“It was November 2019 when the late Simon Morris first mentioned Christopher Zeischegg’s The Magician to me. It was like a blend, he said, of Bret Easton Ellis and Joan Didion, but suspended in some bizarre ethereal genre-based nightmare. That might be so, but it’s also a lot more than that. The Magician is a book made up of mostly white space. Sentences are short and the page almost cries out to be filled up. But as the page cries, so do the characters: to find connection, or meaning, or just anything that will remove the brutal paralysis of the present. Fittingly, at one stage the protagonist says that “if I were a god, I’d kill me too.” Okay. What is writing a book but making oneself a God? So, in exactly this manner, The Magician is both a real life and a fictive exorcism. Bret Easton Ellis and Joan Didion? Well, they’d both be too afraid to go through with it. But Zeischegg’s another breed.”
Chris Kelso: It’s no secret you left behind a glittering career in the adult industry. How have you found shaking off any stigma in your writerly pursuits? Have there been any hostile responses or sniffy detractors? It must be tough shaking loose the image of Danny Wylde.
Christopher Zeischegg: Yes, once upon a time, I was that porn guy, Danny Wylde.
My first real books (let’s not mention the first) – The Wolves That Live in Skin and Space and Body to Job – were so much about the porn industry. I was only able to write them because of my experience as a performer.
Both books were put out by Rare Bird, which had an imprint that dealt exclusively with sex writing. Oriana Small’s Girlvert, probably the best porn memoir ever written, came out through Rare Bird.
So, the audience for that kind of book was not going to give me shit for having done porn. It was like, “Here’s a book about sex, published by a press that puts out books about sex.” There was no stigma attached.
But I felt that I wasn’t operating in the right sphere, if that makes sense. Of course, writing is mostly a solitary thing. But once the work is out there, it’s nice to find your peers, see what other people are doing, understand your work in a broader context, etc…
When I was writing books about porn, I kept getting introduced to other sex writers, or people who had done sex work and happened to write as well. I remember sitting on a panel at some queer lit event. It was like being grouped together with people who went to the same high school but who had nothing else in common. It just didn’t make sense.
With The Magician, it’s been a little bit different. I’m incredibly thankful to my publishers, Philip and Sarah at Amphetamine Sulphate, for having allowed me to cross a bridge into this relatively new and exciting small press scene. I assume your book exists in this space too, though I’m not as familiar with your publisher.
CK: Yeah, Black Shuck put out The Dregs Trilogy and they’re primarily a horror imprint.
CZ: But I think you know what I’m talking about: Inside the Castle, 11:11, Expat, Nine Banded, Apocalypse Party, Infinity Land, etc… There seems to be a devoted literary community that revolves around these presses and the authors they publish. There’s a certain shared sensibility. It feels a lot, to me, like the music scenes I grew up with.
And no one, that I’m aware of, has bashed me for my porn past.
CK: Like most quintessential rubes, I often conflate sex or public displays of nudity with shame and an excruciating self-consciousness, even though rationally I understand and accept these things as a perfectly natural part of the human experience. How did you silence that voice in your head when you first got into the industry – as a thoughtful and self-aware artist, I assume you have/had similar neuroses (but maybe not)?
CZ: I was nineteen years old, and the perfect combination of rash and in-need-of-money.
I’d eased myself into the idea by ‘modeling’ for gay art photographers, most of whom asked me to get naked. A minority offered me extra money to suck my cock.
I mean, I applied for regular jobs. But the managers at book stores and coffee shops weren’t getting back to me. I was in school. I needed to pay rent.
Plus, at that age, it felt good to be paid for sex. I grew up relatively shy, pseudo-depressed. All that typical teenage shit. It was an ego boost to be told that I had a nice ass, or cock, or whatever.
When the opportunity came to fuck girls for a living, it seemed like a good deal.
In hindsight, it’s all quite embarrassing. I don’t think anyone should be made to watch themselves have sex. To see yourself mid-orgasm is a horrifying thing.
And I lack all manner of body positivity. I’m no longer young enough, or in good enough shape, to strip down like that.
CK: What is your relationship like with the industry now that you have some distance from it and your reputation as a transgressive writer has been somewhat established? Is pornography something you could see yourself returning to?
CZ: My retirement from porn – from performing, anyway – was abrupt.
I’ve written enough about it and don’t feel like repeating myself. A quick Google search should suffice for anyone interested. But it was very much a ‘my-life-is-falling-apart’ kind of thing.
In short, I quit performing overnight. But I still had to make money. I’d been in the adult industry for eight years. Porn people were the only professionals I knew. So, of course, I went to my friends and colleagues to ask for work.
I was offered gigs as a production assistant, video editor, etc… I worked for several years as a content manager for James Deen.
It wasn’t all terrible. But behind the scenes, porn was often grinding, monotonous work. Production hours were long. There weren’t any unions, so you could end up on set for 16-to-18 hours without being paid overtime. Editing was mostly a race to get as much done for as cheap as possible. So, I’d scrub hours of hardcore footage on a daily basis.
