Chris Kraus amassed a cult following beginning in the late ’90s and early aughts for her rigorous, tender, restless novels, which she adapted—in playfully explicit ways—from the stories of her own life: Aliens & Anorexia, Torpor, Summer of Hate, and I Love Dick, which has just been turned into an Amazon series by director Jill Soloway and playwright Sarah Gubbins, marking some kind of passage from the margins to the mainstream. Kraus’s latest book, After Kathy Acker [Semiotext(e)], about the late experimental writer, is a departure in genre—it’s Kraus’s first biography—but it’s still committed to her driving questions about art and community and risk, especially this one: How do you make fearless art from the messy stuff of consciousness?
It was my own preoccupation with that question that first drew me to Kraus’s writing, and I fell immediately under the spell of her voice: sexy, contradictory, defiantly uncertain, elegantly graceless, always hilarious. When I finally got the chance to meet her this past April to conduct this interview, I was wearing the shameless uniform of a fan girl: a homemade T-shirt with felt letters reading I LOVE I LOVE DICK. It had been a gift from friends at my bachelorette party, and it was carefully concealed under my leather jacket. This felt like something a character in a Chris Kraus novel might do—wear an embarrassing homage T-shirt to her first meeting with an iconic writer she admired, as a kind of performance art piece. But I am no performance artist, and I spent the entire uptown subway ride fiddling nervously with my zipper, mortified that I was running late. I texted her: Of course have been waiting five years to meet you now five min late! She wrote back: Jajaja. This felt like a good omen.
As soon as we started talking, I felt immediately enmeshed in her mind and in whatever was about to happen between us. “Don’t ask me about I Love Dick,” she said, tired of doing promotional interviews for the television show, and I zipped up my jacket even higher.
We sat in the courtyard of New York’s Met Breuer and talked for hours. Our plan had been to see an exhibit, but it quickly became clear where the heat of our business lay: locked in conversation with each other, in the liminal humidity, getting at the tricky question of bringing consciousness to the page. We never made it upstairs. I was nervous and babbling, too embarrassed to show her my T-shirt until the final moments of our conversation—at which point I awkwardly unveiled it, and she graciously acknowledged it—but the great thing about Kraus’s work is that it holds all of this: awkwardness, anxiety, fumbling, embarrassment, insisting on intimacy as awkwardness, anxiety, fumbling, and embarrassment. That granted our conversation permission to hold all of these things as well. We talked about first-person writing, pelvic inflammatory disease, formal experimentation, bathroom blowjobs, diaries and self-contradiction, which is to say: everything her work has found the language to document.
LESLIE JAMISON: I taught a course a few years ago at Columbia called “Confession and Shame,” and one of our launching points was that moment in an interview you did where you’re saying you don’t consider your work “confessional.” You ask, “‘Confessional’ of what?” And you cite that great quote from the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, “Life is not personal.” [Kraus laughs] I guess we’re just diving right into the deep end, but what does that idea mean to you—that life isn’t personal?
CHRIS KRAUS: The things that happen to me are things that happen to everybody. They’re not unique. So to talk about them candidly—there’s nothing confessional about it. I’ll answer with another Deleuze quote. “The secret is there is no secret.” [laughs]
JAMISON: Sometimes people think that when you write from your life, you’re somehow asserting that your life is exceptional—but to me, it’s always felt more like the opposite. Every life is meaningful because it’s not extraordinary at all. Was a reason why you wanted to engage with Acker’s work due to the fact that she’s a key figure in the lineage of first-person writing?
KRAUS: She was a tremendous influence on me. When I first came to New York in the late 1970s, Kathy was very well-known. Her books were everywhere. I even read her early self-published books. I just kind of inhaled them. I felt that she was speaking straight to me. I mean, it was this voice in my head that could’ve been my voice. You know that reading experience?
JAMISON: I do! What were the veins of resonance?
KRAUS: Well, the broke-girl parts. The bad-boyfriend parts. The anguish parts. She had this great ability to transcribe emotion directly. Then she’d hop around and make a joke out of it. As she became better known, she took herself so seriously. Her earlier books were powerful because they had such a clear intent: she was trying to find a form that was true to herself and her world. And she did it with a lot of self-humor and parody. Later, her notion of sexuality became more essentialist and somber.
JAMISON: One of the things that I could feel so palpably in your biography was your excitement about the role of experiment in Acker’s work. You describe each book as its own problem. Acker had an organic sense of asking each time, “What am I trying to reckon with, and how can I reckon with it?” So I wondered what problem this biography offered for you.
