The Well-Dressed Wound (semiotext(e)), his latest novel, is in truth a spectre of a novel, a book that disappears sentences and evacuates plot in favor of constructing the novel’s ghoulish other. Its story is presented as a play in which Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln conduct a séance to contact their dead son, Willie. A portal is opened, and the avant-garde fashion designer Martin Margiela appears, acting as a satanic ringmaster for a horrifying fashion show of the undead. Derek and I conversed about this new book, about how and why the story materialized the way it did. Derek was, as he always is, generous and open about the fact that he wrote The Well-Dressed Wound during a time when he was wrestling with real demons of his own.
Jennifer Krasinski When did you first become interested in fashion?
Derek McCormack I grew up in a small Northern-ish town in Canada, so there wasn’t much fashion to follow. I learned a lot from my maternal grandmother. I used to wear her clothes all the time, her clothes and jewelry. I got a love of labels from her—she wore Mr. Leonard and Eva Gabor wigs and Avon jewelry. I still wear her wig but only on special occasions. Like when someone wants to take my photograph.
As a teenager I got a subscription to “The Face” and that became my Bible. It was made for people like me because they would publish names you should know, designers you should know, writers you should know, and I would memorize all of them. Jean Paul Gaultier was king in those days. I remember going downtown on the bus to buy the first American Vogueto have a Comme des Garçons spread.
JK When was that?
DM I think it was around ’83? I remember taking the bus home and there were kids from school who kept asking me what I’d bought. I couldn’t tell them. The magazine was in a brown paper bag like it was pornography.
JK Do you remember the first designer piece you bought? I find it tends to be a landmark event for a person who loves fashion.
DM I traveled to New York around that same time with my family and I went to what I think was IF boutique in SoHo. I bought a big Jean Paul Gaultier brooch that was shaped like a Brunswick star, like the ones British bobbies wear on their hats. I still have it. The price of the brooch was within reason. Well, I shouldn’t say that because I was fourteen and didn’t have a job, not even a paper route or a babysitting gig. I just had a mother who indulged my need for a brooch by a French designer she’d never heard of. After that, there was a Comme des Garçons jacket and a Yohji Yamamoto shirt and a Stephen Sprouse jean jacket. I still have some of these things in my closet. An orange Gaultier jean jacket that’s cut like a corset…
JK For you, at that age, what was fashion about?
DM In those days, it was certainly about feeling that I was part of a different world, even though I had never been to that other world and had no connection to that other world either. I always felt that wearing a label was vital, though the labels on my clothes meant nothing to the kids I went to school with, or the people in my town. I wore designers as though to say: I am more refined than you, and you have no idea the power of these clothes. I also loved the sense that those clothes could erase who and what I was. I still love putting on designers and feeling that I am giving myself over to someone else’s vision: someone who is stronger, more creative, more glamorous. I love that a piece of clothing can annihilate me in a way.
JK One of our first ever conversations happened years ago when you were here in New York covering the Martin Margiela H&M collaboration. We talked about how interesting it was for a chain store to reproduce garments for the general public from the archives of a weirdo Belgian designer—someone collected and worn for a long time as a sign of a kind of insider-ism. It made me wonder what happens when you surrender yourself to someone else’s vision in the name of singularity or distinction, and then look around to see that everybody else has done it too.
DM I bought the H&M stuff. There was something a little ghoulish about it, like grave digging. I think that the beauty of fashion is that it’s always going to leave you behind—that it’s always already left you behind. I love the cruelty of it, the quickness of it.
JK How would you describe that cruelty of fashion? As a woman, I’m used to thinking of it as physical—something exacted on the body.
DM I think of it as part of a gay culture that I inherited, though that’s a loaded word: inherited. To me it seemed that high fashion was intrinsic to being a fag, in the same way that when I read James McCourt, I believed I had to know opera and Hollywood studio movies to be gay. I felt like fashion was a gay language that that fed into what being a fag was and what it should be.
JK So it was a sort of connoisseurship that you had to learn in order to be “properly gay?”
DM Growing up, for me, there was no difference between wearing designer clothes and being gay. And what I mean by fashion’s cruelty: I encountered such cruelty about my gayness when I was young, and fashion seemed like a system of cruelty that could answer back. Fashion was cruelty because it marked the people who mocked me as not as smart as I was, not as cosmopolitan. At the same time, fashion obliterated me too. People couldn’t really make fun of me—they couldn’t be right about me—because I wasn’t me. I was a creature created from a distance by genius gays. I could never become a full-on fashionable creature, though, because I wasn’t wealthy, and in some part of my mind I was always aware of how preposterous all of this cruelty was. All these protective layers, all preposterous. I knew it. I know it.
