Playing with Fire :: Daniel Allen Cox on ’Krakow Melt’
Radek is a young gay man living in post-communist Poland in Daniel Allen Cox’s new novel, Krakow Melt, slated for publication later this month from Arsenal Pulp Press (which also published Cox’s well-received first novel, Shuck, a 2009 Lambda Literary Award nominee).
But the freedom that the long-oppressed Poles have gained following the fall of the Soviet Union doesn’t necessarily extend to gays, who are stigmatized and even subjected to brutality; for Radek, freedom is still a dream to be pursued.
His chief avenue of chasing after liberation and self-expression? Fire. Radek creates miniature models of cities that have been destroyed by great historical fires, paying close attention to period-specific details of urban layout and architecture. He also rigs his models to burn in a manner that more or less approximates the historical conflagrations that destroyed those cities. To Radek, his fiery re-enactments are Art with a capital A: they provide catharsis and provocation.
Radek’s other art form is parkour, a kind of street athleticism with origins in France. Parkour practitioners leap over, under, and through barriers; they leap great chasms and plunge great distances, all at full tilt and without acute injury. If fire cleanses his rage, parkour embodies his yearning for freedom.
When Radek meets a kindred spirit in Dorota, a student who’s not afraid to match wits with him or explore a sexual connection with a gay man, sparks of another sort fly; slowly, their smoldering passion builds toward an inevitable combustion, even as the city around them starts to sizzle with hysterical grief due to the recent death of Pope John Paul II.
Daniel Allen Cox chatted with EDGE recently about his own brush with fire, as well as his earlier career as a male model (a stint that informed his first novel, Shuck) and his love of the Polish language--especially as it relates to food.
EDGE: Your new novel, Krakow Melt, takes on homophobia in Poland, but it’s also a love story between a gay man and a straight girl. What brought you to that particular mix?
Daniel Allen Cox: These types of transgressive relationships happen all the time, but they don’t get much cultural airplay. Radek and Dorota are quite comfortable straying from expected behavior vis-a-vis their sexual preferences. I think it’s cool that they’re not afraid to openly have a relationship that’s not wholly accepted, by straights and gays alike.
EDGE: So, are you saying that there’s a whole palette of sexual experience that awaits those who venture beyond labels? OR do you mean that bisexuality is more commonplace that either straights or gays like to give credence for?
Daniel Allen Cox: I believe both are true. Personally, I’ve found greater sexual freedom in describing myself as bisexual. I’m still gay, of course. These terms aren’t mutually exclusive. And as long as we don’t feel pressured to allot percentages to these attractions, there will be a greater variety of orgasms at our disposal.
One of the reasons why bisexual erasure happens is that some people are stuck on the impossibility of a precise 50/50 split, even though that split is hardly required for wanting sex with people of different genders. Our bodies are beautifully imprecise, and horribly unmathematical. At least mine is.
EDGE: Radek, your gay main character, is fascinated by fire, which is a great image for this book, given the way fire and gays are casually linked ("flaming" gays, for example). What other meanings does that element hold for the book, and for you personally?
Daniel Allen Cox: Interesting. I hadn’t thought about the "flaming" connection.
I never would have written Krakow Melt if my apartment building hadn’t burned down in 2007, while I was writing my previous novel, Shuck. The day of the fire, a building inspector gave us ten minutes to pack up our stuff and evacuate, because they found a crack in the brick wall and were worried about a collapse. Our friends turned out en masse to help. I didn’t know what physical belongings were important to me until I found myself throwing things in boxes. Among the few items I salvaged that day was a scrapbook of New York City, a city I love as much as Krakow.
My partner Mark and our roommate both woke up in the smoke and escaped. Mark was a hero and rescued our cat. It’s amazing to be homeless with your lover, especially when there are beautiful friends and family who come to your rescue, take you in, help you move and build a new life, and offer months of emotional and logistical support. I mean, really. It was definitely one of the best experiences of my life. Ever since that day, I haven’t been able to get the smell of smoke out of my nose.
On a different note, it was surreal for me to read about Warsaw Europride this year, the first time the parade has ever been held behind the former "Iron Curtain," especially since some protestors were launching fire rockets at the marchers.
EDGE: What led to that creative connection in your mind to link the themes of loss that your own experience with fire gave you familiarity with to a setting in Poland, where (if I’m not mistaken) you lived for a time?
Daniel Allen Cox: Yes, I lived in Poland for a year and traveled it extensively by train, getting to know Poznan, Krakow, Warsaw and Gdansk, the latter where I made excellent use of the nude beaches at the Baltic Sea.
After losing my home in 2007 as I explained a bit above--though more to smoke and firefighter damage than to actual fire--I began to discover fire’s regenerative power. It forces you to prioritize and reprioritize everything in your life, from physical objects to relationships. In this way, the fire helped me grow. The characters in Krakow Melt also feel that fire is regenerative; they use it to imagine the reconstruction of a system that they consider harmful to them. Fire’s just such a catalyst for change.
