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The Second Annual Fiction Issue

Poppy Z. Brite Is The King/queen Of New Orleans

Poppy Z. Brite’s early novels are full of vampires, angsty teenagers, and other beautiful, tortured creatures, often sexually ambiguous and with varying shades of flaxen, crimson, or raven hair, tangled and blowing in the hot wind. Her first two novels...

INTERVIEWED BY AMY KELLNER, PHOTOGRAPHED BY TONY CAMPBELL Poppy Z. Brite’s early novels are full of vampires, angsty teenagers, and other beautiful, tortured creatures, often sexually ambiguous and with varying shades of flaxen, crimson, or raven hair, tangled and blowing in the hot wind. Her first two novels, Lost Souls and Drawing Blood, became instant classics with goth kids and horror nerds alike. Her third novel, Exquisite Corpse, a love story about two serial killers and their passion for squishing around in the blood and guts of adolescent boys, was so gruesome and excruciatingly detailed that after I finished reading it I threw it out my window because I couldn’t sleep with it in my room. After that came a Courtney Love biography, several great short-story collections, some vampire-erotica anthologies (always awesome), and—one thing that is etched in my mind forever—a eulogy for William Burroughs in which she fantasizes about sodomizing his corpse. Then, suddenly in 2004 there was a new novel, Liquor, and it was about… chefs. Yup, chefs. More specifically, Rickey and G-Man, a New Orleans couple with a passion for cooking and hot gay sex who open up a restaurant where all the dishes are made in some way with alcohol. Brite has since written three novels about this lovable duo and plans to keep going. And even though the worlds of horror and “foodie lit” are like night and day, Brite’s killer storytelling is still there, as are a couple of her main themes: loving descriptions of New Orleans and romance between fellas. And where the early books were swimming in gunky bodily fluids (it always seemed like something was dripping, be it blood, cum, spit, or tears), the new ones are full of equally detailed descriptions of gooey stuff—just this time, it’s things you could eat without getting an STD. Brite also keeps an online journal that is fully addictive, whether she’s writing about her 20-odd rescued cats, her devastating experience with Hurricane Katrina, or just ranting about the kinds of things that life makes you want to rant about. According to the entry she wrote right after we contacted her, she usually doesn’t do interviews these days, but it seems we caught her in the right mood. Lucky us! And lucky you! Vice: Do you have a special place you sit when you write? Poppy Z. Brite: Unfortunately, I’m not doing much writing lately. My “guys in the basement,” as Stephen King so aptly describes them, have been on strike for nearly a year, and no matter how many well-meaning people exhort me to “just write,” it’s no more effective than telling me “just don’t have back pain” (I have chronic back problems) or, as another writer friend pointed out, telling an alcoholic “just don’t drink.” People who don’t write can’t grasp just how hard it is. At least you’re still doing your LiveJournal blog. I’ve also written a couple of newspaper and magazine articles over the past year. I do most of it at my desk, the same desk I’ve had since I was 12, albeit in an office I’m not used to yet and probably won’t be until I’ve written a novel in it, in the new house we bought in New Orleans’s Central City neighborhood after the failure of the federal levees destroyed our old one. Well, I hope you start writing again soon. It’ll come back when it comes back. I probably have a bunch of stuff concerning Katrina to deal with first. “To process,” as they say. I’d scarcely believe I had lived through that time if I didn’t have the emotional scars to prove it, but here they are. I was a fairly happy person before August 29, 2005. Can you talk about your personal experience with the hurricane—like your evacuation and the difficulty you had in retrieving your many cats? This isn’t something I’m equipped to talk about right now, I’m afraid. I’ve bought a new home in New Orleans and I’m committed to spending the rest of my life here, but I’ve reached a point where I have a very hard time reading or watching anything about the city, particularly if it concerns the storm or its aftermath, and I find that I’m subject to panic attacks if I talk much about that time or look back at the journal entries I wrote then. You should check out my entries for the months of September and October 2005 at I read those entries and they were heartbreaking. I got teary-eyed over the part when you were finally allowed back into your flooded house and you found some, but not all, of your feral cats. It is sad, yes, but right now I find it healthier to be angry, and there’s plenty to be angry about. I no longer feel like a citizen of the United States. South Louisiana has been treated like a third-world country—worse than many third-world countries. Why am I still paying taxes to a government whose incompetence devastated my city and which refuses to fix what it broke? One thing I do want to note is that we would have found it much harder to get through the immediate aftermath without the generosity of readers and friends. They kept us afloat financially through donations, they joined in the effort to rescue the cats we hadn’t been able to evacuate, and their kindness helped keep us at least semi-sane. Let’s talk about something a little less traumatic. What are some of your favorite books? I have hundreds, but once I get past John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, it’s hard to know what else to mention. It is surely the truest piece of fiction ever written about New Orleans, and the one that has most influenced my own writing about my home city. I think Stephen King’s Misery contains more useful insights about writers and writing than most so-called writing manuals. King in general tends to be my comfort reading. I love V.S. Naipaul, Shirley Jackson, Ramsey Campbell, Paul Theroux (especially his maybe-autobiographical metafiction), and Carson McCullers. Moby-Dick was a good friend to me on a trip to Australia—I read half en route and the other half on the return flight. A Tale of Two Cities is my favorite of Dickens. And, of course, my Smithsonian Guide to North American Birds—couldn’t live without that one. I try to pick up at least one birding guide to every country or region I visit, and I love paging through them afterward, reliving my trip, remembering what I saw and what I wish I’d seen. Is bird-watching a big hobby of yours? My husband and I both love birding. Neither of us is any kind of expert, but we enjoy the bounty of wildlife in Louisiana. One of my best trips—in fact, one of the memories that helped me get through the storm’s aftermath—was to the rainforests of North Queensland in July 2005, after I’d been a guest at a convention in Melbourne, Australia. I stayed at a place called Cassowary House and saw over 100 new species of birds, including cassowaries, which are huge flightless birds with shimmering black hairy-looking plumage, iridescent blue necks, and tall hornlike casques on their heads. Is there a type of writing that really annoys you? I don’t much care for those cutesy culinary mysteries that include recipes and have punny titles like Crime Brûlée. I suppose they annoy me because, thanks to an inept marketing job by a publisher I’m no longer working with, that’s what a lot of people expect my recent work to be. I enjoy reading mysteries—mostly the thriller/police procedural type—but I have no interest in writing them, and I don’t care anything about the lives of caterers, lady restaurant critics looking for romance, or the other protagonists who seem to people this genre. I’m interested in writing about the lives of working cooks in New Orleans. Not mysteries, not “food porn,” just the truth about the lives of people who work hard and care about what they’re doing. Do you have a favorite out of all the books you’ve written? I think a writer tends to be in trouble if his most recent book isn’t his favorite. For me, that would be D*U*C*K, a novella I wrote for Subterranean Press not long after we returned to New Orleans after living in post-K exile for eight weeks. It’s set in the same restaurant world as my recent novels Liquor, Prime, and Soul Kitchen, but it’s slightly… askew. I don’t like to explain this too much. I touch on it in the foreword, but of course the reader must make what he will of it. For me, it is dear to my heart, and so far no New Orleanian reader I know of has read it without crying at the end. A few non-New Orleanians have failed to get it, but while I usually hope my work will be understandable to everybody, D*U*C*K isn’t really for them. If they like it, I’m thrilled, but it’s for New Orleans. Well, I read it and even though I’ve only been to New Orleans once about ten years ago, I did get a bit choked up on the last page. But I was wondering, what were you like in high school? Not very happy. I don’t think most people are during those years, even the ones who pretend to be. But I managed to sell my first story to a professional market before I graduated, so that’s something. Do you think that unhappiness led to your interest in horror and vampires and goth culture? Like as a means of escape? To be honest, I never really had a special interest in vampires. They sort of slimed their way into my first novel because they were an essential icon of goth culture at the time—they’re kind of passé now, I think—and after Lost Souls was a success, people expected me to be much more interested in them than I was. But as for horror and goth culture, I’d been reading horror fiction since I was a young kid, and I think I got interested in goth due to some music my first boyfriend introduced me to. I wouldn’t say either one was a particular escape from the rigors of school. The closest thing I ever had to that was an underground newspaper I published in my sophomore and junior years, The Glass Goblin, which helped me to meet a bunch of the other “weird” kids I hadn’t known before. Have you ever had a vision or seen a ghost? No. I am totally insensitive.

