Tasting the Hurricane with John Skipp and Lindsay Lerman
Lindsay Lerman: I met splatterpunk legend John Skipp in Portland, Oregon in March of 2019. I was there for AWP—the annual conference and convention for writers, publishers, and students—to read from my upcoming book and to meet “the industry.” John saw me read, and the next day my publishers introduced us. “You killed it last night,” he said in the most welcoming, congratulatory way, and we soon found ourselves talking about life and writing with the kind of honest intensity that just seems to happen when you meet someone who (you just know) can look at themselves in the mirror.
Meeting John at my first industry event felt like a miracle. Here was someone able to quickly suss out the bullshit—events comprised of writers reading lists of each others’ accomplishments that felt a bit too much like (in the words of Guy Debord) “laudatory self-referential monologues,” while MFA students with stars in their eyes gushed over the brilliance of some heavily phoned-in panel discussions. Here was someone who offered sincerity and kindness in the face of all that posturing.
John’s sincerity and kindness drew the honesty and vulnerability out of me. He is highly regarded by many, his list of accomplishments is impressive, he has “made it” as a writer in ways most can only dream of, and yet, he is goofy, friendly, unassuming. This is not someone standing on the porch with arms crossed, shouting at the kids to get off his lawn. This is someone offering—without ulterior motives—to give you a spot on the porch, asking you how you are, welcoming you. This is someone who is still just getting started, despite his many years of experience.
John Skipp: My introduction to Lindsay Lerman was at the Clash Books reading the night before. It was a great event: twenty authors, given five minutes apiece to knock us dead. And many of them did, in a variety of styles: fast, funny, in your face, sexy, savage, bold as brass.
But Lindsay was different. She read the funereal opening of her new novel, I’m From Nowhere, with a gentle intensity that I found breathtaking. As I told her the next day—at the Clash table, on the sprawling AWP dealer’s floor where I had just tracked down and purchased her book— “When you read your stuff, I could taste the hurricane. But you were the still, quiet center of the storm.”
Next thing we knew, we’d been talking for an hour straight, and it was time for her to go. But I had a new book, and I made a new friend, with an amazing new artist I instantly loved and admired. My favorite surprise of AWP. And now here we are, talking again! WOOOOO!!!
(We conducted the following interview in the weeks after AWP, chatting on messenger and taking the big questions over to a shared document.)
LL: As I was watching an interview with you recently, I was struck by two things you said. First, you wanted to make it clear that, for you, splatterpunk was never about depicting violence in gritty, realistic detail merely for violence’s sake. Second, you emphasized the ‘punk’ in splatterpunk—that it was about subverting expectations, challenging norms, pushing certain genres past their limits. (I’m paraphrasing, obviously!)
And as you were saying all this, I found myself thinking: Yes, finally. Fucking finally. Someone like Tarantino, for example (in his early work), could be accused of giving us graphic violence for the sake of giving us graphic violence—it’s not clear to me that there was something else at play for him. (Again, I’m thinking mostly of his earlier work.) And that has always bothered me. What’s the point of the graphic violence? What is it doing for the narrative, for the audience, for the characters? Tarantino was working within a tradition that you played a role in creating and shaping (whether or not he knows it or has recognized it), and that got me thinking: What is it like for you, all these years later, to see something you created (alongside others) taken up and put to use and expressed? Not even necessarily in film—in any medium, any genre?
JS: It’s so fascinating to me that you pick Tarantino specifically, because Reservoir Dogs was the first movie I saw on my way back from the World Horror Convention in Stamford, CT in 1993. At that point, I knew I would be retiring from the horror biz, if not just dying entirely. The Skipp & Spector partnership was about to end, and I could feel myself cracking open inside, emptying into the world.
So once we got through the whole opening diner scene (“Like a Virgin” meets “I don’t believe in tipping”), and then past that insanely great opening credit sequence (to the George Baker Selection’s “Little Green Bag”), we went straight to the blood-covered Mr. Orange in the back of Mr. White’s car, whimpering and squirting. And the ultra-realistically turbocharged revelation of the violence was so shocking that it knocked me back in my seat.
Now Tarantino wasn’t making a horror movie. He was playing from the tough guy crime deck. But with that single shot—and then the endlessly spreading pool of blood emanating from Tim Roth throughout the rest of the film—he had jacked straight into hardcore horror’s main generator. And if that weren’t enough, he completely upped the voltage with Michael Madsen, the straight razor, and the jaw-droppingly perfect placement of “Stuck in the Middle With You.”
