Interview With Poppy Z. Brite
By Rain Graves
The first book I ever read by Poppy Z. Brite was a borrowed, worn, paperback of DRAWING BLOOD, thrust into my hands by my eager friend Blue, who said, "You've got to read this. I don't like to loan books out because I tend to never get them back--but you really need to check this out." So I did. It was enough to make me laugh and cry--but what really got me was how it made my teeth hurt and my crotch wet all at the same time.
Ever since then I've done my best to read everything I could readily get my hands on by Brite--including paying way too much for some harder to find anthologies like DEAD END: CITY LIMITS, which housed "The Ash of Memory, The Dust of Desire." The paperback of DRAWING BLOOD, I remember, was mailed several times by Blue around the country to other enthusiasts who didn't always have the cash for trying their luck with a newer author. At the time, Brite's fiction was still relatively fresh-meat--but infamous in its spicy, chilling, design.
Infamy sucks flies to a pig trough like bees to honey. As her repetoir of books grew from LOST SOULS, DRAWING BLOOD, WORMWOOD (originally SWAMP FOETUS), editing the LOVE IN VEIN anthologies, to COURTNEY LOVE: THE REAL STORY, EXQUISITE CORPSE, THE CROW: LAZARUS HEART and finally, ARE YOU LOATHSOME TONIGHT (not including the limiteds, short fiction, and chapbooks in between), it became understood that if you were well read in horror, you'd be well versed in things like Stephen King, Richard Laymon, Jack Ketchum, Lee & Pelan, Lovecraft (which is always a given--though I don't always agree with the why), and Poppy Z. Brite.
At the time LOST SOULS was published, she was the innovator. No other female author, other than Lucy Taylor, had a voice so shocking. No one was so fearless in her provocative nature, and no one could write a believable, strong, non-cliché, gay, male character without having been one in reality, like Brite could.
If you haven't read Poppy Z. Brite by now, you haven't read good horror.
Peer with me into the mind of a totally cool freak.
Rain Graves: How did you get your start in Fiction?
Poppy Z. Brite: I've been writing fiction since I can remember, probably as a result of my mother constantly reading to me. I first got published at age 18, in The Horror Show magazine, after 6 years of submitting stories to various, mostly inappropriate markets.
RG: Speaking of writing young, what sort of a response have you gotten from the additional tape of "The Bad Mouse" included with the leather bound limited edition (Gauntlet Press) of ARE YOU LOATHSOME TONIGHT? What were they feeding you as a child?
PZB: People like it, but no one seems to agree with me that it was my masterpiece and it's all been downhill from there. My favorite food at that age was mustard sandwiches, but I also ate a lot of boiled crabs, crawfish, banana popsicles, and raspberry sherbet. None of which, to my knowledge, were dosed.
RG: Where do you do your research for a novel like EXQUISITE CORPSE? Do you go out of town or rely on local resources?
PZB: Hee ... I like the implications of this question. I'd been reading about serial killers for years, so I didn't have to do much research in that area. Most of my research had to do with AIDS, which was sadly easy to investigate right here in New Orleans. As for autopsies and other fun with coroners, I've done them both here and afield.
RG: Wait. When you say you've "done" autopsies, do you mean you have actually performed them, or just witnessed them up-close and personal-like?
PZB: Well, I assisted the pathologist -- got to do a little cutting, take the brain out of the skull -- but all this was in a most unofficial capacity and probably highly illegal.
RG: Do you have trouble with the stigma of goth/vampire writer-or is that something that doesn't bother you at all?
PZB: Hate it! -- not so much the goth as the vampire. I'm proud of LOST SOULS, but it's ONE BOOK out of an ongoing career. The trouble with publishing a vampire story as your first novel is that people expect you to go on writing them forever, and the precedent is certainly there, but such repetition never interested me. Still, that doesn't keep people from assuming -- I've seen DRAWING BLOOD and EXQUISITE CORPSE described as "vampire novels" by people who were selling them, and so really ought to have known better.
RG: Did you enjoy working on the LOVE IN VEIN projects? Were they embryos of your own mind, or something planned out as an idea from the publisher? Any plans for a third volume, or a different sort of collection?
PZB: The publisher, Harper Prism, approached me and veteran anthologist Martin Greenberg (my phantom co-editor) about editing them. I wouldn't have chosen vampires as a subject, but apparently they are guaranteed sellers, and I was excited about the chance to solicit short fiction (my favorite form) from writers I admired. Caitlin Kiernan and I are currently shopping a third volume, but we're a long way from starting to read submissions, so please, everyone, don't send me vampire stories!
