“Wait, we haven’t talked about BUTT yet”
Words: Bianca Healey
Images: Prudence Blain
Wilfred has a cold. As I listen back to my recording, our conversation is interrupted by his intermittent coughing. On tape, I hear myself repeating how bad I feel, and him insisting that we go on; he has too many books to get through. I ask all of my subjects to think about one or two books that have moved them deeply, that change the way they want to be, or the way they look at the world. I always knew that Wilfred would be the first one I would call- when I was young and impressionistic and fresh out of uni, he worked at the first website I interned at. He was the Lester Bangs to my William Miller, only he was actually very cool (but then really, so was Lester) and encapsulated for me the thrills of working in the cultural media. He approached every day of his job as though it was his first week- a wonderful weirdo who bought socks from SUPPLY store in his lunch breaks and subsisted on takeaway cups of espresso. More than once during the time I was there, he claimed to have coined the word “three-peat.”
At Wilfred’s place the books and magazines are stacked high. It’s clear that he has prepared in advance (there is a sizeable pile splayed across his desk), but I hadn’t realised he intended to speak about all of them.
A thing you notice about Wilfred: he has an irrepressible hunger for the eccentric; subcultures that resist easy marketing into popular culture, or at least the essential parts of them that are left behind in translation. Highbrow comics, countercultural genre fiction, underground teen culture, queer literature. The kinds of texts that mothers raise their eyebrows at when found in school bags. He knows a million things about topics you’ve never even heard of. A conversation with Wilfred is like reading a specialist cultural journal that spans everything from skateboard culture to experimental fiction. Or listening to Bill Cunningham talk about fashion. It’s that earnestness and very serious fascination that compels you to take the same view.
His place is a mess of kitsch and cartoons: that excellent combination of teen fanboy and discerning bibliophile. As we speak, a playlist of downbeat pop and hazy rock hangs a little below the frequency of our speech. Now, thinking back, all I can remember are a couple of Wild Nothing tracks. Sweet teen vocals reverbing and fading out.
WB: One night recently I couldn’t sleep because they (my neighbours) were playing The Smiths, and I was like ‘damn it!’ (because I couldn’t complain). It’s not like when I lived in Redfern and they were playing, like, shitty house music or something.
So which book do you want to hear about?
1. Dennis Cooper, The George Miles Cycle
WB: It’s so weird to talk instead of write. Dennis Cooper got me really excited about reading fiction. I didn’t read a lot of fiction. I’ve realized too that if I don’t trust or like the voice that’s in my head when I’m reading fiction I can get…I have a short patience for it. I get fed up with it. Like if I think that something’s tryjng to be clever, or too manipulative or whatever.
BH: Do you often not finish books?
WB: Yeah I often don’t. That’s why, I mean as far as fiction’s concerned, it was really easy for me to pick.
This book, I found really relatable. A lot of his subject matter is really confronting and intense. And I know that that salaciousness has something to do with me getting excited about reading it, but it’s the thing that people tend to focus on more, and I think people might think I’m like, a serial killer, or a pedophile for liking Dennis Cooper… but I’m not.
We have very different taste in men, Dennis Cooper and I. But his books are fascinating. This is part of a five-book cycle called The George Miles Cycle. He had a friend in high school that he was obsessed with, a straight guy that he had a slight relationship with, but more than that they had a really intense friendship. And he was like, this very smart, very creative, very fucked up teenager. And so, he lost touch with him, he was obsessed with being a writer and he worked… I think each of these books would take like two or three years to write, and they’re really elaborately constructed and they’re fascinating, and they’re all relating to themes about, sort of fucked up teenagers, and relationships, and both, like violence but also intense tenderness.
2. Tao Lin, Eeeee Eee Eeee (2007), and Richard Yates (2010)
WB: Did you see me interview him last year?
Yeah. I mean Tao Lin is really exciting and interesting. I hadn’t read any of his books. And then the director of the 'National Young Writer’s Festival' asked if I wanted to interview him. And I read a little bit because I know he’s really divisive, and I kind of don’t understand the huge backlash against him. Maybe you’ve heard other people say things?
