Damien Ark Interview
‘Fucked up’ is a multifarious phrase. Let’s get fucked up! Damn, that’s fucked up… Sorry I fucked up. I fucked him up good. I’ll fuck you up too. I’m a fuck up. Fuck you.
Damien Ark’s debut novel Fucked Up encapsulates all these meanings and more. We follow the nightmarish journey of Elliott Smith, a teenage schizophrenic drug addict furry who is the lone survivor of a sadistic serial killer. Clocking in at over 800 blood soaked pages, the book is an epic exploration of mental illness, trauma, violence, and ultimately, love. Damien and I discuss all these topics and more in our conversation below. Fucked Up is available now from Expat Press.
How old were you when you first dabbled in fiction and what sparked your interest?
I started writing as early as I can possibly remember. The dream of publishing books started around the same time. In elementary school, I rarely had parental supervision because they were so busy working, so I had a lot of time to read. I remember spending a lot of time in the school libraries reading all the Merlin books, the Lord of the Rings series, and lots of other high fantasy. There were always gory horror movies on, violent TV series, metal and industrial music, and many eclectic forms of art around me as a child, which was definitely an influence, whether I wanted it to be or not. The first true fiction piece I did was in 4th or 5th grade. Our English teacher gave us the assignment to write a short story. We had to create a cover for our “book” as well. No rules. I think my story was about time travel with space ships. Anyway, it ended up being the second-longest of the classroom. There was this other nerd that wrote a few pages longer than me, and because he had a natural gift for drawing, his cover was amazing. All the kids were impressed by him and I didn’t exist. I fucking hated him for that shit. That’s where my obsession to write was born.
My parents never cared what kind of books I read, so during Hanukkah and Christmas, I got all the transgressive fiction I wanted. That helped reassure me that my depraved brain was fine to write the already horrifying, bizarre stories I had already been doing. Most of the stories were more violent and random than Fucked Up; babies chopped up, Cthulhu-esque monsters destroying cities, incest on meth, suicidal teenagers pushed further to the edge in slapstick format…
How about the origins of Fucked Up itself? Was there a particular image/scene/character that the rest of the book galvanized around?
The first version of Fucked Up was born in a mental hospital when I was 12 or 13 (hard to remember the year, I’ve been in mental hospitals too many times). I was only writing messy short stories at the time; there were too many characters and events happening in such a short amount of pages. Instead of putting them all together and calling it a novel, I wanted to pick one of the stories I had written and expand on it. I wanted a story that I could mirror my own life experiences into, and it was quite easy to pick Fucked Up out of the rest of them. By age twenty, I finished two drafts in two years and the third took me another two and a half years; Fucked Up was done when I was 22.5, I think.
There’s a lot of coming of age novels and stories about abuse out there, but I could never relate them to my own experience. It was the same with all of the transgressive fiction I read. I never found myself in the text. People don’t understand how to write about millennials, zoomers, etc., and how these generations have grown up with technology advancing in rapid, unfathomable ways. We grew up on the internet and also saw its downfall—from free and expansive and bizarre, to monetized and formatted into echo chambers for the sake of surveillance capitalism. We’ve grown up to propaganda wars, every inequality only getting worse, and of course, the existential nightmare of climate change. We feel that we’re living in a gradual, inescapable apocalypse that everyone else is apathetic about. This is the frame that the characters live within. Sometimes it’s hidden, and other times, it’s very pronounced. Living as a young person in this era is hopelessly disturbing as it is, but to be a minority on top of that is even more horrifying.
All of these characters are multitudes of myself, along with the most depraved ones. They’re also based on other people and those that they knew. I grew up going to group therapy for survivors of sexual abuse, went to a school for young drug addicts wanting to get sober, had family members on drugs, mental illness all around me, so I feel that plays a big part in explaining why every character is so tortured and deranged. I want the reader to eventually feel the normal that the protagonist lives (the normal I live), where everyone around him is an abuser, a survivor, or both.
I don’t want to spoil too much for others, but the book is written in two parts that are cyclical in nature. It’s a representation of my own life experiences, falling into the same traps, leaving and returning… In a way, the structure of my life, which is Elliott’s life, is the skeleton key to the novel.
A bleak era to exist in, but part of me suspects it’s always been that way. Given how hopeless everything seems, I do feel that resisting nihilism in the face of insurmountable evil might be the last truly radical act we have left.
Elliott is morally complex. He perpetuates the unimaginable traumas he’s endured, while also exhibiting tenderness and empathy for other victims of abuse. In a way, Elliott is an amalgam of many different personalities rolled into one, best exemplified by his schizophrenia. The voices that plague him throughout the novel also add to this nuance. What was your approach to textualizing mental illness and transferring it to the page? Did you find writing the book to be therapeutic in any way?
