Elizabeth Hand has written fourteen novels and four collections of short fiction. Her work has won the World Fantasy Award four times, the Nebula Award twice and the Shirley Jackson Award twice, among many others. She is also known for her reviews and essays that have appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Salon and the Village Voice. Her latest novel, Hard Light, will be published in April 2016. Stay Thirsty Magazine was fortunate to catch up with Elizabeth at her home in North London for this Conversation.
STAY THIRSTY: Your new book, Hard Light, continues your Cass Neary Crime Novel series and has been called "nerve-jangling," "addictive" and full of "icy tension." How do you personally feel about spending time with Cass Neary? Are you and she similar as people?
ELIZABETH HAND: I love writing Cass, though I'm not sure what she'd be like as a roommate or next-door neighbor. Her backstory is essentially mine, and I've often said that Cass is what I would have been like if my brake lines were cut at 21. In my twenties, I'd chain-smoke and write on Friday nights with a bottle of vodka at my elbow, playing the same records over and over. Some days breakfast was a couple of black beauties and a Snickers bar. I cleaned up my act in my mid-twenties: I realized that if I wanted to be a serious writer, I couldn't be a total fuckup. Cass hasn't quite experienced that epiphany; not yet, anyway. I've lost a lot of friends from that era, to drugs and alcohol, AIDS and misadventure. I feel very fortunate that I came through. In a weird way, the Cass novels are a way of honoring those people who didn't make it.
STAY THIRSTY: Cass Neary has been the lead character in three of your novels. How has she evolved over time?
ELIZABETH HAND: Cass hasn't cleaned up her act – I don't know if she ever will. But she's not a kid anymore, and decades of self-medicating with booze and speed have taken a toll on her, mentally and physically. She's increasingly aware of that. More often, she's given to these odd moments of compassion towards people she recognizes as being lost or damaged, as she herself is.
And I want her relationship with Quinn to become more complex. He's a former contract killer who's done (and perhaps still does) horrible things. I want Cass to have to confront that at some point: Is there a line she won't cross, even for someone she's been obsessed with for forty years?
STAY THIRSTY: Music, the punk rock scene, photography and London play a role in Hard Light. At the beginning of your book, there is a mention of the famous 1966 Michelangelo Antonioni film Blow-Up that starred David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave. What was the significance of that film to you and to Cass Neary?
ELIZABETH HAND: Well, it's a brilliant film that casts a long shadow over anyone who's making a cinematic presentation of photography as both art and cultural bellwether. I'm old enough to remember when photography wasn't taken seriously, unless you were Ansel Adams or Walker Evans or Edward Steichen or Henri Bresson, one of the handful of photographers who'd been canonized. That changed with Sam Wagstaff in the 1970s. Blow-Up is a beautiful snapshot of the beginning of that transition. And the murder mystery angle is so fantastic – the scene where David Hemmings is in the darkroom looking at the images he's just processed still gives me goosebumps.
But probably a bigger film influence on Cass and myself would be Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg's Performance, an absolutely brilliant movie that I think is still criminally underrated, even though it's had a huge influence on gangster films ever since. It has everything: gangland London, violence, SM, hallucinogenic mushrooms, group sex, Borges, what used to be called gender-bending, Anita Pallenberg AND a naked Mick Jagger. Not to mention the fabulous Ry Cooder soundtrack. James Fox's turn as Chas, the gangster on the lam, is one for the ages. I've seen it countless times and every time I see something new in it.
STAY THIRSTY: During the punk rock era, there were two famous photographers, Roberta Bayley and Bob Gruen, who photographed the greats. Did their work have any influence over you when you were crafting the persona of your protagonist?
ELIZABETH HAND: It's funny – I've always been aware of Roberta Bayley (I even own one of her early photos of Patti Smith) but I wasn't thinking of her, or anyone one else, when I created Cass as a character. She just kind of came full-blown on her own. I didn't research photographers of the time, which is what I would normally do. I just drew on my own experience from the 1970s and what I know of photography – I worked in the Smithsonian's photo archives in the 1970s and 1980s, and some of the guys there taught me the basics of how developing and processing worked.
But certainly Bayley's work, and Gruen's, and that of folks like Christopher Makos, were all what I had in mind when I imagined Cass's own photography. Even though I lived through that era and experienced it in living color, when I remember it, it's all in monochrome.
STAY THIRSTY: Since Cass Neary made her name as a photographer in the punk rock era, what influence did the Ramones have on her and on you? Does the current Queens Museum show celebrating the Ramones and the debut of their first album, exactly 40 years ago this April, hold any special significance to you?
ELIZABETH HAND: The Ramones were a hoot – the first time I heard them, I couldn't stop laughing. I grew up in Yonkers, they were from Queens, and all their pop culture references were the same as mine – monster movies, junk TV, science fiction, Todd Browning, the Three Stooges, rock and roll AM radio. I played their first album over and over and over again when it came out, blasting it from my dorm room. People used to run over from the other side of campus and bang on my door and scream at me – really scream, they were so angry – to turn it off. Back then, a lot of people absolutely hated the Ramones. I loved them – I thought they were hilarious. I saw their first D.C. gig, which had a very small turnout. They played for twenty minutes, and my ears rang for three days.
