This interview, which was conducted in December 2021, was originally intended to be part of a book-length nonfiction project I wanted to write about the “niche of outsider lit” that I found myself in that year. Now it seems like a handy time capsule for that unique moment, cross-sectioning the literary microculture through the lens of one of its most astute observers and participants, Gabriel Hart. Neo-pulp short story writer, novelist, journalist, musician, Hart offers writing and perspectives that are like shortwave radio broadcasts from Southern California’s “high desert,” a singular Western landscape of romantic forlornness and refuge from the City of Angels. To me, with his interviews of other writers for LitReactor and pieces for the LA Review of Books, Hart has an up-to-the-minute au courant damn near omnipotence that is cast very wide and yet gets into the important nooks and crannies of a specific sub-section of outsider lit, so I thought it was only fitting to turn the tables and interview him. Why publicize this interview done in the end of 2021, now? I think it could help crystallize a moment of recent history and, through chronological reflection, illuminate the changes of 2022, the arguably watershed year that we just said goodbye to: a year of ferment and activity and yet also a year of “imaginative recession” when online publishers Misery Tourism and Surfaces.cx ceased operations, and the year a certain degree of innocence was lost with the untimely passing of outlaw LA writer Elizabeth V. Aldrich (Eris), who Gabriel Hart was friends with, as you will see. The interview touches on the political (or apolitical) trends of the scene, the ideal of free speech, the “transgressive” label that was being bandied about a year ago or so. We talked a lot about Misery Loves Company, the weekly online reading series put together by Misery Tourism where groups of writers stranded by the pandemic hung out often to sharpen our writing and performing chops. Of particular interest is the personal library Hart testifies about going through; what he was reading represented to me, the interviewer, a cutting-edge series of signposts showing the pathway into this niche of outsider literary culture.
When did you hear about Misery Tourism/Misery Loves Company? Where did your entry into this world come from?
First, Expat had published a couple very hot potato pieces of mine; pieces that were rejected at numerous genre-fiction venues, so that kind of opened this whole contemporary world to me, where I realized there was a place and perhaps a small audience for the stuff I really preferred writing — pieces that were more Grove Press influenced than anything genre specific. So, I sort of rejoiced with Expat, and followed them very closely. When they released Fucked Up by Damien Arc that December of 2020, Misery Tourism co-hosted the online release event for it — and I do consider that was an “event” in every sense of the word, even culturally, since that book redefined transgressive lit, so much that I’ve yet to read or even hear of a book that has pushed the boundaries further. So, I became curious with Misery Tourism, the way they seemed like Expat’s crude, guttersnipe brother, yet they shared the same ethos. Since I had just interviewed [Manuel] Marrero for LitReactor, I knew I wanted to interview [William] Duryea next, and when I did, I was blown away by how on point he was — he was able to articulate an overall feeling, like a sea change I saw happening as well, one I had yet to find the words for. So, part of my research, I guess, was checking out Misery Loves Company. Immediately, I felt at home, thinking “these are my people.”
What do you think the strengths and weaknesses of Misery Loves Company are? If the pandemic miraculously ended today would you still keep going there? Does the lack of diversity and women there bother you or does it not matter?
I would love to see more women at MLC. Luckily, last night I think we had five or six, which I believe was a record? MLC is super supportive of every work — Duryea has an amazing quality of assessing the strengths of each piece in a way that is never pandering, but sometimes I wish there was a splinter group where we could critique each other more. Maybe the quality of what writers bring to MLC is just that exceptional — it genuinely feels like everyone brings their A game.
What writers do you consider yourself influenced by—both in a general sense and specifically in this sort of anti genre of outsider/transgressive lit? And do they overlap, is it a Venn diagram tending toward a circle?
I love old guard stuff like Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, etc, then more journalistic stuff like Mailer and Didion. Bret Easton Ellis made a huge impression on me at a young age and still does. Discovering Bataille was a huge inform. With more genre oriented stuff I like the 60s New Wave era of sci-fi, Harlan Ellison. Noir/crime authors like James Ellroy corrupted me as a teen, then later, older proto-noir like Cornell Woolrich. But it wasn’t until I fell into this whole Expat/MT corner where I got hip to other important authors I somehow slept on, like Dennis Cooper, who, like a lot of us, is now a huge influence, since he seems like the Godfather of what we do. Him and James Robert Baker, I can’t read their books fast enough.
What’s the sequence of the following events: writing creatively, writing musically, writing journalism? Was there one you definitely did first and the others followed or were they kind of contemporaneous?
My English teacher in high school thought I had a knack for writing, and she really tried to foster that out of me, but I was just getting into too much trouble and it didn’t stick like it should have, maybe it was a mutual loss of faith. But I recall that feeling: writing didn’t seem like “work” as opposed to everything else in school, and vowed to pick it up again. I remained a voracious reader, assuming I had to put in that work before I took writing seriously again. But the following twenty years I played in bands seemed to just take that farther away, no real support for literary stuff in that noise, which is not at all how I’d imagine it would be. I assumed every musician wanted to be a writer one day. But in 2010, I forced myself to begin — that’s when I started writing The Intrusion, which then paved way to Virgins in Reverse. It wasn’t until 2015 when I moved to the desert that I really felt like I was committing to it, being a writer.
