I first read Dennis Cooper's Try when I was 14. It was the first book I ever completely related to. Bad shit happens to this kid, Ziggy, in the book and there is nobody there to save him. No social workers, no helpful teachers, it all just is. A kid making porn for Ziggy's creepy uncle ODs and gets fucked, parents betray, a crush is more into heroin than love, horrible shit happens. Yet the book has an underlying sweetness, an honesty that makes everything just click into place. Try became my bible; I carried it with me everywhere and reread it constantly. It made me want to write. I knew I had to reach Cooper. I asked Maximumrocknroll if I could interview him for them. I got his agent's name, and later that day I had my first conversation with him.
Try was third in a series of five novels: Closer, Frisk, Try, Guide and now Period, which will be out next spring. His most recent book is a switch?All Ears: Cultural Criticism, Essays and Obituaries (Soft Skull Press, 146 pages, $13.25), a collection of his articles and interviews that appeared in various magazines including Spin, Artforum and George. Markedly different from his fiction, they display his range as a brilliant chronicler of people, music, art.
I should say that now, almost five years later, Dennis is one of my best friends. I never did that interview for Maximumrocknroll. but I promised him one day I would do an interview somewhere.
This is pretty weird, me interviewing you, finally. So, I read this book and I have just one question: Why am I so fucking great? It's all about me, isn't it?
Yeah, there are so many aspects of you it took a whole book to write about you.
Why did you put me on the cover as well?
Who else would I put on the cover?
Exactly. Well I guess that's the end of the interview? Uh, seriously, why is the guy on the cover cupping his ear? And is that Leonardo DiCaprio?
He's cupping his ear because they wanted to use a picture by David LaChapelle, which was Leonardo with a conch to his ear. But they couldn't get the permission, so they wanted to do something similar.
Why wouldn't they give permission?
I don't think they could ever find the guy. So they just got an artist to do a copy of it, and it's "all ears" because he's listening.
I notice that his ear is slightly red, as if some violation has been done to his ear.
Well, it is a book by me? (laughs) God knows Leonardo's ear wouldn't be safe around me?my famous ear-chewing penchant.
Does Leonardo know he's on the cover?
I have no idea, I haven't seen him in a while? He moved.
He bought some big-ass house?
He used to live right near me, but he moved. I see him driving around sometimes, but I haven't talked to him in a while.
You should tell him?
I don't think he gives a shit. He's on the cover of everything so I guess a drawing of him on the cover of?whatever.
What about all the Leonardo DiCaprio fans? This is one of the best interviews ever with this guy. I mean this interview came out in magazine from when I was into him too, before the whole Titanic thing.
Right, it was for Romeo + Juliet.
Is it that a lot of people you interview are people you're attracted to?
Like William Burroughs?
Yeah, like William Burroughs? (laughter) Wooo! I mean, well, you know. I wasn't attracted to Leonardo.
Is it hard? (laughter)
Does it make it harder?
No, because I really wasn't attracted to him. He wasn't up there with Lukas Haas or Vincent Kartheiser or something. I used Leonardo in [my novel] Guide, but that was more because I knew that everybody else had a thing for him. He never was a big fantasy of mine, partially because he lived on the same street and I saw him around, so? He was very real to me. Back when I met Keanu Reeves, back then, I thought he was pretty fucking cool. More than Leonardo, really.
That was a great interview. I found something in every chapter that you were making a prediction that ended up coming true. Like with Keanu you talk about becoming junkies, doing that kind of stuff, and that shit happened with River Phoenix. And even with Leo DiCaprio you ask if he wants to be really fat or really old, and he ended up getting fat.
(Laughs) He said if he had to be one or the other, he would want to be fat. He wasn't really really fat, and that was the question.
His love handles were sagging.
He's gotten back in shape now from what I understand.
Yeah, thank God! That was disgusting! But Keanu got fatter than Leonardo.
I thought Leo's answer was pretty good.
That he wanted to be like Biggie Smalls?
No, that he didn't mind.
See, there you go. I asked him the question and he talks about people he knows who are overweight that are really great people. He's a good guy. It's not the kind of answer you want about Leo. I'm supposed to say that he was really stoned and some guy was fist-fucking him while I was interviewing him. He just seemed like a really nice guy. Very polite. I liked him.
Did he play footsie with you?
No. He smoked my cigarettes.
If you'd saved those butts can you imagine what they'd be worth?... A lot of people read your books, and it's always like, Dennis Cooper, woooo scary. I can understand some of the other ones, but Try and even Guide are really sweet.
