I recently sat down with the extraordinarily charming writer, artist, essayist and journalist, Trinie Dalton. We talked about her growing up in LA, mushrooms, the short story form, some of her favorite writers, what it is to be a poet, language, sounds, books, monsters, myths, writing and art.
ML: You were brought up in LA and at the same time spent a lot of time communing with nature.
TD: I did most of my early writing stream-side in the local mountains. I got really into Japanese poetry!
ML:You were telling me as a child how you and your brother made books together. You would write a story, he would collage things, sometimes vice versa.
TD: My brother was a talented artist (he still is…Greg Dalton) and so I’d recruit him to illustrate my books or to let me write stories about his drawings. We have several booklets we made with construction paper and crayon about various monsters. He was into the Universal Studios monster icons, while I was more into storybook fantasy.
ML: Your introduction to poetry come in your early years in high school, was it then that you know you wanted to write. Who inspired you?
TD: I was very close to my teachers in school, especially my English and Art teachers. I admired Shakespeare’s sonnets, John Donne, loved the music inherent to the classics. Basically, I was a Sylvia Plath wannabe. But I was rather rebellious and liked psychedelics, so I had a teacher in tenth grade who noted similarities between my poetry and e.e. cummings’ (very polite of her!). She opened up the world of experimental and beat poetry to me. High school was all about Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Kerouac… Through them I came to read the 60s and 70s counterculture gurus, like McKenna, Huxley, Kesey, and new Journalists like Tom Wolfe. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest were the texts I cited on my graduation yearbook page! Unfortunately, I was hung up on the retro thing, but it was a good springboard. From the beginning I was into people who studied form enough to break it in interesting ways. I also sought to have that confidence in voice that these famous men had, as a woman.
ML: You also have a good sense of science. What interested you in the sciences? Had you considered being a scientist?
TD: Growing up in the Angeles Crest foothills, I got to know the local mountains well. I signed up to volunteer with the Forest Service, and we’d clear trails, clean up after bears, all that…the ranger I trained with taught me how to ID flowering plants and from there I was hooked on natural sciences. Heading up to Humboldt County for college, I focused on Environmental Science, Astronomy, and Biology, thinking a forestry degree would be cool. But then when I faced Chemistry and Math, I hit the wall and realized I was an artist, not a scientist! I like to make science stories up, how plants came to look the way they look, what medicinal values they may have. It’s a big part of my life but I don’t care to be too accurate. My husband and I hunt all different types of mushrooms, and do work hard to ID them properly. But ultimately, we like fungi because mushrooms are inherently weird, beautiful, and they spark our creativity.
ML: At some point you fell in love with the short story form. When and how did this happen?
TD: After so many years of reading Tom Wolfe, Terry Southern, Joan Didion—writers who have such strong voices in the first person—I suppose I felt I had permission to begin writing in that first-person voice. From there, I started writing stories in “my” voice, and fictionalizing from there. While working as a librarian at Art Center College of Design, I studied short story with Benjamin Weissman, semester after semester. He taught me a lot about writing and exposed me to many contemporary authors who push the story form.
ML: There seems now to be a real interest in the short form with a number of anthologies being published, the short-short form, flash fiction.
TD: Yes, there is real public interest in short fiction right now. If only there would be better ways to support short fiction writing: more grant opportunities, more paying magazines and journals! Another interviewer recently said the same to me about the resurgence of the novella, as if the reading public can’t handle long novels anymore. I think readers will read long works of high quality, and it is less about length than about engagement with the text. Though I do champion any promotion about short fiction, since short story is my favorite prose form. I think we’re finally seeing what the post Gordon Lish generations are making of New York “short short” story styles from the 80s. (Many of those who trained with him, like Amy Hempel and Gary Lutz, developed rigorous rules against wordiness.)
ML: You are also very interested in cultural mythology and oral story telling.
TD: Right now, I am studying African, Asian, and Native American mythologies, in particular those related to the monstrous or abhorrent. I like myths that warn against taboo breaking. That’s when chaos can really ensue and the storyteller’s imagination can run free.
ML: You write about communications between humans and animals, humans from different times, fairy tales, monsters, the abject.
TD: To ignore horror feels a bit escapist to me. The animal-human bonding issue is sort of separate from horror, in that I study it more in regards to shamanism and human relationship to ecosystem. Human connection with non-human beings. Life is much larger than us. But when one gets into fairy tale and the realm of monsters, animal-human overlap can get horrible fast! Going back to the taboo breaking stories, the great mutant monsters are often borne from commingling between human and animals. There is a katsina in Hopi religion that is semi-Frankensteinian, stitched together from many different creatures. To me, that is the scariest kind of monster, one that is not at home anywhere. The monster adrift.
ML: What is your interest in horror? You've talked about Lovecraft's notion of cosmic horror, supernatural horror, tell us about this.
TD: Monsters highlight human fears, and reveal the culture in which they are invented. For MYTHTYM, I got into the uncanny monsters: doppelgangers, evil twins, schizophrenics, the doubling in one self that proves that we are not in control of everything inside our minds. I used mirrors as the symbol for this, and collected a body of work surrounding these topics. Maybe that lack of self-control is one of the scariest notions of all, across the world. Lovecraft, in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, writes about a “savage dawn,” a life that includes and maybe even embraces the flip side of mundane reality: the cryptic, occult, extra-terrestrial, the spheres of the unknown. While I’m not very into aliens, I do like his definitions of “weird.”
Lovecraft says that a “weird story whose intent is to teach or produce social effect, or one in which the horrors are finally explained away by natural means, is not a genuine tale of cosmic fear…” He most admires stories that evoke “primal emotion,” that show the abyss and leave one in it, rather than rescue one out. I wholeheartedly dislike moral tales, whereas I love any tale that leaves one wondering about larger mysteries.
