Dennis Cooper

Interview by
Steve Lafreniere
Photography by
Nils Boldt-Christmas


I first met Dennis Cooper in Chicago in the mid ‘80s when a friend asked if I could put him up for a couple of nights. He was flying in from L.A. for a reading at the friend’s art gallery and needed a place to stay. I had been a proselytizing fan of Dennis’s poetry for a few years, and more recently had been blown away by his small-press novel, Safe. It was like nothing I’d ever read, a beautiful, severe three-part altarpiece to sexual obsession. Like Georges Bataille, but seen through the prism of L.A. youth culture.

When Dennis arrived we hit if off immediately, mostly talking about music, and within half an hour we were on a Clark Street bus going record shopping. He seemed to know something about everything, and I was particularly fascinated by his singular opinions on gay sexuality and politics. A radical in the ‘80s was a rare bird.

After that, whenever he was in Chicago on a book promo tour he’d stay in the same tiny guest room. There were epiphanous late-night yacks about writers, movies, music, art and porn, and I have a clear memory of him working on his most notorious novel, Frisk, while sitting on the living room couch half-watching 120 Minutes on MTV. Dennis wrote by hand in notebooks, and it was startling to see them afterward with half the words crossed out. Precision above all.

Over the years I’ve interviewed Dennis for various publications, I’m guessing at least 8 or 9 times. When I phoned him for Butt, we laughed at that fact and predicted that I’d be doing it until one of us drops dead. A lovely thought, as far as I’m concerned.

