Díre McCain is a survivor. Editor in Chief at the internationally-renowned Paraphilia Magazine, which has, since its inception in 2009, built a reputation for writing and art of outstanding quality while existing far beyond the realms of the mainstream, she’s liked and respected in many underground circles. While she’s contributed writing to a number of publications both on-line and in print, Playing Chicken With Thanatos is her first book-length work. It doesn’t sit comfortably within the ‘novel’ category, but then nor is it a straight autobiography or memoir. It is, however, Díre’s story. By turns harrowing and hilarious, it’s a consistently compelling read. I was keen to put some questions to Díre, and to find out if her achievements in recent years have happened because of, or in spite of, her difficult and often painful adolescence, the subject of Playing Chicken With Thanatos.
Edward S. Robinson: First, I’d like to say congratulations on an excellent book. The reception it’s had has been very warm, and it seems to be reaching a fairly broad audience. How does that feel for you, as a writer, given the fact Playing Chicken With Thanatos is an intensely personal work?
Díre McCain: Thank you! It feels incredible and oddly redemptive, since I misspent years trying to bury the chapter of my life on which the book focuses, inadvertently making myself unwell in the process. Fast forward to the present, and people are thanking me in beautiful, thoughtfully written emails for letting it all hang out. I can’t begin to express how much that means. Not knowing if I had writing chops, self-doubt reared its crippling head throughout the creation process. Coupled with the personal nature of the book’s content, I was apprehensive about releasing it right up until it was published. The fact that it’s reaching, resonating and staying with people has made me realize that releasing it was the only choice.
ESR:You clearly had a quite unconventional upbringing that will doubtless prove to be quite an eye-opener for many readers. As you say yourself within the book, you were extremely keen – or perhaps desperate would be a more apposite choice of word – to escape that life, the situations and the people, so the idea of revisiting those formative years in such detail must have been extremely painful. What prompted you to write the book, and was it easier or more difficult than you had anticipated when you embarked on the project?
Díre McCain:I began writing solely for therapeutic reasons, after emerging from a psychological coma induced by my refusal to come to terms with what I’d been through in my adolescence. At first, I was merely spewing memories and information onto the screen. As I went along, it became more of a purging, and ultimately developed a life of its own, that of an actual book. Revisiting those years and reliving some of the events, although painful, was the only way those soul-decaying demons were ever going to be exorcised. It was difficult yet cathartic, as one would expect.
It was equally difficult much later in the process, after the foundation was built and I was struggling to complete the book as a writer rather than a person undergoing self-therapy.
ESR:In that sense, do you really feel it was a matter of choice? A lot of writers write through a kind of compulsion, and I recall an interview with Kathy Acker in which she said, “I write to get it out of me. I don’t write to remember it.” Would you say that was partly the case for you, with that sense of ‘purging?’
Díre McCain:There was definitely a greater force at work. Even with the way the book began. I just woke up one day and felt impelled to write, as if I were possessed, after not writing a single word for ages. That compulsion then carried me through the near ten-year creation process, even when I felt like throwing in the towel or worse yet, trashing the entire work in progress, which nearly happened more than once. Thank god I ignored that mad impulse.
ESR:From beginning to end, how long did the book take to complete?
Díre McCain:The first words were banged out in spring of 2004, and the final draft was completed in autumn of 2013, with the book being published on November 14, 2013. I never anticipated it taking that long, but various distractions kept getting in the way, and the nature of the book is such that it couldn’t have been forced, rushed, or done half-heartedly.
ESR:In many respects, of course, the underlying narrative, the story, was already set, being determined by real-life events. How much did you, as an author, have to ‘intervene’ in order to render the sequence within the book coherent?
Díre McCain:Well, the book began as a series of what could have been standalone stories, aside from the beginning and ending chapters. As it continued to mushroom and assume the form of a book, I realized that there needed to be some kind of continuity, although not necessarily linear, since life is rarely linear. Two or three drafts into it, I did some rearranging and created segues between the chapters, and voila!
Also, there was a surplus of material going in and coming out, since my adolescence was unrelentingly eventful. I had to decide what and who to include. Narrow it down, that is. I probably could have written a 1000-pager, if I’d told the whole tale.
ESR:The narrative is straightforward, direct, but without being in any way ‘dumbed down’ or overtly populist, and there’s a very definite rhythm to the prose and a strong sense of structure overall. How much editing did it take to achieve that balance between accessibility and remaining true to yourself, as someone with what one might call more ‘fringe’ literary tastes?
