INTERVIEW: Dennis Cooper by Russell Dean Stone
Illustration by Sam Russell Walker
Russell Dean Stone is a writer from London, currently based in Berlin. He is online editor at London's premiere music magazine BEAT. Having starting his career as junior editor at now defunct style mag Sleazenation, RDS now freelances for titles like i-D, Vice, Noisey, and High Snobiety. His main focuses in his writing are music and LGBTQ culture - especially the points at which the two converge.
For some, discovering the work of American writer Dennis Cooper, is something akin to a queer rite of passage. Like so many Cooper fanboys, I found his novels when I was in my late-teens slash early-twenties, in the midst of my own sexual and queer awakening. Cooper’s work presented itself as an extreme, but it’s teenage perspectives spoke to me, while it’s unapologetic frankness about desire and degradation seemed profound and rebellious. Not to mention the hardon it gave me, which melted my brain as I tried to reconcile my arousal at the adolescent horniness, with my disgust at the gruesome fates of these beautiful boy characters within his novels.
Cooper’s transgressive work is complicated. It’s full of subversive narratives about teenage sex, drugs, violence, mutilation, murder, rape, pedophilia, incest, school shootings and necrophilia. Basically, nothing is off-limits, but it is not ‘horror porn’ deployed for shock value, instead these are narrative devices used to meticulously explore obsession, intimacy and grief. These stories take place somewhere in the intersection between furtive teenage worlds and the insidious terrene that predatory adults inhabit. Inspired by and likened to the work of Marquis de Sade, Arthur Rimbaud and Jean Genet, Cooper’s writing is true mindfuckery.
In 1976 he founded Little Caesar Magazine, a cult literary zine with a punk spirit and aesthetic, that was primarily dedicated to poetry. Cooper published the first of his own books of poetry, Idols, in 1979, with his first novel Safe arriving in 1983. From there he would begin his infamous George Miles Cycle, a collection of five novels which took nearly twenty years to come to fruition - Closer, Frisk, Try, Guide, Period - and are inspired by the life and death of his friend and lover George Miles who he’d originally met in ninth grade.
To give Cooper’s writing and it’s reception some context, these works were initially put out into the world at a time when the general homosexual agenda was, generally speaking, about achieving equality via assimilation and conformity to heteronormative ideals. Cooper’s anarchist leanings, coupled the fact his work has always been incidentally gay, a reflection of his own IRL sexual preferences, meant it was always unlikely his writing would fall in line with any organised agenda. Now primarily based in Paris, Cooper is a bonafide contemporary literary icon, whose work is revered for boldly going to places others wouldn’t dare.
Since this interview is for The Queer Bible, what does the word ‘queer’ mean to you?
I don’t really feel any relationship to it. I’m not really interested in collective identity, I never really have been. I was into queer punk because, at that time in the 90s, there was this notion that it was really inclusive and you didn’t have to want to fuck guys or whatever, you could be anybody. I was excited by the idea that anybody was queer and it was more about some kind of overall person thing, rather than love or sex. Obviously I am queer and but I never think about it.
When your work was first published you were grouped in with the gay lit movement at the time, did you feel part of that scene?
I didn’t feel not part of it, I was just a real outlier, I was the weird guy in that group. I thought it was an extremely interesting time, when that was a ‘thing’ and there was a market and everything [laughs]. I didn’t have a problem with it, accept for the fact that my work caused an immense controversy because a lot of the gay guys at that time were really offended by what I did and scared of it. That was a little strange. It wasn’t like I felt like ‘oh I don’t belong in this’, I was like ‘okay I can see why I’m in this’. I wasn’t unhappy when that faded away [laughs]. I mean, writers lost their audiences because gay guys started doing other things rather than reading books and it was really hard for some people.
Is it true that you received death threats?
