Terence Sellers interviewed by Sanya Osha
Photographs courtesy of Sanya Osha
I chanced upon Terence Sellers’s work freely on the web. For several months, I was engrossed with devouring her salacious accounts of the downtown New York bohemian scene of the ’70s. Her writings are arch, measured, and seem studiously factual. They leave you with the impression of being there, seeing everything; vivid, graphic, uncensored. They also remain one of the most convincing portrayals of heroin addiction I have ever encountered.
Sellers dwells majorly on the delights and heartbreak of sadomasochism. Being a dominatrix—in other words, a purveyor and enforcer of the imperatives of BDSM—she knew that world intimately, and conveys its realities with considerable poise, flair, courage, and literary imagination. In her hands, the hitherto unknown demimonde lights up, kitted in enveloping furs, ornate emotions, and baroque materialities, including, of course, the prerequisite black leather. The universe Lou Reed rhapsodized about in his seedy tales of reckless psychological abandon, chemical experimentation, and infernal longing caught in slow motion suddenly becomes familiar, inviting, and infinitely endurable.
Equipped with a knowledge of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Charles Baudelaire, and Arthur Rimbaud, Sellers was not only accustomed to the discipline, rigors, and Manichaeism of BDSM, but also the dark literary arts. Likewise, she operated with considerable skill in a hermetically designed underworld meant only for initiates sworn to mystery and secrecy, the precepts of forbidden seduction, and unconscionable violations both physical and psychological.
I had planned to write a feature on her work and so I contacted her in 2013. We promptly commenced a series of interview sessions via email over a two-year span, and I ended up publishing an article in Gadfly Online about Sellers’s work. But I have long thought about the significance of these exchanges with her, in the original interview format, and their utterly revealing nature. At the time, Sellers was living in New Mexico, and working as a medical assistant catering to the aged and disabled. She had much to say on a wide range of issues and personalities that defined the New York creative milieu in the ’70s and ’80s. Her own personality is on full display as well; sometimes somewhat remote but also capable of heartbreaking intimacy; aware, frisky, alert, and conscious of her status of as an improbable grande dame of a quaint yet extremely influential literary culture. Genesis P-Orridge, the late frontperson of the industrial punk rock combo Throbbing Gristle, visited her dungeons of pain, shame, abjection, and pleasure. Sellers is also referenced alongside artists Jimmy DeSana, Anya Phillips, Carl Apfelschnitt, and writers such as Kathy Acker and Victor Bockris, most of whom were her friends or collaborators. Undoubtedly, it is necessary to have concerted evaluations of her literary accomplishments and this conversation should be seen as being part of that much-needed effort.
As mentioned, Sellers wrote not only about her private and professional worlds but also the larger-than-life personalities she knew all too well. Within the downtown NY scene, she was acquainted with anyone that mattered; paradigm-shifting photographers, artists, poets, publishers, johns, and incorrigible scenesters who daubed the scene with spice, aura, and spectacular color.
She crossed paths with William Burroughs, icon of Beat literature and junkie squalor, in rather rude circumstances she prefers not to remember but thankfully recounts. Her friend, the photographer, Jimmy DeSana, ditched her for Burroughs after they had both painstakingly worked on photographs depicting sadomasochism for her first novel, The Correct Sadist. Rene Ricard, the art critic, former Andy Warhol Factory habitué, and the inimitable poète maudit of the scene, was once her best friend until she ditched heroin.
And then the HIV/AIDS epidemic descended and cast an indelible pall; death occurred in unheard of numbers, irreplaceable characters were lost, once-in-a-lifetime talents vanished for good leaving the scene desiccated and horribly dystopian. Sellers captures the mood before devastation, the feeling of self-sufficiency, imaginative containment, and the subversive and ethical possibilities of an independently realized world. She represents that world with both creative restraint and rigor, chronicling its gradients with dispassion and a physician’s eye. In this interview, Sellers who passed in 2016 due to cancer-related illness, waxes about the pleasures and disappointments of writing, in addition to the enchantment and loss of a once magical world.
Sanya Osha: Was there—and does there continue to be—a concerted resistance to your work in certain literary circles?
Terence Sellers: I’m not currently aware of any resistance, nor affection, because I stopped trying to be published by conventional publishers after I put up my website, terencesellers.com, in 1998. I felt gratified to self-publish in that manner, as I had when I first self-published The Correct Sadist in 1982. At this point my newer work isn’t about sadomasochism anyhow, but I’ve lost interest in American publishing per se.
SO: Can you recount the story of your infamous encounter with William Burroughs?
