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Blowgun by Rick Berry
Interview
POPPY Z. BRITE: Just Not That Weird
"[I]t's a matter of having to do this thing even though it usually feels boring and terrible, having to do it because you would stagnate and die otherwise, having to do it for that rare, perfect moment when the juice flows up your spine." -- Poppy Z. Brite

by Paula Guran
January, 1998 (Originally published by OMNI Online)

Brite On discovering I had met and corresponded with Poppy Z. Brite, a drooling fanboy e-mailed me wanting to know what she was like. He was disappointed with my reply that she was short, very bright, and very sweet. I think he expected me to tell him that after lunching on Asian boys, we'd smoked opium while dancing nude to The Cure.

On discovering I had met and corresponded with Poppy Z. Brite, a not-quite-doddering fan of traditional horror tut-tutted her infamy and dismissed her novels as graphic trash (not that he had read any of them, of course) about homosexual vampires and cannibals, typical of what had "killed horror."

Somewhere in the middle of a spectrum reaching from people who idolize her (sometimes for the wrong reasons) to those who disparage her (usually for the wrong reasons) lies the truth of Poppy Z. Brite. Of the dark fiction writers who moved from small press into novels and notoriety in the nineties, Brite is the most widely known and read.

Beginning in 1985 the then-18-year-old Brite sold her first several stories to David Silva's magazine, The Horror Show. Kathryn Ptacek bought a story in 1989 for her anthology, Women of Darkness 2, as did Tom Monteleone for his first Borderlands anthology. With Lost Souls, her 1992 debut novel, she became a "hot new writer" in horror. The lush neo-Southern Gothic novel was replete with bisexual vampires, copious amounts of blood, indelible characters, and at least the tone of deep decadence. Lost Souls became the foundation for her popularity and critical acclaim; it also became the basis for some discomfort and disdain from traditionalists. There also seemed to be those who simply resented her outré personality, youth, femaleness, success, and choice of themes.

BriteLost Souls was part of a three-book deal with Delacorte/Dell, and Brite followed it up in 1994 with Drawing Blood, a new take on the haunted house theme. Fangoria summarized it this way: "If you're at all interested in cyberspace, Krazy Kat, The Church of the Subgenius, 'Yardbird' Parker, Italian splatter films, ganja, strippers or swamp rock, this book will make you very, very happy." It also included graphic gore and homoeroticism. Exquisite Corpse was to be Dell's third offering, but the publisher had lost its enthusiasm for horror as a whole and decided that the tale of cannibalism, necrophilia, AIDS, gay love, and serial killers was "morally indefensible." Rejected by a number of "horror publishers," Exquisite Corpse found a more prestigious publisher than those that had rejected it (as well as a better deal for Brite) with Simon & Schuster. It was published in the fall of 1996.

Along with the novels, Brite's short fiction has been collected in Swamp Foetus (1993, Borderlands;1995, Penguin UK; re-named Wormwood and issued by Dell in 1996). She's edited two anthologies of "erotic vampire" stories for HarperPrism -- Love In Vein (1994) and Love In Vein 2 (1996). Brite also moved into nonfiction with her recent biography, Courtney Love: The Real Story. A novel based on James O'Barr's world of "The Crow" -- The Lazarus Heart -- will be out in June from HarperPrism. A second collection of short fiction, Are You Loathsome Tonight?, will be released by Gauntlet Press sometime in 1998.

Brite has been nominated for the Horror Writers Association Bram Stoker Award three times, but considers the Stoker nominations "more embarrassing than anything else -- at least I didn't win." She's prouder of the British Fantasy Society's award for Best Newcomer in 1994 and two nominations for the Lambda Literary Award. Brite was recently awarded the French Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire.

She lives in New Orleans with her husband, Chris, and assorted animals.


DE: There's some stuff maybe we'd better cover to start with:
  • Anne Rice - Yes, you are both female and have been known to write about vampires and live in New Orleans. No, you have never met her or read her stuff.
  • The Quote: "I am a gay man who happens to have been born in a female body." - Yes, you said it, but jeez, it's pretty tired and used now.
  • The Photos - Yes, you've posed semi-nude for J. K. Potter and for Rage magazine. Sure, you'd probably show it again while anyone wants to see it.
  • The "Erotic" Film - Yes, you appeared in John Five, a short film by James Herbert. Your co-stars were two cute nineteen year old neighbors. It was far from an "adult" film and pretty blurry and "artsy-fartsy."
  • Drinking - Yes, you are alcohol intolerant and no longer drink -- especially Chartreuse

    Did that about cover the usual or did I forget something?

