An Interview with Dodie Bellamy
November 3, 2004
Dodie Bellamy, the indie darling of cult B-movie-loving experimental writers everywhere, made me tune into Ginger Snaps recently (it was playing on one of those endless horror-movie loops on the Sci-Fi Channel). Even after my love affair with Buffy, I've held some high-fallutin' criticisms of the horror genre as tasteless, misogynist and vapid, but I wanted to give it another go. And for once, I was able to look beyond (or into) the schlock and see bad horror for what it can offer a discerning feminist viewer: in a culture that so completely pathologizes femininity, why not revel in our own monstrosity, bleeding fake blood and uttering lines like "Something's wrong, like more than you being female"?
Bellamy had two big alien births to celebrate last fall: The Letters of Mina Harker, her celebrated epistolary novel, was finally reprinted by University of Wisconsin Press, and edgy queer imprint Suspect Thoughts published her innovative novel/memoir Pink Steam. Mina, which Eileen Myles calls a "luscious deeply fucked up extravagant work" and which Dennis Cooper calls "a masterpiece," resurrects the secretary-heroine of Bram Stoker's Dracula, Mina Harker, against the backdrop of gritty South of Market San Francisco, where she possesses Bellamy's body, invades her life and circle of friends, and reenacts the romantic melodramas from her past in Stoker's original. But the book is not so narrative as my gloss: Bellamy's fractal, fractionated prose disrupts itself with formal interruptions, intertextual voices, temporal shifts and syntactical twists, managing to be both wholly innovative and deeply emotional at once. Mina offers a sort of orgy of pop culture and high theory, a gender theorists' favorite nightmare, one where we're allowed to study Cixous while eating Doritos in front of the Sci-Fi channel. Part horror, part erotica, and part confessional feminist manifesto, Mina also possesses the reader, making us feel party to the monstrosity that is leashed upon San Francisco.
Bellamy is a writer who's deeply interested in the division between outside and inside -- she has said that's what chiefly draws her to horror movies, with their themes of bodily or spiritual invasion and possession -- and the trope pops up again in Pink Steam, a collection of vignettes that are more straightforwardly autobiographical than Mina but employ similar tactics of disruption.
In addition to several chapbooks, Bellamy's titles include Real: The Letters of Mina Harker and Sam D'Allesandro (Talisman House, 1995); Feminine Hijinx (Hanuman, 1990); Cunt-Ups (Tender Buttons, 2002), a radical feminist revision of the "cut-up" pioneered by William Burroughs and Bryon Gysin, which won the 2002 Firecracker Alternative Book Award for Poetry; and The Fourth Form, a novel in progress. I met Bellamy, who lives in San Francisco with the writer Kevin Killian and their cat Blanche, last Halloween at a Thai restaurant near Civic Center to discuss the impending return of Mina (it's been out of print for what felt like decades but was more like a mere five years), the arrival of Pink Steam, and what else she has in the works.
Bloch: One of the things that's interesting about Mina is that it took you ten years to complete it. Was that much longer than you'd expected? Did it turn into a bigger project than you thought it would be?
Bellamy: Well, there are a couple of things. I never expected it to be a book; I was writing some other book that is yet to be written and that I actually may still write -- it will probably be a short story instead of a book. I was doing this just as a fun performance project. In the original letters, people wrote back to Mina, so Mina had all this correspondence, and the ones between me and Kevin [Killian] were published in a San Francisco State magazine years and years ago, and then I became more serious about it as a book. It took a while for it to become a book. Then I got really sick, physically ill, in the middle, so I didn't get much writing done, and there were a couple years when not much was done before it did become a big project, and the letters would take a really long time to write. The longer ones would take a month of solid work. I was on unemployment for a year, back in the glory days, and that's all I did was write. It was great.
Why did you decide to take the replies to Mina out of the finished book?
