Toronto writer Derek McCormack is back with a new fiction book, The Well-Dressed Wound, his first since 2008’s The Show That Smelled. He is the author of several short novels, most notably The Haunted Hillbilly which was on the Globe and Mail and Village Voice lists of the best books of the year for 2004.
The Well-Dressed Wound is Derek McCormack’s play script “séance”: a fashion show by the dead for the living taking place during the heat of the Civil War. The story is set in a theater in P. T. Barnum’s American Museum on Broadway and features Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln participate in a staged spiritualistic rite. McCormack’s work, according to his publisher Semiotext(e), “evokes the evil-twin muses of transgressive literature, Kathy Acker and Pierre Guyotat.”
Did your new book The Well-Dressed Wound start out as a biography of the Lincoln family?
I can’t say I ever considered writing a biography of the Lincolns. I mean, I read book after book about the Lincolns, and about the Civil War, and about American life in the Civil War. But a biography of the Lincolns — no. I did consider doing a biography of Stephen Foster — the end of his life was awful. As was the middle. And the beginning. The stories of him as a bum on the Bowery as the Civil War began — they fascinate me. So do the stories of his supposed gayness. So do the stories of his diaries being bowdlerized.
I thought, Maybe there’s a way for me to insert myself into this big blankness that is the history of Stephen Foster. Anyway, I didn’t do a bio of him. I never end up doing what I set out to do. But he does have a starring role in the book. He has a rectal prolapsed in Act 3!
When did you start working on The Well-Dressed Wound?
Work on The Well-Dressed Wound started in 2011 — it may have been even earlier, my memory is shot.
It feels like everyone in this book is dead, correct? Why did you decide to bring these folks in particular to life?
Almost everybody in the book is dead — but Martin Margiela is alive! The thing about Margiela though is that he’s famously elusive — there are no official interviews with him, no official photographs. When he left his own house he disappeared completely. He was a ghost. He is a ghost. I love him and always wanted to write about his work. It seemed right to do it in The Well-Dressed Wound, which features all these long-gone figures (the Lincolns, Stephen Foster, PT Barnum) conducting a seance.
Who do they conjure? Margiela, who is modern, but about whom almost nothing is known. He’s a blank in the way that Stephen Foster is – but time blanked out Foster, whereas Margiela’s blanked out himself.
Your work has had a tenancy to magnetize towards old music. How did the work of Stephen Foster influence your new book?
I am drawn to old music. No — I’m drawn to old country music. No — I’m drawn to old country musicians, less for their musical accomplishments than for their clothes. I love the culture of old country music — so in The Haunted Hillbilly I wrote about Hank Williams, and in The Show That Smells I wrote about Jimmie Rodgers.
Stephen Foster seems like the first country musician to me — his songs were massively popular and he constructed a romantic myth of a South that never really was. And he was a fuck-up. And he was gay. In my books, that’s the fate of all country singers — to be gay and to get fucked up! I didn’t really listen to his music while I was writing the book — the songs are sickeningly sweet and racist as hell.
I looked at some of these sentences longer than I normally would for a normal book. And I don’t mean to be rude by this question. I’ve read plenty of non-normal books, like Anne of Green Gables. My point is, some sentences, like, “Confetti’s an anachronism,” mesmerized me like a really good ad campaign in some antique issue of Rolling Stone. What is your whittling process like; I mean to say, how do you pare down and refine and tenderize these sentences to the bone, so to speak?
You’re not being rude! I do do a lot of declarative sentences. I make a lot of declarations about stuff that nobody gives a shit about — confetti is this, sequins are that. Why? I give a shit about those things. And I do like the process of distilling my sentences down to almost nothing.
With this book, the process was a bit different than before. I was diagnosed with a rare cancer in 2011 — it took a series of massive surgeries to cut it out of me. The recovery took years — the recovery’s still in process, really, but it was more dramatic in the early days. I could not walk. I could not eat. I could not concentrate long enough to watch a sitcom and get what was going on. I wanted to write but I couldn’t sit up or type. So, slowly I started writing in my head. The book was written in my messed-up head, and so I wrote as concisely and cleanly as I could. A line, and then another line. After I had a couple of lines in a row that I could live with, I wrote them out. I’ve always been concise, but this book makes my old books look logorrheic!