Conducted by Sean Moreland
This interview with Jason Philip Wierzba accompanies PstD’s electronic publication of his previously unpublished short story “Down at the Celebrity Gap,” our inaugural new-fiction feature. Moving ahead, you can expect more of the retrospective author features and fiction reprints we’ve become known for (our next retrospectives will be with the groundbreaking American horror writer John Langan and Canadian futurist and stellar sci-fi writer Madeline Ashby ), but these will now alternate with new fiction and poetry features, also accompanied by author interviews and original illustrations.
Jason Philip Wierzba
Hi Jason, and thanks for agreeing to answer some questions for PstD’s readers. Can you begin by telling us about yourself, your background, your writing (fictional and otherwise)?
I was born and spent my youth in Calgary and environs. We moved to an acreage south of town when I was thirteen, and I spent a lot of time alone. I was constantly reading, watching movies, and listening to music. My parents both grew up poor on farms in rural Alberta. My dad became successful in the production end of the oil and natural gas racket and we were extremely well-off at a certain point. My mother was able to quit her job as a nurse.
I am an amalgam of elements Irish Catholic and Prussian, with some English and Scottish connections as well. I have always related most strongly to my paternal grandmother’s side of the family. The primarily Irish Catholic side. I physically resemble her people and was always pleased by our relation by blood to Frank and Jesse James. The whole story, really. The Dorans landed in New York as immigrants and made their way North over time, up through Missouri and then to the Canadian prairie. Lots of fortunes built and squandered on the railroad and so forth. A lot of drinking and gambling. Lots of honest-to-goodness cowboys. My personal journey as a writer goes way back. I was obsessively immersed in books from early childhood. I remember as a little boy being tremendously fond of Robin Cook’s medical thrillers.
The decisive moment came when I was thirteen, in 1993, and read an article in Details magazine about William Burroughs. It was all essentially downhill from there. I was turned on by the outlaw quality of his work and persona, the supremely transgressive element, the dark humour (I remember how much I loved the bit cited in that article about Doctor Benway performing an appendectomy with a rusty sardine can), and the apocalyptic horror of it all.
The avuncular W.S. Burroughs.
At this point I was progressing from listening to mainstream heavy metal to punk rock and indie guitar rock. Local punk bands were my heroes. And I wanted to make movies. When I was sixteen I wanted to make movies like Wim Wenders. Movies, especially, like Kings of the Road, Alice in the Cities, The State of Things, and Paris, Texas. There were movies I liked more than these movies, but these were the kinds of movies I wanted to make. Road movies. Bleak, slow-paced, druggy road movies. The critic Kent Jones wrote once about the foundational moment of any young baby boomer being the experience of listening to rock music and gazing stoned out of the window of a moving car. I was late to the party, but that was where I found myself in the mid-90s.
I went to university and quickly decided I wanted to write about film, not make films. And I continued to write fiction and poetry. I also continued to write and perform music. I wanted to do all of it, and I still sort of do. I write fitfully. I have started making music again, in an idiom different from those I pursued when I was younger and more dedicated to establishing an audience. I felt I needed to be exulted. I no longer feel this way. When I went to grad school at Carleton University to study film, my thesis to be advised by a professor named Chris Faulkner, whom I admired very much, a specialist in Jean Renoir and Popular Front-era French cinema, I was certain I was going to be an academic. An indentured scholar. However, I quickly realized I wanted no part of this. I figured I would rather work day jobs and write poems and stories. I was working on a novel. I never finished it. I have not decided one way or another if I have abandoned it. So I write. I have recently played live music for the first time in about six years.
I would call it free jazz if not for the fact that I don’t have the chops to claim that what I do is jazz. It’s free music. But if you call it free music, people may be under the mistaken impression that they don’t have to pay cover.
As for writing: I will never be in the business of selling this shit by the yard. I am generally waiting for it to happen instead of making it happen. One might aver that if a writer waits for the writing then the writing won’t happen at all. I have not found that to be true over the distances. You just can’t make a living this way. Which is okay. Don’t you find the idea of making a living writing kind of indecent? I have spent the last three years working frontline with the homeless. And reading. The problem with writing is, it cuts into the time one can spend reading.
