Poppy Z Brite is one of my favourite writers. Characterisation, setting, mood, voice: it’s all there. She’s been quiet on the writing front since Hurricane Katrina devastated her home town, New Orleans, not that long after she was a guest of honour at Continuum in Melbourne, for which I conducted this interview with her.
FOR some, New Orleans is a Mardi Gras town where girls flash their boobs for a string of plastic beads. For others, it can be a warmly accepting echo of a darker, romantic time. But for one of its more famous daughters, the prodigal author Poppy Z Brite, it’s so much more than either of those. And now it is time for her to set the record straight.
Brite was born in New Orleans in 1967. She was six when her parents divorced she moved with her mother to North Carolina and then to Georgia before she moved back to New Orleans in 1993.
With a string of horror-tinged tales set in New Orleans and the American south, she became something of a poster girl for the disaffected, although her readership went wider than that. She offered a pragmatic view of homosexual relationships, a rich descriptive style, a gift for character. And she was forthright when discussing her own life, with some of her claims – like being a gay man in a woman’s body – making her as enigmatic as her home town.
She funds from more commercial offerings – a a biography of Courtney Love and a novel based on The Crow – she travelled and indulged her love of writing short stories.
She encountered publishing problems with the material of Exquisite Corpse – a story about a serial killer as captivating for its insights as it was chilling. And then, in 2002, came The Value of X: still gay, still New Orleans, but the only bump in the night was beneath the sheets. Brite had come home and, she says, she had grown up.
“My so-called journey or evolution seems to be a great mystery to some folks, but I’m afraid the truth is very boring: I just got older and calmed down a bit. People do. It would be kind of pathetic to still be writing lushly gorgeous gothic horror novels set in the French Quarter when I no longer have much interest in those things in real life, I think – not to mention rude to my readers. The worst disservice an author can do his readers is try to give them what he thinks they want instead of the work he genuinely needs to be doing.”
There are plenty of pointers to her maturation. While her sexual identity remains idiosyncratic, she has found a stable relationship with husband of 16 years and chef Chris. Brite no longer lives in the quarter, but in Uptown, where her home houses a collection of some 30,000 books and “way too many” cats, mostly strays she has taken in.
“I live Uptown – have been in this neighbourhood for 10 years now. I did initially move to make more room for books and cats, as we couldn’t afford the space we needed within the Quarter, but I soon realised that I had never really liked living in the Quarter. It had been a near-lifelong dream of mine, and when I moved back home after an absence of many years, I had to try it – but the sad thing about the French Quarter is that it’s no longer really connected to the true life of New Orleans. It’s full of tourists and short-term transplants and empty condos owned by celebrities who visit once or twice a year. I feel much more connected to the city living up here.”
Insomuch as the Quarter has lost its connection to New Orleans, so too had writing horror stories. While it would not be fair to say Brite had outgrown writing about the macabre – there is nothing childish or juvenile about horror writing – it was a phase of her life that was anchored in what she grew to see as an unreal portrayal of her beloved New Orleans. Tired of the stereotypes like Mardi Gras, bayous and Anne Rice’s vampiric romanticism, which Brite admits her own work had helped perpetuate, she determined to write more about the aspects of New Orleans which were too easily overshadowed.
“See, most people here don’t pay a great deal of attention to that stuff. Well, they do to Mardi Gras, but it’s a particular season; it doesn’t define the whole city for us. And I’ve only known a couple of locals who read Rice. The cliches are the least interesting part of New Orleans, but also the easiest to explain and sell, so that’s what people from other places know… I recommend visiting here and getting out of the French Quarter, talking to New Orleanians in bars and groceries and on the street, listening to people and finding out what they are really about (hint: it’s not beads, boobs, or Hurricanes; nor are we Cajuns).”
The Value of X, its sequel Liquor (2004) and the recently released Prime, trace the lives of Rickey and G-man, two lovers from the downbeat Ninth Ward of New Orleans who share a dream to own a restaurant.
“The Value of X was written after Liquor but came out before. The Value of X was published by a small press, Subterranean, and small presses’ lead times aren’t as long as major publishers’. That’s about all there is to that. I wrote the “prequel” (hate that word, but haven’t managed to think of a better one) simply because I liked the Liquor characters so much that I wanted to spend more time with them and find out about their background. Even then, I didn’t expect it to turn into a multibook/short story series, but I’m pleased that it has.”
Brite’s style has settled, too, becoming more concise without becoming bland. In Prime she happily takes potshots at some of the clichés of the city, such as the attempts of visitors to pronounce the city in the same way as the locals. Where her characters in earlier works might have listened to goth faves like the Cocteau Twins, now they listen to rap and r’n’b. And as would be expected from a book centred around a restaurant, Prime details a love of food, and the city’s culinary offerings that go much further than gumbo, jambalaya and red beans and rice.
It is no coincidence that, while in Melbourne for the upcoming Continuum convention, she has booked a table for herself and fellow guest of honour Neil Gaiman at the city’s internationally renowned restaurant The Flower Drum.
“I credit my mother for a lot of my interest in fine dining. She and I didn’t have much money after my parents split up, but we always seemed to live a little beyond our means where food was involved, and she taught me the importance of trying new things. As for Neil, once I took him to my favourite New Orleans restaurant (Marisol) and fed him foie gras and pork belly and cobra wine, he was mine forever.
“I work from food I’ve eaten, food I’ve read about, and food that comes entirely from my imagination. Chris helps me to understand the mechanics of certain dishes — for instance, if I want to describe in detail how one of the guys would make a sauce, he’ll break down the steps for me. I can cook pretty well on a home level, but I’ve had no restaurant experience for several years and nothing on the level of his work. He also knows the characters extremely well at this point and can say, “Well, wouldn’t G-man maybe make a dish like [xxx]?” if I’m stuck for an idea, but that doesn’t happen too often.”
While the transition has caught some of her fans by surprise – Brite is still openly irritated by requests for a sequel to her debut novel Lost Souls (1992) – she says the move into new territory has been a positive one for her.
“I do expect to be writing about Rickey, G-man, Liquor, and the Stubbs family for quite some time to come. I’m currently halfway through the third Liquor novel, Soul Kitchen, and there will be at least one more after that.
“Doors have opened to me with the new work that weren’t available with the old — in part, I’m sure, because of the snobbery that exists toward horror fiction. That’s unfortunate, but there is also a huge interest in food, restaurants, and chefs, so that’s been good for me. I have a lot of new readers, I believe that most of my old ones have approached the new work with an open mind, and I feel I’m well shed of the few who wouldn’t or couldn’t.
“Looking back, it must seem as if I carefully cultivated some sort of goth-queen image, but honestly it was just a motley collection of music I liked and some pretty thrift-shop clothes and rather gloomy writers. I would imagine that’s how it is for most people. I still have affection for the goth aesthetic, but I can no longer imagine putting in the effort to cultivate any sort of fancy look. That’s one thing I like about gentlemen’s suits — you put them on, you accessorize a little, and bam, you look great with a minimum of effort. Maybe I’ll look back in ten years and cringe at my seersucker suit pictures the way I do now at old pictures of me in a black lace bustier, but what the hell, life is short and we have to amuse ourselves.”