But you’re looking for the exact moment when the spark occurred, when I made that creative connection? I can tell you. It was two weeks after the fire, and I was moved to make a scrapbook for my partner called A Fire Book For Survivors, to commemorate our fire, and the fact that he escaped a burning building. As I started creating a collage out of text and images, I realized in shock that I was working on the outline of a novel. It was a thrilling moment. I even remember the exact position I was lying on a sofa-bed when it occurred to me.
Note to self: make more scrapbooks.
EDGE: You’ve chosen to set Krakow Melt right at the time of Pope John Paul II’s death, which makes sense because he was a Pole and he was a great national hero in Poland. John Paul II was also something of a hard-liner against gays, and Krakow Melt suggests that his attitude toward gays inflames anti-gay sentiment in Poland. Would a more GLBT-friendly pope soften anti-gay sentiment in Poland?
Daniel Allen Cox: I was living in Poland when the Polish pope died, and witnessed the most incredible outpouring of human expression I’ve ever seen. During my time traveling in the country and learning about its history, I observed a great irony: Poland is both a human rights leader and a stick in the mud. Pope John Paul II was a key figure in the Solidarity Movement that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and expanded human rights for millions. So how can the Vatican be so violently opposed to basic human rights for GLBT people? It’s a double standard for the ages. Cracks will grow in it, and people will spill through.
But I doubt this progress will involve current or future popes. As long as you have someone issuing moral edicts based on a book that not everyone reads or follows-and as long as governments enforce them-there’s going to be oppression.
To answer your question, yes, a more gay-friendly pope would soften anti-gay sentiment, but so would no pope at all.
EDGE: Another big part of Krakow Melt is Radek’s obsession with Pink Floyd and his love of parkour. Both of those things feel right for the character: Pink Floyd speaks to his mood, and parkour to his yearning for freedom (it is, after all, an expression of physical liberation). Or have I got your intent as to those elements wrong?
Daniel Allen Cox: There may be those elements, and definitely personal reasons as well. I wrote the first draft of the novel almost exclusively while listening to LPs of the Pink Floyd. I guess I was mourning the fact I’d never get to see them in concert again. I saw the Pink Floyd on May 23, 1994 at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, with 62,688 other fans. It was a night that altered me permanently. Interesting how some of my most intimate moments are so public...
What’s neat about Parkour is that it helped me visualize Krakow once more, to remember a city that grew on me. You know, I’ll have to go back there really soon.
EDGE: You’ve been an actor in adult films. Was your film career another creative outlet, like writing? Is adult filmmaking something you approached as an artist?
Daniel Allen Cox: I did more nude photo shoots than film appearances, and I definitely approached them with a creative bent. It has been a privilege to work with such legendary photographers as Stanley Stellar, Reed Massengill, and Richard Kern: they’ve built a new creative landscape out of the body, and I was lucky to be a part of that. They all encouraged me to get crazy in front of the camera, and to run with ideas. I urge your readers to investigate their work and buy their books.
EDGE: What’s the hardest part about taking your clothes off for the camera? And: are the challenges of putting yourself before the public eye as a model similar to those that come with putting yourself out there as a writer?
Daniel Allen Cox: I don’t get to take my clothes off for the camera as often as I’d like to anymore, but the hardest part was the actual physical removal of clothing, if you believe it or not. I’m a terrible stripper, and once got booed off a stage.
I see revealing my naked body and revealing myself through writing as slightly different animals. In writing, what I disclose about myself, however indirectly, is more visible to me. On the other hand, it can take me years to recognize my vulnerability in a given photograph, until someone points it out to me, or until something reminds me of how I was feeling the day it was taken.
EDGE: The way you write Krakow Melt, with its informal narration and its excursions into the Polish language, is intriguing. How did you come to adopt this style?
Daniel Allen Cox: I’ve always written in a fragmentary style, and it probably has to do with the type of books I like to read. It’s always a treat when a reader writes to me and says that they usually can’t finish novels because of ADD or other reasons, but were able to finish mine. I don’t think I have ADD or ADHD, but I’ve always had difficulty concentrating when reading. Over the years, I’ve been training myself to read longer books written in more challenging styles. It seems to be working.
As for the Polish language content in Krakow Melt, it’s an atmosphere thing. When writing the novel, I sometimes used Polish words because they sounded better rythymically in the sentence than their English counterparts did. Other times, it was useful for making the too-obvious more vague, or to twist clichés into something original. And of course, Polish food sounds better in Polish. Yum. My rudimentary knowledge of the language is mainly restricted to food, so that’s why some parts of the novel read like a menu...
EDGE: What are you thinking of in terms of your next novel?
Daniel Allen Cox: As a matter of fact, I’m going hiking on Vancouver Island’s Juan de Fuca trail this month to work on that very question.