“He couldn’t decide if he wanted to draw David, fuck him, beat him up or fall in love with him.”
-Dennis Cooper, Closer
When I first began earnestly wanting to be a writer, studying the writing world from afar, in 2002 or so, the names that came up as writers who were admired for their daring, provocativity, & transgressiveness were J. T. Leroy, Mary Gaitskill, and Dennis Cooper. There was a special sort of cult like fascination with Dennis, however, that seemed to make a sort of fiction of the author himself, of his persona, something like how we viewed Andy Warhol. Or Basquiat. I never dreamed then that I would have an opportunity to speak with (via email) Dennis or interview him! I was so excited when given the chance and endeared to and grateful to Dennis for his kind response (to my email) and generousness with my questions. If you haven’t read The Sluts, Frisk, Closer, or the rest of his books, now’s a good time to dig in!
EE: Hello, Dennis! Thank you for agreeing to this interview. You have a reputation for being generous with your time amongst writers. I remember one of the ways in which I first heard of you was when Blake Butler and Ken Bauman were going to Paris specifically to meet you. When would that have been? 2007? 2008? Earlier? What do you remember of meeting them?
DC: Thanks a lot for doing this, Elizabeth. I’m pretty sure Blake and Ken came over to Europe for all kinds of reasons, but it was great to meet them. I was a fan of their works, and they’ve since become good friends even though I hardly ever get to see them IRL. I think we went to the Palais de Tokyo, this kind of cutting edge (in the PdT’s minds at least) contemporary art museum. And we had a bunch of coffees at cafes because that’s kind of the main social activity here. I can’t remember what else we did. But it was a total boon to meet them.
EE: The other way I first heard of you was when a friend – Matt Bell – was talking about your book and my then-husband said, “oh, Dennis Cooper is too much for me,” or something to that effect, which, of course, piqued my interest, made me want to read you/your books! Have you long been aware this reputation regarding your work? It being, for some ppl, “too much”? and have you ever felt that way abt someone else’s writing/book? That it pushed you past your comfort zone? Challenged you to not look away?
What’s the most “fucked up shit” you’ve read by another writer?
DC: Yeah, the ‘too much’ thing has been pretty much there since the beginning for me. Even when I was a kid and showed my parents my writing, they’d turn white. I’m not really a good judge of what would be fucked up about others’ writing because I’m very hard to fuck up. Reading Sade when I was 15 kind of numbed me a bit. I guess I can be objective about it. Delaney’s ‘Hogg’ is pretty challenging. Explicit coprophilia requires some adjustment, not to mention when in combo with pedophilia as in ‘Hogg’s’ case. I still think Peter Sotos is probably the truest explorer of that which is the most far out there.
EE: I remember when I started writing, the old advice: write your deepest secret. I joke now no one will do that, you’d be massacred, executed. Write your deepest secret/shame? Writers used to do this, in part, I would assume, so that the readers of their work would feel less alone, with their secret shames. Weird kinks. Double lives. Would you write any less freely today, if starting out? Do you think you’d be able to get an agent or book deal if you wrote the exact same books today as you did thirty, forty years ago?
DC: Hm, interesting question. I don’t think I would write less freely, no. But it’s true that when I was starting out, it would have been considered very uncool to attack Sade or Burroughs or Genet or whoever because of their subject matter or approach. Those were the days when cool people used LSD as a kind of internal search engine. One felt encouraged to investigate complicated and extreme ideas. If I was starting now, I would maybe wonder if putting my work out there was worth the assault that it and I would get from even friendly seeming quarters. So, I guess it’s hard to say. I definitely wouldn’t have the same publishing opportunities. I was really lucky because at that time Grove Press was still a prominent publisher of experimental and challenging writers. I fit into their list, which included Burroughs and Genet and Robbe-Grillet and Sade and so on. There’s no similarly challenging publisher at that level of ‘major-ness’ extant anymore. Although there are a lot of extremely good smaller presses in the US and more opportunities to publish work like mine now. Presses like Amphetamine Sulfate and Infinity Land and Apocalypse Party and others are as bold as Grove Press ever was, really. In that sense, it’s a much better situation for daring writers today than in the publishing context I entered in the 80s.
EE: Did anyone – agent, editor, publisher – ever censor or attempt to censor you in any way? How was Grove Press to work with? Are there current presses that will trust an author enough to publish him/her w/out censoring (called: editing)?