KRAUS: I had some role models starting out—Charles Nicholl’s biography of Rimbaud in Africa, Somebody Else, and Ernst Pawel’s Kafka biography, The Nightmare of Reason. Both of these writers were intimate enough with their subjects to call them out on their wrong moves and inconsistencies. To write about someone with that kind of clarity, without reverence and awe, is the greatest homage. A friend once told me that you can tell from the first page of a biography what its approach will be. A psychological biography begins with the childhood, the parents, the birth. I loop back to those things, but I always knew I wanted talk about how Acker invented herself as a writer. So the book starts when she’s 23. She and her boyfriend have just moved back to New York to become writers, and she’s graphomaniacally recording their lives in multiple diaries.
JAMISON: In a way, your biography has two beginnings: chapter one starts with Acker in her early 20s in her New York apartment, but the prologue begins at her memorial. What does your prologue reveal about the kind of biography you’ve written?
KRAUS: That it’s not just a biography of one person, but also a historiography. How faultily things are recalled. It brings in the whole cast of characters she left behind, and their different relationships with each other—and with her. The comedy comes from their confusion, and their attempts to devise ritual in the complete absence of ritual that people have now in our world.
JAMISON: As an opening, it’s very honest about the multiplicity or unreliability of memory. Like, “Alright, I’m going to start this story by telling you how unstable this story is.”
KRAUS: You know, it took a long time to start … I thought I wanted to write the book right after she died in 1997, but it would’ve been a disaster if I’d done it then. I wouldn’t have had enough distance. I think it would’ve been too sentimental. Over-identifying with her in a way that leads to not truly identifying with her at all.
JAMISON: So many of the interviews you conducted were with people who were part of both of your worlds—there’s a lot of overlap there. I imagine those interviews were charged with all sorts of things.
KRAUS: Luckily, I interviewed a bunch of people in ’98 when I thought I was writing the book. At the time, I wasn’t very well known, so the interviews didn’t seem like any big thing. Who knew if I’d even publish the book? Nobody gave a shit, so we just talked and talked. Memories were fresh, and people spoke very candidly. I put the tapes in the closet. When I finally had them transcribed, I realized how strong the material was. Another great source was the archives of some of her friends who kept her letters to them. And her earliest interviews, before she’d devised her own origin myth.
JAMISON: The ways you can see someone reflected in other people’s accounts is often just as “honest” as self-perception. It’s like one of those Dutch still lives where all the vases and goblets are reflected off each other. You found Acker in all of these other places, reflected back.
KRAUS: Definitely. And there was this guilty, PI kind of thrill in seeing how she’d contradict herself, writing completely different accounts of the same event depending on who she was writing or talking to.
JAMISON: I love how Acker narrates certain things over and over again, how she returns to her father’s abandonment, or her early years of sex work—and these become a kind of mythology.
KRAUS: Yeah. She doesn’t talk about those events as much in her correspondence as she does in her writing. The letters are more gossip and career news—often, tall tales about career accomplishments [laughs].
JAMISON: Could you see different personas in how she corresponded with different people?
KRAUS: Oh, absolutely! But, then, that’s true for anyone. Speech is relational, and people present themselves differently depending on who they are talking to. Maybe this was truer with Kathy, because she was so ambitious and intentional. Her motives were always so clear. For instance, in Bernadette Mayers’ archive, you see this huge gap between Kathy’s letters to Bernadette and the ones written by Susan Howe and Alice Notley.
JAMISON: How so?
KRAUS: Susan and Alice rarely talked about themselves. There wasn’t this kind of strident “I, I, I.” They talked about what they were reading, about their pregnancies, about the weather. They adhered to the classical form of a literary correspondence. They were lovely letters. But Kathy was, like, “I gave Ed Dorn’s friend a blowjob in the bathroom. It was a great night. I need money. Send me books” [laughs].
JAMISON: Those are sometimes the best letters to get. When I look back at my old G-Mail threads from my early twenties, I can see some letters that made me feel like, “Fuck, why am I not David Remnick’s assistant yet?” But then it was so great when somebody wrote to say, “Today I woke up and, like, waited until 4 to get drunk.”
KRAUS: It’s annoying to have friends who see their life as a kind of perpetual elevation, right?
JAMISON: Totally. I would love to get a letter about giving somebody a blowjob in a bathroom stall in Brooklyn. [both laugh]. Did you find that your relationship with Kathy Acker—as a person or a subject—changed over the course of the project?
KRAUS: I didn’t really know her personally. But as a spectator I was very alienated by her image in the end. At first I was seduced by it, like most people. But by the end of the ’80s or early ’90s, it started to look silly and tired and forced. When I started work on the book, it was more about looking beyond the image, you know? Trying to access the person through her writings and through little fragments and bits and pieces of what people said. But I was also trying to access those eras. One of my motives for writing the book was to present an alternative history to the one that appears in memoirs of the glorious ’70s and ’80s in New York City. They seem so false. Writing about Kathy was a chance to correct some of that and put people into the story who are usually edited out. I mean, that’s what art history does, right?
