Interviewed by Stuart Young
SY: Just to get the interview off to a good start Im going to ask you a question I know you hate dealing with. Is Quentin Crisp your real name?
QC: Yes, it is. Im not sure what to say in answer to this except to repeat what I usually say. I was christened Quentin Crisp. The other feller dyed his name. He was born, so to speak, Denis Pratt. I use my middle initial to distinguish me from my doppelgnger. Sometimes I think I should adopt a pen name. Someone suggested Mycroft Mandot Net, which could double as a website address.
SY: Your short story collection Rule Dementia! was published earlier this year. Your previous collection Morbid Tales received rave reviews. And your novella Cousin X was part of the World Fantasy Award winning Strange Tales anthology. Hows it feel to be popular? Any chat show appearances booked? Or slots on Im a Celebrity, Get me Out of Here ?
QC: Well, thats a difficult question. I did appreciate the reviews I got for Morbid Tales , but I dont actually feel very popular. No one has yet sent me used underwear, and that is really the benchmark of popularity as far as Im concerned. Im still sobbing myself to sleep alone each night. I think Im even in danger of becoming Phil Silvers, who, I believe, spent the last years of his life watching episodes of Sgt. Bilko over and over again. I intend to spend my final years sitting in a rocking chair in a burgundy cardigan, staring unblinkingly at the cover of Morbid Tales .
SY: You have a fondness for Japanese culture. You even lived in Japan for a while. Could you explain your fascination for Japanese culture, what influence it has had upon your own work, and perhaps share any amusing anecdotes of your time in Japan?
QC: Well, I suppose my fascination was sparked originally by Japanese animation, which doesnt interest me so much now. I soon moved on to Japanese literature. I was on a Restart course in Ilfracombe, reading some comics by Rumiko Takahashi, when I was approached by an artistic person of indeterminate gender who asked if I was interested in Japanese culture. She took me under her wing and leant me a copy of The Sea of Fertility by Mishima Yukio. To use a fairly seventies kind of expression, it totally blew my mind. I suppose I must have been around twenty at the time. I feel lucky, in a way, that I was isolated from the writing scene for so long, because it means Ive had to tread quite an eccentric path, and my influences are not really those youd expect of someone on the BFS awards long list (but maybe thats why I didnt make the short list). Mishima is a case in point.
I suppose that I have never really been that taken with English literature, as such, which has always seemed either very dry or very earthy to me. Mishima had a concern for beauty that was so intense it transformed into violence. I found that attractive. There was also a mixture of drama and destiny in his works that gave me a bit of a tremulous feeling similar to that I had previously relied upon David Bowie to supply.
From Mishima I began to explore Japanese literature in general. I have grown particularly fond of the movement known as tambiha. I have heard this translated as the school of drowning in beauty. Other practitioners are Nagai Kafu and Tanizaki Junichiro. Come to think of it, all three of them have also been described as sexual perverts.
Actually, a friend of mine has an interesting story about Tanizaki. My friend met the Japanologist Donald Keene, who was giving a talk on Mishima. Keene (perhaps I shouldnt say this as hes still alive) is rumoured to have the distinction of having had an intimate relationship with Mishima. Anyway, in his lecture he said that he believed Mishima would not have been the artist he was without the influence of Tanizaki. The implication, apparently, was that Tanizaki was the first really to explore areas of sexual deviance and sexual obsession in Japanese literature. After the lecture my friend approached Keene and asked him about Tanizaki. Keene gave an answer something like this: I met him once, of course. I spoke to him, and he answered my questions very politely, but you know, there was just the sense that he wasnt really interested A pause in which one might imagine the implication of ennui and tragedy in Tanizakis life. Now, if a woman came into the room that was a different matter. His eyes lit up.
Im not sure I really have any amusing anecdotes about Japan. I suppose that the time I went to the public baths with someone and he afterwards described my genitalia in great detail to a number of people at a dinner table, could be thought of as amusing. Im afraid that my time in Japan was not really very interesting. Well, I suppose there was that other time in the red light district in Nagano, but youll have to ask me about that later. I dont know. What can I say? Its a very strange place. Its the kind of place where, when someone you hardly know decides to help you move flat, and comes in with a mask and starts hoovering your walls for you, you dont give it much thought.
