Kevin Killian: The Contingency Approach
Author: Bradford Nordeen
April 23, 2012
“…I realized there wasn’t any point in me trying to be the new Henry James, Marcel Proust or William Faulkner. Living in California, I think, helped this. California is like the home of failure, I suppose. Not only failure, but contingency, accidents and things falling apart, so that the best writing and art from here has always been… well… kind of half-assed – in the best sense! I realized it didn’t matter if something was good or not. It just had to be sufficiently gestural. And then I’d be satisfied with it. I don’t know if that made me a better writer, to realize that, but it made me a more confident one…”
Novelist and critic Kevin Killian is a master of a chameleon-like prose. Most closely associated with San Francisco’s New Narrative movement, at times bleak and at others hysterical, Killian can twist whatever project he’s yielding into a hilariously poignant prose that fuses light-handed gossip with the achingly personal. Killian and I sat down in San Francisco on the afternoon of February 11, to discuss six or so forthcoming projects, including his recently released novel Spreadeagle, his first novel in 15 years, and the re-publication of his first three novels.
Let’s just get this out of the way, shall we…can you talk a little bit about your infatuation with Kylie Minogue? Your past two books have been somewhat based around her, in one way or another, either from your last short story collection’s title to a book of poetry centered on her – or, at least, using her as a source of inspiration. Can you talk a little bit about your interest in using her or embracing her as your muse?
I did a lot of work on Jack Spicer, the poet, and after that I wrote a lot about Dario Argento.
I could see that by the time I finished working with Spicer – not that I’m finished with him yet – but he was kind of unknown, unpublished, and now people are learning to read his poems in college. He’s in all the anthologies and he’s major. And with Argento, he was not really an unknown figure but he was in the poetry world and I wrote so many poems invoking his films as a prism to view the AIDS crisis that, by the end, people were going “Wow, that’s Argento-esque!” In this case it was easy to write this material; I was drawn to each artist because they were great. Spicer was a great poet – that was apparent to me form the beginning. And Argento is a great filmmaker – or at least he was when I was doing this work.
And I said to myself, perplexed, “Does it really make any difference how good they are? That’s all in the eye of the beholder. Maybe if someone wrote for ten years about someone who had no talent at all, that person would still advance a little into the canon of respectability.” I said, “but who is that artist who has no talent?” and I couldn’t think – except, this one weekend, shortly afterwards, I had this strange experience – this was in ’98, something like that – and I heard the name Kylie Minogue three or four times during this one weekend from all different contexts and I said, this is a magical confluence that, maybe not God, but something was telling me, “Go in this direction! Investigate! Who is Kylie Minogue?”
So I did. And this was at a time when she actually didn’t have a record label. When she had tried to…
When she did Impossible Princess (Kylie’s Indie album)
Yes, she did Impossible Princess, a personal, uncommercial type of album, like Tori Amos. She thought, this was the way to go, to become independent. And it worked for her in a way, she got more credibility, but with only a very tiny number of people. None of whom lived in America. So I got her greatest hits, listened to it and I was just appalled at how bad it was. How awful she sings, the thin, manufactured quality of her voice, the inane things she sings about. And I thought, “Maybe this is it. The artist without talent!” And I would write poems about her, different things I found out about her, different tracks that she was covering.
It took a while, Bradford, but I do think if you worship someone for enough time, they will become valuable to you, because all of a sudden, I turned a corner and I thought, “you know, she’s not so bad.” Next corner is, “she’s beautiful.” Next corner, “you know her voice is actually pretty good.” And then the final corner, that “she is the greatest entertainer of all time.” So that’s where I am now. I’ve never really switched from that. And yet, I can see why people dismiss her. During those years, I think I was enjoying the fact that I was writing about a woman who – literally – nobody else I knew had ever heard of. But then in 2001, she had an enormous comeback here in the US and her song, “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” became number 1 right around the time of 9/11 like, that moment really belonged to Kylie – and the Al Qaeda. And then everyone knew it, so some of the shine was off of my secret.
