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Lisa Crystal Carver is an underground literary icon -- dubbed a "visionary" by one critic, likened to "Hunter S. Thompson in a miniskirt" by another.
As creator of the beloved, bizarro fanzine Rollerderby, she was widely considered the queen of the late '80s/early '90s independent publishing scene: an intimate circle of creative but dysfunctional, artistic but socially inept freaks that went far (see musician Bill Callahan of Smog, artist Dame Darcy and industrial music maven Boyd Rice).
This nutty cast of characters -- Lisa's friends, lovers and partners in crime -- made up Carver's world, which she faithfully chronicled in all its raunchy glory for Rollerderby. The mag was a stimulating blend of smut and schlock: a celebration of American culture's seediest underbellies. On one page, you'd find photos of Carver's girl friends, bloodied and posed to look like corpses; on the next, interviews with rock stars like Liz Phair and Courtney Love.
But Rollerderby didn't attract a cult following just because of its salacious content. Carver won fans' hearts via her uniquely taut writing -- a style she describes as "like I'm telling something I can't wait to tell to one person who already knows everything about me and still likes me."
That writing is showcased in Carver's recently published "post-punk memoir," Drugs Are Nice (named after her band Suckdog's first record), in which she tracks her transformation from small-town teen to international lit-punk sensation.
The book is surprisingly hopeful and resonant, mainly because Carver finally gives herself the right, as well as the space, to mine her own depths. Beneath Carver's bawdy attitude and rock 'n' roll lifestyle is a smart, dedicated writer who manages to be strengthened, instead of squashed, by life's traumas.
And, as readers learn, there's no shortage of traumas. Carver's "issues" are varied: From learning that her schizophrenic son, Wolfgang, is afflicted with a rare chromosomal disorder, to her troubled relationship with her drug-dealing, woman-resenting father, to her penchant for abusive men (Carver's account of her romance with alcoholic rumored Nazi Boyd Rice is one of the book's most powerful passages), Carver acknowleges her lowest moments without tumbling into self-pity.
She also offers a humorously detailed account of visiting Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan, in his creepy San Francisco mansion. (LaVey's family is now trying to sue Carver for her depictions of him. On Nov. 11, Carver wrote in her MySpace blog about being attacked by LaVey's minions at a book signing: "A red-haired gal said, 'Are you Lisa Carver? I'm Szandora and this is Stanton LaVey' and something like, 'We want to know why you'd write something like that, and you're a stupid bitch and we're going to kick your ass.' So she lunges for me, we pull each other's hair out, I kick her in the crotch a couple times, she scratches my neck up. I'm fine with that part.")
Carver spoke with AlterNet's Laura Barcella via telephone from her Dover, N.H., home.
Laura Barcella: What's changed in your life since you finished writing Drugs Are Nice ?
Lisa Carver: Well, I finished it two years ago. I shopped it around for a long time. Since I finished it, I've separated from my husband, got back together, and then separated again. I went on tour. I moved. I got a new boyfriend. I lost my house. Um, I'm really happy now. It comes and goes.
Have you been surprised by any reactions you've gotten to the book?
I've had really great responses. People have said it changed their lives -- that it made them want to live again and do things they'd given up hope on. It made them look at their youth differently. And it made a lot of people want to do zines again. Some people said the book made them suddenly start talking about things they don't talk about, like if they'd gotten dicked around in the past.
You wrote very openly about real people in your life -- a lot of whom were famous, like GG Allin, Boyd Rice, Bill Callahan, Dame Darcy and Anton LaVey. How did those people react to your portrayals? Was it tough to figure out how much information might be too much?
The ones who were upset by it already didn't like me, and they feared the day I would write this book. The ones who liked it knew that this was the kind of thing I do: confessional memoir.
The best reaction was that Anton LaVey's grandson and his girlfriend attacked me [while on tour promoting my book]. Before I was going on, I already knew they were going to do it, because they'd said they would. I went into Mondo Video and people were asking for my autograph. I got so full of myself; I forgot to have people [stand guard] in front of me. I traipsed out of Mondo Video and walked right into their trap. They jumped me.
Did you press charges?
Yes, I pressed charges. But I wouldn't have except that he was going to sue me. He's trying to stop publication of my book. Of course, it helps my side that he tried to kill me.
That's horrible. What was the rest of the tour like?
