The first time I met Jonathan Reiss was at a show on the Lower East Side where he read from his novel Getting Off. I was blown away not only by his writing but also by his performance. The scene he read was disturbing; a first-person account of a young heroin addict named Simon getting beaten bloody by a drug dealer who thinks he’s an undercover cop. The dealer relents only when Simon offers him his sleeve to smell. The months of accumulated filth serve as proof that he really is a user. It was gripping and disturbing, and Jonathan’s reading brought to life Simon’s pleading desperation.
It was no surprise to learn that Jonathan, like his character, Simon, used to be an actor. It’s a career he left behind to pursue his writing, starting off as a journalist in New York covering everything from porn conventions to rap battles. He’s published stories in The Source, Interview Magazine, Complex, Tablet, SPIN, and the New York Observer, among other publications. After several years of shopping it around to different publishers, Getting Off was published in April 2017 by Instar Books. Jonathan also recently sold a television pilot and is working on writing more.
I spoke to Jonathan about the transition from actor to writer, his own past drug use, and about the relevance of Getting Off in light of the country’s current opioid epidemic.
The Rumpus: When I first met you five years ago you had finished a version of Getting Off and were working with an agent to send it out to publishers. How has the novel changed in the years since you first finished it and how did you end up working with Instar?
Jonathan Reiss: Long story long, I began writing the novel in a workshop run by the author Jennifer Belle in her home. She taught a course at New School that I really enjoyed. I’m not sure if she still runs that workshop but it deserves a plug because of the five or six people that were in that workshop at at least four of them have published novels. Bronwen Hruska, Jullianne Garrey, and Michael Sears are all really talented novelists who were in the workshop.
I was fortunate (or unfortunate depending on how you look at it) and got an agent very early on. The first agent that took me on was a weird situation where the boss was letting her former assistant take on a project for her first outing, so it was a big name agent on paper but her assistant was running point. She had a specific vision for the book where she wanted it to have more mainstream appeal. She gave me a bunch of edits that I spent months working on. After handing them in, more months went by, a bunch of personal tragedies seemed to occur in her life that kept her from responding to my emails and finally she called me and told me basically that she was overwhelmed and couldn’t help me any longer. I was pretty young at that point and fairly devastated. I felt like I’d wasted so many years on this one pursuit finally got someone to put a ring on it and then got left at the altar. Little did I know that I was just the beginning in terms of rejections and things falling apart. One thing that I’ve learned, though, is that a good way to get over a big loss like that is to just double down on how hard you’re working. I sent it out to another slew of agents, wrote more, and continued working as a journalist.
During that time being a journalist and aspiring novelist I gained two qualities that are pretty crucial for anyone aspiring to do either: patience and resilience. I learned to find something new to obsess about while waiting for responses from editors so I can pretend like I haven’t spent the past three months refreshing my emails every two minutes. My thick skin is really just a cut above crying in the bathroom every time something doesn’t work out. Also, email etiquette is huge.
Anyway, the very first agent that showed interest in the book passed it around her shop and it ended up in the hands of an assistant for another high-profile agent. Not long after the call with my previous agent, that assistant became a full agent and took on my book. We had a great working relationship and continue to collaborate to this day. He used to tell me, “Most authors put their first attempt at a novel in a drawer to gather dust and never look at it again… and rightly so. You shouldn’t do that with this book; just keep editing it until it’s right.” So that’s what I did.
I interviewed Johnny Temple from Akashic Books at one point around the time that I was working on additional edits for Getting Off and I asked him what he most often finds to be lacking in first novel attempts. I’ll never forget his answer which was that authors in their twenties to thirties, male authors in particular, write with a certain sort of “authorial arrogance” and that comes from the “ridiculously overcharged hubris of male adolescence [that] hasn’t quite smacked into the wall of reality yet.” With the final edit of the book I think I became more aware of that.
Finally, there was one aspect of the book that I was never able to reconcile. We did a small first round of submissions to publishers, during which time I felt completely fucked. We had a bunch of close calls, a bunch of “I couldn’t get enough support from the rest of our editors, but I want to bounce it to our other imprint.” In the end, I just decided to cut the one section of the book I couldn’t make work.
