Dennis Cooper Interview
by Alexander Laurence
Cooper was born on January 10, 1953 in Pasadena, California.
In 1984, he moved to New York City where he met his Dutch
boyfriend, who he soon followed back to Amsterdam. While
in Amsterdam he finished writing his first novel, Closer,
which was inspired by a postcard that featured an image
of Mickey Mouse carved onto the back of a young boy.
Dennis returned to Los Angeles ten years ago. He is best
known for a cycle of five novels that begun with Closer,
and continued with Frisk, Try, Guide,
and Period. All were stylistically different, but
focused similarly on the lives of teens and young people.
In March 2000, Dennis' work was celebrated at NYU Fales
Library with an eclectic panel that included Professor Avital
Ronell, Stephen Malkmus, Thurston Moore, Bret Easton Ellis,
and Lynne Tillman, to name a few.
His new book (novelette?), My Loose Thread, focuses
on the thoughts of Larry, a teenager, who has been paid
to kill a fellow student and retrieve his notebook. There's
also something strange about his relationship with his younger
brother, but I won't give anything away. My Loose Thread
is a mystery and a challenge to read, especially in
this age of teenage aggression and sexuality.
I met Dennis recently in a cafe in LA near his home.
I just got My Loose Thread in the mail. I was shocked
that it wasn't on Grove Press. Who is Canongate Press and
how did you get involved with them?
Dennis: I'll tell you
the short version of the story. I had just finished the
cycle and I had been at Grove for eleven years. I love Grove.
Don't get me wrong. I was talking to my agent, Ira Silverberg,
and he said "Why don't I show this book to some other
people?" I had never done that before. I was like fine.
Rob Weisbach books really liked it. It was this little groovy
press for a while. They offered me some money and Grove
was like "Go ahead, do what you want." I gave
it to them. It was going to be an interesting change.
A week after they bought my book, Morrow was bought out
by Harper Collins and they killed Rob Weisbach books. Everyone
got fired. My book got thrown in with Harper Collins. I
turned in the book and Harper Collins freaked out. They
said "We're not going to publish this book and plus
you owe us an advance." I didn't have any money. So
Harper Collins held my book hostage. At the same time Canongate
was just starting up over here and they somehow saw a copy
of the book. They said that we wanted to do this book, but
we don't have much money. I wasn't going to get any money
anyway, because Harper Collins are fascists and they wouldn't
let me have the book back. In England, they are an established
press, but I think that they are just starting up over here.
This is their first official launch season, like Bloomsbury
did a few years ago.
AL: What was the symposium
at NYU like?
Dennis: It was a panel
night with discussion. Then there was a reading with Bret
Ellis, Thurston Moore, and Steve Malkmus. John Waters was
there too. It was awesome. There were these people who I
admire reading my work. There was a show. It was cool. I
was honored. What am I going to say? "Thank you."
It was nice.
What about JT Leroy? He attracts a star-studded reading.
Dennis: B-star studded. JT Leroy is a whole other story.
JT is a really close friend of mine and he is a great writer.
That is just his amazing quest for famous people and celebrities.
That's a whole other issue. They just had one of those readings
the other day at Skylight Books in LA. I have known him
for seven years and I finally met him for the first time
the other day.
AL: What do you think about all these people that say that
you are JT Leroy and all your books are about him?
Dennis: He's doing
that himself. At first I thought it was funny, but now I
think it's annoying. He said that one of my characters was
based on him. JT is into doing whatever it takes to get
attention. He likes attention. If it makes him happy it's
fine. I am a little sick of it. He's a wonderful guy but
I don't want to be part of it anymore. That's enough. My
characters are always based on people who I know. There
were about ten people in that character: he's just one of
them. It's more like a blur. He's not really a character
in any of my books, he just wants to be.
AL: What about some
of the people that you have named directly and are characters
in the books like Alex James of Blur or Daniel Johns of
Silverchair? Did you ever meet them or hear their response
to your novels?
