Beyond "I Love Dick"

The I Love Dick writer talks about her new biography of Kathy Acker and more.

On April 27, 2012, I sent a friend an email with the subject line "Omg I love dick." If I were relaying this story even as recently as a year ago, I would have clarified that I was not talking about actual penis but a very important book written by Chris Kraus that you must absolutely read. But these days the book is so famous, it needs no explanation. Anyway, in the email I told my friend that I had just "finished the book and I am dying," and in our continuing conversation two days later I informed her that I still carried the book around with me "just in case," but also that I didn't know what "just in case" meant. Eventually I was able to let go of my physical copy, at which time it went on a tour with several friends. The Sisterhood of the Traveling I Love Dick Book, we called it.
After I let go of Dick, I proceeded to make my way through the rest of Chris's work: Where Art Belongs and Video Greenher essay collections about art; her novels Torpor and Aliens and Anorexia (her other novel, Summer of Hate, I haven't read yet because I keep saving it to have "just in case," although again, I'm not quite sure what "just in case" means).
Most recently I devoured After Kathy Acker, her biography of the experimental writer and performance artist best known for her cult-classic novel Blood and Guts in High School(which was banned in West Germany and South Africa!). Kathy's writing style was a combination of collage or "appropriated texts" and the cut-up technique popularized by William S. Burroughs and dealt with the topics of sex and violence. She frequently injected autobiographical facts into the whole mélange. Kathy rose to prominence in the 1970s East Village, at the same time as punk, and that explosive energy that encapsulated the city and the music scene can be felt in her work.
After Kathy Acker chronicles her childhood and her relentless pursuit of fame and notoriety until her eventual death of complications from breast cancer in 1997. "I have to make all my living as interesting to myself as my writing," she telegrammed a friend in 1982. It's a remarkable way to live.
Now that we have Chris's completely enthralling book, a new generation of writers will be inspired by Kathy. It's a gift to Kathy Acker and her legacy, and a gift to all the women who read Chris's books and shared her books and posted passages of her books on Tumblr and who made it possible for I Love Dick to exist as an Amazon series starring Kevin Bacon. Now that Chris has our attention, she's drawing us toward her muses. There's something quite beautiful about that.
On the day before the Fourth of July, I got on the phone with Chris, who was in northern Minnesota, where she goes to write for the summer. We talked about Kathy Acker, her childhood, and why hitting a wall can sometimes be great.
Laia Garcia: You've been thinking about writing After Kathy Acker since 1997, when she died. I know you started soon after her death but felt like it was too soon. Why did you pick it up again? Was there a catalyst?
Chris Kraus: It's funny. I guess I meant it was too soon for me, not too soon in the culture. After I published I Love Dick, I realized that I wanted to write another fiction book, and I had a backlog of material that became Aliens and Anorexia. I also thought that I Love Dick, out of all my books, is the one that's most influenced by Kathy, and that if I did a lot of work on Kathy at that moment, it might be misconstrued. People would say, "Oh, she's a Kathy Acker wannabe."
As it turns out, I waited until after I finished Summer of Hate [which was published in 2012]. I wasn't quite ready to write another novel, and I realized I had this backlog of great material because I did a lot of interviews in 1998 with some really key people from Kathy's life. It turned out that that was also the right moment in the culture. Enough time had passed for another generation of readers to pick up on Kathy's work and maybe read it free of the baggage of her image, which I think is really important. That happens with every writer's work.
LG: What was your introduction to Kathy Acker?
CK: Oh my God. I have this vivid memory, shortly after arriving in New York, I went to a screening of somebody's independent movie at Rafik Studio on Broadway, near the Strand. I went alone — I didn't know anybody, but I was still going out to everything — and in walks Kathy with her entourage. She was so much larger than life. She projected such a charisma. It was kind of frightening and awesome at the same time.
She had this gift, that thing where a writer gets inside your head and you almost feel like it could be you talking. That's the way I felt when I read her early work when I was in my 20s.
LG: At a reading you did at the 92nd Street Y, somebody asked if you liked Kathy, and you said no. But then you said that you really admired her work ethic and her commitment to being a writer.
CK: Well, simply liking somebody is not going to get you through the two or two and a half years that it takes to research and write a book. There has to be something deeply interesting about them that speaks to your own interests, and that's the way I felt about writing this book with Kathy. Her early work was very important to me. I guess at a later point, her work, her persona, and the way she played her career, it lost me a little bit, and I was not such a fan, but I was around and I was a witness to all those moments.
