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|INTERVIEWwith POPPY Z. BRITE|
It's been said of Poppy Z. Brite that her work is "as rich, sensually gratifying and thoroughly wicked as a Texas Chocolate Cake laced with acid" (Alex S. Johnson, Poetic Gore). Relegated to the Horror genre, but transgressing it in her incomparable fashion, Brite writes of white-skinned Goth chicks in tattered black, cute boy androgynous types in homoerotic relationships, pansexual, bad boy vampires who chase the blood-sucking with Chartreuse and chemicals, and necrophiliac, cannibalistic serial killers whom you wouldn't mind meeting. All set in either the decadent environs of New Orleans' French Quarter or the fictitious Missing Mile, North Carolina. She's fun, fantastic, rich and sensual indeed, and completely over the top. We caught Poppy on the return of a book tour in which she launched her latest offering . . .
BR: Your latest work, Courtney Love: The Real Story, is quite a departure from your previous work. Why the foray into biography and why Courtney?
PZB: I'd be a liar to deny that the Courtney Love biography is, above all, a commercial project. Financially, I can pretty much do exactly what I want to do next. But I wouldn't have gotten through the research, let alone the writing of the book, if I wasn't fascinated with the subject matter. Courtney is definitely an interesting character.
PZB: I can't see her in one of my novels, which is one of the main reasons I chose her as a subject: to make myself explore a very strong female character in a way I'd never done in fiction. Stretches are good for writers, and this was definitely a stretch.
Some of the media impressions of Courtney are true -- she's certainly demanding, loud-mouthed, and attractive to men (though not, I think, to most of my characters)! However, there's a large and complex personality that the media doesn't see, and I tried to portray this in my book. Courtney has a great deal of vulnerability, largely caused by her horrible childhood. She's also very well-spoken and incredibly well-read. I had always been fascinated by the media image, but I was much more impressed by the real person.
Poppy Z. Brite was born on May 25, 1967, in New Orleans.
She has worked as an artist's model, a mouse caretaker, a stripper and (since
1991) a full-time writer. She has published three novels, Lost Souls,
Drawing Blood, and Exquisite Corpse, and a short story collection,
Wormwood Her short stories and essays have been published
in numerous markets around the world. Her most recent project is the biography
Courtney Love: The Real Story, published by Simon & Schuster
(US) and Orion (UK) in September 1997. Her books have also been published
by Delacorte (US)Penguin (UK), Albin Michel (France), Editions Denoel (France),
Bastei Lubbe (Germany), Luitinqh Sijthoff (Netherlands), Martinez Roca (Spain),
Kadokawa (Japan), Frassinelli (Italy), and Wydanctwo (Poland). She lives
in New Orleans with her husband Christopher, a chef and food writer.
PZB: At that time, any kind of eroticism came as a surprise in the horror genre, especially if it was at all offbeat. Now there are dozens of writers, especially but not exclusively women, who are exploring this territory. It seems an obvious connection to me, and it has always existed as a subtext, but I'm just surprised it took so long to explode! As for 'homo'eroticism, that's simply one of my personal preferences
BR: DB contains one the most erotic love scenes I've ever encountered: the achingly beautiful long passage between Trevor and Zach. It must have been arousing to write about as well? What music (since I know you write to music) accompanied the writing here?
PZB: As I always say, I can type with one hand! Drawing Blood had several soundtrack albums, but for the sex scenes it was always Julee Cruse's Into the Night. I wore out 2 cassette tapes, then got the CD.
BR: Your writing focuses almost exclusively on gay or bisexual relationships. You say it comes easier to you because you feel you're a gay man in a woman's body. Fair enough, but don't you think, too, that gay sex is simply better fuel for female fantasy in the way that lesbian sex fuels the male?
PZB: Hm. Maybe. Not really sure. A lot of women are turned on by gay male sex, but not the majority, I think. Could be wrong. I get a lot of fan letters from women, but the writers who say they were turned on by my work are usually gay men.
BR: When a Spanish friend went to the States, I asked her to bring me back all she could find of your work. She had a hard time at first because she didn't know to look in 'Horror' until directed there. What about the array of labels - horror, fantasy, cyberpunk, splatterpunk? Does it bother you being classified as a genre writer? You certainly break the mold in horror.
PZB: Labels are a marketing tool, and as such, they suck. I don't want to dismiss the genre in which I got my start and which has been a huge influence on my work, but I also don't want my books crammed in the back of the store where the majority of people who would like them won't find them. To their credit, Simon & Schuster have not marketed Exquisite Corpse as a horror book, and some retailers are moving it out of that section. As for my previous two books -- well, they are a vampire story and a haunted house story, so I can't complain too loudly. I get a lot of word-of-mouth publicity, and I also find that my books are now carried by most gay and lesbian bookstores, so that's good.