Dennis: When Guide
came out in England it caused a big sensation because of
the Blur stuff. Someone got the idea to have Alex James
interview me about it. About a half hour before it was going
to happen he freaked out. Or something happened and he cancelled.
And then someone interviewed me about him not showing up.
Supposedly the Blur people said that we don't want to get
near this. I have never actually met Alex James but if he
wants to have a drink with me, whatever. And Daniel Johns
from Silverchair: I have never had any personal contact
with him. It's funny because there's a film being made of
one of my stories right now in Australia. Daniel might do
the score for it. One of the reasons he might do it is because
of Guide. Those two people I have never actually
met. It's no big deal. I put Blur in there because they
liked my work. They have sent me messages inviting me backstage.
I have never done it.
AL: Did Guide
come out when the Britpop thing was in full swing?
Dennis: Yeah. What
was weird was when I wrote it Blur had just put out The
Great Escape and nobody really liked it, so I thought
this Britpop thing is going to be over. I didn't do it to
cash in on the Blur thing. I figured that Blur was on the
way out. Then suddenly they came back with the "Woo-hoo"
song. It was accidentally at the same time that Blur's popularity
soared in England.
AL: When did you decide
that you were going to do this five novel cycle and then
move on to other things? I mean James Joyce wrote most of
his important works before he was 40 years old, and then
he went on to write Finnegans Wake.
Dennis: It was a project
from the beginning. I had a plan about how the how series
was structured. It would come to an end with George Miles
being dead, and then coming back to life in the last book
by this magic trick. I will always write about him in some
sense because he is so important to me. He is even in the
new book although not by name. I set out to do these books
about him, and it's done, so I have to figure out something
else to do. I became a writer because I wanted to write
about the things that I wrote about in that cycle. Now it's
a big question mark. This book, My Loose Thread,
was going to be a non-fiction book originally. I wasn't
going to write another novel for a while. I realized that
when I was doing research on high school shootings that
what I was doing would be better as a novel. So I wrote
a novel. I am a writer so what else am I going to do? I
feel like the cycle might be the work that I am remember
for, but I am going to continue to do better stuff. I am
taking a break right now, but I will probably go back to
AL: My Loose Thread
seems more straightforward stylistically. The other ones
had literary devices, jokes, song lyrics, journals to break
Dennis: I feel like
it's a documentary. I wanted it to be like there's this
kid's head, and here is the stuff coming out of this kid's
head. There's no bullshit, there's no art, and there's no
tricks. It's mysterious and confused as he is. It's like
this electric wire and this outpouring.
AL: It's like Film Noir.
Dennis: You think so? Huh.
AL: Yeah. In the sense that it resembles a detective novel.
Dennis: Yeah, it has a mystery in it. I guess so. It's
weird. I guess it's because I wrote it from beginning to
end. I have never done that before. I started at the beginning
and wrote it straight through, so it has that suspense in
it, because I wasn't really sure what was going to happen
myself. I was just making it up as I went along.
AL: In Frisk,
the violence was described more intensely than in this one.
Dennis: The narrative
was determined by what the kid could deal with. If the kid
becomes confused, it becomes confusing. If he can't think
about something, the book can't think about it either. You
know what I mean? It's totally in the service of him. He
has no sense of humor. Those are blackouts and it's like
he is blacking out and is in denial. He's a weird kid.
AL: Are any of these characters straight or gay?
Dennis: I don't think
that it's about that. Maybe the younger brother is probably
gay. Rand, the guy who Larry hit in the face, was gay. When
I was doing research on it, I decided to based most of it
on this kid Kip Kingle who was one of the high school shooters.
One of the kids who was involved in it had this whole issue
whether he was gay or not. I think it freaks him out because
he doesn't know what it is. I don't think that he's gay.
It could have been anything. That just turned out to be
his problem to make him want to freak out.
AL: The accidental death of Rand is something that Larry
thinks about often.
Dennis: Right. That turns out to be something that puts
him over the edge. Rand is in the past too so it's easy
for him to think about it.
AL: This book takes place in present day Los Angeles?
Dennis: Yeah, I think that it's probably in Los Angeles.
