adjustments to make the text readable, this is essentially the transcript of our conversation. Additionally, items in brackets were added later, by me, to provide publication details on specific projects, direct readers to outside sources, etc.]
Dennis Cooper: hey
Bookslut: I think I'm a few minutes early, but do you feel like getting started?
Dennis Cooper: Sure, that's fine.
Bookslut: Cool. How's your cold?
Dennis Cooper: Oh, it sucks actually, but I think I'll make it. It's raining Biblically out here. Everybody's sick.
Bookslut: Its been freezing here for a while now -- I'm from Florida originally; still not adjusted...
Dennis Cooper: Florida, yeah. You ought to try LA, but not at the moment.
Bookslut: I've never been further south than San Fran. Are you excited to spend some time back in New York?
Dennis Cooper: Well, it's pretty different here. I'm not a big SF fan. It's kind of an LA thing. It's too quasi-European for me. Anyway, it's nice here. Nice scene. Oh, I'm only in NYC 2 1/2 days, but sure. I miss it.
Bookslut: I met a guy a couple months ago who remembered you from the "heyday" of the "gay New York lit scene" (both his terms) -- Tom Steele?
Dennis Cooper: The guy who edited Christopher Street [literary review]?
Bookslut: Yeah. He's a friend of mine's uncle. He made us dinner.
Dennis Cooper: Wow, that's trippy. I wonder sometimes how he is, what he's doing. Nice guy. Those were kind of crazy days, very romantic seeming now.
Bookslut: What do you mean? (I guess I'm asking for war stories...)
Dennis Cooper: Oh, you know, gay lit was a real thing then, a real upcoming force, and everybody was so passionate about gay lit then. Now there isn't such a thing in a consolidated way. But yeah, the cliques, the little wars. Like David Leavitt and I being seen as the angel and the devil. It's kind of sweet.
Bookslut: I guess you two do represent the poles of the genre, if that's what we're calling it... I should mention that I took a writing workshop with David at University of Florida.
Dennis Cooper: We do, it's true. But it's just strange how polarized things were. He hated me. I hated him. His crowd was the enemy, and mine was to him. And now if I saw him, I think he and I would probably have a laugh about it all. Now he just seems like a fellow writer, not my fave but not someone to despise or attack.
Was he a good teacher?
Bookslut: Yeah. A bit cold at times... but still. Oddly, it was around the time I took David's class that I discovered your work, albeit not from him. My Loose Thread was a featured new selection at the university library... I thought of this when I read your remark in another interview [on denniscooper.net] about how you’d expected MLT would make you more accessible, but then "nothing changed."
Dennis Cooper: Yeah, but things take time, and it's hard to remember that when there's so much pressure on a book the first few months when it comes out. But it did bring home how stigmatized my work is, and that was a drag. Also, the publisher who did MLT just threw it away and didn't care. That was part of it. It's interesting you read that novel of mine first. I like that.
Bookslut: Actually, all the copies of MLT were checked out, but the library had a copy of Period -- so I read that first.
Dennis Cooper: That's a tough place to start. I mean that's one of my favorite novels I've written, but it's a tricky novel.
Bookslut: Yeah, I definitely
felt like I had walked in on the middle of a film... or the finale, as it turned
Dennis Cooper: It's true. It really helps when you've read the cycle. Of all the books in the cycle, that one most needs the others, maybe. But I don't know.
Bookslut: I agree. I think Try and Guide stand equally well on their own or as part of the whole. How will The Sluts strike a first-time reader? Or, alternately, a reader fully familiarized with the cycle books?
Dennis Cooper: The Sluts stands on its own. It really isn't part of the cycle at all, though the concerns are similar and it has the same physical structure as the cycle novels. I feel strangely about The Sluts. It really seemed like a side project to me, which doesn't mean it is. But it just seems kind of like a stand alone, odd book. I think of it as a comedy really, and all my work has a comedic strain, but not so forefronted. I'm curious what people will think of it. I just don't feel the kind of heavy commitment to it that I feel to my other novels.
Bookslut: Interesting then that it’s the one which wound up getting the "illustrated limited edition" treatment...
Dennis Cooper: It makes sense to me. It's like a test run. Maybe it'll have a really short life. That might be the right thing for it. If Alex at Void hadn't proposed the limited edition idea, I might not have published it. I'm in a phase of trying to change my work, and The Sluts is from a period of my work that I'm kind of over.
Bookslut: I keep hearing about how God Jr. [Grove Press, August 2005] is going to be the big departure: PG-13 and all that. I'll be honest: I'm both excited and apprehensive. What can you tell me about the story itself, and how it came to be written?
