Dodie Bellamy is the business. Full stop.
Bellamy carved a space for herself amongst New Narrative writers like Robert Glück, Kathy Acker, and Kevin Killian, to whom she was married to for over 30 years. Despite her cohort, Bellamy has created a body of work that is uniquely her own. Ever experimental and ever queer, her work continually pushes against the boundaries of form and subject matter. She is a figurehead in the Bay Area’s writing scene. As the former director of Small Press Traffic, Bellamy organized readings and events, revitalizing the community. And whether it be through the publication of Mirage Period[ical] #4 (which was co-edited with Kevin Killian) or through her career as an educator, she has always made a point to support emerging writers.
I sat down with Dodie to discuss the re-release of her 1998 vampire novel The Letters of Mina Harker and the release of her latest essay collection Bee Reaved. Like many of my conversations with her, we begin with a bit of vulnerability and silliness.
Dodie Bellamy: Can I ask you a narcissistic question: Do you think Mina still holds up?
London Pinkney: Absolutely! I mean, I was only a year when The Letters of Mina Harker was published—
DB: That’s so funny!
LP: I think folks my age will get a lot out of the novel because Gen Z is the generation of sex positivity and carving out an identity for yourself. You do that well with the character of Mina Harker.
DB: The sex in Mina limited me in a lot of ways. I could not get a grant for the life of me. And it was also hard to publish Mina. I was surprised. I was living in a very sex positive community where the sexuality of that book was not seen as weird. It was seen as what we were looking at. It was considered a political imperative. I do think that now there is more space for sexualized writing, even though it feels to people of my generation that we are in a more sexually repressive environment than what it used to be.
LP: Things are changing every day. Sometimes it's even hard for me to keep up and I run in communities where folks are constantly discussing decolonizing sex and gender. But I don’t think folks should be afraid of the changing landscape. A lack of fear is something I appreciated about the Mina/Dodie character—she freely discusses sex and insecurity without caveats. Other writers can be so defensive in the way they describe their character’s desires and frustrations.
DB: I was schooled by a gay male writing community. Eventually AIDS changed things, but these were the guys who went to the bathhouses. I remember one mentor telling me, in great detail, how anonymous group sex was a spiritual experience. I was raised in a spirit of wild sexual freedom, which later became tragic. But promiscuity (outside of kink communities) was much more problematic for women. There were lesbian sex clubs, but I never went to one so I can't speak to that experience. With Mina, I took gay male sexual ideals and put them in a female body who was having hetero sex. The book was very much influenced by gay male sex writing, particularly Dennis Cooper. And so I was taking the tropes of gay sex writing—describing how everybody's cock looks, things like that—and switching who gets to objectify whom. So Mina is very much about objectifying men but doing so through a consciousness that has a very limited sense of agency. It's this constant battle between the powerful Mina and insecure, nerdy Dodie. I wanted to explore power and lack of power in the same person.
LP: Do you think writing through Mina’s voice gave you more power as Dodie in your future work?
DB: Oh, totally. I spent a lot of time, being of the generation I am, reading goddess literature. In Dracula, Mina Harker gets bitten and then it’s all these men racing to save her soul. So Mina’s a liminal figure, and in my reinterpretation she’s like a goddess. And like the Greek gods and goddesses, she’s full of flaws and ego. It was really fun to explore that. But one of the editors who rejected the book said, dismissively, that the vampire thing was over. This is in the 90s, and were they fucking wrong. It never has ended. It's really interesting. I’m not invested in most of the new incarnations, but I'm kind of amazed. It goes on and on and on.
LP: It really does. There's The Vampire Diaries, Interview with a Vampire, Vampire Academy and, of course, Twilight.
DB: I read the first volume of Twilight and I saw the movies.
LP: What did you think?
DB: I really liked the book until they got together. The vampire/human sexual taboo created tension. I recently finished all 17 seasons of Grey's Anatomy, a show that loves sexual taboo, but the way they create it is so clunky. If characters can fuck anybody with abandon there's little to be invested in. For instance, despite their addiction to Grindr, I’ve heard more than one gay guy complain about a sense of burnout. In Twilight I thought the tension in the first 50 pages or so was hot, but once they started doing it, it got boring.
