Elizabeth Hand Interview by Michael T. Fournier

Jul 23, 2019

Paging All Punks

Welcome to Paging All Punks, a new series focused on interviews with writers about their involvement in the punk scene.

The impetus for this interview series comes from Elizabeth Hand and Maximum Rock’n’roll. I started doing book reviews in the last year of the mag’s existence and was sent a copy of Elizabeth Hand’s Fire., part of their Outspoken Authors series. I was floored by the scope of her writing: beautiful dystopia, biographical criticism, and an author interview which revealed she had spent time in the nascent punk scene in 1970s New York and in Washington D.C. as Dischord started to emerge.

I started doing some digging and was intrigued by Hand’s catalogue: for twenty years, she’s been writing a regular review column for Fantasy and Science Fiction. Her fiction output is equally impressive: she’s the author of fourteen novels, four collections, and a bunch of movie adaptations (her new novel Curious Toys is out this Fall). Her Cass Neary character seamlessly incorporates Hand’s punk background into modern noir. And Hand lives in Maine, where I went to grad school.

We covered plenty of ground when I met up with Hand in early May 2019. You can find Liz online at elizabethhand.com or @liz_hand on Twitter.

Mike: Whenever I interview writers, I eventually steer off course and ask them what bands they saw.

Liz: [laughs] Because that’s all anyone wants to talk about in life, right?

Mike: I think so! I did some snooping online and read Generation Loss. It’s crazy to me that you were in New York City for CBGB’s and you caught some of the first wave Dischord stuff.

Liz: I lived in D.C. I’d go back and forth to New York because I grew up in the area. I knew some of the Dischord guys because they worked at Second Story Books. But by that point I was in my mid- to late twenties and they were all very young, mostly teenagers. So I felt a little long in the tooth to follow them to their gigs. They were really funny people.

Mike: Who was working at that store?

Liz: It was the guy who was in the band Crippled Pilgrims. Ian MacKaye would come in sometimes. He was friends with a guy named Rafael Sa’adah, a dead ringer for Henry Rollins.

My friend Marie Broussard was the bartender at the 9:30 Club. She knew those guys. Some of them would perform there later on.

And my friends Liz and Ruth Gutekunst. Liz was my age, and Ruth was a couple years younger—she was really good friends with Bad Brains. They lived down the street with their mom when I was in DC.

I got to know Liz. She had real red hair and I had dyed red hair. So it was like:

“Oh, you know Liz?”
“Which one?”
“Punk Liz?”
“Which punk Liz?”
“Redheaded punk Liz?”
“Which redheaded punk Liz?”

.Her sister Ruth is in a lot of the photographs of the D.C. punk scene at the time. She was a bit younger and she knew all those guys—Bad Brains and the guys from Dischord.

Anyway, it was such a small scene at the time. It felt like these were the people you’d see at parties, you know, you’d see them perform.

And there was another band that went nowhere that I loved! Static Disruptors. They were this group of young white guys in their late teens. They moved from somewhere in the Midwest—Wisconsin? They were in love with funk and with go-go music. There was that big go-go scene at the time, around the D.C. Coliseum.

They were the most incongruous group of young white boys. But they loved this music and the scene. They used to have a lot of parties. It was a free-floating scene of younger bands. A friend of mine was a guitarist named Michael Randell, he played with them.

And another great band, the Dale Williams Band. Dale Williams was this amazing African-American guitarist. Those were the bands I was into. They were not the bands who, you know, ended up making it big. It’s a shame.

Mike: I found out that you were working at a photography archive at the Smithsonian. How did you get into that?

Liz: I had a job at the Air and Space Museum. I was working on the floor, at a gallery where they had general aviation flight simulators. They were mockups of a Cessna 150. They trained us to be quote unquote flight instructors. Tourists would come and wait in line for like an hour to get a three-minute ride on a flight simulator. It was a horrible job. [laughs] But it was also kinda fun.

So I worked my way up to floor supervisor for that gallery and for the planetarium there. A friend of mine who I worked with on the floor got pulled to work upstairs in the records management division, which was the museum archive. He was taking all the photos in the museum’s collection and putting them on a videodisc. They pulled me upstairs to work on that project.

