"I've always imagined myself a serial killer"
Interview with Dennis Cooper, Honcho Magazine, July 2000
“LA is amazing," he tells me while we are driving around in his old red Toyota. "Here, I know so many places where you can dump a dead body and get away with it." Sounds pretty convincing. It's almost like hearing the voice of one of his characters from Frisk or Try. Later, when we are having lunch at West Hollywood's French Market, he orders a veggie burger: "I've been a vegetarian since I was 18."
Sometimes it's better not to meet the people whose work you like. There is always a big chance of disappointment. But still, I knew that I have to meet Dennis, after working on translations of his work into Russian for a couple of years and e-mailing each other for a few months.
"What about your clothes?"- I can't help looking at his old worn out jeans and stained T-shirt with holes in it. "Oh, this is from my punk past," he explains. "I guess I'm a bohemian, I don't give a shit about how I look." Not a typical statement from not a typical gay writer whose work has influenced a whole new generation of young writers and reached recognition way beyond the gay ghetto. His fifth, and most experimental novel, Period, has just been released by Grove Press this spring.
Slava Mogutin: I heard President Nixon was a regular at your parents' house when you were a kid.
Dennis Cooper: Yeah, he was best friends with my father. My brother was named after him. My father was into politics, he was very conservative and wanted to be a president. All those Watergate people were my dad's friends. Nixon bought it because they were both fascist jerks. Then they had a big falling out. In the '60s my father started smoking pot, so he became more liberal. Before that, he really wanted to be a president or something. But he realized that he was not going to make it, so he gave up his political ambitions.
SM: So how did all that affect you?
DC: I was very young, so it didn't really affect me that much.
SM: What did you think of Nixon?
DC: Nothing at the time. Now I think it was interesting. But back then I was only 8 or so, and there were these people who were hanging out at my house and I was like, "Hi!" And later I was like, "Oh my God! You were friends with THEM!"
SM: You came from a rich family?
DC: My parents weren't rich when they were young. My dad got rich. He was a poor kid from Texas but he started his own business and made all that money. Both my parents were really conservative, especially my mom. My dad is more liberal now but I don't know, I don't speak to them very often. They got divorced when I was I3 or so.
SM: Do they know much about your work?
DC: Nobody in my family reads my work, they just don't want to know about it. Which is fine with me... You see, I grew up in the end of the hippie thing, so obviously for me it was like a whole different world out there, it was cool. The conservatism of my parents gave me something to rebel against in a general way. But it wasn't the main thing. My mom was a real psychotic alcoholic. That's what really affected me. She was completely horrible....
SM: When did you realize that you wanted to start writing?
DC: When I was 15 I started thinking of writing as a form of art. That was when I first read Rimbaud and de Sade. And then I thought, "Oh my God! People can write about it!" My fantasies were legitimized by de Sade. It can't get any more extreme than that. But everything I wrote for a while as a teenager was crap.
SM: Was it poetry, fiction or diary?
DC: It was everything. I tried to imitate 120 Days of Sodom, and wrote this 800-pages-long extreme novel. It was about this party in the high school where my friends and I got all these different cute guys to come to the party, and then we kept them there and tortured and killed them. It was a really long thing, totally horrible and ridiculous.
SM: Basically you tried to be as kinky as possible.
DC: Yeah, evil and cool. Then one day I realized that my mom was going through my stuff and reading my diary. It was a long story. She made me go to a psychiatrist. I was really afraid that she was going to find it. It was hidden in my bedroom. So I burned it. And years and years later I was putting my book together and I found one page that got somehow out of that.
SM: Is it "Mike Roberts" from The Dream Police? I like that story. I wasn't sure whether it was a real thing or something written by you later in a form of a teenager's diary.
DC: Yeah, one page is nice, but believe me, it was the worst thing ever written. I wasn't thinking about literature. It was just for me, just to get that stuff out of my head. I was so obsessed with all that.
SM: Why did you become so obsessed with violence and kink?
DC: I don't know. When I was really young, maybe 12, there was this article in a newspaper that these three boys who were 11, 12 and 13 or something like that had been found naked and killed in the mountains right behind where I lived. I remember I was so excited about it, it was weird. I thought it was the most fascinating story I'd ever heard. I do remember that all my friends who I talked about it with thought it was totally weird. They were all like, "eeek-aauk!" So I knew there was something weird about me. And then I made a friend of mine go with me to look for the place where they were killed. We used to go hiking up there all the time. We went camping for three days trying to find the exact spot. Crazy!
SM: You see, here in America, you can read about serial killers in the paper. In Russia, it used to be taboo for the media. There were only rumors....
DC: But you had that guy, what's his name?
