Balling Hard in Different Aspect Ratios: HEIKO JULIEN in conversation with Rob Williams
I Am Ready to Die a Violent Death
(Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2013)
In his debut collection of stories and poems, I Am Ready to Die a Violent Death, mercurial author/Internet meme Heiko Julien muses about everything from the flavor of porcelain (one of his favorites) to the state of the American dream in the 21st century (“I am an American and my truck was built by God”). For Julien, an enigmatic 28-year-old writer from Chicago—and a prolific social-media presence—the world is a mysterious and beautiful place, even if we spend most of our time sequestered behind computer screens. His writing captures the splintered, often scattered feeling of conversing online, while striving to break free in search of Something More. He “robo-trips” on cough syrup at a mall and gets maudlin about a slowly congealing burrito in the food court. Later, he takes a more conventional trip to Indiana with “Amanda Bynes,” only to get rebuffed by her boyfriend, “Matt Damon,” and spend the night taking Adderall and chain-smoking in the park. Julien’s métier is sage, pithy quips: “There’s no reason for tigers to be beautiful, they just are,” and “When your computer dies, you’re supposed to eat it.” But he also challenges the reader to go beyond their own preconceptions about the world: “If you confuse reality with your perception of reality—wow—you’re really screwed up and I don’t want to know you,” and, my favorite, “Heads up, dipshit: A bowl of Cheerios is just hard bread circles in milk.” Recently, we talked about millennials, rap music, and the power of anonymity in the Internet age.
Rob Williams (Rail): The first time I encountered your writing was last winter at the Franklin Park Reading Series in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. There was a twentysomething girl sitting near me wearing a T-shirt that said in block letters, “I AM READY TO DIE A VIOLENT DEATH.” It wasn’t until you came up to the stage that I realized it was the name of your book. It’s a provocative title. Is it inspired by the Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die? That’s what came to mind as I was reading that girl’s T-shirt.
Heiko Julien: Yeah, that’s basically it. It’s a Rorschach title in the sense that if you feel like shit, you imagine that the author wants to kill himself, and if you’re a True Gangsta, you know it means being prepared for battle—and that it was probably inspired by Biggie.
Rail: Your writing has been described by postmodernist author Mark Leyner as “prose that actually feels like the 21st century.” That’s a perfect description. To me, the short, fragmentary prose pieces and poetry evoke the feeling of being online … while yearning for more. Reading your book is a bit like chatting with a friend on Facebook or gchat, but much more artful, poignant, funny, and thought provoking. How would you describe your style?
Julien: “Online” and “yearning,” yeah. Both of those. That was more or less where I was at when I wrote all of this shit. It certainly isn’t literary in a formal sense, or a traditional sense, or maybe even, like, at all. I take that back though, there are short stories.
Basically what I was doing was having a lot of fun being inspired by semi-anonymity on social media and saying whatever I felt like saying. Can’t do that in real life. Apparently it isn’t all that acceptable online either. But I blocked both of my parents and it’s all good now.
Rail: I was born in 1980, which puts me in limbo between Gen X and millennial. When I was younger, I tended to think of any alleged differences between generations as arbitrary. But as I’ve gotten older and the Internet has taken over more and more completely, I’ve started thinking perhaps there are substantive differences between generations now—that the Internet, smartphones, etc., have changed the way people’s brains work. You were born in 1986, which puts you squarely in millennial territory. How do you feel about “millennial” as a category—in general and as it applies to you specifically?
Julien: Being a millennial seems pretty synonymous with being a piece of shit, as I understand it. Hit with the double whammy of being the test group for heavy Internet exposure and coming-of-age during a Great Recession, that’s enough to set anybody back. Permanent social, financial, and emotional damage has been done by Wi-Fi and The Free Market, resulting in a herd of over-mothered, utterly confused, destitute human beings whose only common point of reference is Nickelodeon cartoons from the mid-’90s. And maybe Clueless. I don’t exactly believe all of this, but it is certainly the argument I’m making right now. Truth be told, I think it’d be cool if I could graduate generations based on merit, and become a Gen-Xer, maybe even Baby Boomer eventually if I spent enough time sitting still and sighing or something.
Rail: Let’s talk about your relationship with social media. You’re very active on Facebook, with 5,000 or so “friends.” Most of your posts are funny, often ironically:
hey bro if u wanna get real “fucked up” why dont u get a JOB and work 8 hours a day?
Others are disarmingly straightforward and sincere:
If you spend all day thinking about what you don’t like, criticizing others, and complaining about the way things are, chances are nobody is going to say anything but real people wont fuck with you. If you don’t figure it out you’ll be moaning with the barflies forever whining about whatever in pain. A lot of people won’t. Isn't that tragic? You owe it to yourself and everyone around you to be a little cooler than that.
Still others are videos of you: waxing philosophical in the woods, prank-calling fast-food restaurants, even just sitting in a computer lab or lying on the couch watching Game of Thrones. Does your social media presence have a particular goal? Do you view it as an extension of your published work? To me, it seems analogous to the copious mixtape material rappers usually put out in between major label albums—which can be hit or miss, but is frequently some of their best work.
Julien: The only goal is for me to be able to have a small audience pay attention to and participate in anything I choose to present. So really it’s just whatever I feel like doing at the moment. I have to spend all the rest of my time making good decisions and taking care of myself and others, which at times can be exhausting and not very fun. It’s rewarding for me to be able to do whatever I want, virtually, and not have to explain or justify it. It’s just play and that seems healthy to me. Not everyone sees it that way. But I once saw a half-sleeve tattoo that read “Live Laugh Love” and I thought, “yeah.” So I’m going to keep going with that.
