We chat with the Toronto-based poet, critic, and novelist about her dazzling new book and the legacy of Kurt Cobain
“This is a true story,” we’re told at the start of Where Did You Sleep Last Night, Toronto-based poet and critic Lynn Crosbie’s dizzying new book. It’s an equally buoyant and anguished high-concept love story that imagines Kurt Cobain reincarnated into the body of a young amnesiac named Celine Black. Willed back to life by Evelyn, a devout teenaged fan from Carnation, Washington who lands in rehab after an overdose and finds her beloved icon by her side, Celine resumes Cobain’s interrupted legacy with a new band, a new tortured celebrity persona, and, in Evelyn, a new self-destructive partner by his side. You could think of that opening claim as a dark joke in the vein of the Coen brothers’ attempt to pitch Fargo’s neo-noir as true crime from the American midwest, but Crosbie doesn’t seem to be laughing. At its heart, this is a beautiful and dead-earnest book about the awfully true desire to bring our long-lost loved ones—including the distant ones that hang on our walls as posters—back to life and project them into the future, even if it’s a future as painful as the past they’ve left behind.
For our money, Crosbie is one of the boldest and most consistently daring Canadian writers around. Her work is the perfect riposte to American satirist Gary Shteyngart’s infamous characterization of contemporary Canadian writing as a wasteland of risk-averse, grant-appeasing manuscripts. Crosbie has never shied away from controversy, in formal gambits like Paul’s Case, a bracing collection of fictionalized letters to Paul Bernardo, and Missing Children, a verse novel about a psychopath turned Springsteen-esque runaway who writes monstrous letters to grieving parents. If Where Do You Sleep Last Night is a sweeter affair, flowing from Crosbie’s sincere love of her prickly heroine and her immortal beloved, it’s no less brash. From its frank depiction of Evelyn’s sexual desires, to its nonjudgmental treatment of the couple’s struggles with heroin, to its ecstatic language and formal innovations—flirting with the bounds of confessional poetry, biography, young adult writing, and fan fiction—there’s nothing safe about this book, even if it’s the closest Crosbie has come to writing a straight novel.
We spoke to the author by phone ahead of the book’s official launch tonight at the Cadillac Lounge, chatting about everything from the limitations of fan fiction to the decadent pleasures of Céline Dion.
Torontoist: This is incredibly tricky material. You call it haute fan fiction, but it seems more respectful than that to me: an elegy for someone lost, a song in praise of his beauty. At the same time, it brings this distant figure closer, makes him human. How do you write a book about Kurt Cobain that’s both reverent and intimate?
Lynn Crosbie: You use that subjective “I” voice, that lyrical voice, I think—the voice of my lyric poems. It’s definitely not poems, but it still has that intimacy that’s associated with lyric poetry. What was that other term you used? Reverent? I like that, because there is real reverence there. When I said “haute fan fiction” I was being a bit glib, but I was serious in the sense that it’s more literary than most fan fiction, and it’s finished, which is the thing I find most hilarious about fan fiction. I read a few of them, more after I finished the book because I didn’t want even them to influence me—I wasn’t reading tons of things about Nirvana or anything like that—and most of them would be, “Oh, I wrote this thing about Kurt,” and it would be about a page long, and then, “Now I’m tired: tell me what you think, you guys!” And it would be just like a hundred happy faces. It’s an incomplete genre. So when I said it was haute I thought of it as an accomplishment, to have an ending.
Also it is more literary, because the fan fictions aren’t so concerned with much beyond the celebrity question. The person who’s fucking them—male, female, whatever—they describe that person, but you don’t have the strongest sense of where they are, what’s going on, what the narrative through-line is. It’s similar to my book, in a sense: they meet, they fall in love, but it’s mostly about worshipping that one person. When I say “haute” it sounds like “better than,” but what I meant is that I wanted it to go “higher than” that.
So maybe it’s a question of form: it resembles fan fiction, but it has a complete arc, versus a form that isn’t quite finished until it’s completed by comments and happy faces and so on. Is that fair?
It’s almost non-masturbatory masturbatory material. Something for you to curl up with, as opposed to straight-up pornography. But I think the fan fiction element was just one of the ways I was looking at it. I’ve always had a really rough time with genre. Going back to Paul’s Case, I invented the term critifiction because I didn’t really know what I had just completed. With my book Liar, yes, it’s a collection of poetry, but it’s completely sustained. And I would have felt it was reasonable to call it a novel. People are very caught up in genre and wanting to know exactly what they’re getting into when they buy something. So that was one way of characterizing it. Another was that it was a mystery. Somebody else called it a murder ballad, which I really liked, after the [titular] Lead Belly song “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” It’s expansive.
