The interviewer: Justin Clark, InTheFray Literary Editor
The interviewee: Benjamin Weissman, Author, Headless

Headless has been compared to the writings of Henry Miller and Philip Roth, both authors whose works shocked their readers. The scatalogical and sexual themes in your fiction seem to aim for something other than shock value, however. It’s almost as if there’s a desire to show the innocence of serial killers and rapists, to fuse together the homicidal and the infantile.  Is your work about breaking taboos, or showing the comedy of transgression, or something else?

I’m not interested in shocking people. And I don’t think people are shockable … We’re trained to consume anything, and it’s all art.  But I think the art-viewing and the reading public are different.  Sometimes the public is freaked out right away; I’m trained genetically to write about stuff like this, it’s in my blood from childhood.  I have an autobiographical inclination to go there: [My] mother … was really morbid, and I was predisposed to this kind of material.  I don’t want to go the obvious routes.  I’m also thinking about murderers who will kill somebody and then eat their food, and I also think that’s so remarkable.  I’m always trying to go less predictable routes, and I do think that killers do have human sides, but I’m not trying to make them friendly or palatable.  It’s almost like trying different textures — if I’m going at you with something hard and sharp, I want to break in some soft things to break up the monotony.  The same thing happens in films I like.

In “Marnie,” a much more traditional story concerning the death of a friend, you seem less concerned with displaying a less perverse vision.  Other than the ski slope setting, [which is present in many of the stories in Headless], what ties ”Marnie” to the [other stories in the book], and how do you know when all of the violence and bodily fluids have gotten to be too much?

I think the bodily fluids thing is spontaneous, and it’s just about what fits or belongs or what seems fun to go into and explore.  I kind of don’t think too much about the reader, ever.  I’m just trying to make a story that works.  Maybe the reader is a couple of trusted friends.  Marnie is a story that afflicted me — it reads like it really happened, and it did really happen, and it was the kind of thing I put down to honor a friend who died.  I just sort of worked on it endlessly, and [the final text of “Marnie”] was a lot longer than the published story …  I was talking to a lot of people, and it was really slowing down my whole life. And I was reading the things they carry, and I was thinking this was my kind of Vietnam, the first time I’d experienced someone dying in front of me.  I wasn’t trying to write a story to make people cry, although I know that’s the effect it has on people, even though it works me up because I have vivid memories of what happened. At one point I thought I was just going to write a personal essay about it.  I was asked why I was struggling — the first time I saw [Marnie] naked was when the paramedics were cutting her clothes off — the friend said, “That’s your first sentence, and if you don’t use it I will.” You can be a perfectionist to the point where you don’t write and don’t publish anything, and I wrote something that was close to it. I think I was excited by putting that story next to others that were completely over the top.  I wanted to make it a less predictable collection.  Each story was going to push you in a different direction.  Me as a reader, I kind of want that from a writer.  It’s a horrible thing for readers to put down books.  It seems to happen so much, people who can’t get through a lot of really good books.  I originally had the story later on, but Dennis [Cooper] was smart enough to throw it in the middle … section [with the] family stories.  But that in itself was very different.

You seem particularly interested in the banality of evil.  How does your vision of evil compare with that being promoted in American popular culture and by American politicians?

I feel America is my homeland; my grandparents are from Austria.  When I’ve gone there and done exhibitions, [I notice that in] the work I’ve seen with other artists, there’s a graphic weird mixing of sexual violent things, and I’ve always been floored by that work and [the feeling that] I was among my brothers and sisters.  When you talked to someone with a high-pitched voice, doctors will ask, “Why did this voice stay with them?” And [the doctors will] ask if this is some kind of trauma that was locked in at a particular age.  Maybe there was a time when I was a kid and listening to stories from my peculiar mom and that became a story mode I was going to replicate later on.  Violent stories, stories of fear and paranoia.  She would cut articles out and send them to me.  Lots of strange things about killers, and the family would totally ignore it … Trying to comprehend … where inappropriate humor comes from … was a constant at the dinner table, talking about Nazis — it’s a coping device.  I think for me the stuff was so far removed that Hitler was as bland as a glass of water or as gigantic and horrible as he is.  We had relatives that were killed on both sides of the family [in the Holocaust].

I think I’m pretty motivated by writing about terrible experiences.  A good happy life — I can’t write about them, I have no use for them except to have one.  I feast on for my writing the way the world is tearing itself apart and people are just ripping each other to shreds.  I’m amazed at the weird position people are in, where your life is placid and safe and just outside or several thousand miles away, or an hour from now it’s absolutely violent and atrocious.

There are some differences in the prose style between Headless and Dear Dead Person, your previous collection. Your sentences seem to be more syntactically complicated — lush even — with more adjectives and clauses.  What inspired you to use a more literary voice with this collection?

I think it’s the evolution for me or just growing up; I think [during your] evolution … as a writer, you’re pushing yourself to deal with sentences differently.  I haven’t looked at Dear Dead Person in so long, but I imagine the sentences were short and blunt.  I took a lot of pleasure out of it.  I’m glad that you said that.  In a way I feel a lot of the stuff I’ve been doing is pretty intuitive, of one’s language getting more sophisticated as one grows up.  I didn’t think in this book I wanted this language.  I just think it happens with maturity.  I’m not sure what I picked up from Robert Walser, but I couldn’t get rid of it.  There’s a child-like thing that happens in a lot of his work, and in Thomas Bernhard[‘s] work, and Lydia Davis’ work that I can’t get rid of. Those writers mean so much to me, and they are my ideals.”

In The Fray is a nonprofit staffed by volunteers. If you liked this piece, could you please donate $10?