Chris Kraus published her cult-hit debut novel “I Love Dick” the same month that legendary experimental writer Kathy Acker died of cancer, in 1997, at an alternative clinic in Tijuana, Mexico, at the young age of 53.
Though Kraus did not know her personally, they had overlapping friends and lovers, and Acker was hugely influential to Kraus (and many other writers) to this day. Although she was often called a “punk poet,” Acker’s writing defied genres and subverted definitions of identity and sexuality. Even dubbing her “experimental” does not suffice. Her life and work were often intertwined. Her novels are visceral and the style feels at once stream-of-consciousness, but as if written to be performed.
Kraus’ new book, “After Kathy Acker,” is something of a biography that she began shortly after Acker’s death, then returned to many years later. Although based in Los Angeles, Kraus wrote it at her second home in northern Minnesota’s Iron Range.
We caught up with Kraus, who will do a reading Thursday in Minneapolis, to learn more about her connection with Acker, her unlikely refuge in Minnesota and the current TV adaptation of “I Love Dick.”
Q: What drew you to Kathy Acker? The book feels like a biography most of the time, yet you seem to have this insider knowledge, as well.
A: You’re right, it is not a typical biography. Although I didn’t really know her, we moved in similar circles. I especially got to be close friends with Matias Viegener in L.A. when I moved there. Matias was a younger friend of Kathy’s who took care of her and became her literary executor. So I was in pretty close proximity to Kathy’s illness and death, and I was very upset by it. There was something just so poignant and wrenching to see her life end in relative isolation in Tijuana at such a young age. I had just started writing and I thought to myself, “Oh, this is how it ends.”
In the months after her death I made contact with a lot of people from her early life and did long interviews with them. Then I got interested in writing another book. I started working on “Aliens and Anorexia” and the Kathy Acker writing all went into the closet for, what, almost 20 years.
My last novel, “Summer of Hate,” came out in 2012, and I kept thinking, “Well, what am I going to do next?” I didn’t want to start another novel and it occurred to me that I might pick up the Acker book again and this time I had a very different perspective.
The book that I would’ve written right after Kathy’s death would’ve been personal and would’ve talked about the crosses and common friends and lovers. At a distance of 20 years, I didn’t feel particularly connected to any of the story anymore and I was much more interested in accessing Kathy through documents and through interviews. I found early diaries of hers and a lot of correspondence. It is this fascinating work of piecing together a story, some of which contradicts each other. I wanted to access Kathy as a person but also as a writer — to try and figure out what it was about Kathy’s work that was so original. What can we take from it now? Who was Kathy as a person? And then, third, what was this world that she moved in?
Another impetus for writing the book was seeing how grossly mythologized New York in the ’70s and ’80s has been in all media. It’s this sort of summer of love or something, this sort of cliché in people’s minds. I wanted to try and write a more truthful history.
Q: Were there any surprises that you found?
A: I was trying to re-create the year 1971, when she was working in Times Square [performing a live sex show] with her boyfriend. There is a blog called the Rialto Report where people have gathered archival material from the early porn industry in New York. That was the year right before “Deep Throat” came out, just before the porn industry went mainstream. There was just a ton of fascinating stuff about those people and that time. Now there’s an HBO show based around that time period— “The Deuce.” Kathy only worked in that environment for four months, but she became known for it because she wrote about it over and over again. She found that the sex industry was a really good metaphor for other aspects of life and sexuality in capitalist mainstream America.
Q: How did you end up in Minnesota?
A: Apart from the fact that it’s beautiful and really cheap to live up here, Philip, my partner, went back to school at Hazelden in 2009 [to get his master’s degree; he’s a psychologist specializing in addiction]. That was how I started coming up north. I rented a cabin from an older lady for a few years, and I wrote “Where Art Belongs” and “Summer of Hate” up here. So finally, like four years ago, we decided to buy a house for ourselves.
As soon as I discovered Minnesota, I knew it was going to be the right place for me to run away to write, because all the things that I like to do when I am not writing are right here. There’s a bike trail, there’s kayaks on the lake, there are all these amenities. This little town has tennis courts, and because no one uses them it is like having your own tennis court. On the Iron Range, all these towns — they seem like ghost towns but they are incredibly well endowed. We are 10 miles from an incredible state park — the Mesabi bike trail. The town we’re in is called Bovey, like “bovine,” like cow.
When I am writing I really do withdraw, and I have long writing days, and then I try to do some exercise stuff the rest of the time. It is a pretty monastic life. And it is a very enjoyable monastic life up here because there is so much to do. And I like coming down to Minneapolis. Every few weeks I’ll go down and have lunch at the Ethiopian restaurant, load up with books and see some friends, and maybe see an art show.
The great food, too — you can’t leave that out. Our neighbors have a family farm and they do incredible free-range meat. It’s so different from the farmers’ markets in L.A. In California it’s all hobby farms owned by billionaires who made money in Silicon Valley.
Q: What did you think of the Amazon adaptation of “I Love Dick?”
A: I thought it was great, I couldn’t have been happier with it. Parts of it are truly radical. The intensity of Kathryn Hahn’s performance, and the intimacy, it’s really alien to episodic TV. The way they pull in the tradition of female experimental filmmaking — before each episode there’s at least one clip, sometimes more. And they get the art world so right, too. That’s usually such an embarrassment when film or TV try to portray the art world. They had Helen Molesworth, one of the great American contemporary curators, as a consultant.