The Rumpus Interview with Cyberpunk Richard Kadrey


The last time I saw you, in 2000, we were in a hotel room in Pittsburgh; one of us was naked and there was a beautiful, heavily tattooed girl handcuffed to the sink…

The first of a planned trilogy, Sandman Slim is a departure in genre for Richard Kadrey, best known for cyberpunk novels Metrophage and Kamikaze L’Amour. Kadrey created his latest book more in the tradition of Jim Thompson than William Gibson; Sandman Slim is a crime story. Nice move. The book has garnered rave reviews, mainstream exposure, and a movie option. I chatted with the author last week.

The Rumpus: The last time I saw you, in 2000, we were in a hotel room in Pittsburgh; one of us was naked and there was a beautiful, heavily tattooed girl handcuffed to the sink….

Richard Kadrey: I remember being impressed that she fit under the sink. I still think it was a magic trick. I also remember calling for room service and opening the door before I thought about it. The waiter got a glimpse of the two of you taking a break on the bed and was so thrilled he didn’t hear me when I said that I’d take the tray. I had to put my hand on his chest to keep him out of the room.

Rumpus: And then he was like, “dude, are you a rock star?” I don’t remember how you answered that….

Kadrey: Yes. Sheep On Drugs was at the hotel. He was sure I was with the band. It’s funny to run into people who are so blown away that scenes like that happen to actual human beings. I guess they’re the ones who believe in the Penthouse Letters section. Maybe my attitude comes from living in San Francisco for so long that you assume pretty much everyone has naked, tattooed, and vinyl-clad girls lying around at least some of the time.

Rumpus: Ha! Well, we left the kid with his fantasies intact and never explained that the girl under the sink and I were there for a photoshoot – it was the opening weekend of your exhibit Crash Kiss at my gallery, Blue Ruin. Though you are known as a writer of cyberpunk novels and articles on culture, sex, and technology, I knew you first as a photographer. My gallery partner and I were so impressed with your work we gave you a solo exhibit. But you don’t seem at all ambitious about promoting yourself as an artist. Do you think of yourself as a writer first and a photographer by spare time?

Kadrey: I’ll always be a writer first. I’ve been interested in art all my life, but as much as you might love something you have to make a choice sooner or later. You can be a writer who takes pictures or a photographer who writes. You have to be one more than the other and pursue that one thing passionately, otherwise you’ll be mediocre at both things.

I’m interested in promoting myself as a visual artist, but I don’t really understand the art world. The standards seem so strange and arbitrary. To me, most art galleries are the visual equivalent of science fiction and fantasy fan fiction. The art is something fun someone did in their spare time because they liked Battlestar Galactica or Jackson Pollock. I understand the basic standards of writing, but I don’t understand visual art standards at all, so I find it hard to promote my work except online, on my own site and places like Flickr and DeviantArt.

Sometimes I don’t want the work out in the world at all. Erotic and sexual art makes people’s IQs drop twenty points. I hate explaining or justifying myself and a lot of my photos provoke the same tedious questions. The one I hate most is, “Why do these women let you do this to them?” as if I’m running through the streets like Jack the Ripper, dragging women back to my dank photo lair. What always makes me laugh is that a lot of the shots people think I forced models into were the models’ idea. I love when models bring me surprising ideas and I have a rep now for running with the most interesting and extreme ones. But then that stupid question pops up again. Not only does it piss me off personally, but it makes my models into victims. The question implies that the models don’t have the brains or backbone to say no to something they don’t want to do. I don’t work with idiots or wimps, not in writing and not when I’m taking photos.

Rumpus: I was lucky enough to read an early draft of your novella Angel Scene, which I’d hoped would be a successful melding of your art with your writing ~ something of an illustrated book. Was that the intention and were you disappointed with the actual publication? What inspired the writing of that book?

Kadrey: I hated how Angel Scene came out. The paper wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, so the images I sent in were too dark came out muddy and awful. And they weren’t that great to begin with. I should have stuck to the original idea, which was to do all the illustrations as if they were something from a weird medical textbook. But I didn’t and the end result was fairly awful. A complete failure, I think.

I wrote the book because I felt that my writing had become too tight and controlled. I needed to break out of all my old habits, so Angel Scene was an experiment. I set up simple rules for myself and didn’t deviate from them. I could only write by hand in bed at night. I didn’t plot or outline it. I wanted to push the visual aspects and the ideas as far as I could and I wasn’t allowed to edit out any of the sex or violence because it might have made me uncomfortable. I also wrote it from the point of view of a bottom, which I’m not, but I knew that the story needed to be told through the eyes of someone who wasn’t in control of himself or the situation. I didn’t feel in control of my life at that point, so it wasn’t hard to write as someone who didn’t have much power.

I don’t know if it’s a good story. It’s definitely a failure as a book, since the words and visuals never came together. I’m pretty satisfied with it as an experiment, however. I set up the rules, followed them and ended up with Angel Scene. It isn’t a book for everyone. I suppose it’s more like a bootleg record than a book, something produced by the band for themselves rather than a commercial audience.

Rumpus: I found Angel Scene to be disturbing, unusual, and really beautiful. I agree that the — what do you call it? — production values didn’t do it justice. Had you witnessed an actual angel scene?

Kadrey: Yes, I saw an angel scene and that inspired the book, which was perfect since I wanted to write something different and I was looking for a subject.

Rumpus: If you consider Angel Scene to be failure, you’ve got to admit that your new novel, Sandman Slim, is a success. How does it feel when William Gibson calls your book “a dirty-ass masterpiece”?

Kadrey: Gibson has always been generous about blurbing my stuff and the Sandman one was his best yet. What’s been really great is the response from people since the book has come out. Writers like Cory Doctorow, Kim Harrison, Charlaine Harris and Holly Black have all said nice positive things about it. Out of the blue I got a note from Chris Stein of Blondie. That’s a band I loved, so it was fun to hear that he enjoyed something I created.

Rumpus: What appealed to you about the crime fiction genre, and how did you shape it around your own aesthetic?

Kadrey: Sandman Slim is a crime novel. It’s not a Chandler noir detective book, which is everyone’s default theory for murder books about Los Angeles. My book is a crime novel for the simple reason that there is no mystery to solve. Stark, my protagonist, comes back to Earth to kill some people. That’s it. All he has to do is find them. That’s the closest we get to a mystery: Where the hell is everyone?

Sandman Slim is deliberately more like the crime novels of Richard Stark (Yes, my Stark is named after him) and Jim Thompson. A crime novel isn’t a mystery. It’s about criminals planning a crime, executing it, and dealing with the consequences. That’s all I wanted to do. I wanted to create a protagonist with the instincts of a hardcore criminal, but write him in a way that sort of forces readers to like him. I must have succeeded to some degree because people seem to be enjoying Stark. I hope they’ll enjoy him again in the second book, which I’m writing right now.

Rumpus: So at least two more Sandman Slim books are in the works. What about the rumored movie?

Kadrey: We sold a movie option on the book pretty quickly and I worked with a producer in LA on developing it last fall. It’s on hold now while they get two big budget movies into production, but we’ll start again this winter. They seem pretty serious about it, which is nice for a change.

Rumpus: I can’t wait.

Tamara Moore was co-founder of Blue Ruin Gallery, an erotic art gallery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from 2000 to 2006. In 2001 she received the 40 Under 40 Award from the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project and Pittsburgh magazine. She works as an illustrator. More from this author →