by Jason Smith
Sitting outside of Fred’s 62 Diner in East Hollywood, I watch Jerry Stahl drive up – black Cadillac, black pants, black T-shirt, Johnny Cash had Johnny Cash shot dope while screenwriting for ALF and Moonlighting in the early 80s- when I’m struck with the realization that I’m about to do an interview and I have no idea what I’m doing.
I first read Stahl’s memoir, Permanent Midnight, back in 2007 while strung out on Fentanyl and Xanax, and I remember thinking: “Fuck. If this guy can get it, maybe there’s hope for me.” Fast forward eight years, and here I am, on a promotional tour for my own memoir, and we’re about to sit down to chat. It seems a bit surreal. I’d reached out to Jerry to ask him if he’d be interested in doing an interview, assuming he’d politely decline and I’d be able to say that I gave it a shot.
He accepted. So here I was, with absolutely no clue as to how to conduct an interview.
We walk the length of the diner, wrap around the back, and find a seat next to a lady, mid-80s-ish, eating runny eggs on wheat toast, all alone. It made me wonder what she did in her younger years that lead to her eating breakfast by herself on a Wednesday morning.
“Hey man,” I said, “I really appreciate you taking the time. I know you’re busy.”
“No, man, come on. It’s the least I can do. I know what it’s like, starting out. Shit, I should probably be out pimping my book too.”
The book he’s referring to is OG Dad, a collection of essays originally published online at therumpus.net, short-stories that came about when the recovering drug-addict/Hep-C survivor/writer found out he was going to be a father for the second time. The first time, as detailed in Permanent Midnight, things didn’t go so well. OG Dad is the story of his second go-round.
Sitting down, Stahl describes his experience with Hubert Selby, author of Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream, who shared his own experiences with Stahl while he was starting out. I get the impression that Stahl’s meeting me today is a sort of “pay it forward” act, which I’m totally cool with.
“So, I’m going to be totally up- front with you – I have no clue what the fuck I’m doing,” I confessed. “I’ve never done an interview before.”
Cool, calm, collected, he chuckles, which makes me feel a little better.
“Let’s just chat, man. Ask me whatever you want.”
Tell me a little bit about how you got started with Rumpus.
I knew Stephen Elliott, and he asked me to do some stuff. I had this idea for – I had a kid. You know, sometimes you survive shit and just write your way through it.
So you had this collection of short stories about becoming a father again. But did you start it with the intention of it ever becoming a book?
Oh, fuck no. No, I did a bunch of columns called OG Dad, and that’s how it started.
The image of you becoming a dad again is interesting because the last time around, which you wrote about in Permanent Midnight, didn’t go so well. That guy in the book raising a child versus this guy in this book raising a child…
Did you look at it almost a second chance to get it right?
No, I don’t think you ever get it right. A chance to make new mistakes, maybe. But I wouldn’t claim I did anything right. Maybe a new chance to be present. I tried to be present first time around, but I don’t know. You’d have to talk to my daughter about that. I was certainly not the way I am now. I was gone when she was two. I tried to continue to show up, but, you know how it is.
Is there such a thing as too honest in a memoir?
You’re giving me way too much credit. I’m not that calculated. Honesty is a moving target, really. I wrote that book when I had one minute clean, and what I wrote was me being honest when I wrote it. But sometimes just because we’re honest, doesn’t mean we’re right. Or that’s how it happened. But what did I know? I relapsed in the middle of writing the fucking book.
Talk about that a little bit.
Half way through the book I relapsed. I never knew how to write without drugs. I didn’t know how to handle it. Writing is being on the high-wire, and dope will make you forget there’s no net. So, I stumbled, and that was that. But in terms of honesty, what you think is honest now – I look back on shit I thought was honest at the time, and now I see that I was completely full of shit. All I can do now is laugh, because I was so full of shit. But it was honest at the time. At the time I wrote it, I meant it. I believed it. And I don’t know if that will ever change.
Do you ever find yourself fighting that feeling of wanting to go back and fix things once they’re out there?
Oh, fuck yeah. It’s tricky. It’s the ultimate letting go. There’s this story about this great writer, Stanley Elkin, who’d literally ride in a truck to New Jersey to the printer, making changes in red ink. You know, for me – I don’t really like reading my own writing, because I wouldn’t write it that way now. So I just don’t read my stuff anymore. It could be two weeks, or ten years, it doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t do it like that now. Sometimes you just have to let it go and put it out there. Once you do that, it belongs to whoever picks it up to give it some meaning.
What’s it like for you when you’re discussing the really dark times? Dipping down to write about it, while always making sure you’re maintaining the ability to come back out of it?
I think that’s the art of it. I’m quoting myself, or cannibalizing myself, but with Permanent Midnight, it was like, how far can you lean over the abyss without falling in?
Have you figured that out yet?
No, but talking about (Hubert) Selby, he said something really interesting to me, when I was first trying to get clean and trying to write. I was that pretentious asshole, saying things like “Well I don’t want to lose my edge,” and he said, “You fucking idiot. You don’t know how fucking crazy you are until you’re not on any drugs or alcohol, man.” And he was right. That’s when you really find out how fucking deranged you are. And to prove the point, his books are some of the darkest ever written in English. There’s a book he wrote called The Room, that’s so dark that it’s hard to read. And that was an inspiration to me. But you’ve gotta be – I don’t know if fearless is the word – but you have to be like that. His rule was, if I think it, I’m going to write it. I’m not going to edit myself. A writer just wrote about some of my work in the LA Review of Books, and he pointed out something to me that I never even saw, which was that I could have had a much more commercial career if I didn’t go to some of those really fucking dark, weird, uncomfortable places. But who has that choice? If I turn it into an advertising campaign about how normal I am, it’s going to be abysmal on every level.