I was absolutely floored by the movie. In fact, I felt like Tim Roth, bleeding out on the floor. The fact is I’d walked into the theater deeply concerned about the hole I was gonna leave in the horror field when I left. I felt like I had a responsibility to uphold the moral conscience of the hardcore horror door I had just helped to kick open, and was narcissistically scared that shit would spiral out of control if I weren’t there to help.
But as Reservoir Dogs came to its crazed conclusion, I distinctly remember feeling like the film was consoling me. Like it was saying, “It’s okay, Skipp. You can die if you have to. We’re in good hands.” And swear to God, I felt a blessed relief.
Cuz here’s the thing. I think Tarantino pulled some genuinely subversive moves with that movie; and if it had a point, I think it was simply that this is what violent men are like. They aren’t mysterious mustache-twiddling “bad guys” who live to perform evil deeds. They’re just regular assholes, eating burgers and arguing about pop music, banging against the nuances of each other’s dubious moral codes as they try to stay ahead of the law and out of the body bag.
I would say that without Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, The Sopranos would not exist. And while a metric shit-ton of terrible films and television followed in their wake—aping the surface, with no sense of the core—I give thanks to the cream when it floats to the surface.
That said: I feel like I helped open the door for a lot of empty, pointless violence, particularly in books. The difference between 80s-90s splatterpunk and much modern “extreme horror” is particularly troubling to me, in that a lot of folks can’t seem to tell the difference.
But honestly? Empty, pointless violence was a time-honored tradition looooong before I was born. If it weren’t, there would have been no need to address it!
LL: This is a great reading of the film. And of course you’re right about the banality of evil. I’m finding myself stuck with that image of you in your seat in the theater, watching Tim Roth, thinking to yourself “It’s okay, Skipp. You can die if you have to.” I’m wondering: what exactly was dying? What were you letting go of? What was the relief that accompanied it?
JS: I tend not to talk publicly about my personal relationships. That’s kind of what help keeps them personal! And I’ve spoken at length about my nervous breakdown, my split from mainstream publishing, dropping out of the business for over a decade, and all the adventures that took place during those “missing years” elsewhere. (Like the enormous I-shit-you-not SEVENTY-SEVEN PAGE INTERVIEW with me in Thinking Horror: Vol. 2, now available!)
But just to short-hand it: Bantam was no longer interested in selling the kinds of books I was writing, even though Craig and I had sold several million copies of the first three. And I wasn’t interested in trying to be one of the next three thousand wannabe Stephen King Jrs., writing about nice families in small towns where a monster shows up. There were already too many people jockeying for seats at that table. And it wasn’t a table I wanted a seat at, in the first place. As the world has aptly demonstrated, we really only need one Stephen King. And we’ve got him. And he’s great.
That said, I felt like a failure in every aspect of my life, except as an artist. And now they didn’t even want that. I wound up splitting with every major relationship in my life, found a cheap shithole apartment in Hollywood, and spent a year-anna-half curled up in a fetal ball screaming, like a dog that got hit by a car and curls up under their front porch to die. As I told everyone, “The last Skipp broke, so I killed him and ate him. When I grow another one, I’ll letcha know.”
And the relief, in that theater, was the sense that the world would be just fine without me. That the world was now out of my hands, if it had ever been in ‘em in the first place. Other people would pick up the mantle, one way or another. Life would go on.
It was a brutally selfish relief, but it got me through the day. Until the day I might choose to live again, and be useful in ways that might actually matter.
Which brings me to YOU, Miss Lindsay! So you’ve written this brilliant book called I’m From Nowhere, coming out later this year. It’s literary fiction, not horror fiction— as far from splatterpunk, in fact, as one could get, in that we never even find out how the person who dies dies— except that its central concerns are of loss and grief, the disintegration of self, handled with the honest emotional precision I always aimed for in dealing with the darkest parts of human existence.
Your people don’t blow up on the outside. They blow up on the inside, which is even more complex and tricky. In terms of the world, what’s done is done. But you concern yourself, in those pages, more with a) what’s undone, and b) what hasn’t even been done or addressed, instead. Which I find bottomlessly fascinating. And you do it soooo well.
So lemme ju-jitsu this conversation, if that’s okay, and ask you: what compelled you to dive so deeply and meticulously into the world of hurt that is I’m From Nowhere?