I think they're all sweet?except maybe Frisk. For a lot of people, just the fact that you write explicitly about people being raped or people eating shit? I mean Try may be really sweet, but there's this guy who eats someone's shit, you know what I mean. To me that makes the sweetness sweeter. Clearly, you put this horror around this kid who's a sweet kid, then you realize how screwed he is? But a lot of people see that other stuff and they see red, they don't even see the sweetness in it because they just can't? The fact that I thought these things up and had the nerve to put them in a book makes me a monster, you know?
I'd give Try to people, most folks wouldn't make it to the end.
Well, it's rough. It doesn't let you off the hook? It's intense and awful.
It's nothing that isn't on the news.
It's a little more explicit. I think most people just don't want to think about those things. And I think that I want to understand them, so?not that everyone should be interested in those things?
Have you heard from fans who are used to your fiction? The first thing I read from you was the Spin piece about the homeless kid (collected in All Ears). I remember thinking the interviewer was a really nice guy.
What response I've seen has been, among the reviewers, they assume I'm a particular way, creepy, whatever, and they say that there's this surprising compassion. And friends have said to me, "This is really you, as opposed to your novels, which don't seem like really you." But they don't live in my head. But yeah, it is more reflective of who I am as a day-to-day person, this book, than my novels.
The interview you do with Nan Goldin, it's funny because Laurie Stone sent me Nan's book two and a half years ago?the really big book?
I'll Be Your Mirror?
Yeah, and I ended up trading it to somebody. This girl is a photographer, husband worked on motorcycles, we had a motorcycle that needed to be worked on and we did a trade.
So you didn't get anything out of it.
Well, I got to ride on the motorcycle. I remember that book was really sad.
Yeah, it's really sad. I really liked that work a lot, and I can relate to some of it. I know some of those people because I lived in New York for a while.
Some of the people in the book?
Yeah. When I was living in Amsterdam, and I was kind of at my kind of bottom or whatever, I saw her work projected in a museum, and it was weird, because it made me think about my life in a way that I hadn't before, like the tragedies. You get so gripped in drugs and obsessions that you can forget what your life looks like. Her pictures give you like the full story. Her work shows you the beautiful and horrible at the same time. It was quite powerful? It made me rethink the way I was living my life.
So you were doing a lot of drugs then?
Yeah, I was like really lonely. I didn't have any friends there. My boyfriend and I weren't getting along. Yeah, so I was doing a lot of speed. I was hanging at the brothels and stuff. In retrospect it was quite interesting, but?I just felt really miserable, and I was thinking that I was on some kind of weird investigation, but I wasn't really learning anything. I was really alone and really fucked up and sex-obsessed, drugged out? It was bad.
Do the people you interview contact you later?
A couple of people said they liked it? Leonardo said he liked it. Steve Malkmus liked it. On the other hand, Bob Mould was a friend of mine at the time I did the piece on him, and, as I say in the introduction, the piece destroyed our friendship.
It's a combination of things. Bob was under pressure to come out as gay. I don't think he really wanted to. I don't think he was really ready to.
Try is all full of references...
I think that's partially why we became friends, because he was touched that I would pay homage to him. We became friends and hung out. It just seemed that he trusted me and thought I wouldn't mischaracterize him when he wanted to make his statement about being gay. I think he was very uncomfortable about having done that. And because we were friends, you know, I stayed at his house for three days, and I guess it wasn't quite clear when we were doing the piece and when we weren't, and I reported some things he said when we were just hanging out, and my assumption was that Spin was going to factcheck with him, but for some weird reason they didn't call him and say, Did you say this, did you say this? So when it came out Bob was very upset. There were things he said to me as a friend that got into the article. I apologized and everything, but he was very angry and said some terrible things about me afterwards. And I feel really bad about it. I mean, I take responsibility for it, but it was sad because I really, really admire him.
What were some of the things he didn't want to talk about?
That he said in the article? Some gossip. He told me that the My Bloody Valentine album had been trashed and that the Butthole Surfers were having trouble in the studio... It just didn't seem like a big deal to me, but it was to him because he was friends with these people and he had betrayed confidences.
In the interview with Courtney Love there was something you said that again was predicting the future?
Well, I also said their marriage was like Ozzie and Harriet?that was really a mistake? (laughs) I liked her. I don't know what to think of her now. I'm so sick of the whole shtick. I really liked talking to her. I thought she was a really smart, intense person. But I don't know what the fuck she's doing now.
Was Kurt there during the interview?
No. We were hanging at her house at one point, I don't know why? She had to do makeup for the photoshoot, or see the kid or? And he was supposed to come back; we were waiting for him, but he never did come back. So I never did get to meet him. I'm kind of glad I didn't, now.