It was time-consuming, and today you could just scan the photographs at home. With us, it took years because we had a special rig in a darkroom where we shot everything on a 35 mm film camera on a pedestal. Then we had to develop the film, transfer it to videotape, and edit it all in this incredibly involved analog process that eventually resulted in 300,000 images being on a laser videodisc which became obsolete almost overnight.

Mike: Right! [laughs]

Liz: A lot of the job was brain-numbingly tedious. But it was very cool, too. We found things that had never been seen before. I found original silver prints of Edward Steichen’s photographs. The famous photo of the Flatiron Building in Central Park in the snow. These beautiful, tiny photos! I could have taken them home, put them in my pocket, and walked out with them. Nobody knew they were there until I found them.

Our office was in a closet made into our little photo lab. Two guys who worked in the lab took pity on me and taught me about black and white photography. They taught me how to use the developer, to process film—all these things, that, if that happened today, I would be fired. [laughs] Sometimes I would go after hours and process my film there, and I would develop it. I fell in love with working in the darkroom. I was not, unfortunately, a good photographer. But I loved the whole process of developing film and processing them and making the prints in the darkroom. I would spend a lot of time in there developing my photos and watching this stuff happen by magic.

This would have been the early or mid-1980s. They had a state-of-the-art photo lab: the photos were going into a chemical bath, but the chemical bath was in some great big fancy machine. That was a really cool experience, but it was not something in a million years I thought I would make use of writing. It was only decades later, when I wrote Generation Loss, that I pulled all that stuff back. So that’s where that came from.

Mike: You’re part of this proud punk rock tradition of scamming during downtime.

Liz: Exactly! It was the government! [laughs]

Mike: If I was in that situation, it’s easy to picture myself in the darkroom making all these prints, thinking to myself “Well, that’s one bomb that’s not going to fall on Afghanistan.”

Liz: You know, I didn’t and don’t feel guilty about it. I would have if my friends got in trouble for it. But they weren’t paying me enough to feel guilty.

Mike: It’s a fringe benefit, like you got a government grant.

Liz: Right! It’s like that NEA grant they never gave me.

Mike: Why were you commuting from D.C. to New York?

Liz: I wasn’t exactly commuting. I was going back and forth to see music and see friends. A lot of my friends were still in New York. For about nine or ten months I moved back home and lived with my parents after I got kicked out of college, so I crawled back home and licked my wounds and went back to D.C. again.

Mike: Why’d you get kicked out?

I wasn’t going to classes. [laughs] I very vividly remember being a freshman in college, and I would think, “Okay, forty years from now, thirty years from now, what is going to be more important: if I study for this philosophy exam, or if I go to see Patti Smith at the Cellar Door in 1975?” I was like, “You know, I’m going to see Patti Smith.” And so I did that!

I was still startled when I flunked out. [laughs] I think I thought somehow the magical equation I’d worked out in my head would somehow transfer to being able to pass my courses without ever attending any classes. That part did not happen, but I did eventually, after a few years, get readmitted to the university and I did wind up getting a degree. I got a bachelor’s of science in cultural anthropology.

Mike: Did you make the leap into being a full-time writer when you moved to Maine in 1988?

Liz: Yes. I did. I left the museum and I worked, briefly, for a defense contractor, which I hated. But the money was really good.

I started having really horrible stress. I thought “I can’t do this” for many reasons—my conscience, the people, everything else. So I quit.

Then I ended up moving here to Maine. It was a real leap into the unknown, and it was really difficult. I moved here with my then partner, my children’s’ father. He’s also a writer whose published numerous books.

Two writers making a jump. It was a long time before it seemed like it was the right decision. There was a lot of back-to-the-landers here, old hippies, and there were people whose families were here and they were getting by. You know, no one wanted to be poor. I didn’t want to be poor, but you were able to do it. Working hard, wearing worn-out clothes, you fit in more than you would today.

So I got by for a long time without very much money. I’m still getting by mostly without very much money. It all worked out in the long run but it was a challenge. I had two kids within a few years of moving here, and while I may have taken a vow of poverty to become an artist, my children did not. So I really had to work hard. For a lot of the time I was a single parent. I had to run as fast I could to stay in the same place because of my kids. It was a challenge, but it all turned out okay.