I had people play me and GG Allin and [first husband] Jean-Louis Costes and different people. Our entourage grew with each show; we had 11 people by the end. They all came out West with me for two weeks.
Back to the book -- your relationship with Boyd Rice was very scary to watch from an outsider's perspective.
It was scary to watch from an insider's perspective. [ Laughs]
You said that relationship changed you as far as dealing with your father. How did it change your perspective on male-female relationships and women's issues?
I grew up with my dad giving me the information that what a woman [must do] for a man is be totally loyal and take any shit he gives her. That's how she proves her love. In return, he gives her protection. My stepmother and my mother gave me that same information. It was never said, of course; I never got that talk. But my father was violent; not with us, but with anyone who tried to do anything to me or my stepmother. He was also mean and scary, and he put us down.
I thought you tried for someone's approval by being everything for them, and not saying "no" to anything. I didn't even realize I thought like that. But when I was with Boyd, it all became physical and real, instead of being an unspoken manipulation and a philosophy. Then, I was able to understand the messages I'd grown up with and held on to, despite how independent and rich I'd gotten. I was making more money than any of my boyfriends, and I was better able to function [than any of them]. I really chose winners [ laughs].
Yet I still felt I had to prove I could "take it." After I took it and it didn't get me anywhere, I understood that it wasn't a very interesting or compelling dynamic. It sure does sound good when you're doing it -- when you're having sex, [violence] seems like a compelling dynamic.
I have no problem now saying, "I don't like that," "I don't agree with that," "No thanks." Before, I couldn't say any of that, which sounds strange, since I'm such a spitfire!
What happened to Boyd? Does he ever see [your son] Wolfgang?
He's still doing his thing, touring in Eastern Europe, archiving things and living in Denver. He used to come see Wolfgang every other year or two, so I would have the pleasure of his company for a few minutes a day.
Does he have a new girlfriend?
No new girlfriend. He learned some things from our relationship too: that women really are crazy, and that he should stay away from most of them if possible.
That sounds like a good idea. How old is your son now?
Wolf is eleven. Mercedes is three.
You describe the early days of the zine scene [in the late '80s and early '90s] as being chaotic, but inspiring. Do you miss those days? What's different now?
I miss those days terribly. It was really this whole spirit across the country. People didn't rip you off, they didn't censor you and you didn't censor them. It was a time when people were excited and loved music. So of course I miss it. And I don't just think it's me being nostalgic, because so many people have expressed [the same thing] to me. There's no cohesive thrill anymore, nothing that people can dive into and just say, "OK, go!"
I think the internet offers such easy and specific access to whatever you think your weirdness is. It doesn't encourage you to develop your own weirdness and then offer it up to the world. It's too easy to not be isolated.
Back then we were all isolated. [The zine movement] didn't come out of NYC or L.A., it came out of small towns where people thought they were the only freaks in the world and then found out that there were more.
Are there any current zines that you like, though?
I like Found magazine. I'm not familiar with too many now; most of the ones I see now are marginalized. I'd like to see more. Maybe something new will come up. Or maybe zines are over.
You write about America a lot in your book.
I'm tired of America. I've written about it a lot and thought about it a lot. I've also lived away from it a lot, looked at it from all different angles. If my kids weren't in school, I'd be gone.
My ex-husband has a house in this town in French Guyana [full of] European expatriates, and everyone's crazy and everyone thinks crazy people are OK. They just let them go, as long as they don't hurt anyone. There are giant banana trees and poison dart frogs. It's this neat, crazy place in the middle of the jungle.
I'd also like to live in Italy. And I wouldn't be too opposed to Toronto, someplace completely different. My kids would like it, but Wolf is schizophrenic, so it's just not possible until he's out of school. He needs the same life all the time. But I think [my daughter] would love it.
How do you feel about our country right now, politically speaking? Your personal politics didn't come up much in the book.
I'm a bleeding-heart Democrat at this point. I was forced into that corner by this administration's policies -- its response to 9/11, not joining the Kyoto Protocol, everything this administration has been doing.
I think this is the end of [America's] reign. Not that I thought it was great that we were reigning. But I was glad that the USA was the cultural superpower of the world, because that meant my books would be in print for longer. [ laughs] Also, because I enjoy American culture and underground culture, I was glad that we were the cultural superpower of the world. Now I think we'll be in England's position in 10 years.