BH: I just know someone told me not to read him, and then told me about a book he wrote where one of the characters was named Haley Joel Osmond, but he wasn’t Haley Joel Osmond, and the other one was another celebrity and I thought it sounded stupid so I never really looked into it. Maybe I should.
WB: (laughs) A lot of what’s… I don’t know. If you’ve read any of the interviews with him, or encountered the way he presents himself on social media and things like that, I find it really fascinating and I think that’s what pisses people off. Because… well, this book is called “Eeeee Eee Eeee,” and that’s very hard to write about, or even talk about, and this book is called Richard Yates- but it has nothing to do with Richard Yates. The characters in it love Richard Yates and they mention him maybe twice, and then the characters in it are named Haley Joel Osmond and Dakota Fanning.
BH: Yes that’s the book!
WB: But I read this interview where he was saying, ‘these characters have these names and the only reason I could think to not do it was because The New York Times would take it more seriously. And then I thought, well that’s stupid and that would be a compromise, so I’m not going to compromise,’ which I think is really, completely logical. A lot of the way he works, there’s like a weird logic behind it, and even when I interviewed him he said that almost every book he’ll have sets of rules. And I kind of noticed that, after reading Richard Yates, I think every time he refers to the characters he calls them by their full name, like ‘Haley Joel Osmond’ or ‘Dakota Fanning,’ so he’ll say “Dakota Fanning checks her gmail,” or something and I think it’s fair enough. Like for some people it pushed their buttons. I feel like it’s a very, I don’t know if this is off-putting to some people, but it’s the definition of the word experimental: like I’m going to do this experiment, where this book is going to be all this, and this book is going to be all that, and then, kind of see how people react to it, what they think of it.
3. Daniel Clowes, Ghost World (1997)
BH: You have heaps of books here. You have heaps. I don’t mind if you don’t talk about all of them.
WB: No I won’t talk about all of them. I’m trying to think… I want to talk about… Daniel Clowes.
WB: So, Daniel Clowes. I mean I grew up reading comic books, and then, without sounding like a wanker, from around eighteen on, I read sort of alternative comic books, like Fantagraphics comic books, Drawn and Quarterly comic books; Peter Bags’ comic book Hate, things that were really funny and interesting.
But Daniel Clowes, all of his stuff is really amazing. When I lived in Chicago I started reading his comics, and he lived in Chicago, there’s kind of a history there. I had a friend and we were kind of both obsessed with this comic book Eightball, which would come out once a year, or maybe twice a year, and each issue we would get and slowly pore over the pages. He does an incredible job of creating a really film noir kind of tone, and he’s just really…. kind of like Dennis Cooper, you can just tell that he has put so much work into each page and each story- and the stories are fascinating, they’re really complex. Like, Caricature, is a compilation of a bunch of his. It’s probably my favourite. When I would teach at the Art School, I would make my students read Caricature. We did a week on Postmodernism and I would make them read it and they’d get really bummed out because it’s really depressing and I like a lot of really depressing things.
Tao Lin used to do a blog called ‘Reader of Depressing Books,’ and that was his thing, he’s like ‘I love depressing books.’ But with Caricature, I would have my students read it, talking about Postmodernism and they would notice things that I hadn’t noticed in it. And with a lot of his stories, you can go back. And he did Ghost World, which was made into a movie. I like the comic better. I feel the movie comes across a little more mean-spirited.
Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron is another of his. They’re all different and they’re all really fascinating. He creates really interesting characters and everything’s really complex. There’s a lot of ambiguity- I think I like that in Dennis Cooper’s writing as well. And when I interviewed Dennis Cooper I was like ‘is this like a satire of your life, is it things that you fantasize about, is it things you want to happen or is it things you’re scared of happening?’ And he was like ‘it’s all of those things, mixed up.’ And I feel like Daniel Clowes does a lot of similar things.
BH: Did you have a book, or a comic when you were younger that made you want to write?