BR: The lush New Orleans setting around the French Quarter in Lost Souls and Exquisite Corpse is decadently sensual: over-grown courtyards, heavy wrought-iron balconies, a candlelit black magick shop, smoky clubs, and everywhere - green Chartreuse, clove cigarettes, and strains of jazz, Bauhaus, and Nine Inch Nails. Can you describe your own home and some favorite trappings? Is your office still mostly lit by Christmas lights?
PZB: My home was built in 1919. It's huge, slightly decrepit, sort of Sunset Boulevard-ish, full of books and CDs and voodoo art and animals. Yes, my office is still mostly lit by Xmas lights, and I still write mostly at night.
BR: Lost Souls is your only novel to date to have been translated into Spanish. I don't mind the character of Nothing being translated as "Nada," but "Fantasma" for Ghost - uh - doesn't work. You've been translated into several languages. Does it ever bother you the liberties that may have been taken?
PZB:Unless I am prepared to learn dozens of languages thoroughly enough to do my own translating, there's not a lot I can do! I have met a few of my translators. My French translator, Jean Daniel Breque, has a story in my anthology Love in Vein -- his first fictional composition in English! I try to trust, and when I end up with things like "Fantasma," I try not to take it too seriously. More serious was a German translation of Lost Souls that left out big chunks of the text!
BR: What about bookcovers, do you have any say State-side and/or abroad? Who, by the way, retitled Swamp Foetus (Borderlands Press) to Wormwood (Dell)? I'm quite partial to the original.
PZB: Stateside, I do have quite a bit of say (not so much power to suggest as power to approve). Elsewhere, unless they use the U.S. artwork, no. Dell insisted that their paperback edition of Swamp Foetus be retitled because "foetus" has apparently become a dirty word in America due to the reproductive-rights battle.
BR: Your characters are lusciously memorable: Trevor and Zach in DB, Ghost and Steve along with the pansexual, bad-boy vampires Zillah, Molochai, and Twig in Lost Souls, and the necrophiliac, cannibalistic, gay serial killers Andrew Compton and Jay Byrne in Exquisite Corpse. Some reappear in other novels. Might we see other reappearances in the future?
PZB: Trevor and Zach reappear in a new story, "Vine of the Soul," which will appear in the British anthology Disco 2000 (edited by Sarah Champion; Hodder & Staughton). Ghost and Steve have appeared in a couple of short stories (both of which are in Swamp Foetus/Wormwood) and will probably turn up again sometime. The vamps will never be seen again -- I'd rather eat nails than write any more vampire fiction, but don't get me started on that. Jay wasn't looking too viable at the end of Exquisite Corpse, but Andrew is a constant source of wonder and mystery to me, and I cannot speak for him.
BR: Alan Warner recently ended an interview with us saying "publishers are bloodsuckers on art who need to be put in line." I read an early interview with you in which you said publishers were "more honest than most businesses." Does this still hold?
PZB: HA!!! Let's just say that Poppy Z. Brite was about as naive as most writers with new book contracts.
BR: Speaking of publishers, you signed a three-book deal with Dell, but they got cold feet with Exquisite Corpse. What were their reasons?
PZB: Speaking of book contracts, that's a long and ugly story. The basics: my editor left, the book was orphaned, and even though I was the best-selling writer in the Dell Abyss horror line, they dumped Exquisite Corpse on the grounds that it was morally indefensible. Simon & Schuster picked it up, and I ultimately ended up with a better deal plus some weird publicity.
BR: Exquisite Corpse was a departure in that there were no sympathetic characters to speak of. It was quite a risk in that respect alone, was it not?
PZB: I sympathized with all the characters except Tran, who is destroyed by his own stupidity as much as by Andrew and Jay. I didn't realize until after the book was published that most readers would be rooting for Tran. Isn't it obvious that I was in love with Andrew? It's all a matter of perspective!
BR: Yeah, but Andrew and Jay don't elicit the empathy of characters like Steve and Ghost or Zach and Trevor, do they? They intrigue and fascinate, a feat in itself, but there is still a distance between them and the reader. You have such a strong talent for creating empathy as is seen in your previous novels that this deviation seems a risk.
