“I really enjoy the horrible,” muses T Kira Madden, wedged neatly into the corner of a worn crimson leather couch at Milk & Roses, a snug book-lined café in Greenpoint, Brooklyn that could quite accurately be called her second home. “I don’t really feel things when I read about a sunny day and a mimosa.” These words seem almost laughably incongruous coming out of Madden’s mouth at first—her soft-spoken, tranquil outward demeanor belies her fascination with the dark and twisted. The hands folded in her lap are adorned with various rings and probably the most original manicure I’ve ever laid eyes on, complete with gold leaf, paisleys and raised polka dots. Carefully placed tattoos, ranging from a meticulous sketch of Billie Holiday’s face to the French phrase le mot juste, wind up her arms. Despite her penchant for personal decoration and her ever-changing hair color (this month she sports a rich magenta hue), nothing about Madden’s appearance is garish. She is utterly poised, with a delicate and even slightly guarded nature.
When she first began publishing her short fiction, Madden used the pseudonym of Vesper T. Woods to write about the kind of “terrible, uncomfortable” matter that “makes people want to throw [the book] across the room,” but for now she is “just me, but [Vesper and I] still hang out.” At the moment, the dark wooden walls of Milk & Roses are hung with a series of Madden’s own black-and-white photographs, left over from her recent photo show and fiction reading. Madden toys with double exposures and mirror images, often using expired film or intentionally stressing her negatives to achieve raw, haunting images that capture the truth of their subjects.
Madden, who dabbles in magic and owns eighteen typewriters, aims “…to give people a nightmare. Hopefully a nightmare in which you laugh. I want to be Hitchcock meets Beckett, just absurd and terrifying but with some humor, because I feel like that is what life is.”
GRAHAM: Can you tell me a bit about your beginnings in the fashion world?
TKM: I wanted to do fashion, and I loved it, and I think it’s unfortunate that people don’t take it as seriously as a medium, especially in the literary world. I think that fashion is seen as this kind of ditzy thing and people completely disregard the craft of it. And it is such a craft; I have the highest respect for it in the world. I’m starting this journal called No Tokens, I think I told you about it—but it’s a literary magazine and it’s going to have fashion in it. I think it’s so important for people to respect fashion as a craft, because we all use it, we all appreciate it, obviously, and it’s really a shame, I think. Everybody uses it; you don’t see people walking around naked. When you talk about self-expression, you have expression in literature and art and film and photography, and the number one form of expression is the way we dress ourselves every day. That’s how we enter the world every day. That’s why I think it’s bullshit when people kind of throw it away.
GRAHAM: So how did you make the transition from wanting to be a fashion designer to wanting to be a fiction writer?
TKM: I was interested in self-expression, and I still am—and the human condition; how we come off to the world, how we are to ourselves, and I fell in love with the craft, I think it’s beautiful, I think it takes so much skill, and I worked with the most incredible people—I worked with Zac Posen, who is the greatest artist in the world. It was just the business aspect of it that was really hard for me. My family is in the fashion business, and I’ve been around it my whole life, and I realized that this wasn’t the world for me. I would be more interested in just making things all day and handing them out to people than having to do the PR and marketing of it. I just didn’t fit into the business world of fashion. There’s a narrative of fashion that I was really interested in. From head to toe, there’s a narrative that’s being told, whether it’s by a seam or a collar or a silhouette—and I just took the theme of narrative and wondered how else I could apply it in my life. I feel like fashion and writing, especially, are so closely linked in the narrative of human condition, of human nature.
GRAHAM: When did you start writing?
TKM: I was always writing, but I wasn’t very good. I wrote weird stories when I was a kid, and I wrote in a journal, but I didn’t take it seriously. And I do, in many ways, think that writing in a journal is very different for me than my actual writing, than fiction—I don’t think it’s the same at all. I always wrote in journals.
GRAHAM: Do you keep a journal now?