LP: It did. Bella and Edward got married quickly, too. I don’t think we saw any premarital vampire sex. But speaking of vampire sex, what made you gravitate towards Mina Harker’s character?
DB: Initially, I was writing a book based on Frankenstein, exploring appropriation along the lines of Kathy Acker. In my world Kathy was held up as the goddess of writing. Appropriation was something that was not questioned, it was promoted. I was looking for a text to appropriate and Frankenstein wasn't working. Then I came upon Dracula. Mina was never supposed to be a book. I just started writing letters in her voice to my friends, and they wrote back. The more I got into it, the letters became more involved, and less people were willing to write back. The project involved letters to a whole slew of people. And then for the book, as it is now, I combined people to make composites. I created the character Sing who is based on a friend at the time, Kathleen. It's this promiscuous telling across all these people. When Mina would write to a fellow writer, I would collage bits of the person’s writing into the piece and, on various levels, the letter would address that person's writing—as a kind of an homage. When I created composites that layer got buried because it’s not clear where anything's coming. Often in the reviews, passages that were quoted as brilliant were something I didn't write.
LP: Did your friends like writing back to you in your Mina voice?
DB: When the letters were short people wrote back often. I have this whole correspondence with Sam D’Allesandro. And Kevin. There used to be this rebel literary magazine at San Francisco State, edited by grad students as a sort of corrective to issues they had with 14 Hills—it was called Ink—and in their third issue (1989) they published the early letters between Kevin and Mina. Mina’s letters were always boundary transgressing and flirty—always saying the kind of thing you wouldn’t say to anybody. Those letters were in some ways instrumental in moving Kevin and me out of drinking buddies mode into something deeper.
LP: Mina’s epistolary form is refreshing, especially during the pandemic when a lot of the folks I know have gotten back into writing letters to one another.
DB: Not long after I finished Mina I taught a class called epistolary fiction at Mills. To prepare for it, I read tons of epistolary writing theory. But I hadn't done all this research for Mina. I had read works on horror and vampires, and all the PoMo theory that we were forced to read in order to be a citizen of San Francisco’s writing community. But I hadn't read about the epistolary form before that class. My approach to writing an epistolary novel was pretty much intuitive.
LP: Did you take what you learned from teaching that course and bring it to Bee Reaved?
DB: No, I don’t think so. That was so long ago anything I learned has been so deeply incorporated I wouldn’t recognize it. The collection, as I originally conceived it, was about mortality and aging and excess, etc., and any time I got a writing commission I used it as an opportunity to write toward those topics. I was fortunate to receive a series of great commissions. The book was not intended to be about grieving, but when Kevin died I couldn’t write about anything else. Since The Letters of Mina Harker is on one level a portrait of the early days of Kevin and my relationship, in editing Bee Reaved I tried in little ways to consciously connect the two books. For instance, I collaged some of the language from the final paragraph of Mina into the final paragraph of Bee Reaved. I think it was the perfect ending to Bee Reaved.
LP: I loved both endings. My favorite sentence from Mina is, “This is what you always wanted, isn't it, a house that talks.” So when I saw it in Bee Reaved I yelled, “Dammit Dodie!” That was beyond satisfying, especially given that both works feature one of your aliases and Kevin is central to the narratives.
DB: It switches the focus of Mina. Because there's so much sex with other people in Mina, that seems to be the focus of the novel, but really the focus is on the marriage that can contain all of that. Together, the two books present the beginning and ending of a relationship. Though of course, on a personal level, the relationship is ongoing.
LP: Speaking of Bee Reaved, whose work is on the cover? I love the image, it’s so stark.
DB: That’s Greer Lankton. She was a trans artist based in New York, part of that Downtown art scene. She created dolls. My editor, Hedi El Kholti found the photo in David Wojnarowicz’s archive. Lankton gave it to Wojnarowicz for his birthday. It’s a very arresting image. I love it now, but at first I wasn’t sure it fit the book. Do you think it does?
LP: Totally! The image is playful. Now it looks like a dead marionette, but I initially thought it was a photo of an actual person.