They drive around and there's a graveyard with movie stars.
AL: Since today young
people have the Internet and multiple points of view and
no real authority, it must be difficult for teenagers to
sort through the mess. When we were growing up in the 1960s
and 1970s there wasn't that much going on. There was no
way to communicate with other people outside your neighborhood.
Dennis: I know. It's intense. There are no morals and no
politics. It's very apolitical and it's very bizarre. My
friend was talking about this the other day. This whole
nightmare that is going on. These kids don't even know how
to think about this stuff. They don't know what to do. They
are like "Wow, whatever." For me, growing up in
the politics of the punk days, I can form an opinion on
it. Most people just go "This is weird."
AL: Back then there
was "duck and cover drills" in school, the Cold
War, and during the punk time, everybody took it for granted
that Reagan would get us involved in a war and use the bomb.
So in the punk scene things were stripped down, stark, and
Dennis: Now there's
nothing. I am curious to see if there is going to be a youth
revolution. There seems like there will be. Kids will start
going "Whoa, whoa!" I don't know how it's going
to happen or what form it's going to take. They did a poll
with Freshman college students and they said that they are
the most Leftist kids since the 1970s. I have a feeling
that something might happen. There's every reason for it
to happen. The Internet changes everything. They are not
going to march on the streets. That is so lame.
AL: Does irony figure into your work in any way?
Dennis: I don't think that my work is ironic. I think that
my work is sincere. It's humorous but not ironic. I am almost
too sincere. I don't know. Maybe the characters only become
ironic as a way to protect themselves. They want love. They
are romantic in that they want to kill some kid so they
can see God: that's pretty sincere. I never write about
fashion. They are always into sincere bands. They are never
into silly ironic bands.
AL: There's little mention of music in the new book?
Dennis: There's one
reference to Marilyn Manson and to folk music. People were
blaming heavy metal for shootings. Because it was a book
about high school shooting I made a decision that there
would be no music and no video games. I wanted to take all
that shit out because people would go "Oh they did
that because they played video games and listened to bad
music." It was a conscious thing. Also because I always
write about music, I thought that it would be interesting
not to. I usually have all these rules when I write. In
Guide there's a complicated structure, but in this
one there's no music, no humor. I didn't know who was the
killer till I got to that point.
AL: I always feel that when I am reading your books that
you leave out more stuff than what's in the book. There's
this whole aspect of things that are not being said.
Dennis: It makes you
get involved in it. People who have read this book have
said "It's gets inside your head" which is what
I wanted. So you are in direct confrontation with this kid.
So in that way it's weird. Since things are missing, you
can make up the details yourself. It seems to work that
AL: What about the Nazi kid?
Dennis: He's not even a Nazi. He wants to be a Nazi. When
they find that list of people he wants to shoot, it's just
a bunch of girls. His Nazism is bullshit. He was trying
to be like the Columbine guys were like.
AL: What did you think about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold?
Dennis: I did a ton
of research on it. They were not the most interesting of
the high school shootings. I was much more interested in
Kip Kingle and the one that happened in San Diego. That
person got caught before he did anything. Those two interested
me more because they didn't have any signifiers. Harris
and Klebold were amusing. They were like a comedy team.
They had weird clothes but they didn't interest me as people.
There's too much emphasis on them. There's this Frontline
episode about Kip Kingle that's absolutely great. That got
me started on the book. He was the last of them.
AL: There are no adults in your books?
Dennis: That's true.
Partially that's the way I grew up. I am interested in showing
respect for young people as autonomous, interesting, complicated
beings. If you take the parents out of the equation, it's
easier, esthetically speaking, to create their sensibilities
without having to bounce off a lot of adult things.
AL: I am a straight
male and I have always read your books. Do you think that
it's weird that your audience is mostly straight?
Dennis: The gay audience
has gotten smaller and smaller. Gay people don't read books
anymore. That whole gay literature thing is dead. There's
just not that many gay guys who care about literature anymore.
