Conversation: Dennis Cooper

Interview by Jon Reiss

Dennis Cooper has been called “America’s most dangerous writer,” and thus, it’s no surprise that he’s also one of the most publicly criticized writers on the literary scene.  For many, Cooper is a character, the guy who writes that really out there shit, a figure most comfortably marginalized rather than explored.  Cooper’s work has been compartmentalized as “shock fiction” or “gay fiction “ or “ gay shock fiction” and has existed as a mainly underground, cult force for last three decades.  However, for last couple of years, interesting things have been happening in the world of Dennis Cooper.

With the buzz surrounding his newest novel The Marbled Swarm (Harper Perennial), it seems Cooper has managed to transcend all labels previously bestowed upon him, becoming a writer touted and hailed by major literary institutions instead of whispered about.  Yet, instead of writing a novel with a voice and tone similar to the work that’s gotten him here, The Marbled Swarm ventures into completely uncharted territory, taking on the voice of a verbose, emotionally inept cannibal with a speaking pattern so dense, it’s practically encrypted. He’s taking risks the way he always has, except now there’s a lot more people paying attention. If Cooper wasn’t America’s most dangerous writer before, then it should only be a matter of time now.

Cooper will be appearing in conversation with Brandon Stosuy in an event curated and sponsored by Vol. 1 Brooklyn ad powerhouse Arena in Dumbo.  Please RSVP at the Facebook invite

Jon Reiss:  Thank you so much for taking the time I’m sure you’re incredibly busy right now.

Dennis Cooper:  No, I’ve just got this nightmare crisis going on but it’s okay (laughs.)  I broke my bankcard in LA so I haven’t had any money since I got back to Paris.  So they sent it to my LA address and my roommate sent it to me but it was to the wrong address, so I didn’t get it today and I can’t get it tomorrow because it’s a holiday. So I have to go to the United States tomorrow with no money or bankcard, so I’m kind of freaking out, but otherwise I’m cool.

You’re like an anarchist… an accidental anarchist.

Yeah, but hotels don’t like anarchists when you have to pay them.

Okay, so I’m just going to fire away.  I’ve been reading different interviews with you and there was one where you spoke about Little Caesar and about and how your goal was, to some extent, to establish more of a scene in LA and to connect the punk and literary scenes. 

Right now there seems to be this tiny contingent of writers, or people in publishing that are characterized either by style or by execution, as punk.  Akashic, I would say, pretty much has the lion’s share of them.  I’m curious whether you see an intersection between those two worlds today, and when you tried to do that with Little Caesar, do you feel it was a success?

You can sort of correlate the whole punk zine press thing to online, right?  And if you do that there’s lots of sites that are doing a lot of idiosyncratic stuff and lots of presses that are doing really idiosyncratic weird stuff, but it’s just a different emotional tenor.  There’s millions of those little micro presses now, it seems like there’s 15 new ones every day.  Then there’s whole HTMLGIANT thing, but that’s also kind of locked into that whole MFA student audience as well.

That’s what’s fascinating to me.  The literary world has this haughty exclusivity attached to it, which runs in contrast to punk.  The whole DIY punk ethos is very much about accessibility, which is also something that your blog points towards in that you allow people to interact with you and you interact back. 

So that intersection fascinates me because in a lot of ways the two seem to be at loggerheads with one another.

That’s true, it’s so true that I rarely think about it in those terms anymore.  The blog really does resemble Little Caesar a lot in my head, but on a weird international, online scale.  It’s better in a way because I get to interact with people all the time. Little Caesar was a still magazine, which I would send out and I didn’t really know anyone who read it.  I can say Little Caesar was a success because at the time there were all these poetry magazines and stuff, but there wasn’t really anything like it.  And I got all these people to give me stuff: some of the Warhol people, Johnny Rotten, and the punk bands and everything were all into it.  I don’t know if there is an equivalent now.

I kind of have that now because a lot of people in bands like my work so I have some connection with all that, but on a larger scale, I don’t know, I don’t really see it happening so much.  I don’t know exactly how it would happen.  I mean something like Occupy Wall Street is connected to it far more than anything literary.

Have you been to any of the protests? 

