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In her debut novel Zipper Mouth (Feminist Press), Laurie Weeks—in wry, experimental, epistolary fashion—gives us a younger, dirtier East Village from the perspective of a drugged-up, wise-cracking lesbian who has an unrequited crush on her beautiful and unavailable best friend Jane. Everything just hums, from a dream about a motherless monster to under-the-influence conversations that amuse with their depiction of the very stoned (“Why are vegetables so hard?”). Even what otherwise might be forgettable background—a sketch of macho Wall St. types “bursting with generalized contempt”—becomes a little revelation:
It’s like these kids woke up in their little spaceship pajamas and stepped into the paradigm of successful manhood, standing like an open sarcophagus next to the bed, an animatronic container for their lives.
It’s a sentiment right out of downtown in the ‘80s, when Weeks began her superstardom in the NYC writing world, and right out of Zuccotti Park today. That’s part of the appeal of the novel—it’s nostalgic without losing contemporary relevance.
Weeks has been published in Vice, Nest, LA Weekly, and Semiotext(e)’s The New Fuck You. A portion of Zipper Mouth appeared recently in Dave Eggers’ The Best American Nonrequired Reading. She has toured the U.S. with the girl-punk group Sister Spit. In this Q&A with Lambda Literary, Weeks talks about writing, both her own and others, John Cassavetes, and what she’s reading now.
I love how the line “This pot was strong. And Jane’s hair was many, many things” sums up the hilarious melodrama of young, unrequited love. Did you have to tap into some old memories to write this?
I use everything but I’m not interested in simple recitation of autobiographical occurrences that issue from a supposedly static reality because for me anyway that’s not helpful, it almost blinds me. I want to dive into mystery. Since birth I’ve craved all things psychedelic, the energy and beauty of it. The pleasure. It’s not so much that I “tapped” into old memories but rather that my body, my entire being, is an unstable field of experiential data—faint scenes, the voices and words of everything I’ve seen or read, the knots of confusion where language struggles for interpretive control of sensation and perception, and I’m writing from within that field to explore and contest the numbness, narrowing of vision, the mandated destruction of imagination that turns one into an abstraction to oneself. An obedient one. Simply, for example, by trying to pin you down to a single, fixed identity based on artificial categories of hierarchy and value that discipline and punish according to the needs of power.
Everything in this book and most things I’ve written arise from this entity called me, which is actually a multitude of “me”s or “me-fragments” that I picture as tiny exiled beings with their own desires and agendas flitting about in my subtle energy body, just outside visual range, like infrared light or planets undetectable by telescope which nonetheless reveal themselves through their effects on other bodies in the vicinity.
I’m interested in making a space where this raw material of living can be transmuted alchemically into something radiant and ecstatic with all its shadows and failures and contradictions intact. I’m in love with language and making things, and the challenge of conjuring images that capture forces running through my body, or that in some way allow fragile, infinitesimal mind-body states to directly enter the reader’s nervous system before they’re run through the sterilizing, normalizing filter of supposed rationality. And I might contradict that later, change my mind, it’s always in flux.
So, yeah, my life is my laboratory, the raw material is there, but the narrator is and is-not me—because I can play around with her and have fun with her delusional ponderings, for example.
When I’m writing, something else, maybe another “I” takes over, generating alter-egos so the “I” in the story is utterly different than the “I” in my journal, though it’s fun to start with some line from a journal and see what happens. Also in my opinion you need humor, a light touch, to keep things from getting too sodden with your own pathos. It’s the magic zone, where, as someone said, “the supposed surety of fact exchanges clothes with the illusion of fiction.”
Why do you think coming-of-age novels have a kind of immediacy and storytelling power regardless of whether you’re coming-of-age yourself or are in another stage altogether?
Maybe because most readers can identify on a very deep level with those times when you’re utterly lost and possessed by shattering intensities of feeling and desire for which you as yet have no way of articulating, unless you’re on one of those teenage shows like The OC. Younger people (weird phrase) are punished and ostracized if they dare to speak without pre-approval. The teenager ridiculed for pointing out the hypocrisy and lies which are the medium she moves through is left with terrible isolation, rage, shame, self-hatred. . . . Maybe as you grow older a self-protective process of hardening-resignation-detachment occurs, which might be a relief at first but eventually you discover it can be another isolating curse and realize you’ve walled yourself off from pain but also joy—you’ve favored fear of being hurt over the ecstatic moments of a time like that, and I can imagine great gulfs of regret and nostalgia for a time in life when you were totally open and therefore vulnerable to pure pain—you resonate with that earlier half-forgotten state, grieve its loss, see the sacredness of your experiences
By the time you’re twelve years old, say, there’s so much unexpressed stuff stored in your body that’s dying to tell what happened and how it felt, and some events—even seemingly inconsequential ones, a simple overheard sentence, for example—provoke emotional and cognitive states so intense yet unfathomable that they demand to be listened to, erupting as images that become more concentrated and invested with mysterious import each time they offer themselves to your imagination for replay and analysis. My theory is that if you’re still young when you finally write this story, the intensity can be especially transporting.