Im not sure I can sum up my fascination with Japan very easily. It is interesting, though, that so many people are fascinated by Japan. I mean, how many people are fans of a particular country? Theres something trainspotter-ish about it all, and I think thats an attitude appropriate to Japan. I suppose it might be called an o-taku attitude or a maniakku attitude. Maniakku is Japlish for someone obsessed by something obscure, or obsessed by the obscure details of something.
I think I originally sensed in Japans cultural products something like an alien world, and I wanted to immerse myself in it. I recall watching kabuki on a stage in Maebashi and thinking sadly afterwards that the world that produced kabuki is no more. I cant seem to escape the feeling that the way Japan has been forced into the modern age is utterly tragic, though its all history now.
SY: And now, just to be incredibly predictable, what are your western influences?
QC: In chronological order, Doctor Who , David Bowie, Celtic Frost, Charles Baudelaire, H.P. Lovecraft, Philip Larkin, The Smiths/Morrissey, William Burroughs, John Hegley, Thomas Ligotti and Momus. Obviously, thats not exhaustive.
To expand a little on each of these, one of my earliest memories is of watching Doctor Who at a neighbours house, and being so terrified that I ran all the way back to our house. And then ran back again to watch more. I think the story in question was The Ark in Space . The Doctor was perhaps my first unusual role model in that he was a pacifist, an alien, and had a sense of humour.
David Bowie is someone I have discovered at least twice in my lifetime. There will never be another genius like Bowie in popular music. I suppose one revelation was the fact that role models and heroes did not have to be swaggering, macho cowboys in the John Wayne mould. Something in me identified with the alien, the androgynous, the frail, the sickly, the ironic. He wrote very few love songs, as if he was above such clichés. He seemed to gaze down upon the human race from above, describing them as Sailors fighting in the dance hall. Look at those cavemen go he sang, Its the freakiest show! It sent shivers down my spine. I suppose I feel rather like Bowies Mr Newton from The Man Who Fell to Earth . My stories are the kind of stories he might write, stranded on Earth, trying to appear human, but pining for his lost home.
Celtic Frost are one of the only heavy metal bands I still listen to. I think they were very successful in creating a Gothic atmosphere and evoking a sense of the antique and the exotic. They also turned me on to Baudelaire, as they set one of his poems to music. And they turned me on to Flauberts Salammbo , too.
Lovecraft--Im sure its all been said before. I remember reading about Lovecraft in a book about fantastic literature, and tingling with a sense of recognition, even though it was recognition of something alien. I knew I had to read his work. Im sure he must be my biggest single literary influence.
The Smiths/Morrissey--Well, like a great many people my age, I thought I was Morrissey. Apparently Sean Hughes once quipped that everyone grows out of their Morrissey phase except Morrissey. He met Morrissey later, and the Mozfather brought this quip up. Hughes trembled in fear, but the Moz only said sadly, Too true. Too true. Hughes could just as easily have quipped that everyone grows out of their Morrissey phase except Morrissey and Quentin S. Crisp. But I suppose no one would have known what he was talking about. Not even him. Of course, Morrissey is another who has inverted many of the values usually expressed by heroes in our society. He is fey, asexual, pessimistic, and so on.
Larkin--I was doing A-levels at North Devon College. Before I ran into emotional troubles, and had to adjust my subjects a bit, I was studying combined English language and literature, sociology and art. On the literature course we read a few poems by Larkin. I found a volume of his poems in the college library, read Letter to a Friend About Girls and was converted on the spot. It was a revelation. I thought the poem was about me. Some people have described Larkin as preoccupied with quintessentially English themes such as boredom, failure and death. I suppose in this sense he could be seen as a sort of right-wing Morrissey. I suppose some people would say that Morrissey is a sort of a right-wing Morrissey. Theyre wrong, of course. Hes a left-wing Larkin.
Burroughs, or Uncle Bill, as I call him, is in many ways the supreme conspiracy theorist. One thing I like about his work is that its unashamedly spiritual, without being at all New Age-y. Its refreshing that someone in the intellectual arena of literature dares to break away from tedious materialism. You might hear Allen Ginsberg telling you youve got no soul. The Ancient Egyptians believed you had seven of the fuckers. Or something like that. Classic. I suppose from Burroughs I have very much picked up the idea that we must fight for our right to have souls. Youre a fool if you let some worm-tongued scientist take your soul away by convincing you that you havent got one. I mean, what could possibly be more valuable to you? And yet people happily give up their souls as if theyre being terribly clever by doing so.