PZB: I guess I have little perspective on this. Critics have been complaining since Lost Souls that none of my characters are sympathetic, that they'd cross the street to avoid them, and so forth. The characters in Lost Souls and Drawing Blood are sort of on the fringes of society, so obviously they're going to seem unsympathetic to normals. However, I have received fan mail from readers of these books about how deeply they identified with the characters, and I haven't gotten the same comments from readers of Exquisite Corpse, so obviously you have a point.
But I don't think of "sympathetic characters" as a particularly necessary or admirable element in fiction, so I suppose I was blind to that risk. I've only gotten one really traumatized letter from a young fan -- "How could you write such a mean, nasty book? You killed the only character I liked! Sob, moan ... " Well, life is hard, baby. There are nasty people out there. If you want escapist reading, pick another favorite writer.
I don't mean to sound harsh toward my fans. I am honored by their admiration and support. But if I listened to some of them, I'd be churning out sequels to Lost Souls. If they are true fans, they'll have to have faith in me, grow with me, not expect me to stay where I was when I was 19. (And understand that, yes, I am going to do some things "just for the money"!)
BR: One reviewer of Exquisite Corpse felt that despite the narrative rhythm and emotional force, the writing aimed toward "intimating the reader in Compton's acts of dehumanization (the 'aesthetics of dismemberment') and depravity . . . [presenting] ultimately, another crimson leaf in the literature of the pornography of violence." Care to respond?
PZB: The only response I can think of is "Yes; so?" I like the literature of pornography, thank you very much. Some readers recognize my characters and their purposes instantly; others never will, and I no longer waste time trying to convince them that they should.
BR: The pirate radio DJ in EC, Lush Rimbaud, who is HIV positive and full of anger about it, delivers some powerful rants, especially against "breeders." I liked that anger, found it cathartic. The inspiration behind the character?
PZB: I don't have any children or any desire for them, and I don't appreciate being treated as odd for that, as if I am incomplete without a "maternal instinct." I don't think having kids should be the default option. If you truly want them and can take care of them, great, but so many people seem to have them for no reason at all. I guess the main inspiration for Luke's anti-breeder rants was a man I dated briefly, the father of two young girls. I've never seen a more screwed-up situation for children. The mother was an ex-porn star, and there were porn people, junkies, all kinds of sleaze in the house at all times. She had reportedly guzzled cheap wine throughout the second pregnancy, and the younger girl showed definite signs of fetal alcohol syndrome. The kids were entertained by being stuck in front of the TV for hours on end. They were filthy -- the house stank. There was no money. There was always beer in the fridge but no food. It was rumored that the girls were sexually abused. I'm not easily shocked, nor am I generally all that concerned with the welfare of kiddies, but this was a nightmare. Whatever made these people think they should have children? I couldn't imagine, except that it's the thing to do in our society, the default option.
BR: Both Lost Souls and Drawing Blood were nominated for the Lambda Literary Award. Have you had any negative reaction from the gay community at large?
PZB: No -- the Lambda book reviewer didn't especially like Exquisite Corpse, but he felt that it was too short and less atmospheric than my previous books, not that it was homophobic. Interestingly, I've heard (and read) several women saying they think they would be offended by EC if they were gay men, but I haven't heard of any actual gay men taking offense. Let me rephrase that -- I've certainly heard some men taking offense, but they haven't identified themselves as gay or implied that they were offended by homophobia on my part; they seemed to lump the characters' homosexuality in with the novel's other "sordid" subject matter.
BR: You dedicated your excellent short story collection, Swamp Foetus, "To the Memory of Alcohol/My Long Lost Love." Is it true you suddenly became alcohol intolerant? Do you abstain completely, even from the wee aperitif of Chartreuse? What effects did abstinence (or near abstinence) have on your writing? And what about ganja and chemicals?
PZB: Yes I did, and yes I do. Especially Chartreuse. Well-meaning fans always want to buy me a shot, and even after all these years I can hardly stand the smell ... feh! pppbbbth!!!
I never did much writing while roaring drunk, but the chaotic joy of being roaring drunk surely infused my work ... and still does, I haven't forgotten what it's like; it just isn't available to me any longer.
I've always been fascinated with the alteration of the body, including its chemistry, but pot and caffeine are the only mind-altering substances I use on a regular basis anymore. I still like to experiment, though. I tried crystal meth recently in New York, and liked it way too much!
BR: You imbue the blood and gore scenario with an aesthetic sensibility. Also, you speak of the "aesthetics of putrefaction." Might I guess you're a Peter Greenaway fan? What would be your first choice of a Poppy Z. novel as film and who would you like to see act and direct?
