Dennis Cooper Interview: Fourteen Hills


Originally published in Fourteen Hills, Summer 2005

Filled with bored kids, heavy metal, violence as communication and brutal sex, Dennis Cooper’s books read like a bloody head-on collision between Georges Bataille and Christopher Pike on the only strip of highway in a vast arid teenage wasteland. There are no survivors in the mangled vehicles, but the car’s tape decks are still blaring raunchy guitars.

The George Miles cycle, Cooper’s five-book magnum opus (Closer, Frisk, Try, Guide, Period) aren’t sequels to each other but instead are linked more by obsession than plot line. Each book in the cycle is a complete stylistic makeover from the others, fluxing from sensual to cartoonish. A touring rock band that murders their dimwitted fans; a young zine writer sexually abused by both his gay adoptive fathers; a narrator, disturbingly also named Dennis, who dismembers beautiful young men who resemble an old love he can’t shake. Awful things happen in Cooper’s books, but they are also oddly revelatory and imbued with a strange kind of tenderness and compassion.

A longtime resident of Los Angeles, fame is as much a part of the air he breathes as the carbon monoxide particulates. As a journalist, Cooper has interviewed Keanu Reeves, Leonardo DiCaprio, Courtney Love and John Waters. His most recent novel, My Loose Thread, began as a non-fiction examination of high school shootings before taking on a life of its own.

14: In an interview with 3am magazine you said, “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 myself and not rely on the standard, moral, religious, and legal rights and wrongs, because . . . 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 someone else, but I’m hardly free.” I was intrigued by that and wonder if you could talk about that transition any further?

DC: I was just a really screwed up, weird kid and I don’t know why, but things happened to me that got me fascinated with violence and somehow in relationship to sex. When I was a little kid I was living with my grandmother in Texas. She lived next door to a church and I went over to watch this wedding. There was this walkway into the church with these tiki torches along the side, and there was this little girl there. She was my age, so she was eight or something, and she was just so beautiful. She had blond hair and this frilly dress and everything, and as I was watching, this tiki torch fell over and she just completely went up in flame — her whole body, and then I just disappeared. I don’t even know what happened. I don’t remember it. The police searched for me for two days and they finally found me hiding.

Stuff like that and when I got hit in the head with an ax and it was with this boy I was having an affair with. It completely destroyed his life and he turned into this drug addict and committed suicide. Then there were these serial killings going on all the time and I just found them so fascinating. I don’t know why. I read de Sade. So, there were all these things that made me wonder about myself and also I couldn’t talk about this stuff, because no one I knew seemed to have the same take on any of it. They would just be like, “Oh, that’s disgusting,” or “That’s gross,” or “That’s scary and I don’t want to think about it.” And then I wanted to be a writer so all those things just coalesced and I just thought, “Well, this would be a way for me to figure it out and also to be an artist.” It kind of gave me a reason to be a writer. That’s why I did the cycle.

I made all these plans for years before I did it and then my friend George Miles, who was so important to me, died. I didn’t even know he was dead, but I always wanted to do something for him. He was so fucked up and I was like his caretaker and I saw how brilliant he was but no one else did. I wanted to write this kind of monument to him. It was pretty scary for awhile, writing it and forcing myself to have certain experiences so that I could understand what I was writing about, but it all helped me figure out the difference between fantasy and reality, between fiction and non-fiction.

14: You describe yourself as an anarchist in that statement. I was wondering what you thought of anarchist movements that are going on right now? Do you see the idea of “anarchist groups” as an oxymoron?

DC: Well, I’m completely and utterly and totally behind it. I’m very pragmatic and to me anarchism is a philosophy. I don’t think it’s realistic from my point of view. It’s very utopian. You can’t strip politics and culture down to punk or something and start over. It doesn’t work that way.

To me it’s just a way to negotiate the world, how to think about power and how to use power, and the idea that everyone is inherently good. It’s not people who are bad, it’s the system, it’s structure. I totally admire and love people who actually go out and try and change things. I don’t know if it does any good, but I’m completely behind it.

14: Do you shy away from group association?

DC: I don’t believe in collective identity at all. I just don’t. It’s fundamental to me, but then the pragmatism sets in, and even saying I’m an anarchist is identifying myself as something. I just don’t find any use for terms like “gay.” I’m not going to say I’m not gay or make a big fuss about it because it’s just pointless. There’s no way you can even subvert that kind of stuff, but I just don’t buy it. I’m also just a strange person. I’m kind of introverted and odd. Maybe it’s because I grew up during the hippie thing and it just freaked me out. It was all so conformist in its weird way and it made me really resist that idea.

14: So, you’re working on a new novel. What’s it about?

