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Grab Bag


Cult novelist Dennis Cooper launches the third title of Little House on the Bowery, the Akashic series he is editing and promoting.

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Interview with Derek McCormack by Raul Deznermio

Grab Bag is comprised of two novels, Dark Rides and Wish Book. Is this a natural coupling? Do the two books have a particular relationship to one another?

I want to say: There are no natural couplings in my books. But I won’t. It’s not true. Dark Rides and Wish Book couple nicely, I think. Dark Rides is set in Peterborough in the 1950s. Peterborough, Ontario. My hometown. And Wish Book is set in Peterborough in the 1930s. So there’s the city. Both books feature country music stars. In Wish Book, a kid’s obsessed with Jimmie Rodgers. In Dark Rides, a kid’s obsessed with Hank Williams. There’s a story in the book about Hank Williams coming through town in 1952. That happened. Hank came. He played a skating rink. Between shows he got drunk at the Pig’s Ear Tavern. According to Chet Flippo, Hank passed out onstage and had to be escorted from town by police. It was, Flippo says, the beginning of the end for Hank. His last hurrah. I like to tell people that Peterborough killed him.

Is Turnbull’s an actual department store? If not, can you reveal its inspiration?

Turnbull’s was a real department store. It burned down in the 1910s. In winter. Fire hydrants froze. Shopgirls died. It was the city’s biggest disaster. Until the Quaker Oats fire. Anyway, I never knew anyone who shopped at Turnbull’s. But it was supposed to have been quite grand. Several stories. In my books it’s as big as Macy’s. And as posh as Bergdorf’s. Way too posh for a city like Peterborough. In my books it’s the center of society. Everyone ends up there—rich, poor. Gay. Especially gay. It’s mecca. An oasis of artifice—there are window trimmers, catalogue artists, tailors, designers. I wrote a story for Wish Book that never made it in. A gay kid in a small northern mining town is obsessed with Turnbull’s. Which he knows about from mail-order catalogues. A.k.a., wish books. He finds the catalogues in outhouses. Studies them. Memorizes them. When he finally hitchhikes to Peterborough he heads straight for the store. He tries to talk. Every sentence sounds like a catalogue caption. He sees a lady in pearls and says: “Pretty Pearl Necklet! Looks and wears like pearls. Pearls are very fashionable this Christmas. Why not give one?” The story didn’t make a lick of sense.

The layout of the text in the book resembles that of a children’s story. Do you think the stories themselves read in any way like children’s tales?

Oh, I don’t know. I wouldn’t count picture books as a big inspiration. I’m fond of books for a slightly older set. Tweens. And teens. Did you ever buy Scholastic books in school? Every month we’d get a catalogue in class. Select a book, pay, and a couple weeks later a Scholastic rep would show up. I loved that stuff. Little paperbacks about putting on magic shows. Joke books. Puzzle books. I still read that stuff. I have a Goosebumps t-shirt. It’s a little small on me.

NOW Magazine in Canada has called you an “evil little blessing.” Is there anything you would describe as evil in Grab Bag?

No, not really. I’m not evil. The book’s really not evil. I mean, it’s dressed up kind of creepy. There are haunted houses and jack-o’-lanterns and wax museums. A murderer cameos in Wish Book. But the evil’s Halloweeny. All flash.

Cult novelist Dennis Cooper selected Grab Bag for his “Little House on the Bowery” series on Akashic. How and where did you first meet Dennis?

I sent Dennis Dark Rides back in 1996. That’s when it came out here. From a small Canadian press. Dennis didn’t know me from a hole in the ground. But he read the book and wrote me an awesome blurb. I was wowed. Dennis has been my favourite writer forever. I didn’t actually meet him until, um, three years ago? I went to a writing conference/festival in Buffalo, NY. ProseActs. Dennis was there. So were Matthew Stadler, Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, Robert Gluck, Eileen Myles—it was star-studded. Dennis and I started emailing after that. Then Jason and I—Jason’s my roommate—visited Dennis in LA in 2002. The Buffy trip. Dennis showed us all sorts of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer shooting sites. And we bumped into Xander. I mean, the actor who plays Xander. He’s in rehab now. I guess that’s not germane. Anyway. Dennis is a doll.

Given the war in Iraq, do you have any mixed feelings about touring for your book in the United States?

Well, it’s like I know two Americas. One I see on CNN. The Bush/Cheney/Ashcroft America. It’s maddening. The other America’s the one I visit on occasion. It’s got these amazing cities and writers and publishers. And Target stores. I’m excited about visiting it again. Maybe that’s a bad answer. I’m not sure how to answer. It’s complicated.

Both novels in Grab Bag are set decades ago. Do you ever write fiction based in contemporary settings?

Fiction, no. I haven’t set anything in today’s times. Is that right? Today’s times? Sounds weird. Why do I set stuff in the past? It inspires a sort of anxiety in me. I imagine myself back then, no friends, no family. It’s like I’m time travelling. It’s Twilight Zone-y. I set Dark Rides in the 1950s because the 1950s seem scary to me. I tried to imagine being a gay teenager in a small town. No hope. No horizons. I set Wish Book in the 1930s because the 1930s seems interesting to me. It was a great time for department stores and quack medicine and novelty gags. A desperate time, of course. But it inspired a kind of hucksterism I like. And my hometown became more interesting because of the Depression. A seedy theatre district sprung up downtown. Hobo camps sprung up along the river. Piles of people drifting into and out of town.

Are you currently working on a new book?

I’m thinking about working on one. A novella I wrote, The Haunted Hillbilly, came out in Canada late last year. It’s part one of a trilogy I plan to write. The Haunted Hillbilly’s about a vampire tailor who takes young Hank Williams under his wing. Makes him a star. Then eats him. It’s a fantasy. The next book will be about Jimmie Rodgers. The third book, I don’t know. But I want three. I’m superstitious or something. Three’s a magic number for me. My favorite sentences have three words. Subject verb object. Perfect!