This interview was conducted in the Spring of 1991, around the time that Dennis Cooper's novel Frisk was published. Naturally, this was before the movie version of the book (note his response to the question about making movies from his books.) I reached him by phone at home in Los Angeles. We talked about Frisk, and his past and future writing. The conversation also touched on underground publishing and punk music. For some reason, the gay newspaper I did the interview for never published it. It appears now for the first time. You may also want to check out this Feb, 2000 interview I conducted with Dennis Cooper.
Larry-bob: How would you describe Frisk?
Dennis Cooper: I have a hard time reducing my books to really short things. It's a number of things. On the one hand, my work's been getting more involved in people who torture and kill people, especially men and boys, and it seems like it's gotten more and more into that. When I wrote Closer I was thinking that I wanted to write a book that placed me in relationship to the material cause I felt like I hadn't really figured out for myself what my position was although I knew that in Closer I was most like Philippe, the person who thinks about doing it but doesn't really do it.
Larry-bob: Not like the Tom character who actually kills people.
Cooper: No, not at all, although I guess all those characters are some fracture of me. So I felt like I wanted to develop this Philippe character and make it more from his point of view, that's sort of like me. So I took it back to there, and I tried to take parts of my autobiography, that were true -- a lot of those people are people I knew, and then not necessarily stick to reality, but try to deal with how I got interested in that stuff, like murder and torture, and try to figure out why I don't do it, why I'm just interested in it, and how it fits in relationship to other people, and also try to figure out how to do it that it was interesting as a piece of writing. When I started writing it I thought of it as a dismembered book, like if Closer exploded, this would be the pieces that have fallen. It's like pieces that don't fit together, but they do; some of them have thick skins on them and some of them are really open, like a body or something. There are parts where it's just me really honestly talking about my interest in that stuff, and other parts that are like a story that I've made up.
I didn't see photographs when I was a kid, but I read De Sade when I was really young. I think when I read it when I was 15 I had a very developed sense of what it was about, having been a pretty abused kid -- my parents. I just thought that was an amazing place where you could actually do that and it was ok. It was weird -- that kind of power seemed really attractive to me since I felt so powerless. I hoped that kind of world existed somehow. Then later I realized that it doesn't, that it was fiction, and you don't do that to other people, and I began to figure out why and why you don't. So the book's sort of about that except I didn't want to make it about that. I wanted it to be about pictures, cause I think pictures are more...
Cooper: Yeah, immediate, and I didn't want it to be about a book, I just felt it'd be more interesting to be about pictures. Cause photographic images are so powerful and mysterious.
Larry-bob: You started out with poetry -- what's your history?
Cooper: I started writing poems and stories when I was really young. I started publishing them in the mid-70s when I was in college, cause there were all these gay literary magazines -- gay fiction wasn't really a big thing then, but gay poetry was -- Gay Sunshine, Mouth of the Dragon. There were a lot of places that were interested in gay poetry. I started publishing work there. At the same time, I went to England in the Summer of '76, when the Sex Pistols were starting. That was unbelievable; I was overwhelmed. I didn't see the Sex Pistols but I was at the Ramones show everyone says started punk in England and I went to see the Jam and all these bands that were starting up. So it was really totally exciting and the first time I'd ever felt in touch with any cultural phenomenon cause hippiedom I didn't like, it didn't seem to have enough anger in it. So then I did Little Caesar which began as a literary magazine which was supposed to have the energy of punk -- like responding to punk but for poetry. I was looking for work by people involved in rock music, interested in punk music. I started publishing books, I did the magazine, it got bigger and bigger and bigger. I did twelve of them, I had interviews with Johnny Rotten and Toby Ross and Leif Garret and all these weird people -- Graham Parsons -- a real potpourri of stuff. I started having artists. Then I quit doing it in 1982. I published 25 books of poetry under Little Caesar Press. I published my first book of poetry in 1979.
Larry-bob: How would you compare Little Caesar with the zines of today.
Cooper: That may be one reason I'm so interested in zines. It's very similar. The Xerox technology wasn't up to the point then where you could do that -- it looked really shitty. So it was all offset, it was perfect- bound. But it was very similar. I did it all myself. It was a lot of unknowns -- though I published Nico, Lou Reed, Andy Warhol gave me stuff, but it was mostly new people cause I was more interested in them. There definitely was that feeling about it -- and also most of the literary magazines, whether they were gay or not, were sort of hostile to Little Caesar when it was around. I gave it out free to most people. Stores wouldn't carry it because it was too weird so I would stuff it under my shirt and put it in the bookstores. It was a big money-wasting thing.
Larry-bob: What's your next book going to be like?
Cooper: There's a book of collected short stuff, Wrong, which reprints Safe, A Herd, and then there's a bunch of short stuff I never really published very many places, like this story about a punk band called Introducing Horror Hospital.
Larry-bob: I think JDs zine stole that once.
Cooper: Yeah, they printed part of that. That's all really old.
Larry-bob: What about the story "Wrong"?
Cooper: Oh, that's old, that's before Closer. I'm working on this book now. I want to do at least one more book about teenagers. I wrote Frisk thinking I would leave teenagers and write about adults. It's about this kid who has been physically abused by his father, he's adopted -- it's based on this real kid I used to know named Ziggy -- named himself after Ziggy Stardust -- I forget what his real name was -- anyway, he's making a zine that's a lot like a zine called Raised by Wolves
Larry-bob: I've heard of it.
Cooper: It's really amazing.
Larry-bob: I've seen it reviewed in Factsheet Five. It's by a guy who was abused by his family.
Cooper: You should get it. It's really powerful. It's collages and drawing and stuff, and it's really real, and it's really painful. So he does a zine like that, and he has a bunch of friends who are anarchists, and he's also friends with this guy who's a serial murderer, so there's another serial murderer in the book, but he's off to the side. He almost gets killed by the serial murderer, and he sort of helps him kill this friend of his, and he goes through this who moral dilemma. I've gotten much more political in the last 4 or 5 years, much more of an anarchist, and becoming committed to it. So he's trying to come to grips with why hurting other people is wrong. He has there friends who are anarchists and they are trying to talk to him about why it's wrong. It's sort of early, so it's hard for me to talk about. And he has this friend who's a rock critic, and he's also obsessed with Husker Du; the only thing that makes him feel anything is to listen to old Husker Du records. It's very emotional, not like Frisk or Closer, it's all from his viewpoint, six days in his life, from the minute he wakes up to when he goes to sleep, that's how it's structured. It has lots of girls in it, and that's different too.
Larry-bob: Yeah, that is different.
Cooper: He's basically straight, but he sleeps with guys, and he's in love with these two girls; there's also women in it. It really was time to bring that in. I didn't feel like women were involved in this. In Closer and Frisk, part of the reason the characters and narrator can feel so obsessed with that idea and not have political reasons not to do it is because they're really disengaged. And part of it is that they're only involved with people that are like them and so there's no people who aren't white, there's no women, or anyone of consequence. It becomes a factor because it's characters that are engaged with the world and less completely self-involved.
Larry-bob: How about a movie of one of your books? Would you want Gus Van Sant to direct?
Cooper: He could do it if he wanted. You know what I'd rather do? I'd rather write a movie for somebody. I'm weird about that; I know Gus a little and even he couldn't do it... maybe Todd Haynes could do it. I'd rather write something and leave the book a book. My books are so much about language and writing it seems like it'd be weird to make movies out of them. But it'd be fun to write a movie. Maybe Kenneth Anger.
Larry-bob: Whatever he's up to these days.
Cooper: Yeah, he's pretty nutty.