Gary Indiana Doesn’t Travel in Any Circles

Gary Indiana is the author of eight novels and hundreds of essays that revel in the seedier depravities of American decline: murder, fraud, incest, obsession. In his 1989 debut, “Horse Crazy,” Indiana revives Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” (1912) in Lower Manhattan, where a writer not unlike the author falls for a young artist who may or may not be hustling him. His trilogy of crime novels, “Resentment” (1997), “Three Month Fever” (1999) and “Depraved Indifference” (2002), borrows material from the high-profile murder cases of the Menendez Brothers; Andrew Cunanan (who killed Gianni Versace); and the grifter Sante Kimes, elevating the New Journalism of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer to postmodern carnivalesque. For much of his career, aside from a brief stint in semi-obscure prominence as the staff art critic of The Village Voice from 1985 to 1988, Indiana’s writing has eluded the attention of the mainstream literary establishment. But at 72, he has found a new audience. In May, Semiotext(e) will reissue “Do Everything in the Dark” (2003), Indiana’s mordant depiction of the New York art world aging into a new millennium, and “Rent Boy” (1994), his noir about a male prostitute who becomes an unwitting accomplice to an organ harvesting scheme, was brought back into print by McNally Editions in January. Now he’s at work on his first new novel in over a decade.

Credit…Courtesy of Semiotext(e)
Credit…Courtesy of Semiotext(e)

Today, Indiana may be best known for his fiction, but he has always been a polymath. After moving to New York from California in 1978, he quickly gravitated to the experimental theater scene downtown. Under the direction of his friend and mentor Bill Rice, Indiana staged plays at the Performing Garage, the Mudd Club, La MaMa theater, Club 57, the Kitchen and other mostly defunct venues in cahoots with such artists as Jack Smith, Cookie Mueller, David Wojnarowicz, Jackie Curtis, Taylor Mead and Alice Neel, while also acting in films at the fringes of the No Wave and New German cinemas. Indiana’s work as a photographer and video artist, which he has exhibited at New York’s Participant Inc. and Envoy Enterprises, and 356 Mission in Los Angeles, as well as in group shows at the Museum of Modern Art and the 2014 Whitney Biennial, foregrounds the troubling human tendency to conflate representation and experience via impressionistic travelogues, Warholian screen tests, remediated images from Hollywood classics and playful juxtapositions with the natural world.

Snow had been falling all day when I arrived at Indiana’s sixth-floor walk-up in the East Village, where he has lived and worked since 1988. The apartment was warm enough for Indiana to wear a purple T-shirt decorated with a mug shot of Prince. Heat screamed through the pipes, but this didn’t faze him: He’s learned to block out the noise. Surrounded by thousands of books and little else, we talked about the “artisanal process,” as Indiana calls it, that he has navigated across 40 years of handwritten pages that resemble, to their author, “bizarre maps of some alternate reality: lines drawn, scribbled under, over, between and in the margins.”

Thousands of books line the walls of Indiana’s home, reflecting his eclectic tastes in literature — from psychoanalysis and experimental fiction to art catalogs, classics and a posthumous collection from his friend the writer and actress Cookie Mueller, who died in 1989.Credit…Sean Donnola

How do you feel about new generations of readers discovering your work?

I’m very happy about it. I think these books are reaching the audience that they’re meant for. I never got a particularly gracious reception in the literary world when they were first published, and now they’re being more widely read and respected from a literary point of view, especially the crime books. I deliberately chose to base them loosely on cases that had already been shoved down the garbage disposal, but they had a lot of resonance for me in that they were so symptomatic of America at the time that they happened. They were never written to be sold in airports, and the people who are reading them now understand that in a way that was not understood when the books came out.

What’s the first piece of writing you ever sold? For how much?

I was just rewatching the Fran Lebowitz thing that Martin Scorsese did with her [Netflix series “Pretend It’s a City”], and she said that she loved writing until the first time that she got paid for it. I so identify with that. I think it was for this little magazine that the Bleecker Street Cinema used to put out. I wrote about some movie for them, or a director, and they paid me. It wasn’t a memorable sum of money, maybe $50.

A print by Kathe Burkhart (left) and a painting by Indiana himself hang on a rare wall unencumbered by shelves.Credit…Sean Donnola
Stacks of clippings and manuscripts, which Indiana writes in longhand with pencil. His handwriting is impeccable.Credit…Sean Donnola

How about your art?

I sold some photographs. One was to a big-time screenwriter, and the other was to a novelist.

Does selling your art also diminish the pleasure in making it?

It’s a different thing because writing is hard. Art’s easy. Making art is much more pleasurable than writing. You can do so many things even if you are not painting or drawing: You can mix colors, you can stretch a canvas. I write in longhand, and all I have is pencil and paper. It’s not a pleasure.

When did you first feel comfortable calling yourself a professional writer?

I’ve never felt comfortable describing myself in those terms. I call myself a “talented amateur.” The only time I have really contended with labels was after I finished up at The Village Voice. It took years to get people to stop writing about me as an art critic, which was something I never in a million years wanted to be in the first place, and I certainly didn’t consider myself an art critic in any conventional sense. I did it for two and a half years. That’s not much in a life as long as the one I’ve had.