It’s probably more legible as a novel than Life Is About Losing Everything, though, wouldn’t you say?
With that one, they called it a novel, but I saw it as a collection of intertwined short stories that were meta-autobiographical. How do you say that? So they just said, “It’s a novel!” But this one I do think is a straightforward novel, and that’s why I wrote so many drafts and edited it so many times—the landfill is unbelievable. I really had to go back and say, “But wait! This happens to her here, but she hasn’t met that guy yet.” These things had never really been concerns of mine before. I had to think in a new way, a whiteboard way. I had to go back and flesh out details that would have frustrated me if I was reading it. I’m one of those people who will watch a movie and say “That couldn’t happen.” That annoying person, you know? So calling it a novel seems fair enough.
This is a big moment for Nirvana fandom, between your book and the documentary Montage of Heck.
I feel really afraid of it, of my emotional reaction to it. It’s something I’d like to watch by myself. I’ve read a little bit about it and I’ve seen the trailers, and they’re so devastating. I had watched [Hole drummer] Patty Schemel’s documentary [Hit So Hard] and that was already so hard to watch.
Why do you think Kurt Cobain has lingered or haunted us to the extent that he has? What makes him feel different from, say, a teen idol like Elvis? Could a Justin Bieber inspire a novel like this somewhere down the line?
I don’t know. Elvis does inspire incredible amounts of love and devotion. I think he is like Cobain in that Max Weber sense—in his charisma, this quality that persists posthumously. I think you’re right that with Justin Bieber, not so much. I think if he committed suicide, people would be really sad, but I don’t think he would ossify into an icon the way these other two did. Going back to Elvis, he got to live longer, so I think there’s a difference there. Elvis was less fragile to me, although that’s probably not true. He has that kind of butch feeling, even with the jumpsuits—a butch, karate, good-old-boy sort of thing that makes it hard to see him as fragile. Whereas when you see pictures of Cobain toward the end of his life, as one writer, I think it was Melissa Rossi, said, he had this look like, “Duh, how could you not know.” It’s true, and those last images of him are absolutely haunting.
So age is part of it: the mythology around death and being part of the 27 Club. Is there something, too, about his aesthetic that makes him seem so vulnerable? He comes across in the novel as an angelic, golden, boyish figure.
When we see that image in the novel, it’s through Evelyn’s eyes, mainly, but I think Cobain’s phenomenal beauty is a huge part of it, sure. I mean, he was angelic looking. He was preternaturally beautiful—all the more so, it seems, the more wretched he became. I think yes, part of it is the 27 Club thing. But I think it’s more a combination of his misery, and his pain, and a culture of us watching him and not being aware, and the beauty, and the talent. All of these incredible things he could have gone on to do and say, that we’ve lost forever. And lost so violently: the thought of blasting that beautiful head away is so horrifying.
Is there something about the death itself that makes him apt for this kind of haunting?
We think of the beautiful death, usually female—Ophelia floating like a waterlily. Yet there’s nothing so imagistically beautiful about his self-murder. It’s the absolute opposite: absolute horror.
Even though the sexy way to sell this book is to call it Kurt Cobain fanfic, it strikes me that it’s very much about a relationship and very much about Evelyn, his partner: her twinned desires for Kurt and Celine, her also-run status as a partner whose own artistry and stardom are diminished because she’s a woman. Do you think people will come to this book as Kurt Cobain fans and leave with a little empathy for Courtney Love? Was she a ghost at the margins of this book?
I would say what you said: a ghost at the margins, who occasionally would creep in, often in words that she owned. If I say the word violet, I think of her. Again, I tried to avoid thinking about her or immersing myself in her story. I wanted to tell my own story about two different people. But there are of course similarities, and because I have done so much reading and writing about Courtney Love—I was primarily a Hole fan before I was a Nirvana fan—I think a lot of my love for her early music informs my effort to construct somebody as difficult to love, and as, I hope, as loveable as Evelyn. Celine sums it up in the book best, in his litany of adjectives: she’s a bad guitarist, and she’s a terrible cook, and she’s a brat, and she’s also powerful, and demonic, and beautiful. And he loves her. I wanted that whole picture to shine through. She is lost in his shadow, though, and that’s why I wanted there to be a redemptive quality to the ending, to remove that competition. Spoiler alert!