No, I’ve been over here [in Paris.]  I was going to go to the LA one but they broke up or something for the week when I was there.  There’s one here but it hasn’t been successful, no one really pays and attention to it.  I’m going to check it out while I’m in New York if I have time for sure.  

Going back to your blog, what you’re doing as far as connecting with people the way you do, it seems pretty unprecedented.  It also seems that it’s slowly starting to pervade the literary world and the business/entertainment world in general.  In the digital age people respond to having some kind of personal connection with their artists. 

I’m curious does the work overwhelm you?  We’re talking about a lot of writing each day.  

Yeah, it’s kind of like a job, you know? The major work is I’m always trying to make those fucking posts, people help me out thank goodness, but yeah, it takes me several hours every morning to write the PS.  I think that’s why it took me so long to write The Marbled Swarm.  It took me a few years to figure out how to balance those two things out.  It’s so much work and then you get into writing in this “blady blady blah” talky way and it becomes kind of hard to shift into literary writing. It is a huge amount of work but the payoff is so great.  It seems like everybody likes it and it does seem to really help people on there.   It’s a huge amount of work and I try not to think about it because If I do, I’ll start thinking that it’s kind of bizarre that I’m wasting my time doing it, which I’m not.   It’s one of those things where I’m just going to keep doing it until something explodes and I can’t go on. 

Tell me a bit about The Marbled Swarm and how it came to be. 

I thought that I’d sort of reeled my writing back as far as I could for the last couple of books, with Ugly Man and The Sluts, because it was really taken to this minimalist kind of thing and I was just sort of feeling bored writing that way, or that I’d kind of done it, or that it was too easy or something.  So I wanted to try and do something really elaborate.  I wanted to see what my voice could do and how much it could do.  Then, living in France and not being able to speak the language very well, I was always hearing people talk and not really knowing what was going on around me.  I found that really interesting.  I wanted to try doing something that had that kind of effect where you kind of half understand what’s going on, but you don’t really.  I just kind of fooled around with my prose and tried to make it as dense as possible.  There’s this piece in Ugly Man called “The Anal Retentive Line Editor.”  That was kind of the beginning of it because that voice is kind of pretentious and fussy… 

I love that story.  It was my favorite from Ugly Man.  I can see the connection there. 

And there was some stuff going on in the last section of God Jr., a lyricism that was kind of dense that I thought was interesting.  Then there’s a piece called “The Ash Gray Proclamation” that was also in Ugly Man that kind of veered all over the place which I thought was interesting, that it managed to veer all around but still kind of hold together.  So I was just experimenting and trying to create a voice and then I got that one, but I had to play with it to see what it could and couldn’t do.  I was able to do a lot with it, kind of layer stuff and make a whole lot of things happen at once,  but it also has a lot of limitations. Emotionally you could only do so much with it or else you’ll just destroy it.  So it was really over time that I found a way to do this kind of puzzle that was really secretive, and then of course it was really difficult to write a book in that voice.

Well, it’s very different from your past work.  What has the response been like? For instance, how did your editor react?  What about the public?

The reaction has actually been really great so far.  I didn’t like the review in Bookforum and then Publishers Weekly saying I’m a perv and all that usual stuff.  Other than that it’s been really good and smart and I’ve been surprised.  I was nervous about it when I finished it because it is really complicated although I think it’s really fun and pleasurable and kind of a page-turner in a weird way in addition to being really complicated.  But when I turned it into Harper Perennial, I was really nervous because I’d never been published by such a huge press and this was the novel that they were waiting for and I was so afraid that I was really pushing it by turning in something as difficult as this book.  But they were really great about it, they were totally into it.  I’d say so far the response has been exactly what I’d hoped.  People seem to be into it and they’re not really rejecting it.  They’re getting into what’s clever and interesting about it and they kind of understand it.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised how much people are liking it because it is kind of my favorite thing I’ve ever done, so I really do want people to like it.

It seems especially interesting that this really different, really challenging book is coming out now because, and I hope this doesn’t make you uncomfortable, but it seems like a lot more people are paying attention to you right now than have in the past, media outlets and such.  It seems sort of like your time.  

