INTERVIEW WITH DODIE BELLAMY
THE SUMMER OF 2016 WAS FOR ME THE SUMMER OF DODIE BELLAMY. I am a New York resident, but by strange coincidence, when this interview was proposed to me by a WHITE REVIEW editor I happened to be living temporarily just outside San Francisco, Bellamy’s longtime purlieu. I also happened to be headed over to her house for a party later on that week. Thus I was able to secure a verbal ‘yes’ to the interview plan. Bellamy and I subsequently sat down mid-August in her SOMA apartment to discuss her work, particularly her recent essay collection, WHEN THE SICK RULE THE WORLD (2015).
For those less familiar with San Francisco, SOMA stands for ‘South of Market.’ The area contains industrial structures and a few modest wood-clad apartment buildings, but has recently received liberal architectural additions in the form of luxury condominiums and corporate monoliths. Bellamy describes the ongoing gentrification of the neighbourhood where she has lived since 1990 with her partner, the poet Kevin Killian, in her essay ‘In the Shadow of the Twitter Towers’. The essay’s treatment of the present as a confluence of economic and cultural pressures, personal desire, paranoia, ambition, and, oh yes, real estate, is heady and affecting. It exemplifies Bellamy’s skilful attention to the welter of forces and dynamics shaping contemporary life and carries a trace of her schooling in the New Narrative literary movement of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. New Narrative writing, often associated with the writer Robert Glück, usually includes the author’s forthright acknowledgement of her or his own body and sexuality, as well as that of the reader, along with the actual time and place of writing. The author of at least eleven books of prose and poetry, including CUNT-UPS (2001) and THE TV SUTRAS (2014), Bellamy is additionally concerned with affect and precarity, and where desire can lead us once we forgive false notions of what humans need and deserve. Whether or not you find Bellamy’s work ‘experimental’ – in the interview she herself takes issue with this term – it seems clear that her work is engaged with questions about what and where daily life is, not to mention who is experiencing this life, so called. Bellamy doesn’t so much rail against traditional literary forms and genre as ignore them in favour of more exciting and enticing ways of proceeding.
On the afternoon of our August meeting, Bellamy fed me homemade date cookies and green tea. I met Sylvia the cat, one of two felines – the other is Ted, as in Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath – with whom Bellamy and Killian share their home. Sylvia displayed a distinct lack of shyness, while Bellamy patiently and generously satisfied my curiosity about her life and writing. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
— Lucy Ives
Q THE WHITE REVIEW — I was reading the essay ‘Phone Home’ from WHEN THE SICK RULE THE WORLD, in which you write about your return to Indiana just before your mother passes away. In the hospital you’re with her; she’s not really conscious and you describe her mouth, her face. Reading it, I had a strange thought: ‘Now Dodie’s mother will get better, so that Dodie can be with her again before she dies.’
A DODIE BELLAMY — That fantasy actually makes an appearance elsewhere in that essay with E. T., because he does come back to life in the movie. That’s what Steven King is all about – in horror, people do come back, but they’re never the same. It’s a deep human fantasy. I sometimes want to squeeze my eyes shut and open them again, and find that my mother isn’t dead, though she’s been dead for eight or nine years now. In poetry classes in the 1980s I was taught Lacan’s theory that the separation from your mother marks your entry into the Symbolic Order. Language acts are about this tragic separation. Writing is always equally about loss and gaining. It gives you the world while you’re writing, but you’re writing about things that aren’t there. So it’s always about loss. I’m writing about my childhood now, and it’s like writing about death in the other direction, because that world is so unavailable.
Q THE WHITE REVIEW — It seems like we’re supposed to go back to childhood to figure out why we make errors, no?