Steve: I know you’ve always wanted to live in Paris.
Dennis: Pretty much, ever since I was a wee lad. I always worshipped everything French and all my favorite things and influences are French, and I like French guys and the whole thing. Moving here was a scary thing at the time, but it’ll be five years in July.
Is the reality as good as the fantasy?
It’s as much a dreamy thing as I fantasized it would be. I think that’s partly because I don’t speak French. (laughs) I understand a bit now and stuff, but I can’t speak it. Friends have posited that the reason I’ve lived here this long and am still in love with the place is because I don’t understand what people are saying. If I’m on the Metro or something I still imagine they’re saying the most marvelous things.
I get pretty tired of all that Parisians-are-horrible stuff.
All the things that people don’t like about the Parisians, the bit of arrogance and all the things they say, I find that all really beautiful and charming. I still walk down the street every day and go, oh my god, I can’t believe I’m here.
You also love your hometown, LA. In fact, more than anyone I’ve ever known. What’s the difference in the sexual vibe between LA and Paris?
Weird, it’s the third time I’ve been asked that in the last week. I don’t know if I’m the best judge. I don’t go out, and I’m not looking for it. It’s definitely more reserved here, more subtle. Everybody says that. I don’t think it’s as open and public here as it is elsewhere. But it’s also hard for me to judge because I just really like French guys.
Is there a French John Rechy, with books like Numbers, that really spell it out?
There was one book like that. It was just an accounting of the guys the author fucked. It’s actually put out by my publisher here, but I can’t think of what it’s called.
That reminds me of the story you put in Straight To Hell once about eating out a certain teenage pop star’s ass in the ’70s…
Wait, wait. That story’s not supposed to be… I made a promise years ago to a certain someone that I wouldn’t talk about that. (laughing) But then I wrote that, so…
Okay, then let’s talk more broadly about that scene in LA. You were a habitué of the infamous ‘English Disco’ glam rock club run by Rodney Bingenheimer in the early ’70s. Was it easy to get with the rock stars that hung out there?
Oh, yeah, in the glam scene for sure. And also because of the Bowie thing and Lou Reed and all those stars pretending to be gay, or whatever they did, there was this kind of interest or pressure on the straight stars to try it out. These straight young rock stars would come into Rodney’s looking for the opportunity to see what the deal was. And there were all these gay guys that hung out there that I was friends with, and they would pick them up. Some of the rock guys would be terrified. Eric Carmen of the Raspberries came in and completely freaked out. There were people like that who couldn’t take it.
That’s hilarious. Blow-dried Eric Carmen.
Another thing is that the punk scene in LA was actually really queer too. More than any other place, maybe. A lot of the people that were doing that stuff were gay. I was in that scene as well. There was a lot more hanky-panky going on.
Darby Crash, obviously. Who else?
The Screamers. The two main guys, Tommy and whatsisbutt… Tomata were gay. I don’t think that’s a secret. And then there was Nervous Gender. Zolar X. It just wasn’t a big deal.
But in LA, within a couple of years it turned into hardcore. Which was definitely not gay!
Oh, yeah. But that was an Orange County phenomenon, and it was a whole different can of worms down there.
Okay, different subject completely. You were just in a movie with François Sagat, the porn star?
Yes, by this young French director, Christophe Honoré. I love his films. He’s queer and his movies kind of have that in them. He did a movie of Bataille’s Ma Mere. Anyway, it turns out he really likes my books. I had thought so, because they’re on the shelves in two of his movies. He messaged me on Facebook, of all places, and said are you the real Dennis Cooper? I said yeah, are you the real Christophe Honoré? He said he wanted me to act in his new movie. So I said, what the fuck, I will. It was just one scene, but it was pretty nerve-wracking. Christophe wanted it to in some way to be an homage to my work. So I wrote this monologue, and then I had to remember it and deliver it, and then also improvise repartee with Francois Sagat. Man, acting is exhausting. We had to shoot it over and over and over and over, from all the angles. But Christophe is great. He messaged me yesterday that he was editing my scene right then, and that I was his Robert Mitchum. (laughs)
In the scene, your character picks up Sagat? He’s a hustler?
He’s showing me his body and stuff, and I reject him. So that was kind of cool. (laughs)
That painted-on haircut of his is strange.
He’s a nice guy, but he’s definitely not my type. I mean, the body’s insane, there’s no question. But not my kind of thing.
Perfect segue. Can you tell me about your young Russian boyfriend, Yuri?
Sure. A few years ago I had just gotten a grasp on how big male prostitution was in Russia. I’ve always been interested in Russian porn and all that kind of stuff. So I was looking into that and seeing how there’s so much of it, and they’re so young. I thought I might write something about it. I was looking around the websites where these escorts have their ads, and they kept linking to this place called Link Base. I started looking around there and realized that it was basically an early version of Facebook or Friendster. And I saw Yuri’s ad, which was not a prostitute ad, but was… I’m not sure what it was. It was just a picture of him and a few things he was interested in and it said,  ‘I want to find a friend.’ I thought he was really attractive. And for whatever reason—maybe because I was already planning to write to some of the escorts—I just wrote him and said,  ‘Hi, my name is Dennis Cooper. I write books. I don’t know if you’ve heard of me, but I wanted to say hi.’ And he wrote back and said, oh yes, I know who you are. So we started emailing a little bit, and then we started talking on the phone, and I guess we clicked or something.
When did you finally meet?