“Down at the Celebrity Gap” isn’t the first piece of your fiction PstD has published. Your earlier story “Priority: Murder Kill” appeared in our hardcopy volume, PstD 3. Both stories feature some extremely unsettling images. To what extent would you say shocking or horrifying readers was your intention with them?
I absolutely wanted to shock people by virtue not only of the things I wrote, but by the way I lived. I was young. And I waited a long time to grow up. I was ensconced in ego and addiction. I was a holy monster and was somehow under the impression that it was sexy. Obviously it is when some people do it. I am no longer certain that I was sexy, and am certain I crossed the paths of many who would assert that I indeed was not. But I was never trying to be aggressive or confrontational with my writing. Not in an antagonistic way. I may have been doing that a lot with the way I lived and conducted myself, but in my writing, certainly after the age of nineteen or twenty, I was always trying to have fun, and to make it fun. The shocking stuff is always done playfully. I get a kick out of this stuff, a thrill, and I assume others do too. The culture at large is sufficiently full of salacious business for me to feel vindicated in this. Transgression is so central to anything interesting young people do. It doesn’t look quite so good on you after a certain age. Generally. Dennis Cooper pulls it off (although he has done so without forsaking having to grow up). And I can almost assure you that I am no longer in this business. “Down at the Celebrity Gap” was completed in 2008, I believe, and I was already living past my best before date as far as this shit is concerned. I still want to go far beyond conventional moral sense-making. I still want to pursue hard-won individual ethics far outside the norm, but I am more dedicated now to exposing things that are desperately raw and real, and to not so much engage in ironic games of cartoon shock and awe. Which is not to say that I wasn’t always trying to find legitimate things to express about what it is like to find oneself in this world.
Would you describe these stories as works of “horror?” Why (not)?
Well, if questions like this had not been addressed to me by others then it never would have occurred to me that I was writing anything other than good, old-fashioned, highfalutin literary fiction. But I have very much put myself in the position to be questioned about this. I think I entered the world in terror. I think during the early pubescent years it was all terror and hate. Then the hate started to go away and I bombarded the pleasure centres with substances and the stimulation resultant from wild behaviour so as to try and distract myself from the fact that I was still living totally and utterly in a state of full-on terror. That was my twenties. I guess the horror part of me was the part of me that was trying to make the terror communicable. But, of course, and probably more relevant per your question, is the fact that I have always been laterally engaging genre. It is clear to me that the two stories Postscripts to Darkness has been sweet enough to publish are postmodern works. And I believe they are primarily postmodern in terms of their self-reflexivity, their intertextuality, and their knowing invocation of genres and tropes. There is a connection to Coover and Barth. So I would say that these stories, instead of being representative works of “horror,” simply engage “horror” whilst at the same time gauging and engaging all sorts of other things. I would say that “Priority: Murder Kill” is especially involved in this engagement with “horror” because I put a ghost it there at the end. Or a zombie. Or just a resurrected dead guy. I am probably as slippery with my spectres as Willian T. Vollmann is in his recent and just totally wonderful collection Last Stories and Other Stories. A collection which contains works of horror. Sort of.
“Celebrity Gap” also bears a number of stylistic and thematic continuities with “Priority Murder Kill.” Can you talk about the relationship between these stories? Are they part of a larger story-cycle?
All the writing is connected. These stories are, admittedly, especially connected. They were written in the order they have been published. They are also connected to an even earlier story called “Your Ex-Wife Rita Hayworth,” which I am fairly certain is the story of mine that has been most often rejected by editors, and which I wrote when I was still in grad school. They could all be said to engage crime, madness, and the mythopoetics of celebrity to one extent or another. There are a number of crucial differences. “Your Ex-Wife Rita Hayworth” and “Priority: Murder Kill” are written in the first person and “Down at the Celebrity Gap” the third. When I started writing as a boy, very young, I wanted to write all my prose in first person because I could be extremely idiosyncratic and believed that there were no rules in first person. I always thought the omniscient narrator was for adults, and I ultimately didn’t believe I was competent enough to pull it off. So it could be said that the three stories suggest a maturation. But they don’t. Not really.