JK The books you write—the stories, the writing—seem to me to offer up a new inheritance that weaves cruelty and fashion and history all together into a “line” of your own (pardon the pun). Going back to that first conversation, I remember asking you what you were working on, and you told me that your new project was about Martin Margiela and the Civil War, which later became The Well-Dressed Wound. I remember looking at you and wondering how those things could possibly be stitched together.
DM At any time in my life, I’m carrying around all the things that interest me. Whether it’s a book about the Civil War, or a token from a novelty factory in New Jersey, or the memory of a woman I used to see in my grandmother’s hometown: I carry them all. They may not go together. It’s my work to figure out a way to write about them together, and I have to find a structure that will contain or bear it all, or almost bear them all.
When you and I first talked about the project, at that time I was reading Reveille in Washington, a great book about the Civil War, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1942, and I just had the strongest desire to read that Martin Margiela had a store in Washington at that time. That seemed so spectacularly pleasing to me. I wanted to see it. I needed to see it. It made my dizzy to think about it: where the store would be, what would it look like, who would work there. What would Civil War-era Margiela cost? Would he have my size?
JK Do you feel as though all of your books stem from a similar kind of desire—a kind of urgent, necessary vision of something that should be but isn’t?
DM The desire is so intense sometimes that I feel if I write it persuasively or well enough, then it will be a historical fact, which is important to me. If I write it, it’ll be real. My first thought was to rewrite Reveille in Washington and add stuff about Margiela. By re-writing, I mean that I would copy the text exactly and add just one or two lines about a Margiela store. I didn’t do it. I don’t have the coolness for conceptual gestures like that.
JK I think if The Well-Dressed Wound or any of your books were just cold conceptual gestures, they wouldn’t achieve the kind of “re-writing” you’re really after.
DM I agree. I think that desire to work on a conceptual level was appealing because it seems like the easy way to write. Writing is so difficult for me, so I would just love it to be less difficult.
JK It would certainly be much easier to crib or re-type than do the real work of writing, or take on the challenges of invention.
DM One of the big aspirations I had for The Well-Dressed Wound was that it be less of a book and more like an accessory, like a Margiela item. One of the lures of conceptualism that always proves wrong is that it always has the slickness of product about it. In a very surface-y way, that kind of project is attractive to me, but it never feels right. It doesn’t please me. It takes tons of work and some kind of magic for me to get my dream to come true, to realize that vision. With this book especially, I was writing it having come out of surgeries for peritoneal surface malignancy, a cancer that had spread all through my abdomen, and I was unsure whether I was going to live or not…
JK …So any “conceptual chic” was obliterated by your very real illness? How did that affect writing the book? One of the things I noticed right away are the book’s blank spaces, pages left completely empty save for a few words, or words elided—whole paragraphs erased—leaving only punctuation marks.
DM The blank space was a gimmick to try and get Margiela into the book. I love when he used to paint clothes or paint jewelry or paint objects white. I have a feeling that in the press packages from Margiela that gesture would read as hope, newness, or creativity, which it never did for me. Especially after surgery when white became, for me, hospital sheets, pus, bandages, walls.
JK The color of illness?
DM Right. White became the horrible pallor I had when I would catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. It was like a ghostliness that I was wearing. I hate to underestimate Margiela by buying into all that hope and creativity talk because I think that one of the great things about him is that the painted whiteness is always a lie. It’s always a trick, and it’s always obviously a trick. The paint starts peeling right away, the piece gets dirty right away and it cracks.
JK A rare, expensive item begins to show use and age immediately.
DM The paint’s job is to crack and show what’s underneath it. This beautiful layer of whiteness always ends up looking like mold or an infection. When I was sick, I realized that I was a Margiela object because I myself was an infection. I was an infection covering up a putrefaction covering up a cancer. I had the idea for a Civil War novel before I was diagnosed, but the writing I have from that early draft is very different. It reads more like The Show That Smells. It’s very fast and jokey, and there are characters running around, talking a lot. Then I got sick and when I could, during my recovery, I’d put a computer on my lap and try and write something. For a long time, I didn’t know whether I was going to live. There were so many things post-op that could go wrong: an infection could set in, my liver could fail, or the cancer could come back. I was writing and thinking, “I don’t know if I have time to finish a book, but I want to finish a book.” I don’t know why if I only had so much time left that finishing a book seemed important to me, but it did.
