You Must Be a Monster: An Interview with Nate Lippens

Nate Lippens

Nate Lippens’s debut novel My Dead Book was released in 2021 through the Fellow Travelers Series by Publication Studio. The book was released in 2022 with Pilot Press. 

Let’s start on an upbeat note. What’s your funeral song?

Could it be a funeral hit parade? Maybe Nina Simone’s take on “My Way,” which to me is better than versions by Frank Sinatra, Sid Vicious, and even Nina Hagen. “Is That All There Is?” by Peggy Lee. There’s “You’re Dead” by Norma Tanega, Jimmy Scott’s cover of “Heaven” by Talking Heads, and my sentimental favourite “Dream Baby Dream” by Suicide. Diamanda Galas’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” But really, I’d like people to have some fun. So maybe “Saturday Night At The Bookstore” by Dicks, my favourite queer Texan communists, about cruising glory holes at porn arcades, or Patrick Cowley’s mix of Sylvester’s “Do You Want To Funk?” with those bellowing screams at the beginning. 

I loved the small details in My Dead Book about the lives of the rich and miserable: Marilyn Monroe unable to focus her eyes during filming of The Misfits, a mysterious key of Truman Capote given away on his deathbed. Do you have a famous death you find most memorable?

I was obsessed by Jayne Mansfield’s death as a kid. Crash scene photos showed her wig tangled in the car’s windshield and those fuelled the rumours that she’d been decapitated, which weren’t true. But that story fit in nicely beside the urban legends of my childhood, like Mama Cass Elliot choking to death on a sandwich (it was a heart attack) or Rod Stewart getting his stomach pumped of semen after servicing a group of sailors (sadly, untrue). But the one I love for its sheer camp value is Jean Cocteau dying from a heart attack upon hearing the news of Edith Piaf’s death the day before. A royal exit. 

The novel starts at night and there’s a nocturnal feel throughout. “The night is a train and people keep getting off and getting on,” reminded me of Guy Maddin’s train of dreamers in My Winnipeg. What is your relationship with night? 

I mostly write at night. It’s quiet and feels like I’m stealing back time. My obligations, all the little administrative tasks that suck up the days, are gone. Night is also porous as far as memory and intuition. I know many people like to write first thing in the morning, but I like the night. I’m wiped out from the day and the exhaustion frees me from a lot of self-criticisms and linear, rational thought. 

The book is filled with aphorisms and perverse logic like reading Cioran after a few pineapple daiquiris. The Cioran quote, “Do I look like someone who has something to do here on earth?” could probably apply to these characters. How do you view their pessimistic outlook, their disappointments, and what might be called bitterness?

I’m pessimistic by nature. I wouldn’t say I’m cynical though. I feel like if I were cynical, I’d be making money. Cynics get rich. Pessimists stay poor. The characters in My Dead Book are coping with extreme experiences and have a way of stylizing their disappointments into humour. It allows them to express the darkness of their experiences without being completely overwhelmed. They give the emotional landslide some flare. There’s such an American push to be optimistic and slap meaning and redemption and positivity onto everything that I find negativity freeing and honest. Almost hopeful. Studs Terkel once interviewed Edith Piaf and asked her about sad songs. She said, I feel happy when I sing a sad song and sad when I sing a happy song. When you sing a song that is up, where can you go but down? But if you sing a song that is down, where can you go but up?” 

The narrator is always the witty houseguest, a vampire invited in from the cold. He describes his funeral as, “People together awkwardly in a room sharing stories and realizing the pieces didn’t quite fit together, that I had never been the person they thought. Or had they thought I was a person?” The writing mirrors this vaporous quality. Are we listening to ghosts?

I love ghost stories. I mean, the real kind. People who have vanished from the world or themselves and are still wandering around. Anna Kavan, Jean Rhys, and Silvina Ocampo write those people well. The narrator of My Dead Book conducts himself as a living ghost. Part of it is insomnia and thoughts about aging and feeling adrift in life. He’s more in the past than the present. He doesn’t feel real to himself. Death is the prism he’s viewing everything through. That’s a hell of a party trick. 

In Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, a telepathic angel hears a trapeze artist thinking, “Time heals all. But what if time is the disease?” In an interview with Lindsay Lerman, you mentioned the Ron Athey quote, “What is the real definition of ‘healing’ in a time where everyone is sick and dying?” Could you expand on these ideas of time and sickness?