JAMISON: Yes, doing justice to the hard stuff—the grit of it. I love that you wrote about Acker’s pelvic inflammatory disease. That’s the texture of life rather than the glossy surface.
KRAUS: That’s so absent from most biographies. The things that capture the texture of life at the time. Letters are good for that.
JAMISON: At a certain point, did you feel like a lot of your mental real estate was taken up by Acker and her world?
KRAUS: Oh, completely. I felt like I’d become an Acker-ologist [both laugh]. Sometimes I thought, “Why am I still thinking about this person?” But the only way I could do it was through immersion. For every section of the book, there was a kind of pre-production period before I started writing, where I would just live with the material. Often if I had a copy of a diary that was handwritten, I’d type it myself. Transcribing was a way of getting it inside my body. In the end, working with all of those elements became like working with my own material. All four of my novels began, in some form, in diaries. I’d pull things out and expand.
JAMISON: The process of using a diary in that way is very akin to Acker’s early work, the Black Tarantula?
KRAUS: Yes, that was a great work!
JAMISON: The way she would snatch and grab, going to the library and taking stuff and then splicing it with material from her own diaries. It had something to do with taking something that wasn’t her and then bringing it inside her and then putting it together with her “I” on the page.
KRAUS: Right. She had a very precise compositional plan for that book, working with an A-B structure. The “A” track was found material, mostly sourced from long out-of-print popular books that she found in the UCSD library. The “B” track, from her own diaries, appears in parentheses. So it might start, “I was born in the West Indies in 1827 and my parents boarded a ship”—this very stately 19th century language. And then she’ll cut to the “B” track, in parentheses, “Rich is coming over. We fucked two times.”
JAMISON: Amazing! I love how she talked about the two “I’s.” The “I” in parentheses and the “I” outside of parentheses. It made me think about that moment in your essay about S/M role play, “Emotional Technologies,” when you ask, “Why do we always assume that the first person is more personal than the third person?”
KRAUS: Yes, she realized early on that there were many possible “I’s.” There were avant-garde precedents for this kind of deliberate fragmentation, but her “I” in the diary B-track is so aggressively vernacular. She wrote to Jackson Mac Low about pushing herself towards a state of schizophrenia, inhabiting these multiple “I’s” to a point where she started losing the anchor. Which created a lucid delirium.
JAMISON: Who ever feels like just one coherent person inside? I don’t think anyone has ever felt that way. So what is that splicing doing, do you think? Trying to find a way to articulate a self that doesn’t feel seamless? Or saying that two lives that seem really different aren’t that different at all?
KRAUS: [laughs] It’s all of that! You know, one life is never enough. Acker was voracious—she cannibalized other people all the time. In a good way. Inhabiting all of these positions at the same time, what pleasure. In Black Tarantula, she took command of some techniques she’d learned in seminars with [poet] David Antin. Antin had never taught poetry in his life, before arriving at UCSD. He didn’t want to deal with a lot of bad student poems, so he made up a game. He told them, “Go to the library and, whatever you want to write about, someone else has done it before and done it better than you can do right now. So just steal.” Acker wrote these appropriative pieces along with everyone else. But it wasn’t until ten years later, when she did Black Tarantula, that she found a way of making it her own by bringing the original personal material into the book in such a deliberate and confrontational way.
JAMISON: It seems like she was taking some kind of free movement between fiction and nonfiction.
KRAUS: I think the question really is: Is it literature or is it journalism?
JAMISON: What’s the difference between those for you?
KRAUS: Well, literature enacts an altered state, or at least takes you someplace else. And part of that power arrives from deliberate framing. Journalism simply describes, or exhorts, or does some other thing. In Black Tarantula, Acker wrote her way into an altered state. Later, she discovered the early work of Pierre Guyotat. She adopted his “beat sheet” technique at the end of her career: writing and masturbating at the same time. Guyotat did it to capture a heightened state in his writing.
JAMISON: You talked about the absence of ritual in our world. That feels connected to the idea of seeking an altered state. Is ritual important to you?
KRAUS: Just very small ones. I have writing rituals: a darkened room where nothing goes on except writing. I, um, light a candle. Cigarettes may be involved. [Both laugh].
JAMISON: Can I ask you more about your diary process? You said you pull things out directly, and then expand on them—what kind of material are you pulling out, and how has your approach evolved?