When you’re not aroused, sex is just repetitive motion. It’s boring as fuck. Editing made me hate porn.
Maybe hate’s too strong a word, because I think there are some lovely people, friends of mine, who work in the industry and who are proud of what they do. I respect that.
But casually, I’ll say that I hate porn.
I might take an editing gig if I need the money. I won’t ever go back to performing.
CK: Can you tell me about the work you’re most proud of?
CZ: At present time, I’ll go with The Magician.
I feel like it’s the culmination of this horror/auto-fiction style I’ve been trying to pull off for the past ten years.
It’s also the documentation of a very personal process. I took all these identities, like porn star and other things that were important to me in my twenties, and killed them off. Maybe the more documented parts of me still exist for the rest of the world. Like, I assume I’m still on PornHub. But to me, this feels irrelevant. Danny Wylde is another person. I don’t relate to him anymore.
There’s also a lesser-known visual aspect to The Magician. I worked with director, Matthew Kaundart, photographer, Gina Canavan, and producer, Luka Fisher, to create a photo series and short film based around the novel; around creating the novel, too. Due to the COVID lockdowns, we’ve had limited ability to screen this work, but the film has played at some online film festivals and such. There’s a photo book available on my personal website.
The visual material was very important to me in the beginning. I may have failed in terms of the scope I’d first imagined. It ended up being financially impossible. That said, I’m proud of the little film we ended up with.
CK: Which artists inspired you growing up? Have you always been a transgressive kid?
CZ: As a teenager, I was very into underground metal. My aesthetic is probably most informed by that world, music and artwork from bands like Converge, Neurosis, Wolves in the Throne Room, etc…
In terms of literary work: I remember discovering Bret Easton Ellis and Ryu Murakami in high school, and being excited by those books. In my early twenties, a friend recommended that I read Frisk by Dennis Cooper. That book blew my mind. It was full of all this scary sex and violence, but mixed with teenage longing, and attempts to express the inability-to-articulate-extreme-emotions. I’d never been exposed to anything quite like it. I devoured all of Cooper’s novels shortly thereafter.
My book, The Wolves That Live in Skin and Space, is probably my clunky attempt at ripping off Dennis Cooper.
As far as being a ‘transgressive’ kid, I feel like that word kind of changes with the seasons. In a broad sense, yes, I was attracted to books and film and such that dealt with extreme sex and violence, which is what’s typically labelled as transgressive, as far as I can tell.
CK: What are your goals as a writer? The Magician is gathering some incredible reviews and momentum, but would you like to elevate your status to a wider audience, or are you happy with your clique of devoted partisan?
CZ: Regardless of what happens, I plan on writing novels for as long as possible, at whatever pace I’m able. Right now, I’m interested in abandoning auto-fiction and working loosely in the horror genre.
I’ve been thrilled with the feedback to The Magician. Again, I’m grateful to Philip and Sarah at Amphetamine Sulphate for being this catalyst, in a way. For me, I think they offered a legitimacy to what I was doing. Even though they operate a very small press, there’s a consistent quality to the work they put out. The audience trusts them. And I’m a part of that audience now. It feels good to be with a publisher that puts out work I want to read.
Do I want to elevate my status?
I’ve given up any pretense of wanting a career as a writer. From my vantage point, it seems impossible if you want to live outside of poverty. Of course, there are ways to subsidize this – teaching and so on.
But my career is in video production and post-production, something I actually enjoy (for the most part) when it’s not porn.
My desire to reach a wider audience has mostly to do with my interest in the visual possibilities of my work. I went to film school. I wanted to make movies. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have hopes for film/video adaptations in the future. We’ll see what happens. I don’t think it would make sense for the books I’ve put out thus far.
CK: And with the arrival of a new president in office, does the beaten and bruised liberal poet finally have some hope for the future?
CZ: I don’t have much to say about presidents and politics, except, “I prefer the center, where it’s warm.”
I’m sure the liberal poet will have plenty more to gripe about.
Chris Kelso is a British Fantasy Award-nominated writer, illustrator, and anthologist. His work has been published in – 3AM magazine, Black Static, Locus, Daily Science Fiction, Antipodean-SF, SF Signal, Dark Discoveries, The Scottish Poetry Library, Invert/Extant, The Lovecraft e-zine, Sensitive Skin, Evergreen Review, Verbicide, and many others.
Christopher Zeischegg is a writer, musician, and filmmaker who spent eight years working in the adult industry as performer Danny Wylde. His other books include The Wolves That Live in Skin and Space and Body to Job. He lives in Los Angeles.
Josiah Morgan lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. He is an actor, dancer and the author of Inside The Castle (Amphetamine Sulphate), Circles (SELFFUCK), and Sola Virgo (forthcoming from Amphetamine Sulphate).
*Image credit: Photographs of Chris Kelso and Christopher Zeischegg courtesy of the authors.