By his own account, Walt Cessna should probably be dead.
He’s lived several lives: he was a teenage publishing wunderkind, an underage club kid, a zinester, and a designer, stylist and darling of the fashion world. He styled Nine Inch Nails’ Downward Spiral Tour; he dated Mario Testino when he was 18 years old. He was a hustler in San Francisco, a photographer in New York. He’s battled addiction and has been living with HIV for year—facts about which he maintains a gleefully dark sense of humor. He’s been in multiple comas.
And yet here he is, sitting in Tompkins Square Park, about to publish his first collection of short stories, Fukt 2 Start With, a book that’s been in the works for the last 10 years. In it, Cessna, 43, chronicles the lives of street kids, hustlers, underage party girls, the beautiful and the damned of New York’s East Village circa 1989. He lifts up that glittery Party Monster rock and exposes the dirty, creepy things living beneath.
On a bench not far from his old stomping grounds, Cessna chatted with Queerty writer John Russell about club kids, turning tricks and rewriting history.
I was familiar with your photography, but I had no idea you were a writer as well.
That’s what I started out doing. I was writing before I was taking pictures. I started writing professionally when I was 17. I was writing for the original Details, for Annie Flanders and Stephen Saban. I had a column. I started working for The East Village Eye and I was working for another free publication, New York Talk. Then I became an editor at The Village Voice when I turned 18. I was working for Interview. I mean, I had a really major publishing career at an extremely young age. Working with major editors. I was writing for Vanity Fairbefore I was 25.
Is that around the time that you were writing the stories in Fukt 2 Start With?
Kind of, kind of not. A lot of those stories were inspired by my move to San Francisco, and what was going on at the tail end of the club-kida period, which was the Michael Alig era. And I worked with Michael. I worked as a fashion director at almost every club in the city between, like, 1987 and 1995, when I finally left. So a lot of the stories are basically about Disco 2000.
There’s a story in the book called “My Dinner with Michael” that’s very loosely based on Michael Alig and what he did, but it’s my weird fantasy version of it. And that’s the only story that actually almost got pulled from the book. He’s getting out of jail and his lawyers are trying to sell his book. But I fought for it and the story’s still in [my] book.
Click through for the rest of the interview with Walt Cessna. And check out our exclusive slideshow of Cessna’s sexually charged male photography.
I guess it’s because your photos are so sexually charged, but I was expecting the stories to be much more explicitly erotic.
A lot of the sex is uncomfortable and involves debauchery. And a lot of the sex involves the spread of disease and the trading of drug favors or trading of things to get another notch up on the social level. In “Children of the Rave,” one of the teenagers sleeps with the drug dealer because it’s a way to get into the club for free and it’s a way to get the kids high for that night.
So, no, there isn’t a lot of erotically charged stuff. There will be in the thing I’m writing now. But that’s because I’ve come out of this really supercharged five-year relationship that was the best sex I’ve ever had in my life!
You’re certainly not shy about exposing yourself in your photography. Does that translate to these stories? They feel autobiographical, a lot of them.
If you read the stories and you know me, you’ll see a lot of crossover from my life. It’s just too harsh for me to write about things directly directly. And really, it wasn’t until this year that I was comfortable with people knowing that I was a drug dealer. I mean people knew I worked as a prostitute and stuff, but the drug dealing was just something that I just wasn’t ready for my mom to have to know. And the thing with the blogging is that once stuff goes out there, it never goes away.
This sort of autobiographical fiction feels like it’s a way for the author to rewrite the past. Is that fair to say?
I kill a lot more people in my book than I ever got to in real life, let’s put it that way. (Laughs) There’s a lot of people I would have loved to kill in my raging moments, [but] instead I take it all out on them in the book. So, yeah, I’d say that’s very true. Well, I don’t know—If I was gonna rewrite things, I think there’d be more happy endings.
But are these stories a way to exert some control over a life that sounds like it was basically out of control?
There’s no denying that it was completely out of control. But I think I was fascinated by everything that was going on around me. I guess, through that entire period, the reason it never really affected me was because I was pretending it was all like a movie. And then when I was thrust out of it for several years, I was like, “That was demented, actually!”
Do you think blogs and things like Tumblr are this generation’s manifestation of the zine movement?
Kids doing blogs are like zines in themselves. If a kid’s blog is as individualized as it should be—really unique and he’s got a lot of really cool content and he creates content—you know, yeah, then it is like a zine. When I first got on Facebook, I approached it from a zine mentality. I looked at the Wall and I was like, “How do I make this cool and not be about social interaction, but still interact socially?”
So what I did was, I created different albums with different themes that people could relate to: my 80s archive; all the stuff I did with Stephen Sprouse; my styling career; my work with Richard Avedon. All these things I could show off about. Then I started to post content, like my short stories that I’d written 10 years ago. When I finished my book 10 years ago, I never tried to sell it. I threw it away! I hid it in my mother’s garage. I showed it to like three people. And it was putting it on Facebook that got me attention from people.