Maybe it’s a bit more natural for me to convey the realism of various mental illnesses and the traumatized mind because that’s been the window of my own life and mind. I wanted Fucked Up to be the most confrontational and angry novel ever in order to reflect the environment I was born and raised from. The novel was originally planned to be a suicide note. In many ways, I feel like every last piece of writing or music I put out could be my goodbye. A sense of apocalyptic dread always haunts me. It’s my hope that it reads like that, too.
Do writers write for therapeutic purposes or because they feel like they have to? For me, it’s a lifeline. If I go without writing for a while, I feel like I’m dying, I’m hung upside down and blood is draining from a slash across my throat. I know I wanted Fucked Up to be as euphorically cathartic as possible, but not only in the sense of writing it. It’s my hope that the reader also feels overwhelmed by the intensity, too. Years after publishing it, the release I had from it is gone, and I think I pulled back so many layers that I have more questions for myself than answers.
Hope and the lack thereof is the biggest theme to me in Fucked Up, so I’m glad you mentioned the attempt to resist nihilism in our decaying world. If we’re at points of no turning back from the damage we’ve done to the climate, if the inequalities are so extreme that extremism in everything is the only response to issues, and if you’re also living a seemingly worthless life where everyone is out to take advantage and destroy you, how do you have hope? And how do you come back when you’ve lost all of it?
It’s not a book for the faint of heart, but there are moments of beauty and serenity throughout. There’s a palpable sense of urgency to the narrative, which I think is fueled by the apocalyptic events unfolding in the background. Many of the characters are oblivious to or unaffected by society crumbling around them, much like the current state of affairs. No matter where Elliott runs to, chaos follows close behind. You cover a lot of terrain, from Istanbul to the American Midwest. Of course, I loved seeing my home turf Maryland featured prominently in the book. How did you decide on Fucked Up’s varied geography?
I remember reading about how some people argue that travel photographers can be exploitive making money by taking pictures of poverty and social issues in other places and presenting them to a western audience. That’s how I came up with the idea for Elliott’s mother. She might be a skilled artist, but she’s mostly a terrible person. I’ve been obsessed with Egypt since I was a kid, so I felt like that would be the place for Elliott to be born and raised. Turkey was my other idea, because I had an online friend from there, just like I did for Maryland and Ohio as well. As for Wales, that place came to me simply because of a song I like (My Ashes by Porcupine Tree).
The majority of transgressive literature is seen and read to be just that—transgressive. I’ve always felt that to be very one-dimensional. I was writing this book for myself, so shocking people wasn’t of any interest in me, regardless of whether or not it does that to people. I’d be really bothered if people read Fucked Up and saw it as in the same vein as Peter Sotos or Hogg by Delany (not that I’m criticizing either). I’m more interested in poetry about nature and the universe than I am with stories where children get chopped up and then there’s some predictable misanthropic message at the end. It’s much more difficult to try and paint beautiful images in the ugliest circumstances.
There are definitely extreme acts of brutality depicted in Fucked Up, but it’s nothing that doesn’t happen in real life on the regular. I think violence has also become abstracted in many ways, especially for millenials/gen z who grew up with easy access to the most depraved shit imaginable online. So in some ways we’re less affected by violence because it’s always removed, always secondhand through a screen. The distance protects us—versus kids in Iraq or Afghanistan or countless other places who directly experience unspeakable violence, often courtesy of Western governments. Elliott straddles both worlds. He gets off watching violent content, while also being subjected to violence (sometimes willingly, sometimes not). He hurts himself as much as he hurts other people. It’s almost like he’s addicted to trauma. What do you see as the role of violence in art, and specifically in Fucked Up?
I’ll be honest. Elliott isn’t much different than me, especially at that age. I was one of those edgy teens with gore blogs and watching liveleak videos. It was a numbing agent for me. It felt good to desensitize my mind and see someone hurt, especially when I was always the one being hurt. I’m not proud of that phase at all, which is why it had to be in the novel. I too was the Oxy addict, porn and sex addict, cutter, etc…
The darker places of the internet are rarely written about, which is strange when you consider how easily accessible they are. Twenty years ago, a kid wasn’t going on a computer and finding Saudi Arabian beheading videos. Novels don’t mention those sites, or forums in general, or the endless ocean of eclectic porn, torrents/file sharing, etc… This is what I grew up to, unlike other generations, and I know I’m not alone. In a minute, you could be downloading movies, watching porn, and listening to file shared music, while chatting with people on a forum for survivors of child rape. I don’t know how someone can write about current generations if they don’t understand the technology we grew up with. That’s something I wanted to capture with a bit too much accuracy, in ways that’d shame and humiliate me. All those pathetic loser things I did online or offline that only a millennial/zoomer could do, that’s what I wanted to paint. B.R. Yeager was the first writer I saw that picked up on this and I relate to his experiences about being raised all over the internet.
