Before she became her own character in I Love Dick, the 1997 cult novel cum sleeper hit cum TV show, Chris Kraus was a writer. With her latest book, After Kathy Acker: A Literary Biography, she reclaims that persona.
Acker, an avant-garde writer of the 1970s and 80s post-punk scene, takes center stage here while Chris Kraus the character remains largely absent from her version of Acker’s life. As she says, “I had just arrived in New York, I wasn’t doing anything.” Still, she brings her unmistakable dirty literati approach to the book, where analysis of Acker’s spending habits and sexual practices are as significant as close readings of her published oeuvre and archive.
I sat down with Kraus in her hotel room in New York in the fall to discuss the book, writing about art under patriarchy, politics, and “the truth.”
The Rumpus: So, why Kathy Acker?
Chris Kraus: I had thought I was going to write the book after she died in ‘97, so it’s always better to start with something rather than with nothing. I had these interviews that had been transcribed a million years ago but I hadn’t looked at, so when I started to think about it, the first thing I did was take out this backlog of material. It seemed timely because of the overexposure of the period in such an incredibly mythologized way, in ways that don’t really serve an understanding of culture, or of art.
So chasing one person’s trajectory seemed like an ideal way to write a history. I certainly wasn’t going to write a memoir of those years. I had just arrived in New York, I wasn’t doing anything, there was nothing to remember. So writing a story of someone else’s life seemed ideal.
Obviously Kathy was a big influence on me; as I Love Dick has kind of began to come out and sort of circulate again, it amazes me that people treat it like some kind of urtext of autofiction. It seemed like a good time, since there’s so much interest in female—I don’t even want to say first-person writing, but I guess that cuts into it. Kathy obviously needs to come forward into the conversation—a close reading of her work and coming to understand how she created herself as a writer.
Rumpus: You note at the end of the book that those of us working in discursive first-person fiction owe a great debt to Acker. What do you see as your own writing’s debt to her, specifically, and are there other under-recognized antecedents?
Kraus: Well, it’s about direct address. It’s not about sex or sexuality or the body, I mean, my work has never really been about those things. My work is more satirical, really. It’s social comedy. But what I got from Kathy, and I think what’s most singular about Kathy’s work, you know, what she did that no one else was doing at the time, is the way she address the reader so directly and in the moment. She does that New York School thing, of naming the names of people around her so that you really feel that you’re not just in her head, but you’re located within that time and place in that community. I totally did that in I Love Dick, there’s no question that that’s an affinity.
Also, the high-low thing. Kathy’s not the only one to have done that, but she did it in a very special and incredibly realized way. I think maybe we could say that even Semiotexte took a bit of that from Kathy. Or maybe we could say that that was in the air, at that time and place, among a number of people.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about truth and lies, in relation to Acker’s life and work, and your treatment of it. You write that Acker lied all the time, and then you follow up with “the lies weren’t literal lies, more a system of magical thought.” How do you account for that in her writing a supposedly nonfiction biography?
Kraus: Yes, okay, she exaggerated, she mythologized herself. I’m sure she’s not the first or last artist or writer to have done that. If you’re vetting a biography you have to establish certain facts. The first thing I think anybody does is they make a timeline. And one question that was important for me to answer was how was she living all those years? That’s always such a dirty secret of the art world—what people’s means of support were, and she was also extremely circumspect and evasive about that question. I wanted to establish those facts: When did she get the inheritance? How much was it? I actually hired a private investigator because it wasn’t easy information to get.
Flaubert had these epileptic fits that saved him from having to be a lawyer. Then he went and lived off his mother, basically, for the rest of his life. So at the distance of a hundred and fifty years people can talk about it, but among their immediate contemporaries, no! People don’t talk about it.
Rumpus: It’s almost more shameful than talking about the sex. For the most part, you keep a relatively low profile as a narrator or character within the book. We don’t know about the particularities of your relationships to the people who had relationships to Acker, or your role in the scenes in which you may have circulated. Why?
Kraus: I’m a fiction writer! And I approached it as a fiction writer. That was the first choice that I had to make. It seemed to me a lot more respectful of Kathy and her work and legacy not to let the Chris of I Love Dick—my character is irremediably linked at this point to the Chris Kraus of I Love Dick. Right? We really don’t need to hear from that Chris Kraus. We don’t care if she slept with the same person ten years later at a party. We don’t care if she happened to sort of meet one of the people.
A book is finite and you have to make your choices of what you’re going to deal with, and I thought to bring myself into the story in any way would be so distracting. And yet I’m a writer, of course, and I wanna say things out the side of my mouth. I never wanted to be a cradle-to-grave conventional schlock biographer. My presence in the book is as a reader, her best possible reader.
Rumpus: The tone of the book has been called gossipy, in a positive way. I’m curious how you arrived at that unique voice.
Kraus: Well, it’s not my voice that’s telling the gossip. It’s a gossipy part of Kathy’s voice. That was the technique that I kind of figured out early on, that I was going to bring Kathy’s voice in as much as possible. We have Kathy talking shit in her letters about this that and the other person. Then you counterpose it with other people’s recollections or other people’s letters. It immediately becomes this kind of deep dish, right? I mean, there’s that archival thrill I think that everybody has when they go and dig up stuff, especially of your contemporaries. Did he say that? Did he say that about A? Because he’s supposed to be such a good friend of A’s, right? To hear all the kind of trash talk that goes on behind the scenes is a great historiographic thrill.
Rumpus: Were people excited to respond to you?