After about six or eight months of that, I was coming to Paris to do some advance for a book. So I told him, you should just come here and meet me and we can see what’s going on. We did, and it went well. So for a while I would go to Paris or to Moscow to see him. At that point he wanted to get out of Russia, so we were trying to get a visa for the US. We had two terrible failures. After the second one, which was kind of devastating, it became a decision, like either we have to figure out a way to be together or we should stop this because it’s ridiculous. I can’t keep flying across the world. Since he’d been in France and the French are really into the Russian people, and there’s a really good relationship between the two countries, we said let’s do it. So we both came over here and that’s what happened.
They just let him stay.
The French are cool about all that. They make you jump through hoops, and there’s a huge bureaucracy here with everything. But if you give them the papers and you prove you’re not a problem or a danger or something, they give you the visa. That’s how it works, at least if your skin is white.
At this point he’s pretty set. He’s got a carte de séjour and all that. It would have to be something pretty big for him to lose his status.
I know you were worried when Sarkozy came in.
Well, everybody was.
I mean, in terms of immigration. But that hasn’t played out?
No, because as soon as he got in people realized he was just talking out his ass. Everybody hates him now. His approval ratings are lower than Bush’s were. His latest thing is he’s trying to ban the burqa, an attempt to save face and look like he’s doing something. He’s really pushing the racist shit, because he’s a fucking racist.
But he can’t get anything passed?
No. The French are really set in their ways. They don’t want their system to change. They like socialism and they like having a short work week. And you know how it is here—if they don’t like something the streets are full of people screaming and yelling, and the government looks at that and says, okay, the people don’t want this, we’ll think about it. It’s not like America.
How is it for the gays under a right-winger like Sarkozy?
There really just isn’t much homophobia here. The mayor of Paris, who is one of the most respected politicians in France, and an amazing guy, is completely openly gay. And he could quite possibly be the next prime minister or the next president. If you’re gay, no one cares.
Getting back to the Russian escorts, on your blog, The Weaklings, you regularly publish photos and ads of the guys you mentioned. The texts read so much like your own writing. Is it you?
No, they’re real. The most I ever do is occasionally I’ll edit them if they’re too long. Every month I sit down and go through all the escort sites, pick out my group, and then go through all the master and slave and S&M sites. But they’re all real. I’m thinking of doing a book of the slaves—not the pictures, just the texts—because I think they’re really great.
Okay, let’s move on to something important. What music are you listening to?
At the moment, I’m kind of belatedly getting into the hypnogogic stuff. Like the Skaters, Emeralds, James Ferraro, Gary War, all those guys. I like the new Locrian album. Working with Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O has kind of gotten me more into this experimental doom stuff, so I listen to a fair amount of that. And I love the new New Pornographers record, because I just love them.
Are you working on a book nowadays?
Yes. It was in the planning stages ever since I got here. But I’ve been working furiously on it for about the last year, I guess.
Your last book of short stories, Ugly Man, was weirdly hilarious. Does that continue with this one?
In Ugly Man, at least with the newer stories, the idea was to take the material and push comedy to the very, very forefront and see what happens. They were structured like jokes. That was the main overriding principle, to make it subservient to the comedy. Different kinds of content led to different levels of comedy and blah blah blah. The new novel is complicated. It’s more like the George Miles cycle books. It’s narrated by this incredibly pretentious 22-year-old French cannibal. He’s very irritating, and he thinks he’s very witty. In terms of the voice, the closest is this piece in Ugly Man, ‘The Anal Retentive Line Editor’.
I loved that story.
This novel is dense like that, but not as ridiculous.
But, wait, I thought there was a different book coming out.
Yeah, there’s another one called Smothered in Hugs, after the Guided By Voices song. It’s essays and … it’s like the stuff that was in that little book All Ears, but a lot, lot more. Reviews and articles going back to the ’80s. Interviews with people like Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale and Stephen Malkmus. All the stuff I wrote for Artforum. It’s coming out in July, from Harper Perennial.
You have an imprint with Akashic Books, called Little House on the Bowery, where you basically publish books by writers that excite you. What’s the latest?
That would be The Late Work of Margaret Kroftis by Mark Gluth. It’s gone very well and gotten amazing reviews. The guys over at HTML Giant got behind it, so that really helped. So, yeah, that’s the latest book, and there are two more coming out, so far. One is very funny, and incredibly weird, called The Mechanics of Homosexual Intercourse. The author’s name is Lonely Christopher.
How’s Little House doing itself?
Great. I mean times are tight, so now it’s a little more tricky and I have to prove the books to Akashic. But they’ve been great. Some of the books do better than others, but they all do fine. I do it basically for nothing, and the authors get almost nothing, so there’s not a huge overhead on it.
It would seem that nowadays you have to make your money separately, and then continue on with our projects.
Before we go, I read somewhere that Avital Ronell delivered an essay about  ‘rimming in the work of Dennis Cooper. ‘
Yeah! I thought it was great. She’s a huge hero of mine, and I think she’s a great writer and, like, the smartest person in America. So I was pretty blown away that she wrote this piece. It’s very dense. I’ve never had anybody concentrate so specifically on rimming in my work. And it is, you know, (laughing) a pretty big thing in it.

Published on 17 October 2010