Interview: A Conversation with Lisa Carver, author of 25 Lives

Review by Rachael Marks

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One of the many startling things about writer and performer Lisa Carver (a.k.a. Lisa Crystal Carver, a.k.a. Lisa “Suckdog” Carver) is her willingness to speak candidly with total strangers who fixate on her from afar. Not everyone is familiar with her nearly obscene wealth of work, which includes punk albums, political operas, the post-gonzo zine “Rollerderby,” and the 90s-self-styled-intelligentsia/anti-intelligentsia-encapsulating (and therefore abundantly drooled-over) memoir “Drugs are Nice.” Some may not be aware that she has also quietly released an affectionate “fuck you” of a writing guide called “How Not to Write,” and an in-depth analysis of her own fixation-from-afar on Yoko Ono, called “Reaching Out With No Hands,” as well as a rare little gem called “Money’s Nothing” that’s part-discordant-love-story, part-economic-treatise. But those who are on board almost unanimously bow down to this woman, save for the few who mistake her for the Antichrist.

So It’s 5:56 a.m., early for me but still nearly an hour after Lisa’s typical wake-up time, and I’m forcing myself not to use Google or Wikipedia in order to write the introduction for my interview with her, the abstract idea of which I dragged out for two months before actually doing the thing itself. The way I went about conducting (or, let’s be real here, not conducting) the interview was a little sad, a little ridiculous, and hugely confounding—for me, if not for Lisa. I kept checking in with her to see if we were “still on,” then I’d disappear for two weeks, then I’d barrage her with personal messages, then, mortified, I’d disappear again. This happened, like, four times, and I couldn’t figure out why.

What the hell was I doing? Why was I sabotaging this? I’d been an admirer of Lisa’s work for years, devouring and over-sharing her interviews with outsider/underground artists (trust me, I’m gagging on both those adjectives) from “Rollerderby,” her oddly conceived but totally matter-of-fact books, her frank and sneakily eviscerating articles for Vice magazine, largely having to do with the semi-secret brilliance and exuberant monstrosity of children (often her own). I’d also been Facebook “friends” with Lisa for a time, and had always been pleasantly surprised by her willingness to listen and respond to someone (in this case, me) who was not only marginal, but basically, I felt, invisible. Once, I’d accidentally posted an 80s video art operetta about consumerism, cannibalism, and dating horrible men on her page instead of my own, and she hadn’t batted an eye. In fact, we’d wound up having a nice little dialogue somehow involving French post-structuralists. If I remember correctly.

Lisa used to live in France, where she and then-husband Jean-Louis Costes developed many equally hysterical and horrifying performances and albums, including the infamous “Rape G.G.” LP, both a tribute and a castrating insult to the late, violent, nudist, copraphilic performer G.G. Allin. She has also lived in Dover, New Hampshire, which she fiercely defends in her book of perspicaciously dumbed-down pop culture essays, “Dancing Queen,” as, from what I recall, a happy haven of in-your-face authenticity. This is where Lisa was born and raised, and it’s where she now resides with her two teenage-ish children. She is a brilliant autodidact, which in certain ways makes her much more threatening than a brilliant academic, but she is also, like L.L. Cool J once rapped, a ‘round-the-way girl. She initially comes across as open and friendly and really not that scary. She admittedly uses a ton of exclamation points. There is a levity and optimism and relative lack of resentment in her writing that makes her something of an anomaly among the perpetual seethers of 90s subculture (again, awful but inevitable word, there).

SO WHY WAS I SO SCARED? Because in spite of –no, screw that, BECAUSE of—her openness and her un-catty candor, Lisa Carver is, as one particularly soul-murdering ex-boyfriend once told me I was in order to fuck with me, “Someone definitely not to be fucked with.” Not that I had any intention of fucking with her. I wouldn’t have even known how. But I wanted to transcend the adulatory “your work means so much to me” fangirl dreck that I expected of myself, and my impression of Lisa has always been than she is a master discerner of when and how people try to be anything. She really seems to want the truth, however gross and uncomfortable it might make people feel, and she really seems to speak it, without taking on any of the faux toughness or faux serenity or, worst of all, faux authority of your average self-described ‘truth-seeker’ and/or ‘truth-speaker.’