I think “Priority: Murder Kill” is extremely adult, if almost childish in its scandalous and shocking elements. What I wanted to do with that story was look at madness, criminal madness, serial killer madness, and suggest maybe it is not only not just madness after all, but that maybe it can be framed as being connected to a kind of tenderness. I felt that in order to do this I needed a first person narrator and I needed it to be a woman. It is a very phallic story and a very feminine one. It comes from a kind of confusion in myself. I used to get my drunk girlfriends to occasionally cut my hair into the famous bob of Louise Brooks, silent film actress, Kansas-bred ex-Ziegfeld girl, and my favourite human being after Jeanne d’Arc. I guess as a young man I believed with all my heart that the only thing worth aspiring to above making love to Louise Brooks would be to be Louise Brooks. Tenderness is intimacy. You can do intimacy so much better in the first person. What is more intimate than being privy to the secret business of another person’s consciousness?
Iconic screen star Louise Brooks.
I definitely wanted “Down at the Celebrity Gap” to be more dispassionate. I also wanted to use something like an omniscient narrator in a context where the reader really has no idea what has actually happened and what is madness, delusion, the interjection of dream. Also “Down at the Celebrity Gap” is definitely about masculinity and, though “Priority: Murder Kill” is not pretty, I believe its narrator to be infinitely more sympathetic than Andy from “Down at the Celebrity Gap.” Besides being frightened by the real possibility of mental collapse, I think that “Down at the Celebrity Gap” also reveals that I was afraid of becoming a really awful person who was convinced he was anything but. Also both “Priority: Murder Kill” and “Down at the Celebrity Gap” engage with serial killing, which has always fascinated me and, if I am going to be totally honest, delighted me, not that I am exactly proud of that. What is interesting about the indeterminacy of the apparently omniscient “Down at the Celebrity Gap” is that not even I am certain whether or not Andy has actually killed anyone. These stories are both kind of little gleefully amoral crime novels. I love crime novels. Even many of my poems are little crime novels. I think if you wanted to sum me up, during the period of my life represented by these stories, you could say I was trying to find this ideal sweet spot somewhere between James Joyce and James M. Cain.
You are far from alone in your fascination with serial killers; they are a pervasive aspect of our contemporary cultural imaginary. Any time I teach a course on horror fiction, I always include at least one serial killer-centric novel, and am always struck by the number of students who are already quite well-versed in not only the mythology, but also often the history and clinical assessments of high-profile serial killers. Any thoughts on why this fascination is so widespread?
It’s totally 100% a libidinal business. The mania for compulsive and decadent life-taking is mimetic of the compulsion to consume and fetishize these narratives. It’s a kink. We are turned on. It turns the killer on, it turns us on. And most people who compulsively devour the most sordid true crime stories will presumably steadfastly deny that they are turned on – they will describe these things as appalling. Those things are not mutually exclusive. Absolutely appalling things routinely turn us on. Exploitation films emerged as a way of promising people that movies with very small budgets were going to provide people with absolutely appalling spectacles that the folks with the real money were incapable of getting away with. That is what “exploitation” means in this context. Exploiting an untapped market niche. People pay money to see rape and murder. Generally it disappoints them. It’s poorly staged. Cheap. It is not their fantasy. So that’s what it is about: libidinal fantasy on a bedrock of shame. Fantasy needs shame. And when fantasy is enacted it is ghastly. In the serial killer context we are talking about a whole galaxy of trauma and very real suffering. This is why the guy who jerks off to extreme fantasies of sexual violence and sadism rarely has any interest in raping a real man or woman. It is an unspeakably horrible business. Such is fantasy. It’s a Lacanian thing. Slavoj Žižek wrote marvelously about Michael Haneke’s Elfriede Jelinek adaptation The Piano Teacher.
He is correct about the fact that it might be the best film ever about what happens when a person with a wildly fucked-up fantasy life systematically enacts the fantasy and is absolutely stupefied by how unpleasant the results prove.
Where did this fascination start for you?
Puberty. All of a sudden I was thinking all the time about sex, suicide, murder, and apocalypse. Suicide most of all, actually. Suicide, of course, being the easiest way to commit apocalypse. But serial killing was an obsession.
Any literary or cinematic treatments of serial killers you think are particularly effective? Any that you find particularly poorly done or problematic?
