Click hereCRASH HIS FUNERAL AND ALL WILL BECOME CLEAR: JERRY STAHL UNCORKEDThe Stop Smiling Interview with Jerry Stahl
Author Jerry Stahl
Sunday, December 11, 2005 BY CHUCK MINDENHALL Jerry Stahl first gained recognition in the mid-'90s when he published his soul-bearing memoir Permanent Midnight, a work that was eventually made into a movie starring Ben Stiller as a beleaguered junkie-cum-television writer. Stahl has since published three books of fiction that have solidified his reputation as a slightly warped, always funny cult-lit hero: Perv: A Love Story, Plainclothes Naked, and his most recent, I, Fatty, which fictionally tells the heretofore untold story of silent film actor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle's life. In each work Stahl's prose becomes a fiercely witty cornucopia of slang and colloquialisms to befit his subject matter.
Though there are many facets at play in Stahl's writing – with themes varying from rampant teenage pilgrimages in Perv to the hallucinatory crime caper in Plainclothes Naked – there's an uncensored channel to the down-n-out, and the obsessive commentary of junkiedom. Though he's been sober now for over a decade, Stahl understandably carries a chip on his shoulder. Having known the “hell” of the gutter, of being a full-fledged heroin addict and toiling at a fast-food window at an age that nears the legal minimum to be President of the United States, Stahl has a real sense of who he is and he never forgets where he came from.
Jerry sat down to discuss his literary influences, the humbling experience of teaching kids in juvey hall, future film and book projects that he's working – and he even turns the tables on the interviewer here and there with unmistakable Stahlian charm.
Stop Smiling: Why do you write fiction?
Jerry Stahl: As a young delusional teen, two forces smacked me in the face: rock n' roll and writing. I sucked too badly on guitar to make it in a band, so I decided to jump into the prose pool, moved by giants like Philip Roth, Stanley Elkin, Nabokov, Bruce Jay Friedman, Beckett, Flannery O'Connor, Ishmael Reed, Terry Southern, Nathanael West, John Barth, Hubert Selby and others whose dark, hysterical, unsparing, occasionally desperate and beautiful vision of life as it was lived somehow spoke to my own inchoate sensation of things. I also had the top of my head blown off by “Howl.”
SS: You currently write for television's “CSI”; you've written four novels published and six unpublished; and you've been a columnist for Details, a contributor for Playboy, LA Weekly and others, not to mention the father of a teenage girl. How do you find the time for everything?
JS: You flatter me. Details fired me the day after they threw me a book party for my last book. (It may or may not have had something to do with mocking the life-size Vin Diesel poster propped outside the entrance to the restaurant.) I haven't written for the Weekly for years, outside of a small homage to the late genius, Hubert Selby, and I've done one Playboy piece, an interview with my pal Owen Wilson, in the past decade. For the rest, I'm just trying to find a way to juggle paying the mortgage and funding my daughter's future college tuition with staying creative and not blowing my brains out. You didn't include screenwriting in your question, and that is the main way I have managed to survive, from time to time, as a not unwealthy fellow.
While my list of soon-to-be-never made scripts grows ever bigger, I have had the great good fortune to work with people I admire, like Johnny Depp and Ben Stiller, Philip Kaufman and Laurence Dunmore, among others. I also do a busload of script-doctoring. There is, of course, the temptation for a soul to bitch about spilling blood on the page for months, only to write something that ultimately ends up on a studio shelf somewhere, unmade – which is why I keep a framed photo of myself, looking mildly retarded in my McDonalds uniform at the ripe age of 38, to keep things in perspective. Anytime I hear a screenwriter bitch about the indignities of his or her profession, I want to tell them, "Go work at Mickey D's for a few weeks, motherfucker. Then come back and talk to me about humiliation."
Beyond that, I've been teaching at a juvenile hall once a week, working with gangbangers waiting to turn 18 and get sent away for a couple of decades. And that's been as rewarding as anything I've done my entire life. Hearing those gates lock behind when you walk out gives you a whole new vision of reality. These guys occupy a parallel universe few white people get – or care – to glimpse.
SS: The point is that you're a very busy guy. Describe a typical day for you.
JS: So far they're not typical. I try to keep them atypical. I think that helps fend off senility.
SS: Your novels, particularly your latest, I, Fatty and your memoir, Permanent Midnight, are the very definition of tragicomedy. Do funny and sad go hand-in-hand for you?
JS: I don't know if they exactly hold hands. They're probably trying to kiss each other to death.
SS: You had to take liberties in telling Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle's story as if viewed from his own eyes, such as your conclusion that Fatty was impotent and that Paramount's Adolph Zukor might have framed him in the rape/murder of Virginia Rappe. Did any Fatty buffs or Hollywood historians give you hell over the book?
JS: People always have opinions. But hell is better than silence.
SS: How long did it take you to research and write I, Fatty?
JS: I actually hired a researcher for the more arcane details, a great guy named David Berman, who's an expert in the field, and actually gives tours of the great dead movie palaces of downtown LA. Oddly enough, David also plays an assistant coroner on “CSI.” Small world.
SS: Anybody approach you for making it into a movie?
JS: Actually, Johnny Depp optioned it when it came out, and we've been working with the British director Laurence Dunmore – whose first movie Johnny stars in, with Samantha Morton and John Malkovich [The Libertine] – on making a movie out of it.
