Buy it online
Books by Michael Turner
- Company Town (1991)
- Hard Core Logo (1993)
- Kingsway (1995)
- American Whiskey Bar (1997)
- The Pornographer's Poem (1999)
Michael Turner has just given up coffee. "It was making me edgy and bitchy and just tough to be around." While the 37-year-old author is articulate, eloquent and nothing if not charming, it's also not difficult to imagine him being as he describes with a cup or 10 of java in him. He's spare and lean and, as we speak, he slouches gently in an elegant approximation of relaxed attitude. Nonetheless, you get the feeling he could be moving at any second: another project, a different interview. Places to go and miles to cover before he sleeps. Contained animation: it's a pretty neat trick.
His intense glance leaves nothing to interpretation: when Turner asks a question, you feel compelled to answer and his natural curiosity means there are always a lot of questions in his immediate vicinity. Answering questions has become his raison d'être as a writer and, one gets the feeling, for the way he's chosen to live his life. As a teenager, Turner spent his summers working in a salmon cannery on British Columbia's northwest coast. After graduating from high school in 1980, he headed for points other, living and working in Europe and North Africa until heading back to Canada where he graduated from the University of Victoria with a degree in Anthropology in 1986. In 1987 he co-founded The Hard Rock Miners, a "postmodern jugband" with whom he released three albums and toured extensively.
This experience on the road would ultimately lead to the kernel of an idea that became Hard Core Logo, the 1993 novel that would later become a feature film, play, comic book -- and did I say T-shirt? -- as well as the leverage that would thrust Turner from the comfortable obscurity of small-press-poet into a limelight that includes large advances and moderate fame. Turner finds it ironic that, "giving up the touring life [with The Hard Rock Miners], the book then became the carrier, the medium by which I was touring again. In a different way. In a nice way."
The autumn 1999 publication of Turner's fifth book, The Pornographer's Poem, is his first to be published by a large publishing house, Doubleday Canada. Turner received what was reputedly the largest advance paid by a Canadian publisher last year. In another nice irony -- and one entirely of Turner's creation -- the author put a large portion of the advance money into creating a new imprint with Vancouver's Arsenal Pulp Press. Turner is the editor of the aptly named Advance Editions, a project the writer has a great deal of excitement for. Exciting, as well, is the project Turner is working on now. "I've written a book about rock n' roll and I've written a book about sex. So what's left but drugs?" The drug project is still in the formative stages but, no matter what he does with that book, for sheer shock appeal The Pornographer's Poem will be a tough act to follow.
The Pornographer's Poem is the first person account of an unnamed teenage maker of pornographic films. "I wanted to disturb the reader's sense of a passive reading," says Turner. "I wanted to play with that and every now and again I would use sex to protract, to create a banality but for different reasons. To shock in terms of explicit sex but also to disturb the way we read."
It works. A darkly disturbing book, The Pornographer's Poem was released to almost unanimously rave reviews, and even numbered among January Magazine 's picks for Best of 1999. January contributor Jay Currie called it, "as serious a meditation on the nature of pornography as I have ever read and a pitch perfect description of the illusion shattering effects of growing up."
Michael Turner lives in Vancouver with his partner, Judy Radul, who Turner says, "wears the geek pants in the family." The former musician says that his life these days, "is pretty good. Kind of quiet. Don't go out much. Like a beer at my local." And then there's all that musing on sex, drugs and rock n' roll.
Linda Richards: Let me read you something from the press material that came with The Pornographer's Poem: "From these linked experiences he realizes that through representation of sexual activity he can comment on that which he finds both painful and confusing." Is that what you had in mind?
Michael Turner: When I was writing the book?
Yes. While writing.
Yeah. I was playing with this idea. And back even further. In my research as to what is and when is pornography. I was looking at, for instance, that the word came about in the mid-1800s in England. Prior to that there was no word for it. Representations of sexuality were part of the political and social critique that was going on as literacy was rising. The ruling elite saw fit to put this material in private libraries and call it something. Pornography then became a thing. Not so much a thing but an argument between those producing sexually explicit materials and those trying to suppress it.
