Versions and Perversions

Susan Finlay and Jack Skelley reflect on their respective new books

Susan Finlay and Jack Skelley have new books. UKs Finlay, in The Lives of the Artists (JOAN), offers a veering and experimental memoir. Skelley, from Los Angeles, resurrects a 1980s cult novel, The Complete Fear of Kathy Acker (Semiotext(e)). They discuss the naughty parts below.

Flyer for Jack Skelley performance, 1988  

Susan Finlay: Author interviews that begin “So tell me about the circumstances in which this book was written…” or words to that effect are often very boring. That being so, let’s cut to the racy chase. In an earlier email you criticised The Lives of the Artists for its lack of sex (and in spite of several sections being written as a soft-porn screenplay), then excused yourself with the immortal line, “But I’m a pervert.” One of my many takes on The Complete Fear of Kathy Acker is that sex provides the form as well as the subject matter, in much the same way that the references to music and television do; the tropes of 1980s popular and counter-culture (areas which of course include pornography) continually shape and are shaped by the narrator’s desires. Your thoughts please…

Jack Skelley: Perhaps I did feel a little “teased” by the clouded backstory of the sexy screenplay in The Lives of the Artists. But, yes, the narrator of The Complete Fear of Kathy Acker (FOKA) grapples to “find himself” through received notions of pornography, romance, pop- and counter-culture… also through economics/politics, media/language, psychedelic trips and the lives of his friends… all components of his atomized psyche and the fractured narrative. But The Lives of the Artists also engages in format-fucking. It subverts the conventions of memoir with veering slices of art-crit, verse, book pitch letters, etc., all temporally non-linear. This includes the S&M screenplay. Your response to my “criticism” about not-enough sex was: “Sometimes I’m a (very British) chicken.” That’s you toying with the trope of British repression. But how much truth is there in that cliché, and does it create its own versions of literary perversions? (Alternate question: Your screenplay does contain some “hawt” scenes: “SARAH on all fours, with BUSINESS ASSOCIATE #3 fucking her from behind.” Now’s a good time to give us that backstory… if you dare.)

Susan Finlay

SF: Hmm… Well ‘proper’ pornography – or images of people actually fucking – is a bit too high-definition for my somewhat retro, Vaseline-over-the-lens style tastes. However, I’ve always liked books and films that borrow from that more hardcore aesthetic, as well as clothes made from shiny, wipeable fabrics plus lots of zips. In a way, my preference for that kind of mediated vibe is the backstory to the “hawt” scenes, in that they are the result of repression and silliness as well as the extreme boredom that my personal lockdown gave rise to. SARAH really does exist as a full-length film script, initially edited by the man who has since become my partner (make of that what you will!). However, the extracts included in The Lives of the Artists then went through a subsequent set of edits to make them ‘fit’ the book (for example Serge’s decision to eat and then shit out his father’s heart is absent in the original version).

This, hopefully, provides a nice segue into the LARB’s recent review of FOKA, which describes how “Skelley maintains his innocence by choosing the untouchable as his objects of desire. Erratic pornographic fantasies of Marie Osmond and William Shatner swirl around more inanimate Ballardesque sexualizations.” This is something that I too felt when reading, in that your work, although not repressed in any way, has an unfettered, youthful excitement that comes across as more life-affirming than sleazy, or indeed cynical. FOKA was first published in the eighties, and I’m interested to know how much of the narrator’s innocence is real and how much is a literary persona (although obviously the fact that it could be both of these things is also an option)?  

Jack Skelley, photography Gary Leonard

JS: I withdraw my criticism of The Lives of the Artists being insufficiently naughty. We’ve now established its hardcore-adjacent sex content derives from lockdown horny-boredom. Have we also identified a Finlay fetish? (“shiny, wipeable fabrics with zippers”)? Hurray, and lucky partner-man! And perhaps there’s an alternate-universe Dennis Cooper plot (“Serge’s decision to eat and then shit out his father’s heart”)?

Now to my obsessions. Similar to that LARB quote, the very first review of this volume (by Jane Rankin-Reed in White Hot magazine) stated, “Another excuse to lie down with Skelley’s excitable reveries is his genuine love of women.” I almost died because I fret about how the book’s male-cis-het blatancy will be received these days. Much of the positive reaction has come from women. Phew! Still, the novel’s resurrection has brought personal shocks: One has been to re-confront hyper-sexed, late-20s Jack. Like “myself” today, he remains as female-fixated as ever: alarmingly confusing eros with ardor and empathy. I (he) can no longer claim “innocence,” and must admit fresh infatuations. (Ouch, Susan! These are tough confessions!) How about you? Has the memoir, as delightfully fractured as The Lives of The Artists is, elicited psychological clarity? Personal evolution? And were these perhaps among its inspirations?

Kathy Acker’s postcard to Jack Skelley, 1984

SF: To be honest I think existential crisis is a more accurate way to describe it. Yet at the same time writing the book did give me a sense of agency which, in some ways, ties into what you’re saying about ‘cis-het blatancy’. Obviously, there’s been huge and positive changes thanks to movements such as MeToo, but the fly in the ointment is a view of art as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depending on whether it represents an ideal view of society rather than the truth of human experience (and one’s fantasies are also ‘true’, regardless of whether or not they’re politically correct). This is the second time I’ve mentioned The Idol in an interview-of-sorts (and I’ve given very few interviews!) but I’ve found the negative coverage irritating for this very reason. A couple of weeks ago I posted an Insta-story about how much I liked it and received loads of responses from women saying how it was their ‘guilty secret’ too. But they shouldn’t feel guilty (unless of course this is an emotion they enjoy).

When writing The Lives of the Artists I wanted to talk about female sexuality in terms of something other than potential victimhood. Likewise, I also wanted to apply the same ‘empowered’ approach to other aspects of my life, including my relationship to writing and publishing. While I would definitely consider accepting a six-figure-big-five deal in future (LOLZ), my experience with large publishers – or businesses with the veneer of non-businesses – hasn’t been great. In contrast, smaller presses have allowed me to maintain some agency (that trendy, pesky word again). You became known for your work through indies, and your new publisher, Semiotext(e), is just about the coolest one there is – but they are also much bigger and better known than the people you worked with previously. How does it feel now that you’re in danger of becoming an establishment figure? And how could or might it affect the further adventures of both the real-fictional and fictional-real versions of Jack Skelley? 

JS: Good summary of the tricky social-sexual issues embedded in literature! “Guilty secrets” will always erupt into the open, from no matter what side. (Jung’s “revenge of the repressed?”) And someone told me yesterday that sexual content (including fantasy) is the “great interrupter” of language restrictions. As you established at the top, “Sex provides the form as well as the subject matter.”

We’ve nearly reached our word limit and I haven’t yet asked about The Lives of the Artists’ insights into the art economy. I’ll never understand how that industry works. But the “you” of your book does maintain agency in the face of financial vice-grips. Not enough writing peers into the hidden repression of market-forces, which – as with sex – will stay repressed only so long.

As for your final volley of questions, yes, Semiotext(e) is the freaking best. (JOAN ain’t too shabby neither!) It’s a privilege. I’m grateful to many people. I’m finishing my new manuscript, working title: Myth Lab: Theories of Eros and Eschatology. It’s weird shit that will prevent me from becoming “establishment.”