That’s when the offer from Instar came. I met Miracle Jones from Instar the same night I met the original agent. I did a reading at KGB and got an email from him inviting me to do a monthly reading that he ran at Happy Ending downtown. We still had a lot of publishers to go out to but the agent was basically like “if you don’t want to get all stressed out again and want to see this thing out there, I think it’s a good move.”I couldn’t be happier with the decision to publish with them. The edit Miracle did of the book restored the initial energy the book had in it’s early stages and since lost. His edit had the pace I always wanted for this book. I think in the end, I smacked up against that wall Johnny Temple was talking about and that experience gave the book what it needed, and in reading Getting Off, you’ll get to hit that very same wall, hard.
Rumpus: At your book party in April Instar was selling the ebook edition of Getting Off in glassine bags like the kind heroin is sold in. It was a funny marketing ploy that felt in step with the tone of the novel, which while it definitely has some dark moments, is also laced with humor and never as bleak as the subject matter would suggest. Was this your idea or the publisher’s?
Reiss: It was mine. Heroin culture fascinates me. As much as people think they know about it most people know very little. One of the most fascinating aspects of that culture is the heroin art/branding bit which is joked about in the book and which I’ve written a few articles about for different outlets. It’s this unique microcosm of mainstream capitalism. There’s also no other use that I know of for the bags they sell heroin in besides being a container for heroin. At the stamp shop where they bought the stamps for the bags there was a big sign that said “Not to Be Used for Drugs.”
Overall, aside from being a fun way to dress up the ebook it seemed to appropriate as a lot early readers of the book responding to it with “I read it in one sitting” or “I read it in a day,” or “I almost threw up at this part.” I got one note from a reader who said he fainted during a particularly bloody scene while reading it at work. All those things along with Scott McClanahan’s original blurb which ended with “Just put it in your veins,” contributed to the concept of it being some kind of literary heroin.
Rumpus: You’ve spoken a little about the autobiographical elements of the book. Like Simon you are also a former actor who struggled with a drug addiction.
Reiss: I’m open about the fact that there are some autobiographical elements, but I try to avoid talking about which parts. The book is categorically a work of fiction. That said, I think all novels should be somewhat autobiographical. I think that’s where a lot of the process lies, in figuring out how to incorporate your experience.
The acting part of the book is probably the most autobiographical aspect. I did play exclusively juvenile delinquents and grocery store clerks on TV while I was in high school. On One Life to Live I spray painted a person’s house because they didn’t answer the door when I was trick or treating on Halloween. On Oz I got beat to death by a police officer during an interrogation; that was probably my favorite. In my twenties I did some more in-depth theater stuff. I love acting. Funny thing, my sister is now a casting director for a company that used to audition me all the time back then. Together we often discuss who we’d want to play the various characters in the book.
Rumpus: When you first wrote Getting Off that period of your life was only recently behind you, but in the years that you spent revising the novel and sending it out to publishers it receded further into the past. What was it like revisiting these elements of your life through Simon as you worked on revising the novel?
Reiss: When I finished one of the early drafts of the book I told myself that I was done writing about opioid addiction, but that proved untrue. I don’t think I’ll ever be fully done writing about it. First of all, it’s hard not to. If Proust went on for as long as he did inspiration from the taste of a madeleine it makes sense that a drug that can obliterate all feelings of pain, anxiety, and sadness has inspired so much writing. I think when I first wrote the book it was just about delivering that visceral punch. Scenes like the Newark pistol whipping scene speak to that. In later revisions it became more about analyzing the why. There were definitely days early on when I just couldn’t work on this book and there are scenes, particularly the hospital scene, that I still have trouble reading, and probably wouldn’t read in public for that reason.
It’s important to talk about right now I think, too. Opiate addiction has become a pivotal subject. The right has glommed onto the topic as their cause célèbre although don’t believe that any politician on that aisle could have any real understanding of the issue, not when Jeff Sessions is pushing for the harshest possible sentencing for drug offenders. Addiction is an important thing to discuss. Opioid addiction is like addiction to its very core, a category all its own. There was a reason why the eighties was marked by cocaine abuse and there’s a reason now why so many people are trying to crawl back into the womb with heroin. I think it’s important to talk about opiate addiction so it stops being the monster in the closet and I think it’s important to push a harm reduction agenda. It’s the only thing that works when it comes to dealing with opiate addiction. Meanwhile, with Trump in office, opiate addiction is only going to proliferate further. People will lose their jobs. Programs will get cut and people will have fewer options for dealing with their problems in terms of health care. For those people, opiates can be a cure all. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with that. I believe there can be functional opioid addicts, but that becomes less and less likely the more drugs are criminalized.