Well, one man had heard of her. In fact, he’s the leading expert on her: John
Ashbery, America’s greatest poet. So that was pretty amazing, and I think that gave me more courage to go on.
But pop informs so much of your practice, while you’re still writing very much experimental prose. What is it about pop? I mean, did the interest in pop come out of Kylie? It didn’t so much, though, because you were always incorporating David Bowie song lyrics and things like that in your earlier work. What is it that inspires you about pop to then bring it into a more experimental format?
That’s a great question but I really don’t know. I think that songs that were number one were really important to me as a kid. Who was your favorite movie star, all those kinds of questions – what’s your favorite color – where much more on my mind than, who do you prefer, Merleau or Ponty? And so I naturally levitated to this low level. You know, of course it was very rich in the mulch of the imagination, my emotional life, my personal life, my sexual life…
And pop is also useful for reaching out to readers through the kind of shared experience it solicits, a kind of collective memory. Did you experience any of that with your work about Kylie? I mean, I can imagine there are a lot more people who would read poetry about Argento than Kylie fans who would read poetry about their princess. Did a lot of people gravitate toward the Argento Series because of their shared love for Argento?
Yes and they were profoundly disappointed. Many copy of the Argento Series were returned to the publisher, because… basically Argento fans would say “I was sold a bill of goods – it’s not about Argento at all!” and the same with Action Kylie – there’s so little in it about Kylie, although her name and picture are all over the cover.
A mutual friend gave her a copy of the book not too long ago. And from what I understand she accepted it very politely and said, “It’s flattering to have a book of poetry written about me.” But I’m terrified of what would happen if she actually opened the book! [laughs]
Do you think she did?
I would! Maybe everything that she actually touches–that’s a book–is about her, so the thrill might be off.
Tell me a bit about what’s probably your most prolific project, The Amazon Reviews, and how that started?
Well, it came from a low blow in my life, when I had a heart attack and I was put on a regimen of drugs to maintain my blood pressure and all kinds of things. The drugs had the effect of making me really high all of the time and super happy. So happy that I gave up writing entirely, maybe for a year. I’d had my moment in the sun – I had a shelf full of books and I said, “I’m just going to rest on my laurels for the rest of my life and I’ll become an ex-writer.” And, after a bit, I wearied of my inactivity. It wasn’t that I knew how to finish a sentence, but still, I didn’t want to be an ex-writer. “I’ve got to figure out a way to write something.” And Dodie [Bellamy, Killian’s wife and sometimes collaborateur] said, “Why don’t you write for Amazon? It’s not that you have no opinions, it’s just that you have no vocabulary. Every time you go to the movies you say, ‘oh, that was great!’” She said, “It worked for Warhol, it could work for you. Just write it down, put it on Amazon and they’ll publish it. It could be one word.” And, do you know, I’ve recently realized that Amazon has changed their policy and they will no longer publish reviews of one word, but then they did.
Did you do many one-word reviews?
Yeah! Like “Incredible!” [laughs] or “That Sucked!”
Well, that’s two.
Two words… then three words, four words, five words. I was feeling it, getting more confidence all the time. Finally I had a sentence. Then two sentences, three sentences, like a little paragraph. I began reviewing anything – not only books or movies or records but you know, [picks up an object on the table] these plaster pineapples, you could find on Amazon and write about them. That bottle of J&B you could write about.
And there’s reviews of objects that I imagine you’d never even touched or seen in real life. Is that true?
No. There was one book that I reviewed that I didn’t read: Deaf Women of Canada.
I remember reading a review you did of a lycra thong, or something of that nature, and you got very in depth in the way that the white lycra thong was constructed, woven… Had you actually gone out and touched that thong?
Sure! Especially when I was high. It was just my mood. A lot of my reviews turned into being about texture and feeling, you know the way it is when you’re super stoned things feel so strange, bizarre lovely and scary. Maybe a year went by and I was writing what we in the composition business call the three-paragraph essay, and I realized, in my shock, that all of this heavy practice had returned my ability to write in general and I could write again. I could write heavily theoretical essays. It was all back thanks to my Amazon reviews, but at that time I looked back and they numbered them – they know how many you’ve written – and they said I’d written 1,400 [laughs] and I was in the top 100 reviewers – and that’s a category all by itself. When you’re in the top 100 reviewers on Amazon, it’s like you’re in the royal family.
