Jerry Stahl randomly started following me on Twitter one morning, and I almost died. That’s because he’s one of the few writers that can actually make me laugh and cry on the same page. Stahl is also, as my friend rightly says, “a lethal superfox”—while part of me really wanted to conduct an elegant literary exchange, another, more pressing part of me just wanted to hear his voice over my personal phone line. Once I arranged the interview, I ended up putting it off about ten times, for various reasons. In each instance Stahl was gracious, instead of rightly annoyed, and by the time we connected over the phone, he had the flu, which didn’t seem to deter him at all.
At times, our interview veered off into Stahl life-coaching me, because as a writer, journalist, and dad, he kept intuiting things about me during our talk. Despite the fact that he was sick, the conversation revealed a clarity of mind and wisdom that only comes with having packed a lot of living in. Stahl was kind, open, and not afraid to question my questions. It felt like we could have talked for ten hours.
The author of eight books, Stahl is often most remembered for his memoir, Permanent Midnight. But I wanted to know the writer behind the seven other books (including his newest, Happy Mutant Baby Pills), the man behind the life, and the father behind the Rumpus column “OG Dad.” And I wanted to talk about anything but drugs.
The Rumpus: I want to start by saying that I want to do the first interview with you where we don’t talk about drugs.
Jerry Stahl: I really respect and appreciate that you don’t want to talk about drugs, because I’m over it. It’s a boring subject. When I write about them, it’s as a symptom among other symptoms of life.
Rumpus: I just hate when artists are pigeonholed.
Stahl: Yeah, so many people want to connect with me and be my bro by saying they did Quaaludes in college. You can just imagine how wonderful that is in an interview. I don’t give a fuck what drugs you did.
Rumpus: Interviews can often be throw-away reads where people get asked the same questions. Which is why I want to avoid drugs, because I don’t come to your work that way, and I kind of resent that you’re one of those writers who is pushed into the drug niche.
Stahl: I have a 102º fever, so you’re going to get better stuff than the usual swill I hand out. With respect to drugs, well, you can’t avoid being pigeonholed. My book, I, Fatty, wasn’t necessarily about drugs, but people feel this need to categorize you. Also, people categorize me as a TV writer, though I’ve done that like three times in my life. You can’t control it—people think what they think.
Rumpus: In I, Fatty, there’s that line, “I’m so tired of being the fat guy.” When I read that, I read it as you saying, “I’m so tired of being the junkie writer.”
Stahl: You’re absolutely right. It’s funny because for two minutes, Philip Seymour Hoffman was going to play the role of Fatty in the movie (that didn’t get made)—and the way he read the book was as a more honest memoir, hiding myself in a fat suit in the guise of Roscoe Arbuckle. So I think it is true. On the other hand, in my latest book, I stumbled into writing about drugs again, which I didn’t mean to do. But sometimes it just seemed to fit, so I went there again, though the drugs I was writing about were the ones we can’t control, the ones thrown at us via air, water, and everything we ingest.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about your latest book, Happy Mutant Baby Pills. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but it’s essentially a satire about the pharmacological times we are living in. What got you thinking about the ideas in this book?
Stahl: I started writing the book at the same time I was in a trial program for Hepatitis C, an experimental treatment trial at Cedar Sinai. My girlfriend was pregnant at the time, and they told me the pills I were on were so toxic, that if I so much as touched her, even a drop of sweat, the baby would be born purple with wheels, essentially. It basically reminded me of this insane toxic pharmacological smorgasbord that we live in. Even though I was railing against big pharma, oddly enough it saved my life.
Because I was so scared of having a child for those reasons, I compulsively researched the subject, and at this point in time, human breast milk contains toilet cleaner, lithium, antifreeze—not that lithium would be a bad thing for my kid. So this book is like a combo platter of what life was dealing me at that time. I don’t know how you are as a writer, but sometimes the only way you can deal with what terrifies you is to go straight through the middle.