All in all, there are days where I’ve wished I never struggled with drug addiction, but I’ve landed elsewhere when it comes to that. It’s all somewhat inextricable for me in terms of who I am and where I am, both of those things I’m happy with.
Rumpus: You did a reading a couple of months ago where your parents were in the audience, and read a scene from the book in which Simon strips naked while a client jerks off. I was really impressed with both you and your parents for being completely comfortable with this, and with how supportive they are of your work. How did has your relationship with them evolved over the years? I know it wasn’t always in such a great place.
Reiss: My relationship with my parents today is one of the aspects of my life that I find most fulfilling. It’s about as good as I could hope for it to be. That said, it used to be rough.
Very early on I think I adopted the philosophy that experience was capital, be it positive or negative. I got into a lot of pretty serious trouble as a kid. I think my parents were enamored with how different I was from them, or anyone they knew at an early age, but at the same time they had a pretty rigid idea of who and what they wanted me to be. They wanted me to be a lawyer and I wanted be Christian Slater in Heathers, then I wanted to join the ALF and free animals from cages in laboratories, then I wanted to be Rimbaud. I never did well in certain aspects of school so I was medicated which I resented. When I was thirteen I wound up in some serious trouble for wire and computer fraud and the aftermath of that put a pretty big rift between us. From then on, whether it was playing in bands or acting on TV, I did it all very independently and they took it as me not wanting them involved, while I took it as them never being impressed by anything I achieved. That sort of lapse in communication is something that fascinates me to this day. In a way it’s cliché that it all started to fell into place as I neared thirty but I recently wrote about this girl I dated when I was a kid who wound up being a drug trafficker. By the time I was graduating high school I felt more of a connection with a prostitute in a crack house in Asbury Park then anybody in my high school. But as bad as it got, I always felt it was worth it because I’d have a story to tell. I’ve only recently realized how lucky I am. I’m grateful. I now realize that my parents are brilliant and that I have so much to learn from them. I think about that every day.
Rumpus: Was it difficult for your family to treat the novel as a work of fiction? Did they ever ask you if certain scenes were taken from real life?
Reiss: It was difficult. I was so concerned about it that, at times I questioned whether I should publish the book. That said, my parents in particular have been incredibly respectful about it. They don’t ask. I’m sure that’s difficult for them and it’s appreciated. Nonetheless, they are great supporters of my work and specifically of this book which means a great deal to me. Also, they read nonfiction work of mine about some pretty personal topics so they might be able to decipher certain aspects.
Rumpus: Getting Off depicts all of these different sides of New York in a way that’s really fascinating. On the one hand Simon is a good looking, young, white guy from a well-off family. Because of his addiction, though, the city his peers inhabit seems distant. His apartment is filled with garbage and he hasn’t taken a shower in so long that people avoid sitting next to him on the train. What has your own experience of New York been like? Were there any specific qualities that you thought were especially important to capture?
Reiss: That’s really nice to hear because that was very important to me. Any time somebody recognizes a block or neighborhood that’s portrayed in the book I get ecstatic.
I love New York and cherish books that paint a pretty picture of the city. I’ve been hearing for well over a decade and I’m not sure I could ever leave. The other part of your question sort of winds back into the issue of opioid addiction. I hear people like Milo Yiannopoulos or Gavin McInnes talk about the white male being oppressed in this day and age it makes me chortle vomit.
I come from a family of Holocaust survivors. My dad’s dad was the only member of his family to survive through it and he was this really heroic guy who rescued people in the ghettos and camps. I don’t know if it has anything to do with that but I’ve always been sensitive to the plight of the other or the oppressed. In a weird subconscious way, I think I’ve made things harder for myself deliberately at times. Back during more difficult times my dad used to say it was like I was whipping myself because it felt good when I finally stopped. Addiction is humbling but it also brings you closer to the more embattled citizens of this country a bit more. It’s one thing to know that black and Hispanic people are getting locked up at hugely disproportionate rate to whites. It’s another thing to have a guy that you see every day of your life and have him talk to you on Friday about how excited he is that it it’s supposed to be nice outside over the weekend because his daughter has a soccer game and then he’s going to a BBQ then find out the next day that he got caught up and is looking at three years in prison minimum. I’m not saying people should feel like they have to apologize for their privilege. But I do think everyone should at one point fear the possibility of being homeless. It makes you appreciate what you have. It makes you never question whether or not you should swipe somebody in with your metrocard if you have an unlimited. I’ve just learned to love people that make terrible mistakes because I truly believe that what you learn from fucking up is the most powerful kind of wisdom. They are my people.