I love The Cook, the Thief ... but didn't care for Prospero's Books despite its visual lushness. Haven't seen his other work. I'm not a huge movie watcher. As for the movies, I just want them to give me the money and stay as far away from me as possible.
BR: I was thinking mostly of Greenaway's A Zed and Two Noughts in which two zoologist brothers become obsessed with decay (I recommend it!); it sprung to mind as I read EC. To what do you credit your fascination with the aesthetics of putrefaction?
PZB: Sounds good -- I will check it out. My fascination with death and decay has existed for as long as I can remember. My first career ambition was not writer, but coroner (at age 5). The first dream I can remember was of my guts spilling out. I don't know, I guess I was just born with some wires crossed.
BR: I see Dennis Cooper in your list of favorite and influential writers (including Flannery O'Connor, , William Faulkner, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Truman Capote, William Burroughs, Paul Theroux, and Kathe Koja). What about some of the other writers in the transgressive cult - Jack Womack, Gary Indiana, Kathy Acker? Have you ever read Scott Heim? And, notable for the omission, Edgar Allan Poe and Joyce Carol Oates?
PZB: Like Indiana, haven't read Womack, distinctly dislike Acker. Scott Heim and I are on each others' mailing lists, but I still need to read his work. As for Poe, he is certainly an influence -- my father first read me "The Raven" when I was 2 or 3, and I've since read all his work, but for a horror writer to list Poe as an influence seems sort of like an artist listing, I don't know, Rembrandt or Picasso ... how could you not be influenced by such figures? And Oates ... I've tried to appreciate her, but I just don't.
BR: Were you aware that Joyce Carol Oates was writing on the same subject as Exquisite Corpse in her depiction of a Dahmer-like character in Zombie? Have you read her take?
PZB: Heard about it. Haven't read it. I wish the people who complain about the cop sequence in EC being too much like real-life Dahmer would go pick on her for a while.
BR: You've edited two collections of Vampiric Erotica, Love in Vein and Love in Vein 11. I've read that there won't be a third, which I'll miss because they're such rollicking good fun. You once said, "After awhile theme anthologies start to deprive the writer of the necessary illusion that he is God." Does this apply to the editorial position as well? Why no more?
PZB: I never liked vampires after Lost Souls. I certainly didn't feel that I'd had the last word on them, mind you, just that I'd said all I ever had to say about them. The erotic vampire theme was HarperCollins' idea, and I agreed to do it because they were offering me a chance to pay writers well for quality fiction at a time when most markets for short horror were moribund. I was amazed at the new twists the authors came up with -- but not so much so that I want to read 20 more vampire stories. (And that's in an ideal world where I only hear from the writers I've invited. In the real world, 50 more people find out about it and send me their erotic vampire stories, most of which are execrable, but all of which I have to read in case there's a buried gem. Which has happened. But I have a new and profound sympathy for editors who actually encourage open submissions.)
BR: You attended the University of North Carolina for two months and then dropped out to write full-time. Have you ever taken a writing course? Any opinions in general on writing courses or formal training? Do you advise the novice to plunge in and write as you did?
PZB: I took a number of writing courses which ranged in value from worse than useless to excellent. The best was a program for teenagers -- it was the first time I'd ever been around a big group of smart people my age who didn't think I was strange for wanting to write. I think the greatest benefit of such classes or groups is that they put writers in contact with one another.
BR: Already at age 30 you have many years behind you as a professional writer. What are the pros and cons and highs and lows of the profession?
PZB: Pros/highs: living on my own schedule and by my own rules; traveling; meeting other writers and assorted interesting people, never feeling guilty about spending too much on books. Cons/lows: deadlines, stalkers, critics, existential despair, and always having your doctor/lawyer/accountant tell you how they'd write a book if they had the time.
BR: Does your Poppy Z. Goth persona ever get in the way of the real Poppy Z?
PZB: This is such a mystery to me ... I know that "persona" exists in people's minds, but it's just a joke. I never go out. I don't look like a goth, though some of my friends do. I don't try to project a "goth persona" during book signings, interviews, etc. It comes from readers' minds and only "gets in the way of the real Poppy Z" when they are rude enough to express their disappointment at my not living up to their expectations.
BR: You're presently at work on a new novel. Can you give us a wee hint of the subject?
PZB: It is a tale of love and revenge set in the world of The Crow (comics and film). It concerns an S/M photographer, a gay cop, a paranoid serial killer, and the politically and physically corrupt world of New Orleans. Harper Prism will be publishing it in '98, and then I owe a second novel to Simon & Schuster.
|© 1997 The Barcelona Review|
|For another interview which isn't linked from the PZB sites try Geek|
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