Nicole Panter interview - 1996

(The following originally
appeared in Interrobang?! #3)

Nicole Panter is an amazing woman: writer, feminist, political activist. She was involved in the early LA punk scene as the Germs' manager (you can see her in full glory in The Decline of Western Civilization), then wrote and acted for "Pee Wee Herman's Playhouse". She co-founded the Bohemian Women's Political Alliance and in 1994 Incommunicado Press published a wonderful book of her semi-autobiographical short stories entitled Mr. Right On and other stories.

I had the pleasure of hearing her read at the Chameleon (a club on Valencia St. in the Mission for those of you not in SF) in September. Surprisingly, she read during one of their Monday open-mike poetry nights, and prefaced her reading by clarifying that her work was not poetry, which I thought was brilliantly funny. In my mind, her writing blurs the line between fiction, non-fiction and poetry to produce a body of work that is powerful, moving, visceral, rhythmic, sensual, and yes- poetic.

She commanded everyone's attention while reading. A couple dared to start a conversation while she spoke; she stopped and glared at them: "Am I interrupting you?" she asked. That got the place quieter than I'd ever seen it, and she deserved it.
We conducted this interview via e-mail. You can contact her at: NicoleP7@aol.com

How long have you been writing?

I'd thought about writing for years before I finally actually did it about six years ago. I guess I waited long enough, because the stories started pouring out of me fully formed it seemed. Friends sent them on to magazines and I began getting published rather painlessly.

Are there any other books of your short stories besides Mr. Right On?

That was my first book. A book I edited called Unnatural Disasters: Recent Writings from the Golden State came out this fall. I discovered I have talent as an editor when I began teaching writing at Cal Arts two years ago. Now I'm working on a novel called Swap Meet which hopefully, will be out sometime next year.

Are you happy working with Incommunicado?

It's been nice because they let me do whatever I want and Gary is great, however to be honest, with a small press the money is just not there. I spend so much time crafting what I write that I can't continue to do it for no money, at least not where the longer work is concerned.

Do you hope to support yourself through writing?

I have an agent who has a lot of faith in me, and my aim is to support myself entirely by writing fiction. I do support myself through writing-related activities. I teach writing at Cal Arts (they recruited me, which was a huge compliment) . My fiction class is called "FTW/DIY: The New Fiction", and I also teach a screenwriting class.

Whatever happens, I can't see myself not being involved in the zine and small press world in some form. I plan on continuing to write and contribute to endeavors such as Yakuza, Fuel, Clutch, Long Shot, etc.

When is Incommunicado's Cause: Unrest anthology, of which you're a part, coming out?

I don't know, I gave them a piece and haven't really heard anything since then. At first, I didn't know what you were talking about.

Do you have plans to release "The Baby", your current work in progress?

The Baby is a chapter from the novel I'm working on which is called Swap Meet.

Did you ever feel ignored as a creative woman in your own right, first as manager for the Germs, then married to Gary Panter, then writing for Pee Wee Herman?

No, I didn't really know I was creative--I knew I was living my life artfully, that I was having an adventurous life and I thought that was the sum total of my talents. I thought I was supposed to be a courtesan, a handmaiden to talent. I didn't have confidence in my own talents because as a kid I was never encouraged to think of myself in those terms. I knew I was intelligent, but that was it. In 1980 the woman who thought up the Pee Wee show as a stage show (it's original form) hired me as a "creative consultant" during the genesis of the show--I was an LA personality and she thought I could add a weird spin to the thing. I became a contributing writer and then Pee Wee cast me to play Susan, a character I'd created that was based on The Bad Seed. I played her onstage for the entire 2 year run of the show, and then in the HBO show. I got offers to do parts in movies based on that, but didn't have the confidence in myself to say yes. I decided to take an acting class and studied with an extraordinary woman named Peggy Feury full time for the next four years. The people in class were unbelievable--Michelle Pfeiffer, Sean & Chris Penn, Anjelica Huston, Meg Ryan, I could go on and on...it was a watershed experience for me, I got over my paralyzing shyness and by studying playwrights such as Shaw, Chekov, O'Neill, Tennessee Williams and Horton Foote in-depth as an actor, I learned how to write... I didn't start writing fiction till 1990, I was 35 years old. But, I was the only one who stopped myself from being a creative force, I just didn't have the self confidence. That's what's so great about getting older--you just don't give a damn what people think of you, after a certain point, you just do what you have to do.