LL: I think that experience you describe—of coming to understand deep in your bones that the world doesn’t need you, that everything will keep humming along just fine without you—is a crucial one to have. I haven’t been around that long, but I’ve seen that experience bring at least a few people down. I think I’ve had that experience in small doses since day one. Like you, I want to avoid offering personal details, but I can say that the circumstances of my life have always made me aware of how expendable I am, but in more recent years I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that this isn’t always true. In the grand scheme of things, I am as expendable as everyone and everything else. But on a smaller scale, there are people who need me to not be expendable, people who rely on me and depend on me, and I have to take seriously the fact that they need me. It’s hard to carry all this contradictory information around, holding it all together.
Thank you for such generous praise! You ask a great question. A hard one, but a great one. Looking at my book now, with some distance from the daily work of creating it, I can say that I needed to write a book about the complexities and the complications and the horrors, really, of living here and now, as we face the reality that precarity is all we know—that it might be all we ever know, from here on out.
I needed that book to not offer easy answers about the relationships we have with ourselves and the world. I needed to write a book that didn’t offer easy answers about desire, about women, about identity, about the thing we call love. And most of all I needed to write a book about the experience of living in a world that we (humans) are making uninhabitable. How does that compound grief and fear and terror, and how does that (at the same time) make our individual grief, fear, and terror meaningless and insignificant? How does impending extinction both sharpen and dull our senses? What stories are we telling ourselves to stay afloat? Is it working? Etc. (In this way I think it’s a horror story, just an existential one.)
But I knew that I had to anchor such a potentially “big” story in something very small, in one person and her inner world. And I wanted it to be a physically small book, like a pocketknife of a book, not a big axe. I wanted it to be extremely accessible, free of any philosophical jargon that might exclude any readers. This all happened naturally, because I wrote the bulk of it alongside my doctoral dissertation (to earn a PhD in philosophy), and when I finished dissertation work each day I was quite literally desperate for writing that wasn’t technical philosophical writing. I turned to it each night after I put my kid to bed and I wrote with urgency, asking myself: Is this honest? Are you expressing something here, or are you just writing to write? Of course, there’s nothing wrong with writing just to write. It happens that I needed more from myself with this book.
Does that answer your question?
JS: NOOOO!!! (laughs) I mean, yes! There’s just so much to untangle! Bringing up the whole ecocide angle, for one thing. While you touch on it gracefully and almost subcutaneously in Nowhere, one of the big things that killed the Skipp & Spector career was a book called The Bridge, which I liked to describe as “the day our shit woke up, and bit our asses off.” Which is to say, all of the toxic byproducts of “the good life”— radioactive waste, chemical waste, plastics, you name it—became sentient, remade nature in their own mutating image, and stomped us like a bug. It’s a feel-good story, ya know? (laughs) And it sank like a stone. Possibly because there was no happy ending. But definitely because Bantam was like, “We can’t sell this shit!”
But it was what we needed to write. As you say, we needed more from ourselves than just writing to write. And I think this desire to be truthful—to not flinch or hold back—is the essence of any subversion worth its salt. That’s why your small, intimate book seemed so wonderfully, powerfully, heartbreakingly subversive to me.
Did it feel subversive to you, in the doing?
LL: I guess I can’t say I’m surprised that The Bridge didn’t take off. But it’s disappointing. One consistent piece of feedback I got when I was first shopping Nowhere around was: It’s just not likely that climate change will be as bad as you suggest in this book, in the near future, and plus, we don’t want to bum readers out. I was blown away by this reaction, each time. It’s not that bad? It won’t be that bad? Seriously? Do you live in the same world I do? (The Bridge sounds amazing, by the way. I have to read it.) But I found that there was some strange subtext lurking under that particular criticism, and I think it was this: literary fiction is no place for fear-mongering, hun, and if you want to take on a theme as “big” as our impending extinction, you better offer the reader much more hope, and you better do it with a sweeping inter-generational tale of loss and love that leaves the reader feeling affirmed, with a new faith in life… But really, why are you bumming your readers out like this? And I started to wonder if the book was subversive in different ways than I had previously realized.
When I’m really writing, it is a subversive act for me. When I sit down to write in earnest, from that place of honesty, I am not anyone’s friend or colleague or employee or mother or partner or lover or neighbor. I exist on my own terms and on the terms set by the writing itself. This is what’s subversive to me. And I do it on stolen time.