Rumpus: Getting Off is so many things: an addiction story, a New York story, a coming of age story. It even has a few scenes, like the one where Simon’s client is trying to convince his wife that Simon’s a babysitter instead of an escort, that have a delightfully twisted sitcom quality to them. What are some works that influenced you when you were writing it?
Reiss: I wrote it over a pretty long span of time. The first few years of writing the initial draft and then revisions, rewrites, and editing. Early on it was a lot of the books that I was able to read very quickly, books like The Fuck Up (and all of Arthur Nersesian’s books) The Frog King by Adam Davies, Joe Meno’s books. Anything I was able to read in a sitting or two, those were the books that made me want to attempt to write a novel which is why it makes me really happy when people tell me they finished the book in a sitting or two. Early in the writing of the novel somebody told me that the book read to them like a modern version of Hunger by Knut Hamsun only instead of hungry and yearning for food, the character was dirty and needing a shower. After that Hunger became a big influence. Dennis Cooper really made me rediscover fiction, though. All of his books influenced my writing. Sam Lipsyte along with Barthelme (per Lipsyte’s mention in some interview) gave me a kind of permission to write comedic elements amongst otherwise dark themes. Also Lipsyte’s work made me start to think a lot about sentences which was probably not great for the novel at first but after a lot of revision ended up being a boon. Zazen by Vanessa Veselka was influential to me as it felt like this great punk rock novel. George Tab, another Maximum Rock N Roll alum, was an early influence. Adam Wilson’s Flatscreen and Foreskin’s Lament by Shalom Auslander. In the later stages Joshua Mohr was one of the biggest influences. I’d reached a point where I felt like fiction was had become an intellectual pissing contest that I wasn’t quite up to snuff for and his work sort of reaffirmed my belief that great storytelling always wins. His work also taught me to trust myself when it came to sentences. I could read it a book of his out loud and it would just hit hard. It taught me to trust myself when it came to prose and to pay attention to how things sound.
Rumpus: How do you feel like being an actor has informed your career as a writer? Both in terms of the actual writing process, character and story development etc., and other elements like handling rejection and performing for audiences?
Reiss: Most writers in another life would have been either lawyers or actors I think. Acting and writing work a lot of the same muscles and require the same combination of empathy, creativity, and ego. I often miss acting and would happily go back to it under the right circumstances. Acting, like writing is in part about choices. You get on stage and go from eating a donut to arguing your way into a break-up being able to call that up is much like writing a scene where your character is bleeding in a gutter while you’re sitting happily in a coffee shop where they only problem you have is that the music too loud. Also both professions derive great value from experience. For someone who wants to live a quiet, peaceful life of the in-between, acting and especially writing is not the right profession.
Rumpus: When did you decide you wanted to step away from acting and focus on writing?
Reiss: I didn’t want to worry about my appearance so much anymore for one. I wanted to grow a red beard and eat a pint of ice cream every night. Having both those things now, I can’t tell you it was worth it. I also thought I wanted to stop being so beholden to forces beyond my control. I’d obsess over every moment of existence on the day leading up to an audition. If somebody looked at me the wrong way I’d l think I’m fucked, I’m not gonna book this role now. They’re going to reject me because they know I’m the type of person who gets insecure when people look at me weird.” That turned into a weird brand of OCD that really didn’t get any better with writing. Instead it manifested itself in the form of submissions to agents, editors and publishers. Only this time it was an even more incisive form of rejection. With acting I could always write off a rejection with “you just don’t have the right look,” or “you need to start jogging.” With writing it was more, “Your brain sucks. “
Rumpus: How did you start your freelance writing career?
Reiss: I was brazen. It wasn’t unlike when I was a freshman in high school and called an acting agent and said “I want to be an actor will you represent me.” Or years later when I would email a bunch of agents saying “I love this writer you represent, will you represent me?” That goes a long way. I had just graduated college and I was working at a coffee shop when I heard someone talking about writing for a magazine. I basically just interrupted and confessed to eavesdropping and asked for advice. That person wound up being Jason Diamond, the author of Searching for John Hughes, who also happens to be sort of the arbiter of the Brooklyn literary world. He gave me work at a Jewish themed online magazine called Jewcy.