Not everyone liked what I wrote. I think I had the highest percentage of votes that said, “No, I did not find this helpful,” but I plugged along and some people started noticing, “Gee, maybe that’s that same Kevin Killian, the novelist who’s doing these reviews.” And a friend who’s a poet said, “I want to do a book of these reviews.” I said, “Well that’d be crazy. Who would buy it? All of these reviews are available free up on Amazon.” He said, “Let us handle the marketing of your book.” So I said, “All right, you can handle the editing of it too! I don’t even want to know what’s in it.” And the surprising thing is, I think [Selected Amazon Reviews] has been my biggest hit – of all of the things that I’ve written.
How long has the project been going on? You’re onto your second volume now, right?
It must have been 2003, when I started. I had written reviews from time to time, but only maybe twelve or thirteen before this. And yes, there’s a second book, Selected Amazon Reviews Volume 2, that has been published by another small press. A third small press has recently approached me saying they want to do a jumbo book of hundreds of them, because by now, I’ve written 2300 reviews.
That’s fantastic… and interesting that you talk about the editing process for Volumes 1 and 2, that you left it up to the publishers, because Impossible Princess was a collection of short stories both new and previously published. I remember some pieces from Little Men and I Cry Like A Baby. Do you think that the Selected Amazon Reviews influenced the way that you pulled together that collection of writings? Or how did that collection of writings come about?
I had published two books of short stories that were out of print and when City Lights asked if I had a manuscript of short stories, I said, “No.” But actually, I remembered I did have one that I had sent two years prior to a publisher that had asked to do it. And I thought to myself, “That’s odd. I never did hear from those people.” So I asked if they were going to do it and if I could show it to City Lights. They said “Yes, please,” so quickly that I knew that I was on the right track. When my editor [at City Lights] saw my manuscript, Impossible Princess, I think he was a little disappointed. He had wanted a sexy, erotic, saucy type of book and many of the stories weren’t up to [those] standards. He said, “I like this, this, this and this, but these other ones… I don’t know, Kevin.” I told him I have these two books that are out of print and you can cherry-pick them and maybe one or two will be to your liking.
I Cry Like A Baby is even subtitled a book of erotic stories, right?
Yeah, that wasn’t my doing, either. The publisher thought it would help to sell copies. Again, it was a collection in which some of the stories are sexy and the others weren’t.
I remember the first one’s about climbing in hair, like a mountain made of hair.
Yeah, not too sexy.
Not too sexy.
My editor finally presented me with what he wanted to be the table of contents– half new stories and half older stories. He goes, “I can tell you’re disappointed, but if this book does well, then we’ll publish another book of your stories and we can include these other ones that I’m leaving out for now. It will show another side of Kevin Killian.” And, sarcastically, I said, “Oh, you mean the dull, boring side.” He said, “Yeah, that’s kind of it.”
The book did well enough for them – it did win the award, thanks to the Lambda people, who gave it the gay erotica award. I don’t know what book won the gay fiction award that my book should have won.
I don’t know either.
I’m sure they can look it up easily at Lambda.
And insert it into this interview.
Yep! Insert here.
But to answer your question, when it comes to editing, I’m easy, and whatever they want to do, it’s fine with me. Editors of all three books had the final say.
Well, you do write so much that it sort of makes sense.
Yeah, I always have 6 or 7 projects going – book length projects – that sometimes take me many years to write – cause I get bored easily and when I finish writing one page I’m like, “I know! Let’s turn to my other book. I could write that next page.”
Well, speaking of the other book, do you want to talk a little bit about the history of your lastest book, Spreadeagle and the tumultuous tale of how that has landed in the hands of Publication Studio?