Do you have any particularly juicy anecdotes about any of the actors in your acting class?

Tons, but it'd take forever to write em down. It was a really magical intersection of people and talent--I'm the only one who didn't become a famous actor, but I really wasn't that obsessed with it. I liked studying the playwrights.

Why did you decide to give up acting?

I realized that I wasn't pretty enough to be anything but frustrated in that business. I also didn't have the hunger to really just go for it.

When you worked for "Pee Wee Herman's Playhouse", what was your role as writer for the show?

My role for the Pee Wee show was initially as kind of a "cool consultant", that evolved into a writer and I was one of the people that scripted the stage show. We did it at the Roxy in LA for 5 nights a week, two years running.

What turning point in your life enabled you to take yourself seriously as a writer?

In my early 30's I'd read something and think, "I can do better than that..." and I finally just started to write. It wasn't any one turning point, I suppose it finally just had to come out.

What other female writers inspire you?

Joyce Carol Oates, Antonia Nelson, Bana Witt, Eve Babitz.

What does CCH stand for on your business card?

CCH= Cheap Culture Hustler...

Where did you grow up?

Palm Springs California. When I lived there it was a one-horse town out in the middle of the desert--full of rich people, but very very isolated. Of course I was the town weirdo.

You deal with family abuse issues in some of your writing. Is this why you ran away from home as a teenager?

Yes and no--my family was remarkably toxic. My stepfather was an angry, old world Italian who was a real dictator. I didn't know he wasn't my real father until I was gone and he had been dead for several years. My mother was almost thirty years younger than him and I was the focus for a lot of his anger. We were very well off and I felt that I was sold down the river for her creature comforts-diamonds, furs, Rolls Royces, etc. She turned the other way while I was being beaten within an inch of my life nearly every day. I didn't turn into a victim though, I fought back and as soon as I could got the hell out of Dodge. I wanted to get out of that house, and I wanted to get out of that town. I knew that somewhere there were interesting, creative, open-minded people and I wanted to go and be among them.

In "Homage," you write about St. Mark's Place in '77, looking for Patti Smith. What role did she have in your development?

Quite simply, Patti Smith saved my life, as I'm sure she did for thousands of others who saw or heard her for the first time and felt like a light was being turned on. She couldn't sing, yet she was hypnotic when she did, and she wasn't beautiful in the accepted sense of the word at the time, but god, she was luminous.

How did you become the Germs' manager?

I was sitting on the curb in front of a club, drinking a beer and Darby sat down next to me and demanded I buy him a beer. I said, fuck you, you buy me a beer and he asked if I would manage the band. I guess he liked my style.

Do you know what Lorna Doom is up to now?

The last time I saw Lorna was in 1985 in New York, she just kind of disappeared after Darby died in 1980, and I have been the person to see her most recently. Danceteria was giving a party for Gary Panter, so we were in NY and she showed up. I hung out with her during my stay there and we had a great time. She was studying to be a hairdresser and didn't want to relive the germs' experience. We kept in touch for a while, mainly to gossip about Claus Von Bulow, who we were both fascinated with, but then I left the country to go live in England after my divorce and we lost touch...

What was it like working with Penelope Spheeris in Decline of Western Civilization and what did you think of the film?

I'm one of the longer interviews (rent it, it's hilarious). Penny Spheeris and I have had exactly the relationship you would expect two strong (read bitches) women would have, hot and cold by turns, presently we are friends. I think the film is an invaluable document and has certainly smoothed the way for my status as punk goddess--I mean there I am, preserved on film for today's kids...it always amazes me, how many of them have seen it and know who I am as a result. I think it's helped sell a fair amount of books...