Take Lisa’s description, in “Money’s Nothing,” of a past relationship with a rich megalomaniac, whose presence in her life first softens and then sharply brings into focus the financial and emotional chaos in which she came of age. In a voice that benignly bobs along yet betrays the innocent monstrosity of her kid-speak chronicles for Vice, she writes:

“In my reptilian brain-stem, I was thrilled to find someone with whom I could act out my deepest childhood kill-or-be-killed fears and desires. One time he called, drunk, threatening to call a buddy of his at the police department on me if I didn’t give him back his engagement ring, I hung up on him and called the police myself and said, ‘He said he’d be calling, he said he has a connection there, so I want to make a preemptive report of that threat.’ Then I called him back and told him what I’d done, and I said I would cut off my own arm and set myself on fire before I’d let anyone else force me to do anything. He said, ‘You’re so hot.’”

25-lives-cover-lisa-carver block images of people featured in bookNow, with her latest project, “25 Lives,” which is exactly what it says it is –twenty-five lives, edited at Lisa’s discretion but devoid of commentary—Lisa has quite possibly moved into more dangerous territory, and become more dangerous, herself, in doing so. Here, she has unjudgingly, unsparingly recorded not only the lives, but the voices of others. Her ex-husband, Jean-Louis, is in there. So is a self-professed “Little one-eyed retard with hearing aids” who readily admits to being “a drain on taxpayers.” So are twenty-three others, whose personal shit is now ‘out there’ in a bigger way than many of them probably ever anticipated. The shape of the book, much of the rhythm, is Lisa’s, but the stories and the actual words are theirs. It may be that Lisa, who often writes of the con, the grift, with naked admiration, is, like, the best liar on the planet.

I wondered about this for a brief, self-excusing moment when I put her off for the fourth time and felt like a coward and a fraud. But then, thinking of an exchange I’d had with her a while back about how we both squeamishly savor the utterly devastated danceability of Ike & Tina Turner track, “Fool in Love,” which Ike wrote and in which Tina both sings about and exemplifies the agony and, at the same time, the almost macho sense of duty that can come from devoting oneself to an abusive partner, I thought no. She’s not. And so I took a shot of tequila and sent her my first real question, marred just slightly by a little smudge of defensive editorializing. This is what unfolded.

Rachael Marks: I’m dragging this out, so I need to just start asking you stuff. I think I psyched myself out and got scared for no reason. Can we talk about your current project, or is that under wraps?

Lisa Carver: Nothing’s private! The new book is 25 people, 1,000 words each, talking about an experience most people have never had, at least not yet. I have a murderer, a millionaire, a nilionairre (no money, zero dollars), a very old person worried that she’ll die before her five old spoiled dogs who have grown accustomed to a certain life, a man who works deep underwater, the former commander of US forces in Kosovo, someone tortured in jail when he hadn’t even been charged with anything (three people in the ward died), a person with XY chromosomes, a rape and abduction victim of a serial killer and how she escaped and what happened after (the police were maybe worse than the rapist), a man who got cancer and he liked it, a woman who gets mistaken for a doll or a little girl, a little man with one eye and no hair and hearing aids who no one will hire or talk to or let go on stage in their band but when he dresses like a woman everyone is so nice to him, a man who has been in over 100 fights and who got his own apartment at 14, a corpse carrier….

Right, the whole parade. Did you seek them out, or did they find you?

I sought them out. Some I cold-called and they graciously accepted my nosy intrusions. Others I know, including my ex-husband, but I never would have asked them so many questions about, like, exactly how much money they have and what they spend it on or details about really traumatic events. But I’ve always wanted to know. And it kind of sounded like they always wanted to tell. My role was unique. We were building something together out of what happened to them, maybe something they never really looked at as a story. I’m not like a therapist wanting them to “get better.” I’m not like a family member very invested in them behaving a certain way because I have to put up with them all the time. I’m just this person who is curious and totally accepting and I just want to know what happened–I don’t need or expect them to have reacted a certain way or change or even learn from anything. I just want to know the truth.

Like, there’s a person in chronic pain who is going to have a shortened life. Doctors are just wanting to fix her or make money off her; her friends and loved ones want to fix her or else they can’t take feeling helpless and want her to stop talking. I really wanted to hear about it, that’s all.

