(In conversation with Chris Kelso)
1. Banishton is your first published short story. Why did you feel IYR was the right home for such a significant piece, I mean that’s a pretty big deal?
You asked if I might be interested in submitting something to your first issue. My first thought was to scrub up a much older story, but then I remembered “Banishton,” which I wrote maybe six years ago. I have some shorter fiction pieces, mostly from aborted novels. “Banishton” seemed the better choice, since it was more recent, closer to my present style, so I made sure it still read well to me, then sent it off.
2. You’re an accomplished writer of both fictional prose and journalism, is there a reason why this is your first foray into short story territory?
It’s not. My first “novel” (never published) was really a collection of short stories and I’ve occasionally written others, but my interest in the short story form has never been pronounced to the point of sending them around. I mean, I’ve tried sending things to your bete noire, THE NEW YORKER, and they’ve never given me the courtesy of a response. The sort of thing I do doesn’t really fit in there, or THE PARIS REVIEW; I’ve always thought I might have found a happy home at NEW WORLDS, the British sf magazine that launched Michael Moorcock and JG Ballard, though I don’t really write science fiction. But my work bears some relationship to Ballard’s, as he’s always been a major influence on my thinking, as has Burroughs.
3. What can we expect to see from Video Watchdog in the coming weeks/months?
Our next issue is going to be a grab bag of shorter pieces, including a fascinating memoir by Craig Ritenour of his days at the UAR (University America of Rome) when Mario Bava came to lecture his class. We also have an interview with Bertrand Tavernier about his great sf movie DEATH WATCH. The following issue, at present, is scheduled to feature Lianne Spiderbaby’s retrospective on the Emmanuelle/Emanuelle series starring Sylvia Kristel and Laura Gemser.
4. Is there a particular facet of creativity you most enjoy? You’ve tried your hand at writing fiction, biographies, blogging, you’ve delved into the realms of publishing and even directed short films – which area are you happiest working in? how fun was directing?
I most love creative writing, especially when I’m in the groove of writing a new novel. It’s my favorite thing to do and I hope I can get back to that. (My schedule doesn’t much allow for it.) I love screenwriting also, but I’m beginning to see I stand a better chance of making things happen if I write my ideas as novels first. I also loved directing; I found out it was something I could do well, and with brisk efficiency, but it follows the act of writing. I don’t understand how anyone directs something they haven’t written, and I suspect that there’s a place in the world for directors like that because some writers aren’t very able socially.
5. Of all the accolades/awards you’ve accumulated over the years which one gave you the greatest sense of achievement and satisfaction?
Winning the Saturn Award was great because it was part of a huge, Oscar-like evening. John Saxon introduced Donna and I and we accepted the award in front of an audience that included the likes of Jon Voight, JJ Abrams, Lindsay Wagner. When we left the stage, we were whisked backstage for photos and I met Ray Wise (Leland Palmer from TWIN PEAKS), who was sitting there by the door. I couldn’t believe who I was seeing; it was a genuinely surreal moment. I shook his hand and told him he was one of my favorites. Why couldn’t I have had a photographer THEN? Winning our first award at Fanex, back in 1991, was just as surreal — we didn’t know we had been nominated for anything — and it is tremendously gratifying that I’ve won the Best Writer Rondo Award so many times, and also the Rondo for Best Blog and Best Book. But what I remember as particularly satisfying are a couple of written tributes I’ve received — one was from David Colton, the man behind the Rondos and also an editor at USA TODAY, who once sent me a very sensitive and moving letter of appreciation, and the other was from Richard Harland Smith, who once took my defense in an online debate by saying some things on my behalf which I couldn’t as easily say myself. The memory of those two gestures has always stayed with me.
6. What was your experience with David Cronenberg like? You were the only journalist allowed on the set during the Videodrome shoot is that correct?
That’s correct. I met David in January 1981 when I was preparing an article on new trends in horror for HEAVY METAL magazine. We hit it off and he gave me his home number. He was the first person I’d ever met who shared my equal interests in Nabokov and Burroughs, which were two literary twains that then really didn’t meet among anyone in the established critical elite, so he was not just an artist I respected but a kindred spirit, someone who I thought could give me renewed direction in my life. This coincided with the time when I was surrendering my initial dreams to become a novelist, because I wasn’t having any luck getting published after writing something like seven novels.
Consequently, I wrote almost exclusively about Cronenberg for HEAVY METAL, CINEFANTASTIQUE and FANGORIA for the next seven years — I visited the sets of VIDEODROME, THE DEAD ZONE and THE FLY, and also flew up to attend a preview screening of DEAD RINGERS — my devotion led me to put my own creative work off to the side. He and I would talk about his ambitions, and they included things like making films of NAKED LUNCH and PALE FIRE. I have a tape recording somewhere of me recommending that he read CRASH because it was right up his alley; if I remember correctly, he had not read Ballard at that point but was intrigued by comparisons drawn between his work and HIGH RISE. After the success of THE FLY, I pitched a sequel idea called FLIES that got David’s approval… until Mick Garris proposed what became THE FLY 2. My connection with David led me to be approached by James Grauerholz, who was William Burroughs’ secretary, and he asked if I might help him to interest David in making a film of NAKED LUNCH, which Burroughs wanted to see done before he died. David was in the thick of rewrite hell on TOTAL RECALL then; he wanted to engage with Burroughs but couldn’t at that time. So, being familiar with the novel, I offered to educate myself in screenwriting by undertaking a script of NAKED LUNCH on his behalf, and he agreed. I was stupid and delved into this agreement on trust and without an agent (who, at the very least, would have protected my involvement and certified it somehow, even with a $1 stipend to make everything official); I spent a year of my life cooking up two different drafts, the second in response to David’s initial feedback. After reading the second, David called and told me that my advance work had been very helpful to him, had solved a lot of problems for him, but my adaptation as a whole was too literal and that he was now able to do the job himself. He did offer me the consolation prize of writing a book about the making of the film, but Donna and I had just started VIDEO WATCHDOG and I couldn’t take the time off, and I also would not be able to include the story of my own involvement in the film’s development, so I declined. I take pride in the fact that my two scripts introduced the idea of folding elements of Burroughs’ life (including the William Tell episode) together with episodes from not just NAKED LUNCH (which isn’t adaptable to commercial film) but all his fiction. That was my idea, and David’s script based on that idea won him a number of prestigious writing awards. I’m not saying what I did was better, but I didn’t like his film of NAKED LUNCH at all, despite some inspired ideas like having Ornette Coleman do the score. So, as time passed, you can see that my own ambitions, as well as his own, began to complicate our relationship, so we separated — and we haven’t spoken now in more than 20 years. During that time, he hasn’t made many films I’ve admired, so we’ve also grown apart creatively, though I like CRASH a good deal more now than I did initially. I recently saw COSMOPOLIS and was very pleasantly surprised; I thought it was probably his best movie since DEAD RINGERS.
7. IYR is a UK-based magazine but we’ve amassed a strong US contingent – is it more terrifying living in America or the UK? How political do you like to get when writing?
I’ve never lived in, or visited, the UK, but I imagine it can be equally terrifying to live anywhere where there are unbalanced people or oppressive bureaucracies. I like to say I’m political enough to be apolitical, which means I’ve explored the subject, confirmed its evil, and rejected it. Politics and religion are the two greatest forces in our world and, in my own pursuit of happiness, I’ve chosen to live outside them as much as possible. That said, THROAT SPROCKETS is certainly a very political book; even its typography looks Godardian at a glance. I do have political beliefs, at least ideals, as well as religious ones, but to talk about either, for me, and to invite debate on either topic would be a waste of life.