Altruists are Self-Destructive – An Interview with Dennis Cooper by James Nulick
April 9, 2021
Note: all paginated references to Dennis Cooper’s new novel I WISHED are based upon the PDF version kindly supplied by Soho Press.
Dennis Cooper is the author of The George Miles Cycle, a novel in five volumes, a sort of Californian In Search of Lost Time. Dennis is also an accomplished film director, most recently of the beautifully filmed Permanent Green Light (in collaboration with Zac Farley). Dennis Cooper lives in Paris.
JN) Dennis, how are you? How is Paris, my friend? What are you doing to stay sane?
DC) Hi, James. I’m doing okay. It’s good that I’m a writer because staying home and working is what I do a lot even in wide-open times. But, other than during the first quarantine last March when Paris was post-apocalyptic and disturbingly deserted for a few months, Parisians have pretty much adjusted and live their lives as usual, just with masks and distancing and extremely clean hands. So, like most people here, I go out, take the metro, see friends, and wander around all the time. In that sense, life is doable, only a bit more hampered. The big problem is that with galleries, museums, movie theaters, performance and music venues, etc., closed, there’s nothing to do. So, my friends and I meet up, get take-out coffees or whatever, and then walk around or sit in the park because that’s pretty much all there is.
JN) Is the lockdown in Paris in full swing? Everything feels so unreal now, doesn’t it? I have friends in Seattle I haven’t seen in over a year. Are you still able to visit with friends, or has that come to a halt?
DC) France is in the middle of its third lockdown at the moment. Most stores are closed, and there’s a 7 pm curfew, and we can’t travel even within France, and we need govt. permission forms to leave our homes, and we have to stay within10 kilometers of where we live. The govt. says things will start reopening for good in mid-May, but they said that would happen last December too, so who knows. But, yes, I see friends, go out, do stuff. That hasn’t changed.
JN) I just finished reading your new novel, I WISHED, to be published by Soho Press in September 2021. I WISHED feels really personal, almost as if I’m reading a diary not intended for the public. Was this novel difficult to write?
DC) Well, the novel tells the reader repeatedly that it was a very difficult novel for me to write, and all I can say is that the novel is telling the truth. So, the answer is yes.
JN) A lot of recurring themes that occur throughout your work are crystallized in I WISHED – art as discovery and salvation, music as savior, the ultimate failure of language to change anything, the possibility of life being a hallucination, beautiful lost young men… yet it also feels more immediate, and more lost, misshapen, if you will. Did the immediacy of I WISHED feel scary to you? Did it feel like a death sentence? Were you ever thinking what if this doesn’t work?
DC) It wasn’t scary. I was trying to find words and styles and a form and structure with which I could write about things I’ve thought about for a long, long time. I was concentrated on how I could do that. I wasn’t trying to access something that scared me. It didn’t feel anything like a death sentence, no. It felt like I was using my emotions and my autobiography related to my relationship with George as a novel’s material, just as I’ve done with the subject matters all of my novels. The fact that it was a novel about me made it really challenging since I don’t feel a natural inclination to write about myself. But doing that was exciting, not scary. Of course I frequently thought, What if this doesn’t work?
JN) There is a lot of humor in I WISHED, for instance, “altruists are self-destructive” (43), “in my teens, I discovered serial killers… I decided they were like primordial big brother figures, the dick without the brains” (102), or this line, which is sad but also quite funny, “he knows enough about humanity to understand that, for artists, making things that sell for millions is a decent substitute for being personally loved” (47) … A certain sadness permeates I WISHED that I cannot find in any of your other work, at least not to this degree. Did writing this novel break your heart?
DC) It’s a sad novel for sure, and, if it’s my saddest, that would make sense. It was the most emotional one to write, maybe by far. I was trying to let my emotions control the writing as much as my aesthetics did. Other than in some of my poetry, I don’t think I’ve let my emotions have that much power in my writing before. I don’t know about it breaking my heart. I’m not sure what that means. I’m very happy with the novel, so I would say it didn’t break my heart, I guess.
JN) There is a line in I WISHED that absolutely destroyed me. “His kindness seems so absolute to those who benefit from it, but it’s a saintly ruse wherein he hides his loneliness.” (46) I WISHED very much feels like it was written by a lonely man. Am I totally wrong here, Dennis? Are you lonely?