TS: Johanna Fateman’s article in the February 2013 Apology magazine analyzes that moment in time, 1979, very well. Burroughs interfered with a collaboration between myself and the photographer Jimmy de Sana, prior to a first edition of The Correct Sadist. We didn’t have a publisher, and it seemed, at first, that Burroughs was going to write an introduction, which would have probably found us a mainstream publisher. But maybe not. Jimmy’s photos were very weird and my subject, sadomasochism, was then very unfashionable. But it was shocking that Burroughs thought he could tell the photographer, “I don’t want any other writing in the book,” and that I was dumped. In the end it was about me realizing I was too outré even for “bohemia.” In any event the intro he wrote for Jimmy’s book was pretty boring!
SO: What has been the overall impact of that conflict?
TS: Nothing, except as a literary footnote. I never even met the man until years and years later at a cocktail party. Allen Ginsberg was there and raving about how great my book was. Burroughs looked blank. He probably didn’t even remember what he’d done, and I didn’t bother to remind him. I never had a war of words with William Burroughs, I never even spoke to him throughout the “expungement.” Jimmy de Sana died many years after this battle. He published one book called Submission.
SO: Do you think you have received your due in terms of critical appreciation? If not, why do you think this is so?
TS: I think those who read me appreciate me, and I’m not looking for any vast critical appreciation. I trust that is in the future for others to consider. I was talking to a writer friend about this sort of thing recently. We were discussing the semioticians, and their impenetrable jargon. I was briefly taken up with them, but the “criminal” element of BDSM was in the end too much for them. I asked one of their elite number to write me a recommendation for a teaching position, and within a week they blocked me from their email. I told my friend I felt like Jean Genet being spanked by l’Académie Française.
SO: Why do you think your unpublished work remained so?
TS: Partly because I stopped trying, and now the internet has impacted even best-selling authors at this point. Plus I got good and sick of small presses offering me two thousand dollars. I would rather not be bothered. If it is to happen it will happen.
SO: What other efforts have you made to have your unpublished work released?
TS: Through my website, terencesellers.com.
SO: Have you discerned your influence in the generation of writers after you? If so, is this influence properly acknowledged by them?
TS: I don’t have any opinion on that.
SO: In retrospect, would you have made different choices—in terms of subject matter and approaches to getting your work out, for instance—in your literary career?
TS: If I had known that writing about sadomasochism was going to put me in a black hole in space? But as an author you write your experiences. At the time BDSM was mine, so . . . Maybe I would have let Harper’s magazine publish their completely rewritten chapter from The Correct Sadist. But maybe not. It was such a shockingly bad, stupid rewrite I couldn’t believe it. So it was a toss-up between being read by some thousands of people, but being read as a shitty writer. My publisher at the time, in 1985, Barney Rosset at Grove Press, told me that was something the magazines often did—he could have forced me to go along. But he had so much respect for me as a writer that he backed me up, and we told Harper’s “no.”
SO: So what are you working on currently?
TS: My newest work is a combined memoir of my father, and autobiography, entitled “Unpublished Novel.” Excerpts are on the website. Its overriding theme is about being a so-called failure as an author—that is, the condition of being a writer without much of an audience. My father had pretty much the same fate, though he did not work as hard as I still do. He drank a lot and made up stories about the greatness of his alleged novel, which may not have gone through more than two or three drafts.
I feel I have kept my integrity in an increasingly debased marketplace, that is, a market run by the pressures of money and entertainment. I wish the world was slower and more literary. But what am I supposed to do about that? I have no regrets, other than the boredom of having to still work at a job, and not being able to stay home and write all day. But it could have been worse. I could still be living in New York City and trying to pay those rents.
SO: Can you talk a bit about Rene Ricard, who called New York “a shark-infested metropolis”?
TS: I was actually best friends and very close to Rene Ricard for many years, and he loved his portrayal in my book One Decadent Life. I didn’t know Rene called NYC “a shark-infested metropolis.” Yes, it was. It was hard. One of the big untold stories of that era unfortunately is heroin. Heroin, heroin, this is one of the subjects I was trying to reveal in One Decadent Life. Heroin was everywhere and everyone took it, in one way or another. You could not live in Downtown and not have some relationship with it. Mine was anti, but still, being anti was an active reality. You had to put up with others doing it, watching them do it, fighting with them about doing it. So much screwed up behavior. So much waste. And people dying, committing suicide. And the bullshit about artists being allowed to take heroin . . . I wasted a lot of time in my life dealing with people’s problems with that stupid drug.