She had this gift, that thing where a writer gets inside your head and you almost feel like it could be you talking.
LG: In the book, you're sometimes embodying her, writing from her perspective, or sometimes you're talking about what her work means from a more removed point of view, and I wonder, did you see her influence in your day-to-day life? Did you try to write for yourself and think, Oh, this is too Kathy in here?
CK: Yeah, that's funny. I made a really deliberate decision that I was not going to write myself into this book at all. I might say "I" maybe four times in the entire book. It's a very reportorial "I": I think, or I saw, but I felt very close. That actually enabled me to become closer to her in a more sublimated and witchy way. There were times in the book where I was typing "she" and I felt like I could've typed "I." I needed the distance to experience that empathy. If you're too close, you can't.
There were moments when I thought, Oh my God, I'm so immersed in this. I've just become an Ackerologist. Mostly it was very, very sustaining and nourishing and fascinating. I really wanted to do this. It's like being a private investigator. In fact, I hired a private investigator at one point to track down certain documents.
LG: You've always talked about how when you first started writing, your audience was largely "art people." Obviously now you have a large, young, female readership, and I'm wondering if that readership had come to you earlier, if you think that would've changed your work in any way.
CK: Well, it's funny. I feel like I've gained this readership of young women really since '06 when Hedi at Semiotext(e) decided to republish I Love Dick. That's when it really found its new wave of readers, and then it just spread into a more mainstream context from there.
In a way, the Acker book is something that speaks straight to this audience because it's also very much a story of how Acker created herself as an artist. It's the kind of story that's not usually told in art history. It's not even usually told in conventional biography. Somebody is just like us, and then they're really famous, and they leave out the part about exactly how that happened. There was a misconception that when she was commercially published in '83, '84, she was an "overnight success," but [it was an] "overnight success" that she'd been working really hard for eleven years to attain. I wanted to show exactly what she did in those eleven years.
LG: I want to talk a little bit about your childhood. I know that you wanted to be an actress. What inspired that?
CK: Oh, that's funny. I think really without knowing it, I was just trying to postpone becoming a writer, and I managed to postpone it for about twenty years. But growing up in New Zealand, there was a lot of theater, and I went to the theater all the time. I definitely had big crushes on certain actresses. There was this actress there, Denise Maunder, and I saw her in everything. I studied acting with her husband [the director Paul Maunder] at one point. Then I went to New York and I had this amazing teacher, Ruth Maleczech, and I just devoured everything that Ruth was in. It was pure magic watching Ruth perform. It was a completely transcendental state.
LG: So you acted, and then your acting teacher suggested you become a filmmaker. Then you did film, and then one day you realized that you had all these letters that you had written and you thought, These are going to be a book. So you wrote a book. I think that's so rare, to be open to trying different things.
CK: Well, it's very painful to hit a wall. It happens all the time. Very few people end up excelling at the very first thing that they think they want to do. It takes a while to find the right thing. What I observed in New York was, at least in acting, this wall would occur between the ages of 30 and 35 for people, and they realized it wasn't going to work for them as an actor, and they would just pursue a second career, like they'd become a therapist.
I was lucky I think that Ruth told me before I turned 30, "Hey, I don't see this working for you," and she suggested I try something else. I became incredibly fascinated by making experimental films: shooting them, editing them, working with the people. I was really absorbing it. I was a true believer in it all the way up to making a feature, and this was not until my late 30s. This was the feature film that was supposed to be the crossover work that would make it possible for me to do more commercially viable work in the future, but it didn't happen.
I was in utter despair, just as I write in I Love Dick. It's not that I set out to become a writer or change my life by writing a letter to Dick, but when I'd written about 200 of them, I had to see that that had already happened.
LG: I read in an interview where you said that you felt that all of those years studying acting or hanging around the St. Marks poetry scene were training you to be a writer, it just took you longer to put those skills to use, which I also think is really interesting.
CK: I ran a performance series there in the '80s with Marc Nasdor, and all of my friends were poets. Before I was friends with Eileen Myles, I knew her work very, very well. Eileen said this great thing to me once. She said, "It's like you were always a writer, you just weren't writing yet."
Writing those letters, that just kind of opened the gate, and there it was.