KRAUS: By ’05, ’06, my diaries weren’t as continuous as they once were, but I still wrote in them during moments of intensity. I kept a diary during those years, because I really felt I was living as a collaborator. The US felt like an occupied state during the years of the Iraq occupation, and no one was talking about it. A lot of that writing moved into a novel, eventually.
JAMISON: And were those internal moments of intensity or were they prompted by external things?
KRAUS: There were dreams, and then there were direct observations. Seeing the border patrol catch someone near the I-10 freeway in Tucson and herd him into a van that looked like Animal Control. Seeing the perpetual flag-fest, the lapel pins, even on bank tellers …
JAMISON: My diaries used to be much more internal like, “this is how I felt.” But when I started to reread my old diaries, I realized that I cared less about the abstract interiority and was more hungry for the concrete: what did I eat for breakfast?
KRAUS: When I teach writing, diary writing is always at the heart of it. And that’s the training. People tend to use diaries to record feelings, and then they abandon it. Because, you’re right—you look back, and it’s almost nothing. It’s too intangible. And what seems like everything is: A black van is parked across the street and it has Michigan plates.
JAMISON: Has that always been how you’ve written diaries—that attention to external details?
KRAUS: No. All the years before I Love Dick, I made the same mistake! But then I realized that a diary is a kind of report—or self-reporting. And if you report, you have to give details. Christopher Isherwood’s diaries were an inspiration for this. They’re such a great example of the level of detail and discipline entailed in recording a day. It really is a discipline.
JAMISON: Right. We might think that the self is living in what we feel or what’s inside of us, but you actually capture more of the self by saying, “Here’s what was across the street, here’s what was on my scone…” If you can put those things down, then when you look back, you think, “Oh, right! There’s a human thing in here, between all these details.”
KRAUS: Acker lost some of the specifics in her later work. As she started to think of herself as a myth maker, attempting to replace narration with myth, her writing became more general and, of course, a lot less funny.
JAMISON: I haven’t ever connected that before. Specificity is where humor lives. In your own work, how do you resist narrative becoming something mythic?
KRAUS: Yeah, well, I guess I’m really committed to telling the truth in writing. It’s a corny idea, but I think that’s what writing does. It tells the truth about something. And that’s the pleasure, relief, of reading it. You realize, I’m not alone. But to tell the truth about something, you have to come up with the facts. Like a deposition. I love reading legal writing.
JAMISON: Where do you find the depositions that you read?
KRAUS: One of my many jobs in New York was as a legal secretary. I typed and transcribed lots of depositions. And in Summer of Hate, I used real legal files as sources.
JAMISON: When I was a freshman in college, I transcribed interviews for an immigration asylum lawyer, and it was an instruction in how messy the truth is.
KRAUS: And the interviewer is probing and digging for that. The more they seek clarity, the more they reveal convolutions.
JAMISON: When you say you believe in writing that tells the truth…I believe in that too. But what are the things that feel most difficult for you in terms of telling the truth? Or do you feel like honesty just comes naturally?
KRAUS: I started writing so late and put it off for so many years. When I finally started, I felt like I had nothing to lose and might just as well tell the truth. Do you feel when you’re working on something, that you’re kind of calibrating your whole self towards a point of being able to write it? The material stays in your body a long time before you start working. The novels I wrote took a long time, not because I was rewriting things, line by line, but because I had to find the right place to write from. As soon as you find that, you’re there.
JAMISON: I find you can physically feel when something true is coming out on the page versus mere throat clearing.
KRAUS: I distrust writers that people describe as being “so great with language.” I hate that kind of writing.
JAMISON: Because it seems like it’s often masking or serving as a crutch?
KRAUS: Yes. The poet Ariana Reines has a great line: “Poetry is not about words.” When I began I Love Dick, I thought, “Okay, maybe I’m not a great writer but I have an ability to be accurate.” That’s what I set out to do when I started writing, and it hasn’t changed.
JAMISON: Where does accuracy live?
KRAUS: You can always tell prettiness from beauty. Beauty arises from contradiction, even when it’s under the surface. Any report of experience will be contradictory. And part of the reportage is to include those contradictions.
JAMISON: Right, and sharing any kind of experience with somebody so often means that you have very different takes on what happened: One person says, “Oh, for me it was like this,” and another says, “Oh, no, it wasn’t like that for me at all!”
KRAUS: Different accounts can add to each other. It’s like, “I’ll witness this. You witness that.” It’s like building a house with different materials. A story can never true if it includes just one perspective. Reading scholarly articles about Acker’s work, I saw how people had picked things up she said in interviews as if they were established facts. And the last thing you should do is believe the writer. [laughs]
LESLIE JAMISON IS A BROOKLYN-BASED WRITER. HER NEXT BOOK, THE RECOVERING, WILL BE PUBLISHED IN SPRING 2018.