But there’s another subversive element. I find intimacy with the work itself, and I write intimacy into the lives of the characters. And I really believe that intimacy itself is subversive.
So I think—to more fully answer your question and to tie all these loose threads together—that my book is subversive because it tells the tale of something as enormous as ecocide on a small, personal scale, asking the reader to get intimate with someone’s interior world and to see that everything “big” plays out in the lives of little insignificant/significant people. I won’t pretend to offer the sweeping inter-generational tale of whatever—I had no interest in writing that book, probably wasn’t capable of writing that book. I offer a small, quiet subversion and I hope it has power.
Now, back to you! You mentioned recently that you love collaboration (your impressively long list of publications proves this). You also mentioned that Conscience (2004) is all you, just you. Reading through your introduction to the 2013 edition of the book, I noticed that you describe it as “the book that brought you back.” So I’m wondering if there’s something that set this particular book apart for you. Something that made it necessary for you to take it up on your own? And I’m wondering, secondarily, if that has anything to do with subversion.
JS: I am with you one trillion percent on the subversiveness of intimacy. Or, as Sandra Bernhardt once said, “Love is the only shocking act left.” To truly open yourself to another person‚—to even get close to doing that truly—shakes up every single thing in your universe profoundly. And if they’re doing it back to you? Dear God in Heaven. There’s nothing more terrifying to the walls of self. More potentially devastating. Or astonishing. Or liberating. Which is the fucking definition of subversion.
As for Conscience: it’s the story of a man who is forced to confront himself—confront his literal conscience-made-flesh—after a life spent running down a very dark path, in the opposite direction of his soul. It’s a forced intimacy that this broken romantic wants absolutely nothing to do with.
And though I’m not a professional murderer-for-hire, like my poor main character, I gave him my voice, and inner access to all my deepest buttons, so that he might find his way back to himself. Which was what I was trying to do to myself. In that sense, Charlie Weber and I went on that comeback journey together, in first-person present tense. And yes, it was absolutely a book that could only be written by myself. Unless, of course, you count Charlie.
There was a stretch, after I crawled into that shithole apartment to die, where writing fiction was too horrible and painful to contemplate. It was like being forced at gunpoint to fuck the corpse of the woman you love. I was like, “No. Just shoot me. I’d rather die.” So I wrote songs, and played in bands with guys like Chris Poland of Megadeth. Studied film like crazy. Wrote screenplays for movies I wanted to direct. Poured my soul into journals. But could not face the prose demon.
It took about four years until I met my friend Marc Levinthal, an amazing musician and humble genius who was just getting interested in writing fiction. He was fun to jam with. And I needed fun. So we goofed around, wrote a couple cool short stories, and then wound up spending two years collaborating on the most purely enjoyable novel of my career to date, The Emerald Burrito of Oz. That process got me back on my feet.
But Conscience was where I truly reconnected with my voice, and found the will to go back out into the publishing world again. Although I self-published (it was a novella, for starters, with no market for them at the time). So it was baby steps.
LL: I love how honest you are about the ways that writing is sometimes (maybe always?) an act of writing oneself into (and out of) existence. When I talk to people who don’t write, or who only write theory, they seem kind of horrified by this idea—that writing might be a way of restructuring reality and self and relation to world and all of that.
JS: It’s funny how many functions writing takes, and why. As my brilliant friend and favorite new collaborator Autumn Christian says, “I think by writing.” By which she means that when it’s time to think something through, attempt to analyze it, or just see what she really thinks, she turns to the page to work it through. And I’m much the same way. When I lay it all out, I can look at it. Refine it. See the holes in my understanding, and attempt to fill them with worthy detail, be it a story, a novel, a screenplay, an essay, or one of my nightly philosophical Facebook posts. This is how we make sense of the world. Or try to, anyway!
I’m also very interested in plotting my longer-form stories within an inch of their life, so I use the file card method. Which is to say that once I know enough to know how much more I need to know, I hire a friend who can use a couple extra bucks to sit with me for a couple of hours (at a whopping ten bucks an hour, plus whatever smoke or drink they might enjoy) and write down everything I say on individualized index cards. One beat per card. One singular piece of information.
By the end of those couple of hours, I generally have one-to-two hundred cards sitting in front of me, which I then take to the nearest enormous floor space and lay out in order. This allows me to stand back and see the whole thing in overview. So maybe I know a lot about the beginning and the end, but have gaping holes in the middle. I can thereby start connecting the existing dots, find the beats between the beats, and get down to brass tacks.
