Daniel Allen Cox’s writing is as sexy as he is. His prose is sensuous, funny, sharp and intense, giving the reader the inside track on whoever his protagonist is. His last novel, Shuck, rightly drew praise for its forthright take on the life of a New York hustler and porn actor. His latest, Krakow Melt, tells the decidedly off-kilter story of a queer man and a woman who form a passionate relationship after bonding over their shared fascination with fire. Cox took time out to chat about his new book with Xtra over beer. He’s as full of wit and candour in conversation as he is in print.
XTRA: What inspired this book?
DANIEL ALLEN COX: The beautiful city of Krakow inspired this book. And so did the men I had sex with in Poland who couldn’t tell a single person what we did, either because they weren’t out, or because they had no community. I witnessed homophobia in Poland first-hand when I lived there a few years ago. Troublemakers would descend on the only gay club in Poznan I knew about — signless and on the edge of town — and harass the gays. I remember them yelling at me for kissing a guy. I had gotten into the habit of tipping my doorman with booze when I brought men home, but in retrospect, I wonder if I was buying his silence so he wouldn’t let anything happen to me. Of course homophobia was much worse there for native Poles, and continues to be. I lived there around the time when Lech Kaczynski banned the Warsaw Pride march for the second consecutive year, and when the Polish pope died. How could I not write a book about it? But I was missing a catalyst to tie everything together. That turned out to be fire, and I got it when my apartment building burned down in 2007. The black woodsmoke that hung over Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood that day was the novel’s missing ingredient.
XTRA: The way you regard fire in the book is really intriguing. I’ve been through a devastating housefire, so I know how it can be. But you see something inspiring about it…
DAC: Yes, we share that experience. In my case, I saw the fire as regenerative: it forced me to reprioritize everything in my life, from the few objects we salvaged, to the friendships that turned the ordeal into a growing experience. It’s amazing how much stuff we have in our lives, that, when you’re running from a smouldering building, don’t matter one bit. This is an intense feeling of freedom. It’s the freedom I wanted to give the characters in Krakow Melt.
XTRA: I think it’s also really interesting that you have a queer male protagonist in a romance with a woman. You turning straight on us?
DAC: [laughs] Why, you gotta problem with that? The characters in this novel fancy themselves as subversive, so they wouldn’t be comfortable screwing according to assigned labels. I needed there to be some crossover, the kind of transgressive relationship that would cause friction in their social sphere. But activist and Xtra contributor Ariel Troster once said it best, and I paraphrase — she will correct me if I misquote — “When a queer guy and queer girl hook up, it’s not straight sex, it’s queer squared.” But my own sexuality is far less interesting than that of the characters in the book. I’m an indeterminate mix of gay and bisexual. These terms are not mutually exclusive, and I’m comfortable with both of them. So, in answer to your question, put me in the backseat of a limo with the likes of Joan Rivers or Marisa Tomei, and there’s no telling what’ll happen.
XTRA: Tell me about the Polish ex-nun who stalked you.
DAC: Oh jeepers, you’re going to bring this up? Well, not to sensationalize this because she was really nice, but I was teaching English to an ex-nun. She started giving me slices of homemade pie and soup along with her homework assignments, which I foolishly accepted because I’m a sucker for homemade Polish food. Another time it was a teddy bear. Then, for one of her writing assignments, she handed in a “dream” about an English teacher and about her wearing floral-print pyjamas. It got to the point where I had to change my phone number, as well as take taxis to avoid running into her on the street. I never did find out why she quit the convent.
XTRA: You had a lot of great reviews with Shuck. Are you feeling the pressure with the follow-up act?
DAC: Are you referring to Second Novel Syndrome (SNS), the plague that supposedly exterminates whole legions of first-time novelists? No. For me, the pressure to create comes from within, a sense of urgency that’s part of my creative process. But, of course, you always want people to like your work… I’m pleased that there’s already a buzz around Krakow Melt.
XTRA: Which authors would you say have most influenced your style?
DAC: When I was first starting to write, I had the biggest author crush on Kurt Vonnegut. I suspect that I’ll never stop writing until I can write tragedy so humorously as in his novel Hocus Pocus. And then I’ll have to stop. So it goes. Then I went through brief but torrid infatuations with postmodernists like Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, before renouncing them altogether. And I’ve always had a thing for breathtakingly short novels; Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s is the perfect length. Ideally, I’d like to keep trimming my novels down until they reach an irreducible 10 pages.
XTRA: It appears that Krakow Melt is the only recent English-language novel out there that deals with homophobia in Eastern Europe so overtly. Do you hope it kick-starts a new trend?
DAC: I’m sure other books have touched on this, but either way, we’ll definitely see more of it. The internet continues to unify the global GLBT struggle and renders geography quite meaningless. But really, it’s my privilege to work alongside the folks who do the heavy work and whom I merely support: the activists protesting and campaigning in the streets, circulating petitions, lobbying government, getting funding, marching under the threat of police brutality, enduring death threats and much worse. As a fiction writer, I mostly watch these events from afar and create new ways to imagine potential outcomes, to help keep the conversation going.
Daniel Allen Cox will read from Krakow Melt in Ottawa on Aug 26 as part of the Get Naked Benefit (a cancer fundraiser). The Montreal launch is on Sept 10 at 7:30pm at the Drawn & Quarterly bookstore, 211 Bernard W.