A DODIE BELLAMY — That’s why I started writing about it, but now I’m more interested in class issues than personal error. Now I live a basically middle-class life, after having had a working-class childhood, so it’s like I grew up in another world, a foreign world I couldn’t survive in now. If I’d stayed in that world I would be married to a butcher. One of my girlfriends did marry a butcher. By the time I was 15 it was clear I wanted to be a writer – some people don’t totally have to change class to do it, such a hard thing to do – but I always knew I’d have to leave. I’m kind of judgemental about my inability to appreciate working-class life as a child, but there was no place of understanding. It was brutal. Most people I know now feel so uncertain because they don’t know where they stand with the people they know. My experience of the working-class Midwest was that you knew where you stood with everybody. It might not have been pleasant, but you knew. People were very clear about whether they liked you or not. I was kind of a freak, and I was teased a lot. I guess you’d call it bullying now. But a sense of otherness is not necessarily a bad thing. My sense of otherness – which I will try to create in any situation, no matter what the other person is trying to do – has been valuable in writing. You kind of step outside and look.
Q THE WHITE REVIEW — WHEN THE SICK RULE THE WORLD deals with things that are quite painful. There’s a description of the hanging of a witch in ‘The Bandaged Lady’. The detail is horrifying, visceral; you write about how it takes fifteen minutes to die if you’re hanged. Unless, of course, you jump first in order to break your own neck.
A DODIE BELLAMY — Who knew, right? I took all this stuff from Silvia Federici’s CALIBAN AND THE WITCH (2004). I put in the idea of a ‘clever witch’ who jumps mostly for sarcasm, though Federici does say that some witches would jump before being hanged to break their own necks and die faster.
Q THE WHITE REVIEW — It seems like a fantasy on the part of the historian, that clever witch. As if someone could retrieve dignity from the experience of being executed.
A DODIE BELLAMY — That piece was commissioned as a catalogue essay for Tariq Alvi’s show at the gallery 2nd Floor Projects. Tariq sent these Xeroxed mockups that looked very different from the actual pieces in the show, but still they included the image of the hanged boys. It was challenging and exciting working with someone else’s imagery. On my own, I would never have thought to write about those hanged boys. I spent a lot of time looking at photos of them. I tried to open my heart to them, even though there was no way I could truly enter that experience. I keep coming across the theory that mirror neurons are the source of human empathy. For me, it’s about getting rid of the ego and just looking and seeing what happens. A lot of my writing is about looking. In my book THE LETTERS OF MINA HARKER (1998) there’s a long letter about the death of Sam D’Allesandro in which I conclude that the act of looking is an expression of love. To really look at someone is how you love them.
Q THE WHITE REVIEW — Speaking of witches, I wanted to ask you about the ‘Rascal Guru’ essay in WHEN THE SICK RULE THE WORLD. There were some details that I thought were so precise, shocking and eerie. How was that essay written?
A DODIE BELLAMY — It’s an outtake from THE TV SUTRAS. It’s all Google-search collage. I researched a zillion different gurus and some of them were Christian. It was unbelievable, what some of them were doing. And then the language! The gurus did the same dastardly deeds over and over until it started to feel redundant, and the language of the followers, to rationalise it, became much more interesting than the acts themselves. I included a lot of the rationalisations. At some point I decided to make it one guru. So he’s the Ur-guru.
Q THE WHITE REVIEW — I like accretion as a compositional principle. You organise facts rather than invent a plot.
A DODIE BELLAMY — Well, it does have a little arc, because he dies at the end. He has all these problems! And then he dies. So it has a narrative.
Q THE WHITE REVIEW — How do you know if something is interesting?
A DODIE BELLAMY — That’s hard to tell. This issue’s coming up a lot now that I’m writing about my working-class childhood. I’m like, ‘Who the fuck is going to care about this?’ I’ve just had to presume that maybe nobody will. Usually, if I’m compelled by something, that means it’s interesting. Assignments usually aren’t interesting, so you have to sit with one until some kind of opening occurs and creates excitement. If I can generate excitement, the writing seems to be interesting. I don’t think about it in terms of subject matter. Anything can be interesting, and you can take the most interesting thing in the world and end up with the dullest piece of writing. It’s about engagement.
Q THE WHITE REVIEW — I’m interested that you say ‘engagement’ because other people who have spoken to you about your work often want to know why you use collage techniques. They seem a bit surprised.
A DODIE BELLAMY — I don’t understand that. I’m doing something that has a long history, going back to the likes of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin. But also I was raised on Kathy Acker’s writing and the whole notion of appropriation. That these things are being questioned now is beyond me.