Dennis Cooper: It's a departure but it's still very me. It just isn't at all about sex or violence. It's about guilt and mourning and imagination and stuff like that. There's a little relationship between it and MLT, but not formally. The novel's very hallucinatory and odd. It's complicated to explain. In brief, a guy is responsible for the death of his son and he kind of loses it. He builds a monument to his son, and he pretends he's paralyzed from the waist down, and he gets obsessed with a videogame his son loved. About half the novel takes place in a videogame. It's hard to explain briefly.
Bookslut: Fair enough. Are you a big video game player?
Dennis Cooper: Yeah, I do love videogames, or certain ones. Nintendo stuff mostly.
Bookslut: A Legend of Zelda fan, by any chance?
Dennis Cooper: Zelda, yeah, definitely. I'm a big Miyamato fan. Banjo Kazooie, Resident Evil, etc.
Bookslut: I saw Eternal Darkness, which I've played, listed among your favorites [on his website], which made me want to ask you about H.P. Lovecraft.
Dennis Cooper: Eternal Darkness is terrific. HP Lovecraft: You know, I haven't read him since I was 17 or something. Why do you ask?
Bookslut: He's a favorite of mine, is all -- Eternal Darkness borrows pretty heavily from Lovecraft's mythologies
Dennis Cooper: A friend explained that to me. A friend is always telling I have to reread Lovecraft. Okay, I will. I never read much so-called fantasy or sci-fi fiction, I don't know why. Apart from Dick. I have a hard time with really narrative fiction.
Bookslut: Got a favorite by Dick?
Dennis Cooper: Probably Ubik. You?
Bookslut: I'm all for VALIS; it's the Gnostic stuff -- I just love it
Dennis Cooper: Yeah, that stuff's great. Who else are faves of yours in that area? How do you rate Ballard?
Bookslut: I'm not huge on sci-fi, but I do like Ballard. “The Enormous Space,” that short story where the house keeps getting bigger, is a great one.
Dennis Cooper: Of course my favorite is The Atrocity Exhibition. I guess that's pretty predictable. What about Delaney?
Bookslut: I don't think I know that one. I like the Burroughs take on sci-fi -- the Nova Express-era stuff especially.
Dennis Cooper: Yeah, that period of Burroughs is great. The Ticket that Exploded too. That's my favorite Burroughs period.
Bookslut: I like Ghost of Chance a whole lot. You can feel him channeling Joseph Conrad -- it's fun. Actually, I had been hoping to ask you about Burroughs sooner or later. Did you know him well?
Dennis Cooper: No, not well at all. I talked to him at length once. We shared a boyfriend, which caused some problems between us a bit. But we weren't friends. We nodded respectfully at each other, and he was kind about my work, which meant a lot. Being compared so often to Burroughs when I started out bugged me a lot though, cos he wasn't an influence on my work much at all.
Bookslut: I can imagine -- just getting tied to Burroughs, even as a means of praise, must have felt constricting. You said some critical things about his later work in All Ears...
Dennis Cooper: Yeah, I was pissed off at the way he became a kind of transgressive celebrity and exploited himself so much, but that was really anger at the people controlling his career. I just thought the whole quest for fame thing diminished the meaning of his work. But the later work itself, it has its moments.
Bookslut: His Nike commercial wasn't a favorite of yours, then?
Dennis Cooper: That's safe to say. And his appearances as the saint of junkiedom in rock videos and stuff was the worst to me. I really hate heroin. It killed and ruined the lives of a lot of people I love, so it's a sore subject, and I thought it was irresponsible of him.
Bookslut: Now there's this book of essays about your work coming out and the music comp [Dennis, also known as The Ash Gray Proclamation; Substandard Records/Versus Press, Spring 2005]…You may find yourself entertaining similar offers before too long -- what would you advertise for? Or if you'd prefer: whose rock video would you like to appear in?
Dennis Cooper: I don't have that kind of specific image that the media could latch onto, but I might advertise for something I really honestly adored. I don't know what. As far as rock videos, wow, I'm such a fan of a lot of music, that might be tempting, but I think it would just be a meaningless cameo or something. I'd be in a Guided by Voices video in a second, but they just broke up so forget that.
Bookslut: Ever listen to Against Me! ?
Dennis Cooper Against Me? Is that a band?
Bookslut: Yeah, they're a punkrock band -- I think you would like them. Very earnest. Listening to them reminds me of Ziggy from Try listening to “I Apologize” and just being so filled with everything...
Dennis Cooper: I'll download it. Thanks. I do have a big soft spot for earnest punk rock.
Bookslut: You'll eat this up; promise. Say, this is probably a good time to talk about that music comp. Who's on it? What's the accompanying novella about?