SM: Andrei Chikatilo? Yeah, he was the most notorious Russian serial killer who was famous for biting off the nipples and tongues of his victims. His nickname was Zver’ (“Beast”). And he was operating in exactly the same region where I lived with my family. So I grew up hearing all those creepy stories about maniacs. We didn't know much, but only heard occasionally that boys were disappearing one after another. And I always tried to imagine what would happen if I ran into the Beast, and what would he do to me.
DC: It was the same with me, but I always imagined myself being a killer. Immediately. Even when I was 12. But also because there were so many serial killers in LA. There is something about the atmosphere out here.
SM: In one of your interviews you said that serial killers are not very interesting people.
DC: Not from my research. And I've read so many things about it! I think fantasy makes murder much more complicated than it is. The only one who seemed to have an aesthetic about it was Dennis Nilsen. He was really smart. Killing for Company is a really good book. But Gacy, Dahmer and all those guys were killing basically because of their loneliness....
SM: But don't you think that it takes certain extraordinary qualities to plan and perform a series of murders and not be caught after the first one? Doesn't it make those guys interesting? And some of them clearly had really wild imaginations and artistic talents: Nilsen was writing love poems for his dead victims, Dahmer was taking Polaroids of their bodies....
DC: I guess what I really wanted to say is that they didn't know how to communicate with the world, they couldn't articulate, they couldn't explain anything. The evidence could be very interesting but you just have to guess. Nilsen was the only intellectual. In other cases there is a different degree: Dahmer is obviously more interesting than Gacy. Gacy didn't seem to be smart at all...
SM: Obviously, you were more inspired by European literature. What about American writers?
DC: Almost no American writers at all. Burroughs was OK. But I'm not that much into Burroughs. Mostly French.
SM: Do you know French?
DC: No, I read translations.
SM: I know you lived in Europe for a while? When did you move there?
DC: In 1985, I went to Amsterdam. I was invited for a poetry festival there, and I met this Dutch guy there, and he came over to visit me and he had to go to school but I was way broke and doing way too much drugs. So I decided to move there.
SM: How was it?
DC: We didn't get along at all. We never really broke up, but we were pretty much broken up when I lived there. Since I didn't have any friends there, he was like my best friend, but he had some serious problems about being gay, which I didn't know until I moved there. Now he is not gay any more.
SM: How did you make your living there?
DC: I was illegal. I worked for some American art magazines, for The Advocate.
SM: You still do a lot of journalism? I see your articles everywhere.
DC: Well, that's my only real income. I don't have a job. The books can only give you a certain amount of money, and it takes a few years to write a book. So I have to write articles to pay my bills.
SM: I always read your reviews and interviews but sometimes when I read your journalism I feel like it's not exactly you, it's a totally different person.
DC: Well, yeah, of course! Some of the stuff I write is just crap, I don't care. A lot of the times it’s just a job, but sometimes I enjoy doing that. It all depends. The stuff I was doing for Spin I don't like either. But the money was good and I got to interview Courtney Love or someone else. So it’s fine.
SM: Was it fun to hang out with all those celebrities like Leonardo or Keanu?
DC: It was Leonardo's last interview before Titanic, so it was the last time he let it happen. I knew Leonardo before a little bit. Believe it or not, he actually was going to be in the Frisk movie at one point, because he liked the book. But then he decided not to, and it was very wise. So with him we just talked for a few hours, but Courtney Love wanted me to spend a weekend with her. Back then she seemed pretty cool, now she is like a bourgeois jerk. I can't stand her now. Keanu was very sweet. I thought he was incredibly nice and open, honest guy, very likeable. Sonic Youth were great. Most of the people I interviewed were very nice. I don't wanna fuck with them, and it’s not like I have any vendetta against them. Obviously, they are controlling the situation. And there are things which you don't say. Like gossip and stuff. There were people who wouldn't let me interview them, like Marilyn Manson and Trent Reznor. I think it’s because I'm too dark for them, and they knew I was going to call them on their shit.
SM: Some of your journalism is kind of moral...
DC: Moral? I'm pretty moral in a really weird way. But in a VERY weird way! It depends on the point I'm trying to make. I don't like authority at all, any kinds of authority. I hate gay men objectifying boys. Beauty blinds people. I know so many kids who are attractive but miserable because people don't take them seriously. It’s a problem for me because I have many friends who were really hurt by that. I don't think it's moral. It's against stupidity, against selfishness. And in terms of drugs, I really don't like heroin, because I was so close with people who were seriously hooked on it, and it’s really evil. But I would never make a law against it. I would say, legalize it....
SM: There are a lot of drugs in your books. Is it still an important part of your life?