Q THE WHITE REVIEW — It might trouble people that something coded as ‘weird’ could be exciting across generations.
A DODIE BELLAMY — There’s a weird hatred of conceptual writing. And people get suspicious of people who do anything procedural. My precedents have little to do with conceptual writing, but still, it’s like throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Q THE WHITE REVIEW — I’m curious about your connection to nineteenth-century writing. In THE LETTERS OF MINA HARKER Mina says, and I paraphrase, ‘Dodie’s always reading these books where people don’t do anything. But I don’t want writing to be a consolation for a life of inaction.’
A DODIE BELLAMY — I love nineteenth-century novels. They’re a wonderful antidote to the Internet. I’ve been reading Henry James’s THE AMBASSADORS. At first I couldn’t understand its wild syntax, but I found that when I stop trying with James, the text eventually opens and I’m there with it in all its glory. In the passage from MINA you refer to, I was talking about reading Barbara Pym, whose novels are so much about small, marginal lives. THE LETTERS OF MINA HARKER is a tribute to DRACULA, it’s totally founded in the nineteenth-century. The romance novel ends when the protagonist couple gets together. So this is post-romance, in that the book begins with Dodie’s marriage to KK. But Mina never stops being in a romance novel even though she’s married. I was writing that novel when I was being schooled in New Narrative writing. Daily life was very important in New Narrative, breaking down the fourth wall between the writer and the work – without getting horribly meta about it, which I can’t suffer – questioning the boundary between the personal and the cultural. I’m this walking bag of culture. There’s no ‘me’ outside of culture. The boundaries get really messed up.
In my high school journal, which I’m rereading right now, I’m fascinated with the CHARLIE BROWN character Pig-Pen. Pig-Pen, with the swirl of dirt that surrounds him, has all this culture sort of stuck to him. In one cartoon strip, Charlie Brown asks Lucy, ‘Did it ever occur to you that Pig-Pen might be carrying the dirt and dust of some past civilisations?’ He goes on to muse, ‘He could have on him some of the soil of ancient Babylon.’ While my adult self is excited by the metaphorical possibilities of Pig-Pen, I have no idea what he meant to me in high school. At one point in my journal I’m reading Sartre and exchanging my Charlie Brown sweatshirt for a Pig-Pen sweatshirt – both in the same entry.
Q THE WHITE REVIEW — Is being a writer for you always about being with other people? When you narrate your youth it seems like your orientation to writing is often formed in relation to others.
A DODIE BELLAMY — When there’s another person to focus on, it’s easier to write about that than when there’s not another person. When I was writing THE LETTERS OF MINA HARKER, I noticed that the only time Mina is sexual is when she’s with another person. At the time, I was reading Dennis Cooper and I saw that his characters never stopped being sexual. I came to the conclusion that Mina’s passive sexuality was sexist. She needs someone else to turn it on. So I started writing sexual passages where there wasn’t another person actively involved, to create a sense that this woman has a continuous sexuality that doesn’t have to be turned on by someone else. Is that what you’re asking about?
Q THE WHITE REVIEW — Kevin Killian appears in your writing a lot, in different ways and guises. Is it ever hard to live with another writer?
A DODIE BELLAMY — Our writing is so different, so no. Including him when he’s commenting on my life is a part of New Narrative’s focus on community experience. He does critique my work though – I ask him to read everything I write because he’s such a good editor.
The question is, when does Kevin’s editing become a rewriting of the work into the way he would do it himself? Sometimes it’s a hard call. I do end up taking most of his edits. Kevin is in the writing workshop I teach in my living room during the summers and at times I disagree with his critiques of other students, and then I start to think, ‘But you take all his advice yourself!’ I’ve learned a lot from him. He’s got a great sense of comedy. He’s taught me how to rearrange sentences so you get your laugh. He’s also sharp about stripping those red flags of narcissism where people read the writing and groan, ‘Oh, she’s really bragging about herself.’ In terms of the writing, I think it’s wonderful to be with a writer. I’m Kevin’s biggest fan. I think he’s brilliant.
Q THE WHITE REVIEW — Often in your writing the narrator says she’s sick. She becomes ill or throws up. My immediate thought is that health is a tyrannical regime. And the term ‘sickness’ has at least two meanings: ‘illness’ and ‘perversion.’ Also, ‘very impressive,’ in slang, like, ‘That’s sick!’
