THE BELIEVER: What is it about sex, or let’s say love, with a unique person, that allows a writer a way in, in a way that just reading about an issue doesn’t let the writer in?
CHRIS KRAUS: Well, when you become deeply involved with someone, their problems become yours, and vice versa. It’s family. Once someone is in your family orbit, there’s a mutual responsibility, and whatever happens to them happens to you.
BLVR: But I find it so frustrating that I always have to go into these new life experiences—that there’s no other way of writing. Because then you always have to change up your life!
CK: Right! And it’s so limited—the number of experiences one can force oneself to have in single lifetime. It would be much better to have this cosmic power of empathy. Not only empathy, but incredibly specific, detailed knowledge.
BLVR: That’s one of the things I was impressed with about your book. I was like, Chris has this incredibly detailed knowledge of the prison system.
CK: Right. What do the mirrors look like? How the table is bolted to the walls. How they behave in the mess hall. All these things.
BLVR: You wouldn’t have had that without the romance.
CK: That’s true.
BLVR: But some people, they go to the library, you know? [Laughter]
CK: For example, I was given a pen that they give out to inmates at the Greenlee County Jail, in Clifton, Arizona. And it’s thinner than a straw. You can’t grasp it in your hand. There’s no reason, security-wise, for the pen to be this shitty—it just is. You would have to hold it like a chisel, and even then you could barely write with it. Well, OK, I could have read about that on Wikipedia, but it wouldn’t have meant the same thing as receiving it from someone I care for, holding it in my own hand, and trying to write with it. It was a very visceral thing: This sucks. This is just such an unnecessary degradation of these people.
BLVR: It’s like your writing doesn’t come out of disinterested curiosity; it comes out of interested curiosity and implication in a situation. Because those are the feelings that you can’t untie. For me, writing is partly about untying feelings that are too hard to untie in any other way, and you don’t get those by reading a Wikipedia entry. You get those by living through an experience.
CK: That’s right, because it becomes complicated for you in a way that only writing can unravel.
BLVR: Yeah. Living through it makes it that complicated.
CK: Yeah, but that’s because we both did theater! I have a line that I want to put to you.
CK: “The truly mad are not content to merely tell stories; they have to act them out.” [Laughter] That’s Fanny Howe.
BLVR: That’s good!
CK: That’s us.
BLVR: That’s the performer. ’Cause we both trained as actors—
CK: That’s the only training either of us did.
BLVR: You started off as an actress, and I was an actress when I was young, too. So… that means that we get our knowledge through putting our bodies through things?
CK: Exactly. As an actress, you’re living something through the duration of the play and its geography. I’ve always seen writing the same way. It’s like somehow I’m moving through the terrain of the book as a performer, but this time I’m transcribing. Literally, I see my writing as transcription—a transcription of what I see, hear, think, live. I’ve always been a fan of plain writing. I hate metaphor-laden, heavily larded, lyrical writing.
BLVR: Transcription is completely different from memoir, right?
CK: I think so.
BLVR: It’s more about blocking—like blocking on a stage.
CK: It’s not privileging the emotional transformation of the narrator above other kinds of experience. I hate that. The epiphany of the individual against the backdrop of other lives. It’s so false! And it plays into such petty narcissism. And it’s not what people feel all the time. People feel boredom. People feel a lot of things that don’t find their way into those narratives.
BLVR: Do you feel like your life is against the backdrop of other lives?
BLVR: So what is the relationship of your life to other lives?