It’s like Gena Rowlands says in John Cassavetes’s film Opening Night, “When I was seventeen my emotions were so close to the surface,” or something, and it’s sad to lose that intensity and profundity. Another thing: Everybody carries somewhere in their bodies or body/minds—ugh, the binary either/or scars of original ontological shock, like the story of the little robin in Zipper Mouth—and it’s healing, I guess, to be able to connect to that through someone else’s experience of that pivotal zap from the existential taser.
Drug focused writing—from William Burroughs and Jim Carroll to Denis Johnson and Bill Clegg—can be unforgettable. Akashic Books has even devoted a new series to it. Why do you think it’s so compelling?
This is a complicated question that has everything to do with authoritarian control over the way people think and imagine, and in which ways they are allowed to develop or explore their full psychic potential.
I think the simple answer is that these books might only be compelling here in the US and wherever else drugs are outlawed in an authoritarian way. On some level books like that reveal the terrible emotional and spiritual impoverishment of the US, the only standpoint from which I can speak.
There’s a lot of great writing and research going on now which makes it crystal clear that the pursuit of altered states of consciousness has been a virtually universal practice since day one, whether through substances or body-based practices like extended fasting, meditation, etc. Almost every culture has or still does use plant-based substances in a ritualized fashion—shamanic practices around the world, say—for healing and celebratory purposes as well as the induction of journeys into invisible realms that historically have been taken for granted as being as “real” and populated by sentient beings as this particular level of reality (if that’s what you want to call life in the US).
People seek transcendence, ecstatic states, insight—and the exploration of the limits of consciousness has generally been considered to be a requirement for mental health and spiritual growth. Certainly our bodies seem constructed—in terms of receptors in the brain and throughout the body—to facilitate the activation of neural networks by plants with certain molecular structures that are related to our brain chemistry, and our own brains secrete DMT, which is the active ingredient in, for example, Ayahuasca. But in cultures that use substances in a ritualized fashion, there is also a feeling of deep connection with the natural world—or not even connection. There’s just no separation.
But in the US the exploration of consciousness and its powers—or really any curiosity about anything at all—is actively discouraged, because the system is so corrupt that it depends on people being virtually unconscious all the time. Burroughs cracked that code long ago. Spirituality here equals money; no one seems to be able to think, never mind explore their own consciousness.
So I think that many people are interested in these books because on some level they themselves resonate with that deep desire to go exploring beyond the boundaries of quotidian consciousness.
Zipper Mouth seems filled with nostalgia for a bygone, dirty glam era of New York. Is this a story you’ve been thinking about writing for a while?
That’s a perfectly reasonable question, but anyone who knows me would find it hilarious because I use sections of prose that have been floating around for years and move things toward and away from each other until I feel that groove thang in my body that indicates some kind of sensual narrative logic is creating itself. I don’t write for months, even years at a time. I was writing other things all the time but this book was in boxes, thousands of pages, thousands of segments to put together like a puzzle, and I’d get so overwhelmed by the possibilities of different structuring tacts that it was paralyzing. And again, I didn’t know how the book was going to come out. I never know what’s going to happen because I have to surprise myself and hopefully the reader, or what’s the point? So I have an incredibly slow process that involves neurosis obviously, tons of material generated by cut-ups and any other technique that will keep my conscious, self-policing mind preoccupied, so that my creative mind, such as it is, can take pleasure in suturing millions of things together with images coming in from my own experience.
So the story didn’t present itself to me nor did I make a conscious decision to write it. Sometimes you’re compelled to keep going no matter what, driven by some kind of incontestable conviction, a full-body knowing, that it will get done and needs to get done. Plus the cheap issue of pride helps—I wanted to write a book so I told people I was writing a book and then I had to figure out what this material wanted to grow into, what kind of a flower it wanted to be. For some reason I had a deep trust that it would work out.
What are you reading these days?
I’m reading Justin Bond’s book Tango: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels. And all I have to say is thank god for that.