DC: When I was younger I did a lot of drugs, I got into some very heavy things which were really dangerous—stuff like that. But that was a long time ago. Right now it’s just my psyche. My life is pretty normal at the moment. I just wanna work, you know. I was so wild, I feel like I did it all. If something comes up really interesting I'll do it, otherwise I feel pretty comfortable right now just having common life. And also, at my age, if I do drugs I get such a hangover! Do it now before you get old.
SM: That's a great advice!
DC: Yeah, I have nothing against drugs. I love drugs, I'm just not a big heroin fan.
SM: Your obituary on Burroughs seems bitter...
DC: Bitter? Well, I thought he sold out. It wasn't really about me...
SM: You accused him of using ghostwriters and stuff like that...
DC: But it’s true. I knew Burroughs, my agent was his agent, my ex-boyfriend Mark fucked Burroughs all the time. He would go fuck him every other weekend.
SM: Here we go! I knew there was something personal!
DC: I didn't care. I thought it was fine if he wanted to fuck Burroughs, who was 75. Now this guy is writing his memoirs, which is kinda scary....
SM: Who else is on Mark's list?
DC: Allen Ginsberg, Gus Van Sant, everybody... Whatever... So I know a lot about Burroughs. It doesn't mean that his stuff is bad, it just means that he didn't write it all himself. Everything from Cities of the Red Light and on had a lot of help, more and more and more.
SM: Who was "helping" him?
DC: James Grauerholz, his secretary. It’s not a big secret among the people who knew Burroughs. His people hate my guts. Burroughs was a pretty cool old guy, but it was the people around him who turned him into a freak. It just disappointed me that his work actually meant something, it was really outside, and then suddenly it became meaningless to me because every fucking band in the world was using him in their videos. The work meant nothing anymore. Then he became like the poster boy for outlaw kids. I thought it was depressing. I would never wanna do that. But it wasn't his fault. He was too old, he was not in control of his life for a while, the people around him were controlling him.
SM: What about the blurb Burroughs did for one of your early books?
DC: Yeah, the blurb. There's a long story about that. If you actually look at the blurb, it’s not exactly positive. "God help him, he's a born writer." It doesn't mean I'm a good writer. My agent got him to do that because he knew him very well. It sounds like a very good blurb but when you actually think about it, it doesn't mean anything.
SM: Would you like to live that long?
DC: I smoke three packs a day, so I might not make it. It seems like it can be interesting to live that long. I don't know. We'll see. I still feel like I'm a 20-year-old fucked-up guy, but I'm not. Becoming old is a weird fucking thing. It’s really complicated when you are older, too, because now, when I'm in my 40s, there is this natural father-son thing. I have mixed feelings about it, but I can play the role. I'm not sure if it’s such a great thing to do, but I'm good at being the father type. It’s unusual for a kid to be attracted to someone like me because I'm the older guy. You can't assume that there is a particular attraction. So you start thinking, it’s because they want your money or something. It’s a different sort of relationship.
SM: In the American mass culture, especially in Hollywood, sex is being replaced with violence. You are one of the very few writers published by a major publisher who can get away with both, sex and violence.
DC: I realize that I'm really lucky. People who are like me just don't get that opportunity. But it’s because Grove has a history of publishing the renegade avant-garde writers like de Sade, Genet and Burroughs. And I fit in this history. I'm complicated. There is a part of me that is really fucked up, and there is a part that really cares. Most people who read the books just see the evil side, they don't think it’s possible to entertain that kind of evil fantasies and also be nice.
SM: Every new book brings you more and more recognition outside of the gay ghetto. Do you consider yourself a gay writer, or a part of a gay culture?
DC: Gay culture is not my world, and it has never been that world. The same with gay literature. Being gay was never a problem for me, it was always fine. Who cares! I'm a lot of things, and this is just one of them. I'd rather go out with a bunch of obnoxious drunken straight guys than with a bunch of fucking fags. When I go to West Hollywood I feel like I wanna kill them all.
SM: How do you feel about becoming more and more successful and mainstream?
DC: I think the work will be around for a long time but I don't think it will ever become big. It will be always a cult thing. I'm not going to win any awards or be invited on the talk shows like Norman Mailer, or write for The New Yorker. It's going to be like that. Which is fine because all the artists I've ever liked are like that. A lot of kids read my stuff but you can't really make movies out of it. One time they did and it was completely horrible. So I don't really know what success means.
SM: Now that you have finished your fifth novel, what's next?
DC: I want to write a book which is not about sex and violence. Maybe something to do with the Columbine high-school shootings. I wanna get really far away from a gay thing. I mean it. I need to take a change. I've sorta had it, I feel exhausted. To me, these five books are one work, and I always planned them to be this way. So now I want to try something different.