(This is the first guest post in our interview series The Literary Life, in which we present fascinating people who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of creative inspiration. Today, Laki Vazakas interviews Spencer Kansa, author of ‘Zoning‘, a novel, and ‘Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron‘, the biography of an underground film star who worked with L. Ron Hubbard and Aleister Crowley. Kansa is pictured above in 1994 with William S. Burroughs at WSB’s home in Lawrence, Kansas. — Levi)
Laki: What was the genesis of your novel Zoning?
Spencer: I began writing Zoning in my early 20s, and William Burroughs read it during my first visit to his home in Lawrence, Kansas in 1992. It’s kinda funny the comment he made about it – that’s been used on the front cover – because I’d never read Celine before then but, having done so subsequently, I presume that what he meant by it was there’s a similar matter-of-factness in relaying horror.
I then left the manuscript on the shelf for over a decade while I worked as a music journalist, then I dusted it down a few years ago and started hawking it to several publishers.
Laki: Describe the publishing process?
Spencer: Well, to be honest, I was beginning to fear that Zoning was a roman maudit – a cursed novel – because it was actually slated to come out a few years ago with an American publisher but, shysters that they were, they reneged on the contract. Then a Portuguese publisher agreed to publish it two years ago, only to tell me, right at the last minute, that they wouldn’t do it with the original cover design we’d already agreed on. I love the cover of the book. It was created by an old mucker of mine, the hugely gifted artist Dan Lish. It’s beautiful, and its dreamy, druggy quality perfectly evokes the hallucinatory atmosphere and spirit of the book. So I refused to have the novel published without it.
Thankfully, the industrious and talented David S. Wills told me about his plans to create a book publishing wing to his Beatdom magazine, an extremely fine Beat-orientated periodical which I’d previously contributed to, and Zoning became its inaugural release. So, in spite of the previous hair-pulling frustration, in the end it all worked out and Zoning found its rightful home at Beatdom Books.
Laki: How does your journalism inform your fiction writing, if at all?
Spencer: Working as a journalist certainly helped build my writing muscle but it was actually more of a boon when I was compiling the Cameron biography. Apart from employing the obvious who, what, when, where and why to the task, much of the insight and information in the book derives from the scores of interviews I conducted for it.
I’ve been very fortunate over the years to have the opportunity to interview some of my favourite artists, musicians and authors, and it’s something I really enjoy doing. There’s a real art to conducting a good interview. To do it well you really have to be steeped in that artists’ work. In all likelihood, they’ll be flattered that you sincerely know their work and, as a result, more willing to open up to you.
Also, you always ask the tough, uncomfortable questions right at the end.
Laki: What compelled you to write a biography about Cameron? What challenges did you confront along the way?
Spencer: Cameron was an incredibly alluring figure to me because there was such a huge mystique about her. For years there was scant information on her and very few verifiable facts, so it all began as a journey into darkness. She was often reduced to a footnote in the life of her first husband, Jack Parsons, or merely mentioned for her participation in Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.
Even later, on the internet, the five or six pieces of information about her were mostly mythical in nature, for example, the misinformation concerning her role in The Babalon Working, the Enochian magick ritual performed by Parsons and his scrying sidekick L. Ron Hubbard.
I enjoy myth, but the truth about Cameron’s life is actually far more fascinating than the mythology that grew up around her. I was pretty much a gumshoe, and spent the best part of three years tracking people down across America, interviewing them, chasing up leads, and compiling information.
After Jack’s death, in 1952, Cameron led quite a nomadic life for the next 20 years, and piecing together exactly where she was, and what she was doing at any given time during that period, was the biggest puzzle. Since its publication friends and relatives of hers have commented how they never knew about so much of her history, until they read the book.
Laki: In the course of researching Wormwood Star, what was the most surprising revelation about Cameron’s life and connections?
Spencer: The biography is full of mind-blowing revelations and really kooky twists and turns but I don’t want to give too much away. I think the fact that she was engaged in magickal miscegenation, a taboo flaunting transgression, – and we’re talking 1953 here – is a testament to her wild, headstrong spirit and adventurous ways.
Laki: What, in your estimation, constitutes a transgressive artist?
Spencer: Well, certainly Burroughs and Cameron were transgressive artists because, not only were their personal drug and sexual practices illegal at the time, but their work also broke ridiculous censorship laws, regulating obscenity. Burroughs’ name and notoriety spread off the back of the victorious Naked Lunch trial, which was pivotal in helping to turn the tide in favour of unfettered artistic freedom.
Cameron less so, artistically, although it was the sexually charged nature of one of her drawings that resulted in Wallace Berman’s exhibition at the Ferus Gallery being shut down, infamously, by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1957. And to paraphrase Herb Cohn – who owned many of the famous coffee houses in LA in the late 50s and 60s, which were major hangouts for hip, young poets, artists, musicians and actors – in Wormwood Star: “Kerouac and Dylan wrote about the changing times, but Cameron was the change.”