Mike: I moved up to Orono in 2008 after living in Boston for ten years. I can’t overstate how much I felt the culture shock. I felt like I was an alien—in a college town, too! So I can’t imagine what it must have been like for you to essentially live in New York and D.C. and then move to the coast. You must have felt like such a weirdo!

Liz: Yeah! A lot of the friends I made then more than thirty years ago are still my closest friends here now. A lot of them were people from away, and a lot of them are from Maine.

But there were a lot of people who were artists, artisans, craftspeople. A lot of my friends are working people. Those were the friends that I made here, and they were a kinda free-floating crowd of people. There was not this great disparity that you find today. Maine has really become much more gentrified. I’m sure I’m part of that trend. I moved here from away and settled down, but I did not move here with a lot of money. I bought the place where I am now, this little tiny cottage, three hundred square feet, no running water or indoor plumbing—that was where we moved in 1990, and that’s where my kids were born. It was a very hand-to-mouth existence for many years. The cabin is still a tiny little space, with a composting toilet and water pumped up from the lake now.

There were times where it was very hard for me to square, in my own mind, the fact that I was living in this tiny, ramshackle place with two really small children, barely getting by, writing. And of course nobody knew. None of my friends in New York or D.C., with very few exceptions, would have come here to see where I lived. A few did, obviously. But nobody else knew what my life was like. People would read my books and I would go to a convention or something, and people would see me. Or I’d see my publisher, wearing my thrift shop finery or whatever, having this presentation of self, the sort of thing people do now on social media. Then I’d be coming back here to this really, really hardscrabble life.

But it was a life that was really wonderful in a lot of ways too, you know? And things got easier and eventually I had enough money to—with my present partner, who I’ve been with for twenty-two years—buy a small house near here that did have running water and indoor plumbing when we bought it! It was an old house that needed a lot of work. But for years, my kids were so used to hand-carrying our water up from the lake. But you couldn’t drink it unless you boiled it first. So my son would always ask, “Is this drinkable water?’ when he opened the faucet. I’d say, “Yeah, it’s okay.”

Mike: The assumption that people make when I mention that I write and publish books—people automatically get dollar signs in their eyes. It’s amazing.

Liz: Where do people get that from? I guess they get it from Stephen King and Danielle Steele. I’d be happy to have all those dollar signs, but I don’t.

Mike: It’s cool that there’s a community of weirdos up there you can hang out with.

Liz: I’ve made really amazing friends here. The thing I do miss about D.C. is that it was a much more diverse place, obviously, than Maine. I had black friends, and was exposed to black music and culture. That was the thing about D.C. that I loved and that was so totally different for me when I moved there in 1975, coming from this very white bread suburban background.

And you come to Maine, and it’s a very different, very rural state. It’s the whitest state in the country. There’s not much in the way of diversity. But as far as economic diversity goes, and people from different backgrounds, that is something that’s very different here. Certainly working at the Smithsonian and living where I did—this was very different.

Given all that, where I live is on the coast. If you go a few miles inland, even from the town I live it, you’re in what people called the real Maine. It’s very different from the coastal area. I’m sure you know this, being in Orono.

Mike: Getting back to punk. The whole idea of 1975 has been written about and filmed so much that it’s hard to punch through the mythology. I don’t know if everything was true as it was described.

Punk magazine is certainly mythologized, and Legs McNeil shows up in a bunch of documentaries. Those guys were just a bunch of kids who had a storefront doing a magazine? And when you went to CBGBs, you saw everybody? Is that true?

It was just a scuzzy bar. And I know Legs now. I met him in New York maybe eight years ago or so, and we got to be friends. But I can remember going to Bleeker Bob’s, seeing all these hand-drawn, mimeographed flyers and they just said “punk is coming.” And I remember thinking, “Wow, what the heck is this?” And then I remember getting the first issue of Punk magazine. I had a whole run! If I had that now, I’d be rich. I don’t know what happened to them. I’m so pissed. I used to buy the magazine religiously. I had New York Rocker, too. And Trouser Press.

Anyway, I was in awe of Legs and John Holmstrom. I had no conception that they were just a couple of kids my age who were doing this DIY thing in a storefront. It’s very weird. I look at myself back then, and I didn’t, for whatever reason—maybe because I wanted to be a “writer,” a quote unquote writer, writing books that would be published by a publisher, or getting published in The New Yorker, you know what I mean? I had this fantasy that’s the kind of writer I was going to be.