The time I personally experienced heroin was after my friend Carl Apfelschnitt died, and I was writing One Decadent Life. I realized I had to actually find out what it was like. How could I write about how seductive it was otherwise? Besides I was in terrific pain over the loss of Carl. I hoped for some relief. And I sort of did not give a damn what happened to me. Sad to say—I ended up taking heroin with Rene! This went on for about five weeks in the summer of 1990. I realized what was happening, I was paying for his drugs, I was going to become addicted. So I left town, and went back to Carl’s house in Madrid, NM. The next day I drove up to my land, which has these magnificent views.
But I couldn’t feel anything. The sense of awe and happiness at being here was gone! I fell down crying on the ground, because I realized the heroin had killed my senses—particularly my ability to receive from the land. But I recollect vividly that more than for myself, I was crying for Rene. If I was that dead after five weeks of light heroin use, what was going on inside that genius after years and years of daily, often heavy use? When I went back to NY after a month or so, I refused to do drugs with Rene anymore. That was basically the end of our friendship. He was extremely angry with me for refusing. All junkies need a pal to get high with. I didn’t want to end the friendship, but as well, I could not help him. Before, it had been a delicate balance. I observed his use, but didn’t partake. Unfortunately I crossed the line. Now I was a traitor.
Indeed it was glamorous and romantic, but it was also very stressful. I can’t imagine what it must be like for young people now, trying to make it. If we were having a hard time paying eight-hundred-dollar rents, what are they going through paying three thousand dollars? Plus, you always had to consider selling out versus having integrity. You always had to consider giving up, quitting and “going home,” even if in my case there was no home to go back to. You had to fight to keep your status, get invited to the right parties, be friends with the right people. You had to stay “in,” or you were nothing. Rene knew all the right people, despite his habit, and he maintained his deserved “poète maudit” status. When I stopped doing drugs, he made sure I was no longer invited into certain circles. Certain doors closed. And it wasn’t just drug people. I missed him terrifically as a friend, and I was hurt by his rejection of me, on so many levels.
SO: What was it like when Rene passed?
TS: That time was surely depressing, especially as many people were dying. It’s hard to reexperience it at this point. It seems far away, yet many people are still going through it.
Rene did have a rock-hard constitution, I’ve never seen anyone recreate so consistently with nary a hangover, or a moment’s breath. We were all wondering when he might go . . . to live to age sixty-seven was an accomplishment.
SO: Rene claimed he never kept a “conventional job,” yet he was able to thrive artistically in NY while residing mainly at the Chelsea Hotel. I hope you will be able to tell me how you and your captivating crowd were able to sustain yourselves financially while dishing out uncompromising works of art. I get some sense of how you thrived in parts from the manuscript for your novel One Decadent Life, but would be glad to know more.
TS: Rene did not make any kind of living “as a poet,” per se. But because of who he was, he was taken care of by just about everyone. From the very rich, to someone like me who could feed him and put him up for a week, to fellow artists such as Taylor Mead, who was also pretty much a poor man. The ten-thousand dollars on champagne and caviar was probably courtesy of Julian Schnabel. Julian and his first wife Jacqueline were his mentors for many, many years. One of my favorite stories was Rene crashing and totaling Julian’s baby-blue Bentley convertible when they were out on Long Island for the summer. Did Rene have to pay him back? Of course not!
Somehow, as well, he always had beautiful jewels. I have that in the manuscript. He gave me quite a few. He used to criticize me for not wearing more jewelry! He had several rubies and star sapphires, which were his favorites. But they were always changing. I think he’d buy them when he was flush, and sell them when he was down. I think his bill at the Chelsea Hotel was paid for by the painter Brice Marden, another mentor. And he was particularly loved by the wives of the artists!
He was with a gallery, Cheim & Read, for many years and they frequently gave him shows. So that was another way he made money. And he did paint his poems. I have five of these pieces, they are gorgeous! His talent as a painter was considerable, and I do bring this into ODL [One Decadent Life]. As I work on the manuscript, I was thinking I ought to reference in some way Rene’s article "The Radiant Child" which made him so famous. You will be interested to know I was running around with him from one restaurant to another the night before he submitted it. He was reading it to everybody and making changes and I recollect us quarreling over punctuation (like a couple of old-lady schoolteachers, as you noted in your Gadfly Online article!); that would make a pretty interesting chapter.
You will like this anecdote as well. When I was living with Duncan Smith [Sellers’s ex-lover], Rene would visit us all the time. I was working at my first or second job as a domme (before I opened my own place) and my hours were 6 PM to 2 AM. If there were no clients I’d come home at 1:30 or so. Rene had a big crush on Duncan, who really was a beautiful guy. So he’d know when I was working, and come over, and give Duncan cocktails, and who knows what would ensue. I didn’t mind as I loved Rene and I knew Duncan was incipiently bi (as I was). Anyhow, one night I came home and there were Rene and Duncan cuddled up in bed, dozing drunkenly. I walked in and Rene jumped up, guiltily as it were, but when he saw I wasn’t mad or anything, he granted me one of his bon mots: “There she is, fresh from lording it over a hot slave.”