I feel like this has been the best time for me right now.  I mean that Paris Review thing was like a dream of mine since I was a kid, so that was wild.  I always thought that you were a real writer if you were interviewed in the Paris Review.  It does seem like things are really good right now.  I think the fact that I did something different is good because it wasn’t the usual sort of book, which I think helps.  Also the whole online publishing phenomenon has been really helpful.  A lot of young writers that like my work have been supporting me publically, and there’s just a lot of things kind of converging right now.  I don’t know but I do feel like things are the best they’ve been for me right now and think that’s kind of…. cool. (laughs)

When I’m sitting at the computer and it’s the time I’ve set aside to try and write fiction and I’m just flailing and full of self-doubt I’ll often have this fantasy of stumbling upon a cache of my favorite authors’ worst, most immature work that they’d never want people to read and suddenly, I’d feel liberated.  Does that cache of your work exist somewhere?  How long did it take you to become confident as fiction writer?

I wrote for years and years and years and years and none of that… I mean there are things in Wrong that I’m embarrassed about and wish I hadn’t put in there.  My first thing I published was this thing called Antoine Monnier and luckily it was in this tiny edition and I pray to god no one ever see’s it because it was just horrible.  I got a lot better when I wrote Closer, the stuff before that was a little spotty.  So, yeah, there’s stuff in my archives that I pray no one ever sees.

It took me a really long time to become a good fiction writer, it really did.  I published mostly poetry for a long time because my fiction was just no good at all.  I didn’t publish my first novel until I was in my late 30’s.  It took me a long time to be really good enough, and I was working on it since I was 15, so it was really hard.

Speaking of young writers, it seems that people look to you to turn them onto young writers.   I know that I picked up Justin Taylor’s first book after seeing it on your blog.  What do you look for in a new voice?  Also, what have you found to be the usual pitfalls in a first novel?

Well, what I look for… it’s hard to put your finger on something like that.  I mean just somebody who uses language in an interesting way and has a unique way of doing it.  It’s all about voice really.  When you read someone that has a really interesting voice and has something interesting to say… It’s instinctual really.

But there’s so much good work out there right now.  It’s such a fucking renaissance.  I mean, you’re too young to realize it, and all that, but really I’ve never seen anything like this, so many interesting writers coming up at the same time and with all these presses to support them.  It’s totally a historical time.

No kidding, would you mind giving some shout outs, some writers for our readers to check out?

There’s so many. I wouldn’t know where to start.  I mean there’s Blake and Justin and Shane Jones and Amelia Gray, Kate Zambreno.  I could just go on and on, it seems like I’m constantly getting, some book in the mail from some new writer and I’m like, “Christ here’s another one that’s really good.”

As far as pitfalls, I don’t really know because I haven’t really come across that much bad writing lately.  I’d say just the kind of usual stuff that’s been damaged by school, the usual, conventional stuff.  Pitfalls are just not to write commercial work, whatever that is.  And there’s no reason to now that there’s such a support system. You’ve got all these new presses so new writers can start publishing there and if they want they can move upstairs which is what all those writers I just mentioned are doing.  That’s basically what I did, I published a bunch of books with small presses and then I kind of developed a readership and some kind of critical audience of a tiny nature and that kind of eases you into the major presses, because there’s an audience already built in so the large presses will take a chance on you.  It’s kind of perfect situation.

Bret Easton Ellis famously got a lot of flack when American Psycho came out for writing violent scenes.  Have you caught similar flack for the violence in your books?

Me?  Yeah! (laughs heartily)  I still get flack all the time.  Less now.  Frisk really caused… not a huge ruckus like American Psycho because it was kind of an underground book, but I got this famous death threat because of FriskAmerican Psycho came out one week before Frisk did so that was already happening.  Then right when Frisk came out, Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested and it was just like all these horrible things at once.  I did the book tour for Frisk and I really got attacked all throughout.   I got extremely negative reviews especially form the gay press saying that I was a monster and I was writing negative portrayals of gays and all that.  Then when I got to San Francisco this group of queer activists issued a death threat against me.  They said that I was killing teenage gay boys in my books and they were going to kill me.  So then I cancelled the rest of my book tour and it was just a big mess.  I still get it, but in a milder way because I think people realize that I’m a nice guy or whatever.  Even for Marbled Swarm, the reviews in the trades like Publisher’s Weekly, they say it’s disgusting and perverted.  I still get that, there’s a lot of people who just can’t get past the content and will just never take me seriously because they think it’s awful what I’m doing.  It’s an ongoing thing.  I kind of realized when I was writing Frisk, I’m like, I’m never going to live this down, and I never did.  It’s just always going to hang over me, that reputation which Frisk caused.  It’s my blessing and my curse that I write about this stuff, because it brings people to the work but it also turns the vast majority of people off and makes them never want to read me.

