I’ve been fascinated by Matthew Stokoe’s work since reading his legendarily stomach-turning 1998 novel, Cows. It’s an un-overstatably graphic and compelling book, which splits its time between the protagonist’s disgusting and bizarre home life with his mother and his disgusting and bizarre work life at a slaughterhouse.
I discovered something equally singular in his second book, the L.A.-from-every-unflattering-angle novel, High Life. It’s not just his incredibly detailed depictions of the hardcorest of hardcore violence and sex — including painstaking depictions of coprophagia and necrophilia — that disturb and rivet. The power of Stokoe’s writing is that everything disquieting and engrossing in his books is amplified by being in relief against such sharp writing and complex plotlines.
His third book, Empty Mile, is a smart, twisty noir set amongst family drama and community secrets in a small Northern California town. As skillfully constructed as High Life, it almost reads like a flag flown for potential detractors. “Yes, I can play it straight and still bring the goods.”
Stokoe’s new novel, appropriately titled Colony of Whores, is set in Hollywood and revisits with a lighter touch some of his edgier themes and subject matter. Like all of his books, the layered and complex plot — at one point I counted eighteen recurring characters — serves not merely as entertainment, but as an indictment, a scream, a spotlight revealing something true hidden in the muck.
All these years, I’ve pictured Stokoe as a sort of rebel rocker, flipping off the audience at every turn. Boy, was I wrong.
Drew Smith: Do you have a sense of yourself as a cult or underground writer?
Matthew Stokoe: I know what you mean, but I’ve never thought of myself that way. I’ve always hoped to reach a wide audience.
That’s interesting, since much of your work almost seems designed to put people off. At least certain people. All the violence, incest, necrophilia, the startling use of a freshly-removed human kidney. I’ve always taken for granted that you would see yourself as operating outside of the mainstream. How do you describe your work to someone who hasn’t read it?
I find it difficult to trot out a tag line that’ll adequately cover all my books. Each of the four seem so different to me. I generally mumble something about “gritty urban realism.” But even then I’ve already failed as Empty Mile is set in a small Northern California town. If pressed to give a tag line for Colony of Whores, my latest, I’d probably respond with something like “A blistering castigation of Hollywood greed and excess.” Followed by “Oh, and it’s, like, a really hip murder mystery too.”
Your work is difficult to describe. Most people I know couldn’t handle a book like High Life. Have you ever felt embarrassed by your writing?
Well, to put things in perspective, only two of my books — Cows and High Life — are explicit in their descriptions of sex and violence. Since I wrote them, there’s been Empty Mile, which, though dark psychologically, isn’t explicitly sexual or violent. And now there’s Colony of Whores, in which the sex and violence, while there, is a long, long way from that in High Life. So, do I feel embarrassed about exposing someone to Cows or High Life? No. I’m very proud of those books. For me, the violence and sex were tools necessary to tell the stories I wanted to tell, and to tell them in a way that people would be left in no doubt about what I was saying about society, celebrity, etc. However, I do exercise a level of discretion when recommending which of my books any particular person should read. I’m completely aware that they are not everyone’s cup of tea.
I read that you and your agent spent nearly five years shopping Cows before finding a publisher. What was that period like?
Unsettled, depressing, lonely . . . I wrote Cows during one year while my girlfriend of the time was travelling overseas. I was living in the UK and had a job on the admin side of things working for the Crown Prosecution Service. I used to go to court with the lawyers, just a gofer kind of thing, but it fed into the writing of Cows I think because I saw so much petty human misery, violence, ignorance, disenfranchisement, lives gone wrong, people ground down by the life they’d ended up living. I basically went to work, came home and wrote, every day for a year. I didn’t write an outline or chapter plan for Cows, so it was just a day-to-day plumbing of my subconscious, I guess. And everything I’d seen and experienced over the ten years I’d been living in London bubbled up.
How did you finally find a publisher?