Well, as the letters became more elaborate, people stopped replying. They became more formal, and it became about me. It was hard to figure out how the book was going to actually be a book. Originally, the letters were written to all sorts of different people, and a decision was made, or I made the decision to condense that down to just a few people. Originally, one of the letters was to Dennis Cooper, one was to Gail Scott, one was to Leslie Dick, and there's traces of that -- their work is collaged into their letters even though they've been removed.
Anyway, the first ten pages were edited down from the first seventy-five pages. Originally, the book started much earlier in Mina's and KK's relationship, but it was Kevin's idea to start it with the wedding, and I thought that was a good point to start it. And eventually it became written more and more toward a book.
Some of the letters are written to Sam D'Allesandro after his death. When you started Mina, were you writing it at the same time as you were writing Real, which you wrote with Sam, or did it grow out of Real?
The Real stuff was going on. That was some of the early stuff; that was what the early stuff was more like. Real is a really constructed book. Some of the things in it weren't actually letters between Sam and Mina; that's what's so funny about the title Real. And then a lot of Sam's letters, the ones that were written between us, were just [composed] one time through. Some of them were handwritten. They had that really nice energy, but they needed to be tightened. Kevin edited Sam's letters because there was a concern that if I edited them, the whole book would sound the same.
I wanted to talk about Dracula, the original text that's acting as subtext in Mina. I've always thought Dracula should be required reading for poets -- I loved its use of multiple perspectives and the epistolary form and the way it sometimes pokes fun at itself, especially in Mina Harker's missives. It's awkward and bloody and almost campy, like it belongs on the True Stories channel that shows horror B-movies, although I don't know if it seemed campy at its time.
It's kind of a shock how good it is. I didn't expect it to be good at all.
How did you come to choose Dracula as a starting point?
Well, you know, that's a hard one to answer, because I have no idea. It was back in the eighties, and I was working on the project for quite a while before I actually read Dracula. I was mostly basing [Mina] on horror films, and then once I became really committed, I then read Dracula, and I couldn't believe how perfect it was. You know what I mean? In terms of the way it's pieced together through these different bits, and the different forms, and all the epistolary stuff. I think what appealed to me about Mina, like, why I chose Mina rather than, say, Lucy, is that she is that borderline figure, where she's kind of bitten. Some people think that at the end she actually does become a vampire ... that kind of borderline figure between two worlds really appealed to me.
I liked that about her, too. It makes me think of how the borderline figure is operating in Mina. Over the course of the book, we get these very distinct impressions of Mina and Dodie, and they seem to assert themselves alternately at different points, and then Dodie seems to prevail and Mina is being exorcised out of Dodie's body. Which culminates with the conclusion of the book, too, by the way. This raises so many questions for me -- the death or sublimation of one's character, the idea that a writer's identity reassembles itself at the conclusion of a work, and the division between inside and outside, which I know is a big concern for you. How did you experience this kind of narrative? Did you set out to write this way, or did the letters grow into their own?
I wrote it from Mina's perspective. Really, just being in her head and what it would be like for the book to end for her. But it was a really hard book to recover from. To let go of it was really hard, to think that I could ever go on to write anything else. There was this sort of real ripping apart and mourning for it. It kind of reminds me of how they talk about Frankenstein as being a product of Mary Shelley's postpartum depression. I think everybody who writes a book goes through some kind of depression afterwards.
I wanted to go back to what you said about some lines in Mina being from other people. I felt like I recognized some of the italicized text, but other stuff I had no idea about. Where did it all come from?
Everything under the sun. Zillions of sources. A lot of theory books, where I've taken and subverted it. Movie lines. Just anything that came into my life. Some of them are to mark interiority, or some of them are purely for punctuation, like if I wanted to switch back and forth really quickly without using periods, so I would italicize/not italicize, enjamb things really quickly.
What do you mean by "mark interiority"?
Well, Mina comes in as an id figure. A lot of times, it would be, like, Dodie's having lunch with Julia, and then there would be some sort of forbidden thought in italics in the middle of it, so it's sort of moving away to a personal space that the people around aren't aware of, and then we come back out of it.
So it's kind of an aside to the self but also to the reader?
