• Neil Gaiman on the Great Kathy Acker

    Rereading Pussy, King of the Pirates

    I’ve never liked the idea of originality, and so my whole life I’ve always written by taking other texts, inhabiting them in some way so I can do something with them.

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    –Kathy Acker

    Neil speaks: I miss Kathy. I miss her in a particular way that I do not miss most of my dead friends. I miss Kathy because I forget she is dead, over and over, and expect to see her when I’m in one of the places I would run into her, Soho or SoHo or even Berkeley. I expect to answer the phone and it will be Kathy asking for a favor in a way that makes it clear she isn’t asking. I said yes to pretty much every request, except when she asked me to accompany her for a week to stay with William Burroughs in Kansas. (I liked the William Burroughs in my head too much to risk spoiling him with the real person.)

    As I type this I am listening to the Pussy, King of the Pirates album she made with the Mekons, enjoying her voice, about to plunge into a YouTube deep dive, to watch her do readings, watch her be interviewed and explain her work. She doesn’t feel dead. She doesn’t feel done.

    I read Blood and Guts in High School first, a review copy from Picador. I had no idea what I was reading, but I knew I loved it, whatever it was. It seemed to be three short novels, rewrites that amounted to full-frontal assaults on other books, one of which was Great Expectations. There was a South Bank Show, the UK arts documentary hosted by Melvyn Bragg, about Kathy, and I watched it, and learned that she was a very intense, hard-edged person who was very serious about everything. I also got the impression that she was extremely tall.

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    I met her about a year after that. I discovered that she was extremely small, and she was not hard-edged at all. She was funny, so funny. She was a bodybuilder, in the process of getting a glorious back tattoo, rode a motorbike, owned a pair of lovebirds, knew almost everyone, delighted in passing on other people’s secrets and in keeping many of her own.

    When we die, we stop being linear and become holograms: no longer points on a line, we are complete and all times are one to us. Kathy Acker is all the Kathies she ever was now: the baby whose father left her mother when she was pregnant, the woman whose mother committed suicide, the young sex worker, the literary activist, the middle-aged teacher, the woman who, at 50, died in room 101 in a Tijuana alternative cancer clinic. I’m calling her there at the clinic from Wisconsin in 1997, the week she will die, to tell her that I love her and to say goodbye, and simultaneously I’m meeting her for the first time at a party being held for Tama Janowitz and her book Slaves of New York in London’s Groucho Club in 1986. (Kathy has written an article a few weeks earlier, for one of the British newspapers, in which she has said that Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing is the best writing out there, and so I ask the poet Roz Kaveney to introduce us.)

    I soon found myself caught up, mostly as an observer, occasionally as a fairly innocent bystander, in Kathy’s life. And she was funny enough, and smart enough, and charming enough that I never minded. She would sometimes ask me to play the character of her boyfriend at social events where she needed a beard, and when I could, I did, and it amused me.

    Kathy was a punk author, making words and sentences do things they were never meant to do.

    She was not the kind of writer who talked about what she was writing, although she would talk about anything she read that she had enjoyed with passion and delight. She was the kind of writer who talked about her agent, and then fired her agent, and then got a new agent and grumbled about that agent; and who talked about her publisher, and left her publisher for a new publisher who was going to treat her better than the last one had, and then they never did; who told you that she didn’t care about publishers or publishing because she made her money from doing readings or, later, from teaching, but who cared intensely, aware that she was building a body of work that was uniquely hers.

    She called me once from New York, telling me that she had just bought, sight unseen, a flat in Brighton, England (a town that will show up in Pussy, King of the Pirates), but was now going to San Francisco to teach, and so would I sell the flat for her? And then she got off the phone before I could say no. (I did not sell the flat for her, to her enormous irritation, because I moved to the US instead. She mailed the keys back to whichever financial institution had given her the mortgage, ceased paying them, and pretended it had never happened.) She stopped talking to me, due to my having failed to sell her flat, and then, about 18 months later, turned up at signing of mine in the Bay Area. She wanted to know why I’d stopped talking to her, and, because I’d never been the one to stop talking (I was never able to be angry with Kathy, mostly just amused, because she was funny, and impressed, because she was brilliant, and accepting, because she was a flake), I didn’t have an answer, and just cheerfully apologized, so we were friends again.

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    A text exchange

    But this is meant to be about Pussy, King of the Pirates, the book. So I will stop remembering Kathy, for a bit, and I will tell you what she wrote, and why this matters, and what sort of a book Pussy, King of the Pirates is, and why that matters.

