Jerry Stahl is an American novelist and screenwriter who changed the world of literature and addiction writing with his 1995 memoir, Permanent Midnight, which was made into a major motion picture of the same name starring Ben Stiller. The book was released in 2015 with a foreward written by Nic Sheff. Stahl’s also the author of Perv—a Love Story, Pain Killers, Plainclothes Naked, and I, Fatty. He has written extensively for film and television, and is now working on a book based on his Vice series A Tour Of Hell, From Hell about his visit to holocaust death camps.
In 13 questions, Stahl gets real about surviving addiction, trauma, and writing it all out.
- When did you first know you wanted to become a writer? Was there a defining moment?
I was never any good at anything. Basically wanted something I could do fucked up, naked, and crazy at four in the morning, and maybe make some money. Never worked out that way, but a guy can dream.
- Your childhood was frigid and tense. How and when did you develop your incredible sense of humor?
It’s no original insight that oppressed people tend to develop a sense of humor. Whether you’re talking about being a member of a disdained minority group – or being a member of your family – let’s just say I never felt too comfortable. And being a wise-ass was a way to keep from chewing my tongue. Not that I had it so bad. I’ve known people who had it a thousand times worse, and the ones who survive are the ones who can still fucking laugh. Like Hemingway said, the best gift an artist can have is an unhappy childhood. I guess I was just lucky.
- Your memoir is as raw and revealing as a book can be. Everyone knows your entire life story when they meet you. Do you see this as an edge or a disadvantage?
It’s not something I ever think about. I mean, fuck them. Or fuck me. Or everybody knows I’m fucked…. or something.
One thing I learned touring for PM is that everybody’s secrets are pretty much the same. Camera-men on talk shows would take me aside and tell me some hellacious story, and some sweet little old lady on the plane would realize who I was and launch into some completely insane story of knocking over drugstores with burp guns and shitting in the ice cream. I mean people are fucking nuts. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that. But Permanent Midnight-wise, I guess I was at a point where dignity was a luxury I’d pawned a long time ago. So basically, in terms of exposing myself, I’d done worse for less. If that makes any sense. I suppose, from the point of view of your question, it’s one long overshare. Like pretty much everything these days. I was either ahead of my time, or delusional. Or both.
- Permanent Midnight takes us through your harrowing ride of extreme drug usage, but after the final transformative scene, we aren’t shown how you got back to normal life. What did you do to stay clean? How do you still do it today?
I do what a lot of people do, and hang out with people who had—or have—the same ape on their back that I did. Sometimes hearing other people’s stories, and being around people who get that you can handle your best friend dying but a broken shoelace will send you over the edge, that can save you. You find somewhere where the worst moments of your life can help somebody else going through the same shit.
- The “opioid crisis” is nothing new, and Permanent Midnight is just as relevant today as it was when it was released. Do you think there is anything that can be done to prevent people from turning to drugs? Do you have any words for those in the clutches of addiction right now?
What can I say? Drugs, on some level are a sane response to an insane situation. And whether you’re talking personal or global, things are pretty fucking insane for a lot of people. (If only in their heads.). Maybe thirty percent of people are born needing a fix, thirty percent are driven to it by circumstance, and thirty percent wonder what the fuck is wrong with the other sixty.
To the second part of your question, I don’t give advice. (And sure as fuck never listened to it when I was using) So, if anybody asks, I can only march to my own experience. As in, I could never imagine not shooting up nine times a day, yet somehow I don’t do that anymore….
I don’t trust anybody who hasn’t been to hell, so actually seeing people who’ve been there, and made it out, was, and is, incredibly meaningful. You can’t really change anybody – but you can listen to them, let them tell you about whatever hellhole they’re locked in, and tell them you’ve been there, too. Cornball as it may sound, that’s about it. That’s about it. My old friend & mentor Hubert Selby used to say, addiction is a disease of loneliness. And, having researched the subject way more than I’d have liked to, I agree.
- You and the late Barbara Turner co-wrote Hemingway and Gellhorn, an HBO movie starring Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen. Are you a fan of Hemingway’s writing? What is it you most admire (or dislike) about it?
Well I was never a huge Hemingway fan. But when you dig deeper, you see what was behind the public face, and what’s there, love him or hate him, was a dedicated, relentless artist. Who knew how to bang those typewriter keys through some ghastly hangovers.
What really hit me was not so much how he lived as how he died. I don’t think this was in the movie, but when JFK won the election he asked Hemingway to write something for the inauguration, but due to electroshock treatments Hemingway just could not write any more. And it destroyed him. Yeah, there were safaris and wild parties and a life so action-packed it seems more fictional than his fiction, but at the proverbial end of the day, it was his writing that got him through. And when he couldn’t do that, he literally tried to walk into a spinning propeller on a tarmac somewhere. His wife grabbed him at the last minute. That story really hit me and made me love the guy.
- You write for TV and movies as well as fiction and your auto-biographical stuff. Which do you enjoy writing the most and why?
It’s all writing, one way or the other, and I’m just grateful to be able to do it. Making a living is an occasional bonus.