DC) No, I don’t think I’m a lonely person. I don’t feel lonely. I think when I was young and hadn’t decided I was a writer and hadn’t dedicated myself to that, I was lonely because I didn’t know who I was, and I wanted other people to help me find out. In I WISHED I’m writing mostly about that time in my life, so the novel having a lonely feeling makes sense. But, no, I feel pretty solid and okay with who I am. Or I don’t feel like there’s something vacant or missing in me that I need other people to fill in.
JN) There is a line in I WISHED that immediately struck me – “Santa Claus is kind of a genius, he needs to love someone who is very complicated” (46). Was the real George Miles complicated? Was there more to George than comes across in the Cycle or I WISHED ? Because he feels very much like a tabula rasa and everyone who meets him selfishly white boards their desires upon him.
DC) Again, my guess or hope is that I WISHED makes it very clear how complicated George was. He was severely bipolar and suicidal and possibly psychotic late in his life. That’s just the facts. All of that is spelled out in the novel. If anything, I think I used to try to believe he was less complicated than he was. The tabula rasa thing you’re suggesting is about the George Miles character in the Cycle novels. That character is not the real George Miles and not the George I write about in I WISHED. One of the reasons I wrote I WISHED was because I wanted people to know what he was really like, as far as I knew and know. And I think the novel makes pretty clear that he wasn’t that character in the Cycle.
JN) When you were ten years old, you and some friends were playing in your yard when one of your friends accidentally smashed your head with a rusted axe, opening “a volcanic vent-like wound” in your head (92). Did your gaping head wound affect you for life?
DC) As I write in I WISHED, it was recovering from that injury and being bedridden and in terrible pain for a long period and what that state did to my imagination that strongly affected me. I use that incident and the head wound as a motif in the novel, but the actual axe attack part didn’t leave any lasting trauma or impact or anything on me, no. I have a big scar on the top of my head, but that’s about it.
JN) Returning to the rusty axe incident for a moment, in I WISHED you write “I felt when I wished to die, I was being who I really was” (93). That is a very scary revelation. Does the gaping head wound in your ten-year-old body still affect you today? I don’t want to divulge too much, but craters, holes, and absences – the visibly missing – are a recurring theme in I WISHED. Did what happened to you when you were ten years old still reverberate with you today?
DC) I’m not a person who thinks about my past very much. Writing about my friendship with George and spending deep time in my memories when writing is a very unusual thing for me. A lot of bad things happened to me when I was young, but I don’t feel like those things impacted the person I’ve grown up to be in any meaningful way. Or I don’t feel any impact. If anything, I think the positive things that happened when I was young like taking lots of drugs or going to Disneyland incessantly or books and music and art and films I was into back then had a much greater impact on the future me. I seem to be always really interested in what’s going on now in my life and thinking about the future. Mostly my past seems like my reference points and the material I have to work with in my writing at times and in my ideas about things going on now. But I have no regrets or longing or wistfulness about my past.
JN) Craters, holes, and absences in general abound in I WISHED – the text feels like a palimpsest crossed out and rewritten with George’s name a thousand times (ok technically 255 times, but you get the point). The further we try to understand something, or someone, the more they escape us, so brilliantly stated in the sentence “humans are impatient with the unknown, and they’re quick to dash all mysteries with names…” (59). Without giving away too much, the narrator of I WISHED travels to Roden Crater in Flagstaff, Arizona to meet the artist James Turrell, and to tour Turrell’s life’s work, the epic re-imagining of Roden Crater as an open air naked-eye observatory. Did you and George travel to Flagstaff to meet James Turrell and tour Roden Crater?
DC) No, The Roden Crater section of the novel is a fairytale. George committed suicide in 1987, and I don’t think Turrell had gotten very far at all with the project by then, and it’s still not open to the public. I’ve never been to Roden Crater, and all of that stuff in the novel is totally made up.
JN) Your books create a very sepiated type of Southern California mood board, at least for me. Music is everything to me, perhaps even more important to me than writing. Would you say music is just as important to you as literature? The reason I ask is because George Miles is in a band in I WISHED. Was the real George Miles a musician? Was he any good?
