Dennis Cooper isn't a monster, but his books are. Ever since discovering the work of the Marquis de Sade at the tender age of 15, Cooper has spent his life devoted to writing merciless, gruesome fiction of the highest artistic caliber. His books are appalling, hypnotic, and exquisitely depraved, but if you can stomach your way through a whole novel, you might find yourself enlightened by its darkness.
Dennis always seems to be telling the same stories: all of his work dwells on adolescent horniness with reverence and tenderness. But while Cooper repeats the same narrative, he does so in endlessly various ways. While the consistently scandalous content of his books is what earned his notoriety, the structural virtuosity of his writing is what has garnered critical acclaim. He treats his prose, poetry, comic books, plays, and personal blog with the careful, precise touch of a surgeon who's elbows-deep in a patient's innards.
Finally, after years of anticipation, Cooper is poised to bring his vision to the movie screen with the premiere of his first original film. Like Cattle Towards Glow follows 13 young characters who find themselves in confusing and threatening situations by way of their sexual misadventures. In advance of the film's premiere in Paris this Friday, VICE spoke with Dennis about anarchism, the gay agenda, and giving his readers complicated erections.
VICE: I'm calling you from LA, which is the quintessential, wasteland-like Cooper setting—do you make it back to your hometown very often?
Dennis Cooper: I come back at least once a year because LA has the best Halloween. I'm obsessed with the haunted houses there—it's like the castles of Halloween, and there's hundreds of them.
Let's discuss your movie. Can you tell me what led you to working on a film? Readers of your blog know that this movie has been in the making for a really long time.
It kind of has a weird back-story because... About seven years ago I mentioned somewhere online, maybe on my blog, that I'd always wanted to make a porn movie. And this guy in the porn industry wrote to me, "I can get that made if you really want to do it, I have connections in the porn industry and I can get that made." I asked him "What are the guidelines? What sort of rules should I follow?" He told me to do anything I wanted, that there weren't any guidelines.
So, I wrote this script, and then when I gave it to him, it was just extremely impossible to make: It was too controversial, it was too arty. He tried to get it made and no one would touch it, so it died. But a few years later, a producer asked me for about the script again. My friend Zac [Farley] talked to me about it and said he wanted to direct it, so we rewrote it together. Zac directed the film, and Scott Michael Salerno did the cinematography, but everything else we did collaboratively—casting, everything.
Can you briefly explain Like Cattle Towards Glow?
It's in five parts—each part is a different story with different actors in it. It's a strange movie, it's very slow and deep in a way, but it's also very intense. Each of the scenes is about sex in some way, but in different ways—it's sort of about confusion about sex. It's not a porn movie anymore, but there is some explicit sex in it.
The first story is about this gothic guy who's a prostitute and sells himself as a dead body for people to have sex with. So in his story, this guy hires him and something goes wrong... Then there's one about this guy who's a spoken word artist who works with an electronic noise musician. They're doing a performance and the audience attacks the guy and rapes him on the floor while he's doing the performance. Then there's one about this girl and boy who live in the forest and dress up as monsters, and they kidnap a skateboarder and kill him. And there's another about this woman who's keeping elaborate surveillance on this young guy who lives in a bunker on the beach. I don't know... people should see [the movie] because it's actually really very cool.
I'm an anarchist, so I don't believe in collective identity. Even though I'm gay, I've never written about 'what gay guys do,' you know?
What is it that compels you write about pretty boys getting killed so much? Why is it such a recurring thing?
Well, of course the real answer is that I have no idea, because if I did, I wouldn't do it. I don't know where that comes from—I started using those motifs when I was a teenager, and obviously when I was thinking about it as a teenager, I was thinking about it being the young one. And now I'm much older and I'm still writing about it, and I'm not really the young one anymore. So... I don't really know. There's something about it that's very scary to me; I've always been fascinated by objectification. I really dislike it because when you objectify someone you're basically depersonalizing them and turning them into an example of a kind of beauty or attractiveness that you're into. And I think that when I was younger, especially, I was around people who were really, really taken advantage of for that—people who happened to be attractive, and so others would just do anything to get them, and then they would just drop them. So even though they said and sometimes even believed that they were actually interested in the person, it was all just this elaborate flirtation that was really about "conquering" the cute guy. I find that really disturbing, and I find it really fascinating that people do that to each other. I don't know why, but it's something that obviously interests me so much that I write about it a lot and I try to understand what's happening there.
When you write a story, whatever format it's in, how is it that you find a starting point to your creative process? Do you start working with thematic ideas, or specific details in the story?
It's not characters or stories or anything like that, because I don't care about those things. I use them as devices to get people to read, because people want those things, but they don't really interest me that much.
