July 14, 2017

In Conversation With Chris Kraus

"I walked past the self-consciousness that crippled me in the past because there was an actual person I was talking to. I think the great problem that people have starting out is this feeling that you’re writing into a void. If you don’t know who you’re talking to, you don’t know who you are. Writing and identity are so relational."

Luther Konadu:  What does it feel like to be the writer Chris Kraus today, right now, Thursday 29th June 2017?

Chris Kraus: Oh gosh. [Laughs]. I try and separate myself because of the TV show! Since the character shares my name, there's this “Chris Kraus” persona bouncing around the internet – I try and distance myself as much as possible from that. The teaching that I’m doing here is close to my real work as a writer. Working with a small group of people, reading texts and talking about them, and intensely focusing on other each other’s writing. To me, that’s at the heart of what I do as a writer. It’s so close to writing itself. I try to focus on my immediate life and let other people do what they want with that persona.

What kind of a kid were you growing up?

Like any other artist, I was a nerdy, shy, bullied kid.

Were you in any kind of clubs or after school activates?
I missed out on a lot of high school, thankfully, when my parents moved to New Zealand. I found Junior High School, which I started in the US, absolutely unbearable. And I just stopped attending. I couldn't stand to be bullied. It was unbearable. In New Zealand, that all went away. There was a little art clique at the high school I attended there. That made things so much easier.

So going to New Zealand helped you become creatively confident at an early age? 

I wasn't really doing any creative work at that age, but I had a lot of interest and ambition. That move definitely made my life possible. If we’d stayed in the US, the highest goal for me was a community college, maybe, but university in New Zealand at that time was not only free, it was subsidized - you got bursaries while you went to school. It just became clear that I was going to go that line and go to university. Even the high school was so much better than American High school. We read real books, there was real content being taught. So that was great and it kind of saved my life. Everything seemed possible in New Zealand, whereas nothing seemed possible in the town that we grew up in.

Were you the only child of your parents?

No, I have a younger sister. Three years younger. And I think the same was true for her.

What were your parents like as people growing up?

My mother just passed away just this year. Before she died, my parents had been married sixty years. Neither of them went to college but they both had a lot of cultural and artistic interests. My mother was always a great reader. She worked as an assistant librarian at different points in her life. My father worked as a warehouse manager for an academic publishing company. My parents were kind of misfits in the places we lived because culture is an upper-middle-class thing. It wasn't until they retired to Palm Springs after unexpectedly inheriting from a distant relative that they actually got to be friends with people they had things in common with – who shared the same interests in current events, listened to public radio, and read the same kinds of books. My parents were always a little bit outside of culture. I guess I internalized that and felt very driven to find my way in.

So it was never a surprise for you that you ended up following a creative, artistic career?

No, but because of that heavy baggage, I avoided writing for a long time. I wanted to be anything but a writer. I wanted to be an actress, a filmmaker. Writing became the default when all else failed. When I was in my late thirties and nothing else had worked out, finally, I got around to writing and taking it seriously. But I'd been training for it since I was five. I was such an incredible reader all those years - in my childhood and beyond. My first friends in New York, when I moved there at twenty-one, were writers from around the St. Marks Poetry Project. I even worked there, even though I never identified as a writer.

How did you manage to finally find your own voice as a writer in your thirties?

Literally, as it happened in I Love Dick! By writing those letters, I walked past the self-consciousness that crippled me in the past, because there was an actual person I was talking to. I think the great problem that people have starting out is this feeling that you’re writing into a void. If you don’t know who you’re talking to, you don’t know who you are. Writing and identity are so relational. And people stumble there. The greatest benefit of writing programs or classes is that they give people a "who" to write to. You’re writing to the group! I’d never done that, and I was completely confounded by the "I" and the "who". But writing a love letter? I'm writing to Dick and telling him everything about my life...you know? Before I knew it, I’d written half a book.

That seems like a very confident step into your first take into writing. How did you know it was ok to go forward? What motivated you to go forward? 

You mean after I Love Dick?

Not necessarily, but while you were progressing with that same book.

Oh, I was in a delirium. I couldn't stop. I became a graphomaniac. I had a notebook in my bag all the time. Sometimes I'd pull over in the car if I had a thought, to write it down. It was as if all the things I hadn't said for twenty years suddenly became clear.

Would you say there was a joy in writing?

Of course! Yeah. It was a great satisfaction.

Do you still feel that joy even now?

Yes. It always feels like you’re in pursuit of something when you’re writing. And that feeling of "Ah!" I nailed it is so deeply satisfying. Sometimes it takes a long time. It can happen intensely in your head, but it can take months, or years, to manifest it as a coherent text.

I'm going to switch a bit here. Can you tell me an early time that you felt anxiety about your future?

Oh yeah. All through my twenties, before I got together with Sylvère, I had no I idea what was going to happen. By the time I was twenty-six, twenty-seven, heading into Saturn Return, I was completely desperate. I’d made a living as a topless dancer in my early 20s, but now I was too old for that. So I worked temp office jobs uptown, night shift data entry. It was so abject. I didn't know what was to become of me. I had no health insurance. I had Crohn's Disease, I was very sick, malnourished and living in total poverty. New Zealand friends who I've reconnected with recently, said they’d been worried to see me living that way. I was on the verge of: "should I move back to New Zealand? Should I go to law school? I can't continue this way.” And then I met Sylvère and he took care of me. He made it possible. If I hadn't met Sylvère, I couldn't have continued as an artist. 

Oh wow.

So right now, you are writing about Kathy Acker, I'm interested in the choice you made for the cover of the book. 