Punk rock also helped. I didn’t go to an Ivy League school and have never been a great networker, but a lot of the people who helped me early in my career as a journalist were connections I had from being active in my local punk scene growing up in New Jersey, people who booked hall shows and ran Food Not Bombs in New Brunswick where Lifetime and the Bouncing Souls came from. Adam Rathe was one of those people who was an editor at NY Press. At the time I was newly clean and out of college and had developed a pretty intense social anxiety. He hired me as a party reporter for the paper which ended up being a sort of aversion therapy, forcing me to get out there and ask celebrities what they were drinking this evening.
I’m of two minds about it because, in part I think it’s the shitty or weird jobs that provide the best material for writing so I think that’s a necessity for any aspiring writer but being able to say that I write for a living for so many years has been pretty rewarding and kind of helps me sleep at night. I tend to use journalism as an excuse to do anything that I’d be otherwise too chicken shit to do. So whether it’s a lifestyle magazine sending me to a porn convention or going to rap battles for The Source, it’s a job that makes for memories which I don’t take for granted. Doing it in this day and age especially if you don’t have connections or aren’t great at social media, takes a lot of hustle but it allows me to be obsessively interested in fascinating things which pretty much makes it the best job in the world or at the very least makes me an interesting dinner guest.
Rumpus: You recently sold a television pilot—can you talk a little bit about that? What was that process like and how was it different from selling your novel?
Reiss: I can’t really say too much about it besides that it’s about the criminal justice system. Basically, I had drinks with my book agent for the first time and mentioned an idea I’d had for awhile for a television show and he encouraged me to write it, helped shape it, and then got it out there. Selling a television show is definitely different. There are a lot of meetings, often without any real purpose but I got a lot of fancy free meals out of it which made it all worthwhile. I love television. In fact, I regret not pursuing television writing sooner. It’s incredibly competitive but it comes quite naturally to me. I was never allowed to have a television in my room as a kid for good reason because I just never would have left my room. television shaped my thinking in a lot of ways and definitely influences my writing. I write fiction as just a collection of scenes. Television I treat more like a story I’m telling somebody. The main difference for me is that television writing is less lonely. After spending the better part of a decade living in the world of Getting Off alone, it was a huge relief to be able to bounce ideas off people the way scriptwriting allows. I look at television writing more objectively. I plot more. Writing fiction, I tend to feel like a piece of debris floating in the ocean, getting knocked around by waves just allowing myself to go wherever the water takes me. With television I think about what makes story satisfying. I think about structure and theme. I watch television differently now, and probably enjoy it more than ever before. Mythology was the first subject in school, I ever really took to and now I read mythology with a renewed passion. After selling the pilot I was hired by a production company made up of former HBO execs to write another pilot. At this point I’ve written a handful. It’s fun to just have an idea and spend a month or two developing it and then just have it be done which you can do with scriptwriting. I’d put it like this, with television, you should be able to just tell somebody what happens and they should be interested. You might not be able to do that with your novel and that’s fine.
Rumpus: What are you working on now? Do you think you’ll go back to fiction or do you want to continue writing for film and television?
Reiss: I’m going to keep doing it all for as long as I can. Like, I said, I’m grateful to be able to do it so the least I can do is keep writing. I’m also lucky. I got a lot of help along the way. In part that’s because I asked for help from a lot people, and some people were total dicks, but more so people were caring and helpful. I definitely recommend asking for help and advice. Reach out to the people whose work you love and ask for their advice. That’s what I did and I really like sharing what I’ve picked up from doing that.
I don’t want to ever stop writing fiction. It’s important for my sanity and it makes me a better scriptwriter. I also like that books are now the outsider’s choice of entertainment. I’m working on a second novel. It’s still pretty nascent but it’s about Judaism and journalism. I’m developing another pilot that I’m really excited about also. And working on an article for an outlet I’ve never contributed to before. I also might take my first whack at a screenplay for a film as I have an idea that makes me giddy to think to about.
I’ve got the three to focus on each day and if I open the laptop to work on the novel and the words don’t come or the research doesn’t keep my attention, I try working on whatever pilot I’ve got in the hopper, or I transcribe interviews for the article I’m working on. Without fail, one of them will always keep me enthralled and focused. If not, I’m available for babysitting and pet care.
Author photograph © Spiro Galiatsatos.