Didn't she ask you to try to write a screenplay for her?
Yeah, through Craig Marks at Spin? It just never happened.
Now (novelist) Mary Gaitskill is trying to do it.
That's probably a better fit. I don't know how to write a screenplay. I have no fucking clue... I don't want to write a screenplay. It's such a cliche, like everybody in L.A. I hate that? It just drives me insane that everybody writes their book to be made into movies. To me, it's a book. I write novels. That's what I want to do. I just don't have any interest in doing screenplays. Sure, I'm broke, and if somebody offered me a lot of money I'd probably think about it. It's just that everybody in the fucking world is a writer that writes screenplays. It's just not interesting to me.
They made Frisk into a movie.
So to speak. It's a piece of fucking crap.
Yeah, it was really bad.
Horrible. It's made me very wary of doing anything like that ever again.
But at the same time I would love to see Try made into a movie.
Well, a couple of people talked about it, but nothing's ever happened. I mean, Try is probably the one that would make the best movie. I don't think any of the other ones would make a good movie, but Try might make a good movie... The trouble with it?I was half involved with the Frisk movie and that was what was so horrible about it. I was misled, led to think I had input that I didn't have, and it was just ugly, so I don't know. In a way I think it would be better to just say here, just don't have anything to do with it, just leave me alone. They're making this movie of Horror Hospital in Australia, and it's fine, it's there, you can have it, take it, do whatever you want with it. That's like a silly little story and that's fine, even if it's bad I don't care.
Is it true that the singer from Silverchair, Daniel Johns, is going to be the star of it?
(Laughs) Yeah. He's the star. He's naked the entire time.
And you've written a part for me in it as well.
Ummm, yeah, you're in it too?
And what do I get to do with Daniel Johns?
You rim him for 30 minutes straight.
That's going to be a very interesting movie.
Far as I'm concerned.
So I'll be eternally in your debt. So your Sonny Bono interview, I had a hard time reading that one.
(Laughs) Yeah, well, I wonder why? It was a weird thing. This really great editor who was at Spin, she actually edited the homeless-kid piece for Spin (included in All Ears), then she became the editor of George, Biz Mitchell. Elizabeth Mitchell, but everybody calls her Biz. Anyway, she went to George and offered me a gig to do something about Sonny Bono. But what they really wanted was a more political thing, and I'm not that versed in politics, so I had to do so much research and rewrite that so many times to bring in all the info and interview all these Republican people and stuff. I mean, it was fine in George, but it doesn't even feel like my writing anymore to me. But I thought it would be interesting to put it in there because it was different than the other ones. It was a strange experience, but I was glad to have it.
I didn't know Sonny Bono was such a? It was hypocritical the way he?
Well, he was always fucking right-wing scum? (laughs) I mean he's dead now, so it's hard to... Whatever. But I mean he's just a total wuss. He did really great stuff when he was young, with Phil Spector and stuff, I mean he did some really amazing things. But he was just a wuss. You should hear his solo album, my God, it's the most embarrassing thing you ever heard. Unbelievably horrible.
The rave article in the book is really funny, because I can tell the part that's (Cooper's friend and cowriter of the article) Joel Westendorf and the part that's you.
It was so exciting to discover all that stuff, and I feel funny about that piece. It was right at the end of rave culture and it seemed so exciting, like it might be this really major thing, and then it turned out to be nothing. Just a fucking dance club phenomenon. Joel believed in it so much at the time, the philosophy, it was such an important thing to him. So it's funny, because it's a very naive piece in a way, to think that that stuff was going to turn into some major cultural force.
I remember when you'd go off to those things and I was really jealous and wanted to go too. It wasn't that long ago. Like four years ago?
Well, they were amazing, those raves. God, they were fucking unbelievable. They were great. They were just gorgeous?but they didn't last very long, you know? People were doing ecstasy and stuff and it was like really beautiful, nobody drank... It was so nice to be with a bunch of kids that weren't fucking drunk. They were all on pot or ecstasy and everybody was kind of blissed out.
There's a difference in what ecstasy does to you and alcohol?look at what happened at Woodstock.
Well, ecstasy isn't really ecstasy anymore, so. It was such a brief time?
There's something kind of sweet about that article.
Yeah, I wanted to believe in that. It's too bad that it didn't end up being that important. It's more about music than a new way of thinking, which is what it seemed it might be.
Did William Burroughs ever read what you wrote about him?