DC: No, I never faced any censorship. People would say, ‘you know, if you wrote something “nice”, you could be more successful’, but no one pushed me to do that. Grove Press was great. They supported me totally. It was a dream situation. With the presses I’ve been published by – Grove Press, Canongate, Harper Collins, Soho Press – there have been no problems on that level whatsoever, so I don’t know if there’s a lot of editing pressure on other authors really. I can’t think of any writers I know who’ve said their books were forcibly distorted or normalized by their publishers.
EE: You came around/are attached to the punk movement, I believe. And within the punk movement there is a total detachment from the ideas of morals/ethics in art/music/literature. Total freedom. To be as creative and “depraved” as you like. To quote 2 Live Crew: Nasty as you wanna be. Hip hop feels similar today. Thank god. There has to be an outlet for people. To express their darkest instincts. Their most shameful (from society standards) fantasies. To “fuck shit up.” But can one expect to make a living lol while “fucking shit up”?
Does an artist/writer need to be independently wealthy or have a benefactor/benefactress in order to be truly liberated?
DC: I’ve definitely never made a living off my books. Until my parents died and left me some money, I did a lot of journalism, but those were the days when magazines and newspapers actually paid pretty well. No, I don’t think you need to be wealthy or have a benefactor. Most of the really good writers I know either teach in schools or have jobs. You just have to organize your time and have an obsessive need to write or make art that trumps your need to socialize or procrastinate.
EE: What was your relationship w your agent, Ira Silverberg, like? I remember he was the second agent I had ever heard of (the first being Binky Urban due to my interest in Donna Tart, and, later, Bret Easton Ellis), due to J T Leroy’s books. I have been unsuccessful in finding an agent. How close were you with Ira and do you think you would have a similar career sans agent? Could you have done it w/out one?
What I’m trying to say is: am I fucked, Dennis? J
DC: Ira was amazing. His whole thing was working to help daring writers circumvent the publishing world and survive there. We were very close. I was his first client. He’s the one who talked Grove into publishing me. That was before he was an agent when he was the publicity director at Grove. It would have been very hard for me without him. At the same time, it was a very different world back then. There was tremendous pressure to publish with a major press. If you didn’t, you were pretty much immediately considered to be unworthy of big attention. There wasn’t the current extreme wealth of great smaller presses that, at this point, are much better options unless you’re dead set on the New York Times, et. al. patting your work on the head, it seems to me. Most of the younger writers I’m really interested in don’t have agents. That said, a lot of them would probably love to have one, but the writers I’m mostly interested in don’t make much money off their books, and agents don’t handle writers out of saintliness. All of which is to say, no, I don’t think you’re fucked at all. But I don’t know what you think you need to feel successful.
EE: Is anything “off limits” in fiction? In fantasy? In your imagination/head? Morally speaking. For a writer/artist. In your opinion. What happened to the artist/writer as provocateur? What became of the desire to provoke? Did this motivate you? were you conscious of it?
DC: I don’t think anything is off limits in fiction. And definitely not in fantasy. Fiction isn’t real. It makes no sense to police it. Was I motivated by wanting to provoke? Sure. But it was equally a desire to provoke myself too. That’s the key, I guess. That’s why, say, writing that tries to provoke by being deliberately racist or misogynist or homophobic or transphobic is uninteresting because there’s no challenging of the self there. That’s just using fiction to spew your agenda. You can try to wrench a reader apart, but maybe you have to wrench yourself apart to earn the right or something.
EE: there anything an artist/writer could be accused of that would prevent you viewing/reading their work, if the work itself moved or interested you in some way? To me it feels like a lack of maturity, wanting our musicians and artists and writers to be these morally upstanding citizens. As though we need them to be good mommies and daddies or something more than writers/artists/musicians.
DC: I’m not very into the cult of personality, but if a writer or artist or musician is a racist or MAGA or whatever, for instance, and lets everyone know that, it saddles their work with a pretty big limitation, at least to me. The same limitation they would have if they were just a person I met. If I met someone who I knew was a phobe or who raped someone, I wouldn’t foresee friendship in our future. At the same time, fucked up artists’ fucked upness can be interesting. So, I guess it depends. I really don’t believe in generalizations. I find them lazy. So, it’s hard to say without having a particular case to think about, I guess.
EE: Something I find of great interest in your work: the sexuality of teenagers depicted in it. today, the culture seems to be in denial of adolescent and teen sexuality. But in your writing, 13 and 14 yr olds are having sex and experimenting w various sexual acts…
“up top is ted, thirteen, french
below is jeff who’s fourteen and French…
first they stripped each other and sucked cocks
there is a good amount of kissing all through
while this is being taken the photographer’s assistant is sucking jeff’s ass off camera…”
do you find there has been a major shift in how teenagers are viewed, today vs, say, the 1970s? we seem to have this great attachment to the number 18!! As tho nothing at all should happen before then, … but of course it does. We all had sexual feelings going back to age nine, ten, eight… boys masturbate long before semen is produced and girls, too, are aware a feeling “down there” and of stirring it as young as six, seven… so, certainly by the teenage years, sex is sought out.