Rumpus: Growing up, we were made up for being hippies, eating organic food and making our own products. People thought we were paranoid and made fun of us. But it’s not so much of a stretch—the things that happen in this book. Was it fun to go to the extremes, or did it just freak you out even more doing this research?
Stahl: I’ve had the great fortune of having such bizarre things happen at such a young age, that it takes a lot to freak me out. I don’t worry about bad things happening to me; I worry about things happening to other people. It was pretty terrifying research—it wasn’t anything I didn’t know, but to delve into it was eye-opening. Even yesterday, they came out and said that bacterial soap is making kids sick because you’re killing all these good germs. I don’t know that it freaked me out or that it was even fun, it was just morbidly fascinating, and coming from an oppressed people—what do you do with that kind of terrible information? You can either blow your brains out or make a carnival with it.
Rumpus: You’re currently raising a newborn—how do you maintain sanity with all this information as a parent?
Stahl: I’ve got a twenty-four-year-old already, so it’s not my first rodeo. I know enough to know that basically you don’t want to let your kid wander into traffic, but beyond that, ninety-nine percent is out of your control. And the last thing you want to do is make your child neurotic because you’re neurotic about everything.
Rumpus: Yes, but in the time span between your first child and your second one, a lot has changed about parenting. It used to be something you just did; now it’s a thing people talk about ad nauseam.
Stahl: Isn’t that true of most of life? Everything we used to just do, is now some kind of thing.
Rumpus: You’re such a great writer that, at times, I wish there was less comedy. Is that unfair? Is the comedy there so we don’t have to read the relentless darkness we can’t deal with?
Stahl: You’re making an assumption that a lot of interviewers and critics make, which is that I’m in control of what I write. Like I’m calculating to be funny here, and heartfelt there, when it’s more like, what comes out comes out. I totally agree with what you’re saying, though. In Permanent Midnight, there are sections that are italicized, which take place in the present and are more emotional, and they wanted to take those out of the book. So I lost hundreds of pages of emotional stuff. It takes more balls to write that stuff than to be funny, but sometimes funny is how it comes out. It’s funny because when I wrote Pain Killers, about Josef Mengele, I had concerns around doing comedy about the Angel of Death. But by chance I talked to an old holocaust survivor who told me, “If you don’t laugh, they won.” Hitler’s biggest fear was being laughed at.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about the idea of shame—do you feel that shame drives us to make art?
Stahl: Well, if you have the luxury of having shame be your problem, then you’re doing all right. I think your rent has to be covered before shame becomes your biggest issue. First you have to put the food on the table and make sure not to die, then once all that’s taken care of, you have time for shame. Once I taught in juvenile hall, and there was this one guy used to say, about stuff like that, “It’s like white people shit.”
Rumpus: It reminds me of the time I was in group therapy and a mechanic in class said, “I keep having heart attacks,” and the leader said “No, those are panic attacks.” He refused to call them panic attacks because he said that’s what white people have.
Stahl: Yeah, and the number of psychological issues a child has is inversely proportional to the amount of money their parents have.
Rumpus: On that note, of suffering, and the range of it, there’s a line in one of your books that compares two kinds of suffering as being akin to comparing “acne to leprosy”—do you think you can compare suffering?
Stahl: Yes, there are different kinds of suffering. I’m not going to sit here and mock anyone’s suffering. The writer Hubert Selby helped me out a lot when he was around, and always used to say, “You can’t compare pain.” He used to tell a story: when he was in the army, he got TB, and this was before penicillin. They gave him this crazy-ass drug that made him mute and blind for a month. He was just laying in bed and completely aware, and he would hear the doctors say to other patients, to make them feel better, “At least you’re not Selby.” It is very fucking true, that it’s hard to have sympathy for white people problems sometimes, but I think if it wasn’t for shame, I wouldn’t have written one book.
Rumpus: What’s your writing process like? Your books have an incredible amount of energy—they move so quickly. Do you write them that way?
