INTERVIEW: Brian D’Amato, Author of the Biopunk Novel “Beauty”
Brian D’Amato has written for magazines, including Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and Artforum, and he has taught art and art history at the City University of New York, Ohio State, and Yale University. His sculptures and installations have been shown in galleries all over the world.
Kristin Centorcelli: Brian, you have a background in art and also wrote for numerous publications before publishing Beauty in 1992. Did you always see yourself as a writer? Will you tell us more about yourself and what inspired you to write your first novel?
Brian D’Amato: The first draft of Beauty was practically written on a dare, and I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it except my Mom – who suggested doing something on cosmetic surgery in the first place. I do think I had an advantage over most other beginning writers because I never took a creative writing course, or any kind of writing course. So I didn’t think I had to start out by sending Chekhovian-realist short stories to the Quagmire Review, or whatever. If I’d done that, I’d be pumping gas right now, if pumping gas were still allowed. Conversely, I did study art and art history, and majored in painting in school, so my visual stuff started out in a slower way – I was almost about to say a worse way, but that’s not quite right – but anyway I’m still picking up the pieces.
KC: Mulholland is reprinting Beauty this month and it debuted in 1992 to rave reviews! Will you tell us a bit about the novel?
BD’A: We call it a literary thriller about cosmetic surgery. SF Signal readers will recognize a more precise term, “biopunk,” but that term wasn’t around when it came out.
KC: What sort of research did you do for Beauty?
BD’A: Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue and various art magazines had already published some articles of mine, so the fashion stuff wasn’t hard. And I was working in the art world, so I just wrote down bits of dialogue as I heard them. In other words there was almost no research necessary for the on the milieu of the book. The Indian material came from a young lady I was fixated on at the time. 1992 was before you could do much research online, so for the cosmetic-surgery stuff I had a bunch of clippings and a stack of Xeroxes from the CUNY science library. Come to think of it, I miss Xerox. Am I the only one?
KC: What are a few of your biggest influences when it comes to your writing?
BD’A: My mom, Barbara D’Amato, has written about thirty murder mysteries and other novels in related genres like police procedurals. So she was naturally the biggest influence. I knew Lolita quite well, and it’s the main model for the voice of an unreliable or at least untrustable narrator. H.P. Lovecraft was huge, starting when I was pretty young, but it’s a little harder to see in Beauty than in my Maya series. And Arthur C. Clarke was a gigantic presence at about the same time, and together they formed something like the two poles of science fiction/fantasy, the Dionysian and the Apollonian.
BD’A: As I recall, and I don’t recall it too well, most of the juice-flowers I used in the Beauty days were illegal…but as for my current writing process…I’d say yes, one should write anywhere. Or let me put it this way: it’s important for me not to have a blank screen staring at me like Moby Dick rising out of the surf. Instead I keep Post-Its and an iPhone around and any time I think of anything I write it down or record it, even if I’m doing something else . So people who know me say I seem to zone out a lot at inopportune moments and mumble into my shirt pocket. But then when I transcribe those notes I have a whole file full of bits that just need to be triaged and then put in order. And then whenever I knock off for a while I leave the last sentence on the screen half-unwritten, so that when I come back I can start right away by at least finishing that. It’s not a great idea to look for too long at a gaping empty blank page or screen or even Post-It note, because the abyss can always stare you down.
KC: If you were asked to recommend only one book, which one would it be?
BD’A: Well, assuming it’s a good idea to recommend something many people haven’t read, rather than, say, Moby Dick, which I think everybody’s read… hmm… I think that most people read Dante’s Inferno but then stop before the second two parts of the Divine Comedy. But people who know all of them often prefer the Purgatorio, and anyway one doesn’t really get the reasons for the world created in the Inferno without going through the two corresponding worlds in the Purgatorio and Paradiso. Right now I’m haltingly going through the whole thing in Italian, but the Longfellow translation is still by far the best – so much the best that people don’t even realize how good it is, because it seems effortless.
KC: What’s next for you, this year and beyond?
BD’A: Right now I’m working on a Beauty-related video animation about – is “about” really the right word? Maybe “of” is better. It’s a lightly animated video about Cleo de Merode, who I think in many ways was the first really modern beauty. She was a ballerina but became known even more for her style and face. The third volume in my Maya series is already overdue but I’m still transcribing. It’s odd to have worked on the project for more than twenty years, but one thing I’m glad about is that I said in it that nothing happened on the date of the so-called Maya apocalypse. Nothing gets old faster than a doomsday that didn’t happen. This last book in the trilogy will deal more precisely with what they call the arrow of time. And there’s a secret project, more in the nature of a vaudeville act, that’s most related to Beauty. So watch this (gaping, empty) space.
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