Studs Terkel did a lot of books like this. He’s great, I love what he did. I don’t mind doing the same thing myself, because he’s dead now and even if he wasn’t, I’d just want more. The last six months of talking to people so intimately, such different people but all of them startling in their own ways, have been the most satisfying six months of my life.

So… in taking on so many different people’s lives, how you work it out so that it energizes you and propels the writing instead of overwhelming you and making you feel excessively beholden/trapped/wordless? My question, of course, comes from my own sense of wordlessness/beholden-ness when other people want me to help them write their life stories. I’m gradually moving away from writing about myself and moving toward writing about other people and the world as I experience them/it (which, of course, is still writing about myself), so this interests me a lot.

What do you mean? Why would taking on other people’s lives be overwhelming? I found it freeing. I’ve been talking about myself for like 40 years! It was thrilling like I was dead and I was getting rapidly reincarnated in all these cool (or really sad) circumstances, and getting to look around for just a bit before I got whisked off into another life.

See, I was guessing that you’d say that. It has to do with the way a writer experiences other people– as passports to the world and vessels of fascinating information, or as dangerous energy-sucks and guilt-mongerers. I feel like there’s this buoyancy in your approach, and in your work, which is why I’m so drawn to it, and which is what I think sets it apart from a lot of other creative nonfiction.

Oh, okay, read the second part of your question now. They didn’t have my help writing their life stories. I used all their words only, but rearranged them in a way that I felt made them make the most sense. No one was allowed to see what I was working on or have any input (except for what they originally said or added only). Because I didn’t want to get trapped in that web you describe. I told everyone that was why. People were extremely trusting with me, and I appreciate it. But not enough to make me give in and let them see how it was going when they asked, haha!

No one gets to guilt-monger me. I simply don’t feel it. I am ready at any second to say, “Okay, if you want to be freed from this (our project/me/anything), you’re freed.” My mother tried to control me by saying she was about to die the entire time she was alive. Eventually I was like, “Well, we all have to go at some point. Maybe that WILL come for you tonight if I go out with my friends.”

It’s funny you would mention that, because everything I’ve been saying to people about why I choose to do x or choose not to do y these days is all about death’s inevitability. It doesn’t depress me. It IS freeing. But if you are mining other people for material (and I don’t mean that at all in a negative or moralistic way), then how DO you gain their trust, and how do you courteously keep them out of the process? In terms of what they want/don’t want, I mean. Is it just a matter of saying, “if you don’t like how I work, don’t participate?”

Not everyone trusts me. Plenty declined my kindly offer to tell me everything and give me complete control in a blackout. Others pulled their interviews. But I think most people do trust me. Always have. I think because I say anything about myself, I have no shame, and it makes people think, ‘Maybe I’m not that bad myself after all.’ Also, I listen. Not that many people do, really! They can tell I’ve listened because if I don’t understand something, I keep asking until I do. Then they know I actually want to know. I think it’s a relief to find someone who wants to know about you. I mean, I don’t run into that that often! Also, even though my entire career has consisted of revealing personal things about others and myself, I never screwed anyone over. Anyone who has asked to not be written about has not been written about. In all these years. There’s plenty of more fish in the sea, and every fish has a story–I don’t need to steal one. How I “keep them out of the process” is just tell them outright! “No, you can’t see. Because then you’d start getting editorial on me!”

I feel the same way. What I’m wondering, though, is whose story it is if someone DOES want you to write about them, as opposed to you soliciting them for their story. Like, if someone asks you, does that alone give them control over the process, since it was their idea/conceit? If that’s the case, do you decline? Or would you? Because people know you as someone who writes about both yourself and other people. If you could make yourself famous, perhaps you could make them famous as well, some people might think. Yes? No? Or at least make their stories feel more important, to them if no one else.

If they’re the boss of their story and you’re just the ghostwriter/employee, get paid well! (I’ve never ghostwritten, but I would.) Yes, I think some people felt that going through me would make their story reach many people, and some felt extremely passionate about what happened to them and didn’t feel like they had a voice.

An editor from New York Magazine said they’d run excerpts from the book (hasn’t happened yet… often someone says something will happen and then it doesn’t). If they do, whoever(s) gets picked will reach A LOT of people.

