BY Drew Zeiba AND Dennis Cooper in Interviews | 02 DEC 21

Dennis Cooper’s Teenage Spirit

Drew Zeiba speaks to the novelist about his latest book I Wished, the importance of collaboration and why he hates adulthood 

BY Drew Zeiba AND Dennis Cooper in Interviews | 02 DEC 21

Drew Zeiba: In 2020, I saw a screening of the film you made with Zac Farley, Permanent Green Light (2018), at Balice Hertling in Paris. The gallery was also exhibiting paintings you’d collaborated on with Christoph von Weyhe. It seems like collaboration is central to your work. Has that always been important to you or has it grown more out of the necessity to work in different media?

Dennis Cooper: I have mostly been a writer. So I’ve been solitary for the most part, but I’ve always collaborated. I used to do performances with Ishmael Houston-Jones in the 1980s, early ’90s. I did a graphic novel with Keith Mayerson (Horror Hospital Unplugged, 1996). And more recently performing with Gisèle Vienne, as well.

I have always dreamt of making films, but I didn’t have any talent that way. I took film classes when I was in college, and I was like, ‘Okay, I’m just not good at this.’ It’s great because Zac has a very strong visual sense. He’s more visual than he is wordy and we’re just in sync mentally about everything. It’s collaborative, but we both feel like it’s our work. Everything is ours together. We write together, cast together, rehearse together, shoot together, edit together – everything.

THEM Dennis Cooper Ishmael Houston-Jones Chris Cochrane 1986 Dona Ann McAdams
Dennis Cooper, Chris Cochrane and Ishmael Houston-Jones in Them, 1986, performance view. Courtesy: © Dona Ann McAdams and Performance Space, New York; photograph: Dona Ann McAdams

DZ: You’ve also made GIF novels, webpage-based arrangements of animated GIFs as narratives that you started publishing in 2015. Do you find writing the GIF fictions different from writing books? Or even different from writing for film?

DC: I’m still interested in making the viewer do as much work as possible. Permanent Green Light is very controlled and organized, but you have to make a decision to engage with it. You must pay very close attention to the faces, to all of it. You have to put a lot into the film because the film isn’t giving you a lot. We don’t use music as triggers – it’s all diegetic in the scene. There’s no suspense. 

When it comes to making the film, you write a script and you have an idea of what the character is going to be like, and then you cast it, and then it’s like, ‘Okay, this is the face.’ You have to study their body language and what’s sympathetic about them, and what’s obnoxious about them, all that stuff. Rather than writing a novel, where it’s finished and you’re done, we were constantly reworking all the time, even on set. 

The GIF novels – even though it doesn’t look like it – I write exactly the way I write novels. Especially because my previous novel, The Marbled Swarm (2011), was going to this place that I really always wanted to go: this very abstract, complicated, layered environ where the characters in the story are all submerged in. And with GIF fiction you have to do that. You can’t do a story. You can’t do characters. I mean, you can in your head. It’s still writing fiction, but not with these flexible sentences. It’s these blocks of images that you combine. It’s very primitive in a certain way. It’s all about rhythm. It’s nice they’re showing them in galleries but I don't think of them as visual art at all. 

Dennis Cooper I Wished cover 2021 Penguin Random House
Dennis Cooper, I Wished, 2021. Courtesy: © Soho Press

DZ: You recently published your first novel in ten years, I Wished (2021), a sort of new instalment in your George Miles cycle. What was it like returning to the novel form after some time away from it?

DC: For a while I thought I didn’t want to write anymore. I had written this novel like five years ago and didn’t finish it. And then I started making films and GIF novels. It was refreshing to disperse ideas in these other forms. My whole life when I would get an idea I would immediately think, ‘It’s gonna be a novel.’ Now because I’m working in film and GIFs, I don’t go, ‘Here’s the idea’, and just slot into the structures of a novel immediately. I can say, ‘Okay, where does this belong?’

I got inspired and decided to go back to the book and I really enjoyed it. I forgot how much I like writing novels. I was like, ‘Oh, this feels like it’s like a warm bath or something.’ Although a really exhausting, stressful warm bath. I think I’ll probably keep writing novels. 

DZ: Many of your characters are adolescent, or they bear a significant relationship to adolescence. This is no less true in I Wished, where you revisit not only the youth of George Miles, but your own teenage years. Why is adolescence important to you?

DC: It’s a transitional space and it’s truly interesting. I decided to be a serious writer when I was 15 and I was terrible for a long time. I didn’t publish my first novel until I was in my thirties, but I really wanted to be a writer and I worked hard even when I was a teenager trying to write these experimental novels. What I was writing about was the stuff that I was going through: ‘Here’s the fucking adult world trying to control me and my friends and people don’t understand us and don’t respect us, blah blah blah.’ I think I got so deep into my thinking that it just kind of stayed as I got older.

I don’t like adulthood. I don’t like being an adult. It doesn’t interest me. Most of my friends are much younger than me and that has always been so. I mean, the only people who are my friends who are my age are weird artists such as Charles Ray. People who are just like children. Mike Kelley was like that. I don’t relate to adults.

Dennis Cooper Zac's Freight Elevator GIF Novel 2016
Dennis Cooper, Zac's Freight Elevator, a novel, 2016, multimedia installation. Courtesy: © the artist and Galerie Balice Hertling, Paris; photograph: Aurélien Mole

DZ: You mentioned the submerged nature of the characters in the GIF novels. There’s an extent to which this is true of the characterization in the print books as well. In previous conversations, you’ve described the people in the novels as less characters than ‘the most important configuration in the prose’. I’m wondering if that feels different with George this time around, who at least to me felt maybe more real than other versions in the cycle.

DC: In this book, I was really trying to negotiate my emotions and trying to be like, how do I articulate this and what distance do I take? How do I find a certain distance from what I’m feeling? Do I need to write an essay to get far away from what I’m feeling? Should I just cry? Or should I go into a fantasy fairytale world? I was modulating all the time, modulating George all the time. Initially, I was going to make him even more non-present and more abstract but it wasn’t emotional enough. That’s why there’s a section that recounts the night I met him, which was actually the original beginning of this novel. That’s all true, that section, and I decided to put it in because then George becomes a real person. I felt like I had to do that. I was trying to find a way to make him abstract, but also make him legible.

Main image: Dennis Cooper and Zac Farley, Permanent Green Light, 2018. Courtesy: © Zac Farley

Drew Zeiba is a writer of criticism, cultural journalism, and fiction. His work can be read in Artforum, New YorkMagazine, LitHub, and PIN–UP, of which he is associate editor. Recently, he contributed a text to the first monograph of Andy Warhol’s erotic drawings and co-created a video essay for the 13th Shanghai Biennale.

Dennis Cooper is an American novelist, poet, critic, editor and performance artist, best know for his book series 'the George Miles Cycle'. He lives between Los Angeles and Paris.