Díre McCain:Not much at all, due to the kind of book it is. With the earliest draft, I simply let it all spill out of my head, as if the computer were a passenger stuck next to me on an interminable flight, and in some places, a narcoleptic shrink. Many people have remarked on the conversational nature, saying it feels as though I’m speaking to them directly, which I was hoping to achieve.
In the beginning, I was also re-teaching myself how to write, having not only removed myself from higher education a few years prior, but life as well. My brain was rusty, although I think that was a blessing in that I wasn’t bogged down by the usual crap writers worry about, including an audience. I simply wanted to get the story out of my head and onto the screen. When I did begin to edit, it was mostly for stylistic and structural purposes, so the readers would remain interested and unconfused.
Now, my fiction is an entirely different animal that does indeed exist on the fringes. It requires a turn of mind that was absent in Playing Chicken With Thanatos, although I still think it’s entirely accessible, albeit bound to offend certain people.
ESR:On the subject of your literary tastes, you are perhaps best known as the editor in chief at Paraphilia Magazine. How did the work with the publication inform the writing process? Do you think it’s helped connect you to an audience for the book?
Díre McCain:I’m a lifelong habitual reader, but my peculiar and often uncooperative brain requires complete focus when in writing mode. I can’t have my head swarming with other people’s words, no matter how remarkable. It’s like having those people in the room with me, reading their work aloud while I’m trying to write. Even emails and texts can clutter and distract. As a result, Paraphilia became a persistent albeit unintentional hindrance to the writing process. Every time I attempted to return to my book, the magazine would intervene, making it impossible. Although I was aware it was happening, I didn’t realize the true magnitude until I put Paraphilia on the backburner and began focusing on my own work.
On the upside, I’m sure the magazine did connect me to an audience for the book, although I have no way of knowing to what degree. It certainly connected me with some extraordinary and insanely talented human beings, many of whom I now consider family.
ESR:The book’s published by Apophenia, which is a part of the Paraphilia setup. Is this indicative of a particularly antagonistic stance to the conventional publishing model, in eschewing conventional publishing channels? If so, what are your reasons?
Díre McCain:No, it’s not that elaborate, and I don’t have any real issues with conventional publishing, since I’ve never attempted to go that route. I’d be opining about a subject I’m experientially unfamiliar with there. That said, it’s common knowledge that obscure and lesser-known artists in any field are often treated differently than those with a name, and the almighty dollar usually dictates the course, as with any business.
Apophenia was created to provide a home for some of the Paraphilia Books titles, after that label was killed last year. It seemed logical to publish my own book as well, especially given its subject matter. That decision was reinforced by my memories of an experience I had in 2006, when I consulted briefly with some industry folks, long before the book was even close to being complete. I immediately realized that if I followed their advice, Playing Chicken With Thanatos would never come to life in its envisioned and intended form. I’m certain a hatchet would’ve been taken to it in a number of places, followed by lettered yet uninitiated people attempting to rewrite portions of a story they’ve never lived and have no right to tell.
Of course, I want people to read the book, and had an established publisher come along with an offer that was agreeable in terms of creative control, I would’ve jumped on it. Primarily because I wouldn’t be flying solo in letting the world know that the book exists. PR can be a real slog when you have no budget to hire anyone and don’t know anyone who works for any major media outlets. I’m relying largely upon word of mouth, and have been fortunate that some wonderful people at independent venues have generously offered a helping hand.
ESR:It’s fair to say then that by some margin you value artistic integrity and control over financial reward. Do you think art (in any form) and business (big-money or otherwise) are fundamentally incompatible bedfellows?
Díre McCain:I don’t think they’re incompatible by nature. As with much else that’s completely illogical in our world, that conflict is humanmade and deliberate. I believe that if the people in charge and society at large pulled their indoctrinated heads out of their rigidly conventional asses, a healthy balance between art and business could be found and sustained on a grand scale. Humankind would be better off for it as well.
Back to the first part of your question: I may not be as adamant about other works of mine, but artistic integrity and control were indispensible with Playing Chicken With Thanatos. The book represents a significant and defining chunk of my life. Not only having lived the experiences chronicled, but the blood, sweat, tears, and years that went into writing about it as well.
ESR:A number of reviews have drawn comparisons between Playing Chicken With Thanatos and a number of other works, including Bukowski’s novels and You Can’t Win by Jack Black, which was a great influence on William S. Burroughs, and I understand you haven’t (yet) read. I would also locate the book in a broader and also much older tradition, that of the picaresque novel, on account of its episodic approach to narrative. Where do you yourself see Playing Chicken With Thanatos sitting in stylistic, literary terms?
