An Interview with Jerry Stahl

“What I always loved to write about were subcultures and fanatics, people who really believe—it doesn’t matter in what.”
Places explored during Jerry Stahl’s formative years as a journalist:
Mona’s Gorilla Lounge
A clothing-optional resort
Columbus, Ohio

An Interview with Jerry Stahl

“What I always loved to write about were subcultures and fanatics, people who really believe—it doesn’t matter in what.”
Places explored during Jerry Stahl’s formative years as a journalist:
Mona’s Gorilla Lounge
A clothing-optional resort
Columbus, Ohio

An Interview with Jerry Stahl

Sabra Embury
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Jerry Stahl is best known for his first book, 1995’s Permanent Midnight, which was later adapted into the cult-classic film starring Ben Stiller—and for good reason: it’s a scabrous, fearless confessional about being a heroin addict in Hollywood, and it ranks with the work of Burroughs and De Quincey. But in the decades since its publication, Stahl has complemented and expanded upon his debut with seven books, including Perv—A Love Story (1999); I, Fatty (2004), recently optioned by Johnny Depp, which plunges into the volatility of early celebrity; and Pain Killers (2009), a Nazism-meets-noir romp. He is also the editor of a recent anthology, The Heroin Chronicles (2013). These days it might be more accurate to think of Stahl as one of Bukowski’s few true heirs: he’s a writer whose dredging of Los Angeles has created a literary universe of damage, humor, and hope.

Stahl should feel comfortable in his sixty-first year. He made his debut writing short fiction, winning a Pushcart Prize in 1976. He started screenwriting in the mid-to-late ’80s for the popular TV series ALF. He went on to write for other successful shows—Moonlighting, thirtysomething, Twin Peaks, and Northern Exposure. He also had an incredible run as a consultant on CSI, offering insights into episodes about furries, S&M, and infantilism. He co-wrote the screenplay for what he calls “the art-house sleeper” Bad Boys II, and more recently he co-wrote the screenplay for HBO’s Hemingway and Gellhorn, which was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award.

Habitual drug dependency has complicated Stahl’s life, and he is the first to admit that he’s still working things out. He is flagrantly honest, with a been-there-done-that wisdom that lets him say with finesse what others only think. But ask him about his ability to connect with people, and he’ll say, “Happily, I have no idea what other people think, or I’d probably never leave the house.” Stahl’s recent and turbulent reentry into fatherhood (he has a twenty-five-year-old daughter, Stella, from his first marriage) inspired his latest novel, Happy Mutant Baby Pills, about a failed novelist who finds success in writing the lists of side effects of prescription drugs. The novel is based in part on his experience taking a super-toxic experimental hepatitis C medication, which made him temporarily forbidden to touch his pregnant wife. Stahl tells truths rarely heard at the local sandpit. On the Rumpus, where he writes about fatherhood for his column, OG Dad, he claims, “Screaming babies exist as metaphors for the universe. Diapered humility machines.” I was introduced to Stahl after hearing him speak at a fascinating “Page and Screen” panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. A subsequent exchange of friendly and hilarious emails followed.

—Sabra Embury

THE BELIEVER: Tell me about your hometown.

JERRY STAHL: I grew up in Pittsburgh. I played sports, but the last time I really gave a shit about them was when Bill Mazeroski hit the winning home run against the Yankees in the last game of the 1960 World Series. I can still recite the starting lineup for the Pirates, from Smoky Burgess behind the plate to Roberto Clemente in right field to Vernon Law and Elroy Face on the mound. Back then, baseball players had names that normal humans didn’t have, like Vernon Law and Elroy Face. I mean, Elroy Face! That’s fucking gorgeous. But I’d be hard pressed to name one Pirate today.

BLVR: What kind of kid were you in school?

JS: I was not what you’d call a dreamboat. I was like that scrawny lion who preys on caribou who can’t keep up with the herd. Or maybe I was a scrawny impala. I don’t know. Let’s just say there was no indication back then that I would end up a guy with three wives. Sequentially, of course, not Mormonistically. Otherwise I’d be Mitt Romney’s great-uncle.

