Poppy Z Brite Interview

by Alexander Laurence

Poppy Z. Brite is the celebrated author of many standout works of horror, Lost Souls and Drawing Blood. In these intense books Brite has written very originally about vampires, computer hackers, murders and strippers. Her books represent a bizarre collection of dark and eclectic tastes. One of her prized possessions is a brick from the house where Jeffery Dahmer lived. Poppy Z. Brite's new book is entitled Exquisite Corpse, which deals with the meeting of two serial killers, pirate radio, and the beauty of Asian people. Her interests also include Hello Kitty and Church of the Subgenius. She lives in New Orleans.

CUPS: Some of the jobs that you have listed having done are candy maker, artist's model, mouse caretaker, and exotic dancer. Could you talk about some of these non-literary influences?

Poppy Z. Brite: They were all jobs to pay the rent. I worked in a cancer research lab, and I would watch thousands of mice. I cleaned their cages. It was pretty interesting and gross. It was actually one of the slackest jobs that I ever had. I was able to sit around the office and read. In my second novel, I have a character who is a stripper. Her experiences are directly taken from mine though I worked in Atlanta, instead of New Orleans. I think the main impact of these jobs had on my writing was to make me know that I never wanted to work a real job, so I had to make it as a writer. I am a hermit more than anything. I had a real problem being anywhere at a certain time, especially if it involved early morning hours. I have to have three cups of coffee when I wake up. I write late at night and go to bed at three or four. I am very anti-social, so I don't have too many people calling me up.

CUPS: Do you think that there is an advantage being a genre writer, such as a science fiction/horror writer, as opposed to a literary novelist?

Poppy Z. Brite: I'm not a fan of any labels of any kind. I think that they put off more readers than they attract. Simon & Schuster is not publishing my latest book as a horror novel. It certainly could be called "a horror novel" but there's no supernatural elements in it. I think that there are youth audiences or those that read gay writing or literary writing, who will have to find out about me on their own. I think that most of those readers would like my books better than most typical horror readers do. People who read horror already probably know about me. I am always interested in reaching a wider audience.

CUPS: There was this story I heard about someone who committed suicide and he bled all over copies of your books. Do you know anything about this story?

Poppy Z. Brite: That was a story about a limited edition copy of Drawing Blood, published by Cahill Press out in California. What happened was a book dealer ordered three copies of a nice leather-bound edition. They were in his mailbox in a postal store, and the postal store was firebombed by this militant guy who hated this postal store because it was owned by an inter-racial couple. In the process of firebombing this store the guy managed to torch himself and burn to death. The books were OK but unfortunately they were impregnated with the odor of his burning flesh. The owner tried to sell them for six hundred dollars a piece. Apparently he sold all three very fast. I was amused about this whole thing, but I caught a lot of shit for it because I was supposed to be worried about the sanctity of this terrorist's life. I'm sorry. I don't think that human life is that precious in general. Especially in this case where the guy is racist and militant. There was a rumor that it was a fan who torched himself at one of my readings.

CUPS: When I see the title Exquisite Corpse, I immediately think of the Surrealism movement and Andre Breton, the word games they used, but after reading a few pages of your book I figured out that the reference is really to a Bauhaus song.

Poppy Z. Brite: The first time that I encountered that phrase was in the Bauhaus song, but then I learned what it was, and learned more about the Surrealists. There's several books called Exquisite Corpse, but as far as I know this is the only one with dismemberment in it. The title is just OK. I'm not thrilled with it. I would like something more original, but everything that I came up with was even worse.

CUPS: Several characters have an interest in serial killers. Waring says "I'm a bit of a serial killer buff..." before Compton kills him. Those are not good last words. Are serial killer buffs generally masochistic or sadists?

Poppy Z. Brite: I don't know. It's sort of a funny scene. When I try to write something funny, I never know if it comes off or not. My sense of humor may not be the same as everyone else. I think that serial killer buffs could go either way. I have always been interested in serial killers. I've always been more of a sadist than a masochist, but neither one really figures in to my own sex life. Most people just find a fascination with it, the same way they would with horror fiction or slasher films, but I'm not sure that they want to emulate those characters or meet up with them. Perhaps they do.

CUPS: But the premise of this book was that Andrew and Jay were both sadistic serial killers, and Andrew was from London, while Jay was from New Orleans, then they meet....

Poppy Z. Brite: That was the seed of my idea. When I became interested in Jeffery Dahmer and another real serial killer in England, Dennis Nielsen, whose cases were very similar. I started to imagine what would happen if these two characters met. That's how the book started.

CUPS: In Exquisite Corpse Jay and Andrew eat flesh, and Andrew remarks "Horror is the badge of humanity...." This scene is pretty intense. I know that five years ago Simon & Schuster didn't want to publish American Psycho, but now they publish your book. I guess that they have become numb to violence.

Poppy Z. Brite: The editor who bought my book, Exquisite Corpse, is the same editor who tried to buy American Psycho, and who was forced to give it up by his bosses. He almost lost his job over it. Then he went on to watch it become a best-seller at Knopf. I don't think that publishers care too much about content of what they publish as you'd like to think. When they saw American Psycho make money for another publisher, I think they wished they would have kept it. With that said, I did have some rejection letters from several publishers before Simon & Schuster picked it up. I had a contract with Dell. This was supposed to be the third book. They rejected it because they thought it was too extreme. There is a trend towards conservatism.