DC: It’s my attempt to write something that is none of the things people think my books are about. It doesn’t have any sex or violence or obsession or gay characters. It’s a strange book. I always wondered if I could do one. Anyway, I got this idea. It’s about a father, who’s a stoner, and his teenage son is a stoner. They go out driving, and they get into this car accident and the son is killed, but by some weird coincidence no one realizes that the son was in the car. He wanders off in a daze and dies. Basically it’s this father going insane, dealing with this secret and what it does to him. He builds this folk art monument to his son in his yard. He starts playing this video game his son liked, and the game is infected by his son’s presence, and the characters in the game are sentient creatures. It’s a weird book. People have wanted me to do this for a long time, and I thought it would be interesting to get all the sex and everything out of it, and see if I could actually get an idea. I really like video games and this came up.

14: What kinds of video games do you play?

DC: Well, I’m a Nintendo guy. Nintendo is as close as it gets to the art of the video game because it’s very innovative. I’m not into the whole Splinter Cell kind of stuff; I’m into adventure stuff, puzzles. I’m interested in the space inside video games. The structures of them. I like the XBox and some of that other stuff, but basically I’m a Nintendo guy.

14: Do you invent a lot of writing experiments, setting up rules for yourself?

DC: Many, many — it’s the only way I write. I don’t think I’m a natural writer. It takes an enormous amount of work to get the prose right. It’s pretty sloppy when I start. It’s very rare that I can write something that doesn’t need to be rewritten 150 times before it works. I mean, it’s like, I’m from LA and I sort of write like I talk. I’m like kind of vague and lazy and then I have to go back and fix it up, so I always need to have in my head a form or structure.

The whole George Miles cycle is this incredibly complicated structure that was there from the beginning that I had to fill in to write those five books. I’m interested in things that are like puzzles in a way. I’m as interested in structure and form as I am in content and I like the idea of them being kind of mixed together, giving each the same value. I think you can get at things with style and form and structure in a way that you can’t with content.

14: You had the whole five-book cycle planned out before you started it?

DC: Essentially, yeah. Well, it had a lot of flexibility. Each book was basically determined by where I was at that point in my life. I won’t go into the whole elaborate idea of it. I wanted there to be five and I wanted it to go in a circle. I wanted the first one to be the world and everything in the other books had to come out of the first book. So, nothing could appear in any of the later books that wasn’t in Closer and then I wanted the books to sort of slowly dismember themselves until there was nothing left, and that would be the end. I wanted each one to concentrate. Frisk is about sex, libido; Try is about the heart; Guide is about the mind, cerebral. All the young characters had to be mutations of George Miles and he had to return to being George Miles at the end. Yeah, there’s like a million rules, but within that the books would be determined by where I was or what I was interested in at the moment as I was writing them or who I knew.

14: The narrative plot structure of the final book, Period pulled the doors off my head when I read it.

DC: I saw that as like the skeleton ride, because it was like I was removing things each book and I had so little available to me by the time I did Period. That’s why it seemed like a magic trick. Because it was just a skeleton and I had to put the skeleton together. All of the books have exactly the same structure and a lot of the structure is really buried and so when you get to the last one it is almost all structure, or it’s structure with this emotion attached to it. Little fragments of the things that are left. Yeah, there was so little to work with that it had to be just a zombie or skeleton book. I have all this stuff I work from, but you don’t have to know all that. It’s just what I do.

14: When the movie Kids came out I remember thinking about how many of the actors couldn’t buy a ticket to see the R-rated movie they were in. Do a lot of people the age of your characters read your books? Does it seem like they’re getting something good out of it?

DC: Oh, yeah! I write for young people. Young people and teenagers are not taken seriously as a subject very often. People the age of my characters completely seem to get it. I mean, yeah, maybe some of them aren’t interested in the formal aspect of it, but I don’t think you have to be. Adults tend to concentrate on the formal stuff and that’s one way to look at it but younger people just kind of get the emotions and the content. The formal aspects are just working on them without them paying attention. I’ve always felt like the best reaction I get is from young readers. I get a lot of letters and email and it means a lot to me. A lot of them want to be artists of different kinds and it means a lot for them to get some recognition from some cool adult. I think I am often misperceived as this kind of amoral monster, and it’s very gratifying when young people understand that I’m not.

14: There’s such a vacuum of the adult world in your novels it’s hard to picture you at a day job. What sort of work have you done to support yourself?

DC: I’ve never had a day job. My parents are pretty rich and I must admit that that worked in my favor, because I think out of guilt and the awfulness of my youth, they supported me for a long time. I never really had to work because I just forced that. Since then . . . I mean, I’m really broke. I have nothing. I don’t have any money at all, but I just write. I do my writing, I write articles, and occasionally I’ll guilt trip my mom into lending me some money. But I’ve never had a day job. I’ve taught a little bit.