The journalism stuff came very recently, just as of last year. I have a lurching curiosity of other writer’s experience; and when I do a book review, it’s to challenge myself to confirm I really understood what I just read, what the author was trying to say, and to maybe offer a poetic exchange. And to be honest, writing about this stuff is often a way I hustle to supplement my sketchy fixed income. In a way, I sort of owe it to Chandler Morrison — he was the first author I interviewed for LitReactor, so this is really all his fault for writing a book as compelling as Along the Path of Torment. He’s another writer I felt an instant kinship with. But, I will say, I mainly do literary journalism stuff simply to keep writing, to improve writing. It’s all just writing to me.
With some specificity, where did you spend the most time throughout your life in LA? What kinds of jobs have you held? (not terribly crucial information but it helps to have detail). Any colorful “writerly” anecdotes you have…
My first five years in L.A. were in Hollywood, where I got to ride out the last gasp of its really seedy years, from 1998-2003, then the next thirteen were spent in Echo Park. I guess my notable job would be working at the Silent Movie Theater from 2001-2003, which was the major backdrop for Virgins in Reverse. But one of my first jobs in L.A. in 1999, was janitor at Venus Faire Showgirls, an infamous peepshow in the Valley, which is where my short story “the Maid and the Maidens” is based. That was actually one of the ways Lizzie (Eris) and I initially bonded — we’re both former peepshow employees. I remember being sort of self-conscious reading that story at one of my first Misery Loves Company, because it’s sort of confessional and disgusting, and Lizzie, very sweetly, reminded me what essential workers the peepshow janitors are in that environment.
Much is made about the attempts at creating an apolitical free speech zone with Misery Tourism and Expat Press and other organizations. What are your views on the role of politics in literature, is it possible to separate them out? Do politics leak in inevitably due to the fact that it’s a largely online phenomenon where political tug of war can be constantly and instantly played?
I’ve always stood by the second-wave feminist phrase “the personal is the political,” only I apply it to everything, really. In terms of writing, I feel the goal should be to avoid political rhetoric or political tropes from your work in order to establish trust with who’s reading it — because nobody trustworthy or intelligent is likely to trust a politician, so why would you take that role in your creative work? I believe you can tell an honest story and make a way deeper impact than having a specific message or agenda. I always say: Live by example, not by the bullhorn.
Sure, free speech is an obvious thing we all believe here. But I see some writers apply that very poorly — again, littering us with rhetoric of taboos. Assuming just because they mention something “naughty,” they’re somehow pushing the boundaries or “transgressing,” when in fact, they appear uninformed and one-dimensional. All they’ve proved is that they haven’t developed the guts to fully explore the subjects.
How quickly did you acquire an attitude of weathering Twitter cancellation outrages such as the Close to the Bone situation over Chris Roy? Misery Tourism has apparently had a few of these, which I am trying to learn more about. It seems like it’s crucial not to let them occupy one’s head too much, to know what stance to take, how to “man the battle stations.” With you, how did this come about?
As ridiculous, stressful, and bizarre as that was, I’m glad it happened — because it showed the true hypocrisy of that particular faction of crime-fiction, writers who I really liked, some I even looked up to. But it proved how many of them function: shoot first, ask questions later, much like a cop at his worst, ironically. The fact that they attacked a publisher just for employing a man in the middle of his rehabilitation — something the publisher kept quiet because they respect the concept of privacy — proved they’re not the progressive people they claim to be, that this act of canceling comes from this sick narcissism which seeks to elevate visibility of themselves rather than any true marginalized voice — like a prisoner, for example.
But that incident did create a profound disillusionment, maybe a sort of numbness, where every time it would happen to me or a group I belonged to, I just gave less and less of a shit. It’s laughable, really, to think someone else could have that kind of power over you.
Although, I did get heavily involved in that whole thing with Okay Donkey — that incident was ignorance unapparelled. I felt that kind of incendiary disinformation they spread about MT and Expat was potentially dangerous, so I felt I had to get in there. And in the end, they appeared the actual racists, assuming the people they were attacking were white, just because Marrero never flies his Cubano-Chinese flag or Rudy doesn’t display his black ID or whatever. The fact was, there was just no material to back up their claims.
Many people including me decry Twitter as a corrosive force and yet I personally wouldn’t get published and have a modicum of success getting read without it. If there was a better Twitter for literary people created tomorrow, one without features you might dislike, what would it look like? In other words, what about the online lit environment as it plays out in Twitter would you change? Or is the problem in the individuals not the bird app, a problem of human users of tech not the tech itself?
Humor is essential for Twitter; it’s clear that the people who make it a corrosive force have lost all sense of humor and general humility — it’s always the same people who are also overly self-congratulatory or use it strictly for clout-chasing. So yeah, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the app — but when a certain kind of rudderless person uses it, it becomes a completely different experience that can be contagious.
