Fiction Is the Last Frontier Jerry Stahl's memoir Permanent Midnight (later made into that movie staring Ben Stiller) blew me away?its wicked humor, brilliant language, his breathtaking honesty in telling how he plunged from being a Hollywood tv writer to a low-down street junkie. I became friends with Jerry Stahl more than two and a half years ago. When I was first getting clean myself, he was a solid, steady support for me, guiding me to put my energy into writing instead of self-destruction. He once wrote me, "Fuck everything and write. Do what you have to do, hurt yourself or don't hurt yourself, but just try to ease up on the chemical intake and put it on the page. It's really the only high worth chasing any more..."
His new book, Perv?A Love Story, is a funny, twisted, cool novel?his first?about a 16-year-old's strange adventures at the end of the hippie era. He also wrote me once, "We're all fucking dying so fast that the important thing is to take the energy that that pain engenders inside us and turn it into art, into writing, into something that'll last, if only for the other people who're going to be going through what we're going through down the road."
Perv is a pretty long book. How long did it take you to write?
Perv took a couple of years to write, mostly because I had to keep stopping to try and pay the rent.
What are some of the projects you've been working on?
Ben Stiller and I collaborated on a movie version of Budd Schulberg's great Hollywood novel, What Makes Sammy Run??I wrote a totally unmakeable movie for 20th Century Fox. Mark Mothersbaugh, the Devo guy, brought me in to write the pilot for an animated show he was producing for MTV?which turned out to be so disturbo and surreal they got weirded out and passed?and I just finished a crazy-ass tv pilot being produced in association with Oliver Stone. What the fuck, you know? Once you've worked at McDonald's at the ripe young age of 38, any job that lets you wear your own clothes is fine with me. I didn't enjoy being a man in uniform?especially polyester.
You told me if it weren't for Ben Stiller this book wouldn't have happened. Why? How'd you hook up with him?
I hooked up with Ben when he was deciding to play me in Permanent Midnight. At that point I was not exactly a guy who hung with movie stars?unless I happened to meet one scoring dope or crack in downtown L.A., but I don't know if that counts. The movie got delayed, but Ben and I hit it off?I actually consider him one of my best friends?and out of nowhere he asked if I wanted to write a movie with him. If it wasn't for that odd coincidence, there's no way I would have ever gone back to work in "show business." But now, weirdly enough, that's exactly what I've ended up doing. In fact, Ben's company, Red Hour, has optioned Perv, and I've just signed a deal with New Line tv to try and develop it as a miniseries. It's such a completely insane idea, I figured why not? He and I are also working on another film, getting together either in New York or L.A. whenever we can.
Does it feel bizarre to have so many folks know so much about you and describing you as an ex-junkie?
In the old days I always hated writing tv?in fact, I never mind when media people refer to "ex-junkie Jerry Stahl," but whenever I see "ex-tv writer," I swear, my testicles ascend to my lungs?but it's more or less cool now. All the suits have read my book so they know who the fuck they're dealing with. Which is a change. For a couple of years there, the only tv business I was in was trading stolen portables for heroin. I guess this is progress, huh?
The truth is, all of this stuff is about trying to pay for the expensive habit of writing novels. I didn't have some kind of book deal or anything, I just wrote the fucking thing when I could. For better or worse, I've washed ashore as a kind of cult writer. The Anti-Grisham. I mean, Permanent Midnight didn't even get reviewed by The New York Times... At the end of the day, there's 19 weirdos in every city in America who think I'm the shit, and that's not the worst thing in the world. In fact, I'm completely grateful. I got a second and third chance when some people don't even get one. I know how fucking lucky I am. I should be dead, strung out or in jail, and instead I'm going on a book tour. How insane is that?
I remember when you were filming Permanent Midnight and you told me how you had trouble getting on the set?you had to prove you were you.
The first day of shooting I went down to the soundstage and the lugnut at the door, one of those donut-and-toolbelt guys, wouldn't let me in. Said I wasn't on the list. When I finally managed to convince him I was the jim-jim they were making the damn movie about, he got really nice. It was like, "Oh yeah, I heard about you, man. Congratulations! They don't usually make movies about losers." Needless to say, I couldn't have been prouder.
I thought you were great as the drug counselor. What was it like to sit in a screening and have all these strangers watching your life, or a distorted version of it?
When people ask what it was like seeing a movie of your life, I always say, "Imagine watching celebrities reenact the worst moments of your entire existence," then tell me what you'd feel. In fact, I was a different kind of asshole in the movie than I was in the book. But hey, you can't control that. I think once you cash the check you just kind of have to shut the fuck up. The good news was Ben Stiller did an amazing job. Absolutely brilliant. He literally made himself physically ill doing the role?lost 30 pounds, turned green, walked around like a dope fiend a day off the needle the whole time? I admire the hell out of him for that.
What was making the movie like? You had a role in your own movie, not playing yourself.