A poster for Indiana’s play “Phantoms of Louisiana” (1981)Credit…Courtesy of the artist and the Fales Library and Special Collections, N.Y.U.
A flyer for Indiana’s play “Curse of the Dog People” (1980)Credit…Courtesy of the artist and the Fales Library and Special Collections, N.Y.U.

Before joining the Voice, you worked in theater and film as a playwright and actor.

Yeah, but that wasn’t paying my rent, and I was really poor. I was young, and I had a lot of energy. So there were a lot of things I could scramble around and get money from. A friend of mine who was an artist said, “Why don’t you become an art critic?” I said, “Well, I don’t know how to do that.” He said, “Get a bunch of art magazines, read them and you’ll be able to do it.”

Reading your columns for the Voice, collected by Semiotext(e) in “Vile Days” (2018), your antipathy toward the job becomes increasingly apparent.

I would hope so. Working at the Voice was fine. I had wonderful editors — Jeff Weinstein, Lisa Kennedy — and I liked a lot of the people there: Vince Aletti, Guy Trebay. I was getting a paycheck. What wore on me was, first of all, I don’t feel that being a critic should ever be a lifetime job for anybody. [The former New Yorker film critic] Renata Adler has written interesting things about this, that it’s not a respectable job for an adult. I had been in the theater, I had done things that I liked better. When I got the job, I said, “I’m going to do this for two years. That’s it.” And they wanted me to stay longer. I stayed a bit longer, against my better judgment, but I wanted to do reporting, so I did for quite a while: covering Jack Kevorkian’s trials, the federal trials of the cops who beat up Rodney King, a big thing on the porn industry in California, Euro Disney, lots of stuff [a volume of these essays, “Fire Season,” appeared last year from Seven Stories Press].

A still from Jean-Luc Godard’s “Alphaville” (1965), starring Eddie Constantine and Anna Karina. In addition to his own work as a film actor and video artist, Indiana has written extensively about cinema.Credit…Sean Donnola

Your time in the courtroom left a mark on your fiction.

I already had a background in the legal profession because I worked at Watts Legal Aid in my early 20s, so I knew about that world. But reporting on trials gave me a different angle. I realized that it’s almost enough punishment for any defendant to sit through their own trial, because it’s the most boring thing in the world. All you have to do is look at the transcript, and you realize that it’s not dramatic at all. It’s endless sludge, and you have to struggle to stay awake.

What are you working on now? Do you have any shows lined up?

I did a lot of shows a few years ago, and then I decided that I should write another novel, so I’ve been mostly doing that.

You’ve been very critical of both the art and literary scenes over the years. In a Vice interview from 10 years ago, you said that writers tend to be more provincial than artists.

I would take that back. Artists now live in a bubble of wealth, and the art world is a dense microcosm. To be a good writer, you can’t just see other writers, you have to live. Art now is so self-referential and focused on the market. You can’t be a good writer and focused on the market. The kinds of rewards that artists who are successful get are so out of proportion to what they actually do that they don’t ever have to leave that bubble.

Tina L’Hotsky in a costume prototype for a performance of Indiana’s play “Alligator Girls Go to College” (1979).Credit…Courtesy of the artist and the Fales Library and Special Collections, N.Y.U.

Do you identify with one world more than the other?

I know artists and I know writers, but I don’t travel in any circles. The village that encloses that world has no interest to me. I don’t go to conferences, I don’t go to art fairs. There was a period early on, back in the ’80s and ’90s, when I went to a couple of literary festivals, which I find repulsive. I went once to Art Basel in Miami Beach because I was on my way to Cuba and my friend was having a show at a museum there at the same time.

The East Village has changed radically since you first chronicled its gentrification in the 1980s. What’s it like living here in 2023?

It’s completely changed, so it’s not even possible to compare. This used to be a block full of prostitutes, and the parallel block on 12th Street, that was where all the pimps worked on the corner. There used to be a slumlord bar on the corner called Eileen’s Reno Bar. Gay people wouldn’t even go there — it was all transgender people, Mafiosi, a serial killer in one instance — but I would go there all the time. The neighborhood gay bar was on Fourth Street and Second Avenue. There was Princess Pamela’s, and if you’d go at two in the morning, Miles Davis would be there eating chicken. There was a time when, if I walked from here to Houston Street on Second Avenue, I would know almost everybody that I saw. I have no particular love for New York whatsoever. When I’m here, I spend most of my time right here. I don’t like going out there.

A framed photograph of his mother stands next to one of many cameras that Indiana, also a photographer, has acquired over the years. “I don’t take that many photos now. Everybody has a camera, and there’re just too many images.”Credit…Sean Donnola

I don’t blame you, with all the stairs you have to climb.