James Ellroy’s Killer on the Road is simply one of the finest American novels. He is a well-loved and respected crime novelist but this book has been curiously absent from book shelves all my life. It is a staggering, truly masterful, unapologetic work of sickness and genius. Clearly an expertly-modulated purge. Genuinely one of my very favourite novels. When I was a teenager my best friend’s dad was a neuropsychiatrist. This man swore by Ellroy’s novel. Told us it was the only work that had done the phenomenon justice. He gave me his kind of tawdry-looking paperback copy, and I own it still. The narrator is both a psychopath and psychotic as well. They are two different things. The psychopathy manifests itself as is typical: no empathy, a clinical regard for the other, inflated self-regard, a certain deadness of affect. The psychosis manifests itself in the brain movies the narrator screens featuring his favourite comic book character, Shroud Shifter. Shroud Shifter is both the hero of his brain movies and the spectre that directs his homicidal actions. When my friend Marc and I were recording music between 1997 and 2000 we called our project Shroud Shifter.
And I love serial killer movies. There are two major standouts, neither often viewed nor discussed. The first is Donald Cammell’s White of the Eye.
It is a truly revelatory work of art. It is almost completely not about the libidinal. It is about, amazingly, serial killing as the dark side of a kind of spirituality. I am reluctant to give too much away. We are used to the dark side of religion, not so much the dark side of spirituality. In this sense it is not just a tremendous work of art, but highly instructive for me personally. High up on my list of very favourite movies. The films Cammell never got to make, and the choices producers prevented him from enacting when he was trying to cut his films, are amongst our greatest lost-opportunities as a species. He subsequently shot himself in the head and lived for not much less than an hour afterwards, talking to his wife. She claims that he was beatific and felt no pain. The other serial killer film I would plug is Philippe Grandrieux’s Sombre. It is kind of almost a serial killer version of the kind of Wim Wenders movie I loved as a teen, but aggressively avant garde and suffused with Grand Guignol elements. And Grandrieux is a far, far better filmmaker than Wenders.
When I was a teen I had this idea about a really slow-burn serial killer movie set in Europe, on the road. Something like what Grandrieux did. The victims would all be women from indie rock. The screen goddesses of my imagination. Chan Marshall from Cat Power. Isobel Sollenberger from Bardo Pond. The killer would love these women, driving around with them in silence-filled long takes, and would glean absolutely no pleasure from killing them. I was pretty anhedonic that way. Only an addict could concoct such a story. It is also important to mention Buñuel’s The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, because it is brilliant, hilarious, and something of a much needed piss-take. It is the story of a prospective serial killer whose targeted victims keep dying by accident before he can kill them. It is an allegory about performance anxiety and sexual frustration, which, judging from his films, are things of which Buñuel had a pretty expert working knowledge.
As for problematic representations, one need look no further than American Psycho. It was a big deal when I was in high school, and I read it with glee. But it is garbage. It is McDonald’s literature; a part of the problem it purports to diagnose. The neuropsychiatrist who told me to read the Ellroy despised it. Even then I knew it was shit. As cultural critique it is a joke. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t tear through it. I enjoyed eating fast food as well, so there you go. The Mary Harron adaptation is pretty adorable though. The movie, at least, is in on the joke. And you can call Bret Easton Ellis an asshole, of course, but I am certain he doesn’t consider it a pejorative.
Ellis’s serial-satirico shocker – McDonald’s literature?
David Schmid prefaces his book Natural Born Celebrities by stating that “The existence of famous serial killers in contemporary American culture brings together two defining features of American modernity: stardom and violence. Not surprisingly, therefore, film is unique among popular cultural media in its potential to shed light on the reasons why we have celebrity serial killers because it is a medium defined by the representation of acts of violence and by the presence of stars.” What do you think of Schmid’s characterization of these connections?