I started writing Spreadeagle in 1990 and at the time it was the era of Act Up, Queer Nation and it was kind of an AIDS novel, or rather an activist novel. I was thinking of Sarah Schulman’s book, People in Trouble. That kind of became my model for a smart way of dealing with AIDS. But basically, I wrote quite a bit of it and I ran off track – Some other projects came up. All the time, the book in my head was germinating.
Basically the problem was I didn’t know how it was going to end – or even what the middle part was going to be. Instead of grafting on some artificial developments, I said, “I’ll just wait till it emerges in my dreams,” the way that my poetry does and my stories do. And that did take a lot longer than I thought. I kept going back to Spreadeagle and it really became two novels in one, one ends and the second part begins. But finally, by the time the year 2000 appeared, I didn’t want it to be a novel set in 1990. I wanted it to be contemporary. So a lot of the plot elements had to change – it’s like every year that it took me longer to write, I lost a couple chapters at the beginning! I’d just chop them off and start somewhere down the pipe.
It became a novel about a glittering kind of A-gay social world in San Francisco, where I live, a social comedy. And part two was going to be the horror of existence. It takes place in a tiny little town in the central valley—a real one horse town where methamphetamine is the main industry, you know, supplanted by fetish pornography. Those were my subjects, so it was grim. Grim grim grim…. Everything about it was grim. A lot of deaths and a lot of crime and a lot of action. So, finally, I wrapped it up two years ago and found a very supportive editor, Don Weise, and under his tutelage I finished the book, so I remain grateful to him. Now it’s going to be published by another publishing house called Publication Studio in Portland, Oregon.
You’re really involved in so many other counter-cultural or art world endeavors in San Francisco. What other projects do you have in development, in addition to the novel’s imminent publication?
I’m working on a book with the Swiss-born, New York City-based artist, Ugo Rondinone. I began working with him in 2010 when I wrote a piece for the catalogue of a show of his sculptures. We hit it off and our collaboration has now evolved into a book. I’m finishing up my part of a book that’s his collages and my poetry. I was encouraged to write out my poems by hand, and color them in, you know, like, with Sharpie. (laughs)
Yeah! So, they’re very pastel looking. It looks like a series of Easter baskets. I like what I did – but it looked horrible at first, because I don’t have good handwriting, so you can’t really read the words of the poems. But with all of my colorful Sharpie gestures, I’m now thinking, “It doesn’t really matter!” People can inquire to the publisher, “what are the words?” you know, the way they used to have lyric sheets tucked into Sergeant Pepper. For people who want to know the words. That’s my book. It’s called Nude.
You write so much about the contemporary art world, both on the SFMOMA blog and in more publications that probably even you can keep track of. Has anyone ever approached you to do a collected writings on art? Is that something you’d be interested in doing?
I suppose I’d rather see them tucked into a collected essays book because I don’t think I have anything coherent to say about art, in general. But I’ve done some great individual essays on different artists and different movements. But, taken all together… maybe it’d be too much of a good thing. Too much champagne, I suppose.
I’ve been disappointed many times. My career hasn’t been a bed of roses. Or it has never been smooth. (Every publisher that takes me on has to look at my track record. I’ve killed five publishers – or at least been the last book on the list of five different publishers. So, some don’t like a Jonah or an albatross.)
Kevin Killian as kiss of death. And yet, isn’t somebody going back and republishing Shy?
Yes, happily, I can report that my first novel is being reprinted by Rebel Satori Press. And my two other books will be released by this other small gay press called Lethe. They’re kind of specialty presses, “bringing back the very best of the late-20th century New Narrative writing.”
I think it’s true for most queer writing, though. Almost everything goes out of print pretty quickly. And yet, it’s a testament that so many people still reference Shy as an important novel in their development as writers, be they in San Francisco or New York. Those first three books, in particular, Shy, Arctic Summer and Bedrooms Have Windows are influential books. How is it to look back on them now as they’re being tarted back up for republication?
Well, I’m very fond of the young guy who wrote those books. He’s adorable and he thought he was so super clever. It’s all I can do from trying to cross out adjectives, cross out clever metaphors. But I want to leave him alone, the way he was. I like all three of them too. I’m glad that they’re going to be back.