TKM: Not really. I have little notebooks, and I’ll write down notes, but it’s all really for my fiction, I’m not that interested in “the self” anymore, especially with writing. I think journaling is completely different from fiction, and I don’t want my own journaling or my own life to have anything to do with my fiction at all. It wasn’t until about six years ago that I started taking a class at Gotham, when I was in fashion school at Parsons, and I fell in love with the craft, I fell in love with the stories, I didn’t know that short story form was really possible until I started reading it. I had the greatest teacher, Anne-E. Wood, and my whole world kind of blew open. Then I petitioned at Parsons to study Russian Literature, and so I began studying Russian Literature at Eugene Lang, doing a double major. Then I petitioned to do a thesis on literature, and it slowly became my life. Hemingway has a quote… It’s essentially that there’s no going back, that once the reading and writing devour you, there’s no going back to any other life. I fell so deeply with writing and the challenge of it, and then I applied to graduate school on a whim, and I got in, and I told my family I would no longer be taking over their company, and I went to graduate school for fiction. And that’s all I’ve been doing since.
GRAHAM: How did your family take it?
TKM: They were supportive. It doesn’t sound good to say, you know, I’m going to give up this million-dollar dream of fashion that I’ve been doing my entire life to become a novelist, or to teach in a jail, but… they thought I was a little crazy, but they realized how happy I was. You know, I was really good at fashion, but because I was so good at it, I thought it was what I was supposed to be doing—which was not true, because I was just bored. Writing is so difficult for me, and sometimes I’m so depressed, because I think it will never get easier, and I really don’t think it will ever get easier. But that’s what keeps me interested and what keeps me coming back every day. Maybe that’s why so many of us [writers] kill ourselves. It never really gets easier. Every time I go back to the page, I just wonder if that thing will be there again.
GRAHAM: What thing?
TKM: The magical thing that makes us write. It’s not like you’re rehearsing lines and then you put them down on a piece of paper, it’s these thoughts and these sentences and these pulses and rhythms just happen. It’s like a meditation for me, it’s hard to pick up where it comes from or how you got to a certain place, but every time you wonder if it’s ever going to be there again, if you’ll ever be able to write again—and every time I feel like it’s the first time writing. It doesn’t get easier, no matter how many years I’m in classes, no matter how many years I teach, or workshop, or am published, it’s still… every story is a new challenge and new voices.
GRAHAM: Do you write every day?
GRAHAM: How often do you write?
TKM: I like to write in long sittings. So I feel like when I have a good day of writing, I can sit from six to ten hours writing nonstop. But then I’ll go two weeks without writing a word. I do best in long sittings, and they’re sporadic. I try to at least write down a few observations every day in a notebook, or at least a few observations that come to me when I’m brushing my teeth, or just on the subway, or I’ll overhear things… I’m working on a story right now based on things I overheard on a subway ride from Harlem to Williamsburg. Just the way the conversations shift through the commute from Upper Harlem to Brooklyn, how different people will talk about the same subjects in very, very kind of horrifyingly different ways. So it’s just been an exercise in listening. I’m always trying to listen and write down things I hear, because I only have one voice that is my own, so I have to listen to other people’s voices to use them in fiction, or they’re all going to sound like me, and no one wants to read that, so… I think listening is the most important part of me. I would give up my eyesight before I would give up my ears.
GRAHAM: What was your experience like teaching in jail?
TKM: I taught in jail for two years, and it was one of the greatest, greatest… it’s hard to put into words how special that was for me. I met some of the greatest people of my whole life, they taught me so much about the world and myself, and life… and they are so talented, more talented than most people in the world. They have so much to say, and they’ve just never been allowed to say those things. I don’t feel like I was a teacher, I feel like I just gave them reading, I gave them texts and exercises to help them open up to what it was they wanted to say and how they wanted to say it. And I think I was successful in that, because their drawings and their stories and their recordings and poems were so amazing—and it’s a shame I couldn’t photograph them in jail, because sometimes I forget what their faces look like… but I can still hear all of them. There are so many wonderful faces… tattoos… hands… same with the homeless shelter, some of the most beautiful and the saddest faces. I wish I could photograph everyone in the jail and the homeless shelter; that would be my dream. Jail was great; security could be difficult… Correctional officers can be very difficult… they’ll probably fine me for saying that… but once we got into class and got our rhythm going, it was just a blast. I wish we had more time for it, but… I miss them very much. I wish I could talk to them every day, but we’re not allowed to keep in touch. I wonder about them every day, and their kids… the first year I did a program where we had mothers record their voices reading bedtime stories or stories they had written for their children, and we would send the recordings and the text to their children in foster care, or outside. It’s really cool to feel like you’re helping the mother with their literacy as well as children learning to read and write, hearing your mother’s voice telling a story… I can’t imagine not having that growing up.