BLVR: Any important early writing influences?

JS: My older sister, who was the first hippie I knew, had a big influence. She turned me on to mescaline and Bob Dylan when I was fourteen. I still listen to Dylan, but the first time I did mescaline—before ever smoking pot or being drunk—I found myself on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, running away from an evil Eskimo who was really a nice Asian lady trying to tell me I’d lost a shoe, which is about as cool as I ever got on drugs. When I returned to Pittsburgh after Berkeley, things looked different. Especially the walls of my high school, which I had never noticed before the mescaline—[they] actually had swirls of paint in them that looked like my mother’s face on the body of a praying mantis. Which is less comforting than it sounds. The only other thing I remember is having a conversation with Abraham Lincoln in a Greyhound bus station. I remember he had bad breath, which—in my unnaturally enhanced state—smelled like brisket.

BLVR: And after the mescaline, the career just sprouted?

JS: I started writing all the time at around sixteen. Would rather have played rock and roll, but that required talent and the ability to leave my room. My first paid-for writing was doing term papers for some company in San Francisco, which I guess was more of a writing scam. I started writing for the Santa Cruz Times, a weekly alterna-throwaway, when I was twenty, in the ’70s. My first job was reviewing a bisexual bar called Mona’s Gorilla Lounge. It was all downhill from there. I didn’t go to journalism school—I just marinated myself in Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, and read Terry Southern’s “Twirling at Ole Miss” about three hundred times. Feature magazine writing is what I did, more or less, through my twenties and thirties, along with everything else. I did first- person immersion stories, like spending a nude singles weekend at the Elysium clothing-optional resort in Topanga, California, or hanging out with funeral directors before HBO made undertaking famous. Lots of stuff for Esquire, Playboy, California, LA Weekly, Details… At one high point I even had a column in Playgirl, called His Turn, under the pseudonym John Andrews. All grist for the hell mill.

What I always loved to write about were subcultures and fanatics, people who really believe—it doesn’t matter in what. This whole time I was [also] writing fiction. I’d always pub-lish the first chapter as a short story somewhere—Playboy, or some literary magazine, like the ones who published me first, Quarry West and the Transatlantic Review. I’d written six unpublished novels by the time my first book, Permanent Midnight, came out, in ’95.

BLVR: How did you start working for Larry Flynt, reviewing Hustler reader mail?

JS: In the beginning, in New York, I did stories for the New York Press and the Village Voice, along with writing for glossies like Club International and Penthouse Forum. For Penthouse Forum I wrote fake sex letters and answered them. My first published piece in New York magazine was about Puerto Rican midget wrestling in the Bronx. Somewhere, I think Terry Southern has a journalist character say, “My beat is the offbeat.” That was me. Hustler came about when I answered an ad in the Village Voice.

Naive as it sounds, I had “drug problems,” and thought fleeing New York could help. So I moved to Columbus, Ohio, to live in a YMCA and write humor for Hustler. And by “humor” I mean writing gags about the genitally shaped fruits and vegetables folks would send in from the Dakotas. These were the days when Larry Flynt became a born-again with Jimmy Carter’s sister and got shot in the stomach in Georgia, and Paul Krassner took over as editor—wild times.

I ended up in LA, and got fired six months to the day after being hired, just long enough to cruise onto unemployment. After that it was magazines, the odd TV gig, and, eventually, a long decade and change as full-time needle jockey. Huge chunks of Permanent midnight were about just being a more-or-less-homeless sleazeball dope fiend in LA, but hundreds of pages had to be cut, and those were the pages. So my small run as a strung-out TV writer became the focus of the book.

BLVR: Permanent Midnight is still filled with anecdotes of substance abuse, but there’s also a lot in there about writing for television. Which do you prefer, TV or books?

JS: I fell into a few gigs while in a state of not-too-elegant heroin addiction. I was always trying to be a novelist, and took TV gigs the way you’d temp at Macy’s at Christmas: because the opportunity came up, not because you envisioned a lifetime of Macy’s counter-work. Mind you, now I love writing for TV, when I have the opportunity, because you can do cool shit and some of the best writing in the world is out there. To me, at this point, it’s all writing—just different delivery systems.