14: What do you think of teaching creative writing?

DC: I’ve never done it. No, I was teaching art. I really love art, and I’m an art critic. That’s probably the main thing I do. I am just really interested in visual art and most of my friends are visual artists and so I taught sculpture at UCLA for a few years. I don’t sculpt, but my work is very influenced by sculpture, especially Period. The whole way I think about form, space and negative space. Having a lot of friends who are sculptors, a lot of the principles in their work became interesting to me. It’s just a very innovative form. A very alive form. There’s a lot of experimentation. It’s like music where it’s way far ahead of other art forms in terms of breaking ground and trying out things. So I think I’m interested in it partially because it just seems so alive and so constantly mutating.

14: How did your work in journalism impact your fiction writing?

DC: I didn’t really start writing journalism until after I wrote Try. That’s when I started writing for Spin. At that time, there was this great editor there, Craig Marx, and he really helped me become a journalist. And I think after that it became interesting to me the difference between non-fiction and fiction.

More than anything else journalism helped me understand how you can use a sense of narrative drive. Of course, the books after that became less narrative. So, it’s a funny thing, but I felt like I understood narrative drive enough that I could take it apart. In a way it made it easier because you can’t spend six months writing an article. You have to write it pretty quickly — maybe I got a little more loose with myself about the prose.

14: How did you practice writing dialogue for the more recent books? Did you work from tapes ever or transcribe conversations?

DC: No. There’s not much dialogue in the first couple of books because at first I thought that dialogue was a trope and bullshit and just this phony device, so I didn’t really know how to do it. It’s something I had to work really hard on. Actually, to go back to your other question, doing journalism might have helped with dialogue because I really love to do interviews. I love editing and shaping them. I think that might have really helped me get a sense of a spoken language that has a colorful quality but is also refined. Because Leonardo DiCaprio and those other people I interviewed don’t speak perfectly and I had to give them a little polish.

14: In the past you’ve mentioned the Frontline episode about Kip Kinkel, a 15-year-old who killed his parents and opened fire on his classmates at school the next day. I was reading the transcript of the police interview with him and noticing the discrepancy between the officer’s well-formed sentences and Kip’s confused simple responses. It seemed representative of the way language gives adults this power advantage over kids.

DC: Yeah, unbelievably amazing. Some of the most beautiful and devastating stuff I’ve ever heard. Really, absolutely unbelievable. My Loose Thread completely came out of that confession. I thought that was just spectacular. I mean it made me write that book.

14: When Kinkel talks about how he told his mother he loved her right before he killed her, it reminded me of the connections between love and violence in your books.

DC: Oh, yeah, and there’s that amazing chorus he kept repeating: “I had no choice, I had no choice.” So pure and so unrefined and so beautiful. That was my goal. Yeah, I couldn’t come close to recreating something as powerful as that confession, but it gave me this goal to shoot for. I’d really been researching and researching how to write that book and it just made it so obvious that this was the way to do it. Because it was the first time in all that I’d read, in all that I’d researched, that I just felt completely why he did it, or I didn’t care why he did it.

14: What did you think of Bowling for Columbine?

DC: I really admire Michael Moore. I think his character of the blue collar lefty is such an important character, and I admire the hell out of him. Sure, he’s probably a self-serving egomaniac. Who cares? It’s very effective. I like Bowling for Columbine, of course. He’s a little dorky sometimes for me and I honestly thought the Charlton Heston thing was cruel and cheap, but I liked the movie a lot.

My work is published in Europe and so I’m always going over there and it made me realize how significant of a figure Michael Moore is. He helps people over there understand what the hell’s going on over here.

The documentary is such a vital form these days. I think the best American director is Errol Morris. His movies are more brilliant and complex than anything going on in fiction films. People are so desperate to have their sense of right and wrong reinforced, and he doesn’t let them have that. Documentary filmmakers have just hit this period where they’re taking a lot of chances formally and mixing things up and just much more innovative.

14: It always strikes me as funny that the quote from William S. Burroughs (“Dennis Cooper, God help him, is a born writer.”) is on all your books and yet in some of the essays in All Ears you’re really critical of him. How do you feel about that blurb always being on the cover?

DC: It was not my decision. I really like the early Burroughs; I really, really like all that 60’s stuff. It’s not that. The only thing I don’t like, and it isn’t about Burroughs, himself, is the way he turned into this stereotyped marketing tool. I just didn’t like what happened to him.

