Laurie Weeks’s Zipper Mouth takes readers on a mind-bending journey through the body’s ins and outs. Weeks talks with Jennifer Coates about the novel’s psychedelic dimensions and the creative parallels between writing and growing plants.
I was really excited to sit down and talk with Laurie Weeks about her recently published novel, Zipper Mouth. We had been internet acquaintances for years through blogging (we both had online alter egos) and have been developing a texting friendship for the last few months. This was our first chance to talk in real space and time, two things Weeks’s writing enthusiastically dilates. Zipper Mouth has been described as a lesbian drug novel and is set mostly in nineties downtown NYC, but wormholes open up repeatedly into an abusive, escapist suburban childhood. “If I was wasting away in a hospital like a deer, very quiet and shy, everyone would feel bad for being blind fuckheads and put me in a foster home. World’s greatest dream.”
Journal entries and letters to Sylvia Plath from adolescence punctuate the book at comically disruptive intervals. We zoom back and forth in time as inward life (hallucinations, memories and desires) and outward connection to the world blur together. What holds the novel together is the off-kilter rhythm of the narrator’s drug-fueled highs and lows and the unrequited desire for her straight friend, Jane. Dirty streets, deadening part-time jobs, looming uncompleted life tasks, and self-hating hangovers are the dark backdrop on which moments of poetic transcendence stand out. “For what is desire but this dervish drilling into the air a window on the glimmering panorama that flashes into existence the second you think I’m in love. As soon as you approach that enchanted space, desire spins it away.”
Juxtaposing the abject against the ecstatic, Weeks’s unnamed, unstable, but thoroughly lovable protagonist can project an acrobatic circus routine onto a classroom, a field of flowers onto a dirty elevator shaft.
Jennifer Coates Have you ever had contact with the vegetable over-mind?
Laurie Weeks No, but I think of myself as a psychedelic person. My brain is in a vegetated state, but more because I’m so obsessed with growing flowers. I am ready to take mushrooms, I just want to do it correctly . . . according to Terence McKenna’s instructions.
JC The “heroic dose.”
LW One day I decided to do it because I had been listening to Terence McKenna lectures, but the dose was small and I had a really a beautiful, low key experience. It was magic and I had little revelations but I didn’t contact the logos. But with growing flowers there’s some kind of deep communication that goes on.
JC I am also obsessed with gardening. Growing plants is similar to the creative process. There is a violence in the garden. Not every seed germinates, some seedlings die and if you want a plant to flourish you have to kill everything right around it. There’s a creative parallel to it all. And a balance between maintaining control and relinquishing it.
LW When I got a place where I could have a garden, I went insane. I would make these big psychedelic crop circles. I grew a few vegetables but what I really loved was the color and the mad craziness. You think you have a plan and then the flowers have their own intelligence and they do something so much more spectacular than you could have foreseen. Like in writing. I have to surprise myself or it’s not worth it.
JC There’s a sense of organizing, of responding to the raw materials and then allowing them to have their own life. You can learn lessons about how to be a person. It’s like a puzzle to solve.
LW When I’m writing I can’t know in advance where it’s going because I just don’t have that kind of a mind. I don’t have a thesis statement and I’m not writing some kind of Aesop’s Fable or even trying to create characters. If I do cut-ups or mix things together with, say, journal writings or other stuff that’s just hideous on its own, it will usually lead somewhere. I’ll feel it in my solar plexus. I think that, speaking of the vegetable over-mind, my rational mind is my censoring mind and it only has access to a certain amount of language. But the images that you can make with words give you a way out of that.
JC A portal into some other dimension.
LW It’s all about the portal.
JC In that respect I think Zipper Mouth is a psychedelic novel.
LW Which makes me so happy because I wanted it to be like that.
JC You have a way of showing that every surface is porous—a willing receptor of projection and hallucination. Whatever the experience you’re describing, it’s an opportunity to break through the screen of it, whether it’s a picture or a person’s face or sitting in a classroom . . . What are the other options for where we could be right now? What are the other ways what we could be behaving?
LW I don’t know what the stories will be. But there’s this kind of rapture I feel. You probably get this with painting too. I want to make images that are exciting to me and carry nuances that I can’t even see. Sometimes readers will make connections that are there but I hadn’t realized. I want to make space in the narrative for the reader to participate as opposed to “I’m trying to tell you something and I hope you get it.”
JC The novel plays with time and space, disorienting us between past and present, dream space and literal space.
LW There were all of these avant-garde derangements with language in the sixties and seventies, that’s already been done, and a lot of it is punitive because you can’t get the emotional punch in your solar plexus. I feel like it has to be deeply felt or I don’t give a shit about it.
JC Whatever the theoretical structure or intellectual justification, it’s not interesting without something to draw you in.
LW I was so excited by theory in the eighties and early nineties but I hate work that is just an illustration of theory. It’s deadening. But the portals into other realities . . . there are vibrating things teeming all around us that we can’t see.