Yesterday a guy was delivering groceries from Westside Market — I’m a good tipper — and when he got up here, he said, “You’re going to live a long time.” I said, “Well, I don’t know about that.” It has probably kept me alive this long. My life would be much easier if they would build an elevator here, or if I’d been smart enough to buy an apartment in Brooklyn when I could. But this is it. I’ll probably leave my bones in this place. I hope not. I don’t want to finish up here permanently. It’s just one of the few places in the country, if you’re a person like me, that you can live.

Do you mean as a writer?

I mean in terms of being a homosexual. There was a moment about 15 minutes ago when you’d say that that’s no longer true in this country, but now we’ve opened Roe v. Wade and all this hatred is directed toward transgender people, who are the least threatening people I can think of. It’s confounding, and I wouldn’t live in this country if I had a choice. I’m trying to get an apartment share in Paris that would be my go-away place. Everything that you thought had been processed and dealt with is going backward. There’s so much racism, and it was always there, but those people have become so empowered, I can’t even look at it. I turned on the TV the other night and there were Nazis marching against, what, drag queen story hour? It’s horrible.

Indiana’s untitled collage (2012).Credit…Courtesy of the artist and the Fales Library and Special Collections, N.Y.U.
Indiana’s untitled collage (1984).Credit…Courtesy of the artist and the Fales Library and Special Collections, N.Y.U.

What’s the most unusual object in your apartment?

It’s just books. As you can see, I don’t have that rich of an attachment to objects. I live very simply.

Have you been to many artists’ studios?

I’ve been to them, but even when I was writing for the Voice, I would never do studio visits. I wrote something about how artists would do anything to get you to go to their studio and see their work. I hate that. I don’t care what you do. I don’t care what schmutz you’re putting in. Why should I care what you’re working on? [Laughs.]

Do you remember the first piece of art you ever made?

That was my escape when I was a kid, doing pastel drawings. I was always writing. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I don’t remember anything that I wrote back then.

Did you have any models for that?

I didn’t think I could ever be her, but my memory is that person was Mary McCarthy. I loved her so, and still do: “The Company She Keeps” (1942), “A Charmed Life” (1955). The one that I really love is “The Groves of Academe” (1952) because I grew up in the McCarthy era — the other McCarthy era — and that book is hilarious. People should read it now because it’s all about how a worthy cause, something defensible, becomes completely indefensible in the wrong hands. [The protagonist, an instructor at a liberal arts college] claims that he’s been fired from his job because he’s a Communist, but in fact it’s because he’s totally incompetent. It’s brilliantly faceted and so much about what human beings will do. To me, a lot of commentary on the internet is based on the idea that people are good. That’s just not so: Some people are better than other people, as far as virtue goes, and some are just conniving, self-interested [expletive]. Mary McCarthy could see well into the deviousness of even people she was close to. But that was a different era, when you could write these things and even the people you wrote them about would know that she’s an artist, she’s a writer, this is what she does. Now there’s a real march to conformity, or unanimity of opinion, of political stances, and it occludes the reality of human nature and what reality is, which makes it very hard to express what I’m thinking because we’ve almost eliminated the way that you can express it. [Laughs.]

Taylor Mead and Chris Kapp in Indiana’s play “The Roman Polanski Story” (1981).Credit…Courtesy of the artist and the Fales Library and Special Collections, N.Y.U.

How many hours of creative work do you do in a day?

I used to work around the clock, whenever I was conscious. That has changed a lot in the last few years. I don’t have writer’s block, exactly, but I have writer’s hesitation. It depends on where my energy level is or how much I want to avoid it.

When do you go to bed?

I try to sleep every night. Sometimes I succeed, and sometimes I don’t. I’ve had insomnia for years, and it’s gotten worse as I’ve gotten older, which is weird because that goes against my sense of how things should be. When you get old, you should be tired all the time, and I am. I get in bed at 11 o’clock most nights, but then I can’t sleep. My doctor wants me to go to a sleep clinic, but I discovered by asking other people that all they do at the sleep clinic is study the way you sleep. They don’t fix it.

Is writing clearly delineated from your artistic practice, or do you see any overlap there?

They’re not different things to me. Video is like writing with a camera. Of course, the processes are different but, to me, it’s all the same thing.

How do you procrastinate?

In every way that I can.

Do you watch TV?

Generally not, but in the past couple of weeks I’ve been turning it on, and it’s all crap: either stories about murders that took place in the early ’80s or “Law & Order,” nothing I enjoy watching. I always turn it on hoping it will put me to sleep, and it doesn’t. I just keep switching the channels.

Do you have a favorite novel?

“Two Serious Ladies” (1943) [by Jane Bowles].

What, if anything, embarrasses you?

I’m too embarrassed to say.

When you start something new, where do you begin?

Novels always occur to me out of odd things. Something presents itself as an opportunity. This book I’m working on now has been much more of a mental thing. I didn’t even have a subject, but I knew that I wanted to get at what people pay attention to and what they don’t, and it took me a long time to find the ideal setting for that. Then I thought, “Well, what is it that they’re not paying attention to?”

How do you know when you’re done?

You just know. Nothing is ever completely finished, but I know when I get to the end of something that this is the last scene of the book, or this is the last shot of the video. It tells you: enough already.

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