It’s kind of surprising to actually meet you in person because you come off as incredibly gentile. Yet people are used to reading your books and seeing you in the dark, lurking behind shadows in this super-contrasty author photo.  

Yeah, I get that a lot (laughs.)  People are always really surprised that I’m a nice guy but since the blog people have started to realize beforehand.  But that’s really kind of common.  Peter Sotos is this big galoot, sweetheart guy and he’s like the most transgressive writer that’s ever lived, yet he’s totally nice.  Everyone I’ve ever known who does kind of extreme work, is just a total shy sweetie pie.

I know that you’re fascinated with the occult.  Do you believe in UFO’s or cryptids or anything like that?

No, I don’t’ believe in any of them.  I love the paranormal, that’s really a huge interest of mine, but I don’t believe in any of them, I’m really pragmatic.  I just find it fun to think about.

If you could speak to 18 your old your for a two or three minutes what would you tell yourself.

Oh I don’t know!   Are you going to make me say, “It gets better?”  (laughs)  It would probably just be banal things like, “Hey you know that guy you want to sleep with, he actually likes you, you don’t realize it, but he does,” that kind of stuff.  I don’t know, because I was okay.  I was totally stressed out and depressed and all that stuff but I think you have to deal with that.  I wouldn’t stop any of that.  I’d probably want to say, “Hey you’re going to be a somewhat successful writer!” but I wouldn’t believe it, because I didn’t believe anyone who was old anyway.

I recently read Smothered In Hugs, after talking with a few people who were fans of yours specifically for your non-fiction work.  In the intro you say that you’ve never been very comfortable as a non-fiction writer, yet it seems so confident.  It’s a much less parochial, much more writerly sounding voice. 

The reason I don’t really think I’m such a good non-fiction writer is I don’t think I have a natural writing voice.  My writing voice is really heavily constructed.  I did the non-fiction stuff because I thought it was interesting and I needed money and stuff, although, I did like doing it.  But those things seem like I was just talking and like it was really easy, but actually they was a huge amount of work to be able to sound like that.  It took me really a long time to write these things that most people who write non-fiction and are really good can just dash off.  I can’t do that because my natural voice is just isn’t a very good voice, or I don’t think it is.  If you read the PS on my blog that’s what I sound like.  So that’s one of the reasons I don’t really do it anymore, it’s just so much work. 

I read the Keanu Reeves interview this morning and that totally threw me.  I had no idea that he was this cult actor of any kind.  Hearing him talk about The Exploited and GBH and doing speed, I just never thought I’d hear that from him. 

I would never heave imagined that he’d be what he is now.  He was like a total spazz. He was really cool.  Now he’s like this really sober, tight monosyllabic guy.  He was like the total opposite back then.

You seem very comfortable as an interviewer.  The back and forth seemed very real.

I really like doing interviews. I like the editing process a lot and figuring out how to preserve what’s important.  I really am interested in people and I’m really okay at drawing them out and making them feel comfortable.  It comes naturally to me.  I think I seem somewhat natural and unpretentious.  With Keanu or Leonardo DiCaprio or whoever it was I was interviewing it was actually pretty easy and they’d relax with me.  In fact they’d relax with me so much that they’d say things that later had to be cut out because they were too open.

Really?  Is there anything that was cut out of the interviews in Smothered In Hugs?

Well, the Keanu Reeves one was tricky. There was nothing cut out of it but he got in a lot of trouble because he talked about drugs and there was that question about whether he was gay or not and he said, “no, but you never know” and he joking.  To this day people come up to me and say that Keanu Reeves is gay and I say “no he’s not,” and they’ll say, “he said so in that interview” and I’ll say “no he didn’t, I did that interview.”  The only person that was really heavily vetted was Brad Renfro.  He was very troubled and he talked very openly and honestly about his problems drugs, and I was threatened almost with death by his publicist. 