So what made you decide to publish it after so long?
This site called The New York Optimist started putting my stories up, and they got taken down because of it. And I was like, “Okay, that’s a good sign. I’m pushing people’s buttons still.” This was about three years ago. And then about two years ago, this publisher dude called me up one day and was like “Are you Walt Cessna? We’d like to publish your book.” And I was like, “I’ve had a really shitty week. I just broke up from a really major relationship. I tore a door off its hinges. I was in an alcoholic blackout that landed me in a coma that I just got out of seven days ago. So if this isn’t real, I’m gonna fuckin’ hunt you down and take your first-born child!” It all went from there. And I signed my life away for four years. But I figured nobody else was doing anything with it!
What do you mean you signed your life away?
My publishing company owns everything—my writing. Anything that I write goes through them. Like, if it’s me writing short stories or doing stuff that I do online with poetry and stuff—that’s my stuff. But if I write something for a magazine, or I’m asked to do something—like, I was writing for Blackbook for a little while—that would have to go through them. And also because we’re trying to heavily option the book. I know that somebody’s gonna want to take one of those stories—like Larry Clarke, Gus Van Sant—and make a movie. That’s where I’m aiming. That’s my genre. That’s my bible. That’s who I pay major homage to. So, I’m trying to tailor the whole thing, kind of in a JT Leroy way.
Lets talk a little bit about prostitution, which you admit you’ve done.
Now I think it’s taken for granted, because Rentboy makes it so easy. And so many kids I know—especially kids who model for me—are all hustlers. So many of the popular ones. So many boys hustle, and now it’s like second nature. It’s just an easy way, as an attractive gay boy, to make sure that you can afford the pretty things you need in life. There’s no underground thrill to it anymore.
Your stories make it seem really unappealing.
It is! If you’d ever done it you would know! I mean, the story about Lee and Levi, the two brothers who both have AIDS and fuck guys without condoms to get more money, and they’re not even thinking about spreading the disease—I wrote that right around the time when there was a lot of AIDS paranoia.
It was right around the time I first tested positive, I wrote that story. No, I hadn’t tested positive yet, but the kind of stuff I wanna write about is always dark. I mean, half the people in the book die, either by committing suicide or OD-ing or getting murdered! I’m not attracted to things that usually have a happy ending. My life experience has been that usually there isn’t a happy ending. Life only gets more fucked up. The sooner you realize that, you make it easier for yourself to digest it, the more enjoyable your life can actually be—when these things come at you they aren’t like meteorite surprises.
A lot of people talk about the way New York has changed over the past 20 years or so. How it was so much better in the 80s and 90s. But, reading your stories, it doesn’t really sound so great.
It’s not that things were so much better. There were just better drugs. And you could get into places before you were carded. Teenagers could still go to clubs. It was when people still mixed in places. Nobody mixes anymore, dude! My first club was the Mudd Club—when I was 14! You’d go in and there would be a Wall Street banker, a crazy girl from Avenue A, Jean Michel [Basquiat], Terry Toye, Stephen Sprouse, Steven Meisel. You know, all these people who became cultural icons of the 20th Century were just people you saw at the club mingling together.
You never went to a gay club. Maybe you went to a gay bar in the West Village when you were wanting to slum it and see what the leather crowd was doing. But major clubs, it was a mixture, and now it’s not a mixture anymore.
Speaking of a mixture, I was actually surprised how many of the stories in Fuct 2 Start With have compelling female protagonists. I don’t know why, but I went in thinking it would be all about gays.
People forget that when I started my photography, as a teenager, I mostly photographed girls. The whole sexy guy thing that has gotten me really popular online, that’s only since, like, 2007. I never did that stuff before. The reason so many of the characters are [female] is because almost all of them are based on a real girl from my life. I had all these amazing girl friends, from a very early age, who were my best friends. I didn’t really have gay guy friends until I moved to San Francisco when I turned 30.
Do you feel like things are sort of more segregated now? I mean, I know gay guys who barely have to interact with women at all.
Well, you didn’t have to identify so much as an outward gay person. If you were supporting ACT UP and doing militant things, then, yeah, you were. But I was never like “gay Walter.” It was always like, “It’s that Walter kid who’s putting out his magazine.” Or “It’s that Walter dude who works for Details.” I’ve always gotten by on my work. I’ve never had to identify as my sexuality. I’m very proud of my sexuality. I’ve always been very open about it. But the thing is, at the same time I don’t relate well to a lot of my gay brothers. I’m not part of whatever the scene is in New York right now. I don’t want anything to do with it. It bores me.
Would you call your stories cautionary tales? Is there a moral?
There’s no moral, but I hope that they entertain you. To show you how when you’re in the middle of all that insanity, how sickly entertaining it is and how twistedly brilliant it is. But the thing is, it can’t be maintained. There’s a moment, sure. But anybody who thinks that they can enter into that lifestyle and maintain it forever? They’re crazy.