Yeah. But often it's just sort of this sense of the id breaking through and saying the unacceptable. I really enjoyed that about Mina.
And did your use of interiority come out of the work that you'd been doing with feminist theory? The boundary-blurring in the book reminds me of Luce Irigaray's Speculum of the Other Woman, because she's so brash about disrupting boundaries. She's also really concerned with deconstructing "the logical grid of the reader-writer" with the elliptical and not providing an alternative logic, but turning Western discourse about the female on its head.
I think that came out of it in a general way, but I think I was more influenced by Sybil. That, and Freud's stuff on hysteria. I knew about all the French feminism stuff, and it certainly encouraged me to pursue what I wanted to pursue, but I don't know that there was any direct formal influence of it. Certainly one of the letters has a lot of Catherine Clement's Newly Born Woman in it.
Another thing that really strikes me in Mina is the constant simultaneity of sex and danger. Mina is often getting fucked at the same time that she's got these bloody or broken body images swarming through the letters. Sex is often happening at a violent time or gets juxtaposed with violent acts. It's a classic feminist complaint, the conflation of sex and violence, the way the previews for a thriller intersperse images of murder and sex. Yet you're doing this head-on. Has anyone ever taken the book to task about it?
No, no one has that I can think of. ... I think the gay influence on the book allowed me to do all the sex and violence. But I don't think it's promoting sex and violence in any way. It's all about wanting to break down boundaries, in the sense of being invaded and feeling terrified about it. I think a lot of violence is this sense of, even if you want it, sometimes it seems like a rape when someone comes close. And in Mina, there's a certain critique of sex going on. Most of the writing I write about sex, like, heterosexuality, now, is so critiqued. There it's kind of buried, but now it's not.
Aging. I'm still into exploring sexual obsession, but I think the more you explore it, maybe it's easier [to critique it]. ... I really wanted a kind of nonstandard sexuality, or one that surprised people.
It seems like we're still at a point where sexual identities are really contested. Both you and Kevin are read as queer writers, but it seems like you still have to deal with a lot of inquiry into what that means for you and what it means that you're a man and a woman in a marriage.
Well, the thing is, part of my problem with the acceptance of my work is that I get called straight by default, and that is not a badge that any woman should want to take on. ... I think in San Francisco identities are contested, and people feel pitched and pulled by dividing everybody into these categories of gay, straight, bi, whatever, and those things were really important in the gay liberation movement, to declare that, but I think it's only in San Francisco that people feel boxed in by it. I don't think identities are really being questioned that much elsewhere. At least maybe on the East Coast. I think maybe it's a West Coast thing. I don't know. Do you agree?
I think it's different in the Bay Area than it is even in places like New York.
Or even in L.A. I was talking to friends down there and they go, "We only know normal people in Los Angeles."
Well, and there's so much genderfuck now in the Bay Area, and I don't see the same thing happening on this level in other urban centers. You've said that it was exciting to see more women, especially queer women, bring more sex into their writing in classes with you. Are you seeing gender stuff as well?
I am. I find that the stuff I like to do, there's a whole context for it among twentysomethings, up to their early thirties. Among younger writers, even experimental poet types, at least the ones who talk to me, there's no issue about identity and sex. It's just seen as kind of interesting. It's only among people who should be my peers that there's more of an issue.
It's hard. I think that during seventies feminism, even though it touted sexual liberation, when it got to experimental writing, it somehow didn't happen. I mean, all those baby-boomer experimental people would proudly tell you they had lots of sex when they were young, but the expression of sexuality in writing was seen as something dirty and not serious, besides being kind of offensive -- and we're being serious writers, and serious writers have certain topics, and sex is not a serious topic of high writing. I think it was a snob thing. That's why it was so great to be hanging out with the new narrative gay guys, because it was the only place in the eighties in my little life I was getting any kind of positive reinforcement for writing about sexuality. I was being shown a vocabulary and a whole framework to take it seriously.