I’ve got one question about JT Leroy.  I know that overall it’s looked at a pretty negative experience for all who were involved. However, I think that one good thing that came out of it, and this is a guess but I would think that since it was such a major story that you were part of, that a lot of people, especially young people, found your work through the JT Leroy controversy.  

Oh yes, people are very frequently telling me, “I found your work because I read JT Leroy first.”  So that’s something… the only good thing that came out of that fucking shit.


Do you think you’re more wary of writers that come to you now, wanting you to read their work?

Not really, I think I’m the slightest bit more cautious now.  I’m not really ready to sign on in such a heavy way like I was with him…her, him whatever.  No one has said to me, “I’m dying of aids and I’m 13 years old.”  You know, that doesn’t happen everyday.  I support a lot young writers and I’m interested to do that but that was a whole other thing because, you know the story was so heartbreaking, which was obviously a brilliant calculation.  But it’s not like I have people coming to me telling me stories like that anymore.  If someone did that, I’d be kind of wary.  I’m a little more careful about getting involved in people’s more personal problems because I got a little too involved in that with him where he was calling me constantly and was threatening to commit suicide and all this crap.  I think that I’m a little bit more “lets keep this on the level of the work.”


I’ve got a sort of shop-type question for you.  If you were a young writer trying to come up right now, would you consider putting your novel on the internet for free?  There’s a lot of different avenues out there now for people to easily publish online.

I think putting part of your novel like you did is a really good idea.  Putting the whole thing up… I still think it’s a cool thing to have a book.  So I think first I’d try to get it published in a kind of regular way.  I don’t really even know why, just because it gives it this kind of legitimacy to it or something and it gets people involved in it.  I’d recommend trying to get an agent or trying to publish with a press.


Would you consider and screenwriting forays in the future?

If it was a really interesting director and they wanted to work with me on something, I would totally be interested in that.  There is something that I can’t really talk about that’s in the “talking stages.”  I’d be really into it if it happened, but I don’t know.  I wrote one screenplay and then I wrote a bunch of porn things.  I like that form, so I’d definitely be interested in giving it a shot.  Not shit, I wouldn’t just write shit for money or something.  I worked with Gisèle Vienne, and I love collaborating.  I loved writing with her, so sure, absolutely.


You’ve been praised for being on the edge of technology as a writer, but do you have any luddite-type tendencies?  Do you resent technology in any way?

Nah.  I’m totally pragmatic.  This is the way it is now.  I hate 24-hours news in America.  I wish something would happen so that 24-hour news would end.  I think that’s just been horrible, horrible, horrible for the United States.  We don’t have that over here and you can see the complete difference.  I miss vinyl and CD’s or whatever, but I think it’s all really exciting actually. I’ll go see any 3D movie, just to see how the tech is advancing.

Why Paris?  I read an interview where you say that living there and not speaking the language lets you isolate in a way that’s good for your work.

I lived in New York for four years.  I like it there but I never fell in love with the place.  The reason I’m here is because my boyfriend’s Russian and he can’t get a US visa.  That’s why we came here.  I still have my place in LA and that’s still my home.  I’ve been a Francophile since I was a kid.  I love Paris, I love French people and French cinema and art.  So, I mean it’s just my favorite place in the world and it always has been so having the opportunity to live here is just perfect, it’s just a perfect place.  Ideally I’d live in LA part time and Paris part time, maybe someday.  I lived in Amsterdam for two and a half years too.

How was that?  Did it wear on you?

Yeah, I started writing The George Miles Cycle there.  That was good because I was so immensely isolated there.  After getting through a period of heavy drug use and promiscuity and crashing, I finally sat down and started writing the cycle so that was good because let me concentrate.  I didn’t really like living in Amsterdam, it’s not an easy place for me to live…for me.


What’s next for you?

Gisèle and I are curating this huge festival of art and cinema and performances in the museum here and then she and I are going to start a new theater piece.  Fiction wise it’s really early to say.  I like to change my voice from book to book and so I’m just really trying to get rid of that Marbled Swarm voice, it’s kind of hard.  So I’m trying to break that down and experiment and move my voice somewhere else.  I’ve got one idea to write a book about George Miles, like about the real George Miles.  Then I’ve got another idea to write a book about pornography, because I’ve always wanted to write a book about pornography, so I always come back to that but I don’t know if I’ll end up doing that or not.

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