(Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter, 1993)
Pillars of both the arts and writing scenes in the Bay Area for several years, Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian (writer of Shy, Bedrooms Have Windows) have consistently hewn raw the New Narrative movement here. Their strategies of re-reading and re-telling are a highly personal and prophetic measures of the creative pulse of this time and place, as well as functioning as its major source. Recently, both writers talked about writing’s place in their lives with queerly engaged veracity.
Elliott Linwood: Please describe each of your upcoming events.
Dodie Bellamy: Lutz Bacher is doing a series of twelve “Playboy” paintings, as well as a book. I’ve been using her images to develop the piece I’ll read at New Langton Arts on April 16, “Dear David,” a segment from my larger current work, The Letters of Mina Harker, and Lutz will project slides of this work while I read.
Kevin Killian: As part of the Intersection for the Arts’ artist-in-residence program, I’ll be giving a reading April 5, a lecture on the 6th, and then producing a play there April 7th.
Do you write many plays?
KK: Lately it seems so. Five years ago I wrote, That about Jane and Paul Bowles as if they lived here in San Francisco. Two years ago The House of Forks featured Smith alumnae Sylvia Plath and Barbara Bush. This recent work, Island of Lost Souls, is about my youth on Long Island.
DB: I can’t believe he’s describing it that way because the main characters are Claus and Sunny von Bulow, Jack Kerouac, Anais Nin, Yma Sumac – and Kevin plays Joey Bottafuco as a teenager.
KK: Unless you know something of popular culture, these character choices are hard to describe to you.
Is this work a pastiche of appropriated icons and personalities?
KK: Very much so, just as my life is. I also like to wed the characters to the writers, painters, etc. I’m asking to play them. Andrea Juno, for example, will be a wonderful Julie Andrews.
Do you use this strategy as well, Dodie?
DB: When I did my first piece of prose, The Debbies I Have Known, I threw away everything I’d been taught in poetry to focus on minute bits and pieces, accrued details, sometimes even from other texts, to develop the outside of the characters, not really going inside at all.
KK: Dodie would do these pieces, writing each line or paragraph on a separate card, and they’d be all over the floor.
Did this method function like an index of some kind?
DB: This was pre-word processor. After that, I shortly got into the interior [of her characters].
The main character of your book, Femine Hijinx (Hanuman), is a kleptomaniac, descriptively annotated like a psychological category or disorder.
DB: Beyond kleptomania, “Complicity” treats the whole notion of appropriation as theft.
KK: Also, learning as a form of theft, flaunting a language one’s not even supposed to know about.
DB: If you’re from the wrong class and you want knowledge, you have to steal it. At the time there was also the whole feminist discourse of language not belonging to women.
In each of your works, especially in Kevin’s novel Shy, there’s a rampant sense of addictiveness as forms of reclamation.
DB: Most of my recent work deals more with addiction to passion, in a plot involving three affairs. When the affair plot ended, I wondered how the narrative could continue. The final 60 pages deconstruct the addiction of romance and examine the impossibility of desire and the way everything begins breaking down into “image” while the object of desire evades you. The book goes beyond passion, which is tunnel vision, to open up with the whole world rushing in to fill the book. It is decreasingly about Mina Harker’s focused desires and increasingly about desire in the world where no one is ever entirely knowable, where desired objects cannot be pinned down too firmly.
How do writers figure into the arts scene here?
DB: There’s not that much concern about writers in San Francisco. They’re seen as kind of disposable, silly little things here, which is insultingly stupid, because some of the best writing in the country is going on right here, unappreciated by the larger culture.
KK: Is writing related to the visual arts at all? It’s much more marginalized. It takes longer. It’s duller. There’s no glamour. I’m doing one of those artist’s books with Brett Richman and Johnathan Hammer, both of whom are much more glamorous than I.
DB: Writing is private, too. In other cities writers and artists hang out together. Kevin and I get a lot of attention here because we’re the only writers many artists know.
KK: In Los Angeles and New York, there’s much more overlapping of influence. With Lew Ellingham, I’m writing a life of the San Francisco poet Jack Spicer, who died in 1965, and I can see the gap between writers and artists didn’t happen until the 1970s. In the’50s and ‘60s, they lived in each other’s pockets.
Who influences your work and what are its subjects?
KK: Horror, frustration, pain, violence, the sacred, gossip, sex, pop culture . . .
Do you know Dennis Cooper’s work?
DB: He’s had a major influence on me. Early on I wrote an essay on his work, and wrote one of my Mina letters to him. At times his presence in my book takes the form of comic relief.
KK: I worried that I was imitating Dennis too much, so in the middle of Shy, I did a complete pastiche of his voice, tone, and sense of theatre.
How has the gay subculture’s approach to these subjects affected you?
DB: Straight writing about sex is embarrassingly infantile in terms of its limited, backward vocabulary. Linda Williams, in her book on porn, Hard Core, must spend an entire chapter rationalizing why she would dare to write about something so vile. Her ideas are interesting, but her frame is not, the position of a feminist analyzing the subject in a “non” anti-porn way. If you read gay writing on pornography that chapter doesn’t’ have to be written because it is assumed the subject is valid.
Both of you write about sex from a fairly intense perspective.
DB: Sex writing is difficult because you always have to be writing about something else at the same time – otherwise the feeling is mechanical. Kevin’s writing seems to be constantly about sex, but someone once looked for an explicit passage and couldn’t find it. Very little actual sex goes on in it. But it’s all around it.
How do you work the distinctions among your public personae, your private processes of writing, and your marriage to each other?
DB: In my writing Kevin is a totally sexualized character; all sorts of intimate details about him splash out page after page. I basically feel I have the relationship of a gay man instead of a woman. A woman in a heterosexual relationship has to fight for her rights constantly. I don’t feel that sense of struggle with Kevin. The support is just given to me.
KK: Being gay, yet finding myself married, only confirms my earliest feelings that – God, life is so strange! Perhaps this couldn’t have happened ten years ago.
DB: But it could have happened in Jack Spicer’s time.
KK: Sexual preference was much less codified, more fluid, in the forties. Or was it? I’m a skeptical guy.
DB: Kevin doesn’t even believe books, which always amazes me! Once you’re marginalized, it can allow you the privilege of the questioning position. But I also try to go beyond, to elevate the confessional aspects of writing into a broader take on the culture that blows through me. For example, Cinemax is as important to my writing as my relationship with Kevin.
Dodie Bellamy is leading a panel, Writing in Extremis: Narrative Strategies at Century’s End, at New College on April 29. She will read “Dear David” from her upcoming book, The Letters of Mina Harker, to accompany images from Lutz Bachers’s series “The Playboys,” on April 16 at New Langton Arts.
Kevin Killian will give a reading, a lecture, and produce a play as the artist-in-residence at Intersection for the Arts on April 5, 6, and 7, respectively.