I spent a couple years working on Hemingway and Gellhorn for HBO, which came out in May [2012]. Shooting the shit with Phil Kaufman during rewrites was like being paid to go to film school—not to mention the thrill of hearing Nicole Kidman, Clive Owen, Robert Duvall, and so on, speaking words I wrote while tearing my hair out in some hotel room at four in the morning. It’s a kick. I just did an episode of Maron, and had a great time, since Marc Maron is one of my favorite comedians. This year, I actually reentered television as a consulting producer and writer on Maron, for the third season. And Larry Charles and I have been working on adapting Pain Killers into a limited series for cable: Manny and Mengele.

That’s the great thing about show business: collaboration. Novels, I’m not the first to notice, can be punishingly solitary. When you work for the screen—big or little—you have an excuse to hang out with some of the smartest, funniest maniacs on the planet… But you asked about my “early TV years.” Back then I was as clueless as I was drug-addled and incompetent, not to toot my own horn. I was more comfort-able stealing a television than writing for television.

BLVR: Your novel I, Fatty reads like an autobiography from beyond. What compelled you to write it?

JS: The late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was originally slated to play Roscoe Arbuckle, told me the first time we met that he thought the book was actually more about me than about Arbuckle. He saw it as a kind of disguised autobiography—me in a fat suit, which Fatty actually had to wear after he lost a ton of weight kicking a heroin habit. We talked about the movie, and he had the genius idea of making the fat suit be a character. Sadly, that never happened.

The book’s origin is a little peculiar. Originally, I was asked by Bloomsbury to write a little nonfiction book for a series they were doing, to be edited by Joel Rose, who has a really great and original novel called Kill the Poor. Anthony Bourdain, who got Bloomsbury to hire me, wrote a fantastic thing for the series, about Typhoid Mary. But I couldn’t get mine off the ground. Every time I started, it sounded like a fucking term paper. Either that or I’d go all hagiographic on Arbuckle’s ass. So finally I just went off the reservation and did it as fiction, the way I heard it in my head, as this kind of sad, funny fat man’s cri de coeur. Bloomsbury was gracious enough not to sue for breach of contract and actually published the book.

Before that I had not thought much about Arbuckle, though I have always loved that period of seedy, shit-on-their-shoes Hollywood. It’s turf I want to revisit in my next novel, which takes place in that world. Hollywood was like the French Foreign Legion, where people could show up out of nowhere, all flavors of shady or desperate, and get rich as a character they just made up. Now that seems to hap-pen more in politics.

The emotions—if not, obviously, the action—are inescapably autobiographical; pain, at least in my view of the world, has a kind of universality to it. A hammer to the ankle hurts the same way whether you’re the president or a petty thief. With this in mind, I could somehow graft the dimensions of my particular psycho-depresso—but occasionally ecstatic—history onto the life of some portly bastard who grew up in a dirt shack and died having owned a car with a toilet in it.

BLVR: Do you think the restless spirit of Fatty Arbuckle possessed you to set the story straight, once and for all, about crimes he didn’t commit?

JS: This book is mysterious even to me. I know that I wrote about fifty pages of it during a two-day trip to the Dominican Republic—don’t ask. And I remember talking it out loud and taking it down, not exactly like dictation, more like I wanted to remember what came out of my mouth so I’d know what to tell the doctor. People have lofty words like channeling, or being a vessel. Which, god bless, I am thrilled to hear is their experience. With me it’s more like I had Fatty Tourette’s. It was like being a ventriloquist with no hands.

BLVR: Are there plans to turn I, Fatty into a movie?

JS: Movie-wise, I would murder strangers to see Jonah Hill or Patton Oswalt play Roscoe—though both would have to slap on fat suits to make it work. Johnny Depp, who owns the book in perpetuity, originally wanted to play Buster Keaton. But sometimes Hollywood is a graveyard. I bring flowers and put them on the project once a month. As Fatty used to say, “Life’s a pie fight, and then you die.”