But almost no one is writing abt this today/anymore. Taboo! Taboo! Taboo!
DC: I suppose it was more possible to write about teenagers’ sexuality without triggering immediate outrage in the 70s. But, in my work, it’s always within a queer context. Back then being queer was still largely considered an outlaw status, even by queers ourselves. There was still an impetus to and acceptance of looking for a new way to think about love and sex and relationships and all of that. Now being queer has been mainstreamed, and it’s different. But I wrote about those things in my recent novel ‘I Wished’, and no fuss was raised as far as I know. Then again, my work is really stigmatized, so I guess when I write about those things now it’s considered to be par for the course and relatively harmless beyond the sphere of my readers.
EE: And what of violence? “violence”? however that is defined today. Or ever.
Your work is said to be sexual and violent. Something else our current culture seems in denial of. The violent instincts of humans. As w other mammals. We accept it in all other mammals but not in ourselves. Your work reckons w this:
“hard hat comes in the asshole of the stud then the stud jacks off on
when the stud’s dressing the hard hat looks him over
the guy’s really good, really well built
the hard hat wonders what it’d be like to cut a chunk
outta those buttocks and eat it
he’s half tempted to try it and fingers his knife
he could kill this kid and drag him off saying he’s sick
then do whatever and cook the meat
over a fire and eat it, do anything
no, might as well let him live
but thinking about this he’s hard again”- dream police
“’How would you kill Georges?’” Very slowly, so I could see everything in him and know what he has meant to me.” – Closer
I am wondering, too, now, if this…fantasy of violence, this alleged desire to kill the object of our lust, love, affection, isn’t a way of dealing w our out of control emotions regarding them, of dealing w the inevitable abandonment (by them) (of us), taking control of that, preventing it happening, with the violent act. I can feel this in myself regarding my husband… I can never fully know him or possess him, and one way of dealing w the ache I feel knowing this, would be to have him not be alive anymore. An end to this suffering! (mine) Haha.
Is there, in your writing, both the kink of violence linked to sex but also violence as way of preventing abandonment?
DC: I think the violence in my work is about a whole lot of things, including things I don’t fully understand or feel completely conscious of. I don’t see it as being about kink, although I’ve used a kinky presentation sometimes as a way to lure readers past the shock problem and into what the violence is actually about, but that’s a red herring. It’s certainly about out of control emotions, and it’s also about out of control thinking that’s completely separate from emotions. I think it’s about wanting to possess someone in an ultimate way and disempower them and deconstruct them and become the greatest possible expert on them. I don’t know if it’s about preventing abandonment. I don’t think I think about that aspect. I think it’s probably more about extreme objectification.
EE: Something female writers seem to get asked frequently – or, at least, I seem to – what is your experience w ppl in your life – family, friends, lovers – their reactions to your work/writing? In general, and, specifically, if they see themselves in it?
Have you ever had a romantic partner express jealousy re something you’ve written about someone else? Or been pissed in the way he was depicted in your writing?
DC: I’ve actually used real people from my life in my work pretty sparingly. In my fiction, at least. I did that most directly in my novel ‘Guide’ where all of the characters were based on my friends of the time. One of them was really pissed off by my portrayal of him and stopped being friends with me. The character Ziggy in my novel ‘Try’ was based on a boy I was friends with named Ziggy. He didn’t read the novel for years, and, when he finally did, he thought it was weird but interesting, although his girlfriend of the time freaked out and tried to get Ziggy to sue me for defamation or something. I think otherwise no one I’ve depicted in my work has been bothered by it or at least told me if they were.
EE: What writers have you been friends w over the years? I’m curious about your friendship with Edmund White, a writer I greatly admire, and who attended a school – Cranbrook – 3 miles from the house I’m currently living in – in his youth. And, of course, Bret Easton Ellis, my favorite living writer. You are friends with him also? What about Gary Indiana? Have you met him? I just recently read Rent Boy and was obsessed…
How important have friendships w other writers been for you over the years?