First I outright reject the notion that violence or stardom are particularly American or modern, but will concede that the Americans have a pretty huge monopoly on how stardom and violence are packaged and understood now. In the golden age of exploitation cinema it was probably the Italians who were doing the best job of packaging sexual violence for movie theatre audiences. That stuff, like porn, was obviously salivating in wait of the advent of home video. I will also insist that the ideal movie about a serial killer for me personally would feature an actor in the lead that I had never seen anywhere else before, in any other role. It is hard to invest in fantasy when the artifice is being foregrounded by the presence of a goddamn movie star. Finally, and most importantly, actual serial killers only become cultural celebrities a posteriori. Whilst they are busy subtracting people from the population they have to go undetected, unidentified, unknown. Anonymity is the crux of the thing. They become celebrities only after they are caught. To become a celebrity serial killer you have to fail as a serial killer. There is, of course, the conventional wisdom that serial killers secretly want to be caught. I believe this is only true in the sense that all of us want to be caught, to be found out. Hiding things is exhausting and demoralizing.
There are also those who say that serial killers are artists. I have always thought that true artists were doing something noble. I want to make it perfectly clear: at no point, no matter how sick and twisted my fantasy life became, have I considered serial killers fucking noble. It is not a noble business. However, if you look at the Black Dahlia murder, for example, with the bisected body of Elizabeth Short posed the way it was, clearly the killer there was trying to do art. I am convinced from his investigation that Steve Hodel is right, that his father George Hodel was the Black Dahlia killer, and that George Hodel was directly paying homage to his personal friend Man Ray’s photograph “Minotaur.” There is also the Duchamp homage going on there. While this is titillating and fascinating, it is also pathetic, sad, and prurient.
Would you say one of the thematic links between “Priority: Murder Kill” and “Celebrity Gap” is an exploration of the connections between stardom and serial killing?
There are actual celebrities in “Your Ex-Wife Rita Hayworth” and “Down at the Celebrity Gap,” but they are not serial killers, or involved in serial killing. The narrator of “Priority: Murder Kill” is a sort of serial killer microcelebrity for the criminal cognoscenti. The real celebrities like Matt Damon and Rita Hayworth are para-psychotic figments. My belief is that if somebody is going to start hallucinating in the 21st century, it is not going to be long before they start hallucinating celebrities. And it is never long before the paranoid psychotic begins to believe that he or she is his or herself a celebrity. During my psychotic breaks I was convinced I was becoming a celebrity. Some people think the movie Birdman is garbage. I don’t, having suffered the indignity of myself living it. I take Birdman seriously. It is a reminder. It made me shudder. The ego is just as involved in psychosis as is the id, and the two can be hard to disentangle. The modern ego wants to believe in the possibility that it inhabits a celebrity or potential celebrity.
Can you tell our readers a little about the inspiration for “Down at the Celebrity Gap,” and the context in which you wrote the story?
“Down at the Celebrity Gap” was written in a very precise pocket. As far as I know, nothing else aside from perhaps a poem or two and fragments in notebooks exists from this period. It was written some time shortly after August of 2008. That summer I experienced the fist serious psychotic collapse of my life. That’s not hyperbole. This was a genuine, extremely harrowing psychotic event that went on for about a week. There had been two simultaneous music festivals in Calgary that summer, both extremely stimulating, which coincided with a bout of extreme mania, compounded by alcohol, cannabis, no sleep for a good haul, no food, and finally the combination of psilocybin mushrooms and heat stroke as all this crested in the intense heat at a day-long outdoor concert. The next couple days got progressively very bad. I believed a guerilla dance troupe had moved into my condo. People seemed to always be around and then suddenly not there. The dance troupe and I were in possession of a drug that could make us decompose before each others’ eyes before suddenly we could re-enfleshen at will. I believed that a giant insurrection of a festival had taken over my city and that I was at the centre of it. Eventually I thought the TV was watching me and fled my building. If I had not fled my building I would have very much died in my condo; really, actually died. I was running through the city. Airplanes and buildings were coming down. The military and the media were on my trail. I would brush the ground with my hand and Sanskrit text would be revealed. It was a horrifying nightmare that ended with me naked, covered in mud in somebody’s backyard, my organs shutting down. Amusingly, I suppose, I remember that I was naked because I believed that since I was invisible it would be unseemly for people to witness clothes with nobody in them moving frantically about. I was in the hospital for quite some time before I became lucid. Even after my faculties returned it took me longer still to accept that all the stuff that had happened had not in fact happened. It was my first, but not my last, experience of a total psychotic break and it obviously left an impression. After I was out of the hospital, my mother took me away to a retreat near Taos, New Mexico. She goes to these groups there. We spent a week meditating and screaming and bashing pillows and crying hysterically, a bunch of parents and their adult children in a circle. I learned to locate myself in my body and began to locate myself in the terror I had been quasi-unconsciously inhabiting my entire life. I would localize this terror in my tailbone and perineum. At night I would sneak down into the arroyo after everybody had gone to sleep to smoke my one cigarette of the day, the only drug I partook in that week, aside from the neutered tea we drank. The image of Julia Roberts smoking a cigarette in an arroyo in “Down at the Celebrity Gap” might be the story’s most directly autobiographical touch. I always identified with starlets and divas. I was still a musician and performer back then and would always tell everybody I wanted to be Beyoncé, even though I was clearly trying to do this ironic Charley Patton thing. I wrote the story very quickly upon returning to Calgary from New Mexico. Atypically quickly. It poured out and felt great to write. I wanted to do something combining psychosis and New Mexico. “Down at the Celebrity Gap” is psychosis and New Mexico. I was drinking again when I wrote it. I would continue down an unspeakably awful road until eventually starting to work at getting sober and dealing with mental illness in earnest in 2009.