Gangsta rap was pretty transgressive for a while there, from the late 80s to the mid-90s, but it fizzled out in the wake of the Tupac and Biggie murders. It managed to rattle the cages of both the conservative and the liberal establishment, which is always a good thing. Now the only genuine transgressive artists today are those like Ai Weiwei, who work under totalitarian and theocratic regimes.
Laki: Your journalism and research have taken you to some quintessentially American vortices. Could you describe how these places have shaped or altered your attitude about the US?
Spencer: It’s changed a lot over the years. I used to get so excited about New York but there’s so little juice there now. It’s gone from a buzz to a bore. Downtown’s been gentrified so only rich kids can live there. That’s why no decent bands have come out of the city in ages. Los Angeles still has a few interesting pockets of interest, and the Mojave Desert out in the Joshua Tree National Park is a truly special and magical place of extraordinary natural beauty, as are the desertscapes of New Mexico, which have an otherworldly atmosphere to them.
Laki: When you are immersed in writing, what is your media intake like? Are you listening to music, reading other writers, watching films or do you limit your exposure?
Spencer: I can only listen to classical or instrumental music, no beats or rhymes that might distract. The symphonies of Purcell and Vaughan Williams, or the piano pieces of Erik Satie are a pleasure to write to, as are the ambient recordings of Sylvian or Eno, or any cool jazz.
Laki: Back to William S. Burroughs, I’ve been re-reading his essays in The Adding Machine. I agree with you, his writing is eerily prescient–the word as virus, ever-expanding surveillance, the petulance that often accompanies power. If you were to assign one piece of William’s writing to a university student, what would you select and why?
Spencer: Actually, instead of a particular piece of writing, I would recommend watching Howard Brookner’s superb documentary on Burroughs, which provides an excellent overview of his life and work and contains some choice, and memorable, moments, especially one telling comment from Burroughs’ old St. Louis chum, Lucien Carr, who posits that, beneath the hard-bitten, diabolic persona, Burroughs morals are “boy scout morals, true blue”.
Laki: To what extent have the Beat writers–and I am thinking of Burroughs in particular–influenced your view of the world, if not your approach to writing?
Spencer: The thing I love about Burroughs writing, above all, is his descriptive prowess and his economy of language. He can transport you there, totally, using very few words. He has a delicious turn of phrase and a fine line in mordant humour. He’s also a master of sinister dialogue.
Certainly his liberal use of drugs, and the mind-expanding effect they had on his work, made a big influence on my impressionable mind as a kid, but that’s also true of the writing of Cocteau, Crowley and Aldous Huxley. Later, he told me that he got much of his creative inspiration from his dream state, and he impressed upon me the importance of keeping a dream journal next to the bed at night to record them as soon as you woke up.
His socio-political observations are always timely and acute. I recently reread an old dystopian essay he wrote entitled “The Great Glut”, about the vileness of rampant consumerism which is all around us now. There’s too much of everything, especially in popular culture. Nothing feels special anymore. There’s too much quantity and not enough quality. There are too many books, films, magazines, TV shows, music and websites. There’s a welter of opinion and information and not enough insight and illumination. As a consequence, any creative endeavour that aspires to be a work of quality often gets buried beneath this avalanche.
There are sections in his novels that are genuinely hardcore, written and published during eras when that was an exception. Some of his most atrocious and scabrous scenes even appalled Mr Clockwork Orange himself, Anthony Burgess! Today that hardcore reality is commonplace, thanks to the uncensored and unsanitised dark side of the internet, with its Thanateros realm of hangings, beheadings, extreme sex and ultra-violence, all very Burroughsian tropes. Zoning was penned pre-internet, but the idea of the “anything goes” cable channel in it, Snuff TV, can certainly be seen as a forerunner to the real life horror show available via the World Wide Web.
When I spoke with Burroughs he took an extremely dim and doomy view of the future. I think he would savour the bleak irony of how people (mis)use the most cutting edge, futuristic technology only to prove, and wallow in, how bestial they can be to each other with it. Despite grand claims to the contrary, there’s evidence that the more technology progresses, the more the human animal regresses.
Laki: And what are you working on next?
Spencer: Well, I’ve written a screenplay inspired by Burroughs’ mystical Western, The Place of Dead Roads, which I’d like to move forward with. With you directing, naturally. I’ve also compiled a stack of research on Cameron’s one time beau, the artist Burt Shonberg. He was a highly admired painter and muralist who rose to prominence during LA’s Beat scene era. His work was featured in a couple of Roger Corman’s film adaptations of Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher and The Premature Burial, and graced several album covers, most famously Love’s Out Here. More recently, I’ve been speaking with the ever-beguiling Zeena Schreck, about writing her authorized biography, which promises to be one hell of a story.