- Who are your favorite authors? Are you reading anything right now?
That’s a changeable crew. I’ve moved a million times, but if I end up staying anywhere a while, I’m gonna stock the place with some Barry Hannah, Sam Lipsyte, some Chester Himes and Flannery O’Connor – along with Denis Johnson, maybe the writer I’ve admired most over the years – plus all the predictables like Pynchon, Burroughs, Ellroy, Delillo, Donna Tartt, Leslie Ann Silko, Joy Williams. Right now I’m reading Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which is so good—and so smart—it’s almost like ‘Why go on?’ (But you know, like old Samuel Beckett said, you go on.) As well as a busload of nonfiction writers like Elaine Pagels, Matt Taibbi, Michelle Goldberg, Alice Walker, Evan Wright, – and the great Nick Tosches, who’s kind of a mind blowing genius in either genre. Anyway you get the idea. I won’t even start on the Holocaust writers, but check out “This Way For The Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” by Tadeusz Borowaki, who was killed by the Nazis. I’m so obsessed with that shit, if I ever keel over, they’re gonna find my books and wonder.
- I, Fatty is a faux memoir of a silent film comedian whose career was ended by a bogus rape accusation. What inspired you to turn this idea into a story?
Actually you can blame Anthony Bourdain for that. He was doing a series of little biographies (literally, the books were small) for Bloomsbury, and asked me to do one. Anthony wrote one on “Typhoid Mary”, which was fantastic. I, on the other hand, started one on Fatty Arbuckle and it sounded like a term paper. So without asking the publishers I decided to make it into a novel. Which, as I recall, they were not thrilled about. But were kind enough to let slide…
How I picked Arbuckle was pretty random. I knew nothing about silent movies and only what “Hollywood Babylon” said about Arbuckle, i.e. the coke bottle. But after kicking around a few other subjects, somehow we landed on Fatty. I did not know there was heroin involved in the story until I was already in. (He said defensively.)
- You continue to write about heroin in your fiction, like in I, Fatty and Happy Mutant Baby Pills. Is heroin a toxic muse? Or does writing about it help heal the past?
All due respect, these are the kind of questions critics ask. It’s hard enough to write without thinking about why you do it. On the other hand, dope is pretty much my one area of expertise.
- OG Dad is about becoming a father again at the age of 58. Would you say you’re fully domesticated? What does your typical day look like now?
Well things have changed a bit since that book came out. Unless I’ve got an actual job-job, I suppose I just muddle through like everybody else. Honestly, I never expected to live this long. It’s almost embarrassing. (And terrible for my cred.)
I’ve always said – when anybody asks – I know how to write, I just don’t know how to live.
- What are you working on right now? Can we expect any new books from you?
There are a few things in the hopper. One of them a book I’m two years late on, based on a six part series I did for Vice called “A Tour of Hell From Hell,” about going on a bus tour of death camps with a bunch of total strangers, some of whom I’m convinced had never seen a Jew. We hit Auschwitz, and Dachau and Buchenwald. I am still trying to wrestle that one to the ground. Trump showed up and suddenly Hitler was trickier to write about. I mean, we don’t have camps. But would anybody be surprised?
I’ve also got some TV and movie projects cooking, but those have pretty much the same odds as spermatozoa, one in 80 kajillion, so it would be ridiculous to discuss them.
- What is your best piece of advice for aspiring writers (screenwriting, fiction, or memoir)?
I can’t put it any better than Mailer, “Get your ass in the chair.” And don’t worry about looking like an idiot.
Interviewed by Christa Wojo
Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.
From Trumpocalypse to Brexit Britain, brick by brick the walls are closing in. But don’t despair. Bulldoze the borders. Conquer freedom, not fear. EXIT EARTH explores all life – past, present, or future – on, or off – this beautiful, yet fragile, world of ours. Final embraces beneath a sky of flames. Tears of joy aboard a sinking ship. Laughter in a lonely land. Dystopian or utopian, realist or fantasy, horror or sci-fi, EXIT EARTH is yours to conquer.
EXIT EARTH includes the short stories of all fourteen finalists of the STORGY EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition, as judged by critically acclaimed author Diane Cook (Man vs. Nature) and additional stories by award winning authors M R Cary (The Girl With All The Gifts), Toby Litt (Corpsing), James Miller (Lost Boys), Courttia Newland (A Book of Blues), and David James Poissant (The Heaven of Animals), and exclusive artwork by Amie Dearlove, HarlotVonCharlotte, CrapPanther, and cover design by Rob Pearce.
Visit the STORGY SHOP here…
Unlike many other Arts & Entertainment Magazines, STORGY is not Arts Council funded or subsidised by external grants or contributions. The content we provide takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce, and relies on the talented authors we publish and the dedication of a devoted team of staff writers. If you enjoy reading our Magazine, help to secure our future and enable us to continue publishing the words of our writers. Please make a donation or subscribe to STORGY Magazine with a monthly fee of your choice. Your support, as always, continues to inspire.