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Dennis Cooper Interview
by Alexander Laurence

Dennis 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.


AL: 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.

AL: 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 it.

AL: My Loose Thread seems more straightforward stylistically. The other ones had literary devices, jokes, song lyrics, journals to break it up.

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 unaffected.

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 way.

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


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