WB: Finding Dennis Cooper made me really excited about reading. Daniel Clowes made me excited about reading. Growing up, it’s kinda funny, but people always told me I was a good writer- like, in school. And I really loved movies and, I liked TV. And so I went to film school and I studied screenwriting. I studied screenwriting and criticism. I started off in Ohio, and then by the time I got to Chicago, I went to Columbia College in Chicago. People often get it mixed up with Columbia University in New York. It’s like an Art School.
4. Big Brother Magazine (1992- 2004)
WB: A friend of mine had a zine in New York, partly just to get free records and to get in to see bands. And I started writing for him. I don’t think you could even email. You had to call Matador Records or whoever and be like, ‘can I get on the guest list to go see, uh, Smog, or whatever’ and just go to shows and that’s how I started writing. That writing was really influenced by Big Brother, do you know Big Brother?
BH: I have no idea what that is. I had really hoped you’d have some cool skate stuff that I would have absolutely no references for.
WB: So the guys who wrote for this ended up doing Jackass. When Big Brother started it was like Spike Jonze wrote for them, and Dave Carnie did a lot of writing for them. They would do…each issue was a different format. I mean that didn’t really appeal to me until later when I realized how ambitious that was. Some of it would be like, inside jokes and they weren’t afraid to be really silly, so they would have reviews of Beverley Hills 90210, and then they would have like poetry and interviews with a homeless person and ads that I don’t even think were real ads- like, they just photocopied a Doc Martins ad.
And, this was what got them a lot of attention. An article on how to kill yourself, you know. And it was very ‘90s: super dark humour, very ironic.
I think Tavi Gevinson was saying, I read the other day, ‘I feel like the ‘90s wasn’t ironic.’ And I was like ‘some of it was really ironic.’ Like Big Brother was really ironic, but I guess she was saying like grunge bands were really earnest. But like this magazine (picks up another magazine) was coming out of Detroit. It was these guys who used to be in hardcore punk bands. And then they formed this funk band that was called Big Chief, and it as kind of informed by punk, but it was really heavy, so it was like, a much better Primus, or something. This magazine was just comics or music, and you can see the work that went into this, and also the fact that they self-published.
BH: Was it easier to self-publish back then?
WB: Back then it was almost more prestigious to. Nowadays anyone can self publish. It might just not sell well. Whereas, with this, it’s like, these guys sold ads, they got it published. Oh, here’s another article: ‘100 Worst Albums of the 20th Century.’ With the Beach Boys at number one, and Pink Floyd at number two. These are so funny, the cartoons, the art in here.
They didn’t make me want to write, but when I did start to write, they really influenced me.
5. Jon Leon, The Malady of the Century (2012)
WB: I kind of bought this on a whim. And I don’t read a lot of poetry. This is was one of the most exciting discoveries I’ve had, because he writes poetry that’s just really complex, and interesting, and relates to the way that I talk, and the things that I’m excited about in life in general. It’s like alternately funny and sincere and ironic and, like, overly romantic. From one sentence to the next, the tone changes.
It made me want to discover other contemporary poets, who are doing interesting stuff. John Leone’s only done a few things and most of them are hard to find and this is easily my favourite. I’ve read it over and over again, and I almost have parts of it, almost memorized.
6. Harmony Korine, A Crack Up at the Race Riots (1998)
B: have you interviewed Harmony Korine?
WB: Yeah, I did. For Two Thousand, when Spring Breakers came out. It was really good. He was very straightforward. He only gave me a couple of answers that were a little bit cheeky, and it was clear that he was goofing around. He was a little bit more straightforward than I wished he was.
