La JohnJoseph: It’s the End of the World as We Know It
Author: Max Steele
April 16, 2014
La JohnJoseph is a bona fide art star, having performed all over the world as a pop singer, theatrical actor, and cabaret icon. Throughout her career on stage, she’s also been writing criticism, plays, and short stories for a number of outlets. This month, however, sees the publication of La JohnJoseph’s debut novel, Everything Must Go, edited by Bruce Benderson and published by ITNA Press, the new imprint founded by author Christopher Stoddard. In full disclosure: I’ve been a devoted fan and personal friend of JohnJoseph for many years now, and my over-eager expectations were totally blown away by her book. A post-apocalyptic coming-of-age adventure, centering around the high-femme heroine Diana’s mission to both save herself and destroy the world, the story introduces what feels like an entirely new literary voice. JohnJoseph’s writing careens from the conversational stage banter of a vaudevillian comedian to the gnomic proclamations of a spiritual guru. The context in her novel is in constant flux. The narrative hints at its own undoing, yet lurches forward without hesitation. The language is both brutal and beautiful, nuanced and crafted, and yet at times cunningly overwhelming. The novel’s heroine is tasked with ending existence as we know it, and through her reckoning with her awesome responsibility, La JohnJoseph depicts an unquenchable thirst for life at the end of the world. It was my great honor to get to interview La JohnJoseph about her book.
I’m curious about your views on morality. As anarchic and free-wheeling as many of the characters and scenes in the book are, they seem to exist in a deeply moral world—people know what they want and are out to get it. I’m curious how you’ve created these characters who love each other, yet are informed by different morals and values. It’s very romantic.
You know, I read The Birth of Tragedy on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. It was quite the place to read, such a promenade, and after twilight, fruit bats started squeaking and swooping and dropping berries to the ground, and so I would cycle home and think about what I’d ingested. One of the sentiments that stayed with me from Nietzsche was his rejection of morality as a fixed moral code. I don’t know if morality is quite as you put it, knowing what you want and going out to get it, but it is true that the characters all have their own agendas and their own sense of what is right and wrong, acceptable and not acceptable, what is in good taste and what is in bad taste. That, I suppose is closer to my own view of morality, that a pre-determined set of rules that apply to each applicable situation is actually closer immorality than a morality.
But obviously in the book I was satirizing manners, morals, taste and etiquette. I’m very aware that although a certain level of politeness is necessary to grease the wheels of interpersonal interactions, manners can also be suffocating and repressive. At my core I detest hypocrisy and I feel that we live in an epoch almost defined by it, even in fringe circles. The idea that as long as you commit the horrible act through the socially sanctioned steps, you have acted correctly, is so common. It’s recognizing la régle du jeu I suppose, and trying to use them to your advantage.
One of the things I know about you personally and from following other work of yours throughout the years, is your relationship to and with history. The world of Everything Must Go is in many ways post-historical. Characters from different time periods all show up together, and yet they all know who each other are, as if everyone has the same relationship to history that you do. How did you come up with this kind of flattening of time?
I think that’s actually how I experience time. I’m a huge daydreamer and whatever I am reading, or watching or musing upon, becomes my reality. I’ve experienced religious visions and trips where figures from the past have been present, so this mode of writing wasn’t much more than an extension of that state.
Given that we’re basically living online, we’re all bombarded with images and narratives from other times, aren’t we? On your browser now you might have a tab with an essay on riot grrrl open, one with a Tumblr page dedicated to Edwardian transvestites, a Mozart Requiem mass playing, a vine video showing you 10 seconds of some puking club kid, an email conversation with your mother – and you tab between them. The Internet has altered our relationship to time more profoundly I think than anything since the writings of Sartre and De Beauvoir.
I don’t think anyone believes time is linear anymore, certainly not me. I wanted the book to feel like a trip to Athens, where you see ancient ruins being excavated in the shadow of horrible 70s apartment blocks, where gorgeous dilapidated nineteenth-century houses, with trees coming through the roofs, threaten to collapse onto the McDonalds next door, and everything is covered in graffiti and the police carry machine guns and packs of dogs roam the city looking for food, but stop at the street crossing with everyone else.
I’m curious about the role of mothers in the book. Was there a conscious decision to investigate different archetypal mothers or was it more organic?
No, that was very organic, although it is quite a prominent theme now, with Diana being a mother, the appearance of the Virgin Mary, and Diana’s own long-lost mother. More than exploring mothers and motherhood, I think I wanted to describe a sort of mad, matriarchal world similar to the one I grew up in, to make it feminist and socialist but still terribly flawed. Penny Arcade once said that “People always complain about patriarchy but what about matriarchy?” I always thought that was very funny and very true.
Also, children: children are portrayed throughout the book (Baby, the Valeries) as the active agents in a post-apocalyptic world. While the aesthetic relies on a kind of gorgeous violence, children are rarely the victims, and often the perpetrators. How did you come to this vision of kids?