Or I wanted to be Lester Bangs. I really wanted to be a rock critic. I had no conception of how to do it. I don’t know if it’s because I was a young woman, you know? Or because I didn’t know other people who were doing it. I knew musicians, people in bands who were performers, but I didn’t know other kinds of makers. I guess I wasn’t confident enough to put myself out there with writing.

Michael Layne-Heath did Vintage Violence magazine. He just edited a book of Lou Reed interviews called My Week Beats Your Year. I read Vintage Violence, which was out of D.C., and I sent him a review of a Dead Boys show. About six or seven years ago I get this letter in the mail, and it’s from Michael. He’s like, “You sent me this review, and I never published it or even responded to you. I feel so bad! I wish I had.” He sent me a copy of it, and I thought it was really good! I wish he had published it. I could have been a has-been rock writer by now! [laughs]

The same thing with science fiction. There was this whole network of science fiction conventions, where readers and writers could go. In that pre-internet era—I think it’s hard to remember that if you weren’t plugged into the right network, if you didn’t know the right people or hang out at the right place, you wouldn’t know what was going on. I was fortunate in that I knew what was going on with this narrow little bandwidth of music that was punk in New York and D.C. But there was all this other stuff that I could have been active in: writing, art. It was not on map except as an observer, a reader.

Mike: In an interview, I saw that you did this thing that I find myself doing now. When I started trying to write prose seriously, I was modifying everything, tacking on two or three layers of extra description. I’m trying to be as direct as I can now. I was consciously thinking, “This is very punk, to strip everything down, to be minimal.” Was that a conscious thing that you did?

Liz: So much of my early work was very florid and overwritten. A lot of people really loved it—and still love it—so I’m not denigrating that. I mean, some of it I look at now and cringe. It’s like looking at photographs of yourself: what was I thinking wearing that outfit? That haircut? The mullet?

I had a breakthrough story that I wrote, which was a straightforward account of a friend’s death. That was the shift for me. But it was still a few years between writing that and Generation Loss. It went through several different iterations before it became a noir novel. It started as a dark, contemporary fantasy. Then it became a straightforward horror novel. To give you an idea of the difference in tone and theme from the original version of the novel, the original title was Crossing the Dream Meridian. Which would still be a good title, but not for a noir novel.

After these different versions of the book, I threw them out, and somehow ended up with what became Generation Loss. I always loved noir film, probably more than noir novels.

One of my favorite books is Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source. Have you ever read that? It came out in like 1983 or ’84. It’s a brilliant novel. Really dark noir novel set in the surfing scene in Huntington Beach, California, which was also the punk scene in the 1980s.

Mike: That’s Black Flag right there.

Liz: I had a revelation, and I thought, “Wait a minute, I’ll write a book that’s like Tapping the Source, only I’ll background it in what I know,” which was that scene in New York in the ’70s.

Actually, it crystallized after I wrote Generation Loss. Since then, when people like you ask me: “You were at ground zero of that whole punk scene. What was that like?” I was there then. I was very fortunate that I saw something really remarkable in the process of being born. I kinda knew that at the time. I knew that this was something really cool and amazing that was happening. It lasted such a short time. It imploded so quickly. Of course, it changed. It morphed into hardcore, straightedge, a lot of things. But that very early moment that I thought was the beginning of something wasn’t. It was the thing itself.

There’s this great line in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours when one of the characters, a woman in love with a guy dying of AIDS, is recalling their early time together. Maybe the first time they slept together. She says, “I thought that was the beginning of happiness, and now I realize it was happiness.”

I always thought that was an amazing line, because that’s what it was like. Back then, I thought it was the beginning of something, but it wasn’t. It was the thing itself, and it was ephemeral. It had a huge impact on the culture. It’s like that movie 1991: The Year Punk Broke.

Mike: Yeah, that Dave Markey movie.

Liz: Yeah. It was like the difference between lightning and a thunderclap. The lightning goes off and you see it and you’re blinded by it, but then you don’t hear the loud sound that rattles everything until afterwards. That whole moment of being blinded by everything was 1975, 1977, 1978. Then there was the thunderclap and we’re stuck in the aftermath.