On her 1970 live album Black Gold, Nina Simone introduces “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” by saying, “Time is a dictator as we know it. Where does it go? What does it do? Most of all, is it alive?” I like the idea of time as a disease, as something we’re looking to cure or heal, make a manageable condition, medicate. There was a New Age push during the height of the AIDS epidemic to heal by loving yourself. The implication being you’d gotten sick by not loving yourself. Loving and healing and letting go. All that rot. From people like Marianne Williamson and Louise Hay. Derek Jarman talked about being encouraged to use Buddhist detachment from pain: “Gautama Buddha instructs me to walk away from illness but he wasn’t attached to a drip… we all contemplated suicide. We hoped for euthanasia. We were lulled into believing morphine dispelled the pain rather than making it tangible.” So, the period the narrator is remembering when his friends were dying was suffused with sickness, and not just illness, but the immorality of politicians, preachers, and healers. That took a dark toll and damaged those who witnessed it. How do you heal after that? Many had to forget, to bury their friends and their feelings. The rage was too much. Others rode it out, but it wore them down. Some withdrew. Some turned to drugs. Ron Athey goes on to say, “Is healing being restored to what you were when you were 23? Or is healing becoming a kind of monster on the other side who survived?” You can’t go backward and be restored.  You must be a monster. There’s something of the harridan’s laugh having come out the other side. You’re scarred but alive. I think of Marianne Faithfull describing her voice as “loaded with time.” What can you do but sing? 

The older character of Rudy feels “scornful of young gay men who haven’t lost anyone to AIDS, who grew up after AIDS became treatable, claiming grief about AIDS.” He notes the voyeuristic aspect of demanding stories of grief as, “Rubbernecking socio-political sad shit.” How do you view this disconnect between generations of gay men that have such different experiences of grief?

I think the disconnection is natural really. If you don’t have experiential memory of something, your reaction to it is different. For Rudy, it’s hard to accept that. He had a kind of ownership of grievance. It’s a sheriff’s badge he can flash. I don’t mean that cruelly. AIDS killed his friends and shaped his life. It changed everything. He went through an undeclared war the larger culture wants to forget––has forgotten––and it pains him to feel abandoned. The narrator is younger than Rudy. He’s part of the generation between those who were hardest hit and the generations who didn’t experience it first-hand. He came of age during the 80s. The narrator feels the disconnection in both directions. I do think a lot of younger queer people have an interest and respect and sense of that history. They also have distance that allows a different perspective. They make connections between social issues and movements that I wouldn’t because I was in survival mode then and that’s my memory of that time. But I see younger artists and writers commemorating and remembering and also making new connections that deepen the history. Richard Porter at Pilot Press is dedicated to publishing those stories. 

The lives of cis gay men are described as a litany of “vacations, property inspections, renovations, PrEP, Grindr, marriages.” The narrator feels, “We’re living like sex tourists through our phones.” He also defines community as “a group of people figuring out how you didn’t belong.” Can you elaborate any further on his critique of gay consumerist lifestyles?

He’s someone who was marginalized and the impact was huge. He left home and school and has hustled and been poor and an outsider most of his life. He formed his own life separate from family, school, marriage, and middle-class values. So gay men’s assimilation and move to the centre and in some cases right-wing is boggling and repulsive to him. He feels like a man out of time. Mortgages, and destination weddings and circuit parties and the ascendance of hookup apps are all alienating to him. He also knows assimilation won and what he and his friends were is now history. It’s why he feels like a living ghost. 

You mentioned the Diseased Pariah News zine from the 90s to Kate Zambreno. I still remember seeing the AIDS Barbie poster for the first time on Tumblr. It was shocking but horribly funny. How do you relate to these twisted forms of humour?