Stahl: Writing is like childbirth: I can never remember writing a book after it’s written and I think I’ll never do it again. I guess there is a certain propulsive quality to them, but it takes a lot to make them come off. I always write like I’m being chased, because I fucked up most of my life, and didn’t publish a book until I was forty—so I always had a sense of time. And plus, I had a disease and they kept telling me I was dying, for like twenty years. I always had that ticking clock sensation in my head when it came to writing.
I had to make a living too. I’m not getting million-dollar advances, so I was like you, hustling to do gigs that don’t pay money and some other gigs that do pay, so you have the luxury of doing what you want to do. I could give you a literary answer, which would sound impressive, but the fact is that it’s not the easiest thing in the world to find a way to write when you’re hustling at the same time. That kind of desperation and urgency, in some way, finds its way onto the page.
Rumpus: Before you were published, what propelled you to write, then? Was it always the same drive?
Stahl: I always wanted to be a writer. I would have much rather been in a rock-and-roll band, but I sucked at guitar. I always used to say that writing is something you can do naked, fucked-up, and alone at three in the morning and still make a dime. I just saw my heroes who were stand-ups and writers. And all my heroes were junkies: Lenny Bruce, Keith Richards, Charlie Parker, William Burroughs. I didn’t really distinguish between rock-and-roll and writing and comedy—it was all just stuff I loved. I ended up writing because that’s what I could do. It was the only way I could be a part of that world. I would have been a stand-up comic, but I was essentially too fucked-up to stand up for a lot of years.
Rumpus: On the subject of idols, you have fans who think of you as being part of that lineage. There’s a line in your book, I, Fatty, where Roscoe runs into one of his fans, and he feels embarrassed to be an idol. What’s that experience like for you? Is it weird having fans?
Stahl: It’s so hard making it out to the car with all the paparazzi, but somehow I try to survive.
Rumpus: You know what I mean. I’m just interested in the idea of having fans idolize you.
Stahl: I’m not sure what you’re saying. When you’re struggling half the time to survive, sometimes having money, sometimes being broke, clawing through life, you don’t think of yourself as heroic, but I guess there’s no accounting for taste. Apparently I’m iconic to someone, some poor bastard. I always figured there were like seven people with pierced clits in Minneapolis who think I’m god. But I think I top out there.
Rumpus: At least talk about fame in general. Through working in TV and film and living in L.A., you encounter and dip in and out of that world. In one of your columns, you write about going to Cannes and being inside and outside of that world at the same time.
Stahl: I’ve managed the neat trick of being an outsider in all genres. New York Publishing World says, “Oh, he’s some fucking Hollywood guy.” And in Hollywood they say, “Oh, he’s a novelist.” It’s great—you get to be rejected by all corners. I recommend it highly as a way of seeking enlightenment in life.
Rumpus: When your first book was published, it changed your career and life path dramatically. It must have been a pretty big transition.
Stahl: Well, I won a Pushcart when I was twenty-one, and was always writing, but yes, you mean my first book. I remember when I got my book advance I had been living in the basement of a crack house that had no power, even though I was clean and sober. I was going to a famous restaurant every morning to use their bathroom. So I spent my first check on a bed. It was surreal, going from having absolutely nothing, to sort of hooking up with Ben Stiller to make a movie of my book, to flying in a private jet. I went from having nothing at all, to being surrounded by rich people. I got the psycho-emotional bends. But I was so glad to not be on dope that the rest was just gravy. It was a surreal time, but I don’t know about you—doesn’t life always seem surreal?
Rumpus: Yes, but instant fame is different.
Stahl: I was really lucky, because my life had been utterly and thoroughly destroyed. So I took fame seriously but I didn’t take it seriously at the same time. It comes and goes. The really weird thing is when you’re famous and broke at the same time, which has happened to me. That is always an interesting combo. I’m just happy people even read me.
Rumpus: Someone I know said fame is only problematic when you have it then lose it, that it feels like withdrawal.
Stahl: It’s an interesting thing. I used to write horrible stuff about famous people—the one thing about writing a book and becoming quasi-famous, you start to hang out with people you never would have known, and realize how devastated they are by this stuff. Before that, it never occurs to you that they are even human. It is interesting, the bad review or no-reviews debate. It’s all devastating. Eventually you have it all burned out of you.