Yeah, it’s really exciting. There will be those early works, but there is also Spreadeagle? – what sounds like an omnibus novel – that’s taken ten, twelve years to write – will be able to be read alongside them.
Will one read the growth of Kevin Killian as you’re reading Spreadeagle?
I think at some point I became aware of myself less as a writer and more as an artist. That doesn’t make any sense to say that, but I think maybe you know what I’m talking about. At some point I realized there wasn’t any point in me trying to be the new Henry James, Marcel Proust or William Faulkner. Living in California, I think, helped this. California is like the home of failure, I suppose. Not only failure, but contingency, accidents and things falling apart, so that the best writing and art from here has always been… well… kind of half-assed – in the best sense! I realized it didn’t matter if something was good or not. It just had to be sufficiently gestural. And then I’d be satisfied with it. I don’t know if that made me a better writer, to realize that, but it made me a more confident one. And probably it made me more willing to try more things, too. So yeah, the other day I was thinking, “I should make video!” Right? I know nothing about how to do it. But even if it was bad, it’d be good.
Well you were writing video scripts recently, right?
Oh, that’s right. Well that’s still an unrealized project but I’ve written a script for a film… or maybe it’s a video, that Darrell Alvarez is making, called The Visitor Owl. He wanted to rewrite or join the plots of two important Hollywood movies about pedagogy – The Blackboard Jungle, from the 50s and To Sir, With Love from the 60s, somehow to make these into two movies that run along side one another, like Chelsea Girls on two screens and that would sometimes pick up on what was happening on the other screen… and sometimes not. What a challenge that was. The Blackboard Jungle script was supposed to resemble a porn film. And the To Sir, With Love was to resemble a bad TV sitcom, like “Welcome Back Kotter.” And these would invigorate each other. The two different energies going on would make the two-channel projection really intriguing. So, we’ll see. You know, one has a laugh track and the other one just has… um, I don’t know how explicit it’s going to get, but I’ve written it pretty explicitly.
And then there’s my book of photos. It’s going to be an actual book of color photos. That’s, again, something I wouldn’t have tried without the idea of “I’m an artist, not a writer.” So, instead, it will just be my photos and another writer will be writing the text for it. And it’ll be… well, it’s genital based. Because I have a drawing of a cock-and-balls that Raymond Pettibon made for me. It was lying around our house for a few years and somebody picked it up off the shelf and said, “What’s this?” He put it up in front of his crotch and I said, “Oooh, that’d be cute. Let me get my camera.” I took his picture. And finally after a few years of that I had 40 or 50 of these, I said, “I should put these in a show – have a show of my photos,” because I had had several shows recently. And this one curator came by and said, “You know Kevin, that’s a really good idea, but as I see these pictures it’s really stupid. It’s banal,” because all the photos are the same. “All the men you have holding up this drawing over their junk have the same expressions on their face.” Well, they’re either sheepish or they’re embarrassed or they’re cocky or they’re just cracking up. I was just devastated to hear this out of his mouth. And he said, “You could save what you’ve done by getting somebody to take off all his clothes. Just be naked and holding this drawing over his genitals and you could intersperse these pictures with the pictures of the guys who had their clothes on.” And I said, “Yeah, that’d be great, but who am I gonna get to do that?” But then I was like, “I’m in San Francisco! This should be the simplest thing in the world.” A few days later, George Kuchar came by and I just talked him out of it – out of his clothes – and he was my first model. God bless him – that was in March. During the summer, an artist saw what I was doing and decided he wanted to make a book out of it. We’re on track to have this book that I’m calling Tagged come out by the summertime. Tagged. So it will be a lot of guys with their clothes on, a lot of artists, poets, curators, musicians, filmmakers, all kinds of free spirits of all different ages and so forth…
and in varying states of dress…
Exactly. So, we’ll see. Maybe that will be my biggest success! Now that would really be ironic, wouldn’t it?
That your biggest selling book was your photo book.
Yeah, without any words in it by me at all.
Just the title, Tagged. My idea is that we were all tagged by our genitals. You know, that they aren’t really an intrinsic part of us, but we act as though they were.