Interviews | Deviance and Disneylandby Tara Bai
I first met Danielle Willis several years ago when she wrote me a letter after picking up Ghastly's premiere issue at Retail Slut in Hollywood, telling me that it was good to know that there were other terminally morbid people out there. Along with the letter, she sent me a copy of her brilliant book, Dogs in Lingerie, a collection of poetry and prose that includes macabre tales of unnatural beings, as well as recounts of her bizarre and fascinating experiences working in the sex industry.
Shortly after receiving her letter, we got together at a local Indian restaurant (I was living a few miles from the Redwood City dungeon that she and God's Girlfriend's Brigit Brat were operating at the time). I was immediately struck by her total sense of self-assuredness and her sense of humor, and was amazed by how friendly, down to earth and genuine she was - something you might not expect from a rapier-witted writer who dons full Victorian regalia to take her dog for a walk, and whose idea of a coffee table book is Emergency Hospital Procedure.
With two poetry/prose collections, the aforementioned Dogs in Lingerie, and an earlier release, Corpse Delectable, under her wing, Danielle is now working on a full length novel based on one of the fictional pieces in Dogs In Lingerie. In 1989, her play the Methadrine Dollhouse ran at San Francisco's Exit Theatre, and she recently wrapped up Breakfast in the Flesh District, her engrossing solo performance at the Climate Theatre, which received rave reviews in many of the Bay Area's larger newspapers. She reads regularly at gothic and other subversive clubs, and those who have not had the experience are highly encouraged to attend.
Ghastly: When did you first discover that you had a morbid fascination? How did it manifest itself in your formative years?
Danielle Willis: I spent quite a bit of my formative years hanging out in pre-Revolutionary War cemeteries on Long Island waiting for someone to come along and make me a vampire. My friend Deb and I had this pact where we were both going to become either vampires or werewolves by the time we were thirteen. The local librarians would always call my mother and tell her that I needed to "broaden my interests" and not check out so many books on witchcraft and Satanism.
Ghastly: When did you begin writing? What was your early work like?
Danielle Willis: I started writing around the age of eight, mostly gruesome Jack London-influenced nature stuff in which packs of wolves would go around killing deer and rabbits - lots of descriptions of bloody snow, "blood-slavered jaws", et cetera. I actually won fourth place in the National Scholastic Writing Contest in 7th grade for a short story entitled "The Fox", which my mother still thinks is the best thing I've ever written.
Ghastly: Tell us about your New Your upbringing...
Danielle Willis: Actually, my upbringing was half New York and half California. My dad taught Economics at Stanford until I was in 5th grade, at which point he failed to get tenure due to some interdepartmental back-stabbing, so we moved to Long Island where he taught at Stonybrook. Unfortunately, this move coincided perfectly with the onset of my teenage acne, which was so deformingly bad my new classmates immediately christened me "Zit" and "Rag." I was pretty much the Carrie White of 6th grade, hence my retreat into the aforementioned pre-Revolutionary War cemeteries.
Ghastly: What made you decide that California was the place you outta be?
Danielle Willis: My girlfriend left me during my first year at Barnard and I had a complete nervous breakdown and decided I couldn't even remain on the same side of the country as her.
Ghastly: How did you first become involved with the sex industry?
Danielle Willis: I was working as a poodle groomer at Poodles a la Pamela in Oakland getting bitten and peed on all day for nearly four dollars an hour when my friend Kathleen Wood convinced me to audition as a stripper at the Market Street Cinema. It was 1987 and there were all these fabulous emaciated junkie chicks with black, white or blood red hair and the cheesiest bat tattoos dancing to Lords of the New Church and the Cult. I had no idea a job could be so much fun and lucrative at the same time.
Ghastly: You used to operate a suburban S&M dungeon with Brigit Brat. How did you find that experience?
Danielle Willis: Sometimes really amusing and profitable but mostly an annoying waste of time. Unfortunately, the world of professional S&M is nothing like a Skin Two layout - it's basically waiting by the phone all day to discuss whether or not you "truly know what it is to OWN someone" with the biggest nerds in the world, who then proceed to make an appointment with you and never show up. My biggest disappointment was this one fellow who wanted me and Brigit to dress up as the goddesses Athena and Aphrodite and force him and another "warrior" (we were to engage the services of one of our male hustler friends for this purpose) to wrestle each other to settle a dispute between us. He supposedly had his own gladiatorial costume and wanted us to watch Spartacus for reference purposes. He never came.
Ghastly: You also worked as a nanny... A nanny??!
Danielle Willis: I was living in Santa Cruz, and I desperately wanted to move to San Francisco but couldn't afford it, so I got the bright idea to take a job as a live-in nanny, even though I've always hated children, particularly babies, which is what this couple had. Caring for it repulsed me so much that I encouraged it to sleep all the time and would take their 17 year old niece to lesbian bars. I lasted two weeks.