RG: I understand Darren McKeeman has you giving "Advice to the love-lorn" over at Gothic.Net. At first I thought it might be completely comedic-but when I read the first few, I saw you were actually giving serious, sound advice (with a dark twist). Do you think you'll tire of being a baby-bat-and-agonized-darkling's surrogate psycho-ciatrist, or is this something you think you might do for quite a while? Do you ever get any letters that are just too fucked up to print?
PZB: I take my cue from the letters. If someone asks me a serious question, which lots of people do, I'm not going to give them some smart-ass answer just to be clever. I don't know that I'm terribly qualified to give advice to anyone, but I am older than most of the people who write in and have already been through several of the angst-ridden situations they describe, so maybe I can keep some of them from making those same stupid mistakes. (I think there are a couple of funny letters in the current issue, though.) I enjoy the column and will continue doing it as long as my time allows and Darren wants me to. We don't have the space to answer every letter, but I have never received one that was too fucked-up to print; however, I do get how-can-I-get-published letters, which I don't answer because that's not what the column is about.
RG: What caused you to write the COURTNEY LOVE biography? Did you enjoy doing a biography as opposed to fiction, or was it just the satisfaction of a curiosity for learning something in-depth and personal about a controversial figure?
PZB: What I enjoyed most was getting to explore a strong, central female character in a way I had never managed to do in fiction. What I enjoyed least was sacrificing the right to be God. I give my characters a lot of control, but in fiction I always have choices. With a biography, you don't figure out what happens next -- it's already laid out for you. This made the writing somewhat easier, but not as much of an adventure.
RG: Your fiction gets pretty visceral and graphic at times. What sort of thing grosses you out?
PZB: Centipedes, Stealth technology (the sight of those planes causes a visceral terror reaction in me), snot, puke, and certain ex-boyfriends.
RG: Have you ever dreamt you were a man?
PZB: Here's what I wrote about it in the anthology DICK FOR A DAY. "In my dreams, I have a dick. Not in all of them, only in the good ones ... The first time I dreamed of having a dick, I was seven. I was standing in the bathroom wearing a pair of big white boxer shorts, and attached to my body was a new organ filled with wonderful sensation. The sensuality of the dream was marred only slightly by the fact that I was Tom Bosley of 'Happy Days.'"
RG: What can you tell me about the projects you are in between right now? I understand one of them is a novella for Subterranean Press.
PZB: I'm about halfway through that. I'm also constantly working on short pieces -- fiction and articles. In the past year I've done work for Nerve, Details, Cosmopolitan, and the MATRIX website; I also have stories coming up in the anthologies TAPS AND SIGHS, HELLBOY (not sure if this is the correct title), an as-yet-untitled anthology of ghost stories edited by Dmitri Kakmi of Australia, and the e-zine GettingIt.com.
RG: Tell me about your nerd-girl past...
PZB: I was more or less OK until seventh grade. Junior high and high school sucked for me in much the same way they did for other freaks. See WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE for details. Eventually I realized I would never fit in and there was no point in trying, and I started an underground newspaper, and things were a lot better after that.
RG: What sort of underground newspaper?
PZB: It was called THE GLASS GOBLIN, and was heavily influenced by Harlan Ellison, John Lennon, and Cris Neumann (a punk kid I had a huge crush on as a sophomore -- I've always had a thing for Christophers -- I've dated, like, five of them and am now married to one. But that's a bit off the subject, isn't it?). I wrote and drew everything for it -- comics, record reviews, and naively idealistic "political" articles that explored everything from racism to class ranking-by-numbers. The administration wasn't crazy about it, but most of the teachers stood up for me (!), and I was able to publish it for about 2 1/2 years.
RG: What has been the reaction of the gay community to your characterizations? Do they feel you portray sympathetic and multidimensional characters or do they feel you exoticise them, being a female author writing them, much like the author of MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA has been criticized for writing about Asian women?
PZB: I've only had bad reactions to EXQUISITE CORPSE. Apparently some readers see it as gay-bashing. That certainly wasn't my intention, and I think that in light of my other work this ought to be obvious. In general, gay readers say they find my sex scenes realistic and erotic, and they seem to like that my characters are matter-of-factly gay; I don't make a big issue of it, it's just a given part of their lives. And my most treasured fan mail comes from young gay readers who say my work made them feel less alone or gave them courage to come out.
RG: Your fans tend to regard you as something of a "Queen of Kink," based on what you write. Is this true of your private life as well? What can we expect is a normal day-in-the-life of Poppy Z. Brite?
PZB: I've tried a lot of things, but now I am settled down, married, and monogamous, and I'm more like the Queen of Vanilla! My normal day includes coffee, a lot of reading, and time spent with my husband and pets. The only exciting thing is that I do a lot of traveling. I go to New York and Amsterdam often. I also love Italy, England, France, and Jamaica, and one of these days I'm gonna get to Asia.