That makes me think of the introduction you wrote to the Suspect Thoughts issue you guest edited. You say that these days, you're less interested in transgression than you are in writing about the body and in writing that's more authentic and real. Was that a similar shift to what you went through with regard to sexuality?
Well, I think the point is that there were mixed feelings about transgression in Mina. At one point, there was pleasure in being really naughty, but at the same time, it was trying to be more authentic than transgressive and also not to have everything be really beautiful. I went with Eleni Stecopoulos to a women's film festival at Yerba Buena, and we watched some films by Carolee Schneemann, and there were all these naked women, but they all had these perfect bodies. I wanted to have nonperfect naked bodies in my book -- that's been really important. Being female, I've had a lot of issues with my body ever since I was born, and coming to accept my body has been, like, lots of therapy, and even though I'm old and over the hill, this is the first time I've ever felt comfortable in my body in my life. I'm interested in the body as a subject, and how people define themselves according to it, and other aspects of it. Transgression [now] sort of reminds me of the Folsom Street Fair, these people in these stupid little outfits walking down the street with these chains.
It reminds me of academia, and how transgression has become codified there. Someone who described himself as an academic refugee told me that many people are still too afraid to challenge someone like Butler, who originally was very edgy and dangerous to the status quo but whose ideas have turned into an institution.
I guess I think if you're tied into being transgressive, what you're really doing is being connected to the status quo. If you have a broader vision of sexuality and identity, being transgressive is bullshit. We live in a community where transgression isn't really an issue. It's only an issue if you're not in a community that supports these various modes of being. I think that's why I'm not interested in transgression, because maybe we live in a little pocket that's unrealistic, but we do live in a pocket where we don't have to confront these things and fight for them all the time. Writing within it, to focus on transgression, seems like a false stance to me. And, yeah, the Butler stuff -- you know, I have mixed feelings about the whole issue of gender studies in academia, because it basically wiped out feminism. ... Maybe it is essentialist, but women are still oppressed, whether it's essentialist or not.
One of your most celebrated feminist texts is Cunt-Ups, which you've called a "hermaphroditic salute to William Burroughs and Kathy Acker." Tell me how that came together.
Cunt-Ups is actually part of another book I'm working on, The Fourth Form. Cunt-Ups is all about Internet sex, phone sex, and physical sex, and it moves from form to form. I wanted to have a section that represented long-distance sex, but I didn't want chronicling e-mails or something that would be really boring, so there's still other sex in the book, but [Cunt-Ups] basically is supposed to represent the sex that the two characters are having. I was teaching at the Art Institute and assigning students cut-ups [after Burroughs], and what they were doing a lot of was combining text. They did some really wonderful things. I remember it must have been fall semester, because it was over Christmas break that I wrote most of Cunt-Ups ... just in this sort of fury, wrote them day and night for a couple weeks. I put each one together, and then I edited them a lot.
The thing about Burroughs is: if a woman were describing cut-ups, she would explain it a little better. I had the students read Burroughs and just go from there. There are all these issues, like what happens if there's gobbledygook in the middle of a sentence, or what happens if a word is cut in the middle. Those things are never addressed; he never explains what he does for those issues. I think there [must be] a range of editing that goes on. So I'd get these gobbledygook things, and I would make sentences out of the gobbledygook, I'd change it and rearrange it so basically what was there was a sentence somehow.
And you've been working on The Fourth Form for a few years?
Yes, and not working. I just wrote a fairly long piece last month, but my whole life was a mess afterwards. I had to just let everything slide and then frantically try to catch up again.
But you also put out a memoir, Pink Steam, in the meantime.
Those were pieces that were already written. A couple of the early pieces required sizable rewriting, but it wasn't that big a deal to put it together. It was fun, rewriting stuff, looking at stuff from very early work that wasn't working, trying to figure out what it would take to make it work, and then rewriting it in the style it was originally written in when it would be so much easier to just start from scratch. But I wanted to keep the different styles.
There's a nice sense of progression in that book of style and time. The early pieces truly feel earlier to me, and that's the aspect of the memoir that I really appreciated.