This offshoot of [LGBT activist organisation] Queer Nation in San Francisco came to a reading and gave me this little pamphlet and said, ‘We are calling for your death’. This little piece of paper said, ‘Dennis Cooper must die for the crime of killing gay boys in his books’. There happened to be a journalist there, so it got a lot of press. I cancelled my tour, I was really scared at the time because already on that tour, when I did readings, there was always this fuss and that was the extreme part of it. I eventually said I want to talk to these guys, let’s figure this out, let me talk to them and see what the deal is. Finally someone put me in touch with the main guy and he’d never read the book, only a review of it in the newspaper! I explained to him that the work was not glamorising killing boys and he said, ‘Okay fine we’ll take the death threat away’. It ended up being this thing that everybody knows but after that it calmed down. It hasn’t really happened for a long time. There was a point where people started to recognise what I was and that my work wasn’t going to inspire serial killers so they kind of went, ‘Okay this is what he does whatever bye’. I’m sure there are tonnes and tonnes of people who really hate what I do, but I’m very lucky because I’m not the kind of artist who is like viral. I just do what I do and people don’t think I’m that important or whatever, so I get to slip around the edges which is extremely lucky.
In the 90s there was a kind of cultural hysteria in America around stuff like Marilyn Manson, I guess the panic around your work probably was caught up in that too.
There was controversy in England when Guide came out because I had [the band] Blur in the book, and the bassist from Blur got raped [in the book] and there was a kind of a controversy around that. It wasn’t really a queer thing though, it was more like a ‘how can you do this to him?’ and then he was very upset and freaked out about it. Someone later did a video for Blur and mentioned my name and Alex James, the bass player of Blur, literally freaked out. He said that, even then years later, he thinks there was some kind of molestation or something and so it’s probably very complicated for him, which I completely respect.
Were you ever aware when you were working on the George Miles Cycle that these books would have such a big impact on certain people, that reading them would be something of a rite of passage?
No I don’t think I ever did. I wasn’t thinking about it, I was just trying to write the books. That did happen and the most wonderful responses I get to my work are people who related to and went through it. There’s also people like, you know that guy Perfume Genius? He now says that my books ruined his life and turned him into a drug addict or something. I’m like, I’m sorry but maybe close the book! It would be like saying ‘my boyfriend was a totally normal person until he read your books’. [Editor's note: Perfume Genius responded to this article with the following brilliant tweet, 'Whaa? Lol I have no idea how he would get that idea. I've never read one of his books.'] I was writing about and presenting a kind of way to be gay in this radical or experimental way and, when I think about it, that’s what I was always like, so it’s kind of great that there’s a connection there. I certainly got that from things I read and saw when I was younger. It’s a surprise but it’s cool.
You once said that you were interested in giving people “complicated erections”, which is a pretty accurate way to describe the experience of reading your work. There’s some real headfuckery going on between the dynamic of ?? and ??.
I’ve always been interested in making it really complicated and using desire or pornographic presentation as a subversive way to catch people or make people think about things. Or the opposite. You write a book and it’s just a trigger, it’s like a drug, it doesn’t exist until it’s in somebody's head. You publish a novel and then there’s thousands and thousands of novels, because really a novel is a completely different experience for different people, that’s what one of the most beautiful experiences is about writing. I wanted it to be generative. I’m an anarchist so I’m really interested in power relationships. I wanted to create a power relationship between me and the reader, where the reader had a lot of power and it’s just a matter of gaming with them and letting them battle with me. They can battle with the books or they can agree with them.
Despite the horrific nature of some of the things that happen in your work, there’s actually a lot of balance and lack of judgement in how it’s delivered.
My sympathies are always with the young characters. People don’t always see that and they immediately assume that I’m some kind of wannabe rapist or something. My sympathies are always naturally with the people who are being objectified or emotionally abused and it’s really important that that’s true. You have to negotiate the books to get there because I don’t make the adults obvious evil entities, but if you really read them you see where the sympathy is.
Has the way you relate to your characters changed as you’ve got older yourself?
Yeah I think it did. It was a natural evolution because I decided to write when I was fifteen and I spent a long time trying to develop what would become the George Miles Cycle and I was thinking about it when I was a teenager. That’s one of the reasons why the work is almost always centred in a late teenager or early twenties time, because when I started out I really wanted to create something that was complex and intelligent that was centred in the world I was in. I have continued to hate the way adults think about teenagers and young people, I just hate it, it drives me nuts. Eventually I got to my twenties or my late twenties and I started to better understand why adults grab onto their power because it is about power. It helped with the work because I was able to inhabit some of the adult perspectives in a natural way, rather than demonising them or making them cartoons. I didn’t really start writing the cycle until I was in my late twenties, it took me that long to get the right balance in my head about it. Now I feel like I came to a place where I know where I am and my sympathies with the young and knowledge of adults hasn’t really changed that much. Now it’s just a matter of trying to find different ways to represent it. I still feel twenty.