The brilliance of this lies on so many levels: it’s first of all a play on the cliché “slaving over a hot stove,” which is something one says about a hardworking domestic female. And the alliteration . . . and the implication that I was working for Duncan, as his wife . . . But somehow, I was above that, I was “fresh,” not hot and tired. I just loved the guy and we would have stayed friends forever, if it hadn’t been for the damned heroin.
Another night we threw out one of Duncan’s chairs, which Rene thought was hideous. Turns out it was some kind of family heirloom from the ’20s. Of course by the time we went back to find it someone had taken it home. Duncan was furious, Rene triumphant. Do you have links to Rene’s Artforum articles “The Radiant Child” and “Pledge of Allegiance...”? In ODL when I have Rene giving that reading at the Morgan Library, I should probably make it about something more to his real interests.
SO: I think I ought to say a few words about “The Radiant Child.” That essay struck a powerful chord in me. For me, the brilliance of a critic lies in being able to detect important trends or shifts in art well before others discern them. And Rene had that ability as demonstrated by his essay. Before graffiti became the “in thing” he gleaned its significance and also identified its key architects. Nothing could be more exemplary. I admire how you and Rene stuck to your art in spite of having to exist in the “shark-infested metropolis” that was New York. Can you talk about your last days in New York before your first major stint in New Mexico?
TS: I knew I would want to / have to leave one day. In lieu of having a family to return to, I had this land and my house. Every day I am grateful to myself I had the foresight. Also, I don’t work in a nursing home. I work at an agency that manages the lives of about one hundred and ten mentally challenged adults. They live in a series of twenty-five houses from Alcalde, NM to Santa Fe. They are all ages and levels of health and intelligence. Some have jobs, some are very infirm. All of them have to take medications two times (or more) a day. I used to care for them in the homes, then I became a manager; now I work in the nursing department and manage their doctors’ appointments and drugs. Part of my day is spent traveling from house to house giving medications and making sure they are in good shape. It is a lot less stressful than the other two jobs! Anyhow it is a nonprofit, and I’m pretty much just getting by. I fell into the job when I left NYC and now it has been nine years. I guess I am lucky. I could have lost my house.
Anyhow I am working on the website today. I am editing chapter eight . . . I asked my webmaster to please make me a page for “news” and current events, such as your Gadfly Online article and art shows, etc., and maybe even an announcement of that new edition of The Correct Sadist / Dungeon Evidence this flaky antiquarian publisher has been talking about for an entire year.
I have been steeping myself in some ’80s writings to get into the mode for the rewrite. First draft was in 1986 when Carl Apfelschnitt and David Morgan [a friend of Sellers’s] were still alive, and we were in New Mexico, doing our end of the world routine.
SO: I am also glad you are busy at work on One Decadent Life, which does quite well in capturing the inimitable ambience of the Lower East Side during the seventies and early eighties. I reread Victor Bockris’s essay “Vision of the Seventies” published in Gadfly only this morning and I longed to feel that creatively rich atmosphere in person and not in the pages of a book or an article! Bockris concludes, sadly, by describing how heroin destroyed that period, the most gifted artists and personalities. So how have you somewhat managed to maintain a writing life in spite of the excoriating personal losses you’ve incurred?
TS: In New Mexico now, I keep my writing life and persona separate from the boring job. I developed my discipline as a writer many years ago and any job I have does not interfere with my creativity, except in terms of losing time.
The alleged reprinter of The Correct Sadist and Dungeon Evidence, in one volume, with some new “bridge” material (which I kept as I began work on the second book) is an antiquarian house called Lux Mentis. Unfortunately it has been going on for a year, with him writing me the same letter over and over: “I’ll get back to you . . .” Very annoying.
In the meantime there is this outrageous surge of interest in the US about S&M, the whole Fifty Shades of Grey thing, we could have siphoned some interest to my book. I think he’s let that opportunity pass. Not that the books are in any way alike. But if you can ride a wave . . .
Fall / Winter 2023
Sanya Osha is the author of several books including Postethnophilosophy (2011), a work of philosophy; two novels, Dust, Spittle and Wind (2011) and An Underground Colony of Summer Bees (2012); and Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Shadow (Expanded Edition) (2021), an academic study; among other publications. He works at the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA), University of Cape Town, South Africa.