If they read, they read Edmund White, and that crap. Now
they just go see those horrible movies. I don't have any
naked hunks with muscles so they don't want to see it. Most
of my friends are straight. The music references in my books
gays don't relate to. They like hip-hop, or disco, or Alicia
Keys. Everything in my books except the sex has nothing
to do with being gay. The sex itself is not that important.
AL: Now there's a bunch
of bands like Placebo, Suede, Rachel Stamp, and movies like
Velvet Goldmine, where bisexuality is cool. People
who read you or Bret Easton Ellis are probably asexual or
ambiguous, and being straight or gay doesn't factor into
it. Many of them haven't had sex yet.
Dennis: Yeah. It's sort of like how it was in the early
punk days in LA. There were a lot of gay people who were
into punk: Darby Crash, The Screamers. There were all these
bands who were gay. It's starting to be like that again.
It's a totally mixed scene and it doesn't matter. It's nice
that way. Whatever band you see, there are cool people,
some are gay and some are not. I went to the Masque about
four or five times. Mostly to see the avant garde artsy
punk rock stuff because that was more my thing. I was doing
Little Caesar Press at the time.
AL: How did you meet Amy Gerstler and David Trinidad?
Dennis: I went to college with Amy. We went to Beyond Baroque
and tried to create a scene around 1980. We went to a reading
of David Trinidad to get him involved in our scene. I met
Bob Flanagan and David around the same time. We wanted to
have this scene of cool writers who ran Beyond Baroque.
People would fall in and out of it. There was Benjamin Weissman.
There's some talk of doing a book about that time. There
was actually a documentary film made about it. It's called
"Fear of Poetry." It's a film that was made back
in those days. It's lost. This girl did a whole documentary
about the Beyond Baroque scene and she screened it once
and then disappeared. Nobody knows what happened to her.
AL: Are there many
translations of your books?
Dennis: Yeah. In France I have three publishers, but POL
does my novels. I have books coming out all over the world.
I do nothing but press. I just did a day of interviews in
Spain because they are bringing out a book of my poetry.
If I didn't have Europe I would be depressed. They love
me over there.
AL: Do you speak any of the languages?
Dennis: No. I learned Spanish in high school but I forgot
it. I would love to learn French but I am too old. I would
love to live in Paris. To go to Paris and being celebrated
as an author is the greatest thing in the world. There's
nothing like it. It's so cool. Personally it's always been
my dream to be a famous writer in France.
AL: What other things are you doing?
Dennis: I am going to do my own line of books. I am going
to do four books a year for Akashic Books. I am going to
choose them and be the editor on them. It will be new adventurous
innovative fiction. It just happened. I'll get to publish
all these great young writers. Johnny Temple from Girls
Versus Boys wants to do it. Other publishers didn't want
to do it. It's a dream. The first two will come out in Spring
2003. I wrote this script for this independent film. It's
called "Warren." This guy Carter Smith is making
this film this Fall. We started out as a porno film. It's
a funny film. He liked it so much that he expanded it into
this weird independent film that has hardcore pornography.
It's like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and hardcore pornography
set in a rave scene. I am doing a project with Versus Press.
I am writing the story and they are going to get a bunch
of punk and indie bands to do the music. The songs are going
to based on the story. I get to choose some of the bands.
I hope that some of the bands will agree.
AL: Which bands would you choose?
Dennis: Robert Pollard is number one. He is my God. He's
the one that I really want. I would like to ask my friends
like Steve Malkmus and Thurston Moore. But I would like
to have The Shins and Pinback. I don't know. Super Furry
Animals? The Placebo guy likes my work. So those are the
things that I am doing.
AL: So you mentioned Alain Robbe-Grillet and Brian Molko.
Are there any odd people who have liked your work that most
of wouldn't expect to know about it?
Dennis: Oh. I think
that The Edge and Bono like my work. Somebody told me that
U2 song "Numb" was about Frisk. There was
a section called "Numb." But I actually found
out that yeah they do like my work and they did take that
title from there. It's always weird when people like my
work or some movie star mentions my work in an interview.
It's freaky that Leonardo Dicaprio likes my work.
-- Alexander Laurence