DC: Ed White was very kind to me when I was starting out. He wrote the introduction to my second book of poems. When I first came to NYC as a writer, he threw a dinner for me and told me he would invite anyone I wanted to be there. I said John Ashbery, who’s pretty much my favorite writer, and, sure enough, Ashbery was there. He got so drunk he had to be carried out to a taxi later that evening, but he was there. I was quite friendly with Ed in the early 80s, and then we kind of drifted apart. I don’t know Bret all that well. We’re friendly and mutual admirers and stuff, and we’ve had dinners together, but we’ve never become close friends, though not for any real reason. I know Gary Indiana, sure. We were friends in the 80s. He’s a complicated guy, and our friendship has always been complicated, but I admire him. Friendships with other writers has always been really important. When I was starting out in the early 80s in LA, my circle of other aspiring writer friends like Amy Gerstler and Jack Skelley and David Trinidad and others made all the difference in the world. And a lot of my close friends are writer peers: Lynne Tillman, Eileen Myles, Dodie Bellamy, Robert Gluck, and on and on.
EE: Are you familiar with Garth Greenwell’s writing? Specifically, his book Cleanness? I find his writing so gorgeous and interesting and unembarrassed.
DC: I’m not a huge fan of Garth Greenwell’s writing.
EE: What’s your take on MFAs? The proliferation of writing programs. On teaching writing, in general? There is, in my opinion, a fraternity/sorority aspect to them. paying for connections, as Greek life young ppl pay for connections to Wall Street and the business world, MFAs assure connections to agents and editors and mentors, older more established writers who might possibly champion you…
But then for those unable to attend an MFA program, how do they gain access to that world, those ppl? How did you?
DC: I never did an MFA. I quit university after one year, and I’ve never regretted it. I taught three writing workshops, at St. Marks and at Beyond Baroque and one at my apartment, but they were very idiosyncratic. I guess I think if it’s a choice between having a full time job and doing an MFA, the latter is better just so you can be in a context where writing is everything. But I do think you need to maintain a very strong resistance to the normalization of your writing that those programs almost always seem to be geared towards doing. And also maintaining writer friends/peers outside of that context at the same time is really important. And, of course, it depends on the faculty. There are some pretty fantastic writers teaching in some of those programs. I don’t think going for an MFA is at all important to building a life as a writer, but, then again, I’m so not that kind of writer.
EE: The NYTBR once said of your work, “This is high risk literature.” Haha. I wonder who today is writing high risk lit. were you aware at the time of some high risk you were taking? What, specifically, was the risk, do you think?
DC: High risk is an external designation. I never thought about my writing in that way. It’s just one of those consolidating tags that literary big wigs like to impose so they don’t have to pay as much attention to writers themselves. There are a bunch of newer writers doing work that I guess would be tagged high risk. Off the top of my head, some of the ones I really like include Paul Curran, New Juche, Damien Ark, Sean Kilpatrick, Audrey Szasz, Alexandrine Ogundimu, and others I’m blanking on.
EE: Lastly, another way writers in my era came to know you was thru your blog. And if we were lucky enough to get a mention on there, wooo! That was like, getting mentioned in Rolling Stone or Spin magazine, for a less established writer. I know I was thrilled when you shouted out, I think, Fast Machine.
But in 2016, Google deleted your blog! Why? How? Did they have any legal right to do so? How did that whole episode affect you and your idea of how you fit or don’t fit into the current culture, into society?
DC: The reason Google deleted my blog is a perpetual mystery. Best guess it was just an algorithm thing, a mistake. Google didn’t care because Blogger, the platform I was using, was free and made them no money. When the whole thing blew up, they suddenly claimed it was because I posted child pornography on my blog, which wasn’t true and they refused to prove it. I ended up having to get a pro bono arts lawyer to fight them to get the blog back. They refused until Roxanne Gay wrote a piece attacking Google about the situation in the New York Times, and that was a bit too much for them, so they gave me back all the raw data finally the next day. Other than the stress and annoyance, it didn’t have much impact on me. I just started over on WordPress like nothing had ever happened. And I back up the blog now, which I never did in the old days. That’s the only difference other than learning that you can’t trust Google, which wasn’t exactly a revelation.
EE: Oh wait, P.S., this, from dream police: “He won’t call. And I’m so lost that a total delusion of closeness, if that’s what it was I was living beneath, I hope not, would be kinder to be back inside.”
Ugh. So relatable. Do we ever figure it out in life, Dennis? Do we ever get the true closeness we crave and if we do, is it always at the expense of passion/sexual hunger? Feels like it’s always one or the other, you can’t have both simultaneously. Unless we agree to live with the total delusion. If we can delude ourselves, maybe then…?
DC: I’ve never figured it out. Others seem to, but not me.
EE: P.P.S. do you still write poems?
DC: Theoretically I still write poems, but I honestly haven’t written a poem in about 15 years. I think maybe becoming a filmmaker, and making films with Zac Farley, has supplanted the poet in me, but I’m not sure.