I just want to write as much as I can before they pull the plug. I still don’t expect to be alive, so I have this weird, almost cloying gratitude that I don’t even like to talk about, because it sounds so insipid. But I don’t sweat a lot of the shit I used to sweat when I was more famous and happening.
Rumpus: Do you have a different relationship with death now than you used to?
Stahl: Yeah, because I see the horizon. (Is that woo woo or Hallmark?) But it’s definitely around the corner. It’s just a race to see if I’m in diapers before my kid gets out of them. I don’t fear it, but I can feel its hot breath on my neck. Had I not been remarkably saved by this trial I was on, I probably wouldn’t be here. Every doctor I’ve seen can’t believe I’m walking around.
Whenever I get obsessed by this or that, I think of one of my favorite things: the Catacombs in Paris. I spend a lot of time in Paris, like one of those old jazz guys, because my books do really well there (when here, in America, I’m just some guy shuffling down the street). Anyway, I go to the Catacombs, floor-to-ceiling filled with human heads. I look at some skull and think, I wonder if he worried about his book not getting reviewed. An anonymous head in a pile of heads, in one room in a vast underground tunnel of abandoned heads, puts it into perspective for me in a very happy way.
Rumpus: Talk about writing a memoir, because I feel like it’s such a different endeavor, and it seems like you’re inevitably going to make an irreparable kind of mistake by doing it.
Stahl: I remember you saying that you’re a perfectionist. With Permanent Midnight, I didn’t have a computer, and someone gave me a computer which I didn’t know how to use, so I turned in way too many pages to begin with, but on top of that they were one-and-a-half spaced, so I turned in like 1,900 pages. They cut out all the stuff that wasn’t Hollywood-related. So while writing ALF was a very small part of my life, all of a sudden I’m the ALF guy. Mostly what I wrote was about me being homeless and doing petty crimes, which was more interesting to me, but they cut a lot of it out. It’s very true what you say, because the rest of my life, I’m that guy because hundreds of pages of the guy I actually was got cut out.
Rumpus: What do you think about the genre of memoir, in general?
Stahl: I wrote six novels before I had a book published and the first chapter would be in a literary magazine, so for me, in those years, language had nothing to do with truth. I wrote Permanent Midnight without thinking about being stylistically festive on the page, and it just poured out of me. By the time I wrote a memoir, I was a completely different person, so the writing itself was a bit more like napalm than paisley. Some writers say you can either think about that perfect book and not write it, or you can go ahead and write an imperfect one.
Rumpus: I think being a perfectionist is a curse—at least for me it is.
Stahl: Yeah, but what do you really mean? What you really mean is ashamed and afraid of what people are going to think of you.
Rumpus: Yes, it’s a front for being terrified of not being liked.
Stahl: It’s a narcissistic outgrowth of thinking that everyone’s looking at you. Believe me, there’s no thrill at having your memoir dismissed or having a movie made of you. To the extent that I have a philosophy of life, it’s “make a new mistake.”
Rumpus: I think that’s sage advice for succeeding in the long run.
Stahl: I don’t know that I’m successful—it’s just my experience. It’s just funny talking to you, because the subtext of this interview is, I wish I could get you to write a book.
Rumpus: Well, I often finish work and then don’t have the desire to be published.
Stahl: You’re afraid of being exposed. You have a drive to make you write them. Then you have this other drive to keep them hidden.
Rumpus: Yes, being seen. I try not to think about it too much, the fear of publishing when that’s also all you want.
Stahl: You’re a writer who is writing books and then hiding them. Don’t throw your computer at me when I tell you this, but: if you could get over yourself and instead think that maybe your book would benefit someone.
Rumpus: I love the story you tell in Permanent Midnight about the soldier. Can you recount it here?