Díre McCain:I see Playing Chicken With Thanatos sitting in its own unique place. That’s why the BISAC code is Non-Classifiable, and I refer to the book as a book or work of literature, rather than a memoir, novel, or any other specific label. I’m probably doing myself a disservice in terms of marketing, but my aversion to categorization and the pigeon-holing, thought-swaying baggage that comes with it is at an all-time high.
Having said all that, the book is definitely autobiographical. The only fictional aspects are set forth in the thoughtfully worded disclaimer on the copyright page, which everyone should read before embarking on the journey. All of the characters and events are real, but who wants to read a monotonic Joe Fridayesque account? I believe the trick to telling a good true story is to make it as engaging as possible without compromising the facts. It did help tremendously that the people in my life at that time were real characters, as in eccentrics, who pretty much wrote themselves. Plus, as I already mentioned, there was no shortage of material, a fact that influenced my decision to go with an episodic structure. Add my often maddening exceptional memory, the emotional element, my voluble nature and personality as a whole, and you have what became the book’s style.
And You Can’t Win has been at the top of my reading list for a couple of months now. As soon as I complete the handful of writing projects I’m currently working on, I plan to jump in.
ESR:Who are the writers and indeed, artists more broadly, you would align yourself with?
Díre McCain:Visionaries, genuine mavericks, and anyone with an artistic fire inside that refuses to be extinguished, despite repeated attempts by external forces.
ESR:You’re obviously someone who’s passionate about music as well, although Playing Chicken With Thanatos is, to my mind, a book that doesn’t tie itself to its time by referencing music too heavily. What would be the book’s soundtrack, if it were to have one?
Díre McCain:Interesting you mentioned that, because I do have an ever growing, ever changing soundtrack in my head, should the book ever become a film or television series. Similar to my present-day life soundtrack, it could never be shackled to a single time, and would include an eclectic and encompassing variety of music from the 1920s through the 1990s, with a splash from the Classical era as well.
ESR:It would definitely work as a film, because it’s plot-driven and character-based – which life rarely is (beyond the fact that everyone is the lead character in the film of their own life). In your dream scenario, who would direct a film version of Playing Chicken With Thanatos, and who would play you?
Díre McCain:Overambitious perhaps, but I’d love to co-direct it myself, along with a (tel)empathic [sic] and necessarily skilled accomplice who’d do the story justice, since it’s an arena in which I’m inexperienced. As for the casting, I believe most of the actors, including whoever would play me, have yet to be discovered. They’re probably performing in unsung theatres somewhere, or in truly independent films. As a theatre student and aspiring actor in early adulthood, that’s where I encountered some of the most phenomenal talent, hands down.
On a related note, the prospect of adapting the story into a film or television series was discussed with those industry folks I mentioned earlier. They claimed that no one in Hollywood would go near it, since it involves underage kids engaging in illicit activities. Which, of course, never happens in the real world, right? More important, the aspects of the story that could be deemed controversial are incidental to the big picture, which I believe has broad appeal. It wouldn’t be a Larry Clark film, far from it. There are a number of themes and undercurrents at work in Playing Chicken With Thanatos that transcend the obvious or potentially shocking. One doesn’t need to be a junkie or juvenile delinquent to relate, and I think anyone who’s read the book would agree. Although there are certainly dissimilarities, the idea that kids are a different species than adults is beyond ridiculous. I rarely quote others, but Robert Seitz (who interviewed the author earlier in the year) summed it up so clearly and eloquently here:
“There is a desire to flesh out the experiences of a troubled youth in a way that avoids the pedantic, and gives credibility to the awareness and individuality of youth, making the book something that should interest anyone struggling with the impositions of our uniform, mediated modernity. It is medicine, the kind that’s delivered with shock paddles.”
ESR:It’s one of the most well-worn clichés that everyone has a book in them – albeit one I personally don’t adhere to. Is Playing Chicken With Thanatos your one book, or do you feel that having made the initial breakthrough, there’s more to come?
Díre McCain:I have no plans to compose another autobiographical book, and probably don’t have another 350-pager in me either, but who knows? Assuming I reach the average life expectancy, I still have several decades ahead of me and am only getting warmed up on the creative front. I returned to SoCal in 2006 to focus on my creative endeavors, including writing, and have yet to give it my all. Back to Paraphilia, a project that began as an unplanned leap in the dark, for lack of a better description. It’s been life-changing and emotionally rewarding, and will continue indefinitely, although not at the same level of intensity as the past five years. I feel I’ve done what I needed to there, and it’s time to move forward and tend to myself again. The magazine is finally in a position where it’s operating somewhat independently and not eating a significant chunk of my life, which means I can focus on my own work for the foreseeable future. There are currently a handful of projects in progress that will come to life in the coming months.
Purchase Playing Chicken With Thanatos here.
–Edward S. Robinson