    After all, I loved Kathy Acker, and I love her books.

    Kathy loved plagiarism. This is a recent text exchange I had with a friend who asked what I was writing. I will change the name of the person sending me the texts to Janey Smith, the heroine of Kathy’s novel Blood and Guts in High School, but she could be Silver or Bad Dog or even Hecate.

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    Janey Smith: What are you working on?

    Neil Gaiman: I’m writing about Kathy Acker’s book Pussy, King of the Pirates.

    Janey Smith: So. I’m a listless hipster girl with a very creative fringe, aged about 25, picking up this book in a shop in Brooklyn. Why should I read Kathy Acker?

    Neil Gaiman: Kathy was a punk author. She was also an experimental author, who loved words and sentences and loved doing things to them and loved what they could do. Pussy, King of the Pirates is the story of two or three years of Kathy’s life, as viewed through Story of O and Treasure Island, and it becomes something that is more than that. A Girl Power story about girl pirates and sex, an exploration of power, and a glorious unfettered romp. Kathy used original texts like Rorschach blots, seeing what she could find in them, and she used them like Tom Phillips used the Victorian novel A Human Document, which he drew all over to create his art-novel, A Humument. She was out on the front lines of text, making words and sentences do things they were never meant to do in ways that would make you think about reading even as you read.

    Janey Smith: Wow.

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    Janey Smith: So she was mainly a writer? A porn writer?

    Janey Smith: This sounds like someone I would want to read. Did she live the same way she wrote?

    Neil Gaiman: Kathy Acker was a thinker, a performer, a reader of her work, a poet, a teacher. But it started with the words, and with the writing. She wrote porn because porn texts were there in the things she’d cut up and play with and interrogate. She was someone who did not believe that there was any gradation between good writing and schlock and took her inspiration and her material from anywhere.

    Janey Smith: Hang on, so . . . should I be thinking that some of this is going to be schlock?

    Janey Smith: As a 25-year-old woman who is a feminist but also likes shagging I am not sure how I am supposed to feel about people who write porn, especially as I associate porn with misogynist video clips . . .

    Neil Gaiman: Kathy interrogated texts by pirating them, plagiarizing them and rewriting them. Famed schlock author Harold Robbins demanded an apology from Kathy for using a four-page sex scene from one of his books in a story reprinted in a collection called Young Lust. She had taken his text and mashed it up in order to show us what was underlying his assumptions.

    Janey Smith: And what was?

    Neil Gaiman: As she said,

    I didn’t create language, writer thought. Later she would think about ownership and copyright. I’m constantly being given language. Since this language-world is rich and always changing, flowing, when I write, I enter a world which has complex relations and is, perhaps, illimitable. This world both represents and is human history, public memories and private memories turned public, the records and actualizations of human intentions. This world is more than life and death, for here life and death conjoin. I can’t make language, but in this world, I can play and be played.

    So where is ”my voice”?

    Janey Smith: Was that meant to be a poem?

    Neil Gaiman: Not exactly a poem. But an attack on language: there is no “I” in there, even as she explains what she’s trying to do as a writer and what kept her going.

    Neil Gaiman:

    Having fun with texts is having fun with everything and everyone. Since didn’t have one point of view or centralized perspective, was free to find out how texts she used and was worked. In their contexts which were (parts of) culture.

    Liked best of all mushing up texts.

    Began constructing her first story by placing mashed-up texts by and about Henry Kissinger next to “True Romance” texts. What was the true romance of America? Changed these “True Romance” texts only by heightening the sexual crudity of their style. Into this mush, placed four pages out of Harold Robbins’, one of her heroes’, newest hottest bestsellers. Had first made Jacqueline Onassis the star of Robbins’ text.

    Twenty years later, a feminist publishing house republished the last third of the novel in which this mash occurred.

    Neil Gaiman: The feminist publishing house, having received a letter from Harold Robbins’s lawyer, immediately pulped the book and demanded that Kathy apologize for an act of plagiarism—or in this case, doing what she had been doing, as an act of literary bricolage, for well over a decade. Kathy was wounded by this. She left London then and went to New York. William Burroughs contacted Robbins, who gave Kathy retroactive permission to use anything of his for her purposes, but the damage was done.

    Janey Smith: I find myself wondering . . . what might she have thought of the world I live in and the life I’m living?