JK Well, you’re a writer.
DM I guess. (laughter) When I was in recovery, people would say to me, “you should travel, you should do the things you love,” and it sounded good, but then I found myself in no position to do any of those things. I couldn’t even walk to the kitchen. All those “live life like it’s your last day” fantasies go right out of the fucking window when you’re spending your days sopping up pus and shitting. There certainly was a change in the way I was writing, but I’m wary of saying “oh, my body changed and The Well-Dressed Wound is like my body talking” because it’s still a super artificial book.
JK How so?
DM It’s my most posthumous book yet! I mean, I needed to write a book about what my afterlife would look like. What would my heaven look like? Not that his book is so important to me, but I was thinking of The Western Lands by William S. Burroughs. I know there are other books where people construct…not a belief system, but something that imagines what will happen to them, and it’s all wishful thinking. So I thought: “What would mine look like? Well, I’m going to go shopping”—I’m such a shallow person—“and there’s going to be a Margiela store full of things I’ve never seen, and I’m going to buy them all. And I won’t care about dying because if I’m transformed into an angel or a ghost I’m going to be so fashion-obsessed and vacuous that death and leaving my loved-ones won’t matter. All that will matter is what necklace I have.” Which is, I guess, another dream of mine: to become a person for whom nothing but fashion is important. It seems like a nice way of blanking out my brain and my troubles, to make myself so shallow.
JK Evacuating the self so all that’s left is…
DM …so thoughtless and so blank. I also wanted to construct an alternate world where I wasn’t in pain and furthermore, I wasn’t haunted by the fact that I had left the world behind. In fact, from my position as a dead fashion-y fag, I was going to inflict cruelty on the world and have it be amusing to me. Essentially, I wanted to be a dandy in an eighteenth-century French play.
JK And that would be heaven.
DM Yeah. Heaven. What kind of religion has a fashion boutique for a heaven? There’s a line in the book, I think it’s the most important line in there: “Death is a form of fashion.” That’s me trying to make fashion into metaphysics. Isn’t that insane? That was on my mind when I was writing. I struggled to do it, mainly because I’m not a metaphysician, and because my mind wasn’t working that well. I was so fucking sick and sort of out of my mind altogether.
The other thing about writing it: when I was post-surgery—I had like a seventeen or eighteen-hour procedure—I was given a spinal catheter to drip painkillers into me, but at some point they discovered it was blocked and I didn’t have any painkillers going into me. I was hallucinating wildly from the pain. One I remember very clearly was like a slideshow in my room of people fucking each other with their own dismembered limbs, licking them. I remember being horrified, but it was also a revelation, like a vision from God—God being extreme pain, post-surgery. I knew that the images were coming from my readings about medicine in the Civil War. I knew they were informed by the infamous stories of limbs piling up due to mass amputations. I’m not going to say it was instant, but the book became clear to me then. Not so much the grotesque fucking, but just the brutality of it and the harshness of it—the visceral stuff of it. It was also a way of killing my libido. (laughter) It had always been another dream of mine to have no sex drive. Now something finally eradicated any desire for sex because those hallucinations were just the worst, most stomach-churning stuff I’d ever seen. My brain was giving itself aversion therapy in some way. So I decided the book would have no love or sexual desire but instead, just a grotesque kind of vaudevillian fucking.
JK Is that where AIDS comes into the book? Because you didn’t write about cancer. The illness you deal with is AIDS, though you treat it more like a funny, terrible costume, passed around, worn, wearing.
DM Oh, that’s a nice way to put it.
JK AIDS has been Margiela-ed, in a way.
DM It has! In an early draft, suicide was going to be The Emblematic Gay Death. Then I remember thinking AIDS is a more universal fear that can also be seen as a kind of suicide—and I say that in the Westboro Baptist Church kind of way. I think the book reads like The Westboro Baptist Church wrote it because as much as I loathe those people, I think their arguments are so great.
JK Why? Because of how twisted they are?
DM Their perverse logic really fascinates me. I was always surprised when they would picket soldiers’ funerals because the soldiers had been protecting The Fag Country. The Fag Country! I think that idea is so exciting! In the Westboro mind, faggotry infects everything, everyone becomes a faggot when they die in a country or for a country that doesn’t condemn faggots. I think that kind of language really infected my brain. It really spoke to my own self-loathing, too. So I thought, in the most offensive and foul way, “AIDS is the gay suicide.”
