Laurie Weeks’s debut novel, Zipper Mouth (Feminist Press), chronicles drug- and alcohol-fueled navigations of staid temp agencies, filthy downtown apartments, and the everyday banks, bars and streets of 1990s New York. Through e-mails, letters, and monologues, Weeks’s anonymous narrator (who seems to bear some resemblance to Weeks herself) articulates the growing romantic and sexual frustration of her unrequited love for Jane, a straight performance artist.
With Zipper Mouth, Weeks intrepidly challenges writers like William S. Burroughs and Kathy Acker, who imagined New York through frenetic literary collage in the decades before her. Shifting from the narrator’s comedic meditation on the impossibility of cleaning her apartment to Weeks’s unanswered letters to Vivien Leigh and Sylvia Plath, Zipper Mouth‘s fragmentary structure reflects Weeks’s interest in the personal and the private, narrative and context.
Weeks is a New York-based artist, writer and performer. Her past works include contributions of short fiction to Semiotext(e)’s The New Fuck You: Adventures in Lesbian Reading, to Dave Eggers’s Best American Nonrequired Reading and to the screenplay for the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry, and performances with lesbian-feminist performance group Sister Spit. Zipper Mouth is Weeks’s first novel.
DENA YAGO While reading Zipper Mouth, I was struck by the fictional correspondences in your narration, the letter to Vivien Leigh’s fan club, or the personal e-mail to your friend-particularly by how well they are written. Do you consider yourself a good e-mailer or, in earlier times, letter writer?
LAURIE WEEKS In high school I had this hilarious boyfriend who lived hundreds of miles away, and we were far more interested in making each other laugh with our stupendous wit than in schmaltzy love, although I did feel very operatic and morose about this guy. In a battle of wits, we parodied everything we’d ever read of an epistolary nature, acting exaggeratedly pretentious or intentionally funny. We’d try on any voice we could think of, including lawyer-type correspondence, over-the-top swoony love letters, Oscar Wilde, anything. I continued writing letters-pretty lavish things, with charts and graphs, photos, whatever visual aids were around-and when e-mail showed up, I continued in the same way.
Some of my best e-mails were written from work during periods of sheer boredom, by which I mean every second of the day. There seems to be something inspiring about wanting to kill yourself as you use the cursor to drag a tiny warning box in a Newport cigarette ad up to its legally mandated distance from the larger text.
YAGO Is letter-writing for you like a directed monologue?
WEEKS I certainly don’t intend them to be; I don’t want to talk at someone. Many times, though, I gotta admit, I’ll be writing to someone and it just takes off, but that’s only if there’s some kind of drive behind it-if I’m trying to impress someone I admire, or if a friend and I are entertaining each other.
YAGO How similar is your writing style, which details complex feelings of shame and desire, to your speaking style?
WEEKS My speaking style isn’t a single thing. It depends on who I’m talking to and what the situation is. Same with the work. I have a few stories that are morose and written to be read on the page only-you have to see the words; they’d be torture for an audience to sit through, I’d think. But much of my writing is intended to be read on the page and for me to read aloud.
YAGO How did you come from working in performance, specifically from spoken word performance with Sister Spit, to writing a novel?
WEEKS After a few of my stories were published, people would ask me what I was doing next, and I said, “I’m going to write a novel.” So then I had to do it. I didn’t know what this novel was going to be-I never really know what’s going to happen when I write because I’m always trying to surprise myself.
YAGO How do your essays and novel relate to your performances?
WEEKS For me, performance is a place to go really wild, where I can do just about anything. And it’s for fun. For example, my friend, artist/filmmaker Tony Stinkmetal, and I created a character called Lobster Girl, who is completely out of her mind. Always a cocktail in her claw, even when she’s lifting weights, she speaks with some weird hybrid Queens/Bronx/Lillian-Hellman-at-80-years-old accent, and croaks out advice like, “After the abortion, I always enjoyed a nice veal chop and two black Russians [the drink].” At AA meetings she says things like, “Hi, my name is Lobster G., and now that I’ve got three days back I’ve been doing a lot of worrying about the planet.”
YAGO The scenes in Zipper Mouth take place in personal spaces such as a childhood home or apartment, rather than landmarked locations. How important were the ’90s and New York for the novel?
WEEKS It’s interesting you should ask that, because a few people have remarked how effectively it evokes early-to-mid-’90s New York City, which kind of surprised me. I didn’t set out to describe the ’90s and the city at all, not in any kind of realistic way. I purposely avoided any mention of, say, Bill Clinton. Actually, I wanted to create a sort of alternate parallel universe that both was and was not familiar. I considered not naming a city or anything, but that would’ve been much more of a meta-narrative, a Borges or Calvino thing to do, and it just wouldn’t have worked for this book. But I definitely wanted to be unstuck in the space-time continuum.
YAGO Do you use the word “bummer” often?
WEEKS God, yes, as much as humanly possible, and maybe not enough! Context is crucial, though, and it’s a question of timing. I love slang and colloquialisms and clichés, from hipsters to beats to hippies, because you can go anywhere with them, and I like the way they undermine the criteria by which people judge you to be intelligent or well educated. In some ways I identify deeply with teenage stoner/skater/surfer boys, and it’s endless what you can do with that lexicon! Slang works on so many levels, makes language so much richer. Though obviously it can go the other way, too.