You’ve said that “Celebrity Gap” was written during a period of drinking following a period of sobriety. The relationship between substance dependency and literary production has been a complex (and often eventually fatal) one for more writers than I can name. How do you experience this relationship, personally?
“Down at the Celebrity Gap” very much did not follow a period of sobriety. Let me make that very clear. It followed a period of abstention from alcohol and mood altering drugs. There is a major difference. I am sober now. Genuine sobriety requires a serious and fairly particular kind of psychospiritual upheaval, and you need to be guided there. At least I needed to be guided there. And there were missteps, believe you me. There were a lot of drugs in my life, all the available ones at one time or another, but the predominant ones were alcohol and cannabis. For at least a decade I was pretty much always under the influence of alcohol and cannabis. It was my operational condition. I was rewarded by the ability to sit at my computer for long periods of time when I was using alcohol and cannabis. It suppressed restlessness. I could write, and write very well generally, for thirteen hour stretches, which is also, incidentally, about how long I could drive at a stretch when on road trips. The interesting thing about writing on alcohol was that I wouldn’t get conventionally drunk. I would get exhilarated and zoned-in. I got through university with highest honours and I did so writing papers on my laptop, sitting cross-legged on the hardwood floor actually, surrounded by source texts, drinking bourbon, and smoking weed and cigarettes, for thirteen hour stretches. I don’t write like that anymore. I can only manage a couple hours here and there. I am easily exhausted and am acutely conscious of when I am doing harm to myself. My brain works with words. I can’t see images when I close my eyes. There are only invisible words in there. Unless I am dreaming. Mood altering drugs loosened the words. They came in torrents. But I always edited carefully as I went along. I was never a reckless writer in terms of the basic application of craft. When I got drunk and high and opened my mouth, however, I couldn’t slow down. I seriously alienated people. Those who knew me then would be flabbergasted to hear that people consider me quiet and thoughtful now. Though I can be Puckish.
How has your commitment to sobriety changed how you write, how you read?
Before I identify as an artist, or even as a man, I identify as a recovering alcoholic. Recovery is above all else a spiritual process. Addiction is a disease, this is agreed upon by everybody excluding uninformed idiots, and diseases have bizarre, complex symptomatologies. For example, I once read that people who suffer from ALS are almost uniformly kind, generous people. Addicts are almost uniformly selfish, self-obsessed people who never felt like they belonged in this world. We feel totally exceptional and special but also, paradoxically, totally worthless. We are driven by fear, shame, resentment, and self-pity. It is not our fault. It is a condition in which the sick person is totally and utterly disconnected. That is why the only solution is psychospiritual. They may eventually find medication that helps, but only if that medication is conducive to a psychospiritual upheaval.