It's very difficult, though, when people come up to me and say things like, "'The Debbies I Have Known' is the best thing in the book." That's, like, the first story I ever wrote. You know? Or, I've had people say to me that Pink Steam was "so much better than Mina" and "this is the real Dodie," and it's very weird, because they're complimenting me, but I'm just feeling like, fuck you. I think it's important that I like the stuff in Pink Steam, and I like the straightforwardness of it ... I think that being able to appreciate that straightforwardness, coming from our little experimental bubble, where straightforwardness is kind of like an embarrassment, has been good. But I still think that Mina is this much bigger project.
Well, I have a hard time even comparing them. They're both very cinematic, but they're such different texts and approaches and styles.
Well, a lot of those hallucinations [in Pink Steam] are basically outtakes from Mina. Some of them I just wrote on their own, but some stuff just wouldn't fit in, and I liked it, so [I put it in Pink Steam].
You have a history of writing about film and appropriating it for your work. What are you watching these days? What are you excited about?
I haven't been watching much film lately, because we've been watching the complete set of Angel on DVD. We just watched the next to last season, I think it's season four, which I thought was so captivating. I think it's the best one.
What do you like about it?
Just the narrative drive of it ... and, actually, I really enjoyed Connor as a character, whereas we're always making jokes that the only person who's dumber than Connor is Kim on 24. Like, they should get together.
This is the season where he gets Cordelia pregnant, right?
Yeah. And I'd seen bits of it, and it did not sound promising to me, but I thought the Jasmine stuff was really effective. So anyway, we've been watching Angel, and before that we were watching Reno 911 and Freaks and Geeks. Those are things I'm less likely to write about than movies. I like watching shows on DVD. It's kind of like gorging yourself, you get to see so much, and that length, it's like a novel, just goes on and on and on.
No artificial interruptions.
You can do several a night. It's been bad, though, because we're always trying to go to bed around midnight, and it's like, wanna watch another one? It's always that moment of: who's going to be the brave one and say no?
Are you attracted to any of the more straightforward crime shows on TV these days?
We watch The Wire ... I kind of was trying to put my foot down and not watch any more NYPD Blue, but since it's the last season, we're watching it. That show has been so bad for so long. But Kevin is very faithful. I don't know, maybe they're going to kill Sipowicz or something. Boomtown we've watched. And then, of course, we watched all of Oz and The Sopranos, because we don't have HBO, but somebody at Kevin's office taped it for us.
Some people are arguing that there are more positive representations of women on crime shows these days.
If you call "positive images" anorexic with giant silicone lips in a suit, go for it. I get really upset about women on TV. Now we're watching Lost, and the main woman is this little teeny thing in a string bikini. She has like no hips.
So you'd say things are getting worse for women on TV?
Well, in terms of body representation, they are. You don't see Lucy-type characters any more. When I go visit my mother, I have to watch reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond like twice a day, and you know, that show, that's like a really popular show, but there are these strong women controlling the situation.
I forgot to ask you about how the new edition of Mina is different. It's been out of print for a while -- what's the reprint like?
They got the original plates from Hard Press, so all the loving typos are still there. The only differences are that Dennis Cooper wrote the introduction and it's got a new cover.
What's on the cover? Do you like it?
It's kind of this distorted lens picture of a close-up of a very pale blonde woman with fangs. And what I like is that it's kind of blurry, so she looks kind of larval, but sexy at the same time. It's just kind of grotesque. But there's these ribbed parts underneath her, and I think it's her hands, but it's so blurry it could be ribs. So it's interesting. It's okay. I mean, the cover's okay. Now turn that thing off!
Dodie Bellamy is the author of the collection Pink Steam. She has also written a novel, The Letters of Mina Harker (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004) and an epistolary collaboration on AIDS with Sam D'Allesandro, Real (Talisman House, 1994). Her book Cunt-Ups (Tender Buttons, 2002), a radical feminist revision of the "cut-up" pioneered by William Burroughs and Bryon Gysin, won the 2002 Firecracker Alternative Book Award for Poetry.