You’ve been open about having had Hep C.
Yes, speaking about dark times.
At first, you went the homeopathic route, which got you nowhere. But then you ended up on a trial medication that cured you. So what’s your take on the direction of western medicine and Big Pharma?
That’s the irony, isn’t it? I was a, like, “western medicine is Satan” kind of guy. Keep in mind I was 58 when I got off of the Hep C train, and I had that grim revelation my entire adult life that I’d either be strung out or die. I was really sick, and doctors for years told me I had to go on interferon, and I wouldn’t do it because I knew too many people who went on it and tried to commit suicide, or couldn’t take it for whatever reason. And ironically, the only reason I got into this trial, was because they were looking for people with Hep C who’d never been on Interferon. They were looking for “Interferon-naive” they call it. So basically what it proves is, you never fucking know.
So you’ve been to both extremes. You’ve been anti-western medicine, and you’ve had your life saved by western medicine. Where are you now?
Where I am is thank you AbbVie pharmaceuticals. I mean, it was a trial drug, meaning it wasn’t FDA approved, meaning they hadn’t gotten all the kinks out. It was like 12 weeks of being on really bad acid. So I did what any writer would do and I took the opportunity to write a really deranged book, called Bad Sex on Speed. The whole time I was writing that book I couldn’t think straight.
A lot of Americans today seem to struggle with that – the mistrust of western medicine and Big Pharma but relying heavily upon them when we get sick. Then you have the anti-vaxx crowd, who are extremely passionate about their beliefs. There doesn’t seem to exist a middle ground in the discussion.
It’s a little deeper than that, because they’re not even objecting to the vaccination. They’re objecting to the fact that there was mercury and all this other shit in there. I think that’s a really complex issue. If you really dig deep and look at it, I think they’re more opposed the delivery system than the vaccination itself. I’m no expert on this shit, but I know a little bit. I’m a veggie guy. I’d shoot a cow in the face, don’t get me wrong. But I know enough about the industrial meat complex to not want to eat those fucking chemicals and all that shit they put into those animals.
And then you have someone like me who, at this point in my life – I’d rather not know, man. Part of me just wants to remain blissfully ignorant when it comes to all of that. I hate saying it, but it’s true. That’s just where I’m at.
You know what? I don’t really blame you. I totally understand that thinking. Having a kid, and knowing what’s going on in the world, that’ll kill you with stress and worry. That’s essentially what OG Dad is about. I mean, fuck, there’s not going to be any water. There are not going to be any antibiotics that work. There won’t be anymore natural resources. And you gotta wonder if the wi-fi and the blastoma’s that are showing up in people’s heads are connected, from everyone holding a phone next to ear all day long. What happens is you just become a stress monster.
Right, over things you really have no control over. So part of me thinks it best to just not think about it.
Right, I mean – what are you going to control? Wireless is everywhere, they build these big cell towers every-fucking-where. Right here in LA they were going to put cell towers on top of fire stations, did you hear about that? And the firemen were like, “fuck no!” Even regular, working guys know, that shit causes cancer.
But we live in this toxically convenient world.
It’s harmful to people, but let’s be real, in our addictions, we hurt a lot of people also, just in a much different way. I guess I feel more comfortable dealing with that, since I have a little more control over that.
Of course we did. And what was interesting was, after Permanent Midnight was released, it turned out to be a very successful book, based on all the fucked up shit I did, to myself, and to other people. And you’ll learn this with your book. Some of the people you hurt along the way – they may end up being resentful. Some of them will have this mentality like: they did everything right. You did everything wrong. And yet you’re being rewarded. You’re gaining recognition for the fucked up shit you put them through. And that’s one of the most difficult things to deal with, for both you and for them.
Are the reasons you started writing the same reasons you write today?
Yep. What the fuck else am I going to do? I have no other skills-set.
Do you prefer writing screenplays or writing prose at this point?
I find screenwriting really fucking hard. A lot of rules, a lot of limitations. I can write a novel and write a sentence and digress for 300 pages. In a script, you can’t do that. But at the end of the proverbial day, it’s all expression, it’s all getting it out there. I mean, I can’t write if I can’t find a way in where I relate to it. No matter what it is, I have to be able to find a way in.
How often do you write?
I’m kind of a binge writer. I usually have other things I have to do at the same time. In a perfect world, I could sit down and just write all day. But it ain’t a perfect world. And sometimes you have to write a hundred pages to get to page one. It’s like Mailer said: “writing novels is sanctioned schizophrenia.” And schizophrenics don’t always function beautifully in the world. For me, the hardest part about writing is when I lose myself in my writing – but then I have to go off into the normal world and do business and shit, it’s not always great. Because I go to this place – it’s like a drug. It’s like you’re fucked up. But then you have to pick up the phone and do business and all this crap.
What’s next for you?
I’m doing this Clive Owen movie now. I did this thing for HBO about Hemingway, and he bought the rights, so I’m working on something for him. I have another novel I’m working on. But writing books for me is a very expensive habit.