I love them. Diseased Pariah News was fantastic. I was really drawn to that humour because it upset any pieties, including my own. It outraged people. That outsider aesthetic that is abrasive, almost vengeful has always appealed to me. There was a lot of it in the underground performance scene and zine culture but also in more mainstream culture too. Kids in The Hall performed a comedy routine at Rialto with a bucket of glitter labelled AIDS that they merrily sprinkled the audience with, Ann Magnuson’s band Bongwater’s “Folk Song” is a sendup of folk anthems with AIDS in it: “Hello death, goodbye Avenue A.” Fran Lebowitz called RentHair with AIDS.” The key difference between present day edgelordism and those zines and performers and writers is intent. The call is coming from inside the house. Ann Magnuson lost many friends and her brother to AIDS. Fran Lebowitz’s entire social circle died. Scott Thompson of Kids in the Hall was openly gay at a time when few performers were. I see all that bleak, angry humour as part of a long defiant, punk tradition that includes drag terrorists like Bloolips, Divine, Leigh Bowery, Vaginal Davis, and Joan Jett Blakk

Foucault asks, “how is it possible for men to be together? To live together, to share their time, their meals, their room, their leisure, their grief, their knowledge. their confidences? What is it to be ‘naked’ among men, outside of institutional relations, family, profession, and obligatory camaraderie?” He states homosexual men “have to invent, from A to Z, a relationship that is still formless, which is friendship.” How do you view friendship?

Queer friendship fascinates me. My writing is an extension of that. My friendships mean the world to me. They are my world. Not surrogate families or romantic life but the uneasy improvisation of friendship. Friendship is work. It’s fragile but also durable. My friendships when I was younger were about bonding as outsiders. And trauma. But over time those changed and deepened, or they fell away. A lot was also based around mutual appreciation of music and books and films. That strengthens and grows with time. My Dead Book is all about those bonds. 

The narrator states, “I’m a sucker for those one-off bright flashes that fizzle. Failures and losers and also-rans, forgotten or briefly resurrected by some tiny publisher before sinking again like stones.” What luminous failures do you find fascinating?

Iris Owens who wrote After Claude is one I always think about. She earned money writing porn for Olympia Press under the pen name Harriet Daimler (a very unerotic name) and then published two novels under her own. She was a great wit, socialized with everyone, sometimes lived off her poker winnings, and was seen as a rising star. After Claude got great reviews in 1973, its follow-up in 1984 disappointed, and that was all she wrote.  She told an interviewer, “I was very involved in being an elegant failure.” She died in 2008. And while he’s legendary, I’m drawn to Truman Capote’s failure, his uncompleted novel Answered Prayers. He signed a contract in 1966 and kept blowing deadlines. In 1971 on The Dick Cavett Show, Capote called the book his “posthumous novel,” and said, “Either I’m going to kill it, or it’s going to kill me.” The novel plundered the lives of his socialite friends and in an act of self-medicated hubris he sold four chapters of it to Gordon Lish at Esquire. The publication of “La Cote Basque” in 1975 outraged his friends Babe Paley, Ann Woodward, Gloria Venderbilt, and Happy Rockefeller, who saw themselves in the thinly veiled characters and froze him out socially afterward. He died in 1984 and the unfinished novel was published in 1987. 

In a conversation with Thomas Moore you spoke about the Semiotex(e)’s Native Agents Series. Can you explain the personal significance of these books?

They rearranged what I thought was possible on the page. They each staked out their own completely radical mental and emotional wilderness. These books: Eileen Myles’s Not Me, Lynne Tillman’s The Madame Realism Complex, Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick and Aliens and Anorexia, Shulamith Firestone’s Airless Spaces, Michelle Tea’s The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, Cookie Mueller’s Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, and Ann Rower’s If You’re a Girl. Lynne Tillman really showed me how to think. I mean to let your mind surprise itself and write against your own received opinions. Eileen was an introduction to a whole kind of poetry I didn’t know and a queerness that was so singular yet expansive. No one writes like them. People can write in skinny columns, but Eileen’s looseness is so cellular and precise that it’s inimitable. Michelle Tea mapped out a world I knew and didn’t know, and she made it fast and funny. Cookie Mueller was like riding shotgun on a road trip of carnival detours. Chris Kraus was doing what no one else was: she made art and longing as humiliating, smart, and sad as it really is. Fearless behind every fear. Shulamith Firestone was so brilliant and disturbing. The real kind, not teenage kicks. Ann Rower takes her time. Nothing is forced. Everything is earned and claiming space. Those books have stuck with me over the years, as a kind of chorus. 

If the afterlife is a cocktail bar and you’re stuck there, like Sartre’s Huis Clos, with three figures plucked from history, who are you sat with?

If I could choose it would be Jackie Shane, Sylvester, and Susan Tyrrell. Or Jean Rhys, Frances Faye, and Divine. I’d want to have fun. 

In a perfect world, what are your famous last words?

Hurry up. 


Matthew Kinlin lives and writes in Glasgow.

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.