Arts & Culture / Mosaic / April 23, 2009

From film making to novel writing

Students gathered in the Muelder Reading Room amidst books and furniture from centuries past to listen to Chris Kraus on April 17. The spring sunlight diffused through the stained glass windows, casting a soft pink glow on the room. The austere, traditional mood of this scene was made immediately lighter and fresher when writer, film artist and critic Chris Kraus took the podium and her role as a bold innovator and witty cultural critic became apparent.

Kraus described her writing as “all true, but it’s in a book and it’s highly selective and editive, so it’s also all fiction.” The first piece she read from was her book I Love Dick, because “[she’d] heard that several students were intrigued by the title.” I Love Dick is part one of a trilogy centering on Chris and her husband’s largely one-sided correspondences with Dick, an intellectual acquaintance of theirs. “Do married couples usually collaborate on billet-doux?” Kraus read, eliciting one of the many bursts of laughter that occurred throughout her reading. One of her primary goals with the trilogy was to “connect micro-personal problems with problems on a larger scale.”

The second passage she read, from her newest, untitled book, is set from 2005 through 2007 and according to Kraus, it “deals much more with America. It has a lot to do with the lower class, the prison system, justice, and reciprocity.” She read of a character named Cat and her musings about death. “Her actual death,” she read, “would be much slower: it would be a classical feminine death, like a marriage.”

During the Q&A, Kraus moved around the small room to answer audience members’ questions in close proximity. The first question asked was whether Kraus felt that she had victimized Dick in her trilogy about him. She answered that she had done everything possible to keep the identity of Dick anonymous, and that it was he who identified himself in a (negative) review of the book. She said that she wrote the books in “a spirit of fun and collaboration,” and that “the only person I was preying on was my own past. For ten years, I was the passive wife of an older, successful person.”

Another audience member asked if Kraus’s experience with film influenced her writing style. She replied that although she doesn’t rely exclusively on a cinematic model, “[to her] writing feels like transcription of pictures, and you just try to transcribe as accurately as possible.”

When asked about the format of her trilogy, she said that she could never have written if it were not for letters. Writing in the first-person feels “staged or adolescent. Who you’re acting with dictates what your performance will be. When I used the letter form, I wasn’t stuck on the ‘I’ any more.”

Index called Kraus “one of the most subversive voices in American fiction.” Her works include the trilogy I Love Dick, Aliens & Anorexia, and Torpor, a collection of essays called Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness, several essays for academic and art magazines, and the films “Gravity & Grace,” “How To Shoot A Crime,” and “The Golden Bowl.” She is the editor of Semiotext(e)’s Native Agents imprint.

Kaeli Winberg

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