Ghastly: You currently work as an "exotic dancer." What is your show like?
Danielle Willis: I usually dance to music like Coil, Nico, Legendary Pink Dots or old Skinny Puppy. I have the dj hit me with blue lights and play really violent X-rated Japanese cartoons on the video screen behind me, the kind where people are getting fucked to pieces by multi-phallused demons and such. I'm extremely flexible, so when I dance I try to visualize that I'm a freshly reanimated corpse that's had every bone in its body broken.
Ghastly: What kind of reaction do you get from the audience who came in expecting silicone boobs and a blonde wig?
Danielle Willis: Surprisingly enough, the guys seem to really enjoy it, but my major appeal is to white trash Elvira fans and science fiction nerds who see me as one of their D&D characters come to life. Last week, for example, I had a customer who designed a Sega Genesis game about vampires entitled "Night Trap."
Ghastly: What's the story with the police report in the back of Dogs in Lingerie?
Danielle Willis: I got into a fight with the 300 pound bouncer at the DNA Lounge - he called me a whore and I high-kicked him in the face. When the police showed up they sided with him and I wound up kicking one of them in the balls while they were trying to handcuff me, so he threw me on the ground and I bit him on the ankle as hard as I could through the leather of his boot. His female partner suggested I make amends by giving him a blowjob in the paddy wagon. I said I'd be happy to bite it off and he replied that he didn't want head from a fucking vampire anyway. Later, when I was cuffed to a bench at the police station, he made a crucifix out of two pieces of cardboard and kept shoving it in my face, saying they were going to keep me there until the sun came up and I turned to dust.
Ghastly: The underground scene is full of pretty young effeminate boys, but you sort of go the opposite way. Not so much masculine as... maybe a girl who wants to be a boy who looks like a girl?
Danielle Willis: Due to early childhood exposure to my Grandmother Smigliani's decor I have a major 18th century lamp figurine fetish. I just like the male lamp figurines' clothing better.
Ghastly: Is androgyny important to you?
Danielle Willis: Yes, in that I prefer to be androgynous myself and am attracted to others who are also androgynous, but beyond that it doesn't really matter. My friends run the gamut from extremely masculine to extremely feminine.
Ghastly: Is the majority of your writing completely autobiographical? What subjects, other than your life, inspire your writing?
Danielle Willis: Corpse Delectable and Dogs in Lingerie are mostly autobiographical, but the stuff I'm working on now is fiction. As for subjects that inspire me, basically anything morbid, tacky, or prurient.
Ghastly: When my mom read Dogs in Lingerie, she told me it was totally engrossing, but left her depressed for days. Do you consider your work depressing?
Danielle Willis: Somewhat, yes, because I was severely depressed when I wrote a lot of it, but I also think a lot of it's funny. It depends on your perspective - my mother thinks it's really depressing too and wants to know if I'll ever go back to writing nature stories.
Ghastly: Where does your motivation for writing come from?
Danielle Willis: When I was a little kid I always liked the dragons better than the princesses and would write my own fairy tales where the dragons won. That's pretty much what I'm still doing now.
Ghastly: Have there been other authors who have influenced your writing?
Danielle Willis: Probably the biggest direct influence on my style has been Angela Carter. I first read The Bloody Chamber and The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman in 9th grade and they blew my mind. Other influences are Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted bird, Jim Carrol's Basketball Diaries and Ray Bradbury's October Country.
Ghastly: How has your writing evolved over the years?
Danielle Willis: I've pretty much stopped writing poetry and almost exclusively write prose and plays now. Also, my writing's become a lot less autobiographical.
Ghastly: Do you usually write all at once in a flurry, or do you tend to edit and re-edit?
Danielle Willis: I'm incredibly slow and anal about my writing - I tend to write and edit at the same time because I can't stand the idea of something not being perfect. A couple paragraphs or a page a day is a good output for me.
Ghastly: Tell us about the novel you are working on.
Danielle Willis: No.
Ghastly: How important do you consider affectation?
Danielle Willis: Well, considering that I'm about to spend a lot of money getting permanent porcelain veneer fangs, pretty important.
Ghastly: Do you have roots in the occult?
Danielle Willis: I've believed in the supernatural ever since I was a little kid and have always made up my own magic and rituals, some of which worked and some of which didn't. I always thought it was a shame you couldn't just wiggle your nose like Samantha Stevens in Bewitched.
Ghastly: What are your religious beliefs?