STAY THIRSTY: Patti Smith is one of the icons of the punk rock movement and has also distinguished herself as a critically acclaimed author. You wrote a review of her memoir, entitled M Train, for the Washington Post. How has she influenced you?
ELIZABETH HAND: I reviewed Just Kids, too, and said it was one of the best books ever written about the process of becoming an artist, which it is. I first heard of her in 1975, when I was 17. I wanted to be a writer, but there were very few women artists I really thought of as role models. Sylvia Plath, Dorothy Parker, Jean Rhys, Isadora Duncan – so many of them seemed to have doomed lives. Alcoholism, suicide, depression. Whereas the male writers I admired at the time, mostly the Beats, seemed to be having a great time. Hindsight shows the latter to be a bunch of misogynists with their own issues. But as a teenager, I would much rather have been Jack Kerouac driving cross-country than Sylvia Plath killing herself in Primrose Hill.
Then I discovered Patti Smith, who was making a name for herself downtown as a performance poet and then a rock and roll singer. And it was like the world just opened up for me. She even dressed like I did – I was very taken with Joel Grey's MC in Cabaret and wore men's suits and a white shirt all the time. It was the first time I realized that you could be a woman artist and seize the power I had always associated as belonging only to men. When I first listened to Horses, my mind was blown, especially by "Land" – I just felt like the top of my head had been lifted off and this whole other world fell into me. She took everything I loved – rock and roll, poetry, Rimbaud, flying saucers, this incredible hallucinatory imagery – and made something so pure and powerful and unlike anything I'd ever experienced before. I saw her not long after and thought: This is it – this is what I want to do with my life.
When my daughter was about eleven, I played her Patti Smith in the car one day on a long drive. I started crying because it hit me that I now live in a world where Patti Smith has become part of our artistic landscape and is no longer this cult figure. My daughter is 26 now and remains a huge fan.
STAY THIRSTY: If we step back and look at the punk era as a whole, what are the three most significant themes that describe that time and have you incorporated them into your novels?
ELIZABETH HAND: For me, it was a certain freewheeling nihilism that felt very liberating – not depressing but empowering. Like John Lydon shouts in Rise: "Anger is an energy." That was the Reagan/Thatcher era, a horrible time. Punk reflected that but it also mocked it and offered a sort of bleak hope.
It was also an extraordinary moment for music and the arts, especially what had previously been dismissed as street art, like photography and graffiti. So you had people like Cindy Sherman and the Picture Generation of photographers, rock photogs like Roberta Bayley, artists like Basquiat and Barbara Kruger. If there's a theme attached to that, I guess it might be that it was the moment when street aesthetic took over the gallery scene. The DYI aesthetic, that's now become commonplace, first made its mark back then.
And I think it's when women artists of every stripe really began to claim the world as their own, often in ways that seemed transgressive at the time. Patti Smith, Cindy Sherman, Kathy Acker, Angela Carter. Mary Boone's gallery downtown had massive influence, so you had a woman in the art world wielding immense power, too.
STAY THIRSTY: You give special credit to William Mortensen and his book, Flash in Modern Photography. Why is Mortensen important to you and deserving of such attention?
ELIZABETH HAND: Mortensen isn't one of my favorite photographers but I think he was and is a visionary figure in the field. I knew his work by sight, but knew nothing about him until I read an article by critic A.D. Coleman in The Journal of Post-Factory Photography, in which Coleman descried the fact that Mortensen had essentially been written out of the history of photography by Ansel Adams' cohort. Mortensen's a remarkable character – you couldn't make this guy up. He worked in Hollywood under D.W. Griffith, after escorting a fourteen-year-old girl who would become Fay Wray to the city from Utah; was fascinated with the occult (his book The Command to Look was one of the touchstones for Anton LaVey's Satanic Bible), became a bestselling writer of books on photography and had his own photo school in Laguna Beach. His aesthetic and philosophical approach to photography anticipate Photoshop and other means of manipulating the image which have now become commonplace, but which were considered seriously transgressive in the 1930s and 1940s.
And yet no one's ever heard of him, because Adams and the F64 group loathed his aesthetic – Adams called him "the Anti-Christ" – and their cohort had so much clout in academic and critical circles that they kept Mortensen out of all the standard reference books on the art. It's a fascinating and disquieting story, and I was thrilled when Feral House Press did a recent book on Mortensen called American Grotesque, which brings together a lot of his work that hasn't been seen before, along with a biography and essays on Mortensen, including A.D. Coleman's.
STAY THIRSTY: What is next on your agenda?
ELIZABETH HAND: I'm working on the fourth Cass Neary novel, The Book of Lamps and Banners, which deals with the antiquarian book trade and features a character who's a sort of anti-David Bowie – I loved Bowie and was surprised at how shaken I was by his death. And I'm doing a novella and some short fiction as well. It's a productive time.