Studies now confirm that people are not drawn into addiction by chemical hooks in the drugs themselves. Many people use drugs, often heavily, and never become addicts. The addict is a disconnected person who finds in chemicals a temporary way of feeling connected. A lot of people think the problem is sociological. People in miserable conditions turn to drugs. That is a factor. Many addicts – we make up about ten percent of the population – never activate the addiction by using, because they are basically satisfied by their perhaps-not-entirely-satisfactory situation or just never stumble upon drugs. You are never going to provide ideal living conditions for all addicts so that they can get well. The world is not exactly heading in the direction of better living conditions for everyone. And plenty of people who live in seemingly ideal conditions are hopelessly addicted. So you need to get connected psychospiritually. That’s all that spirituality is: connection. Connection to yourself, to others, and to the whole fucking show. You need acceptance, you need some hope followed by faith, and you need, in my experience, a hell of a lot of curiosity and wonder. And you need to be able to be moved by suffering. You need to become empathetic. When I am opening a book now, or putting words on paper, I want to tap into the spiritual, and I want things that are profound and moving and connect me. I work with the homeless. It is service work. It has hardened me. It has increased my empathy but decreased my ability to feel pity for myself or others. I don’t fucking feel sorry for anybody. But I am deeply moved by what people endure.
The book that has most changed my life in recovery, and the way I want to write, is Coma by Pierre Guyotat. It is one of these two autobiographical books he has written this century that have been published in English by Semiotext(e).
In the Deep is the other one, and because of its literary pyrotechnics, its sexual candour, and its obvious philosophical heft it is likely to have more staying power. But it is not nearly as important to me as is Coma. Coma is essentially about proximity to God to the point of total exhaustion and possible annihilation. It is the hard truth about the real stakes of being a spiritual animal, and is monumentally instructive. It is about life lived by the artist with perilous intensity. Not drinking and drugging. Not doing intense things. Just being intensely. Sitting still in the most intense way possible. This is about Guyotat living himself into a coma in early middle age. Just ending up in a coma by virtue of existing the way he existed. This book defines everything for me now the way Bataille’s Blue of Noon defined everything for me in my early twenties. As for my writing: I am sitting on it. It is percolating. I feel like I owe it to myself and a handful of others to write something totally naked and true about what it is like to spin out of control and then pull it back together. A novel. Almost certainly.
Does the fact that you wrote “Celebrity Gap” while drinking change your perception of the story, now?
I feel no shame about being an alcoholic. It is totally hateful and stupid when people demonize those who in active addiction keep trying to do the only thing that ever made them feel okay long after it has tragically stopped making them feel okay. I wrote some things that were no good when I was drunk. I write some things that are no good when I am sober. I wouldn’t be letting you share such things with your readership.
You are an avid film-viewer with an academic background in film studies, and have maintained a fascinating film review site over the past few years. Can you talk about how your fascination for film feeds into your fiction? About how you perceive the relationship between writing on/about film and writing fiction?
I am, above all, a voracious consumer of culture. My appetite is inexhaustible. Let me break it down. I recently described it this way to a close friend: music is my water, literature is my food, and the cinema is my house of worship. It should be added that philosophy is also important, but that I see it very much as a pretty-rarefied sub-category of literature. And cinema really very much deserves a place of exulted privilege. I cannot do anything with my writing that is anything like what the best cinema can do. I honestly believe that the filmmaker Robert Bresson is the greatest artist in the history of our species and I am totally convinced that I will believe this until I die. He is the greatest impressionist there ever was, true heir to Cézanne, whom he utterly surpassed. What is so special about the cinema is that it works with images, sound, and time. The true art of cinema often happens in the cutting room, or before that, in the space between the minds of the people making the film when they put the thing together between those minds. It is ultimately about form and tone. And about beauty.
Cinema also is a collaborative art and speaks to my conviction (raised by the academy to be a proper post-structuralist and having studied and fully been taken by Foucault’s “What is an Author?”) that every work of art is something that is basically by all of us and for all of us. This is not merely historical materialism, it is deeply spiritual. I believe deeply in the God of Spinoza (especially as filtered by Deleuze), and I believe that everything that happens, happens within a plural unity. That is my sense of what impressionism is: us rendering from within the All. This is radical contingency. Everything that happens in this world is produced by a wildly complicated confluence of forces far greater than any individual. Another thing about cinema studies is that in the 70s and 80s the whole discipline became kind of wonderfully hijacked by psychoanalytic theory. People always want to compare cinema to dreams. Cinema is not dreams. Dreams are always morphing, and slippery, and totally fucked up. A dream is a dream and there will never be anything else like a dream.