7. Kathy Acker, Blood and Guts in High School (1989)
WB: Kathy Acker started out as a poet, and I came across her writing. I borrowed a book called Cult Fiction which is out of print, which is like an encyclopedia of really interesting authors who have a cult following, and I read about her in there and then I bought this at Surry Hills markets. And there’s passages in it that I find unreadable. Like twenty pages that are really tedious but they’re meant to be really tedious. But there are other parts that are beautiful, and incredibly well written. She has this really interesting background. She did poetry and she as also really into punk rock. And you can really feel that in her writing. It’s some of the most visceral prose I’ve ever read. A lot of it reads as poetry. She was also a really outspoken feminist. She’s like a really incredibly talented person. Produced a lot of work. Did a lot of work too where she would appropriate some text from classic works like Great Expectations or Don Quixote and then write around them. And her thing was she was like, trying to understand her relationship to the text, and so she had a lot of heavy theory stuff going on. But also had a big influence on people like Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill, and reading interviews with her and watching interviews with her is fascinating.
And this book, Blood and Guts in High School has such a great name. I feel like her cult following group would probably be people who are more super heavy theory, like post-structuralist, de-constructionist people. She was all ‘the death of the author/ there is no originality,’ it’s all just ‘we’re suffering things that already exist.’ But she was also friends with Dennis Cooper, and William Burroughs and Poppy Z. Brite and she was very much connected to the whole transgressive literary tradition. I guess I end up reading a lot of transgressive literature. I don’t really think about that. But a lot of the stuff I read ends up being, like, Brett Easton Ellis.
8. BUTT Magazine (2001-)
WB: The only other one I really wanted to make sure I got to was the BUTT book.
I discovered the BUTT book, (laughs), I discovered BUTT. I discovered BUTT magazine through a friend of mine who was doing a zine called They Shoot Homos, Don’t They out of Melbourne, which is a really great zine. He now lives in New York and works for Printed Matter. But, uh, being a gay man, I’ve never related to gay culture, and felt really alienated. And finding BUTT magazine… not only did they interview interesting people, like John Waters and Marc Jacobs, Karl Lagerfeld, and asked them interesting questions- they would ask them stuff about like drugs, or sex, or, like dance music. But they would also ask them about art and literature. And it was so great to realise that there were other people that didn’t fit the ‘gay’ stereotype and also didn’t subscribe to the snobbery of mainstream gay culture.
Mainstream gay publications are all about like, conventional male beauty and materialism and here they would interview like, a janitor, or like a guy who hadn’t showered in eight months, or whatever. Or they would interview, I mean, someone interviewed someone they met in the park and had sex with. They do all sorts of interesting things.
And sort of…not deny that mainstream gay culture existed, but explore other facets that were super exciting. It started a wave of all these small magazines. And it also exposed me to all these interesting publications, like Honcho and Straight to Hell- not just new stuff that was coming out. Even gay figures from the past that I didn’t know about, like Peter Berlin and Quentin Crisp. And stuff like that made me realise there was another side to gay culture that was awesome. Rather than mainstream gay culture, which is pretty shit.
I liked- I’m sure other people can relate to this, I liked BUTT magazine so much that, we went out of town and asked our neighbour to check the mail. And I saw him the other day and he was like ‘I’ve got some mail for you,’ and he made this funny expression and I was like, ‘oh, did BUTT magazine arrive,’ and he went ‘Oh!’ and I went ‘Ohhh,’ and I realized he must think… Like BUTT’s risqué, but it’s not risqué porno, so I was like ‘he’s gonna think that I subscribe to a gay porno magazine.’ But, like a lot of other people, I liked BUTT Magazine so much that it was like, I almost felt a sense of ownership over it. Like people who love The Simpsons or whatever, people get really personally upset when it’s bad. And I was the same way. And after a while it did get more cliché, a little bit more like every guy in there had like a beard, and they’d talk about hot guys more and stuff. And I think it’s interesting when people get, like personally upset by a publication.
BH: Did you write letters to them?
WB: Yeah. Not a ton, but a couple.
Wilfred’s Reading List:
1. Dennis Cooper,The George Miles Cycle
2. Tao Lin
Eeeee Eee Eeee (2007)
Richard Yates (2010)
3. Daniel Clowes
Ghost World (1997)
4. Big Brother Magazine (1992- 2004)
5. Jon Leon
The Malady of the Century (2012)
6. Harmony Korine
A Crack Up at the Race Riots (1998)
7. Kathy Acker
8. BUTT Magazine (2001- )