And I’m sure that will be exciting to the people you worked with. I’m glad you mentioned ghostwriting, because that’s what I’ve been busy trying to establish that I don’t do. Like I said, I write about other people, but I write myself into the narrative. However, what if someone comes at you with an urgent, crazy story, and they want you to help them tell it, but then you want to write it the way that YOU want to write it? Can it ever be collaborative? Is it theft if you explain that, yes, you’re interested but you’re going to write the piece on your own terms? Let’s say that no money is involved, because for me, it rarely is. I haven’t gotten there yet.

You gotta just make the rules that work for you and that you can get someone to agree to. I think if someone came to you and you made an agreement, you can’t change your mind and take it over. But whatever you can get them to agree to in the beginning is good. Sounds like you should get it in writing. Also, YOUR life, including people coming to you talking to you, belongs to you. But their life belongs to them. So if they want to hire you and keep it their life, that’s great. If they want to contribute to something greater than they could do, then they can, like, deed it to you.

How do you handle it when people you’re interviewing hit on you? Or try to form personal relationships with you that you don’t want? I’m guessing that this happens, correct me if I’m wrong. Had any of the people you interviewed read your work about yourself? And did this give them ideas about liberties they could take? I don’t mean to be insulting– I’m curious. Anything that reads as “wild woman” can give people bad ideas.

It does happen that people I’m interviewing hit on me. I don’t mind at all. It’s a very intimate relationship, inspecting someone’s brain and heart and secrets, and, uh, being probed. And actually, I HAVE formed most of my relationships by interviewing people, haha! Ones I happened to meet elsewhere, I then ended up writing about/with/for them.

Many of my interviewees had read at least one book I’ve written. I think the only liberty they felt like taking was being really frank! When I was a troubled youth, people totally tried to prey on me, as they all do on young girls on drugs and traumatized and wild. But I was preying on them, too. It was prey city! Doesn’t happen anymore.

I need to figure out how to make that work for myself. People still try and blur the boundaries, or turn the situation into something it isn’t, and it gets way worse when they’ve seen my writing. But if it’s an interesting story, I’m reluctant to tell them to fuck off. The power of a story is like the power of money.

Aren’t we, writing about people in the first place to blur boundaries?

Are we? Please explain.

For a moment, we are a lover, best friend, sister, teacher, slave, everything. We’re used to it because that’s just our job, but imagine what it must feel like to those who aren’t used to it to suddenly have that warm light on them.

Kind of like Edie and Edie in “Grey Gardens?”

Never read/saw.

Recommended. It’s a documentary, not a book, but same idea. The Maysles brothers found Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier Beale, aunt and cousin to Jackie Onassis, and filmed them living together in a collapsing mansion full of raccoons and cats pissing everywhere. People came down on the doc for being exploitative, except for the people who loved it and made it a cult hit, but either way– mother and daughter both longed to perform, and they finally got a chance to do it. The thing is, you can shape documentary footage, to some extent, with editing, but with writing there really can’t even been an illusion of objectivity.I’m rambling and I need to make dinner soon. Do you want to pick up tomorrow morning?

Sure. I’m up by 5am.

Great. I’m up by 6am.

(Next day at 7:00am)

I overslept. And I was just looking at our conversation and realized that I’ve been approaching it as if I were talking to someone who started out as a memoirist and segued into journalism. But of course I realize that’s not what happened– you started out with interviews, which led to Rollerderby and also the performance art, which then led to the memoir, which then led to what you’re doing now. So I got it wrong. Am I right?

Pretty much. I was intensely “I” though, even when interviewing bands. Well, “you and I.” This time I’m not. I’m out of there!

Good, because that’s what I wanted to ask next. Really, you’re “out of there?” Just straight third-person reportage (though not “objective,” I realize)?

I’m not reporting in 25 Lives. I’m transcribing and just occasionally moving paragraphs up or down or deleting words to get ’em down to 1,000. I didn’t write that book.

Got it. But you did make editorial decisions. What informed these decisions? Is that too vague? Was it instinctual, mostly? Was it about developing followable linear narratives? Both? Neither?

If I got bored, I cut it. I don’t know. I don’t think or care about linear narratives. All my reading and writing I do like talking. We don’t have linear conversations. We don’t live linearly.