I never really blamed Burroughs because he was getting older. He was a lonely, strange man and these people around him were plopping him down in Ministry videos or whatever. He didn’t even know what was going on, but I just hated it because I felt like it took all the purity out of his work. The later books are really awful and everything, but, I mean, I admire him. He wasn’t a huge influence on me.

I was really touched and honored that he liked my writing, but the problem is that I hate this whole Burroughs connection people always throw at me. I’m always compared to Burroughs. “The New Burroughs.” I just don’t see that much similarity. Having that blurb on my books all the time just reinforces that. Personally I wouldn’t have wanted it on there but it wasn’t my decision.

14: Try almost reads like a parable in which the rock critic has this vampiric relationship with the fans or the music.

DC: The most vile character in the book is the rock critic.

14: As an art critic yourself, what do you see as so horrible about the act of criticism?

DC: I don’t. It was just part of that book. It identified the distance between things: the difference between Ziggy’s relationship to Husker Du and Robin’s relationship to Slayer and then the critic’s relationship to rock music. I had started to write some criticism, and journalism when I was doing Try. I was understanding the difference between what it means to be a music lover and a music analyst. I guess in that work criticism becomes an enemy; reducing things to structure, relating things to history, instead of having a spontaneous response to something.

14: I heard your collaboration with John Zorn on the album Weird Little Boy started out with music he had composed for the Ice-T movie Trespass, but which the film company had rejected.

DC: Initially, he told me, “I want to work with you and do a collaboration. I’ve got this music and I don’t know what to do with it. How about I send it to you and you write a text to go with it, and we’ll put it out as like a book/CD.”

I was really close with Casey McKinney and I’ve always thought he was a brilliant writer. He and I were writing all kinds of collaborative articles for magazines. So, we wrote this text together and sent it to John, and he said, “I really like this text, but I don’t think it has anything to do with the music I sent you.”

I had seen something completely different in it. After a year where nothing happened, he said, “Well, I got this idea that we’re going to create a soundtrack to go with your text.”

It was like the opposite of what was going to happen originally. He got some musicians together and they made this kind of weird, peripheral, hard-to-listen-to, odd record and then that came out. Yeah, it had a funny flip-flop to the whole thing.

14: Was the original music a little more straight? Jazz or something?

DC: It was soundtrack music. It was very exotic and I guess he thought it was really sensual and Casey and I did not go that direction. Casey’s straight, I’m gay and he’s interested in different things, and so sex didn’t get in there. I think John was a little disappointed. A lot of times when people ask me to do something, they want me to do sex or violence, because that’s what they think I do. We thought what we did related to the music, but he didn’t. I don’t know if you’ve heard the music from Trespass, but it’s day and night. It’s kind of oriental jazz.

14: What was the first place you were able to publish your fiction?

DC: It was probably some kind of gay magazine. There was this whole gay literary thing going on at that time. It was much more like, “As long as you’re gay we’ll publish whatever you want to write.” Whether it was crap or really weird and experimental.

14: Is there any particular type of response you’re hoping to elicit from your readers?

DC: When people ask me where they can get snuff films, that’s not the right response. I want people to think about the things I write about in a way they haven’t before. It’s really complicated stuff. If people come away having had an emotional reaction to the plight of the young characters, that’s usually enough for me. But, of course, ideally people understand every aspect of them. I just don’t like it when people think the work is amoral, because I think that’s so lazy. That’s their problem, not mine, because I think the work is extremely moral.

14: What did you think when you first saw the images of Abu Ghraib?

DC: I probably saw it first as it popped up in my Yahoo news. They were just some of the most disgusting images I’ve ever seen. And just part and parcel of this administration’s vile, evil and disgusting, prick-like consciousness and behavior and so they were just absolutely apalling — on every level they’re so apalling. And, of course, I, like anyone who has any brains, hoped that it was going to bring everything down, but at least we know that whenever the Iraq War is mentioned in the future that will be the first images that will be associated with it. They were just nauseating.

14: You always ask your inteview subjects if they’re political. What’s your current political involvement?

DC: I don’t exactly know how I’m doing it other than dialoguing with people. I can’t even think of anything more important than getting rid of that prick. [G. W. Bush]

I mean, I’m 51. This is exactly like the sixties except there’s the Internet and people know that marching in the streets is stupid and it doesn’t do any good. It’s exciting that for 20 years my friends and I rarely talked politics and now it’s all we talk about. It’s just such an amazing time. I’ve gone to some marches and stuff and I support MoveOn. I’m not exactly sure what to do exactly except demand that everyone I know vote.

14: What do you love?

DC: My boyfriend, Guided by Voices, the Dodgers, cold sesame noodles. I love a lot of things. My friends. You know.

You can purchase this issue of Fourteen Hills from Last Gasp.

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