Further readings -- Angela Carter's work, for example, who I heavy-handedly quote in the book -- was trying to find a way to use sex, again as a critique. The porn industry exists in parallel to the mainstream. Like 60 per cent of the video market and 60 per cent of the Internet now. The pornographic film business produces films that I think provide a burlesque in the mainstream. For every Batman movie series you get, you get Buttman. Everybody knows the narrative of Batman, so it's assumed within the Buttman series so those narrative gaps are taken up through sex and it exists -- in a way -- to mock the mainstream. It's an alternative. So these are things I'm playing with.
Certainly in the beginning when he [the main character in The Pornographer's Poem] sees his first pornographic movie he starts to sexualize his environment at a time when kids are coming to terms with their sexuality in the face of adults who are often vicariously trying to impose their notions of innocence back on their children. Quickly forgetting that they too were young. It leads to questions of child pornography. I'm very interested in the hysteria around it. I think the law is a very weak law. It's not very well defined. I'm not really interested in the materials themselves, although I find them very disturbing and I'm upset by what children are put through to create this kind of material. But the reaction -- the hysteria -- that is attended to things that people think lead down this road interests me. So I decided to explore that in kind of a way too.
I've kind of wondered at the hysteria as well because part of it is denying that we're sexual beings.
Yeah: we're sexual beings and yeah these repressions create the pathologies that we carry with us. The pathological behaviors we carry with us into our adult lives and ultimately lead to -- I think -- sex crimes. If you want to get causal, the church has all kinds of statistics pointing the other way. The moral majority in the States has statistics that they use to say the contrary. But I believe that repressions create unhealthy situations as much as abuses of children sexually.
Yeah. Ignorance. In the United States they have such little regard for education. Even government: there's a lot of animosity towards any kind of public institution. And it's creating some of the most bizarre serial killers in the world. That's no coincidence in my mind. So I think with a broader sexual education and a broader education as well, I don't think we'd have a lot of these problems.
Are people disturbed by The Pornographer's Poem?
Nobody has really come up to me and said, "I'm really upset by this." I was on a radio talk show today and some people phoned in and -- without even having read the book -- are just disturbed by some of the ideas that I've been talking about.
Should people be disturbed? Do you want them to be?
Yeah, I think so. I think in certain instances I was looking to push a little farther. At the same time, I have formal issues as well. That's where a lot of my work starts from. Pornographer's Poem is about the way in which we're sort of set up and conditioned to recall our lives as we've lived them. Sort of anticipating all of these memoirs that are coming out now. This non-fictive stuff. People writing about their lives. I haven't read all these books, of course, but I'm familiar with the basic narratives. There's about three of them. These growing up stories. I've tried to create a sort of memoir that had a narrative that resisted these authoritative voices that come in and out, pushing towards a stock narrative or a master narrative that typifies a kind of a childhood growing up. I wanted to make the reader aware that my narrator did not want to be organized in a certain kind of a way and I think I wanted to disturb the reader's sense of a passive reading of, "Here we go and it would be nice to follow this along here and we know where we're going so we're OK." I wanted to play with that and every now and again I would use sex to protract, to create a banality but for different reasons. To shock in terms of explicit sex but also to disturb the way we read.
And it works on a lot of levels. I've got to tell you that I picked up the book and I read about four pages and I thought, "What is the fuss? This, like, totally sucks." And everyone was saying, "Michael Turner's new book is so wonderful." And I just thought: Whatever. So about a week passed and I picked up the book again and I thought I'd persevere because it's not really fair to say something sucks based on four pages. But it was disturbing me. The narrative. Not the sexual aspects, but the way you're playing with narrative. And after I kind of coasted with it and went with it I felt it worked really well and I enjoyed it very much.
I wanted an abstracted beginning. I want a kind of a table of contents beginning. Like maybe foreshadowing things that might happen later. But I wanted it set it up in an abstract way. It's a huge risk, because people often pick up books and they just read the first line and if there's no poetry in that line or if there's an attitude in that line that goes against what they want, they'll put the book down. And those first 10 pages are quite: What? Where am I? Bing, bing, bing!
So this abstraction is, in a way, the poem. Or one of the references to the poem in the title. I see the poem as a kind of organization. Then you get into the expository kind of thing and then you're carrying on and it's going along and then something -- whatever -- happens. But I wanted a difficult beginning. A very abstract beginning. I wanted, in many ways, for it to start out like a gay porno where you get all these blasts of images and then you settle down into sort of a recognizable storyline.
In some ways it reads like a screenplay initially.