What about music? Are there any people out there now that you're excited about?
Everyone has asked me that lately, and I feel like a fuddy-duddy. But there's this amazing band called the Soundtrack of Our Lives; they're Swedish. Apparently Sweden is the new America! They are the new superpower. Everyone dresses in black; the streets even dress in black. It's never light out there. It's not incredibly cold, but it's foggy and misty. Everyone is scowling, with pale faces over trench coats. Everyone talks about art in cafes, but not just about themselves. The food is interesting. That's my big concern wherever I go.
When I went, there were all these great, enormous multicolored sex organs! Six-feet-tall papier mache statues lining the streets. The mayor must have thought that was a great idea. It's wild!
Drugs Are Nice is being billed, at least by your publisher, as a sort of memoir for your whole generation. You characterized these members of your generation as lost, searching misfits who are perpetually trying to fill a void in their lives. What's become of them?
We were hurt and lost. But we also had a lot of spunk.
Now, we've all gone through therapy. We all had children. Having kids is what does it -- you can fix the things that happened to you, and you can see someone else feel safe and respected, and then you believe in the world again. That'll ruin a lot of your anarchistic strivings for creating a new world.
My friends got fixed! It's up to a new generation of children in pain to carry the counterculture. Apparently all the latchkey kids are in Stockholm.
One of the conflicts in the book seemed to be your drive for a crazy, dangerous life and your simultaneous desire for a settled, happy one. Do you feel like you've resolved this in your personal life?
I never wanted to be settled or happy. I wanted interest instead of happiness. I wanted lots of different experiences. I had a hunger and a thirst and a greed for knowledge. I also never wanted to be happy because then people could take something away from you. I didn't want to be sad; I just didn't want to owe someone anything, ever.
I think I'm unique that way, but maybe I'm just exaggerated. Everyone I know wants to be happy, or at least they think they do. It could be a common response to being unsafe and traumatized as a kid. You feel familiar when things are unsettled, and nervous when things are good. So I might be more aware of it because I'm a writer.
But you said earlier that you're happy now. How does that feel?
I've been getting happy over the last three years, and it was really hard for me! That sounds ridiculous. I'm really happy that my daughter is easy and healthy, everything Wolf and I were not. It's nice to see. She's like a little bird flying around. It makes me happy just to watch her.
I also have a very good boyfriend who is from San Diego, and they're different there. So he's very nice and normal. No, he's not normal at all. What is he? He's similar to my daughter; he flies around the house, laughs. He does gross stuff and then laughs about it. He's not dwelling on how interesting he is, or the ways he's fucked up, even though he is. Otherwise why would he like me?
One thing that impressed me about your book was how you broke out of your Rollerderby persona. Your writing seemed more honest, especially about personal events you hadn't felt comfortable writing about before. How did that happen? Was it a conscious decision to tell all?
I never wanted to be a victim or be sad. It was a conscious decision. It wasn't like I was keeping it inside or keeping it from anyone -- I just didn't think about that stuff. I ignored that it was there. I didn't talk about it or think about it.
The odd thing is that the more flight I got in my career, the happier I got, the worse things got in my [personal] life. My terribly sick son, my mom dying of cancer I think it started to make me fake. My friend Rachel ever so gently pointed that out. Slowly, over five years, I became inauthentic. So I thought even though it might kill my career, I had to be honest in this book. I didn't want to be a liar anymore.
If your readers could walk away from this book learning one thing, or with one message in mind, what would you hope it was?
I haven't read my book in a year, but I think it's about good vs. evil. I would want people to come up with their own definitions about what's good and what's evil, because too often when we're young or female, we want to be loved and interesting and important to someone else. And we try to be that instead of being what we decide is good and right. Does that sound super corny?
No, I know what you mean. So what are you working on now?
I just started teaching [a comedy improv class] in Boston. For my first class, I had two friends come in and "kidnap" one of the students. Boston is notoriously inactive, if not cowardly. So my whole class didn't say a word; no one tried to stop them. You'd think it was probably not real, knowing me, but they weren't sure! The guys had masks on and a knife.
So I had the students write about it. Four out of 12 made the connection between cowardice and inactivity, and the kidnapping for them [represented] not writing what they really feel, not trying to get their work published. Which was crazy! Every one of them was a great writer, better than me.
Laura Barcella is an associate editor at AlterNet.