As far as the making of the movie, I was there a lot, mostly working with Ben, changing lines to make them as close to real as you can get and still be a movie. It wasn't easy being around syringes and spoons all the time. Essentially, I was brought in as a needle wrangler. I had to instruct Ben on the proper technique for holding the spoon, cooking the dope, drawing it up, tying off, etc? Fortunately, I'd done the research. So I stumbled into acting, when they brought me in to play the methadone doctor.
What other acting are you doing?
Since then I had another role, as a garbageman in Bruce Wagner's movie I'm Losing You?which ended up being cut?and in Eric Blakeney's Gun Shy I worked three days with Liam Neeson as a DEA agent. In fact I just heard I was in the trailer, which is completely crazy? I guess after Gore Vidal showing up in Bob Roberts and Gattaca, there's a tradition of writers showing up on camera. I once did a magazine profile of the actor Samuel Jackson, who I think is a total genius, and he said he learned how to act by being a dope fiend, from having to manipulate and lie to people's faces to get what he needed? Well, I wouldn't exactly call it Juilliard, but I guess you could say I went to the same acting school. I'm hoping to write a role for myself in Perv?maybe the one-armed barber who keeps Bobby captive in his basement after he catches him between his daughter's legs. Who knows?
Are you going to keep acting?
However it shakes down, I definitely want to keep acting. It gets you out of the house, plus the food's great and they give you money. I loved being in all the films I've done, but like Ben Stiller told me, "Hey man, you're a great actor, but if you're serious, you gotta get your teeth fixed." I don't know, though. Maybe it adds character. I wouldn't say I have movie star looks, but when they need some jim-jim who looks like he's survived a narco-holocaust, I'm their man.
Because Bobby in Perv is similar to you in some ways, do you worry folks will think it's about you, especially the sex stuff? That they'll think you're a perv?
As to what people will think of me when they read Perv, fuck that. After Permanent Midnight, it's a little late to worry about my reputation. With my books, a large percentage of the population is always going to want to spray the room after I leave. But another, smaller portion is going to identify hugely. What I always want to say is the unsayable, the can't-be-mentioned stuff, the underpinning of nonverbalized creepazoidal bedrock that, in fact, defines everybody's above-ground behavior. We all walk around like we're one thing, but we're all 1000 other darker, stranger things underneath. Some of us can keep that in check better than others, but nevertheless the weirdness is always simmering away.
The sexuality in this book is pretty wild. What inspired that?
I'd put it this way: what I'm interested in is less about what went in where than how it felt in the characters' heart and brain when it was going there? If I'm going to write about some kid about to get raped up the ass, I'm not going to be talking about what's going on in his alimentary canal, I'm going to be writing about what's happening in his psyche. In other words, it's not the physical specifics, it's the psycho-emotional sensations that the physical torment engenders?. That's what I want to capture. That's where I want my characters to live on the page. People read my work and they either laugh or squirm. Whether that's from recognition, nerves or revulsion is not for me to say.
On that level, rather than any particular sexual history, it's my own emotional anatomy I'm drawing on. Recalling how things I went through felt, going deep into recapturing how my own experiences twisted me around the fucking bend, plumb that territory to try and convey what it's like to be 16 and out of your mind with fear and alienation and weirdness at the fucked-up reality you find yourself hurled soul-first into. The trick is to lean as far into the abyss without falling in. It's always a balancing act.
Do you have groupies?
There's always some wayward soul or two who comes up afterward and tells you how they were about to fucking hang themselves or whatever, and they read your book and decided to stick around. Of course, for every one of them there's probably a dozen who felt swell until they read me, and then hung themselves. But hey, I'll never have to meet the sorry fucks, will I?
I remember hearing you on a radio interview and we talked about how the interviewer was so clueless and insensitive. Do you run into that a lot?
As far as interviews go, you can tell in the first three seconds if people get it or not. Terry Gross on Fresh Air had to be the all-time greatest, though Tom Snyder was cool, too, and I absolutely loved Oprah. Plus she smelled great. You want that in an on-air personality, you know, 'cause you're up there under the hottest lights in the known universe. Which can be trouble. But Oprah was the coolest. Though I didn't know till I got there that it was a theme show?"When Smart People Do Dumb Things." Boy was my face red! This was before her Book Club, though. I don't know if she's going to get on board the Perv train and give me a thumbs up. It's kind of a feel-good book, don't you think? You think she'll come through? Oprah, baby, I'm sittin' here by the phone!
Dennis Cooper advised me to have something new started by the time my book comes out because it's good to be focused on something else. Are you doing that?
I've started another novel, called Fake White Light, about a guy who's brought back from the dead in 2005 due to a happy accident in R&D at Armor Ham Company. So the good news is, six months after he croaks, he's back. The bad news is, nobody's particularly glad to see him. He calls his wife to tell her he's alive again and she's like, "Oh great, I just get through the grieving process and you show up again. That is so typical!" I'm dying to keep going on it?there's no better feeling in the world than going to sleep with your book in your head, then dreaming about it, twitching back to consciousness in the morning and pouring it all out again?but, like I said, it's an expensive habit. I've never been the kind of guy who gets grants or any of that stuff, so it's about hustling until you get the wherewithal to go back to novel-land. After heroin and crack, fiction is the last frontier.