Danielle Willis: After the whole incident with the bouncer and the police I was charged with felony assault and was looking at a pretty serious sentence if convicted. The night before my arraignment one of my best friends, Christopher Trian, who is in the Church of Satan, came over and did a Black Mass for me and the next morning the charges were dropped. Now, whether this was due to the power of Satan or to the fact that my parents could afford a very expensive lawyer is matter for some speculation, but I would up sticking with it because I like the theatricality of the whole thing. I believe religion to be a form of theatre that gets you sufficiently worked up to be able to access whatever magical powers you had to begin with. For some people, that theatre takes the form of Buddhism, traditional Celtic witchcraft, Catholicism, et cetera. For me, it's Satanism. I always wanted to be a fifteen year old rocker boy anyway.
Ghastly: Who is Lord Damien Stark?
Danielle Willis: Lord Damien Stark is a snotty, frock-coat abusing fop who writes make-up advice columns with a quill pen and hangs out at Ramm's French Gallery in the Mission rubbing his male member against the brocaded cushions of ornate clawfooted couches.
Ghastly: You recently wrapped up an extended run of your one-woman show, Breakfast in the Flesh District. Tell us a bit about the show, and how it came together.
Danielle Willis: Cintra Wilson wrote me a fan letter on an Olivia Newton John postcard saying that she'd like to work with me, so we got together with a stack of my writing and an Exacto knife and after 48 hours of screaming at each other we came up with Breakfast in the Flesh District, an hour and a half long monologue that takes me from early childhood masturbating to Andy Gibb photos in Tiger Beat through my nervous breakdown at Barnard, various humiliating $4/hr jobs, subsequent introduction to the sex industry, hopeless obsessions with various neurotic transsexuals, fun with Satanism, et cetera. It was only supposed to run two weeks but got good reviews and wound up going on for six months, sold out almost every night. I could have run it longer but the theatre refused to pay me decently so I stopped. Just this month I did it for one night only in Santa Cruz, and there was a picture of me on the cover of the local entertainment section with the caption "DOMINATRIX, STRIPPER, SATANIST, POET," which upset the local Christians so much they threatened to bus in 350 of them from Bethany Bible College to protest the show. They also called the local police department to inform them that they were going to place me under citizen's arrest if I did anything obscene. Then they never show up, but the police did, and they liked the show.
Ghastly: You've also been involved with some other rather interesting theatre. Do tell...
Danielle Willis: I used to be in the Sick & Twisted Players, which is a theatre troupe run by Tony Vaguely that does live versions of horror movies, often re-casting them with characters from really bad sit-coms: Alien with Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space, The Fog with Gilligan's Island, et cetera. Just recently I got to play Keith Partridge in A Partridge Family Friday the 13th, a special benefit show for Texas Chainsaw 90210, which is probably the best show they've ever done. It's playing at Bernice Street Theatre on Friday and Saturday nights until the end of November, so if you're in San Francisco go see it.
Ghastly: Whom do you admire?
Danielle Willis: Michael Jackson, even though I hate his music, because he's managed to turn himself into a she-male space alien and still be the biggest pop star in the world and have his own Disneyland in his back yard. Also, I admire Robbie Daniels because he's a musical genius and a complete psychopath and Alejandro Jodorwosky because he makes really neat movies. I was lucky enough to see a double feature of Holy Mountain and El Topo at the Strand Theatre back in 1988 with some friends who had some really good pot.
Ghastly: What are your obsessions?
Danielle Willis: Finishing my novel and having MY own Disneyland in my back yard.
Ghastly: What type of people are you drawn to?
Danielle Willis: People who are as twisted and morbid as I am, but still have a sense of humor.
Danielle Willis: My fantasy is that some day there will be a nuclear holocaust that de-populates the world except for me and my friends and that we all go and live in the ruins of Disneyland.
Ghastly: Describe your idea of the perfect world.
Danielle Willis: Disneyland after a nuclear holocaust.
Ghastly: What projects currently in the works?
Danielle Willis: Aside from my novel, my lover Violet and I are editing a book of unpleasant personal narratives tentatively entitled Losers, for which we are still gathering submissions. Also, I'm working on an interview with Karen Greenlee and a theatre piece about the Black Dahlia, as well as various craft projects. There's nothing I like better than gluing googly eyes to pine cones. Ghastly readers should really check out Women's Day for some great housewife tweak projects.
Ghastly: What would you like to be doing ten years from now?
Danielle Willis: Being able to support myself just from my writing and theatre projects and having enough land to breed Belgian Tervurens (the kind of dogs they used in The Company of Wolves). I'd call the kennel Lycanthrope Manor, which is really pretentious but who gives a shit, and have my dogs shown by effeminate young boys in Little Red Riding Hood outfits. In 20 years I'd like to own my own strip club or funeral home.
Ghastly: Any final words to the underground community at large?
Danielle Willis: Since Aveda stopped making Wet and Dry foundation, try switching to Mac. N1 and N2 are both really pale and go on incredibly smooth and won't run, even after the most histrionic night dancing at your local goth club. Lord Damien Stark says give it a try.
from Ghastly #6, "Deviance and Disneyland" - Interview with Danielle Willis by Tara Bai, 1995