    BritePZB: That's about it...but I think I should make one final statement on the "gay-man-in-a-female-body" thing, a matter that's been taken much too seriously: All I ever meant by that statement was that I only like sleeping with men, but have major penis envy. Wish I had a dong -- that's it -- sometimes I can almost feel it hangin' there.

    DE: See, Poppy? Now you've gone and opened up a whole new can of worms. Don't you understand how saying shit like that just incites people?

    PZB: I can't help it. Celebrities, even insignificant ones like me, are created to be abused by the Great Unwashed. If it makes their dreary lives a little easier to think they "hate" me, who am I to take that away from them?

    DE: Your noblesse oblige is showing, my dear...But really -- do you ever think people take you too seriously? Some of your fans seem to worship you; your detractors seem to think you are responsible for at least the decline and fall of horror and possibly of the western world. Or maybe they don't take you seriously enough? Some see you as a trés gothique hipster princess who happens to write; to the meanies you are a decadent drug-taking opportunist who poses nude and who happens to write.

    PZB: I think it's very funny, actually. There are people who must spend huge amounts of time composing these online diatribes against me, all about how disgusting and terrible I am and how no one should ever read my books, and it's not enough for them to hate me, they can't stand the fact that ANYONE likes me! The flame wars go on for months, and in truth they are only feeding my already bloated ego. I try not to look at all that, but sometimes I do when I'm feeling low, and it always gives me a laugh and a boost.

    As for the thing of my using my "image" to promote my work, I don't get that at all, because I just don't think I am that hip or glamorous or even pretty. In high school I was the dog, always, and I never have felt comfortable or right in my body, and part of my whole exhibitionist thing has probably been a way of testing to see whether or not I really was this repulsive creature that I felt like for so long. I certainly don't think I would have been asked to pose for Rage if I wasn't a known writer. I figured it was just the novelty of a writer who anyone would want to see nude. There aren't that many.

    coverDE: I have to admit I have no real desire to see more than a couple of writers I know nude...the entire thought of seeing, oh say, Tom Clancy nude is really pretty scary. So you are telling me you haven't carefully crafted this image of yours?

    PZB: The whole idea that I have this "carefully constructed image" is a big crock of shit. It just shows how everything is judged by the tastes and standards of the mainstream. Compared to a lot of people I know, I am just NOT THAT WEIRD. But in the eyes of Joe Buttmunch, I'm so weird that it must all be a gimmick to sell myself. I certainly haven't always been wise in interviews, but I have always tried to be honest about what I am and why I do this work.

    DE: Okay, so you aren't thatweird. But, you write of Courtney Love in your biography of her: "She has been clapped (and has occasionally plastered herself) with numerous conflicting labels: riot grrl, rock star, feminist, anti-feminist, drug addict, musical trailblazer, brave widow, slut, bitch, new Hollywood talent." Has Poppy Z. Brite been slapped with a few labels and maybe plastered some on herself?

    PZB: I've tried to avoid labels, but they always find you. I saw a review the other day that called me a splatterpunk -- I thought we'd finally put that sordid term to death. I got called "America's worst-dressed young writer," which I thought was funny. But I never know what people are calling me, because they usually don't say it to my face.

    DE: I was surprised that some of the people who don't say things to your face felt you "sold out" doing the Courtney Love bio.

    PZB: I'd much rather do an obviously commercial writing project than get a day job. Actually, I'm incapable of holding a day job, so I had no choice -- and the Courtney book and media fanfare were fun. I'm not sure I could ever care about the opinion of anyone who used terms like "poseur" and "sellout" with a straight face.

    coverDE: Besides bringing you a higher profile -- a media tour and excerpt in People magazine -- this must have been a lucrative project that could free you to do what you want with other writing. What are you doing with this freedom?

    PZB: Traveling -- I was able to turn a one-week media junket in Milan (for Exquisite Corpse) into a three-week holiday all over Italy with Chris. Reading a lot. Fixing up my house. Helping out my family. Writing some short pieces and putting together the collection, Are You Loathsome Tonight? before I have to start the second novel in my Simon & Schuster contract.

    DE: What do you find in travel?