A DODIE BELLAMY — The meaning I had in mind was cultural sickness. Take Trump, for example, but he’s just the start. I hate the word capitalism. I’m so tired of people using the word ‘capitalism’. Modern America, global capitalism, is sick. I watched this video last night called ‘Decolonising the Mind’, by Dr Michael Yellow Bird who teaches at Humboldt State University. He was talking about colonialism, saying that the only way anyone could engage in its horrors is through a lack of empathy. He was seeing colonialism as a state of mental illness. It’s obvious that we live in a sick culture.
Q THE WHITE REVIEW — Is there such a thing as resistant sickness, forms of sickness that allow you to escape or enter into altered states that might paradoxically turn out to be forms of health?
A DODIE BELLAMY — I’m reminded of Marion Woodman’s ADDICTION TO PERFECTION (1982), which I read in the late ’80s, when I still was into Jungian stuff. It was about these hyper-functioning women who would just fall apart, because they’re missing their souls or something. I didn’t realise there was a lot sickness in my writing. I have food sensitivities that are troublesome. Before my gluten sensitivity was discovered I worried I had some awful auto-immune disorder. I used to have a couple of days each week when I was stay-in-bed sick.
Q THE WHITE REVIEW — I thought about the title of WHEN THE SICK RULE THE WORLD for months before I got round to reading the book.
A DODIE BELLAMY — It’s a good title, right? The sick could also be the underdog, so it’s about revolution. The way things have been going lately, perhaps we should just remove the ‘when’.
Q THE WHITE REVIEW — This makes me think about E. T. again, the part in ‘Phone Home’ where you talk about all the actors necessary to the production of the character E. T. I was very overwhelmed by those facts. How did you find that out?
A DODIE BELLAMY — That was all googling. The information is taken from a number of sources. I loved that I was even able to find the grave plots of the people who died. It’s amazing.
Q THE WHITE REVIEW — You mean the people who died while portraying E. T.? You suggest that some people succumbed because of psychological or physical stress.
A DODIE BELLAMY — Or they were doomed. It was a kind of sickness, how oppressive the creation of E. T. was to all these different people. Using some woman who has a cancerous voice because it’s so gravelly, for example.
Q THE WHITE REVIEW — E. T. was literally made of parts of people whom society marks as being insufficient or abnormal. And then that alien entity being becomes a perfect love-object in suburbia.
A DODIE BELLAMY — Drew Barrymore says E. T. was totally real to her, even though she knew about all the component parts. That’s a metaphor for what’s real to us in general. Things don’t have to be believable for them to be real to us, for them to move us. Something can be very abstracted and still have the power to movem, like an Eva Hesse sculpture. You look at those things and have such a strong response, with no idea why you’re feeling it.
Q THE WHITE REVIEW — This is also a compelling aspect of your work, which I see as being a kind of research into affect. You show what’s behind E. T., all the different agents, subjectivities, positions.
A DODIE BELLAMY — I was surprised by how traumatic that movie was. I asked my students, and they were all traumatised as children watching that movie. Now it would have to come with a trigger warning!
Q THE WHITE REVIEW — Do you often think about ways of getting at certain identifications and experiences that escape us, that slip away, maybe because they are traumatic?
A DODIE BELLAMY — There’s a real openness when I’m writing. I try to stay in a libidinal state. It’s like, ‘Wow this is interesting,’ or ‘Wow this connects.’ I try not to get too analytical with it. The way you’re talking about it is really beautiful, but if I were thinking about it that way it wouldn’t get written.
Q THE WHITE REVIEW — What’s that libidinal state like?
A DODIE BELLAMY — It’s encountering surprising connections, and the world starts feeling like a matrix. Everything starts feeling like it’s connecting, and I see this and I see that. I pull things in and move them around and see connections. It’s this fluid craziness and I feel like a wizard with a pot that I’m stirring. That’s what allows those surprising connections.
Q THE WHITE REVIEW — When you begin to work on something, do you always know what you’re beginning?