CUPS:  What does it inevitably say about publishers that they publish Exquisite Corpse but not American Psycho? Is it OK that two gay men kill each other, but if the novel is about a man cutting up a woman, it's not right, because it's a taboo, because it's not PC?

Poppy Z. Brite: I wondered about that because in the anthology that I recently edited for HarperPrism, a follow up to Love In Vein, a story was cut for content. It involved consensual S/M, and the bottom was a female. When I asked the writer why she thought they cut her story, she thought that was the reason why. She had some experience writing erotica, so she may have something there. I haven't written much heterosexual fiction at all, so I don't know.

CUPS: What do you think about shock value and increasing violence in novels? Is it a trend?

Poppy Z. Brite: It's not a very smart trend if people are trying to do that. It's made it very difficult for me to publish this book. A few years ago there was a trend in horror called "Splatterpunk" which involved a lot of violence and gore. I think that many of those writers were good and some not so good. They all seemed to be lumped in under that same label. I don't that was the only thing going on. I don't think that a writer should censor himself. The level of violence should be what's demanded by the story. I didn't feel that I could effectively tell the story without a great deal of graphic violence, but I can't honestly say that I was doing it for shock value. Maybe a lot of people thought that I was

CUPS: Do you think that male homosexuality is still a taboo?

Poppy Z. Brite: Evidently not because my first two books had a lot of graphic gay sex and I had absolutely no problem. It was the third book, with all the unrelenting violence and intensity and total amorality of it. I don't think that sexuality is a problem, and I think that gay fiction is actually really hot. It's an upcoming trend. There is a lot more erotica being published.

CUPS: I was disappointed when Jay was bottomed out by Andrew Compton. Do you think that when two sadists, or tops, meet, one is going to succumb to the other? I felt that Jay was the stronger one, and he had the home field advantage, so I was definitely surprised.

Poppy Z. Brite: I think that Jay brought out Andrew's inherent sadism. Before Andrew met Jay he was a murderer not consciously a sadist. Andrew always caused his victims the least amount of pain, because he didn't get off on the deaths, he got off on the body. He's a necrophiliac. He did have sadistic tendencies, but they came into focus when he arrived in New Orleans and Jay brought that out of him. I don't know if that is a realistic relationship, because if two serial killers met, they would probably hate each other. I think it's a great idea for fiction. One of my favorite films is Natural Born Killers. I enjoyed exploring this theme in my book.

CUPS: Are you interested in any other serial killers or in the writings of Jim Goad in his magazine, Answer Me?

Poppy Z. Brite: Yeah. I think that the serial killer thing in Answer Me has been a little bit exaggerated. The serial killer issue was wonderful. It was the first one that I ever saw. They do a lot of other interesting things too. I like to read a lot stuff out of the Zine culture. I get sent a lot of stuff. I don't read any other magazines entirely devoted to serial killers. Most of that material is pretty bad.

CUPS: Why do people compare you to Anne Rice? I know that you both write horror novels and live in New Orleans.

Poppy Z. Brite: I hope that it will go away after this book. To me it's a totally useless comparison because I haven't read Anne Rice, I haven't been influenced by her, and it was only because my first novel was a homoerotic vampire story set in New Orleans, the comparison started, and just won't go away. I don't know if it ever will. I've never met her. I don't know if she knows about me. I consider it to be a non-issue.

CUPS:  Are you interested in plastic surgery?

Poppy Z. Brite: I'm very interested it it but I haven't had any done on myself. I don't have any tattoos or piercings. I'm interested in looking at that sort of stuff. I have friends, one who is in the process of man to female transsexual. I find that stuff fascinating: rib removal, corsets... The only thing that I did was cutting scars that I did to myself when I was a teenager.

CUPS: In Georges Bataille, shit represents excess, death, the most taboo. You don't have much descriptions of shit. Even though there's body and organs, there's little mention of excrement....

Poppy Z. Brite: I guess that I'm just not into excrement. (Laughter). I don't know. I know that Rimbaud also use it in his work as well, and I think that sometimes it's effective and sometimes it has about as much impact as a kid scrawling "fuck" on the bathroom wall. If it's in the reader's face, it's just juvenile. Dennis Cooper particularly has done a lot with shit and the disgusting things that come out of the body. I love the way he does that, but it's not my kick. I'm more interested in taking something disgusting and finding the beauty of it. I like to write descriptions of things that most people would find repulsive, and portray them so that the reader sees the beauty of it. I don't know if I succeed but it's always one of my goals.

CUPS: In books by Dennis Cooper, readers often think that his novels are personal obsessions because he's a gay male writing about a gay world. But I don't think that people see you in relation to your characters.

Poppy Z. Brite: I think that I identify with my characters as much as he does. I have always felt more comfortable writing about gay male characters. I think that I always will. I am trying to expand my horizon. I think that it's important for a writer to stretch, that's why I'm doing the project that I'm doing now which is a biography of Courtney Love. It's forcing me to explore a strong female character for the first time because I don't think that I have done that successfully before in my fiction.

September 1996