Violence and evil have taken new forms and continue to evolve over time—online and offline. Just as I wanted to portray the way the internet impacts a young, mentally ill brain, I also wanted to show the dichotomy of those that use technology to find people to hurt compared to someone navigating the streets for victims, like Bijeh did.
Is violence necessary in art? Certainly, there’s a lot of it, probably too much. There’s a heavy amount of it, both physical and sexual, in Fucked Up, but I don’t feel like it was excessive, contrary to what many people that read the book will probably believe. The parts that contain violence are very raw, because I don’t see a point in censoring ugly realities, and I guess I’m naturally a sick-minded person. There are these very dumb arguments out there saying that sex scenes, not just rape scenes, should be removed from art. As a survivor of sexual abuse, I feel like I can’t stop writing about it until it’s no longer happening. As for sex scenes, I’m a sex addict, and I’m not sure how else I could have written about it than I did in Fucked Up. Sex isn’t always romantic and beautiful. It can be ugly, humiliating, scary, have you crying afterward, you stop a minute into it, etc… I know that might sound funny to some, but it’s true! I also don’t want the sex in the novel to turn people on. Instead, I want people to understand the complexity of what sex addiction feels like and also how confusing sex is to a survivor of sexual abuse.
I don’t think Elliott is addicted to trauma. When you’ve been abused, it’s much harder to see red flags. I spent about twenty-one years of my life not recognizing if I were in a dangerous situation or involved with dangerous people. I thought abusive behaviors and actions were normal. Next thing you know, something really fucking bad happens, and you hate yourself for not seeing through it…There are statistics out there stating that people that have been abused are more likely to be abused again later in life. Toward the latter half of the novel, Elliott talks about feeling like there’s a hole in him that everyone can see, a magnet that draws abusive people, and everyone can see it. That’s how I saw myself, too. Fucked Up is a dissection of trauma that excavates the emotions and experiences that you don’t see or read about in the media about PTSD.
I was seriously impressed how you managed to keep ramping up the plot’s momentum. Just when I thought things couldn’t get more intense, you proved me wrong time and time again. It’s a challenging task with a whopper of a book like Fucked Up. I’m curious about your writing/editing process with a novel this long and ambitious. Did you outline at all, or just dive right in? Was there always an end in sight, or was it more a journey of discovery? Any surprises along the way?
When I set out to make FU into a novel, I knew exactly how it would end. It’s the same for everything I want to complete in the future. Everything is already there, every moment and pulse. I outline every chapter with plot points or ideas and cross them out as I go. The craziest thing to me is knowing when the tension is going to explode, which is such a relief to finish writing when it has lived in your head for so long. I knew I wanted it to be two parts mirroring each other. There are also the ‘false climaxes’ that I like to play with, so readers are always thrown off that things would actually get more intense. What’s funny is when I’d write a scene that I thought would be short, but it would end up longer than I expected. The whole ‘Death of the God of Love’ chapter was like that, where I had no clue it’d be its own beast. I also had tons of strange ideas for it that I felt would be impossible to convey in writing or too surreal and complex, but a part of me just wanted to do it anyway, no matter how bizarre anything turned out. I don’t look at page numbers or word count when I write. I just write. Sure, I go back and edit a hundred or so times, but I’m never saying to myself that something needs to be shorter and more desirable to people’s attention span.
The biggest surprise to me is how it felt when I wrote the final sentence. There was no trance or thrill. It was just… confusing. Well, I know why, but it’s too heavy to explain, and it’s only got more unforgiving to me over time. All I can say is that the last chapter has haunted me. I knew it would hurt, but I didn’t think it’d become prophetic, or I would reflect on certain parts so much. To not spoil the novel to those that haven’t read it, I’ll explain in a weird way—Elliott reads something written by his mother, and later on, a character comments on a polaroid in his room.
The fantastical elements of Fucked Up were extremely striking for me. You mentioned pushing ahead with those surreal scenes no matter how strange they seemed—I’m glad you did! With Elliott being prone to hallucinations, it created this wonderful sense of unreality where nothing was ever certain. I kept wondering, is this really happening or is it just in Elliott’s head? The narrative often crosses over into the metaphysical or paranormal realm. Have you ever had any similar experiences witnessing something unexplainable in your own life? How does the weird/surreal inform your work?
