(photograph: David George)

Playing Chicken With Dire McCain

Dire McCain is a writer, editor, publisher, and creative force. I've known Dire for several years, and I'm always impressed with her energy. We could have easily gone down the rabbit hole of a myriad of other topics, but we focused and got down to what's new and groovy- her new book, Playing Chicken With Thanatos.


The book is based on your experiences growing up. Can you talk a bit about that?

Dire McCain: The book chronicles my life between the ages of 12 and 19, although I touch upon the years that preceded and followed as well. The back cover blurb describes it best:

Playing Chicken With Thanatos tells a hard-hitting yet sympathetic tale of a precocious forgotten child who sought refuge in self-annihilation, and ultimately had to choose between doom and survival.

Set primarily in Southern California in the 1980s and 90s, the narrator takes you headlong on an intensely revealing and turbulent odyssey through the abysses of madness and junkiedom to the peaks of liberation and personal evolution.

Born from the author’s harrowing formative experiences, Playing Chicken With Thanatos transcends autobiography, evades the niche of vicarious voyeurism, and reaches out an empathetic, nonjudgmental hand to anyone who’s ever teetered over that ineffable precipice.”

Why did you decide to write the book?

DM: It began as a form of therapy, a release of the ghosts that had been locked away and eroding my spirit for ages. Before long, it took on a life of its own, and I soon realized that I could provide a resonant voice and empathetic hand for others who have “teetered over that ineffable precipice,” whatever their demons.

When did you begin the book? How long did it take you to finish it?

DM: The first words were banged out in spring of 2004. I worked on it consistently for a couple of years before various distractions kept limiting the time, energy, and attention I could devote to writing. My frustration continued to escalate throughout, and by August of 2013, I was completely fed up. I decided right then and there to close the door on nearly all other obligations until the book was complete. Amazing how much you can accomplish after doing that.

You call the book a work of literature rather than an autobiography, or even fiction. Why?

DM: Although I do understand and appreciate the purpose, I’m becoming increasingly more hostile to categorization in general and the baggage that comes with it. It automatically pigeonholes all creative work to some degree and makes people go into any given experience with preconceived notions that are often inaccurate. Maybe it’s because Playing Chicken With Thanatos is such an intensely personal work, but I simply couldn’t shackle it to any category, especially not “memoir,” a word I find odious these days. Having said all that, the book is definitely autobiographical. The only fictional aspects are stated in the thoughtfully worded disclaimer at the beginning, which everyone should read before jumping into the pages.

The three parts are named after rivers in Hades. Can you talk about how that ties into the narrative and the structure, thematically.

DM: There’s a mythological undercurrent throughout the book, which wasn’t intentional going into it. Dave Mitchell was the first person to read the first draft in its entirety. He noticed a sudden and drastic mood change at one point that he thought may inadvertently throw the readers. His suggestion was to separate the book into three acts in order to provide a smoother transition, rather than catapulting the readers into the stygian pit without any warning. The working titles for the three parts were the same as those in Dante’s Divine Comedy and later, Aleister Crowley’s Diary of a Drug Fiend. Once my book was given its final title, the acts were renamed to coincide: Acheron, Phlegethon, and Lethe, the rivers of woe, fire, and oblivion, respectively.

I may be wrong about this, but I don’t recall the narrator being named in the book, nor do I recall any of the other characters referring to the narrator by name. Obviously, it is you as you are the author and the main “character”. But I still find it curious. Is there significance for that or am I off base?

DM: There’s no significance behind the nameless narrator. It simply wasn’t necessary to mention my name. The book is written as if I’m telling the story to the reader directly, and when I relate stories involving myself, I only mention my name when necessary or relevant.

It’s interesting that aside from the incident with Dave, things are relatively benign and even fun at the beginning. I was a bit surprised that you and your friends were not taken advantage of or victimized as much as I thought you would be. But there comes a point where the story gets dark very quickly. It’s something that the reader expects at some level, but it’s still shocking when it happens. Can you touch on that, both as a development within the narrative but in your life as well?