It seems like that time in your life had a big impact on you. What stands out most for you?

It was the first place I felt total acceptance from my peers and punk was, hands down the most fun I've ever had in my life. It was pre-AIDS and we fucked like crazy, massive drug taking and drinking was acceptable and encouraged and none of us had yet seen the toll that that kind of behavior takes in the long-term, so we were able to do it without heeding the consequences. It was so hedonistic, so cathartic.

Did you ever play in any bands?

I played washboard and sang backup in the country-whore band "Honk if Yer Horny" from '93-'95. I wrote their hit song "Gas, Grass or Ass, Nobody Rides for Free." We blacked out our teeth, wore curlers in our hair and there was lots of spandex.

How and when did you start the Bohemian Women's Political Alliance?

I had been putting on a benefit concert or two every year for causes I thought were worthy like the Pittston Miner's Strike Fund (coal miners) and Sunset Hall (a retirement home for aged lefties). When Barbara Boxer was running for election to the Senate, I put on my biggest show yet, at the Palladium and raised 55,000$ for her. Exene helped me with that show, and during the planning I realized that there were all these women in LA who could be helping us, so I came up with the name, which had a nice ring, in a moment of divine inspiration and the whole thing snowballed. We raised money and consciousness for women's causes, and were anti-doctrinaire feminists. It was great for a while and then once it got in the press, all sorts of weird jealousies developed and all these women who wanted to be in a spotlight joined up and started talking about keeping people out. I was the engine that drove the thing, I worked so hard, and as a result, I was often mentioned in the press, which caused endless amount of grief, I was accused of being a powermonger, yet everytime I tried to divest myself of responsibility, or take a back seat, people would panic. Then there were the personalities who saw the whole thing as a way of building, or rebuilding failing or nonexistent showbiz careers. It went on for two years, I went off to South Dakota to work on a movie for six months, which was a great relief and it fell apart. The group did some good, but I was a lifelong political activist who felt so burned by my "sisters" that it completely soured me on working with groups of women. I'd rather swim in a tank of sharks. These days, I continue my activism solo and far out of any public spotlight. I concentrate on issues of children's rights.

Who are some people who have encouraged your creativity?

People I know? Dave Alvin, who is probably my closest friend and biggest cheerleader; Frank Pierson, who wrote Dog Day Afternoon, Cool Hand Luke and Cat Ballou; Philip K. Dick, who was a friend of mine; Exene Cervenka; Ken Pontac, this crazy clay animation guy; Kyle Baker, Gilbert Hernandez and Carol Lay, comix artist. Ron Athey and Vaginal Davis. Allison Anders, Bruce Wagner. My friends whose names none of your readers would know, and most of all, my students who depend on me--the responsibility of that is awesome.

The picture of you in Mr. Right On shows you covered in beautiful tattoos and holding a surf board. Who did the tattoos on your back? Are you an avid surfer?

Jill Jordan did the Hopi-inspired tattoos on my back and arms, she is amazing. No, I don't surf--I was in the market one day, wearing a sleeveless shirt and this girl started following me around. I asked her what was up and she asked if I'd been in a calendar. I had, and she told me her boyfriend had had a surf board painted like my back. We exchanged numbers and months later, I was doing a photo shoot and I called on the spur of the moment, the pictures came out great...It has to be really hot for me to go in the water down here, it's so filthy. I hike a lot an ride horses, water sports though, no...

Do you think one gets more focused with age?

Well, I know I did. I think your range of interests narrows too, there's just not enough time to do everything, also, your energy is more finite and you have to manage it more efficiently.

Writing is perfect for me because I'm not dependent on anyone else's input to get on with it. It's just you and your pen and paper, or your computer, and you're all set.

Mr. Right On and other stories can ordered from:
Incommunicado
P.O. Box 99090
San Diego, CA 92169

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