RG: How many songs do you know off the Mary Poppins Soundtrak?
PZB: All of them! I have the picture disk and the video.
RG: You've exemplified an amazing ability to write strong male main characters both straight and gay. Why don't you write more strong female main characters?
PZB: See above, re: Courtney Love. It's a deficiency I'm trying to work on. I think I'll always feel more drawn to male characters, but I have come to know so many strong, fascinating women in real life that I finally want to explore them in fiction. I love Lucrece DuBois in THE LAZARUS HEART -- she is a transsexual, but she's certainly a "real girl." And several of my recent short stories have female protagonists.
RG: Have you ever invested a significant amount of time writing a story only to finally dump it for lack of self interest?
PZB: All the time. I only finish maybe a third of the things I start. But I Save everything; sometimes I'll come upon a paragraph in a notebook from two years ago and finally feel inspired to turn it into a story.
RG: Has anyone approached you with movie offers for any of your books (including the COURTNEY LOVE biography)? If so, is anything in production, and will you be writing the script? If not, would you actually be interested in seeing your work butchered by Hollywood, much like Neil Gaiman went through with the SANDMAN movie?
PZB: The biography would require Courtney's approval if anyone wanted to film it. Nothing has sold, so far, except my short story "The Sixth Sentinel" to "The Hunger" (a Canadian TV show). Screenwriting doesn't interest me at all, so I suppose I would have to accept the depredations of Hollywood.
RG: You mentioned before the getting-to-be "God" factor, and I've read other interviews where you've said you can be a bit of a control freak. Would it be hard for you to relinquish that kind of creative control over the script? I, personally, would hate to see what they might change or cut out when scripting a book like DRAWING BLOOD, (which incidentally, is still my favorite).
PZB: The closest thing I ever had to a "serious" offer was for DRAWING BLOOD. Two woman were writing a spec script and wanted me on board as producer if it turned into a movie. I met with one of them, and she had some really cool ideas, and I thought we were on the same page until near the end of the meeting, when she said, "Oh, by the way, the two main characters can't be gay."
I realize that compromises and corruptions of this sort are inevitable when you're dealing with Hollywood, but if anyone wants to do that to one of my books, they're just going to have to pay me a huge amount of money and then leave me out of it. I'll sell and relinquish control, but I won't give it my blessing. I think Neil Gaiman put it best when he said you shouldn't be asked to cut the fingers off your own baby. You can sell the baby to somebody else and let _them_ cut the fingers off, but you shouldn't be asked to do it yourself.
Of course there are those fans who will say I should NEVER consider selling anything to the movies unless I retain complete creative control. I appreciate the idealism, but I suspect these particular fans have never had to support themselves -- let alone a family -- on a freelance writer's income. If somebody offers me an amount of money that I can live on for a year or more, of course I'm going to take it, for the same reason I agreed to do the Courtney Love bio and the Crow novel: to ensure that I can write whatever else I want, when I want to write it, without having to rush to meet a publisher's deadline and settle for a compromise in quality. Money buys you time and freedom. If that makes me a whore, then Whore Be I! End of sermon.
RG: Lastly-I have a question regarding a certain incident Ian McDowell explained to me once. He and I both have a "burning" desire to know what the final outcome would have been, when years ago during a convention, Ian had passed out on the floor, only to wake finding a friend and yourself hovering over him, giggling, trying to unzip (or were they already unzipped?) his pants, holding a rather handsome wooden dildo... Can you "Write What Happens Next?"
PZB: I believe it was a double-ended black latex dildo -- but I can't keep track of my huge collection. And we weren't going to do anything terribly bad to Ian, just insert the thing in his fly so it would look like he had a big black schlong hanging out. Well ... and maybe take a few Polaroids.
RG: Was this your favorite dildo at the time, or just some random rod grabbed from the pile? One has to know how important he is, on the scale of dildoes.
PZB: All the dildoes were going up my ex-boyfriend's butt, not mine, so you'd have to ask him. I selected that particular dildo simply because I thought it would look magnificent hanging out of Ian's trousers. For Ian's peace of mind I should probably clarify that it had been disinfected.
RG: Oh yes. I forgot. Two ply, or quilted?
PZB: As long as I have T.P. for my bunghole, I'm happy. It's a thrill to see Mr. Whipple coming out of retirement, though -- I always had a crush on him.
RG: Mr. Whipple? Ok...forgive me if I don't see the alluring fantasy there. Care to enlighten?
PZB: What can I say? I just like old, nerdy guys. I'll further disgrace myself by admitting I have a hard-on for Ken Starr. Maybe it's a father figure thing, but I'm not gonna get all Freudian here.