Rail: Speaking of your online persona, or perhaps just your persona in general, is “Heiko Julien” your real name? When I first heard it, I thought Heiko sounded Japanese, and since you’re white I assumed it was a pen name, but I looked it up and it’s actually German—“the diminutive of Heinrich.”
Julien: No, it isn’t my real name. The point is for it to be “other” than myself. A project, a brand, what have you. Heiko, as I understood it at the time, is a German name. It was my class name in German class in high school. Some people still call me that so I used it. Apparently it is also a Japanese woman’s name too. It means “Home Ruler.”
Rail: I mentioned the Notorious B.I.G. before. One of my favorite things about your writing is the way it draws on popular slang, especially hip-hop vernacular. You frequently reimagine or interpolate the lyrics to rap songs in unexpected ways. For instance, the infamous chorus to 50 Cent’s “In Da Club”—“You can find me in the club, bottle full of bub / Look, mami, I got the X if you’re into takin’ drugs / I’m into havin’ sex, I ain’t into makin’ love”—becomes the comically matter of fact, “Pull up at the club seeking emotional gratification from my desired peer group.” It feels like a critique, not just of popular music or culture, but of the masks we all wear in various places, including on social media, and—as writers—on the page. Or am I reading too much into it?
Julien: Probably. I just listen to a lot of rap music.
Rail: Let’s stick with that for a minute, because I’m also a fan. Is rap a big influence of yours? Who’s your favorite rapper—all-time and current? I can imagine you doing a pretty dope collaboration with Young Thug.
Julien: Well, yeah. It’s the best thing in the world. I think rap music is the only new thing to really happen on this planet in the past 25 – 30 years and I am prepared to back that statement up with facts and present an oral argument if necessary.
I don’t really have a favorite rapper because that wouldn’t be fair to the other rappers. I like the famous ones a lot. Kanye, Drake, et al. They’re generally better because they have more power, therefore their art has more influence and they probably feel better too, which empowers them to have cockier attitudes and more resources to brag about.
Rail: Internet memes are also a major theme in your work—creating them, perpetuating them, subverting them. I have to admit, memes don’t usually do much for me (although I do like that “Drake be like …” one). What’s interesting about them to you?
Julien: They’re really easy to understand and everyone gets them. You can communicate an idea almost instantly to a ton of people. I try to write the same way. Condense the message, maintain the meaning, make it as accessible as possible. People like that. I like it when people like things, especially when they are things I’ve made that I also like.
Rail: Subverting brands—like Nike, McDonald’s, Taco Bell—is another habit of yours. I mentioned your prank calls to major corporate fast-food chains already (“Called a Taco Bell and asked facetiously if I could rent out their kitchen facilities for a family reunion and they said yeah we could work something out and I was like ‘really’ and now I’m considering it.”). There’s also a chapter in your book called “I Do It,” which begins with an upside-down Nike symbol. This feels connected to your interest in memes, but I’m not totally sure how. Are memes like brands in some way? Where do people fit in? For instance, is “Heiko Julien” a meme or a brand—or both? Neither? Just a person? Are corporations/brands people?
Julien: Heiko is definitely a meme and a brand. Not a person, no. But brands don’t have to be soulless or whatever. I feel like that’s a really basic way to look at things. In this instance, the separation that someone might see as being “fake” allows me to have more freedom of expression, and to actually be genuine.
Are corporations people? I think they are, legally. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never met one.
Rail: You’ve posted various pictures of your book literally in the toilet. Did people send those to you? One caption says, “The haters have finally gone too far.” Let’s talk about “hating.” I will admit that when I saw that girl wearing the “I AM READY TO DIE A VIOLENT DEATH” T-shirt, my first reaction was annoyance—like, “She doesn’t mean that; what an obnoxious thing to claim.” It’s a testament to how good your writing is that after hearing you read that night, I immediately thought, “Man, that’s actually a great title.” It makes me wonder how much of your work is intended as provocation, temporarily or otherwise.
Julien: Yes, someone sent that to me. I have since put copies of my own books in the toilet as well. A good idea is a good idea.
As far as the title goes, it seems “edgier” to me over time than I really intended it to be or thought it was when I came up with it. Actually, I didn’t come up with it. My friend Stephen Tully Dierks did. He said it in reaction to a sparsely attended public reading he organized and I said, “that would be a great title for a book” and he offered it to me. Several cool T-shirts later, I am the millionaire playboy you see before you on your computer screen today. Living, laughing, loving it up in the 21st century. Oh yeah.
Rail: You recently wrote: “Never said I was a role model. R. Kelly is my hero and I make video selfies of me talking to myself in the woods after work.” Okay, so maybe you’re not a role model, but clearly a lot of people are interested in you. So in addition to those woods-based video selfies—many of which are great, by the way—what else are you working on? When can we expect your next book? Or are you going to be like one of those rappers who gives up rapping to start “acting”? It seems like your mind/creative impulses go in a lot of different directions at once—or maybe just in such rapid succession that it seems simultaneous to the rest of us!
Julien: I’m under contract to put another book out. I talked to my publisher yesterday and we decided on April 2015. It’s more of a proper novella. I’m trying to be Literary. Wish me luck. And thank you for saying all those nice things, that’s very kind of you.
Rail: You’re welcome. It’s all true! Last question: If I send you a picture of me, will you make a meme out of it? I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m being a dick. I really want one!
Julien: yah i’ll meme u bro let’s do it
Rob Williams’s writing has been published in the New York Daily News, Nerve, Thought Catalog, BULL Men’s Fiction, The Nervous Breakdown, and Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood. Find him online at itmustbebobby.com and on Twitter @itmustbebobby.