Fiction Is the Last Frontier His new book, Perv–A
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
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
Fiction Is the Last Frontier
His new book, Perv–A
Perv is a
pretty long book. How long did it take you to write?
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
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.
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
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.