DC) Music is very important to me, and my writing has been as influenced by the music I’ve loved and studied as it has been by the books I’ve read and studied. I could probably say the same thing about films too. Yes, George was a musician. He and I were in a band together along with a few of our friends in high school. The band was (or aspired to be) kind of a cross between the Velvet Underground, Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd and Love. I was lead singer. We weren’t very good, to put it mildly. George was a very talented musician. Tragically, because he was so torn apart and fractured by his chemical imbalance and psychological problems, he was never able to develop his music. He kept trying, but it just wasn’t possible.
JN) How else do we, as readers, react to a text, other than at the personal, cellular level? As I was reading the last five pages of I WISHED, titled Finale, I felt the text was opening up and revealing itself to me, only to then close upon itself again, a tightfisted bud keeping its secrets, leaving me with more questions than answers. Do you feel like you have finally set George Miles free with this book? Or did writing this book only make you love him, bring you closer to him, even more?
DC) I think I’m a weird person because I never relate to books on a personal, cellular level. I never look for that or want to feel that. I like books that feel very foreign to me but that are so commandingly composed that I can learn new things from them. I never look for myself in other people’s fiction. I think I like to forget about myself when I’m reading. I’m always looking to be extended or enlarged or altered in some unexpected way by paying close attention to things I don’t recognize. Or something like that. I don’t feel that writing I WISHED freed me from George at all. I wasn’t trying to exorcise him or anything like that by writing it. He’s still as important to me as he ever was. I might feel finished with him as a subject for my fiction, but I’m not even sure about that.
JN) I felt there was a great hesitation in the writing of I WISHED, an almost childlike unwillingness to move forward, a great hemming and hawing, if you will. Were you afraid if you finally figured George out, deciphered him, he would escape you, perhaps something you don’t really want to happen? Was this hitched breathing aspect of the text intentional, and if so, what is the reasoning behind it? This book feels like a greatly-oiled bellows, but a bellows with a hole in it.
DC) I think the quality of I WISHED that you’re talking about is there and deliberate. But your psychological reading of the whys doesn’t feel right. My reasoning behind how it’s built is just that the form the novel ended up taking was the only way I felt I could accurately depict George and his effect on me. It came about through a lot of experimenting. In that sense, it was no different than my other novels. I always experiment pretty wildly from the beginning until the right form and style start manifesting themselves. I WISHED just ended up needing to seem broken, to happen in intense bursts that seem to veer around and forward on the surface but to be highly connected up and calculated internally. Finding a balance that wouldn’t either neutralize the feeling or hamper my formal intentions was the goal. Again, I let my emotions guide a lot of my decisions. The novel’s kind of the result of a battle between my emotions and my highly aestheticizing side.
JN) Does writing get any easier for you the more you do it? There is a great line in I WISHED – “I wonder if humans really know what they’re doing” (62). When I read this line I underlined it twice because I felt it spoke directly to me. Each time I begin a new writing project, regardless of form, I always feel like I’m starting all over from scratch. How is it for you? Are you self-confident when you begin a new writing project?
DC) I always approach my projects with total confidence. Enough confidence that I can let myself get totally lost because I have faith that I’ll be able to find my way through. At the same time, I’m very aware of my limitations and strengths as a writer, and I don’t overestimate myself or what talent I have. With each novel, I try to push myself to do something new that I’ve never tried to do before and am not sure I can pull off. I have this trust in myself that if I go too far, I’ll recognize that and pull the work back into an area I can handle. I’ve always felt confident of my writing when I write, even back when my writing didn’t warrant that confidence in retrospect. I’m not very confident as a person, but when writing I’m very focused and determined. I don’t know why. I think I’m pretty lucky to feel that way.
JN) I don’t think I’ve seen you this vulnerable in your fiction before. I felt like, perhaps, this was finally the real Dennis Cooper, speaking to me, the reader, for the first time. “I’m another writer who is obviously in love and who has lost my way…” (125). When I read that I thought Oh wow, he’s not hiding anymore, this was a new Dennis, a Dennis searching for love, wanting it, and perhaps still not finding it, or even unsure of what love might mean “…humans are impatient with the unknown” (59). Was there ever a point where you doubted yourself, perhaps wondering is this too honest? Am I revealing too much? Because I feel this is the real Dennis Cooper, whatever that might mean.