Probably. I know that the people who handled him (laughs) read those things. I am much much hated among the people who like Burroughs for those pieces. Burroughs was just this old guy at that point, I think he thought, "What the hell's going on?" Everyone around Burroughs thinks I'm Satan for attacking Burroughs. Whatever, fuck off.
He had this kind of saint thing around him. All those rock 'n' roll people discovered him.
That good writing he did when he was younger was great writing. It wasn't that they just discovered him, it was the people around Burroughs pushed Burroughs. It was just disgusting, ridiculous. Stick Burroughs into every fucking rock video, it was like?uhhhggg. I don't know. Just thought it was ugly. I didn't get it.
You guys had some personal history?
(Laughs) Well my boyfriend at the time, Mark, was having a relationship with Burroughs the same time we were boyfriends. But I didn't care. I think they cared more than I did. I wasn't threatened. I didn't think Burroughs was going to steal my boyfriend away. I mean, give me a break. But yeah, I think that made them even more paranoid about me, like I was some kind of spy, whereas I didn't care if Mark flew off and had sex with Burroughs. But other than that I only met Burroughs once, like for about three seconds. I never spent time with him or anything.
I remember you warned me. I used to be jealous of Mark having sex with all these literary figures?
I don't know that it made Mark happy.
And you warned me not to do that, because I had an opportunity, you know, with Ginsberg and Burroughs and those guys.
I don't think you'd have felt very good about yourself. I think they were in it for themselves, in my opinion. I personally think that if some young person admires you, the worst thing you can do is fuck them. I think, let them have that admiration. It means a lot to people to admire someone and have the person show respect back, and then to use them and just fuck them is just? Because how many of those people those people fucked were actually attracted to them? It was just like taking advantage of a situation. I think it's really important not to let your cock get ahead of your compassion.
There are probably ways that you could mine your fame, that you don't.
Me? Well, I don't know. I don't do that. When I was younger I took advantage a few times. (laughs) But that's when I was young. It was conceivable that someone who liked my work might also like me. But I'm like a middle-aged guy now, and it would be grotesque to do it now... What's the point of it? It's just like?sex to me is unimportant. I don't see the point in using some kid to get laid. It's just wrong. Sex isn't that important. If your work can make someone feel something important, that's more important than sex. Who cares about sex?
So you have people who are angry with you about your books?
Yeah, some people think I'm horrible. Even to this day, whenever I get books reviewed in gay magazines it's like this horrible monster blah, blah, blah?What an evil, horrible person he is.
Because it's all about positive imaging about gay people and stuff. I'm gay, and I have those weird fantasies and I write the way I want to about it and they should accept it. Being gay means all sorts of things. You can't clean it up. You have to be honest about it. There are people who write really positive gay books, and there are people like me or Burroughs or Genet who explore imaginations, and we're gay too. That's the way it is. They shouldn't be so afraid of it. I've never heard about anything happening in real life that was inspired by one of my books. It's like they think that some redneck is going to buy my book and beat up some gay kid?some guy is going to read my books and go rape and kill some boy. It just doesn't work that way. You know, it's not pornography. I think it's clear in my book that I'm horrified by those things.
Well, I remember when I read Frisk, with the scene in the windmill where the very young prostitute gets beaten very badly by the Dennis character, and I cried. I remember getting really upset and needing to know, was it really true?
Well, you know, in the book it isn't true. The whole point of that book was to present it as though it was true, and make it pornography, so that whoever was reading it would have to deal with whatever it made them feel, and if it turned them on, it turned them on. And then at the end of the book it said that this isn't true, which makes you take responsibility for whatever you felt. I had to do that.
But I bet a lot of people stopped reading.
And a lot of people did. And an even stupider response was, "What a cop-out." A lot of people thought, "What a cop-out that it isn't real at the end." If I said it was real, would that make it any more real than if I say it's not real? It's a fucking novel! That is the stupidest response.
You can't win either way. So, you have your new book coming out, Period. How many more in the series?
That's it. That's the end.
What are you going to do?
I'm going to write a completely different kind of novel next, that has nothing to do with what I've written about... I think five is plenty, and I don't want to repeat myself, I want each one to be completely different, and they are. The next one is not going to have any of that stuff in it. Maybe it'll be really bad, I don't know, I just gotta try. But if it's bad and I don't have anything else to say, I'll just quit writing I guess.
If you quit writing what would you do?
Uhhhhh? Kill myself?
You can come here and I'll take care of you. Because by then I'll be a famous writer.
We'll have a suicide pact.
That's a lot of faith you have in me.
That's true. You just continue on and I'll be your fan. I'll be your secretary?Terminator's press secretary.
You'll handle the Burroughs people for me?
Yeah, like they'll still be alive.