Once the book was done, naive as I was, I sent it to publishers like Picador, Penguin, etc. — places I didn’t have a hope in hell of getting published at. No one even replied. So I kind of gave up on it and started working on High Life. Two years later I left the UK and went back to Australia. I met my wife-to-be there almost immediately and she read Cows and made it her mission to get it published. She found an agent in Sydney who took the book on. Nothing happened then for another two years until the agent found Creation Books — ironically based back in the UK — and they accepted the book and published it another two years later.
Even though the book was eventually published, it was a depressing experience in some respects because until you get a book published you’re never really certain if other people actually think it’s any good. Living with that uncertainty for almost six years was a bit of a disincentive and, I have to say, had an effect on the direction my writing took with subsequent books.
How did writing your second novel feel different than writing Cows?
Writing High Life was very different to Cows as it is a much more plot-driven book. As such, I wrote an extensive chapter outline before I started. I found not having a plan when I wrote Cows made the experience a little . . . uncertain, and I knew I had a lot more to keep track of and tie together with High Life. I was writing High Life before Cows was published and because at that time it looked like Cows would never be published, I planned, when I started High Life — if you can believe it — to write something much more mainstream. Didn’t turn out that way though. Also with High Life I was writing much more in the real world and making a more specific comment on society than the general disaffection and alienation of Cows.
Do you think your existence has been grottier than most, or that you’ve interacted directly with the darker side of humanity more than is typical?
Well, I guess I have — or maybe used to have — an interest in life at the margin of society, or at the margin of normal behavior. Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn was a big influence on me and maybe shows where my head was at during that period. I don’t think my life has been grottier than that of many other people, certainly not worse than the lives I saw on council estates (housing projects to you) across London. Growing up in Australia before going back to the UK, though, I think gave me a unique perspective on the poverty, ignorance, and violence that I saw in London. It was such a different way to live than the wide-open, sunny environment I was used to. So a lot of the things I saw really stood out for me, but to a lot of the people I knew they were just commonplace because they’d grown up knowing nothing different. And because they stood out for me they found their way in one form or another into my writing. Cows and High Life are, in a sense, portraits or snapshots of society in desperation. And “desperate” is certainly an accurate description of my life at certain points in London.
After such a grueling process with Cows, how were things different when you went to market with High Life?
Very little difference, I’m afraid. My agent took it on and I think it took about three years after I’d finished writing it to find a publisher — Akashic Books in New York. And even then, initially, Akashic read it, thought it was great, but said they couldn’t publish it because, I assume, of the graphic nature of its content. Eventually, though, a guy called Henry Flesh, who was an editor at a very big New York magazine, basically told them they had a duty to publish it. He figured the book deserved it. So then Akashic changed their minds and published it I think in 2001. And that was great, except that there wasn’t a great push to market it, so it was very slow to take off. In fact, it wasn’t until book sites and forums on the net snowballed over the next few years that word of mouth kicked in and High Life began to find its audience. High Life now has carved out a pretty solid place for itself, but back then I had big hopes of instant success. Turned out I had to learn to be much more patient.
I’m struck by something you said earlier, about wanting to reach a wide audience. Coming into this, I expected you would say just the opposite — something along the lines of, “Yeah, my stuff isn’t for everyone. It’s not supposed to be. Fuck everyone else, I’m writing for myself.” Do you know what I mean?
Haha, yes I can see how you’d think that. The thing is, I’ve never seen my books as transgressive. I hate that description. I know some of them have extreme content, but to me it’s always been organic to the stories and not designed to shock for shock’s sake. To me, all my books are serious books, written with serious intent and, I’d like to think, honorable intent, in that I try not to shy away from what I think the truth of the story demands, regardless of what that means for content. Given my delusion, then, of writing seriously, I approach the issue of audience as a serious writer, too — I expect them not to throw up their hands in horror at the scenes in Cows, for instance, but to see them for what they are: an honorable and serious story-telling mechanism that refuses sugar-coating. Because the things I talk about are, to me, too important for euphemism or for anything less than a burning honesty. So, if I take that position, it follows that I feel my books should not be limited to a sub-strata of the reading public. By the way, any writer who says he is writing for himself and then tries to get published is more delusional than I am.
Do you think the graphicness of your books has been a barrier in terms of finding a larger audience?