DC) I didn’t feel vulnerable when I was writing the novel. I was just thinking about George and our relationship and how to represent it and letting what happened happen. I was alone, and what I was thinking and feeling wasn’t unusual to me. Now that the novel is about to be published, if people are going to interpret it as me revealing “the real Dennis Cooper” and thinking that me being emotionally honest about George in this book presents an opportunity to try to invade me and analyze me and think they’ve found “the real” me then I suppose I will feel pretty vulnerable because that’s a very reductive approach. My work has never been about revealing me as a person. I’m not interested in that at all. I’ve never hidden myself in my books. The novels are not me doing a striptease. The books are only about what they’re about. I WISHED is a novel that uses my friend George’s effect on me as its material. It’s not a memoir or a confession or an autobiography.
JN) I think writers with even a modicum of talent, if they’re totally honest with themselves, have this weird internal dichotomy wherein they want to be famous, yet they also don’t want the hassle of fame, they enjoy the anonymity of being a writer. Do you ever find yourself thinking this is all meaningless, and at the end of the day, my books sitting on someone’s shelf will change nothing? Are the paper monuments we create ultimately meaningless? Or are we helping people in some small way?
DC) I’ve never wanted to be famous or anything like that. I’ve never had any interest in fame. I’ve been friends with people who were quite famous since I was pretty young, and I never saw anything about what that fame brought to their lives and persons that was at all enviable or interesting. I wanted to write fiction that mattered, and I didn’t (and still don’t) even know what that meant or how ‘mattering’ might manifest itself. The idea that I could determine whether something I’ve done is meaningful or meaningless just seems really presumptuous. How would I know? Novels only exist in the privacy of the heads of their readers. I’ll never know what the effect of my novels are. I don’t have some kind of preset notion of what constitutes success or failure. If there weren’t people out there who seem to like my work and let me know, that would bother or worry me. If I wrote a novel and no one wanted to publish it, that would feel pretty bad. Maybe never having wanted to be famous or wanting the power that seems to come with fame is the differential? I just never worry about the things you’re worrying about. That stuff seems completely beyond my powers of knowing.
JN) The cover artwork for I WISHED was originally by Michael Salerno, AKA Kiddiepunk, and now I see the cover has changed. Who is the new artwork by? How much say did you have in the cover art for I WISHED ? Were you asked for input, artists, suggestions? Why the change?
DC) The artwork on the cover is by Kier Cooke Sandvik, an amazing Norwegian artist. In Zac Farley’s and my film PERMANENT GREEN LIGHT, the main character makes drawings throughout the film, and Kier is responsible for those drawings. Soho Press asked me to send them images of artworks I liked for them to consider using on the cover. I sent a bunch of images of works by some of my favorite artists for them to choose between. I don’t know why Soho Press decided to switch out the original Michael Salerno cover for the Kier cover. You would have to ask them.
JN) How is your new film ROOM TEMPERATURE coming along? Have you successfully secured funding for it? Principal filming will take place in Los Angeles, correct? When will filming begin?
DC) ROOM TEMPERATURE is written, and right now our producers are in the process of raising the funds so we can make it. Hopefully we’ll have the full finding soon. The plan is that it will be shot in Southern California, not in Los Angeles itself necessarily. Until the funding is acquired and the Covid situation is ironed out, we aren’t entirely sure when we will shoot the film. At the beginning of next year is a fairly safe bet.
JN) When you travel to Los Angeles, do you take a small crew with you? Or do you use locals?
DC) Given that we’ll make the new film on a fairly tight budget, I think the crew and performers will need to be people based in Southern California or within easy reach. We’ll see. There are a few people here in France that we’ve worked with on our first two films that we would love to bring over, and I hope we can, but it’ll depend on whether we can afford to have them there working with us for what will probably be six weeks or so.
JN) Do you ever get tired of living in Paris? Have you ever thought of moving back to Los Angeles?
DC) I love living in Paris. No, I’m not tired of living here at all. I miss Los Angeles and my friends a lot because I haven’t been able to be there in well over a year because of the pandemic and the resultant inability to travel, so I’m dying to get back there ASAP. But I intend to continue living in Paris most of the time as I always have.
JN) Thank you, Dennis, I really do appreciate you spending quality time with me. Much love to you as always, my friend.
DC) Thank you for doing this and for putting so much thought into my novel, James.
James Nulick is the author of The Moon Down to Earth (Expat Press, 2020). He lives in Seattle.
Buy I Wished here.