Kraus: Well, in ‘98 it was different, because, you know. I Love Dick was published but it wasn’t that widely read, so these people weren’t even certain that the Acker book would really be a book. So they were humoring me. These interviews were like two or three hours long and they were very candid. They didn’t censor anything.
Rumpus: And then twenty years later you have a bigger platform.
Kraus: Right, coming back to it in 2014 or ‘15, and I’m a more published writer. There’s a kind of gravitas to the interview that didn’t exist in ‘98, where people really feel like they’re speaking for the record.
Rumpus: So were there people that were upset? You know, that they felt that they had been taken out of context for having been published so much time after the initial interview?
Kraus: No, I haven’t encountered that problem yet. As I was working on it, people heard that I was working on it, and Jonathan Myles in London, he and I had a student in common, Rebecca Carson, and she facilitated him giving me all these letters that he kept that weren’t in any archive. They were so useful because I was trying to reconstruct ‘82, ‘83. And he and Kathy had an affair over three months with a lot of correspondence in ‘82. And, you know, the letters of the affair are useful, not so much for the affair, usually, as to pin down other things that get said to a lover that wouldn’t be said in a more official context.
Rumpus: When I mentioned to a couple of friends that I was going to interview you, I did a little bit of crowdsourcing. A friend of mine, when she was reading Aliens and Anorexia, felt you expressed a sentiment along the lines of “we told each other everything because we were both women.” And this presumed commonality due to womanhood has, for me, always been a great source of anxiety and ambivalence and joy.
Kraus: Exactly. [Laughter]
Rumpus: Another friend asked: Considering how art history might be called “New Advances in the Field of Female Objectification,” how do you write about art and not just get mad or even?
Kraus: Well, there are so many other things to get mad and to get even about now, gender isn’t the only one. In fact, gender in the art world that’s much less of an issue now, I think. I mean, there’s a tremendous problem of women in the art world. That’s not a problem. In I Love Dick, I think the book says something about, like, what happens between women as the most interesting thing because it’s least described—not true anymore! But, you know, that’s a certain kind of writing that writes criticism just to get mad and to get even and I can really appreciate that, that kind of polemical writing. But that’s not exactly what I do. I don’t write about somebody’s work unless I really like it. You know, I don’t care enough about the art world to kind of put myself out there. You really expose yourself if you attack somebody, so you have to pick your battles, and the art world isn’t that meaningful to me that I would go out of my way to create enemies in it. The literary world, maybe.
Rumpus: If you had to write a book about somebody’s writing that you hate, who would it be?
Kraus: Somebody’s writing that I hate? Oh no, I can’t. I’m afraid.
Rumpus: What about in the art world?
Kraus: Oh, there are so many easy targets. I mean, Jeff Koons, but what does it mean, it’s such an easy target. Every season there’s a new crop of over-privileged and over-praised and probably-won’t-be-around-five-years-from-now artists, and you watch it and it plays out. Interesting work tends to somehow persist. But yeah, every season there’s a bunch of stupid stuff that we don’t like very much, but why get upset?
Rumpus: The figure of the cowboy looms large in your work. I think of Dick as kind of an academic cowboy and certainly in the film adaptation that gets played up in a certain context, right, with the relocation to Marfa and all of that. And I think Kathy Acker is kind of a cowboy in her own way, like a motorcycle cowboy. How do you define that myth of the cowboy?
Kraus: Yeah, cowboy would be one way to say it. You know, there’s this late twentieth century idea of “that’s just what an artist does.” You know, they say what they see, they live how they want, you know. So was Kathy a cowboy? Yes. I mean, with the motorcycle and the tattoos and the image stuff, yes, she cultivated a certain image. But in the choices that she made in her career, they were cowboy choices but in a much more admirable and sincere way. She didn’t always make the choices that would be most immediately rewarded. She was at odds with people in London, certainly, and she didn’t change her work, and she didn’t change her presentation or point of view in ways that would have made it easier for her. She was very courageous in her persistence, how she wanted to pursue her work and present herself. And it’s just it’s more vernacular, right? People confuse the vernacular with the abrasive. It’s almost like a library voice that we’re supposed to use within the cultural world. That didn’t exist so much in that period in the late twentieth century, you know, it was about people speaking in other voices. All of that kind of pulp fiction bleeding into high fiction.
Rumpus: And you think we’ve moved away from that? Why?
Kraus: I mean, all of the usual suspects: the MFA programs, the hegemony of the publishing industry, the sort of mafia of the literary world, all of these things. It’s all true—I mean, it’s boring to talk about, but it’s not not true.
Rumpus: I think that often people assume some kind of truth to a letter, and you’ve often worked to expose the artifice of certain kinds of forms. So how do you work with the truth when you write?
Kraus: Well, which truth?
Rumpus: What would you describe as the varieties of truth?
Kraus: I mean, every book is its own truth, right? And that truth was arrived at through a synthesis of all the dissonances, right? The cumulative experiences that you have kind of moved through the dissonances within the book, and that’s the truth of the book. That’s as true as any truth is gonna get.
Rumpus: There are facts, there is emotion, there is narrative, there are real words people have said which could be found text or could be, you know, plagiarized.
Kraus: Truth as a verifiable fact or as an immersive belief.
Rumpus: Is the idea of immersive belief something that is an engine in your work?
Kraus: Well, of course. I mean, if you write a book you’re trying to create an immersive belief, to get it out of you and into the body of the reader. A novel is a big thing. And it can contain all of these worlds.
Author photograph © Carissa Gallo.