I think people will accept a lot more in terms of graphicness than some of the gatekeepers of the industry seem to believe. American Psycho is probably the most obvious example that makes the argument that content isn’t as audience-limiting as some think. The book was full of graphic violence and sex and yet, as the publishing industry had previously made a huge investment both critically and financially in Ellis, the book was published (with a hiccup or two) and massively marketed. The result? It sold shitloads and is now widely regarded as a modern classic.
So nothing about your writing is a “fuck you” to traditional publishing?
I’m certainly not saying fuck-you to traditional publishing. The great advantage a decent publisher offers over self-publishing and the small independents is marketing. And it’s marketing that makes or breaks a book — until, and unless, word of mouth kicks off and takes over.
If I say fuck you to anything, it’s to the white bread, moral majority stranglehold publishers and agents now, with their mania for finding the next Harry Potter or Hunger Games, unnecessarily impose on the industry. Would an unknown Bukowski have had a manuscript published now? Would Burroughs? Jesus, would even Hubert Selby Jr.?
One could argue that the indie press world has stepped in to fill the gap, as is demonstrated by the way Akashic published your first three novels. But I can’t believe publishers and agents aren’t interested in the work you’re doing. I was very surprised when I learned that you self-published Colony of Whores. Can you talk about why your new book didn’t find a home at Akashic or another mainstream publisher?
Well, I left Akashic completely a couple of years ago, took back the rights to all my books. I was disappointed in their marketing effort for High Life and even more so for Empty Mile. In addition, I had a problem with their royalty structure. So, there was no way I was going to place Colony of Whores with them. So, I needed a new publisher, and to get that you have to have an agent — if you want to go for anyone other than the small independents, which I didn’t this time around. I queried about twenty agents. Of the handful that actually responded, three wanted to read the manuscript. One of those never bothered to get back to me and the other two passed — and this was after the book had been accepted by Gallimard in France and Empty Mile had been nominated for the Grand Prix de Litterature Policiere there and had been nominated into a couple of top-ten mystery lists in Germany and the USA. So then I just let the book sit on my computer for a year or so until pressure from fans made think I’d better do something about it. I couldn’t face revisiting the agent search so I thought I’d put it out through CreateSpace.
Do you think you’re challenged in terms of self-promotion, as so many writers are?
Yes, I am very much challenged when it comes to self-promotion. I hate doing it and I’m not at all good at it. Also, this bullshit that is doing the rounds that you should spend 80% social media networking and 20% actually writing is such a bad message to send new writers. Where’s the fucking art in that? It breeds marketers, not writers. And it may not actually be that useful anyhow. There have been a few articles in the last year or two challenging the notion that social media is any use at all in promoting significant sales.
It might be true that that stuff doesn’t translate into actual sales, but I’m convinced that the connections one makes with all these people are pretty much invaluable when it comes to getting a deal. I’ve read things from editors essentially saying that if you don’t bring your own audience and have a platform through which to deliver them, they’re much less likely to sign you, no matter how good the quality.
This approach of yours seems very reliant upon luck. Is there a better way?
The way to forge a path is just to keep at it. Eventually you get enough weight of work behind you and you can’t be ignored — assuming you’re actually good. Luck is actually an element in success, particularly in so subjective a field as writing novels. You know, happening to have a certain editor at a certain publishing house read your work can make the difference between getting published and not getting published. If Brett Easton Ellis hadn’t intersected with Joe McGinnis at college, would things have been different for him? Joe, apparently, championed his entry into a certain writing course, which he might not have got otherwise. Gotta have talent too, though, of course.
Is there a better way? Yes, there is. Move to New York and get a job in the publishing industry, make shitloads of contacts, get respected in your field, after that write your book. The publishers and agents won’t dare ignore you then.
How do you think you’re thought of by readers, other writers, the literary establishment in general?
I don’t really know. I know some people love my books to the point where they’ve told me my writing has changed their lives. Others think I write complete shit. I don’t know how the literary establishment thinks of me because they generally ignore any contact I try to make with them.