What the cinema and dream have in common is the auditory and visual components, obviously, but also that they both represent what Freud calls the “other scene.” They are worlds like our world, except excitingly contained and off to the side. Not off to the side. Through a magic fucking portal. I have nothing to write about music or other writers. Not that I can think of. I will never have exhausted things that I can write about cinema. I am truly reverential towards the cinema. Though I need literature more just for the purposes of survival. I will go totally mad without books. And the intimacy of being invited into a consciousness other than your own. With cinema you stand outside looking and listening. With literature you merge, which is insanely erotic and totally perilous, just like falling in love (especially if you have codependency issues as do I). The other thing you probably notice about “Priority: Murder Kill” and “Down at the Celebrity Gap” is that they owe a great deal to exploitation films and the cinema of transgression. In my twenties I was not interested in doing literature without doing amorality. Obviously a lot of people go to the movies because no-holds-barred amorality is wonderful and thrilling when contained within the “other scene.”
Your reference to the God of Spinoza reminds me of something you wrote on Cowberry Filmflam a few months ago: “The confluence of forces, not a deity, I shall henceforth, as a Spinozist, refer to as God, gave all of this to me. I earned nothing. I was owed nothing. The gift I have received (the primary evidence of which was the cessation in November of 2013, inexplicable and unexpected, of the baffling compulsion to fend off the present-at-hand by drinking myself to death (or whatever-the-fuck-else it took)), was a senseless and perfect gift that has left me here with hope and faith, concepts to which I had hitherto paid only lip service.”
You are, I think, the only writer I’ve ever interviewed who professes the God of Spinoza as their higher power, in the sense of (and I realize the term is probably ill-suited here, as we are talking about a “confluence of forces, not a deity”) personal saviour. How did this radical perspectival shift occur?
I have been saved, but not by a God who is something like an entity that has something like a brain or something like a nervous system. I love very much Spinoza’s critique, very brave, of Aristotle’s concept of “final causation.” The critique assures us that ultimate causes do not originate in some kind of entity who desires things to play out to his or her specifications. But things play out the way they must, according to God. And God saved me. I never knew it, but the whole radically contingent cosmic apparatus was set in motion from the very beginning, though there is no beginning or end, in such a way that I would find myself saved. I like the word God. I was a rabid atheist, and it pleases me to no end to speak of God now. It’s been building for awhile. When I was a kid I identified with people who saw God in all things. Then I encountered the music of singer-songwriter Will Oldham, who became one of my heroes around the time I could drive. He sings about God, and when he sings about God he is basically singing about the same God Spinoza was offering up.
Will Oldham – click on the image to read a fascinating interview in which Oldham talks about, among other things, his relationship to God …and Bob Dylan.
However, when I speak of God I could obviously just use one of Deleuze’s terms, which is “the One-Many.” And as far as this invocation of a confluence of forces is concerned, that comes less from Spinoza, but rather from Nietzsche’s ontology of force, again as filtered by Deleuze. As far as the philosophers that Deleuze happily enters from the rear, according to his provocative assessment, I also need to mention Bergson. Bergsonian ontology is also important, but I am more interested in the epistemological register. In Bergson we find that humans have a pretty distorted relationship with reality by virtue of our being woefully limited creatures. Einstein and Alfred Jarry are equally indebted to Bergson.
(How) have your experiences over the last few years changed how you read Spinoza? Deleuze?
They haven’t. I just live it better.
Your reference to Deleuze, above, reminds me of his statement (in The Logic of Sense) that “everything that can be attained by chemical means is accessible by other paths.” What does this mean to you?
He also invokes Henry Miller’s assertion that it should be possible to get drunk on plain, good old water. He is totally right. Even when I was using I knew it was possible to do all this stuff the hard way, with discipline and effort. I am a writer. The favourite of the seven deadly sins for any good writer, as Thomas Pynchon once averred, is sloth. I wanted to take the easy road. So shoot me. Now I am not sure I want to get drunk at all. Not even on water. Okay, I am being a little disingenuous, but I dedicated my whole youth to Dionysus, and you know what? I think I now see the appeal of fat Buddha perched on his ass, all the cosmos going through him like a river. Which is not to say that I am not still sick. I should really have yellow Post-it notes everywhere reminding me: “Jason, you are still sick.”