ML: In your first book, 'Wide-Eyed', a collection of short stories, you write about many things, one of them is fears revealed through horror in gender stereo types. You have this extraordinary innocence that's always proximate to dreams and death, like in Extreme Sweets how the narrator describes being inside the tornado in Oz in an elevator in the sky but underwater. How do you think of these things, were do they come from?
TD: Sometimes the symbols are crafted from dream imagery, changed and skewed but based on archetypes. The sky elevator, of course, is a dream image that pays homage to Dahl’s Great Glass Elevator, fear of falling, etc. I like symbolic objects that are clichéd to gender, then twisting them, because those stereotypes are obviously imposed on us from the time we’re born. I use color in that way, the blue/pink boy/girl thing…many people are surprised to discover that pink was once considered the “too masculine” color for girls. Anyway, symbols that conjure innocence in girlhood, as in my story about slumber parties, “Chrysalis,” that likens sleeping bags to butterfly cocoons, I love to undercut. I get real joy out of proving that those objects and symbols are not implicitly girly, and that girly, by definition, does not represent some innocent, virginal stage. The virginal innocence in young women is a male fantasy that I’m attracted to and repelled by, therefore I’m interested in exploring it.
ML: You mentioned how Benjamin Weissman was one of your teachers. How was he, Dennis Cooper, Amy Gerstler and other writers involved with Beyond Baroque informative influential inspirational for you? There is humor in the abject that comes from this group. Certainly sex and horror.
TD: They teach me to embrace and exploit embarrassment in fiction. To be an uncompromising artist, to be brave. To accept that humiliation is part of life and can seed great art. To be self-motivated and to persevere. To not be shy about exploring sexual desires through artistic means. Like Dennis always says in interviews: it’s better to write about killing people than to actually do it.
ML: Before I forget what are some of your favorite Lesbian Vampire movies from the 70's.
TD: Vampyros Lesbos, Daughters of Darkness, all of Jean Rollin’s films, Les Vampyres, Girl Slaves of Morgana Le Fey…there are so many great ones!
ML: Why do you think we are so obsessed with Vampires? Is it about slavery and control?
TD: I like vampires because they suck blood and they can live for thousands of years. I think vampires are sexy and wise.
ML: How did your interest in monsters come about?
TD: All the mythological creatures I prefer tend to represent some facet of wilderness, fear of the unknown and the power that one can attain when that fear is harnessed.
ML: I am curious, you do so many things, when do you get to write. What is your process of writing? Do you write from dreams, research, keep a journal.
TD: I keep post-its notes in a basket with story titles and sentences that I want to work on later. I make collages and base fiction on them. I do record my dreams when I’m being properly diligent. I keep notebooks, and a file cabinet of art/text reference files for inspiration.
ML: Story structures, story forms, what are some of your compositional strategies?
TD: Currently, I either cut-and-paste paragraphs I write into longer texts, like DIY zine snippets. Or, I write an introduction, then sit on the story beginning while it simmers in my head until I have the whole thing packed in there like a firecracker. At that point, I sit down and write the first draft for several hours straight. Then go back and revise, often several times. Either approach goes for blasts of text, so the energy remains compressed and the text stays dynamic.
ML: You move easily between writing and collage, art criticism, music reviews, catalogue writing, interviews and more. You have two desks, a writing desk and an art desk.
TD: It’s not really that easy for me, all told. I enjoy all of these endeavors, but it does make my brain tired. I like working each day until I feel like my mind has been exercised until it is about to explode. In the workshop I aspire to I will have four or five large desks and some helpers with administrative emailing. I get really tired of the computer and the tactile projects save me from becoming a total word-processing robot.
ML: A lot your art comes out of collage and zines and you have recently published Mythtym which looks beautiful. How did you go about this?
TD: Mythtym is made from three zines, two previously made and one built particularly for the compilation. A Touch Of Class was about unicorns, and accompanied a band I was in called Unicornucopia. Werewolf Express was made for a curated exhibit at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco. And Mirror/Horror premiered in Mythtym. Rather than just reprinting the old materials, I renovated each issue, did new type treatments and added in new work. More importantly, I collaborated with this amazing book designer, James Goggin of Practise UK. He did amazing typesetting and layout to tame the crazy DIY aesthetic.
ML: Tell us about Dear New Girl.... and how you went about making it.
TD: I confiscated notes from high schoolers and organized them into binders. Then my friend and co-editors, Lisa Wagner, who is a skilled typographer and book designer, offered to transform these note binders into a printed book. So we farmed out note packets to artists, collected their art, and built the book from there. It’s a tribute to teens, that time in my life, and to improvisation and collaboration.
ML: You recently wrote for art+culture a series of posts on small presses. Maybe you can tell us about a few of them and the kinds of artists books some of them are publishing.
TD: On the blog, I’ve been focusing on publishers who have visual/text overlap. Picturebox, of course, TV Books, the music labels like Drag City who publish books, anyone who mixes medium. I’m a big fan of transgressing one’s practice: musicians making art, writers drawing…I’ve also been writing about artists and authors who are adept visually and textually, as was Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomintroll sagas. She is a hero of mine.
ML: You are now going to be spending some of your time in New Mexico. You'll be able to commune with nature and talk to the spirits. You must be looking forward to it.
TD: I am really excited to start splitting time between wilderness and the city. I love both. I’m also sincerely hoping to get to know the cultures there, and to learn about American history the way it really went down. I love Pueblo Indian pottery and Diné weaving so I’m also excited from the craft perspective.