    PZB: Much of my travel has been related to my work, so I've been able to see how my work is received in other places. In France, for instance, one magazine writer was convinced that On The Road had been a huge influence on Lost Souls and was crushed to learn that I hadn't read the one until after I'd written the other. I don't think many Americans would think to compare me, or any horror writer for that matter, with Kerouac -- though in his day he was as edgy and uncommercial as we supposedly are. In Italy they used a J.K. Potter nude portrait of me for the cover of Exquisite Corpse, and I was linked to an Italian trend called "pulp fiction." In England they asked me ceaselessly about sex. In the Netherlands I read the first chapter of Exquisite Corpse to an audience that laughed in all the places I thought were funny -- an experience I've never had in America!

    DE: Love had a pretty strange childhood and her parents weren't exactly June and Ward Cleaver. Or maybe they were the tie-dye, acid-eating versions of June and Ward. They even gave her an unusual name -- Love Michelle -- that was later changed to Courtney. What are your parents like? What's the "Z" stand for anyway? What was your childhood like?

    britePZB: My parents are wonderful, though not what people expect. They aren't responsible for the "Z" (or the "Poppy" either for that matter), and they aren't hippies or obvious freaks. My mother is an office manager, my father a professor of economics and financial planner. They've been divorced since I was five, but each has had a distinct and important influence on me. My mother always encouraged my work and did what she could to help me before I started making money at it. My dad told me that no one could ever make it as a writer, that my chances were equivalent to winning the lottery -- which was good for me, because I like to have something to prove.

    DE: Wait a minute -- do you think I am going to let that thing about the name slip by? You've always said this is your "real name"...so where did it come from?

    PZB: Nobody believed me, so I decided to quit lying. I lied in the first place because I didn't think it was anyone's business. No, "Poppy Z" is not the name I was born with (Brite is my true last name, though), but I've lived and written under that name for 15 years, so people are going to have to get over it.

    DE: I'm over it already. Speaking of things we have to get over -- like everyone else, you eventually hit puberty. You wrote and read, did some sort of an underground newspaper -- you definitely weren't a cheerleader. What were you like as a teen-ager?

    PZB: Glass Goblin was actually more of a zine than an underground newspaper, but we hadn't heard of zines in North Carolina in 1983. School sucked. I don't want to make a huge traumatic deal of it, because I know a lot of people who had a much worse time than I did, people who feared for their lives every day in high school. But it still really, really sucked. I got through it by writing, reading, and listening to music -- the standard remedies.

    DE: You've written since you were a child. Did you always write weird stuff?

    PZB: Well, it's always been violent, homoerotic, and stylistically florid. People have heard about "The Bad Mouse," a story I told on tape when I was three and a half or so, this gut-eating, scatological mouse. I experimented with all different types of writing as a kid and teenager. It wasn't all horror, but it was always odd.

    coverDE:As long as we are talking about your childhood -- you were born and spent your first six years in New Orleans. Then, after your parents divorced, you moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina with your mother, where you lived until 1988, when you moved to Athens, Georgia. You lived there until moving back to New Orleans in May, 1993. Growing up in the American South seems to have played a role in shaping you as a writer and is often a setting for your fiction.

    PZB: The writers as well as the setting -- for me, they are inextricable from one another. Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O'Connor, Harper Lee, Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner -- they're a diverse lot, but they all explore that Southern juxtaposition of beauty and grotesquerie.

    DE: Do you think your work explores that juxtaposition of beauty and grotesquerie?

    PZB:That's a goal for me, not just in work I set in the South, but in everything I write.

    DE: You've always been determined to be a writer. Even though part of your mythology is the litany of jobs you held before becoming a full-time writer -- gourmet candy-maker, mouse caretaker in a cancer research lab, short order cook, cake decorator, artist's model, and stripper -- you seemed to know you were going to make it as a writer. How? Why?

    PZB: I was pretty sure I was going to make it. I don't mean to imply that I 100%-knew I was going to be successful. I knew I was pretty good and dedicated to getting better. But I was also willing to slit my throat in the gutter if I didn't. I never could hold down a job. I never had anything to "fall back on." Writing was my only choice.

    coverDE: But writing doesn't seem easy for you. You've said that writing the second book was difficult, writing the third was horrible and you spent most of the two years it took to write it loathing the writing.