I generally do all this before I write a single word of prose. It’s like having a map for the road trip I’m about to take in my head. That doesn’t mean it might not change in a trillion ways once I actually start driving. But having a clear sense of my hoped-for destination—with as many clues up-front as I can possibly get—increases the odds of landing where I want to go. As I often say, “It’s hard to hit the bullseye if you don’t even know where the fucking target is.”
And I feel the same way about my life. Where am I going? What the fuck am I doing? What do I want, and how can I get anywhere close to getting there? The more conscious I am of my choices, my motivations, my obstacles and advantagions, the more apt I am to have a genuine shot worth taking. It’s a weird marriage of calculation and intuition, engaged in active wild dance every step of the way. Leaving the door to the unknown wide open, of course. Because life is what happens when you’re making other plans. And life is gonna do whatever the hell life wants. For whatever reasons it may have.
SORRY I WENT ON SO LONG! But when your friends respond with horror, is it because they’re not used to thinking in other-than-theoretical terms? Or because they’re just civilians to this writerly process, and don’t get what you’re up to when you do the things you do?
LL: Don’t apologize for going on so long! I love descriptions of process, love knowing about your process. I think the response is one of horror and disgust because for some people there’s something fundamentally discomfiting and upsetting about the possibility of creations and the process of creation changing lives. Like: Who the hell do you think you are, restructuring your life, your desires, your mind, your relationships, and why the hell do you think you’re qualified to do that via creation? Does that make sense?
Making art—writing—is not a luxury for me. It’s a necessity, and I can’t wait around to be given permission to do it (or to be deemed qualified to do it in the right way). I am lucky to be able to carve out time for it, lucky that I’ve been able to get an education and be put in the way of people who believed in me and inspired me (and always will inspire me). But it’s simply not a luxury. I think we’re used to thinking of art as the thing done exclusively by the leisure class, by those with nothing but leisure and luxury. But if you’re a person with day jobs who dares to create and re-make in the spirit of radical restructuring, well then...some people are simply disgusted and horrified. You’re breaking too many rules. Is this making any sense? Sounding familiar to you?
JS: HEE HEE HEE! “Young lady, it has come to our attention that you’re simply not conforming enough.” Yeah, it’s been about ten years since my last office job—I’ve been incredibly lucky in that regard—but I remember the feeling well. And believe me, surviving without one has been anything but leisurely or luxurious.
The notion that I need anyone’s permission to create whatever the hell I want makes clouds of steam fly out of my ears in searing cartoon plumes. It’s what I’m built for. It’s what I love. So when someone gives me that “Who do you think you are?” jazz, I’m like, “I know who I am. Who the fuck are YOU?” (laughs) Not to be a dick. Just sayin’.
In my experience...if you want a chance, and they won’t give you a chance, you have to take a chance. It’s as simple as that. You do what you have to to stay alive, and take care of business. But in the end, I burn for the work, and the experience of creation, and the relationships that form around that authentic core of my life. Those are the ones I love most. Hope THAT makes sense!
And that’s what makes our conversations so great to me. I knew right away that you were for real, both on the page and in person. Which is to say: yes, we’re all very different people. Men-folk. Women-folk. Everybody-in between-folk. Different backgrounds. Different gene pools. Different inciting incidents that charted the course of their lives.
And every person ever born is a person, with their own unique experience. Just like every dog, or bug, or star is who they are, whether you like it or not.
But when I see the spark—the singular spark that says, “Oh, this person is alive, and tuned in hard to what that means,”—I can smell the difference, like I tasted your hurricane when you read that first chapter out loud to us. I just went, “Oh, shit. She’s for real.” And then I met you. And—surprise, surprise—YOU ARE!!!
And you know what I really love? We’re coming at this from such different angles. There’s not a bookstore on Earth that would put our titles anywhere near each other. And yet we connect with each other, at the core. I feel more in common with you than I do with 98% of modern hardcore horror.
You bring the realness. And I hope a whole lot of people read I’m From Nowhere. Any smart, honest person with a spark in their soul is gonna feel the living shit out of it. As well they should.
LL: This seems like a natural stopping point, don’t you think? This has been such a pleasure and an honor for me, John. Thank you for doing this. I can’t wait for your new book (and Autumn’s), Rikki Rage, to come out, whenever that happens. I think it will make a big splash.
Thank you again for doing this. You are such a kind, supportive person.
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