What was the scariest moment of your life? I guess when I had to take my husband to the emergency room one night for chest pains. It turned out to be muscle strain from reaching up to a shelf above his station to get dishes (he’s a chef), but for the hour or two that I thought he might be having a heart attack, I was frozen to the bone. The only thing that rivals that would be the days following the storm and the failure of the federal levees, when we realized how long it might be before we could get back into New Orleans, but as I say, a lot of that time is mercifully hazy. You mentioned that since the hurricane you’ve been getting panic attacks. How do you deal with them? My husband helps me a lot. He’s the stability in my life. And I take Xanax. Thank God for Xanax! I read on your website that you’re now “tired of all this pale-faced goth stuff.” Considering you are the literary goth queen to many, how and when did that happen? I don’t consider myself to have ever been “the literary goth queen” to anybody. Writers aren’t responsible for the idiotic ways in which publishers choose to market them. When I was interested in goth culture, I wrote about it. When I became interested in other things, I wrote about them. I don’t have anything against goth—after all, it’s been good to me—but I’m no longer familiar with the bands, the fashions, the parties, etc., and I’m about as well equipped to write about them as Tim Conway would be. Do people ever stalk you? Yeah, I get the occasional weirdo. I’ve got resources to deal with it—not money, but friends who can find things out and take action if necessary. My rule of thumb is that the stalkers who “love” you tend to be a lot scarier than the ones who “hate” you. I love your essay, “Enough Rope,” about having gender dysphoria and feeling like a gay man. You wrote that about ten years ago. Do you still feel the same way? Minor things about my life have changed since then, as well as a few major ones—I now find it extremely easy to be monogamous, and what a relief that is—but as a statement of my overall experience with gender dysphoria, I think “Enough Rope” still stands up pretty well. For those who haven’t read it, could you summarize your experience with feeling out of touch with your gender and the way you’ve dealt with people who don’t get it? I identify as male, and as gay. Some people would call me a non-operative transsexual, since I’ve never made any attempt to transition or even to appear male. I’m pretty comfortable with who I am now—having a partner who understands all this helps tremendously. I don’t really make much attempt to deal with people who don’t get it. If their ideas about gender and sexuality are too narrow to include me, I hardly need their approval. Right on. And finally: If you had to pick one outfit to wear when you’re 60 years old, what would it be? A custom-fitted tuxedo.