This book is littered with pop-culture ghosts besides Nirvana, some dead and many alive: Céline Dion, Joy Division, Lou Reed, Lana Del Rey. It has an intimidating concordance at the end. But these references don’t come across as lists so much as tastes that are integral to who these people are. Do you think we cobble ourselves together out of the things we like?
I thought of being that age and what my life was like, and I would have been soaked in whatever music was going on, in popular books, in popular figures, in the language of the time—simply from going out all the time. If they’re musicians, that’s going to be an even deeper concern: they are a part of what’s going on. There’s a lot of pop mentioned, but I mean it to be absolutely a part of their lives.
Céline is a little different, as are Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand. They’re definitely a bit campy, which has something to do with the drugs Evelyn and Celine are on: they get a little grandiose on heroin, and campy when they’re high. I was trying to explain this to someone who thought I was using Céline Dion as a joke, and I really wasn’t. There’s that song based on Wuthering Heights…
“It’s All Coming Back To Me Now”?
Yes! I do mention Heathcliff in the book, but the book is not a translation in the Anne Carson sense. I wanted to do that sort of thing through a different filter: I’m covering Céline Dion covering Wuthering Heights. Not through the whole book, but there’s a certain extravagance to it that suits these characters, who are very decadent in the way that they live, the way that they desire, and the way that they love each other. And I thought, who better than the great diva Dion to express that?
One of the reasons your characters are so immersed in popular culture, you suggested, is that they’re young. You originally envisioned this as a YA novel, and it strikes me that in many ways this is still haute YA just as it’s haute fanfiction: impossibly romantic, unashamedly emotional, immoderate. What changed in the transition from YA?
Although the sex is occasionally graphic, it’s also romantic, yes: there’s a lot about staying in bed all day. There’s a softness to their romance that is more YA. The bones are still evident there. And I’m glad. When you’re really young, Evelyn’s age, say, or a bit younger—she’s 15 at the start of the book—you are possessed by these incredible passions, and you try to wrangle them, and write about them, and enact them. But you’re also very helpless at the same time. You’re socially helpless. You’re in danger.
It’s a book I would have read myself when I was quite young. But I also read books for adults and enjoyed those too. I’m not very interested in those divisions: young adult, old adult, whatever that means. I think we should do away with them, and teenagers should read whatever they want. I did. Most of all I liked stories that were meaningful to me.
It seems more like a marketing issue than anything, like deciding whether Life is About Losing Everything is a memoir or a novel.
There are all of these rules attached to it, and I don’t like rules. You can’t say certain things: they can’t do drugs, they can’t use graphic language. Fuck that. You’re not having a good youth if you’re not rebelling against someone telling you what to do all the time.
We’ve been touching on the tone of the book, which strikes me as incredibly complex: it’s high concept, but it’s also quite delicate—lyrical, as you said. You could call it surrealism, or magic realism, or black comedy, but there’s nothing comic about the way Evelyn deals with her sexual assault, for instance. How do you pull off this balancing act? Is it something you’re conscious of, or does it just happen?
I had to think about how Evelyn would cope. The drugs are a huge part of it, not in a magic potion sort of way. I think she turns increasingly to drugs as a way of coping with the trauma of having been raped, for example. I also thought of her as a complicated person, who was shy, and had some self-loathing, but also arrogance, and brashness, and a sense of humour. And I thought her sense of humour would be the thing that would save her. She’s enacting her ability to look at a different side of herself, to just keep going. Both of them have a sense of humour, and if they didn’t, I think they would have burned out by the middle of the book. Their intense passion for each other is too intense: that’s where the violence of the book comes from, and the dark things. And the light comes from their ability to share things with each other, and from their sense of humour.
So the tone is complex because the characters are?
You just get a feel for them after a while: it comes naturally, and you develop a strong sense of how they’ll respond to a situation. And you surprise yourself sometimes. People always say, “My characters just speak for themselves!” It sounds very cliched and silly, but there’s some truth to it. With Celine, when he turned to violence, I found that was just me inevitably rounding him out so that he wasn’t just angelic, and an object of affection, but a fully human, flawed, violent, brooding pain in the ass.