Stahl: We didn’t take vacations when I was a kid, but my father was in the reserves, so once, when I was three, we were in Georgia on a military base. I was playing in the red dirt and this poor soldier was marching up and down. It was so surreal to me. I kept watching him, and finally I took a clod of earth and threw it at him to see what would happen and nothing happened. He kept walking. I threw another one at him, and nothing happened. I couldn’t believe it.
Rumpus: What’s your takeaway from that story?
Stahl: Well, what’s your takeaway? What I find interesting about a memoir is that other people are so much smarter and interesting about what’s on the page than I am.
Rumpus: Well to me, that story is about not existing. The experience of not existing.
Stahl: Yes. I used to think I didn’t have a face. Like everyone else had a face but me. I never linked those two, but I guess that’s true. He confirmed that I didn’t exist because he didn’t feel those clods of dirt I was wailing at him.
Rumpus: And in that process of trying to confirm your own existence, you ended up hurting him.
Stahl: Yes, I have been metaphorically pummeling strangers with my clods of dirt ever since, in all arenas of my life. Every novel is like a chunk of dirt that I hurl at readers, and I still can’t get the reaction I want.
Rumpus: There’s a recurring theme in your work, a fear of being bad in some kind of fundamental way and passing it on to someone else. Part of my fear of being a mother is wrapped up in not wanting to pass on the bad parts of me.
Stahl: That makes it sound like it is a moral issue. It’s more like Lenny in Of Mice and Men, stroking the kitten but ending up killing it. It’s less about evil than it is about incompetence. What are the bad parts of us? Who the fuck knows? Though one of the more festive side effects of having a child is getting to see some heinous version of yourself suddenly manifesting in another person.
Rumpus: I think your columns about being a dad are so great because they are so candid, and there’s something oddly limitless in what you’re willing to write about. Is that because of what you’ve written in the past?
Stahl: This question speaks more to your obsession with looking bad. I am willing to say anything mostly because the kind of art I love is people who say the unsayable. If you say the unspeakable thing that everyone feels and goes through. Nothing I write in those columns is—my least favorite word in the English language—transgressive. It’s all stuff that really happens. I talk about masturbating babies. They come out of the womb wanting to pleasure themselves, and girls come out with orangutan vaginas, and no one talks about it, but what the fuck, it’s life. I read some books about being a dad, and they were so jokey, sort of, Oh, I’m a dad, what a rascal, and really the whole process is more primal, bloody, and insidious.
Rumpus: What writers write about the unspeakable?
Stahl: People like Céline—I like his work for that reason—because he talks about the way people really are and the way they really feel. There are people who write what they think should be said, ones who write what shouldn’t be said, and then those who have no control over it, like myself. I’m sure I’d have a much different career if I was a more circumspect, image-conscious writer.
Rumpus: You say in Permanent Midnight that heroin will never break your heart, not like loving a child will. In a lot of your work you are very funny, but it can feel like you’re keeping desperation at bay, so it’s nice when you allow yourself, in your fatherhood column, to let that mask fall, and we see moments of pure joy.
Stahl: First of all, what breaks your heart is seeing something happen to them that hurts. You feel all their pain. As for the happiness—I never thought I would live long enough to say this, but weird shit happens when you don’t die young, and having lived this long, I’ve ended up happy. Not straight-up happy, but happy. It’s an interesting place to write from, and my work is somehow even darker. How that works, I don’t know. I’m in a place I’ve never been. Things aren’t perfect, but I don’t suffer the way I used to. Perhaps because death is closer and I want to put my energies where it matters.
Rumpus: In Happy Mutant Baby Pills, the body, both in this book and in your life, is so resilient and also fragile. I’m always amazed at what the body can endure.
Stahl: That’s true. Back in the bad old days—without talking about drugs, because that’s a boring subject—all the junkies I knew, it wasn’t the fear that we would die, it’s that we wouldn’t die. The body is so fucking resilient, even when you don’t want it to be. It takes a lot to die.
Jerry Stahl will be reading at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco at 7:30 pm on Thursday, January 30th. More details here.
Rumpus original photo of Jerry Stahl © by Meiko Takechi Arquillos.