Do people come to you and confide in your about their own experiences?
I try hard to make time for that. I guess it is a responsibility. I’m not good with email and people like to email a lot, I’m not good with correspondence I’m very bad. I’m on my blog and it’s like, if you want to talk to me, come onto my blog and that’s a way I can communicate but that’s public though. I try to be really supportive and I certainly have no judgement. There’s so many people that just have the worst perspective about young people and even though they think they want to help them, it’s really selfish what they do and it’s all about their ‘when I was young’, that kind of stuff. These young people are really open and listening and they can be really misled, so I try to be really open and objective about stuff and encourage everything except self destruction.
Your blog is incredible, running it must practically be a full time job!
I know. I’m not a hyper person but I always like to work and so if I have free time instead of doing whatever normal people do, I just think I’ll make a blog post. It’s not about writing it’s about sharing, it’s like here’s something interesting, here’s everything I could find about it. It’s a huge amount of work but at the same time I still manage to write projects and make films and do all these other things that I’m doing so I guess it works. But it is weird.
When did your interest in serial killers start?
There were these three serial killers who were killing teenage boys and in the 70s, although no one knew who they were because they hadn’t been caught yet. There were all these boys being killed and there were some boys that were killed near where I lived. I used to live in this city called Arcadia, which is in the suburbs of Los Angeles, and it’s against the mountains and there was this hiking area that I always went to. They found the bodies of two or three teenage guys there and I was at that point really disturbed by the fact that I was so interested in that stuff. I made a friend of mine go up and do a pilgrimage to find the spot where they were killed, there was the police tape and I was communing with it or something, I don’t know what I was doing [laughs]. I didn’t wish I had been the guy that had killed them, it was just this complicated thing that something had happened and it fascinated and scared me and I wanted to see what the deal was.
Are you still obsessed with serial killers?
I really don’t care about that stuff anymore. There was a period where I was extremely interested in it. I did lots of research but all of my research said that the person that did it, either did it for reasons that were not interesting to me or for reasons that would never ever be understood, no matter how much you talk to them.
I wrote this short novel called Jerk about the killings of this guy Dean Corll, who was actually the first serial killer I ever knew about, in 1971 he killed two teenage boys. John Waters, whose a friend of mine, is obsessed with those kinds of people and he sent a copy of Jerk to Elmer Wayne Henley - who was one of Corll’s teenage henchmen - in prison and then Wayne Henley wrote me a letter. John thought that I would find it really interesting and I did, but it’s a really weird book and it’s a comedy and it’s really not lionising what he did at all, it’s making him like an idiot or something. He was like, ‘this is the funniest thing I’ve ever heard, we should be best friends’. He sent me an autographed photo but I just never wrote back to him because I didn’t care. Everyone just assumes I’m incredibly fascinated by that stuff but I feel like I so over examined that stuff for a long time there’s nothing really new to learn from it.
People say certain novels are impossible to adapt for film, but that’s actually probably very true of your work.
People come and ask me for the rites and I say how are you going to do this and they’re like, ‘Oh we’re just going to drop that part’. This guy really wanted to do the sluts and he was offering a lot of money to do it but he didn’t want the internet in it. How could you make a movie based on the sluts and not have the internet in it? This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. So I was like no.
Is it true you used to keep a diary and your mother found it?
Yeah that’s how I got outed. I used to write a diary when I was young and I would put my desires in it or fantasies or things I would do with boys and she had been reading it secretly for two months or something and sent me to a psychiatrist and that was that. But the psychiatrist was really cool and was like ‘just tell her its a phase’. I was very lucky because that was in the 60s and I just happened to have this really cool psychiatrist who was like don’t worry about just don’t keep a diary anymore. I don’t know that it really affected me. It certainly was interesting being outed when I was that young and I think that was probably really for the best.
Do you remember your dreams?
I drink coffee the moment I wake up. When I do remember my dreams it’s always me being killed or chased and threatened with being killed. Any dream I remember is about someone wanting to kill me. They’re not fun and they’re not glamorous [laughs].
Read Dennis' blog HERE.
Sam Russell Walker is an Illustrator based in Glasgow. He graduated from the Glasgow School of Art in 2015 and his work is inspired by film, pop culture, the human form, plants and fashion. His process is also heavily influenced by the act of mark making and creating textures through this process.