JK It’s not only right-wing lunatics who believe in that kind of suicide logic, though. Growing up in the ’80s, even the most liberal sex education classes taught us to believe that sex, that physical pleasure, could kill you. Sex was something to fear, to wait for, to “get tested” before and after. It was your responsibility, your choice, to have sex and—perhaps—to die.
DM The way I’m treating AIDS in the book seems to stem from the ’80s, from an anger and opposition I remember feeling as a young adult who thought he would become sexual. I feel like the language of AIDS in The Well-Dressed Wound is a conflation of ACT UP anger and religious, anti-gay anger.
JK That’s interesting because the book’s anger has so many layers. It’s aimed in all directions at once. For example, you launch the word “faggot” at us over and over again, punctuated by exclamation points that slash the whiteness of the page like swords. The emphatic repetition of “faggot”—it’s insult, it’s defiance. It’s a mark of proof as well. AIDS too. The word is repeated and the act of infecting someone is almost foppish. These sort of horrific, violent acts played out like a French play—like you wanted.
DM When I was growing up I got called faggot seventy million times. I even got called faggot on the street last year. It was sort of pleasing—I hadn’t had a man pay attention to me in so long! I have no problem using that word because it’s been thrown at me so many times. Even when I was a kid, I wouldn’t deny it. I would always say, “Yeah, I’m a faggot!” It was a mix of defiance and pride, even though in my case I still had the sense that faggot meant “disgusting,” “less than.” From a very young age, my response was: I am that, and I’m going to be worse than that. All the terrible things you associate with faggotry, I’m going to make true. I’m going to debase myself more than you ever could. In fact, I will hurt myself more than you could ever hurt me. I will hurt myself to the point of disappearance.
JK One of the repeated verbs in The Well-Dressed Wound is “to fagify.” Margiela says something like, “I’m going to fagify fashion forever! I’m fagifying your fucking styles!” To fagify is different than to make faggy, right? What does it mean, to fagify the world?
DM To fagify is to debase the world. To fagify the world means killing it, making it maggoty, decomposed, foul, but also by that same act making it perfect, fashionable, unimpeachably stylish. It’s giving the world status and strength by making it ghastly beyond imagination.
JK To push through the rot and emerge with a new ideal of beauty. Do you think of this as a kind of “next wave dandyism?”
DM I see people who dress beautifully in ways that I love and in clothes that I love. I admire them and I scoff at them. One: because I’m insecure. Two: because I’m envious of people that have money. Three: because for me the greatest thing to do to a piece of fashion is to degrade it a little. I think that you should sleep on it, you should stain it, it should be held together by safety pins out of necessity. I would never have a dandyism where there was no rumple, crease or tear in it. I know there’s a history in dandyism, especially during the French Revolution, of people tearing their clothes.
JK Because it’s the ultimate in luxury to pretend that high fashion is too low-brow for some? As in, “there’s a rip in my Chanel suit, and I couldn’t possibly stoop to mend it?”
DM Or what if you are sick, and you put on your Comme des Garçons suit, and then your abscess bursts, or your suture starts bleeding, or your stitches come out? (laughter)
JK Dear god, did that happen to you?
DM Oh, yeah. Not when I was wearing nice clothes. I would go out and things would leak, of course. My body would suddenly burst. I came out of surgery with extra holes on me, and I had no control over what would come out of them. So to fagify is exactly that: it’s putting a coat of white paint on it and knowing that the white paint will peel and get moldy and look like shit.
JK At the same time, that coat of white paint—that blanking out—creates opulence of a new order.
DM For some people, the paint comes off and the garment or accessory or whatever looks disgusting, and they get very confused as to how that is opulent and beautiful.
JK White paint is a secret language, a “secreting” of fashion.
DM It’s also a secret that’s doomed, because the paint will come off and you’ll just be left with a stupid earring, or a stupid necklace or boot, you know? Eventually, there will be no trace of what your former opulence was.
JK So in effect, what you’ve purchased is the surface value. The surface is where all the meaning lies.
DM Fashion is cruel because the more you wear it and the longer you have it, the closer it gets to being absolutely nothing. And it’s going to be nothing because it was always nothing, and it will be nothing again. Is that beautiful? I don’t know. I guess that is the real question of the book.