No. We don’t. So how you (or “we”) talk and live seems to have been what shaped these interviews, yes? Also, this is kind of obnoxious, but if you had to characterize the way you do these things for readers who aren’t familiar with your life and work, like if somebody forced you to, how would you do that?

I don’t characterize the way I do things, because I don’t want to, which is one reason why I’m not richer.

I think that in itself is an answer. You don’t characterize. Amen. But that does lead us in to the next thing I wanted to talk about, which is memoir, since many of the people reading and contributing to this magazine are memoirists. In the case of your memoir, “Drugs are Nice,” no, you’re right, you don’t characterize, you just SAY. Which makes it such an engaging piece of writing. What did that process look like? Did self-consciousness ever creep up on you, or do you feel like you wrote about your own life the way you would write about someone else’s?

There was a “Meat and Books Club”–half of us (there were four) were on the Atkins diet and ate a lot of meat all the time, and all of us read a lot of books. We brutally assaulted each other’s work once a week or so. Other people brought poems or whatever. I brought chapters of what became Drugs Are Nice. I also used my diary, which I kept every day for my first 30 years of my life. (Now I never do. Unless you count Facebook.) But yeah, I just wrote down what happened. The Meat and Books club sometimes told me I was getting full of myself or I bored them. When they said that, I deleted whatever they didn’t love.

No, there was no self-consciousness. I knew I’d be making… well, reinforcing… some enemies with what I wrote, but it is my life. They can’t have it. Someone worked with my father and showed it the book. He’d already seen it and shoved it away and said, “Don’t ever bring that in here or mention that book again.”

I felt really bad (about myself) writing times I’d been cruel, especially to my fetus I aborted or times I was bad to [my son] Wolf. But, you know, I feel bad whether I write it or not. It’s just the story, it’s just the life. You gotta feel bad sometimes.

Do you worry about losing friends/family because you’ve written about them? If a conflict arises, do you ever try to resolve it? Is that sort of thing even resolvable? I ask because this is something I’m figuring out. In one instance I wrote a lot about a good friend who, like me, has had some struggles, and I was terrified that what I’d written would hurt him, even though I’d felt great affection for him when I was writing the piece. It all worked out in the end, but what if it hadn’t?

I have lost friends/family because of what I’ve written about them, though it wasn’t because of what I’ve written in the end, it was about the thing I wrote about. If I weren’t a writer, some of these things would never be said out loud, and we could go on forever not dealing with them, and never quit each other. I don’t regret any losses. Other than that, I haven’t had conflicts over what I’ve written, nothing that we worked through after the fact. My friends and family know how I am– I say anything. So it’s not like they’re waiting around to find out what I really think when my latest book comes out. I don’t really have many problems with people, what they think or do or how they are. It’s not like I have hidden resentments. Most people in my life are artists too of one kind or another, and they write or sing or whatever horrendous things about me, too, and I don’t mind. It’s an agreement between us all, pretty much. That what really matters is the work, not each other’s feelings being hurt by exposure. Feelings matter, but not embarrassment.

What if you’re dealing with a loose cannon, though? Like, maybe this is a matter better left alone, but did you ever have to deal with G.G. Allin’s reaction to the “Rape G.G.” record? That’s music, not memoir, but still.

Of course GG had reactions to “Rape GG.” He burned a newspaper I was in at one of his shows (not music… more making an appearance) and claimed to have raped me in interviews. I met up with him and he was just friendly, talking about the album and Costes and Psycodrama and performing and our mutual friends in New Hampshire then we were making out then someone started videotaping it and he cut my dress up and slammed me into a pole. He didn’t hurt me at all–he was fine with what I did, I was fine with what he did. We had that same agreement I mentioned before I have with everyone. He’d written a song about me earlier that wasn’t exactly a feminist poem. I was happy, whatever! We’re all constructing identities, movements, stories. We’re all working out this thing, reality.

Great. Thank you.

(Note: the first, limited edition of “25 Lives” is available here.)

rachael-marksRachael Marks is a writer, music maven, sociological excavator, choreographer and performer living in the Boston area. Her writing has been published in DigBoston and on the Flat Field Records website, and she is currently at work on her first book. She has also created and performed numerous solo works, and danced with the butoh companies Bodydrama and CHIMERAlab.



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