    PZB: The writer Rose Macaulay said, "Work is a dull thing; you cannot get away from that. The only agreeable existence is one of idleness, and that is not, unfortunately, always compatible with continuing to exist at all." And it's not just a matter of making a living; it's a matter of having to do this thing even though it usually feels boring and terrible, having to do it because you would stagnate and die otherwise, having to do it for that rare, perfect moment when the juice flows up your spine.

    DE: And how often does that rare, perfect moment occur for you?

    PZB: Extremely fucking seldom I wouldn't trust a writer who claimed otherwise.

    DE: What's your writing environment and creative life like?

    PZB: Colored Christmas lights, 1930s wallpaper, and thousands of books. My house has experienced subsidence and my second-story office slants slightly downhill. I work on a pretty modern, normal computer, but use an archaic word-processing program (WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS) because I don't like Windows. There are usually some cats around. Diet Coke fuels the late-night fires.

    DE: Who do you consider your literary influences?

    PZB:As well as the aforementioned Southern writers: Bradbury, Nabokov, W.S. Burroughs, Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Shirley Jackson, Thomas Ligotti, Kathe Koja, Dennis Cooper, Dorothy Parker, Dylan Thomas, Harlan Ellison, Peter Straub, Paul Theroux, Baudelaire, Poe, Lovecraft, John Lennon...I could rattle off ten or twenty more easily; they're all in there somewhere.

    coverDE:A lot of writers these days seem to be as influenced by film as much as literature. What about you?

    PZB: Definitely not, and I don't really approve of this trend, either. I think film had a terrible effect on horror fiction particularly in the 80s, with certain writers turning out stuff as slick and cliched as Hollywood movies. I won't name names, but a horror writer whose books were very popular in the 80s once admitted to me without shame that he had never read The Haunting of Hill House. And he saw every goddamn movie that came out, he'd sit and watch four or five movies in a row, and boy did it ever show in his work.

    DE: Your use of language is, to me, what makes your visceral images work: the juxtaposition of the horrific with the poetically descriptive. How do you make language work for you?

    PZB: This is an element of writing that I have a hard time talking about. Language use, style, description, call it what you will -- it's often what readers seem to love or hate most about me. But it's honestly not something I sweat over, at least not consciously. It's a voice I developed over a period of many years and am still developing, but I don't know how I do it; that's just how it comes out. I can tell you that I write very slowly, and that I reread authors whose use of language I admire.

    DE: The characters in your stories are remarkable. I always find myself fascinated with them even when they are completely monstrous, like the serial killers Andrew and Jay in Exquisite Corpse or the not quite as terrible, but still amoral, vampires Zillah, Molochai, and Twig in Lost Souls. Where do they come from?

    PZB: Characters are always the starting point of a work for me, particularly a novel, since the entire story must be extrapolated from what happens to the characters and why. I'll nurture a character in my head, live with him a long time before I even try to start telling his story. It feels as if I'm not so much inventing the characters as allowing them to reveal themselves.

    coverDE:You rarely have female characters in your fiction. For most of your life you've been fascinated with men, especially gay men. But you mentioned to me recently that now, for the first time, you feel more of an affinity for women than you had previously. Are females going to figure more in future work?

    PZB: My new novel, The Lazarus Heart, has an important character who's a male-to-female transsexual. And of course I found Courtney Love very interesting, though ultimately I don't think I did her full justice as a character. So we'll see.

    DE: This new Crow novel -- tell us something about it and how was it working within a context created by someone else?

    PZB: The Lazarus Heart is the story of a New Orleans photographer who is framed for the murder of his lover and several other young men. His work deals with dark, sadomasochistic transgender themes, and because of this the cops and D.A. find him a wonderful suspect. He is murdered on Death Row and returns by the graces of the Crow to find the real murderer.

    I wasn't interested in doing a Crow novel when HarperPrism first came to me with the idea, so I named a price I didn't think they'd meet, and they met it. But I ended up liking the idea and being glad I did it. I think it turned out well. Of course, the few fans who didn't think I was a media whore for doing the Courtney Love book are now convinced that I am.

    DE: I don't know, I think there are one or two people left who don't think you are a media whore. I mean media whores don't usually publically call their publishers "dickless." Love in Vein 2 is now out as a mass market paperback, but you've called its publisher, HarperCollins, "dickless" for cutting four of the stories you selected as "inappropriate." Yet HarperPrism is the publisher of the Crow book. I assume there are no bad feelings?

    coverPZB: Of course I didn't like having my anthology censored, and there will be no Love In Vein 3, but this is a different project with a different editor. Publishers are like forces of nature; there's really no point holding grudges against them. The first book did very well; Marty Greenberg and I and all the authors get royalty checks several times a year. It's hard to stay mad at a publisher who pays out royalties on time.

