In 1985, Dennis Cooper left Southern California for Amsterdam. There, the 32-year-old writer and poet started work on a project he’d come up with when he was a teenager: the George Miles Cycle. It’s the series of five novels Cooper is now best known for, which he wrote as he “was coming out of a period of intensive experimentation with drugs, sex, and extreme behavior … a kind of artistic quest to gain firsthand knowledge and understanding of certain fantasies I’d had since I was a kid,” he wrote decades later on his blog.

Over the course of the cycle—made up of the books Closer, Frisk, Try, Guide, and Period—the “form of a novel” would be “gradually dismembered to nothing,” to “reflect the damage caused by the violence, drug use, and emotional turmoil of the previous novel.”

The novels aren’t straightforwardly about their namesake, George Miles, who takes the form of several different teenage boys, but, rather, about obsession—its force, violence, and tenderness.

Miles was a real person. At a middle-school dance in 1968, at age 12, he took a tab of acid and freaked out. Miles’s older brother was friends with Cooper, a known expert at tripping, and enlisted Cooper, then 15, to calm his baby brother down. They fell in love.

When Miles turned 14, “the passion and excitement Dennis roused from him was diagnosed and named by doctors not as love but a form of mania,” Cooper writes in his latest novel, I Wished. In both the novel and in real life, Cooper and Miles stopped talking shortly before Cooper moved to Europe. In 1987, on Miles’s 30th birthday, he shot himself in his childhood bedroom. Cooper didn’t learn about the death until a decade after it happened.

From Paris, Cooper discussed his muse and his novel.

JENSEN DAVIS: What prompted you to revisit the material in the George Miles Cycle 20 years after the last novel was written?

DENNIS COOPER: I didn’t really want to revisit the cycle. I decided I wanted to write a really, really personal novel because I’d never actually written one like that—I’d never written one that was totally about my emotions and totally sincere about, and really based on, my life. I’d been wanting to do that for a long time, and then I realized if I’m going to do that I should probably write about George because that’s the hardest thing for me to write about.

I don’t think it’s part of the cycle. If you just read [I Wished] and decided the stuff about the cycle is just a narrative conceit, I think you’d be fine. I’m super against nostalgia. I didn’t want to go back to my great work or whatever. I just wanted to write about George because I wrote all those books for him and he’s not in them. I mean, it was for him, but the character wasn’t George really at all. I wanted people to know who he really was.

J.D.: How did writing the cycle change once you found out that George had died and couldn’t read the books?

D.C.: I had just published Guide, the fourth [novel], and I was doing interviews when I accidentally found out he died. A friend of mine was going to A.A., and someone in this meeting stood up and said, “I’m having a really hard time with the death of my friend, a guy who killed himself 10 years ago, George Miles.” My friend was like, “Could that be the same George Miles?” And I was like, no, it couldn’t be. I don’t think he’s dead. Anyway, I talked to the guy, and it turned out to be true.

I felt like I had to make a tomb for him or something.

J.D.: Obviously it’s a novel, but it feels sort of memoiristic. Do you think of it strictly as fiction?

D.C.: I think of it as a novel. I was trying to create something that would have the effect that I wanted, and that would be true to George. But there are things in there that just simply aren’t true. I portray them as though they’re things that actually happened to me.

I’m in France. Here, everybody writes autofiction. It’s the trendy thing; every novel is autofiction. People here keep saying it’s autofiction, and I’m like, whatever. It’s just fiction, but it’s personal at the same time.

J.D.: I’m interested in how your relationship with George changed. How does his becoming your muse, and your writing about him extensively, change your relationship to the actual person that you knew?

D.C.: It wasn’t a normal friendship. It was a lot of guessing what he really thought. So [writing about him] wasn’t so different. I moved to Amsterdam in 1985, and he decided he was straight, so he went to get a girlfriend. Writing on my own without him there wasn’t hugely different from doing it when I was with him.

I knew that if he was alive, he would read the books. I was writing them for him, and I thought he was reading them, and I thought one day he’ll contact me through my publisher and say, “Hi, it’s George. Let’s hang out. I’m better now. I’m all better!”

“I’m in France. Here, everybody writes autofiction. It’s the trendy thing.... And I’m like, whatever. It’s just fiction … ”

J.D.: Getting back to your character in the novel, how did you settle on doing both the first-person Dennis and Dennis in the third person? Can you explain a little bit about how you approached those two characters differently—if you did?

D.C.: There was the obvious thing: it’s a distancing device. I’m not really into confessional stuff. I’m not really into foisting my life or my feelings onto people. If someone’s reading it, and Dennis is a fictional character, you’re a bit more relaxed, and you feel a little less confronted. If you’re reading a personal thing, you’re going to feel like you’re being let into the secret chamber, but you also feel kind of excluded because it belongs to the writer. If you write “I,” it always belongs to the writer. If you write in the third person, it becomes this neutral space. I like the idea that readers can feel like they own it.

When I do get really personal—the beginning and the end of the book are super, super cathartic—those are really just like me having my emotional freak-out. I want those to feel really startling because those are the only points in the book where it’s just like absolutely unbridled personal emotional mush.

J.D.: Was the cathartic writing harder?

D.C.: No. I just tricked myself into it, like “I’m just going to be really honest, like I’m just writing in a diary.” I wasn’t writing the novel in a normal way. It was in pieces. It wasn’t all part of one thing yet; it was just notes.

The hardest part was near the end—which is really distanced [from Dennis’s character]—when they find George’s body and the crater in the head. That was the most intense one to write. But it’s also kind of my favorite.

I Wished, by Dennis Cooper, is out now

Jensen Davis is an Associate Editor for Air Mail