One area where you have particularly influenced my thinking (we have talked about this a bit) is with the concept of “genre refugees.” I’m really fascinated with this concept as it resonates so deeply with my own pathway from writing crime and sci fi to occupying a more literary (or maybe anti-literary) posture with what I’ve been writing lately. What genre are we all writing now?
Remember, genre is for marketing purposes; a way to organize books on at a bookstore. So, to me, being a strictly genre writer is an odd thing to strive for. It’s something I never think about until the story is done: what is this? I’ve been called a noir writer, a sci-fi writer, a transgressive writer, but I’m not completely any of those things. I think I adopted this attitude from Harlan Ellison, who would be incensed when he’d be referred to as a sci-fi writer; he’d say, no, I write speculative fiction — that way he could write anything he wanted without it appearing a departure. When I was writing VIR/INT, I think I just assumed I was a noir writer since that work contained those elements, but the more I seeped myself in that particular community, the more suffocating it felt. Insularity freaks me out — I’d much rather be a free-floating ambassador. Falling in with the whole Expat/MT corner reminded me the more you write whatever you want, the more likely there is to be an audience for it, as long as it’s written well.
What writers, editors, presses, online lit publications, books do you believe are doing groundbreaking work right now, in this niche of outsider lit? What do you see as the next step, perhaps with your own work or with the movement (if it is a movement) in general?
I’m obviously going to forget many, but off the top of my head the writers who are really pushing it: Chris Kelso, Manuel Marrero, Elizabeth V. Aldrich, James Nulick, DuVay Knox, SJXSJC, Stephen J. Golds, Mika, Ted Prokash, William R. Soldan, HLR, Jon Lindsey, Unity, Derek Maine, there’s so many. And I love the fact that a lot of these writers are a decade or more my junior; it’s really reassuring that the future is in good hands.
As far as online pubs and presses: MT and Expat are the obvious ones. I feel Surfaces is completely singular, they never cease to challenge my sensibilities — the way they’ve created this intersection of nihilism and euphoria feels like a genuine cultural threat; they’ve nearly created their own aesthetic subculture. I love Ligeia Magazine — consistently high-quality stuff from unknowns. Ted Prokash’s Joyless House is severely underrated. APOCALYPSE CONFIDENTIAL is always great and unpredictable. As far as more genre oriented stuff, I think Rock and A Hard Place is the best noir journal out right now. I love Amphetamine Sulfate’s approach to sci-fi – but see, they’re not a sci-fi imprint. They’re doing what people don’t necessarily expect of them. Clash Books feels consistently vital.
As far as books, I’ll say it again: Fucked Up by Damien Ark fucked up everything. Along the Path of Torment by Chandler Morrison would be another from that same time, along with Ruthless Little Things. Other books that really resonated with me more recently in a really personal way: Body High by Jon Lindsey, Undone Valley by William R. Soldan, and Permission by Marc Kristal.
What is your daily writing/reading routine, if you have one?
I’m in a bittersweetly fortuitous position where I have nothing but time to write. But since I’m not working a 9-5 at the moment, yet I’m so accustomed to it, I think I suffer from internalized capitalism where I flog myself if I’m not being productive writing every minute of the day; as if I’ll get fired from life or something. So, I wake up at 5am, read for two hours, walk dog, make breakfast, take whatever I’m taking to stave off my chronic pain with my coffee, then start writing by 8 or 9. I break for lunch, then write until 5pm, walk dog, make dinner, tell myself to chill but I usually end up writing or editing until bedtime. I crash early so I can do it all over again.
What are you reading right now? How quickly do you read? What percentage of your reading is “dead masters” so to speak vs living writers who you might know somewhat personally?
I don’t think I read quicker than normal, I just happen to have a lot of time to read. I just finished reading Permission by Marc Kristal which just slid in as my favorite book of the year. I’m just about to start the Ketchup Factory by JP Vallieres. On my TBR stack: What Are You by Lindsay Lerman, The Pussy Detective by DuVay Knox, We Were the Mulvaneys and Triumph of the Spider Monkey by Joyce Carol Oates, Devil in A Blue Dress by Walter Mosley, The Alcoholics by Jim Thompson, Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. So, I try to keep it an even mix between current book and dead masters. I wish there was two of me, or technology advanced to where you could download books directly into your brain, or just mainline that shit.
Silly questions. If you had $200 in gift cards, redeemable at any store, what books/music would you seek out right now, what intellectual itch or area of curiosity would you scratch?
I’d re-buy the Joan Didion books I lost in a break-up, then complete my James Robert Baker cache and if there was any money left over, bolster my Harlan Ellison collection.
Do you see cracks developing in the “scene” or niche of outsider lit that will schism things further? Are schisms in artistic communities always bad or always good or something in between?
I think as long as we keep a balance of humor and intensity, it is likely to stay vital; as long as we keep pushing the borders of the frame outward rather than simply be content to frame what we do. I think it’s great that there’s a conversation now that’s even challenging what “transgressive” is — if that is even a viable tag anymore, since it seems civilization has totally transgressed. I can’t think of another subculture like our corner, that thrives in defiance of what it’s tagged as.