Oh yes, I love babies. The Valeries were both an homage to Henry Darger and also a critique of the British tabloid press with its obsession with sexual violence, specifically centered on little girls. I suppose it’s not unique to the British press but they do excel at it. And again, it’s hypocrisy, it’s graphic, sensationalist, gore porn recycled in a glorious common man morality, which appalls me.
The women and girls who commit atrocities in the novel, are almost always justified, the major crimes in the book are the executions of rapists and C.E.Os. Children don’t die in the book (except in battle) because I don’t want to see children die – it’s as selfish as that. I was always haunted by the stories of the Children’s Crusade in 1212. That was a sad source of inspiration for these child soldiers, alongside the Khmer Rouge of course. That’s really what is so sick about the book I think, that people ask me, “How did you come up with such gruesome scenes?” when in reality they’re so very close to real life horrors.
Speaking of history and mothers, I’m curious about how you feel the Bible factors into the story, both as a kind of compendium of western culture, as well as the specific context of Christianity.
I don’t think there’s much of the Bible in the novel actually. Of Christianity, yes, but not specifically the Bible. Most of the religious figures are from much later. Besides the Virgin Mary, none are contemporaries of Christ or predate him, I don’t think. I was much more interested in religious mystics and visionaries than in Biblical stories, although there is obviously more than a slight reference to the Book of Revelations in the novel. Figures like Saint Bernadette, Saint Terese d’Avilla and Saint Joan of Arc always resonated with me, and I think informed the tone of the book, these women who had holy visions. I was always very jealous of them, as a child I would stare at my hands for hours, willing my palms to bleed but it never happened, although I was visited with some frequency by the spirit of Jackie Curtis. I told Penny about it and she told me the same thing had happened to her with Diamanda Galas’ brother. I recognize now that many things that appeared to me may actually have been the product of starvation, like Saint Marguerite’s visions, because (like anyone who leaves an economically disadvantaged background in their teens and sets off across the world following their art with no visas and no financial support) I was half-starved for about a decade.
Tell me about where you were when you were writing the book; what were you thinking about? Were there any writers, books, artists, etc. that you feel particularly influenced you during the making of the book?
When I wrote the book I was in a total rage of wrath and destruction, I wonder if that is apparent? I had basically been deported from the United States and felt horrified at being forced to live in the UK again, a place I felt I had absolutely no association with. At the same time someone very close to me told me about sexual abuses they had suffered as a child at the hands of a close relative. I felt such guilt at not knowing, not having prevented it, not having been there to support this person whom I loved so much, and utterly pathetic for not seeing what had happened right under my nose. In amongst all of this, my mother told me of a friend of hers who had, after almost 40 years of abuse at the hands of her father, turned to her husband for help. Her husband blamed his wife herself for it, and began abusing her, along with his best friend, threatening to rape her daughter if she told anyone.
The woman had gone to the police and been told that the burden of proof lay with her, and had been basically driven back home. She was frantic obviously, and had only my mother to confide in. I remember my mother asking her husband for advice, and him replying, “Stay out of it, it’s not your problem.” I was so utterly horrified. I felt so disgusted and powerless hearing about this brutalized, victimized woman who seemingly no one could help. I had nightmares about it, clearly having combined her situation with what had happened to the other person in my life.
Compounding this was an immense shame surrounding my gender. I had never wanted to be male, and yet being born and socialized as so, I felt that I was in fact culpable in a power system which enabled these heinous crimes to be perpetrated and left unpunished. More so I felt that I could do nothing to help, that my apparent maleness aroused a suspicion in anyone I might try to assist. That, more than anything was the impetus to write the book. There’s a Karen Finley quote somewhere in which she says that she made her work to give voice to her mother and the countless other women she felt were unable to speak out for themselves. I think I wrote this book from a similar starting point. For me it’s as much as a vengeance novel as anything else, as much as it is a quest or an adventure.
In short, I was listening to PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love and Is This Desire on a loop, constantly, for days and days. I was drinking whiskey and taking codeine (the combination which killed Tallulah Bankhead ) and watching Bergman, Tarkovsky, Fassbinder and Jarman unceasingly. It was a very strange time for me, I was devastated and electrified by anger and pain, almost suicidal, definitely homicidal, and this book was the product of that.
How did you come to work with Christopher Stoddard and ITNA? Could you speak about being edited by Bruce Benderson? I definitely see a similar tenderness and empathy in both your writing, used to great effect. Do you feel there are similarities between your work?
Being edited by Bruce was swell, very straight forward and actually quite fun. We met in Berlin when he was visiting and writing an article for Tetu on the wild boys of Berlin. Quite how I ended up on that list, I don’t know. It was probably Travis Jeppesen’s fault. Bruce is a living encyclopedia and has an incredible eye for detail, so he really helped to give the book a rigorous logic, which holds it together. I loved Pacific Agony so it was a treat to have him as an editor. Plus he’s pure filth, which I love, obviously.