JC Your book feels familiar to me, as though this is how a mind works. When you walk through your day, you’re not simply responding to the physical things around you. Memories are being triggered from childhood, dreams are being superimposed and there are potential disasters that might unfold at any point.
LW You’re lucky you’re in your body at all when you’re walking around in the day! I’ve never tried a long piece like this; I usually write pretty short, condensed pieces. I love Kathy Acker and William Burroughs (also shitty little teenage novels and science fiction) but I don’t write like them—even though I feel the same needs in relationship to language that they talk about—in terms of exploding language because it’s such a vice, such a straightjacket and it’s been so gutted. But images can bypass that, right? There is something that Deleuze and Guattari called moments of intensity in writing—moments of intense compression where things just coalesce and flash up in your body.
JC I like that idea of writing through the body—your attention is brought to this physical alertness of all the pinprick experiences all around you, everything that your senses are taking in.
LW They teach you in meditation that you have to go through the body in order to reach these other states.
JC Sometimes that can be horrendous! They say it’s liberating, but . . . (laughter)
LW What is the boundary between inner and outer? I don’t always feel the boundary, I mean I feel totally alone and isolated on the one hand but on the other hand there is an interpenetration of outer and inner that calls into question the existence of their boundary.
JC It’s confusing, sometimes I think the boundary exists and it’s the human predicament that we are cut off and mired in our own inner dramas. But maybe that is false. Oliver Sacks says, “Waking consciousness is like dreaming constrained by perception.”
LW Often I try to start out with just sheer description of what I’m seeing in a picture and then I just take off and it’s not about that picture at all. The description takes you somewhere new.
JC It’s like how experience mutates into memory, or how your understanding of something you’re describing changes based on the words that you’re bringing to it.
LW There are mutations all over my book, a million different forms that something could take. A million alter-egos. But I wanted to have fun with the narrator’s alter-ego and make her the stupidest and most ridiculous character. Humor detaches you from your own heavy experience.
JC Absolutely, it distances it and redeems it somehow.
LW There is a section in Zipper Mouth that still makes me laugh—the narrator is having a dream about a little monster that was really fun for me to write because I love playing even when I am terrified the entire time. I tried to come up with different ways that I could describe the monster, and it made me laugh the whole way through. Some things just have to go in. Like when I wrote "Everybody in your dreams is an aspect of yourself, my therapist said, taking the easy way out.” It was such a fun thing to write but what does that mean, taking the easy way out, of what?
JC I guess the easy way out would be the easy explanation?
LW I really wanted to avoid that. I hate psychoanalytical interpretation, it’s so reductive.
JC But psychoanalysis is so fun and inexpensive.
LW No, I don’t hate it. Oh wait are you joking. . . (laughter). I do love this guy James Hillman.
JC I googled him after you mentioned him to me a few days ago. Remember, I had told you a dream of mine in a text and I interpreted it and you told me I need to read James Hillman because his idea is that there is no one interpretation.
LW And that it’s an insult to the images themselves. To assume you can interpret them or for a psychoanalyst to assume you can interpret them, it’s like having a dream analysis book, where you dream about your teeth falling out because you need money and this seems ridiculous.
JC The narrative action in Zipper Mouth centers around is this idea of chasing after something inaccessible, something that resists being possessed. Thwarted desire. Here is this person, Jane, you can see her and describe her but she is not going to make herself available to you.
LW I’ve thought about this a lot. I’m not even sure what she would do with Jane. I think it’s about the desire for desire.
JC Jane is less fleshed-out than the narrator.
LW Poor Jane. Really it’s true that everything was a cipher for the narrator’s inner life. There is no attempt to say, “Jane smells like this and Jane came from such and such family.” Somebody once told me, there is no time and space in the unconscious, everything is always happening all the time. We are supposed to be in this limited, lower-density vibration body state, for some reason.
JC We’re stuck in a body and we’re stuck in time and we’re supposed to be learning something.
LW I used to get so mad at that Karmic thing. What? We’re all part of the light and then the Principle decides that this chunk of light has to go down and learn a lesson? It used to completely enrage me. But whatever the field of consciousness is behind everything—everything is sentient so of course the whole field of consciousness is collaborating—it’s like a hologram where if you slice a little bit of the hologram from the rest, it would contain the whole hologram. That’s why I love your paintings, it’s a fractal thing. I am just trying to survive the act of writing. Do you ever feel like, “I’m just trying to survive this” when you’re painting?
JC For me it’s that I’ve got my creative energy, my vision, and the fucked up way I see myself in the world, and I say okay: I’m going to play by a certain number of rules in this painting, but the goal is to break through that and make a window into another level of seeing. Because the world can’t just be as it appears.
LW But it might not be interpretable. I feel that my book is utter realism in the sense that it gets at states that feel real to me. My friend and I were laughing about whether we could ever get to the point where we could say real or reality without making air quotes around them . . . but its not going to happen, because reality is always provisional.