I grew up listening to Henry Rollins, whether it was his work with Rollins Band or his vocals with his hardcore punk band, Black Flag. If you had told me that I’d have an opportunity to interview the Henry Rollins one day, I wouldn’t have believed you. But, here we are. I reached out to Henry earlier this month, knowing that he would have an incredibly eclectic and fascinating reading list – and trust me, he did not disappoint. Henry is not only a musician, but has also worked as an actor, a TV and radio host, a comedian as well as a writer. Maybe you’ve seen him appear in Sons of Anarchy, maybe you’re a Black Flag fan or perhaps you’re a fan of his books – there’s no denying his incredible versatility. I am incredibly excited, to present my interview with the one and only, Henry Rollins…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
Thankfully, I don’t get asked that question all that often. If someone doesn’t know who I am, I do my best to minimize the answer, so it doesn’t turn into a longer conversation. I tell them that I am working on a book. It’s true. I’m always working on a book. I do try to get out of the conversation as fast as I can.
What are you reading at the moment?
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. One day, I just picked it up and started reading it. Guys at school didn’t believe I was really reading it but I was. I found it hard to put down. During lunch, I would stay in the library and read it. Afterwards, I saw the film version.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I never had a goal like that. I never wanted to be a fireman or whatever young boys think of. At one point, I just figured that I would be working longer hours in the same kind of minimum wage jobs I worked part time at. After graduation, that is exactly what happened. To this day, I still don’t know what I want to be.
What do you think your school aged self would think of the present day you?
Good question. There might be the feeling of being impressed that I pulled my own weight in the world and did okay for myself. Amazed I got anywhere past minimum wage work.
If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you left education – which book would it be?
Black Spring by Henry Miller. There is a lot of life in that book. He allowed me to think that writing was possible for me. I wish I read him a few years earlier than I did.
Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?
When I used to read literature, I read anywhere I could. Being on the road a lot, there are many opportunities to read as you go from place to place. I read many books in moving vehicles. These days, I read when everything else is done. I am busier than I was before. Things in my life have changed that has had a profound effect on my reading habits. I stopped reading literature many years ago. I dip back into Thomas Wolfe and F Scott Fitzgerald but that’s about it. The books I read now are very difficult for me to process. I read a little, make notes and try to stay with it. I read a lot of history and biographies. It’s interesting but it isn’t exactly page turning stuff for me. When I read literature, I liked reading after shows to turn my mind away from myself. Now when I read for too long, it occurs to me that I should be writing. I am feeling my age. I want to output more urgently than ever. I know that inputting is very important but I am less interested in getting knowledge out of a book when I could be on a street in Cambodia learning what isn’t in any book. That would be the biggest change. I have access to the world and I use it. A book about a country in Africa is one thing. The streets of Nairobi are quite another. In a lot of ways, I feel that reading is for those who don’t get out much. I know one can do both. It is hard for me to justify reading when I am off the road. I am usually editing what I have written when I was on the road. Reading is really important, of course. I would rather take that time and write. It’s a struggle to get it all done. I do my best. I have it in my mind that reading is to prepare you for the world and now that I am closer to death, I would rather spend time on the creative side of things.
Which book has had the biggest impact on your career so far?
Career? I have one?! I think it wouldn’t be a book but writers. I think Ryszard Kapuscinski is one of the greatest writers I have ever read. Amazing journalist. He and Robert Fisk I very much admire. Kapuscinski’s writing about Africa, it’s how I see it when I am there. His book Imperium is one of the best books ever written. Fisk’s attention to detail and his seemingly boundless grasp of the topic are to me, the journalistic gold standard. Both of them are amazing and inspire me to be better. One line of Kapuscinski is worth ten of anyone else’s.
Do you have any books that you strongly associate with someone important in your life?
The work of Hubert Selby Jr. because I spent a lot of time with him and could ask him a lot of questions.
Shot In The Heart by Mikal Gilmore. I don’t really have friends or family but there are some people I keep in touch with and have recommended it to them as well as people if they ask me to recommend a great book. Mikal is an amazing writer. I recommend Ask the Dust by John Fante to young people. That’s a perfect piece of work. Books by Knut Hamsun. That’s some literature I might read again. I might read some of the French again. Gide, Jarry, Breton, Celine. Russians like Bulgakov and Kharms are so gripping to me, I could be induced to come back to them. I don’t know anyone I would recommend those writers to.
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
Non fiction. Although, before I die, I am hell bent on getting all the way through In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. That’s literature I will make time for. I have been dragging the Lydia Davis translation of Swann’s Way around with me for a long time, reading it now and then. Incredible.
Do you think reading is important?
Absolutely. For me, reading is inhaling. At some point though, I need to exhale.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
Thomas Dolby just sent me his autobiography The Speed of Sound. I thought it was a great read. Smart guy and a good writer with a great story.
Do you prefer real books or digital books?
Real books because I mark them up.
Name a book that you feel every human should have to read by law.
Selected Speeches and Writings by Abraham Lincoln. Letters From the Earth by Mark Twain. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Mysteries by Knut Hamsun, Ghost Wars by Steve Coll, The Sorrows of Empire by Chalmers Johnson, United States: Essays 1952-1992 by Gore Vidal, a lot of books. It’s a fun question but obviously, you can’t make anyone read. Be an interesting law to enforce. Imagine making people in Mississippi read The Castle by Franz Kafka.
No single book I can think of. Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche, the Kauffmann translation wowed me in my early 20’s. The Book of Five Rings by Miyamato Mushashi, Black Spring by Henry Miller was huge for me. Celine’s early work. Rimbaud, Artaud, Maldoror and Poems by Comte Lautreamont was very good for me to read in 1984. Howl by Allen Ginsberg was massive. Wolfe’s second book Of Time and the River was a big one. Paris Spleen by Charles Baudelaire was very inspiring. I wish I could come up with a single title but I can’t. Well, perhaps I can. Let’s say for now, it would be Black Spring by Henry Miller. Previous to reading it, I had no idea literature could be that. Miller broke almost every rule I understood about writing, Hubert Selby Jr. did that to me as well but Selby’s work is like getting tied to a chair and tortured, whereas with Miller, you are afforded a laugh now and then.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
The Fiery Trial by Eric Foner, In Cold Blood and Other Voices Other Rooms by Truman Capote, Platform by Michel Houellebecq, Max Perkins Editor of Genius by A Scott Berg, Somebody In Boots by Nelson Algren, The Fall by Albert Camus, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander to name a few.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
Nothing planned. I am obsessed with what I am writing and what I want to write.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
Cold Guts. That’s what my stomach turns to when I see my schedule sometimes.