BLVR: Didn’t your current wife have to move to Austin while she was pregnant, due to the possible side effects of a new medication you were taking?

JS: To make a long, tortuous saga bite-size, I got hep. C, like every other dope fiend lucky enough not to get AIDS, including Lou Reed, and finally cured it last year thanks to a trial program at Cedars for an as-yet-non-FDA-approved drug cocktail. Basically, right before I hopped on the trial, the people who ran it were like, “Did we mention that these drugs are so toxic that, if your partner’s pregnant and you so much as touch her elbow after handling a pill, your baby could be born with dorsal fins and a three-day beard?” I was already nervous, but this did it. Naturally, I could not stop obsessing on all possible chemical- and pharma-related birth defects. Thanks to lax regulation and industry ownership of the officials who are supposed to protect us, even human breast milk, at this point, is a mutagenic hell-broth of benzenes and toilet cleaner.

BLVR: This is obviously what inspired your latest novel, Happy Mutant Baby Pills.

JS: This was the genesis of Happy Mutant Baby Pills—I had a bunch of bad information I wanted to get out there, and the trick was to build a story around it. Then I found out I was going to be a father for the second time in twenty-three years, and I started taking these mutagenic meds to try and stave off looming cirrhosis while my liver was circling the drain. Real life has a great way of inserting itself into writing—at least mine does. I used to write fiction to forget my life—now I write to explain it.

As for my long-suffering girlfriend-now-wife: the only safe move was for us to split up for the duration [of her pregnancy]. But she came up hard, having run away at fourteen to be an exercise rider at racetracks all over the country, so she’s as adept at adversity as I am. She hung in Austin with her people, and I stayed alone in LA, stewing on my daily batch of toxic virus-killers, feeling like I was on speedy, strychnine-laced acid for six months. It was during this time that I wrote the novel Bad Sex on Speed, because what can you do when your brain is permatweaked? You have to use it as a voice. It was, to misquote Iggy Pop, some weird gift. I barely slept, and I felt like I was being force-fed bathtub crank. On top of the mental inferno, the Ribavirin gave me a tear-inducing ass-rash. But who’s complaining? I wrote standing up, like Hemingway. What better situation for writing the “feel-good book of the decade”? (I’m quoting no one here—this is my dream blurb.)

Once I got off the pharmaceuticals—cured of a disease the doctors told me I’d die from any minute—I rolled into Austin and hung out with the mom-to-be until the baby showed up. The kid was perfectly normal, except for being born with a mullet. But mullets are actually cool in Austin, so it all worked out.

BLVR: You have a column at the Rumpus in which you write about being a new dad. Have you thought about publishing a book of essays on the subject?

JS: Actually, Old Guy Dad: Weird Shit Happens When You Don’t Die Young will be coming out later this year. Our time stands out as a very dad-soaked era, in TV, books, movies, and, probably, haiku. I bang out those Rumpus pieces to keep from going out of my skull. Any commercial potential is purely incidental. I’ve done all right, in the past, exploiting my own hell. The problem this time is that it’s such a happy little inferno. Toddlers are such a beautiful nightmare. It’s not really hell so much as responsibility, which for lifelong narcissists can feel kind of hellish. I mean, you want to cure yourself of self-obsession, have a baby.

Oddly—or not—the most talked-about topic in any of my columns was masturbating babies. I commented on how both my daughters, out of the chute (so to speak), were intent on pleasuring themselves. When we put diapers on her, she’d be tapping the Huggie, like, Hey, where’d the fun place go? Now, I can’t be the first to have noticed this phenomenon. It’s a normal deal. But maybe not something you yank strangers off the subway to talk about.

For a hot minute, Jonathan Ames and I marched around Hollywood with an idea called Two in Diapers—the title taken from the fun fact that, not to brag, it’s going to be a race to see whether my little girl is out of diapers before I’m in them. Somehow F/X did not jump at the opportunity to make a diaper-centric, old-guy-with-beautiful-young-wife-and-baby show. Maybe it was ’cause I dozed off during meetings. Nights are long in scream-town.

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