The photographer Kaucyila Brook photographed Kathy’s clothes after she died. Her executor, Matias Viegener, was holding onto them. One of the problems of Kathy’s work in the years after her death was the saturation of her image everywhere. There were these over-the-top 80s punk princess glamour photographs on all her books. Thinking about the cover, the intuitive thing would be to use one of these famous author photographs, but we wanted to be more poetic than that, more subtle. That ghostly leather jacket conveys the sense of the book more powerfully than a portrait. The jacket has her motto: Discipline & Anarchy, which she’d had tattooed on herself as well. 

What surprised you about what you found and how did you handle it?

The best initial find was by a friend, the poet Feliz Luz Molina, who came across some of Kathy’s letters to Bernadette Mayer while she was doing other research in the United Artists archive at UCSD. She copied them. I started looking further into the archives at UCSD, most of her friends from the early 70s have their papers there. Jackpot! She’d Xeroxed and sent her entire diary from when she was 23 to Jerome Rothenberg because she had a crush on him. At that time, there was no other copy of that diary available. It helped me recreate her life in Washington Heights. And there were other discoveries. Looking through emails at the Fales Collection in New York sent by mutual friends, I discovered some things I’d rather not have seen. [Laughs]

How do you handle it and present it in a way that doesn’t make it out to be more than it was, or understate it?
That’s a hard line to walk. No one should come out a villain because no one ever is. Often, if there was a nasty comment made about a recognizable, living person, I’d substitute “X” for the name. At the end of her life, Kathy was reaching out for help with finding stable work, and people couldn’t, or wouldn’t come through. That seemed too important to leave out. Kathy was often scabrous about people in her correspondence and her texts, and I try and balance her inflammatory rants with other, mitigating things.

Do you feel a certain responsibility to tell the story in a favourable way to her?

Not at all. Every biography tries to tell the truth, but everyone's version of the truth is different. What I find interesting and admirable about Kathy is how she invented herself as a writer, her discipline, and persistence. Often she didn’t behave well, and she told whopping lies. Rather than call her out as a liar, I was more interested in presenting the actual facts, and speculating what meaning the alternative facts might have had for her. To lie is to try, right? The goal in a biography is to understand another person and her intentions as intimately and fully as possible.

This is a question by one of the participants: How do you feel about teaching, and what do you think about teaching?

I love teaching. It’s deeply satisfying. Since becoming hearing impaired in 2000, the kinds of interactions I can have with other people are limited. Staying up all night, drinking, getting high and bonding with a whole group of people isn’t possible anymore. But teaching offers such intimacy in a controlled audio setting! Each time I teach, I’m getting to know a group of younger people, and that’s irreplaceable.

I think I learned to teach by being an acting student of Ruth Maleczech and Lee Breuer of Mabou Mines. They ran a small studio where the same ten or twelve people would present their work on Friday nights. And then Ruth and Lee talked about it, in depth, at length. The rest of us would just sit. There was no cross-talk, sort of like a 12-step meeting. But that gave us such an insight into how Ruth and Lee thought and worked. Just by letting us witness how they spoke about their work, we were learning everything about them as artists. I’ve never favoured that workshop style where students just go at it with each other. I try to offer a response to each person’s work. There are always things that apply to other people. 

"Every biography tries to tell the truth, but everyone's version of the truth is different... I was more interested in presenting the actual facts, and speculating what meaning the alternative facts might have had for her [Kathy Acker]...The goal in a biography is to understand another person and her intentions as intimately and fully as possible. "

Is it helpful to yourself as a writer, to give guidance and through the process, take something out of that?

Yes, always. Often I feel that these people are better writers than me, and I'm jealous. The only comfort is, I know I will persist! I’m often blown away by the work I read in classes and workshops.

There's easier access to information and images than say, when you started writing in the ‘90s. So there are less and less people sitting down with an entire novel to read and its almost an antiquated thing to do because there's so much of everything else around us...I'm trying to think about how one sustains a career in writing nowadays given this context.

Yes, that's very true. I think what really suffers is reading widely, and reading back in time. There are always four or five heavily promoted books each season that everybody reads. I’m trying to read Dostoevsky now, but everyday there are about thirty-five emails to reply to, and the lure of the internet is always there. Sitting in bed at Kristin Nelson’s house and looking at the trees outside her window, I’d just be reading Crime and Punishment and looking at those trees. The computer wouldn’t be in bed with me!

The excessive promotion of the same four or five books takes our attention away from, maybe, twenty other better books that came out that year. But everyone wants to be in the same loop.

So knowing that as a writer, how do you carry on and continue to sustain a writing career knowing that maybe no one might read your book?

Well, it’s not one. You can find people to read your book, even if it doesn’t have that corporate media support. Do you know the work of the Montreal writer Jacob Wren?

No, I don’t.

He hasn’t been commercially published, but he’s prolific, persistent and important, and he puts his work online all the time. He’s built a tremendous following in the last ten years. He started at a point where no one knew his work, and now pretty much everyone in the alt-lit world, where the real readers are, knows his work and takes it seriously. And touring helps. When I Love Dick came out in 1997, I toured a lot. Maybe fifteen people would show up, and then they’d talk about it to their friends. And often, a book will mean more when people discover it themselves than when they order it on Amazon because it’s all over the internet.

There are a lot of think pieces about your books and a lot of what has come up is the female perspective being elevated with your writing - something that wasn't as popular but now is a bit different. The same is for topics on class dynamics. It is probably something you weren’t thinking about before while in the writing process, but how do you feel about the art that you make being a stand in for a social change. Sorry, that was a super long question. 

But I totally understand the question. It's weird; I think questions about class things have only gotten worse over the years. These four or five heavily promoted literary books tend to be written and reviewed by people who went to the same prep schools and elite colleges. It’s arid and narrow. A book can’t really effect political change, but it can change the atmosphere. That’s what culture does! I love the idea that maybe work I’ve done has helped to shift perceptions, at least a little bit.

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