GRAHAM: You’re a writer and a photographer. What do you get from each medium, and how are they different for you?
TKM: I enjoy photography much more, but it’s not as important to me as writing. Writing is everything to me, far more important and meaningful to me… I feel like it’s my life, but it’s not enjoyable at all. It’s complete torture, it’s like you’re going through a slaughter every day, to sit in really ugly pajamas and be tortured by voices in your head and situations that no human actually wants to go through. I have the freedom in writing to make mistakes that I don’t make in real life, or to act on impulses that I don’t act on in real life. So I go through situations that are really uncomfortable and not fun, and I think that a lot of my stories make people uncomfortable reading them—and I feel like if they do, I’m successful in them. That is the aim, to give people a nightmare, I guess. Hopefully a nightmare in which you laugh. I want to be Hitchcock meets Beckett, just absurd and terrifying but with some humor, because I feel like that is what life is. But going through these situations and meeting the people in my stories that I don’t necessarily want to engage with is complete torture, and very hard, and it becomes real when you’re experiencing it through writing it. With photography, I just like to have fun. I think it’s my subjects that don’t have fun, but I have a lot of fun. Because they’re people that I love.
GRAHAM: Do you only photograph people that you know?
TKM: Yes, I do. I’m thinking of trying something new, but as of now I only take portraits of people that I know very well, because right now at least, my photography is about getting the true person. And I don’t feel like I can get a true person of someone that I don’t know, someone I’ve just met. The people that I know well, I can say, “Here’s what I see when I look at you.” And if I can get someone else to see that too, then I’ve been successful with it. Or if the subject can look at the photograph and say, “You got me, even if I don’t look beautiful, or if I’m wearing an ugly outfit, or if I’m not wearing makeup, or if I’m naked, you got something about me, whether it’s an insecurity or a look or a moment that’s true to myself.”
GRAHAM: So you’re trying to capture a reality in your photography—a vision or portrait of these actual people, whereas it seems as if your writing veers towards the opposite end of the spectrum, being more fantastical. Do you draw from real-life experiences in your writing, or do you try to remove it from all reality?
TKM: I play with fantastic story elements in writing, and I play with the fantastic in the form itself. I think all art is a version of yourself, I don’t think anything is really true to my life but everything is actually true to my life in a way, because they’re voices that I’ve experienced, or a look that I’ve experienced, or people… I do not have a Kira Madden character, I would not be interested in something like that, but in a way they all are; they’re all imprints of some aspect of me, the ugly and the beautiful. But yeah, I add a fantastic element here and there, which is really fun for me, because I don’t think we should be constrained to just write about… dinner. You know, you have the minimalists; Carver and Hemingway and everyone who can just write about dinner and it’s so striking it’ll bring you to tears, but I can’t do that, so I like writing about fantastic worlds and real people in them, and how they navigate their way through fantastic challenges and seascapes and… anything. I just try to put my characters through hell and see what they do, see what’s at the bone of them, because if they’re having a good time at the shopping mall, it’s not going to be so fun for anyone, it’s just going to be boring. So I like to put them through the wringer, which again puts myself through the wringer, trying to think about what humans do, but I throw some obstacles at them, and then I see what the truth is to how they will behave or misbehave; what they’ll say.
GRAHAM: How do you get your ideas for stories?
TKM: Mostly things are overheard, and I really like using news articles, because again I’m into the voiceless. That’s why I like teaching the voiceless. In news articles, you get a very flat version of a story, and you never get to hear those people talk, they never get to explain themselves. So I’m interested in taking something like that and saying, well, what’s the motive behind that? What would they say, how would they explain themselves? I feel like everyone should have an opportunity to speak for themselves, and that’s why I like taking a flat news article and exploring why and who and what and when.