DM: That’s how it played out in real life, and the book is structured to reflect that. The honeymoon was followed by very sudden and severe plunges into abysmal hellholes. I have to say that I don’t trust former (or recovering, if you choose) addicts who won’t admit that there were good times among the bad. In my case, drugs were a fucking blast for the first couple of years, and the feeling of liberation that came with my disregard for rules and laws delivered its own form of intoxication. The mind and body can only withstand being chronically poisoned for so long, though. Attrition is inevitable, and the ante is upped significantly when one’s engaging in criminal behavior and consorting with people of questionable character, especially oneself.

Regarding the exploitation, I feel the need to state that it’s not gender specific, although I know you’re not implying that. I think most people get their ideas about junkies and addiction from television shows and Hollywood movies made by naïve conjecturers who have never lived one moment of the life. Among the countless stereotypes is the female druggie, usually portrayed as a hapless and sometimes brainless whore whose sole purpose is to be exploited and violated by the male characters. Then there are the stereotypes associated with teenagers, who supposedly lack any degree of insight. As with all stereotypes, some can certainly hold true, but none can be automatically applied to every person and situation. My story makes people see beyond what they’ve been conditioned to see, which I believe is the best, if not the only way to experience life.

There’s no way to say it without sounding arrogant, but I need to say it to make my point. My girlfriends and I were smarter, tougher, and far more mature than average teenage girls, which is one reason why we gravitated toward each other. Sadly, rather than using it to better ourselves, it was used in destructive ways, including the manipulation and exploitation of men, which did indeed lead to trouble on many occasions. It also created a level of respect with our male circle of friends, who treated us as equals. The problems typically arose with men we didn’t know well or had just met. Then there was the odd psychopath.

You are intentionally vague about dates in the story. Why is that? Also, you play a bit with time, going back in time within the narrative to revisit different events before jumping forward again. It creates this odd looping effect at times. Was that intentional? And why did you structure it that way?

DM: The main reason for the vagueness was to help conceal the identities of the characters who have turned their lives around, as well as those who are presumably still living the life, especially the cartel and gang members. I feel strongly about respecting the anonymity of both. It’s why the places and many other details are vague as well. I do make references to my age throughout the book – whether directly or by mentioning my grade level – which I think is far more important than exactly when or where any given event took place.

On an incidental note, dates have been on my shit list lately as well. Again, I appreciate their purpose, but find them confining, reductive, and often unnecessary. I think my story transcends time. Someone could read it twenty years from now and relate to it in the same manner as someone reading it today, or even twenty years ago. It’s the content that matters.

The structure formed on its own as I was writing the book, which began as a series of stories that could have been read individually. With the exception of the beginning and ending chapters, most were freestanding. As the book continued to expand, I realized that there needed to be some kind of continuity, although not necessarily linear, since life is rarely linear. After doing some rearranging and revisions to create segues, it just clicked, although I did have serious concerns about the reader’s ability to follow the storyline. Thankfully, there haven’t been any complaints so far.

The chapter titles are great, odd and, at times, revealing. Of course, a couple refer to partying and drugs, which is understandable. However, one refers to the creator of the electric chair, another is an obscure “Magnum PI” reference and a third is simply the Czech word for buttercup. Can you explain why you chose these titles, and how they play into the narrative?

DM: I had loads more, but ran out of chapters! A couple of them are drug references, as you mentioned. Others are titles from songs, books, and such that were somehow relevant to that particular stage of my life. Most are either esoteric or a play on words that can’t be explained in simple terms. For example, “How’s Your Bacon?” is a reference to a line in David Mamet’s American Buffalo. Having read my book, you know that the chapter is, in fact, a letter written by one of my comrades who was incarcerated in a Nevada state prison at the time. What’s the connection? I could spend hours attempting to explain, and it still may not make a modicum of sense to anyone, including me.

What’s the significance of the title?

DM: For nine years, the book had the working title Raising McCain, which never felt right, but I had to call it something while writing it. Last autumn, merely weeks before publication, I learned that John McCain’s daughter was launching a reality show with that same title. Needless to say, I immediately dropped it. After struggling for days to come up with a new title, I remembered a line I’d written in an article for Sensitive Skin Magazine: “It began with habitual childhood daredevilry that carried over into my adolescence, which was one prolonged game of Chicken with Thanatos.” It’s a reference to the ultimate game of nerve (or stupidity) with Death itself being the opponent.