John Hegley--He embodies the English obsession with the trivially absurd and with all things parochial. He is Little England incarnate.
Ligotti--A legend in his own lifetime. Not only does he write the most beautifully modulated prose, pulsing with a kind of dead, dark energy, but he is a paragon of uncompromisingness, if thats a word. Surely, no one has held such a bleak, terrifying view of existence and survived day after day and even wrote about it?
Momus--A furtive, crepuscular art rude-boy, apparently. I just think hes the most original singer/songwriter currently active in the world. Im not sure what influence he has had on me, but he has. Maybe its to do with intellectual inquisitiveness and being unashamed about pretentiousness.
SY: In your introduction to Mark Samuelss Black Altars you mentioned that you feel many modern horror films are too bright and glossy. Do you think that horror has been hopelessly diluted by commercialism or is this a problem which will eventually be solved?
QC: I think that the Japanese film Ringu , which I mention in that introduction, marks a minor renaissance in the horror film. Gore is all very well, and I am a particular fan of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre , but I think that we need to rediscover how to make peoples flesh creep. Of course, gore was not really what we were talking about, was it? I mean, TCM was hardly glossy. It was really rather grainy. But perhaps the problem of glossiness, as such, stems in part from such gore, in the sense that films like TCM led to all this nonsense about overprivileged, oversexed American teenagers being gruesomely killed one by one, as if we cared. And so the film industry began to treat the horror genre as a teenage genre, and produced films that were basically fairground rides--cheap thrills. If this is really a problem, though, I think its very minor compared with certain global problems that I wont go into at the moment. Until those global problems are addressed, I dont know if I can predict any kind of future developments at all.
I hope you dont mind if I go off slightly at a tangent and talk about the so-called post modern series of films that began with Scream . I have seen all of them, and, though I found them entertaining, they are a good example of what I meant by being too glossy. I dont think they can make up their minds (if films have minds) to really take themselves seriously, or, on the other hand, to be thoroughbred comedy, for one thing. But I also found the weakest part of all the films to be the final unmasking and explanation of motives. The motives all seemed like afterthoughts, and this is undoubtedly why the films lacked the depths necessary to be truly haunting. They were finger-exercises in making you jump, and not much more. I did think Rose McGowan was very attractive, though.
SY: Does that mean you spend your Saturday evenings curled up in front of the telly watching Charmed ? But seeing as youve mentioned global problems what sort of issues do you feel need to be most urgently addressed in todays world? And do you feel that real life horror outweighs fictional horror, rendering the latter rather inconsequential? If so, what purpose do you feel fictional horror serves? Start your thesis now!
QC: Well, to address the most important question first, I have seen one or two episodes of Charmed , and I was not impressed. I had the impression that the dialogue was meant to be snappy and clever, but it just seemed corny and contrived to me. Perhaps that was before Rose McGowan was part of the team. I shall have to watch out for further episodes.
On the subject of global problems--that is, ecological Armageddon and the wars that distract us from it--in many ways its all too big for me to grasp, and I dont know what I can do as an individual. I am left struggling to find anything, in the face of the possible collapse of human civilisation, and even human extinction, that is not trivial. There are various groups now--The Church of Euthanasia, The Gaia Liberation Front and so on--who advocate reducing the population by all and any means, whether that is suicide, sexual abstinence or whatever. I believe that the GLF even go so far, in a guarded manner, to approve of certain Twelve Monkeys kind of options.
I have wondered whether I should really be writing horror in times such as these. I have wondered whether I should be writing at all. I think its all to do with one of Burroughs preoccupations--addiction. The consumer society is run on addiction. Most notable among them is the addiction to fossil fuels. We need to wean ourselves off these addictions somehow. In as far as my writing is an addiction, I tend to wonder if its part of the problem. Perhaps I can only write something of value if I can discover something more valuable than writing.
I am reminded of St. Thomas Aquinas giving up writing and, when urged to, refusing to write again, saying, I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears to be of little value.
Gogol, too, I believe, gave up writing for similar reasons. He burned the manuscript of the second book of Dead Souls because he had come to consider the act of writing somehow blasphemous, an inevitable distortion of the divine truth he was attempting to capture.
I have been in the grip of such a dilemma for some time now.