I tend to write about a similar thing all the time. I'm very confused about the stuff I write about, it's very compelling to me. The things that are confusing to me are the things that interest me. So, usually it comes from my need to represent something that's exciting me, confusing me, or scaring me. It's mostly emotional, really.
You said that your characters are devices to you—does that attitude extend to the way you use sex in your work?
It depends on what you mean because the sex in the book generally happens between the characters...
I mean, most writing about sex is incredibly banal. I'm not interested in giving people erections or anything—I'm interested in maybe giving them complicated erections—but the actual sex is not a device. But there are millions of devices that I use to try to get people to look at or read [my work], because I tend to write about things that are uncomfortable and disturbing. It's a matter of giving them some sort of eroticism and then undercutting it with something that's very disturbing or emotional and finding the right stew of stuff that will get it there.
There's been a lot of progress in the gay rights movement in my lifetime, and it's a much more visible movement than before. How does your work fit into that political movement, or how has it affected the way that you work?
First of all, I'm an anarchist, so I don't believe in collective identity. Even though I'm gay, I've never written about "what gay guys do," you know? I write about people who are off on their own and don't feel connected to anybody, regardless of what anyone else's sexual "thing" is. So it hasn't affected the way I think about things at all.
What really has happened is the more that "gay" got mainstreamed, the more stuff came out with gay themes in other mediums besides books. Because at first it was just books—when I was young, you just read books, because that's the only place you could find that stuff. Now there's movies and TV and everything, so gay guys don't read books anymore. So it's kind of interesting in that way—I think it actually fucked over a lot of gay writers who were writing for that audience because no one reads those books anymore. It didn't really affect me, though, because [my audience is different].
Actually, it's taken away a lot of the hostility towards what I do. When books were important to the gay movement there was a lot of hatred towards me because I wasn't sex-positive or whatever.
How is your work not sex-positive?
Because it doesn't present sex as a cathartic thing about love. It's not a celebration.
For your characters it is though...
Yeah, but there are those who want the portrayal of gays to be really positive and to speak to the world about how "normal" we are, and obviously the stuff I write about isn't like that.
It's so refreshing that you don't identify with the "gay" collective identity, or as a "gay artist." Most people these days seem to treat sexuality as a label and I think it limits what we can achieve.
The reason that the characters are gay in my books mostly is because it's just honest. That's who I am. It's not about identity.
Your work deals heavily with themes of alienation and isolation, to the point that sex becomes an act of depersonalized anatomical exploration, instead of a connection between people. I want to know whether love fits into this equation, and what connection you believe might exist between sex and romantic love.
Sometimes there's love, sometimes there isn't. I don't think the characters themselves would identify it as love—I think they'd see it as an artistic pursuit or the intake of information. I actually think that a significant part of the time [love] is what's actually going on, but they're afraid of that or not interested in the idea of love, so they don't actually talk about that at all.
People hardly ever talk about love in my work, although I think it might be going on. There's this total disconnect because the characters tend to be predators and victims. That's a really simplistic way to put it, but that's a dichotomy I work with a lot.
What is it that attracts you to that dynamic?
I'm very interested in power dynamics because of my interest in anarchism. There's a lot of intergenerational content in my work. Usually there's this older character that's going after the young one, and he might seem as if he's the power figure. Then the victim is usually passive and submissive and just wants to be wanted, and that would seem to be the weaker of the characters, but actually it's much more complex than that. I like contrast—it's easier to write about that stuff if you have contrasts. If you start to write about something like two guys in love, it ends up becoming kind of gooky because you have nothing to hang on—you just have two guys and they're both young, they're both attractive, one's a top and one's a bottom or something, and you end up writing this really boring stuff. But when you make characters really different from one another, [put them in opposition], and make them want different things instead of seeking to unite in blissful emotion, then it seems like sex is more interesting to write about or something.
What are your upcoming projects? Are you continuing making films or going back to your work as an author?
I put out this novel called Zac's Haunted House last year that's told entirely through animated .gifs. It's published by Kiddie Punk Press and is available to download or view online. I'm really excited about that [medium] and it's really fun to do, so I have a new one coming out called Zac's Control Panel that's going to be up on Kiddie Punk Press on September 10th.
Anyway, we're also doing another movie—we're looking for producers now. It's not a queer movie, it doesn't have sex in it, and it's about this guy who wants to explode. This young guy's goal is to explode, but he doesn't want to die, and he doesn't want anyone to think that he died when he exploded. He just wants people to think he exploded, and that the explosion is cool. So that's what it's about: a guy who's figuring out how to explode without dying.
Like Cattle Towards Glow debuts at L'Etrange Festival on Friday, September 11th in Paris, France.
Follow John on Twitter.