Reliving some of the events must have been tough. Did it invoke old feelings and anxieties? How did you deal with that?

DM: Absolutely draining and gutting at times, but writing the book was possibly the single best move I’ve made to date. It literally saved my life, and cleared the path that led to where I currently am. I don’t want to give away too much, but the Prelude and Coda allude to the mental state I’d fallen into in the early 2000s. It was a psychological coma, inadvertently brought on by my refusal to face what I’d been through in my adolescence.

As long as any given emotion is warranted and appropriate for its respective situation, I can appreciate the gamut of them, even the unpleasant variety. The ability to experience them is a gift. It’s perfectly okay and even healthy to feel pain when there’s a valid reason behind it, although not very enjoyable.

There’s a lot of powerful and emotional stuff in the book. Did you have any concerns about making this part of your life public?

DM: Absolutely! Right up until the book’s release. Trepidation is unavoidable when unleashing such a personal and revealing work. I had to follow through, though, no matter what. If for no other reason than to deliver a loud, resounding FUCK YOU to our society’s intolerance toward the “abnormal,” including people with unconventional upbringings and checkered pasts. I know far too many good souls who are still being punished by society in various ways for shit that happened – not merely the misdeeds they committed, but those that were committed against them – when they were lost and strung-out kids. Meanwhile, the people passing judgment aren’t exactly the epitome of moral excellence. No one is squeaky-clean, not even the dead. I’m convinced that lifetimes of grief could be prevented if people weren’t made to feel so god damn horrible about not measuring up to some unattainable human-made ideal that doesn’t even exist. That raving mouthful is a recurring theme in the book, by the way.

Was there material that did not make it into the book? Do you plan to use it in a sequel or in another form? Are you planning to write another book?

DM: Besides the stories that were never written, I removed at least 10,000 words from the final draft, mostly material that was either redundant or potentially in violation of people’s privacy. Back to your comment about victimization, there were a number of incidents, including gang rapes, that weren’t included out of respect for the victims. I needed to write about them for myself, in order to deal with the feelings that had been gnawing at my soul for ages, but as I mentioned, some of the characters have completely turned their lives around and have children of their own now, while others never want to be reminded of where they came from. It’s not my place to release the skeletons or tear open old wounds, and certainly not publicly.

Playing Chicken With Thanatos will be the only book of its kind that I’ll ever write. At present, I’m not remotely interested in writing about my past – however distant or close – in a purely autobiographical manner ever again. There are a couple of short stories in the works that are based on certain events from my past. I prefer fiction born from the demons.

As for new books, I’m not sure if I have the patience or fortitude to write another 350 pager, but who knows? There is a novella in progress, and I’ve been pondering the idea of doing a series of illustrated novels, which would be collaborations with one or more artists. Stay tuned for more on that.

Have you kept in touch with anyone from this time? 

DM: After having no contact with anyone for about a decade, I reunited briefly with some of the people a few years ago. It resulted in mixed emotions that I’d rather not get into, other than to say that it had a temporal-paradox-like effect on the book. It not only made it challenging to continue writing about some of the people as I remembered them, but also led to a number of revisions. At present, I’m not really in touch with anyone, but feel only love and always will.

And for those process nerds, what is your writing process? Did you write daily? What tools, programs, etc. do you use in your writing? Do you write longhand first or do you dump it straight onto the computer?

DM: All of my writing spills out of my mind and onto a computer. With Playing Chicken With Thanatos, I wrote daily for the first two years. My ability to do so was facilitated by the fact that I was a recluse, living in another country at the time. Then I moved back to SoCal, came out of seclusion, and life began getting in the way, as it tends to do. I have a peculiar and often uncooperative brain, probably the result of it being marinated in chemicals while it was developing, both in the womb and beyond. I find it nearly impossible to write when my head is swarming with distractions and other people’s writing. Basically, I need to isolate myself and tune out the world as much as possible, which most people don’t seem to understand or respect, for whatever reason. Of course, I’m inexpressibly thankful for the people in my life who do get it. They know who they are.