Indeed. Those elements are screenplay conventions. And I used them in American Whiskey Bar. The screenplay is our new literary form, in a way. More people are reading them and writing them, I think. They register in a strong way.
Define yourself professionally at this point in your life. Michael Turner is a...
Writer. Lives in Vancouver. Vancouver writer. Dabbles in film. Likes to garden. Still mourning the loss of his dog last summer, to cancer. Lulu. Age six. Dead. Very sad. I live with Judy Radul my partner, life is pretty good. Kind of quiet. Don't go out much. Like a beer at my local.
But you do think of yourself as a writer? Which of course, you are. But you've done other things as well.
I've just written five books, so...
But you were a musician.
I still am a musician but it's not really something... well, you can look at my bio. I'm not really putting it there anymore. I'm not a working musician anymore. I still get songwriting royalty checks and stuff but I let my union dues slide.
Were you surprised at the success of Hard Core Logo?
Well, everything is a bit of a surprise when you don't have expectations. It was sort of a neat experience: Hard Core Logo. I wrote this book and -- you know -- people would find it and then I'd get letters and I left the band just after I published it and then Bruce McDonald contacted me and he'd read it. And then it became a movie. So in many ways it's become sort of different things. As the movie travels around the world the book sort of travels with it. It sells well in the States and it's taught down there and I go down and give talks. That's a lot of fun. I've been able to travel with that book. So ironically giving up the touring life, the book then became the carrier, the medium by which I was touring again. In a different way. In a nice way. So, yeah: Hard Core Logo was really good for me, in many ways.
Was the movie true to the book?
You know, it's easy for me to say good things about the film. I think the film played on the conceit of the book in that it's written to you as if you're along for the ride or you're watching a documentary or something. Direct address of the voices. The tone was a little darker, a littler more Wagnerian than I thought. You know what I mean? The performances were very good. I lament the fact that they did not bring Vancouver with it. Films do this thing: in an attempt to reach the widest audience they seek a universal. Which is a false thing, ultimately. It applies a kind of consensus on what is universal. But I really felt that the particular should have been carried with it. Vancouver, is a really interesting city. In terms of contemporary visual art, it's probably one of the most well represented cities in the world right now with the success of Jeff Wall, Stan Douglas, Rodney Graham: these Vancouver-based artists who work internationally in a photo conceptual-based practice and using Vancouver as a backdrop for their work. Also, as much as I liked the improv of the actors, I thought that the screenplay was far superior in many ways to the improvs of the actors. And I do have a bit of a problem with the ending, when he shoots himself. I think the challenge would have been to find a better way to end this film.
I haven't read Hard Core Logo, though I've seen the film. The book didn't end that way?
In the book, the lead singer in the band advertises to form a new band under his real name and carries on doing what he was doing because that's all he knows how to do. In the movie, the character kills himself. In a way you could say he's killing a rock n' roll self or his rock handle.
Except there's all that blood and brains. It didn't look very representational in the film.
I read a review of the film that talked about Hard Core Logo as though it were a documentary. The reviewer even expressed wonder that the producers were able to use what she thought was real footage of someone killing themselves.
In the prairie provinces people were really upset. And saying stuff like, "Oh man, how did they get that guy to kill himself? They must have given him a lot of money."
But going back to your first question, I realize that in a way the book and the movie are forever wedded. I think that's sort of what happens. And don't forget there's a comic book based on the book and the movie, a beautifully drawn perfect bound comic book. There's also a book on the making of the movie by Noel Baker, the screenwriter who I hear is sort of a character in his own non-fiction. It's very strange. And then there's a tribute record, a soundtrack record: all this spin off stuff. There was a TV documentary on the making of the movie as well. So all these various levels of reading my book -- you know, reading it like Bruce McDonald would read it. Give it to a screenwriter who'd read it and change it and then government agencies coming in -- like Telefilm and stuff like that -- they read it and they want changes. And it goes to actors who workshop it and they make changes. It goes to film and then it's edited by an editor who further makes changes based on his reading of it. And these levels of reading -- and this all set up American Whiskey Bar, because that's what that was all about: it's a series of readings and creating kind of an inner textuality between the screenplay and the surrounding ostensibly non-fictive elements in the preface, introduction and afterword. So for that and with Pornographer's Poem, I was kind of obsessed with these levels of reading and American Whiskey Bar sort of became a node that became its own book. It's been instructive to me and it all just sort of goes out there as one thing.