GRAHAM: Do you draw characters from news articles?
TKM: Oh, yeah. I try to think about the voice behind it, I try to think about what happened before it, what happened after the event. The novel I’m working on now is from a news article about two children living on an abandoned bus in Splendora, Texas. And I chose not to read much about it, because I wanted to come up with my conclusions and own story behind it. Their mother was in jail, I think their father was too, and they had this mysterious aunt who I guess was feeding them at night, but not taking the children in or doing anything about it. I kept thinking, what is that aunt’s story, why would she not take care of these children? I can’t say that this person is evil, because I don’t know them—so I just kept thinking, “Who is she?” And that’s when I started writing. That was the catalyst: Who is this aunt; who are these children; who is the mother; who is the bus, really? The bus has been fun to write as a character. I used a town that I know well; Seven Devils, North Carolina, which is very mysterious and strange to me. I spent a lot of time growing up there, when I used to ride horses, and I know it well, but it’s got a very mysterious history. So my version of the story takes place there, and it all comes from questions of who, really, are the seven devils of this town—because there are lots of myths and stories about it—and how do those people filter into the children in the school bus; how did they end up there and why. I think all stories should start out with questions.
GRAHAM: Is this the first novel you’ve written?
TKM: No. No, it’s my third or fourth attempt at a novel. I spent all of last year writing a novel that I’ve now put on ice for a while. I’m not ready to write that novel. I love the characters and I’ve had some really good stories come out of it, and I still think about them and I miss them, but that novel from before was following classic sonata form in music—I was trying to write so that the text would be true to sonata form in sheet music. I realized that I could not become an expert on sonata form in a year and do it any justice. So until I have the time to do that, I’m not ready to write that novel.
GRAHAM: You use a lot of double exposures and mirror images in your photographs. What interests you about the double image?
TKM: I can be proven wrong; I think I have been, but I think it’s really difficult to get the truth of a person or of the self in one frame, and I think it’s probably impossible to get it in two or four or six or eight frames, but I feel like I’m closer the more images that I get, the more facial expressions and positions I can get, and I’m able to play with duality in a different way when I can use two frames. I can have someone who’s just woken up and then have them in full makeup at night, and that is true to that person—in some ways Marissa Lee is a little girl, and in other ways she is a fully vivacious party animal. So I just think about the person, and if it works, if there are two distinct versions of them that I can identify, that I want to capture, I’ll use the double exposure. And I also just love the physicality of it; having someone’s hands resting on their own shoulders, or having someone pushing themselves off a balcony, or to have someone, you know, in bed and then rising from it, I can do some things with time that I wouldn’t be able to do with just one frame. I can get the motion and the action, the actual movement or time of it, which feels true to some people. And it’s just really fun to see the results, to see these ghost images of people, to see if I got it or if I didn’t. I have one of you that I haven’t shown you yet where it looks like you’re looking up your own skirt.
GRAHAM: [LAUGHS] Really? I want to see it!
TKM: Yeah, I always feel like I get to play tricks on people when I do it, because I’m framing it in a specific way that they can’t see, and then it comes out and it looks like they’re doing naughty things. It’s fun trying to make people laugh too, because I just give them an absurd demand, like “Do a jumping jack and put your fist in your mouth.” Which I don’t want, but they just stop and laugh really hard, so that’s how I get the laugh. Because you can’t just tell people to laugh. “Stick both fingers up your nose. You’ll look beautiful.” Or I tell people, “Show me your tonsils.” And they start laughing, because it makes them so uncomfortable.
GRAHAM: What would you most like to capture in your photographs?