Dennis Cooper: Gosh, I'm not completely sure who all is on it. The people who are on it last I heard are Robert Pollard, Xiu Xiu, Richard Hell, Stephen Malkmus, Thurston Moore... fuck, I forget. About 15 or 16 artists. The novella is a wacky thing, sort of a post-9/11 thing full of sex and drugs and cannibalism and stuff. It's a bit of an homage to Kathy Acker. It's weird.
Bookslut: Sounds weird. Is it set in New York City?
Dennis Cooper: No, it's set in a small town in Arkansas but there's a terrorist cell there posing as psychics who are recruiting little boys for Bin Laden's orgies and they're secretly cannibals. It's weird. I don't know what I was thinking. It's my response to the Bush response to 9/11.
Bookslut: Is there a release date yet?
Dennis Cooper: This spring, I think. I'm a bit out of the loop. But I think in the next three or four months.
Bookslut: Seems like you've got a lot on your plate, and we haven't even talked about Little House on the Bowery [Cooper is the editor-in-chief of this series from Akashic Books]. How many titles are you doing this year? (And what can you say about them?)
Dennis Cooper: This year there'll be two. The first one is a novel by Richard Hell called Godlike. It's great, really poetic and raw at the same time, about the NY poetry scene in the seventies. The second book is a collection of stories by a young writer named Trinie Dalton. It's called Wide Eyed. It's very sweet but very odd, charming and feckless but perverse too. Yeah, I love doing that series. It's been great. Akashic Books are fantastic to work with.
Bookslut: Wide Eyed sounds interesting. Not that Godlike doesn't, but its so hard these days to get story collections looked at, especially when they're coming from less-established writers.
Dennis Cooper: You're so right. It's shocking, the state of major publishing. Obviously, that's why I started the series. There were all these fantastic new writers who couldn't get published. Short stories and novels that are even the slightest experimental, basically forget it. But the independent presses are really coming alive and that's where it's happing now. But major presses, terrible. I'm really really lucky to have a major publisher. It seems like a fluke.
Bookslut: Well, you got an early start doing Little Caesar [Magazine and Press], right?
Dennis Cooper: Yeah, that was super indie. It was just me doing everything. That was like 76 to 82.
Bookslut: You were what, 23, when that started? It's pretty impressive. Do you think the same thing would be doable today?
Dennis Cooper: Not in the same way. That was before chain bookstores and in the punk era where there was a lot more openness to small, individualistic enterprises. Now I think you have to have a staff of people doing it, and you really need to use distributors. I don't think stores would just say, sure, kid, this looks good, send us a bunch. It's pretty different. It could be done online, I guess.
Bookslut: Oh yeah -- online, that opens all sorts of doors. Like on your website, the "resource" pages for the sites you looked at when working on The Sluts, or the Kip Kinkel resource page linked to the MLT stuff. Other authors might not be so willing to offer up their sources of inspiration like that. Why did you choose to provide and even showcase those links?
Dennis Cooper: It just seemed natural. I'm all into alerting people to interesting things I've found, spreading information and stuff. I'm an anarchist, you know, so it's just part of my thinking. I love being directed to stuff myself, and the Internet is so huge, it's hard to find things if you're reliant on Google.
Justin, I have to go pretty soon. My brain is fogging over with cold.
Bookslut: Gotcha. Well can we do 1 more thing before you go? I had hoped we could play a few rounds of First Thought: Best Thought . . .
Dennis Cooper: You're a Ginsbergian? Okay, sure.
Bookslut: Thanks. OK, ready?
Dennis Cooper: Sure, I'm ready.
Bookslut: Favorite drink?
Dennis Cooper: Iced tea
Bookslut: NYC’s Chinatown vs LA's Chinatown
Dennis Cooper: LA
Bookslut: They're talking about putting a NASCAR track on Staten Island. This makes you feel _____
Dennis Cooper: Really? It makes me confused.
Bookslut: Favorite season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? (and yes, the NASCAR thing's for real)
Dennis Cooper: I think the last season. That's tough.
Bookslut: The Nirvana Box Set
Dennis Cooper: Burned copy.
Bookslut: (last one) Portland, Oregon
Dennis Cooper: I was just there three days after the election and it was like it hadn't happened and I decided I love the place.
Bookslut: Awesome. Dennis, thanks so much.
Dennis Cooper: or Powell’s [bookstore] Thanks, Justin. If you come to that Sluts event thing, say hi
Bookslut: I'll be there. See you then. And feel better!
Dennis Cooper: Thanks a lot. It's cool of you. See you in a few days. bye