I suppose one thing that makes it a dilemma is the fact that I am aware of being possessed by what Poe called the Imp of the Perverse. I remember, many, many years ago, reading Richard Bachs Illusions . It is the story of a reluctant messiah who gives the narrator a messiahs handbook to read. This handbook is full of epigrams of one sort or another. One of them went something like this: Life is a blank book and you are totally free to write what you wish to on its pages. You may write about [blah blah blah cant remember this bit]. You are also free to write lies, or tear the pages. And I knew, as soon as I read that, that thats what I wanted to do. I wanted to write lies. I wanted to tear the pages. That was me. And maybe thats my connection with horror. I dont know if its meaningful to talk about horror being useful. True horror probably always has in it somewhere something of the Imp of the Perverse.
SY: Your stories tend to deal with the nature of reality and the vagaries of perception, language and philosophical beliefs. What appeal do these subjects hold for you? And has addressing these issues in a fictional format led you to form any concrete conclusions?
QC: I think I am naturally an imaginative person. That is, the imagination is very important to me. I suppose Im very much predisposed towards a Jungian view of things. My father is also a writer, and has written much on dream analysis. One of these volumes is kindly dedicated to me with the legend, For Quentin, who awoke in the cellar and has had the courage to stay awake. This is, of course, a reference to the unconscious, but its also a little bit spooky, isnt it? For some reason, from a very early age, I have been much concerned with things that lurk in the shadows. In this culture (perhaps in all modern cultures), people use phrases like its just your imagination in a very dismissive manner, as if the imagination is worthless and misleading. For that reason, I think I feel very marginalized. I mean, I really do live for my imagination, and by it. So I want to tackle this idea of what is realistic and what realism is really worth.
As to conclusions, none as yet. I seem to oscillate wildly between a kind of nihilistic cosmic terror and some vague idea of mystic redemption similar to that found in the teachings of Taoism.
SY: Although youre best known as a horror writer many of your stories have a sense of playfulness about them. Similarly, whilst you delight in writing lush, lyrical prose your characters often use colloquialisms to spout absurdities. In your work darkness, absurdity, reality and the fantastic all weave about each other, eyeing each other warily. Do you have any thoughts on this? Or am I just rambling?
QC: Well, I mentioned being a child fascinated by shadows in the cellar (or some such thing). I think that applies here. Im afraid Im getting on a bit now (although, of course, were all teenagers these days), but I really do feel very much like a child when it comes to my writing. I feel like Im finger-painting. Of course, theres much to do with the loss of innocence here, too, and often there are uneasy dialogues or interactions between ingénue figures and somewhat more nihilistic, intellectual characters. They represent an ongoing struggle for me.
SY: A lot of your stories tend more towards novella/novelette length. Is that your preferred story length? Also, I was wondering if perhaps you could give some insight into your personal writing process -- Do you outline your plots? Do you decide on a theme before you start writing or does it develop naturally? -- that sort of thing.
QC: I dont really have a preferred length. Im just very prolix, as one reviewer pointed out, which means that I find it hard to keep the length down to that usually acceptable to magazines. Im currently writing a novel that looks like becoming such a monster Ill probably have to break it up into a trilogy.
My writing process is that I start with an idea, and usually a title. Then I take notes, and try to work out the plot from beginning to end. Then I begin to write. Thats a very simplified version. I have upwards of thirty story ideas in my notepads, still waiting to be written.
SY: Youre best known for your prose but you have also written non-fiction, poetry, song lyrics and you keep a blog. Do you approach different forms of writing in different ways or do you have a one size fits all approach?
QC: My blog is a bit different to my other writing, as I just use it to relax and let off steam a bit, though Ive become a bit more concerned recently with actually taking care about the writing on my blog.
Lyrics usually come to me through phrases and rhymes to do with the spontaneous expression of feeling. I am, of course, influenced by the greatest lyricist that ever lived, the Bequiffed One known only as Morrissey. What he did and does hinged largely on twisting familiar idioms in an unexpected way, or putting them in an unexpected context. I think I do something similar. My prose is more based on images, I think. Essays are, in many ways, the easiest to write. Argument replaces plot. In fact, in terms of essays, Im rather influenced by the form of Japanese discursive essay known as zuihitsu. I believe the phrase can be translated as following the brush. I like the idea of writing whatever you feel like, as if youre a flneur just going for a literary ramble. Ive even tried to mix my essays and my fiction. Thats a style I want to aim for more, and I have done something a little like that with The Haunted Bicycle .