A DODIE BELLAMY — Not necessarily. I mean, I do if I take something on as an assignment, which sometimes I do just to get myself to work on something. I just started a new book and I wasn’t planning to write it. And I wasn’t planning to write THE TV SUTRAS. And I wasn’t planning to write ‘In the Shadows of the Twitter Towers’ in WHEN THE SICK RULE THE WORLD. I don’t know how I started writing that, but I could not stop writing it. I liked the idea of having something in the book that was substantial and hadn’t been published elsewhere.
Q THE WHITE REVIEW — I was really interested in the character Trey in ‘In the Shadows of the Twitter Towers’, his insane love of gentrification.
A DODIE BELLAMY — It’s hard to tell with Trey. He’s a composite of several real people in my neighbourhood. There’s one guy who’s always calling the cops on some homeless person on his cell phone. And someone else in the building wrote me those crazy letters. I don’t know how I found his Yelp reviews. I eventually cut them down and did a collage because he says the same things over and over again. Discovering those Yelp reviews was one of those gifts from the universe.
Q THE WHITE REVIEW — Certain structures related to traditional literary genres seem to be disappearing from contemporary life. Examples might be job security or reliable forms of intimacy, and how people struggle to approach both work and intimacy with trust. Critics like Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai have written about this. Do you see this instability as related to your own work with narrative?
A DODIE BELLAMY — The conventional, midlist novel that’s taught in MFA programmes doesn’t reflect the current reality at all. It’s not even a very satisfying fantasy. I have no problem with conventional narratives. They create this wonderful fantasy of everything resolving at the end. That’s what’s so frustrating in real life – there are so many things where you never know the end of the story. It can fucking drive you crazy. Like the story of this very handsome, vain guy downstairs who was here when we moved in that I mention in ‘In the Shadows of the Twitter Towers’.
Q THE WHITE REVIEW — He was a musician, right?
A DODIE BELLAMY — Yes, and he became a junkie. It was shocking how quickly somebody can disintegrate if they’re into heroin. He was very frail, walking with a cane, and he quit paying his rent. Creepy, creepy people started coming over – he eventually got evicted. And then somebody said he went back to L.A., but I cannot tell you how much over the years I’ve wanted to know what happened to this guy. I’m never going to know! There are stories you get invested in and then they just end. They’re not resolved.
A big topic of everyone’s conversation is how disjunctive their life is, how fragmented they feel. That’s why I read nineteenth-century novels at night, as a sort of antidote. Now I’m reading Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Novels, which have the sweep of a nineteenth-century novel. I’m on volume two. You can have a literary form that exists outside your experience, or you can try to create forms that somehow reflect your current experience. Those are your choices. But I find that a lot of fiction students don’t want to be shown that. I like Lidia Yuknavitch. I watch her videos online. She could get anyone to do anything. And she makes a good case about creating new forms. You know that quote by Audre Lorde, ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’? Form is political. It’s not a neutral. It carries baggage, all these assumptions about reality. Whose reality does this form correspond to? That’s what New Narrative addresses. The Language poets had basically thrown out narrative, and the point of New Narrative was that there are people who aren’t entitled enough to throw out narrative. Telling their stories is important to them. So how do we tell a story that honours our experience without falling back on all of this crap? I would say that the way fiction is taught in the MFA context would be like writing poetry and only doing sonnets. Or, as a friend of mine says, it would be like going to art school and only doing landscape painting.
There are other ways to write. The novel used to be an experimental form. Kevin says to me, ‘Dodie, you have to realise that the novel is no longer an experimental form.’ Whereas it was. When I was in high school you read Faulkner and it was just presented as good writing. Now you see grad students complaining that Faulkner is too hard for them. Or it’s taught in experimental writing classes – Faulkner, you know? The novel has become this really conservative form. Books like THE ARGONAUTS (2015) by Maggie Nelson should not have been published according to traditional models. It’s so encouraging that people don’t have any trouble reading it. In fact, I think we’re trained for disjunction. Early movies had inter-titles because people didn’t understand the language of film, or disjunction, but now we live and breathe the language of disjunction and fragmentation. To have writing that reflects that seems like it shouldn’t be a biggie.
Date: November 1, 2017
Publisher: The White Review