    DE: Unlike most traditional horror writers, you never deal with "good" and "evil." You've said, "They seem too absolute, too set in stone, to be really interesting. I prefer to spend my time in the grey area, the unclaimed zones." What's within that zone? Why does the "eternal struggle between good and evil" not interest you?

    PZB: It doesn't seem real to me. The idea of evil for evil's sake is so cartoonish and corny. I wasn't raised religious so I have no context for believing in it. I think calling someone like Jeffrey Dahmer "evil" and leaving it at that is a copout. It conveniently separates "them" from "us," the human race. What's interesting to me is that a subset of the human race preys upon itself. Caitlin Kiernan speaks of "left-bank" and "right-bank" horror, right-bank being the traditional form where the freak is loathed, feared, and eventually eliminated, left-bank exploring and possibly even celebrating the freak. Of our major writers, I'd say Clive Barker, Ray Bradbury, Anne Rice, Ramsey Campbell, Thomas Ligotti, Kathe Koja, and Poe are or have been left-bankers, at least to some extent. You could make a case for Lovecraft either way.

    DE: Sexual horror is no longer as unusual as it once was. In fact it has become a subgenre, Where do you think it's going? What do you think your influence there was?

    PZB: I'm just surprised that it's taken this long to become this overt. There's always been a strong subtext of sexuality in horror. Dracula is a very dirty book. The Haunting of Hill House can be read as positively throbbing with repressed erotic tension, as can an earlier novel of Jackson's, Hangsaman, and several of her short stories. But now it's the nineties and we've grown up equating sex with death and it's no longer an undercurrent, it's the whole damn river. This causes the failed old fogies of horror to wring their hands, but people are reading it and it's not going away -- I, for one, have been getting called a flash-in-the-pan for going on seven years now! I don't know about my own influence -- I think it's too early to tell, and I'm never good at judging things like that anyway.

    coverDE: Zach was a hacker in Drawing Blood and I understand there was a hacker character in EC that never made it into the final book. Do you have any thoughts about Net culture?

    PZB: Actually, Tran was going to be a hacker, but I quickly realized he was too dumb. I've found the Net useful for researching pop-culture subjects and ordering books, but I can't spend hours surfing the Web, and the social aspects of it (like Usenet) aren't that interesting to me. I'm still very much a devotee of the printed page.

    DE: Now that you've reached the ripe old age of thirty and are a married homeowner -- what's your life like? You've told me it's pretty mundane -- but you've always set your own rules, still smoke pot, and recently tried meth. What other little exotic traits do you retain?

    PZB: I always like to try a new drug, but not every day. I don't crave wildness for wildness' sake any more. My life is mundane punctuated by interludes of adventure and peril -- foreign travel, chemicals, stalkers, whatever. Mostly I stay home a lot and need a lot of time alone. Our house is huge, so Chris can be cooking or working on his computer downstairs and I can have total privacy. Some people find our life chaotic because of all the animals -- we have 3 dogs, 10 cats, and an albino kingsnake -- but I am used to them and couldn't live without them. When I don't have cats around, I really suffer. We were in Italy for 3 weeks, which is the longest I've ever been away from home, and it was hard being away from them.

    coverBoth my parents live in New Orleans now, and I see them a lot, especially my mom. I am very close to her. Most of my closest friends live elsewhere, but it's easy to get people to come visit this city. I could have houseguests 365 days a year if I wanted to.

    DE: What is something you are good at that would surprise people?

    PZB: I am a good cook, but unfortunately I don't enjoy feeding people. I can make a loud noise with my spine.


    Poppy Z. Brite's Web site is poppyzbrite.com There is a later interview from HorrorOnline with Brite on site. The August 2001 issue of The Spook featured a cover story. Basketball and the Elusive Rogue Mackeral: Poppy Z. Brite in the 21st Century" An Interview by Paula Guran and her associated article "Calling Dr. Brite: Does Poppy Have a Brand New Bag" which is also alvailable on this site. The Spook is a free downloadable PDF magazine.


    Photos (from top) of Ms. Brite by (1) Mann & Man (2) Paula Guran (3 & 4) Chris DeBarr


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