The book is inundated by news reports, pop icons, information and entertainment. I’m curious about how and why you reference it in the book. Where do you get your news from? What role do you think media has in your writing?
I read everything. I go to Democracy Now, the BBC, Salon, Jezebel, The Times online. I also love The Economist for plane trips. In my writing, this book especially, the media functions simply as another voice to facilitate the narrative. I’m manipulating it, much like real life. This week in London a new TV channel launched, and there was a front page new story in The Evening Standard. It was only a few lines into the article that I recognized the owner of the newspaper and the owner of the TV station were of course the same person! That’s genius. I refer to the media as a form of spectacle and I really try to be careful about how I interact with it. There are many things I won’t talk about in interviews, and to be honest, when I’m not acting in a professional capacity I avoid the whole business. If I’m not onstage I don’t want to be photographed and I certainly don’t want to manifest as a talking head spewing sound bites.
You’re a performer and a musician in addition to being a writer, and involved in a number of cultural métiers, much like Diana in the novel. How do you think your being a member of so many overlapping communities informs your work?
Yes, that’s quite exhausting, especially if projects overlap. But it’s also quite marvelous to be able to leave the stage for six months or so to write, or to leave writing for a month on the road. To be able to drop in and out of circles and cities means I keep myself very busy and very stimulated, without ever feeling bored or overexposed. I think that at the core of everything I do is an investigation of memory, gender and identity, and how to perform memory, gender and identity – that’s what holds it altogether. Working across media means I am always bringing over influences and experiences, unexpectedly, it’s why my music meditates on morals and quotes Proust, and why my stage work is so writerly, and why my fiction works so well when performed aloud. Usually people know me for one set of outputs, and are unaware of my other lives, which I find comforting. It sort of lets me off the hook. Then occasionally I find someone who follows everything I do and has connected the dots, and that I find even more gratifying.
With the release of the book you’ve been doing readings all over the world. Are there particular parts or themes you generally like to read? How does “performing” the book differ from your other performances?
I love reading from the book actually. I love that the book basically performs itself. I just have to say the words – it’s divine. After playing parts like Duchess of Malfi, which required me to memorise three acts of seventeenth-century verse, or performing my own show “Boy in a Dress” for 27 consecutive shows at the Edinburgh Festival, or touring Europe singing in a different city each night after three hours sleep and eight hours on a bus, book readings are terrific. I’m actually really into pretending that I’m Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom for my readings. I like to put on my antique crystal earrings and a chic frock, and reading in an almost bedtime story style, this utterly malicious and repugnant novel.
Who are some of your touchstones, in terms of craft and aesthetics? Are there any writers who inspire your work in terms of style?
Writing Everything Must Go I actually had no stylistic references in mind. I was clearly deranged at the time. I was, however, knowingly modeling it structurally on a lot of fantasy fiction – C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and Terry Brooks, who wrote things like The Sword of Shannara. I can’t believe I’m admitting to being such a dork, but it’s true. As a child I read the Bible, Shakespeare and fantasy fiction almost exclusively so the book has a sort of bombastic feel to it. Even though it’s only 196 pages it seems epic because it’s so saturated. Specifically, I borrowed the narrative tropes of setting out on a mission of global importance, finding a rag-tag band of cohorts, travelling unbelievable distances, and overcoming insurmountable odds from fantasy fiction. I took all of that and made it wildly mundane. The conclusion is so unremarkable it’s hilarious, and there are endless little chit-chats which puncture the tension. This contrast between extreme horror and very prosaic interactions, side by side, is what makes the book so weird in retrospect. It’s a little like the movie Eat the Rich which I just saw and am absolutely in love with now. In the most tender, touching, good bye scene, the protagonists stop to pass a bag of candy back and forth. So genius. It’s Brechtian, and very camp, and yet very workaday.
In terms of style I recognize now the influence of Kathy Acker, Angela Carter and Ronald Firbanks, though they weren’t deliberate references as I wrote [the book]. Genet I think was the keystone, though that might not be apparent. His writing gave me a real license, I felt, to explore reality as I felt fit. And reading Wojnarowicz opened up a portal for dealing with immense personal horror in a vicious way, a courage I suppose. Virginia Woolf (naturally, with Orlando, but also Mrs. Dalloway) was I felt justification for taking dreamy tangents, and using them to paint a landscape. Also, without being a total kiss-ass, your writing also was very important in the writing of the book. Your exceptional sexual psychedelic throbbing helped me escape a lot of shame about being so queer, and about wanting to write dirty stuff.
Who would play Diana and Candy Bar and Thackeray and Baby in the movie version of the book?
Candy Bar I think should probably be played by Miranda Richardson, and I think you should play Thackeray and I’ll play Diana so we can each get a million dollars and spend eight weeks snuggled on set in New Mexico. Baby is the hardest casting decision. I think she should be played by either Skeeter from the Muppet Babies or the dancing baby from Ally McBeal. What do you think?