SY: That particular story blurs the line between reality and fiction, claiming, as it does, to be a true story. It also ties in with what I would consider to be one of your other themes, the nature of identity. In The Haunted Bicycle its not always clear how much of the narrator is the real Q. and how much is a fictional construct. Its almost as if youve abducted elements of the real world and are holding them hostage in your fiction, bending them to your will, forcing them to act out your whims. (Worryingly the story also contains a character called Stuart who gets killed off.)
QC: Well, the claim is that the main character (apart from the narrator) is based on a real person. This is true. The character known as Les was someone I met in circumstances very similar to those I describe. He died of a rare form of cancer in his early twenties. I suppose I had a fantasy at the time, long before the plot of The Haunted Bicycle came to me, that I would make this unlikely duo--he and I--famous. It seemed such a glorious idea. Its such a shame he isnt here to enjoy the story. But perhaps Im giving too much away, because youre quite right, I deliberately manipulate fact and fiction in such a way as to (hopefully) blur the boundaries. I dont like the idea of my stories being nothing more than intellectual shelf decoration, I want them to leap off the page and enter peoples lives in some way, and especially, I want them to transform my own life in some way. Such a transformation seems to require, as a first step, some kind of redefinition of what is reality and what is fiction.
In some ways the construction of The Haunted Bicycle is influenced by Nagai Kafus A Strange Tale from East of the River . Stephen Snyder, in his work on Kafu, points out that Kafu uses what André Gide called a mise en abyme device, which is basically a story within a story, to question author identity. I think Ive done something similar. The characters within The Haunted Bicycle tell stories, and the stories they tell are of the same status--the same level of reality--as the story being told be the narrator, who is himself fictional or is he? That kind of thing. Of course, a mise en abyme may be seen as a sort of infinite regress, in which the reader takes his or her place in a never-ending chain of fictional realities. But I suppose I prefer to see it more as an Escher-like picture, in which the background becomes the foreground, the foreground the background, the end the beginning, and so on.
SY: Youve described writers such as Nick Hornby as smug careerists yet you yourself wish to be a professional author. Is this a case of the green-eyed monster or do you make a clear distinction between writing and Writing?
QC: It is absolutely a case of the green-eyed monster. But seriously, these days, now that not all writers are members of the aristocracy with independent wealth, this is quite a big question for anyone who considers their writing to be a kind of art. Billy Childish, former Stuckist, recently remarked, in attacking the conceptual art of the YBAs, that its very simple to test whether something is art. Would the person in question carry on doing it if they werent being paid? He suggested that certainly would not be the case with the likes of Damien Hirst. Mr Hirst wouldnt go on pickling sharks in the garden shed, because its basically a calculating, passionless publicity stunt. There is no other reason to do it except money. I would say that, by that criterion, at least, I am an artist. Is it obligatory that I should therefore starve? I hope not. I just want to be able to write full time. Im not a high-energy person who can easily support himself and paint the Sistine Chapel in his spare time.
On the subject of art for arts sake and all that, I am reminded of the fact that Higuchi Ichiyo, the Japanese writer I studied during my second sojourn in Japan, is a particularly interesting example of the problems of reconciling art and commerce. She made Japanese literary history by being the first woman of the modern era to try and write for a living. Im not sure that the elements forming her motivation can be separated and analysed, but there seems to be a compelling paradox at work here. Her family had fallen on hard times. She was the only breadwinner left to the household. She was educated mainly at a poetry school for young women, and took it upon herself to try and support her family by writing stories. She was determined both to save her family from penury and to write pieces that were uncompromising works of art. In other words, her desire to make money was part and parcel of the same desperation that gave her works their beauty and sincerity. She died at the age of twenty four, about a year after achieving national fame. Last year a new 5000 yen banknote was issued with her portrait on it.
SY: You have remarked that you are more opinionated on your blog than in real life. Do you think this is something that affects people in general? And is it peculiar to cyberspace or does any act of writing provoke people to access different aspects of their personality?
QC: I think its peculiar to blogs. I may be more candid in stories, in some ways, but I am also possibly less opinionated. I have no idea why.
SY: Finally, what plans do you have for the future?
QC: Im currently considering working as a volunteer in Africa.
SY: Thanks for submitting yourself to this torture interview.
QC: Thank you for the torture.
Check out Barry J. Houses review of Quentins latest work, Rule Dementia! , in our Review Section here
Rule Dementia! is available from Rainfall Books
Quentin S. Crisps blog can be found here
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