All because Elliott is Schizophrenic doesn’t mean that automatically makes him the least trustworthy character in the novel. In fact, I’d argue he’s one of the sanest characters. Seeing things is much less common than hearing things, which I deal with constantly. There’s this belief that you can tell if someone is Schizophrenic just by looking at them, which is ridiculous to me. Yes, you can be someone that’s homeless, because the reality is many people end up in prison (the new form of institutionalization) or on the streets due to lack of social services to benefit those with mental illnesses, but also, you can appear just as neurotypical as anyone else if you take medication. I’ve experienced both and imagine I’m part of the latter, although I’m pretty good at hiding what’s really going on.
I’ve been surrounded by the paranormal my entire life. It started with haunted spaces and seeing things, then to all the horror movies, I saw as a kid that I definitely shouldn’t have been seeing, ghost stories at school, and eventually the culmination of dark energy. Not only did I have PTSD and night terrors of being raped and murdered that led to waking up frozen with a spirit above the bed, but I’d see shadows everywhere, especially my bedroom. Things would get knocked over and break, doors would slam, lights switching, etc… Then I made a friend when I was in college at sixteen. We’d smoke weed, snort Oxy, and then he’d take me to graveyards, abandoned houses, into the woods at night so that we could investigate the paranormal. He told me that he had a sixth sense. His house was also haunted with the same types of spirits. Connor’s character is based on him. The haunted Loretto Staircase painting? That was him. Palm readings? Going to explore an abandoned warehouse? Yeah… Being around him made me feel like my entire life was haunted by evil inhuman things. I credit him for making the bits of hauntings in my life into something even more horrifying and long-lasting, which has affected my writing forever.
While I could see things, my friend could hear them and read their entire life story. They seemed too detailed to be imagined off the top of his head. Too real. Just… strange and disturbing. The way he could do that was also very inspirational to me. That was a very violent, magical, and demonic time of my life. These days, I refuse to do any sort of “ghost hunting” like I used to do with him. It’s just wrong. Let the dead rest in heaven or wherever they haunt.
I was listening to some of your Zke noise project. Music plays a big part in Fucked Up. Elliott is a pianist and several other characters are musicians. There’s a wide range of references to different artists—Chopin, Brainbombs, William Basinski, etc. How did you get into recording harsh noise? Does your writing feed into your music or vice versa?
Oh, that’s awesome that you checked it out! It’s all amateur fun to me. Actually, Zke was a project my brother and I started when we were sixteen or seventeen. We ran our own Netlabel for a while, which is gone now. Sometimes, we still put sounds together, maybe a release here and there. I’ve gotten a new person to join the project, Zenny, a good friend of mine, but I’m sure it’ll be another couple of years before we all finish something interesting again.
Music is my biggest obsession in life, so there are a hundred or so artists and composers referenced in Fucked Up as well. There’s even an ambient/electroacoustic/noise musician (Gavin) in the novel! That’s something I always wanted to do and I’m not sure anyone has done that before. Most of the characters know how to play an instrument, which I believe creates more depth to a character. Elliott’s piano is another voice of his, unappreciated, snuffed out, a connection to his mother, then something he returns to with a more positive appreciation later on.
I’m typically listening to music when I’m writing. For example, I worked in a coffee shop for a few years, dictated the playlists for the nine hours I was there, and that would be what I wrote to. Fucked Up was written under the influence of a heavy dose of ambient and drone music.
If I’m not in a writing mood, I’ll make noise, which I’ll typically destroy right afterward, because most of the sessions suck. Sometimes, words aren’t enough, and the heavy blaring distortion speaks more. With that analogy in mind, I think that’s how I see a part of myself in Gavin.
What’s next for Damien Ark? Do you have another book in the works?
I’m in the process of writing three different novels, although they’re all so different from each other and from Fucked Up that I have no clue if I’d want to try to publish them or not. My current goal is to have something done and out by the end of the year, but I don’t want to make any promises.
Photo by David Agasi
Damien Ark is a self-taught outsider writer that specializes in transgressive LGBT+ writing. Damien doesn’t have an MFA and has taken no workshops. Their first novel, Fucked Up, is out on Expat Press. You can follow them on their Twitter (@damien_ark) and see more of their work on Neutral Spaces.
by Sam Glover
... He quickly moves across the car park ...
by Austin Veldman
... Speak soil, / tell us what the blood of man tastes like ...