But it's weird too, because I forget my original imagery when I wrote the book. I try to think back on when I came upon this and I'm seeing the filmmaking image. And I'm kind of saying: What was the image?
Like, it wasn't quite so grainy. And it wasn't black and white.
Right. And more Mozart than Wagner.
That would be a little creepy.
It is kinda creepy. But the loss has been replaced by tons of money. [Laughs] That's another funny thing. You know, the books sell well, but most of the money is made off the film rights and stuff. It's quite remarkable.
Are there nibbles from the film industry on Pornographer's Poem?
More than nibbles. There's no deal yet, but I've had four offers already. But we're waiting until we do the foreign rights final sales. Because there's no point in doing a deal until the book is out there living in the world everywhere, I don't think. I like the idea of it being made into a film by a European company. I mean, North America, I don't know. We're in another porno chic era. We're still quite freaked out about sexuality and there's a homogenization going on with pornography or the explorations into pornography. And indeed what we think of as pornography is not pornography. Boogie Nights was not about the pornographic film industry. That was just the dressing. It's about the failure of the consanguineal family and the way families are formed around film production or communities are formed around other things. Non-traditional family structures. The Larry Flynt film was the same way. It's not about a guy who makes a dirty magazine. It's really about challenging middle class construction and taste. That's where those films are strong.
Full circle, back to that question of exploring sexuality, it has to start I think when you're younger and we fetishize it at this point. As we're seeing stuff out there now.
You talked about homogenization and it makes me think of magazines like Maxxum and Stuff and others like it. Not that those are bad magazines, and a lot of people enjoy them and buy them, obviously. But, when I think of it, they do seem to be examples of the homogenization of pornography. They don't do pictures of naked babes at all. But the women are presented in a way that is dressed but frankly sexual. That strikes me as homogenization.
I would say that Penthouse and Playboy are the worst kinds of pornography in that they reinforce those ideas of inequity between men and women. Through the camera positioning and the whole backstory that's created around the models. Again, reinforcing that a woman is sort of an object. But of course, their circulations are sort of dying slowly, I think. The Playboy clubs are all closed now. Bob Guccione has expanded his empire into other publications as did Larry Flynt.
You said it was the worst kind of pornography. Which is a negative. Do you view pornography as a bad thing?
I was using it as we know pornography. I define pornography as that debate between two discourses. Is there bad pornography? Is that what you're saying?
Well, I think it's bad insofar as it reinforces those misconceptions that we have or reinforces a hatred or putting someone in a subservient situation. Indenturing someone, like I mentioned earlier with children. It's awful to see children taken into situations. Though I admit that children are curious sexually and often find themselves in similar situations of their own accord. But, again, I find Penthouse and Playboy much more reprehensible than I do Hustler magazine. Hustler is a critique. Hustler is playing with taste. Playing against taste. The very taste that appeals to the refined Playboy reader or the sophisticated Penthouse reader. I don't agree with everything in Hustler , but it's been misinterpreted a lot. The woman in the meat grinder is a classic example that people will point to. Well, they forget there was a text below that, "We know we're not putting women through the meat grinder again." That's an interesting image and statement: where they're putting a woman through a meat grinder but they're actually saying that they're not. That's a conflation of two things at once. That's what artists do. Art and pornography begin, often, in the same place and they only become art or pornography by society's values. So the way it reads out is, to me, more clever. Hustler has always aligned itself with the working classes. And has very vehement criticism against accumulation and the moral majority, which I think is an evil force in the United States. But Penthouse and Playboy won't touch those issues. They'll fawn over those people, in a way. They won't engage at all. The "Asshole of the Month" is a great piece in Hustler because they'll focus on a dirty politician whereas that person will be recruited to come to the Playboy Mansion.
Are you working on something right now?
Well, I've written a book about rock n' roll and I've written a book about sex. So what's left but drugs? Film, sex and rock and roll. So it's about drugs. I've got something sort of outlined and I'm still playing with what drugs are and what they may mean and drugs as a metaphor. Musing on drugs right now. I've got two projects outlined and then I've got the drug project which is sort of exciting me right now. Then I've got my imprint with Arsenal Pulp, which I started: Advance Editions. And I'm editor there. So I'm spending a lot of time going through manuscripts and looking through stuff. That's where a lot of my advance money went. I put it into forming an imprint with Arsenal Pulp. Hence "Advance." | February 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.