DB: The body looks kind of fake, but that face is amazing.
LP: It absolutely is. And seeing someone laid out above the name/word Bee Reaved is funny. I think the cover captures your style. You explore serious concepts in a not-too-serious way. Not just in this book, but in all your work, you openly discuss shit and piss and insecurity in a way that’s funny because of how open you are.
DB: I intended to be funny. I kept wanting to write about humor directly. I spent a lot of time taking notes on humor, and thinking about it, but it just didn't fit in or felt clunky. I have a whole file on potty humor, Freud on humor, and kids and potty humor. That part about cleaning up the cat shit all the time, it was really horrible but after a certain time it gets giddy.
LP: A line from Mina that cracked me up was: “My lives, my deaths, multiple as orgasms.” I can see that being like the battle cry of so many people I know.
DB: Like they've got multiple selves?
LP: Yeah. Social media has forced people to curate different sides of themselves. When the pandemic began there was a meme circulating where you had to post a picture of your Instagram self, your Tinder self, your Facebook self, and your LinkedIn self. In Mina, we definitely see the character’s Tinder and Facebook selves.
DB: I downloaded one of those apps where you can edit selfies. So it got rid of my wrinkles and blurred my face to the highest level. I looked horrible and inhuman. Honestly it was fun, but kind of sad.
LP: It’s wild how easy it is to change yourself with an app. Folks are starting to not know which version of themself is real or not. Speaking of images, could you tell me more about the latest project you're working on?
DB: I'm starting this project in which I respond to the photos Alice Shaw took of Kevin's memorial. I don't want to talk about the memorial or Kevin. I really want to talk about the photos of those who attended the memorial, which was held at SFMOMA. These people are acting like they're having a good time, but they're at a memorial service, so there's an aura of death around them. The pictures look like scenes from plays. They don't look like real-life.
LP: Have you always been interested in photography?
DB: I went to school in photography, but I dropped out. I was better as a friend of photographers.
LP: Your background of photography is clear in all of your writing because there's an interesting relationship between subject and viewer. In Mina you mentioned that “every image is like a living popsicle.
DB: That’s so weird!
LP: Do you not remember writing that?
DB: Not at all, there are a lot of words in that book. Your tongue wants to start flailing.
LP: I was wondering how you read this aloud.
DB: It’s an exercise in endurance. In Mina I was interested in the sentence. I think I'm doing the same sorts of movements in the later work but it's on a bigger scale, so it's more about the paragraph. I create the same sorts of shifts and weird connections but there’s more air around them rather than this constant assault. I think the constant assault had a lot to do with the sense of overwhelm and the recurring theme of female excess—because being excessive is like the worst fucking sin if you're female.
LP: There was a line in Mina that reminded me of Bee Reaved’s structure. It's about Sam's death: “We loved him live now we love him dead, here it’s all the same, only better.” Could you tell me more about the process of writing Bee Reaved?
DB: I think that line you like so much is actually a quote from Sam D’Allesandro’s writing! Nick Cave did two albums about his son's tragic death. One of them, Ghosteen, was the theme music to my mourning. On one song he repeats “We are here and you are where you are.” It struck me one day this was the key to organizing Bee Reaved. When the focus switched to Kevin’s death, I had to decide what to do with the material I’d originally intended for the book. I wanted to figure out how to make Bee Reaved focused without cutting the non-grief material. So, based on the Nick Cave line, I organized the book into two sections—“Here” and “Where.” Everything before Kevin got sick is collected in “Here,” and what I wrote after that is kept together in “Where.” When I hear the word “where” it always feels like a question. I wanted to highlight the unknowableness inherent in grief.
LP: Death feels elsewhere. It’s hard to process.
DB: I don't think our brains can accept death. I wrote about that, too. Sometimes it feels like the fact that Kevin even existed is a dream.
LP: You mentioned that you’re afraid of writing in a different style out of a fear of feeling less connected to Kevin. Where do you see yourself going from here?
DB: I think I've gotten past that concern. I don't really know. I don't feel like the life that I'm going to have has manifested itself yet.