Are you part of any sort of literary scene or community?
No, I’m not part of any scene and I don’t hang out with other writers, I don’t think I even know any. I write in complete literary isolation.
You said earlier that you hate the description of your work as “transgressive.” What do you object to in that characterization? Do you think it minimizes your work somehow?
Transgressive is an idiotic term that is applied indiscriminately by reviewers. For instance, I’ve never seen James Ellroy labeled as “transgressive,” yet his work is extremely violent and graphic. For me, and this is just my perception here, “transgressive” connotes ill-disciplined writing — not me at all. What’s transgressive about my work? My books are very controlled, classically structured and only two of them, half of my published work, are graphically violent.
I think of the term differently. I don’t think it has to do with violence. “Transgressive” makes me think of people like Kathy Acker, Dennis Cooper, Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs. If I use it, I mean it more as a compliment, a way to communicate that someone is doing something worthwhile outside of typical literary formulas and subject matters. Something that might grate against traditional approaches and the people who are only comfortable with traditional material.
Haha, ok maybe it’s a matter of perception — different when you’re on the receiving end! But I like your definition.
Also, I’d say that three of the four books are graphically violent. Cows, High Life, and Colony of Whores. Which one do you think of as not graphically violent?
Cows and High Life are graphically violent, yes, but I don’t consider Colony to be overwhelmingly graphically violent. In fact the violence in it isn’t really that “graphic.” Sure, there’s a lot of nasty stuff going on and if you read Michael Connelly, say, it’d probably be a lot harder than you’re used to, but really? You think so?
I read all sorts of things, and am not at all squeamish, and I’d say that Colony of Whores is graphically violent. Just the “split lip” stuff alone. But it’s not just the violence that sets it apart from traditional fiction. Four — arguably five, actually — different kinds of incest are written about in the first sixty pages. If there’s any taboo territory left, I’d say you dive right into it. I actually find it hard to believe that you don’t see it that way.
I take your point. The thing is, I don’t think writing about incest — though the book isn’t about incest per se — should set me apart from traditional fiction. It’s part of the world we live in. Arguably murder, which a billion books have been written about, is a far more heinous act. Nobody bats an eye at that. To start saying that some topics relegate a writer to outside what is acceptable, to outside what publishers will consider, to outside what the reading public will read is very dangerous because it marginalizes, and in some cases prohibits, awareness and discussion of a certain set of topics, topics that for a portion of society do have a significant impact. And let’s remember also — and again here is a good example of how inconsistently the term “transgressive” is applied to some and not to others — that V.C. Andrews in Flowers in the Attic wrote about brother/sister incest (and a semi-forced initial coupling at that) and that book sold over 40 million copies. More and more I’m coming to think that labeling certain writers as transgressive, or “outside traditional writing” is a construct perpetrated by reviewers and editors. I really believe that the reading public is far more accepting of the so-called extremes in literature than the gatekeepers of taste give them credit for. In fact I think a good portion of readers actually want the extremes.
In Colony of Whores there is violence, and some of it is of a sexual nature, but the actual descriptions of it are quite controlled and not at all gratuitous. I mean, shit, I could have really gone to town in some parts. I guess my perception is different than yours in that, as a whole, I don’t consider Colony to be a graphically violent book.
Is there a central, unifying message or idea in your work?
If I had to identify a common theme in my work it would probably be the notion of the individual seeking, in a world that is largely beyond their control, to overcome either the mistakes they’ve made or the shit that life has heaped on them, and by doing so to find some way of living that is fulfilling, or at least bearable.
When reading, I’m always somewhat aware of where people are in their writerly trajectories: beginning of career, mid-career, past his prime, just hitting her stride, and so on. Do you have a sense of where you are in your writing career and where you’re heading?
Well, Colony of Whores is my most technically complex novel so far, in terms of structure, number of characters, timelines, etc. So I’d like to think that I’m still on the upswing!
Drew Smith has written and reviewed for The Believer, Tin House, Paste Magazine, The Daily Beast, and many of the other usual places. He is also the founder of slashlit.com, a blog and unified calendar of indie press releases.