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Jason McBride

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Jason McBride’s biography of Kathy Acker was a decade in the making

One of the most satisfying things about Jason McBride’s new biography of notorious avant-garde American literary provocateur Kathy Acker is that it exists at all.

Eat Your Mind: The Radical Life and Work of Kathy Acker had a long gestation period – almost 10 years, according to Toronto-based McBride. It was originally signed to Columbia University Press, an academic press that was enthusiastic about publishing the first full-length biography of Acker, who died of cancer in 1997 at the age of 50. But in 2017, as McBride was well into the process of researching and writing the book, writer Chris Kraus, a friend of Acker, published her own biography, After Kathy Acker, with the California avant-garde literary press Semiotext(e). 

As it turns out, Columbia was not entirely eager to be second out of the gate, and McBride backed out of the contract. Fortunately, Ira Silverberg, then at Simon & Schuster and one of the first people McBride interviewed for his book, stepped up to rescue the title, which is being published by S&S this month.

The experience of writing Eat Your Mind – a marathon, not a sprint – provided McBride with any number of challenges and uncertainties, not least of them being whether he could remain engaged with his subject over the long haul. “Writing a biography of anybody, you hope and you pray that your interest will be sustained,” he says. “And there aren’t a lot of people that can captivate you for that long.”

It helps that his subject was Acker. Born Karen Alexander to middle-class Jewish parents in New York City, Acker grew up to become one of the most polarizing figures on the literary landscape in the 1980s and ’90s. The author of, among others, Blood and Guts in High School, Empire of the Senseless, and the provocatively titled Pussy, King of the Pirates, Acker blended graphic sex and violence with snippets of poetry and line art. She employed variations on the cut-up approach pioneered by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin in the 1950s and freely appropriated, not to say stole, from other writers in much of her work. She embraced gender fluidity long before it was part of the cultural zeitgeist and indulged a punk aesthetic, with short hair, tattoos, and plenty of leather.

She was not, in other words, the kind of individual normally embraced by the literary establishment.

Which, McBride suggests, was just fine with her. “Unlike almost every other writer, she really dared to alienate the reader,” he says. “She was someone who was really not afraid to piss every reader off.”

Acker’s in-your-face approach was married to material she mined from her own life, especially her fraught relationship with her mother (she titled her 1995 novel My Mother: Demonology) and her adopted father. Like Kraus, who arguably would not have developed into the kind of writer she became had Acker not paved the way, Acker wrote in a mode that would later come to be identified as autofiction. McBride locates Acker’s influence in the work of writers as diverse as Tao Lin and Sheila Heti.  

If Acker was in many ways ahead of her time, it is reasonable to wonder whether events in the decades since her death have rendered her somewhat quaint or old-fashioned. Nothing could be further from the truth, says McBride, who finds in her work not just an enduring abrasive energy, but themes and ideas that have since become embedded in the general culture. “Before I started to get deep into it, I kind of thought of her as not a relic, exactly, but that there was something dated about her work,” McBride says. “But the more I got into it, she predicted so many things that are still in the conversation.”

McBride’s first encounter with Acker, which would lead to a lifelong fascination with her work and persona, was at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors in 1988 when he was a sophomore at the University of Toronto. A long-time fan of Burroughs, McBride attended a reading Acker gave and experienced a literary road to Damascus moment. “I don’t think until I saw her read I quite understood who she was and what she was doing,” he says. “That reading was such an eye-opening, life-changing experience.”

McBride parlayed his enthusiasm for Acker’s work, and his deep knowledge of her style and influences, into an agreement with Acker’s literary executor, Matias Viegener, to allow him access to Acker’s unpublished papers and correspondence. “[Viegener] was extremely encouraging and helpful and put me in touch with many of the people I ended up interviewing,” McBride says.

Someone else who was similarly helpful, perhaps surprisingly under the circumstances, was Kraus. “She was generous with me, she shared sources with me,” McBride says. “She pointed me toward people; I pointed her toward people.”

That said, McBride admits that if he knew Kraus’s biography was in the works when he began his own book, he probably would not have followed through with the project. “All I really wanted was to read a biography of Kathy Acker,” he says. 

And while McBride’s is not the first Acker biography for general readers, he is hopeful it will not be the last. “I would love it if some young, enterprising scholar or journalist or writer looks at my book and says, ‘Oh, you didn’t get this right, you didn’t find this out: I’m going to do that,’” he says. “I feel that there could be as many biographies of Kathy Acker as there are of Virginia Woolf or Sylvia Plath. She warrants that.”

Correction, November 23: Jason McBride backed out of the original contract for the book, not Columbia University Press as stated in an earlier version of the story.