    Neil Gaiman: Kathy would have swum in this world like a dolphin in an ocean. Her death in 1996 deprived us of an elder stateswoman of literature who would have shocked, provoked, inspired, and outraged today’s literary world. They are already putting her on pedestals, and Kathy didn’t like pedestals.

    Kathy wrote about herself in her books, because her diaries and journals, her dreams and dream-journals were part of who she was.

    Neil Gaiman: She once said, “My strongest desire . . . is to make it possible for people like me to be in society.” Now the world is filled with people like her.

    Neil Gaiman: Including you.

    Janey Smith: Oh! You think so? I so wish we could have met.

    Neil Gaiman: Kathy wrote about herself in her books, because her diaries and journals, her dreams and dream-journals were part of who she was. But she would superimpose herself onto the characters in the books . . .

    Janey Smith: Will I be shocked by her? It’s dangerous to shock people these days.

    Neil Gaiman: I hope so. Shocked by her individuality, by her outspokenness, by her sense of self.

    Janey Smith: I worry about shocking people more and more. It feels like . . . it’s more dangerous to be brave, and there is too much crisis and horror for punk to matter. What would she say to that?

    Neil Gaiman: She’d inspire, by being brave. Because she was unshockable. Because she wrote with a vibrator on and in to find out what it did to her writing. Because she walked out of a hospital, the same day she had her cancerous breasts removed, and refused to go back. Because she was gentle and funny, and nobody ever expected that.

    Janey Smith: What? Why didn’t she go back?

    Neil Gaiman: Because she didn’t like it there.

    Janey Smith: I suppose gentleness is sometimes the most shocking thing.

    Janey Smith: When and how did you first meet?

    Neil Gaiman: At a book launch for someone unlikely. A Picador author. Tama Janowitz. I jumped on Kathy because she’d said something in print recently about Alan Moore and Love and Rockets in an article, which made her the only Real Author I’d met who knew that stuff. I was expecting someone tall and terrifying—I’d seen a South Bank Show on her. Instead this small, sweet woman became my friend. I got her to write an introduction to a Love and Rockets collection that wasn’t published because Jaime Hernandez didn’t like it (if I remember correctly). She became friends with Alan Moore. She hated the stuff I wrote that seemed like normal literature, and then after Sandman issue 6 she decided I was a Real Writer and not a groupie. But I think she liked me better when she thought I was a groupie.

    Which brings us back to where we came in.


    Neil sums up what we have learned

    Pussy, King of the Pirates  begins as a detective story, but it soon becomes a pirate story. It tells us about O and Ange. It takes us from a brothel in Alexandria to Brighton Town and on to Pirate Island. Artaud is in here, and Antigone and the 18th-century book by the pseudonymous Captain Charles Johnson that chronicled the Lives of the Pirates. Dreams are here, and a Treasure Island (but a Treasure Island in which all the men have been transposed into dangerous girls), songs and shanties, maps and poets, and rats and sex. So much sex.

    It’s an attack on narrative and plot that is still, somehow, gloriously, a story, reflected in dreams and using found words, about brave girls on the attack cutting a place for themselves in the world. It’s about piracy, and about power.



    It feels more contemporary, more necessary, and more dangerous than it did even when Kathy published it.

    As the pirate Silver sings,

    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum
    and all that’s old has turned to scum
    for this world’s begun to burn.

    Two girls lost on a dead man’s chest
    doing what they like to best
    picking at unknown alphabets
    alphabets that lead to gold across seas made up of stars,
    dreams glittering under dead men’s bones.

    As we lurch from Treasure Island into dreams, everything we encounter may be an echo, but Kathy Acker is chanting the shanties, and she is the sounding chamber in which the echoes resound, as the world begins to burn.


    From the 25th-anniversary edition of Pussy, King of the Pirates, by Kathy Acker. Courtesy Grove Atlantic, copyright Kathy Acker.

    Neil Gaiman
    Neil Gaiman
    Neil Gaiman is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Neverwhere, Stardust, American Gods, Coraline, Anansi Boys, The Graveyard Book, Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett), The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains; the Sandman series of graphic novels; and the story collections Smoke and Mirrors, Fragile Things, and Trigger Warning. He is the winner of numerous literary honors, including the Hugo, Bram Stoker, and World Fantasy awards, and the Newbery and Carnegie Medals. Originally from England, he now lives in the United States. He is Professor in the Arts at Bard College.

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