TKM: Just a better understanding of the people, whether it’s more viewers understanding that person, or the actual person understanding themselves, which has happened a few times, where people say, “Wow, that’s a side of me that I didn’t know, or that I haven’t seen.” I really like when the actual subject is pleased of it, again, even if they look ugly. I find that when I take nudes, I tend to get less posed results, I get them looking scared or uncomfortable, and I don’t think they’re sexy, I don’t think they’re gorgeous, I just like for the people to feel good about themselves, or see something in themselves. And for people I don’t know, viewers, to understand these wonderful people more. Because I love them all, I love the people I photograph. It’s like fiction. I want to bring these people to life so that others will appreciate them.
GRAHAM: What would you most like to capture in writing?
TKM: To bring people to life, to… for everyone to see a part of themselves in the writing. Writing is almost like a portrait for everyone. I hope every person can see a version of themselves in a piece of literature or writing, because I certainly do—the good writing. All writing should be almost a portrait of everyone… that sounds a little broad, but you should see yourself. It’s much more difficult, because you have to cover a lot of ground there. To get the familiar, to get people feeling really uncomfortable is always a goal… to devastate, to make people want to throw it across the room. I just never really want to write a joy ride. I really enjoy the horrible. Because those are the things we ignore in life. We do our best to ignore the things we feel shameful of, the things that are horrible and terrible, the fucked-up dreams we might have, that we would never admit to anyone. We ignore it, we don’t talk about it, we ignore things that we’ve done. Terrible things we’ve done as children, in many cases… people are so cruel when they’re children. We ignore those things, and we don’t talk about them, and I’d like to expose all of us in writing, because that’s what gets me, when I read and I feel, “Oh, I’ve done that,” or “I’ve felt that way, and I’ve never called myself out on it, and now someone else is, and they’re pointing their finger directly at me through the pages.” That’s what makes me want to throw a book, and that’s what makes me feel something. I don’t really feel things when I read about a sunny day and a mimosa.
GRAHAM: Who is Vesper T. Woods?
TKM: I feel like I should just change this answer every time. Vesper T. Woods and I are trying to work things out, but he’s a real jerk sometimes. He was a love letter. Vesper T. Woods was a love letter for someone I cared deeply about. “Vesper” translates to “evening” in Latin, and I used to only write at night, so evening was accurate for this other person that would take over and start writing these terrible things. The “T” is for myself, and that’s all I’ll say. It became this other place to go, and this alter ego… this pain-in-the-ass self that would antagonize me, that I found fun. I’m so interested in identity, I think it’s fun to try to balance two different identities. At first it was for security… I didn’t want people knowing who I was when I first published, because my family was in the news a lot at the time, and I didn’t want any more attention. It became this alter ego and a very strong love/hate relationship. I don’t know, we play together, we do magic together sometimes. Now I’m just me, but we still hang out.
GRAHAM: What inspires you?
TKM: The thing that inspires me the most of any art form is film, and that’s eventually what I want to do, because it’s the perfect combination of my love for visual art—photography and fashion—and storytelling. I think it’s the only way I’ll ever be happy, because I always feel like I’m not getting enough of the other. So film is probably my favorite. I usually find myself thinking about Hitchcock and Beckett more than anyone else. And Harold Houdini. I love magic. I’m a magician myself. I took magic classes for a very long time, and I love magic. But the art of escape—I mean, I love Harold Houdini. And Hitchcock. Talk about nightmares. Peter Sellers. I want to be Peter Sellers. No one knew who Peter Sellers was; no one cared. He was everyone, and everything was a performance, every interview he ever did. That’s dedication. And he was really damn good at it. I love watching Peter Sellers, I could watch him forever. Nabokov is one of my favorite writers, because he has that really horrible humor too. That’s also why I love all the Russians. And, um… stracciatella. Stracciatella and burrata. Good food is the closest I have to a spiritual experience. I like Kubrick… but I think mainly at this point in my life I find myself thinking about Hitchcock and Beckett, wanting that. All of that. They had it going on, they really just got it. Beckett really understands humans; he’s really painful for me to read. Even the mime work, in Act Without Words, it breaks my heart. When the mimes can’t get the box, it’s really sad. Krapp’s Last Tape is my favorite piece of writing in the whole world. I’ve been on a Hitchcock bender where I’ve been trying to watch every single one of his films lately. Cecil B. DeMille. And Rita Hayworth’s face.