SS: You have an addictive personality. I've read somewhere that you have a harder time not writing than writing. Is writing a compulsion for you?
JS: Digging ditches is hard. Not having rent money or food for your kid is hard. What writing is is writing.
SS: The characters you write about are people with drug addictions, sexual problems, social disorders, etc, yet you manage brilliantly to provide them with this underlying, inverse belief that it's the world around them that's fucked up. Is this a conscious thing?
JS: Thanks for the compliment. I suppose whatever mirror an author holds up to the world, there are ultimately two reflections: one being his own, and one the reader's. I'll leave you to decide which you are looking at in the above description. At the end of the proverbial day – to mix metaphors – the reaction to any book is ultimately a Rorschach of the reader's own sensibility.
SS: You seem to relish the underdog. Do you find a kinship in telling the story of somebody who functions in spite of dysfunctional circumstances?
JS: One man's dysfunction is another man's dream cruise. That said, I suppose I do identify with outsiders, having felt like one most of my life.
SS: Your books take jabs at the oft-times ridiculous nature of Hollywood and the public who worships its every move. On some level, do you detest the film industry and the vainglory of the Hollywood actor?
JS: That would be a little pompous, not to mention hypocritical and boring. Humans tend to be a ridiculous species, but Hollywood is just one lily pad in the poisoned swamp we inhabit.
SS: You've tapped the truer human psyche, haven't you? That people are generally more perverted, debased, masochistic and sordid than they lead on?
JS: Again, I am not sure whose taste I'm defying.
SS: Well, the taste of the typical airport best-selling mainstream.
JS: You'd be surprised at the genteel souls who let themselves be seen in public with a Jerry Stahl book. While I have no illusions that I'll ever be a bestselling blockbuster kind of guy, you can see far more debased representations of Homo Americanus on Fox News.
SS: Who are some of your favorite writers currently, and who did you read growing up? Was there any particular author that inspired you to write? Any authors you absolutely loathe?
JS: Of late I've been reading new novels by Mary Gaitskill, Eric Bogosian and Nick Tosches – all fantastic – as well as a memoir by a first time writer, Joan Kelly, called The Pleasure's All Mine, which is genius, and a great biography of the much-neglected writer, Donald Goines, by Eddie Allen, called Low Road. Have also just re-read This Way to the Gas Ladies and Gentlemen, by the late Polish writer, Tadeusz Borowski. Nothing darker, nothing funnier, nothing more beautiful. And I re-read Delillo's Libra and Ginsberg's poetry all the time.
I suppose Burroughs, Mailer and West, in the beginning, said things I didn't know you were allowed to say when I was turned on to them as a young moron of 15 in the cultural hotbed of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Can't claim to really loathe any particular authors.
I'm grateful my books get published at all – I wrote six that didn't before Permanent Midnight – and if other writers gets more heat and ink, God bless 'em. I suppose, to those who make such judgments, I'll always be an ex-TV hack. Had I worked as a pimp or toilet cleaner instead of tube-scribbler to pay for my dope, I guess I wouldn't have this stigma. But such is life.
SS: Does it bother you that the LA Times, NY Times and other influential publications have been too prudish to review your books?
JS: Don't spend a whole lot of time thinking about it, though Thomas Mallon did do a nice piece on my books in the New Yorker when I, Fatty dropped.
SS: I know you're not an advocate for drug use despite certain claims that your books inspire it. But seriously, had you not have been a junkie, would your worldview sightlines be as clear today?
JS: I've never actually heard that my books inspire drug use. But maybe you know more than I do. Everybody passes through a few minefields in the course of their lives. I suppose making it to other side does impact one's vision, but it's not the drugs that do it, it's surviving them. One way or the other. I basically don't trust anybody who hasn't been to hell. Which doesn't mean we can't go bowling together.
SS: Your television writing dates back to “Alf” and “Moonlighting” in the '80s. How do you think television affects culture?
JS: Public perception to the contrary, TV writing has been a miniscule part of my life. For the past couple of years I do two episodes of “CSI” a year. What's strange is that I get away with more quote-unquote transgressive weirdness on mainstream primetime network TV than just about anywhere else. As to how it affects culture, that's like asking how your arm affects your Adam's apple.
SS: Is it one of television's side-effects to weed out the novel? Or are these two entertainments non-rivals?
JS: In the year of our Lord 2005, any claims that novels are somehow more noble or elevated than television stand out as a tad arcane. Cheese pervades all genres, and genius bleeds into both television and fiction from time to time.
SS: What are you currently working on?
JS: For a couple of years I've been working and researching a novel about a certain death camp doctor, set after the Holocaust. At the moment I am working on a film about Oscar Levant, with Ben Stiller, and the I, Fatty adaptation with Johnny Depp. Have also been knocking around Perv with Philip Kaufman. There's really nothing cooler to do all day than work with people you love and respect on a movie. Am also developing a pilot called Junkyboy for F/X. But I've been down the road too often to count on anything making it to the screen – or ending up between the covers, for that matter.
SS: If you'll afford me this one last cliché: as a writer, how would you like to be remembered when you die?
JS: Crash my funeral and I'll whisper in your ear.
Now, bring me that horizon...