Who or what are your influences for your writing?

DM: Splitting hairs here, but I’ve always preferred the word “inspiration” over “influence.” While there are certainly subconscious influences, I don’t willingly allow anyone or anything to influence my creative endeavors. My primary sources of inspiration are my experiences, my surroundings, and the people in my life as well as those I encounter. As far as artistic sources of inspiration are concerned, I generally find musicians and filmmakers more inspiring than writers, with the exception of Nick Tosches, who I love as both a writer and person. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, John Cassavetes, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Robert Bresson, Louis Malle, Luis Bunuel, to name but a few filmmakers, and I couldn’t begin to list all of the musicians. I will mention that the third act of Playing Chicken With Thanatos and portions of the second were written while Manorexia’s The Mesopelagic Waters and Dinoflagellate Blooms poured into my ears repeatedly, at full volume, for days on end. By day five, I looked as though I were one step away from being institutionalized, but damn, the creative floodgates that were opened!

How was the experience putting the book out through your own publishing company, Apophenia?

DM: Excellent. After consulting with some industry folks in 2006, I realized that I couldn’t allow such an intensely personal work to be raped by the publishing machine, which is where it was headed, primarily due to my “obscure” status. When you have no name, you have no rights. By publishing it on my own label, I was able to create the book exactly as I’d envisioned it, without anyone demanding that I change it or compromise its integrity. The only downside is that I can’t afford a PR rep to help promote it. I’m relying largely upon word of mouth, and thanks to people like you, and others who have been plugging it via social media, the virus is spreading, albeit slowly.

For those who do not know, what is Paraphilia Magazine?

DM: From the website: Paraphilia Magazine is an uninhibited, ever-evolving online publication that features a variety of content one isn’t likely to find in the average publication. A primary motive behind its creation was to give extraordinary art – sans the industries’ grip – to the people, for free. Between March 2009 and December 2012 the magazine appeared in the form of a journal, with 16 issues produced, all of which are still available to peruse at the main website. In 2013 the “issue” format was retired, in favor of a more regularly updated stream of content entitled Periodical

I’m the Editor in Chief, by the way.

What future plans do you have for Paraphilia Magazine?

DM: Well, a recent physical and mental vacation only confirmed what I already knew: I’m unequivocally burned-out on running the magazine. Still love it dearly, and I’m damn proud of what’s been accomplished, but razbliuto has been lurking in the shadows for ages, which means it’s time for a respite. A real respite, not the myriad attempts I’ve made over the past year that were invariably thwarted. Aside from the regular columns – which are an absolute pleasure to deal with – and occasional contributions from The Usual Suspects, Paraphilia is taking a backseat to my own creative work for the better part of the year. I’ve always been painfully aware of elapsing time, and recently had a major epiphany about how much I still want to do beyond Paraphilia, which has been eating a significant chunk of my time and energy for five years now. In fact, it’s one of the primary reasons it took so long to complete the book. Lest anyone misinterpret, the magazine isn’t going anywhere, the level of activity is merely subsiding for a while. Besides, between the back issues and Periodical, there are 5000 pages of material, more than most people could get through in several years. I encourage anyone who hasn’t done so already to dive headfirst into the archives, which are brimming with phenomenal work: http://www.paraphiliamagazine.com/magazine.html

Is there anything (music, films, books, etc.) that you are really grooving to right now?

DM: I’ve been watching an insane amount of television lately, after not watching any for five years. Blowing through entire series in just days – Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, American Horror Story, Steven Van Zandt’s latest gig Lilyhammer – I can’t even remember them all. That’s where some of the best writing and characters are these days, on TV. I still watch plenty of films as well, mostly foreign, independent, and documentaries. I’m presently reading artist/writer extraordinaire and Paraphilia columnist Malcolm McNeill’s book Observed While Falling, which I’m enjoying immensely. On the music front, as of the time of this interview, I’m soaking in some soundtracks from John Cale and the latest Foetus masterpiece Soak.


Playing Chicken With Thanatos
by Dire McCain


Looking for a copy? Check out some online sources - Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.uk. Or you can ask your local bookstore to get one for you!