Jerry Stahl on writing, Mengele and muttering at 3 a.m.
Jerry Stahl, author of the memoir "Permanent Midnight," is known for his rendering of the darkest corners of a drug-fueled spiral — in his case, this included writing scripts for the alien-on-the-couch TV show "Alf." But his world is more serene now: He spoke to Jacket Copy on the balcony of his hilltop home, the quiet interrupted only by his adopted dog barking at the occasional too-close bird.
Recently, he's been on tour to promote his new book, "Pain Killers." He's also contributed to the L.A. Times serial novel "Money Walks" and will appear at the L.A. Times Festival of Books on Sunday, April 26.
In "Pain Killers," Stahl's dope-prone private eye Manny Rubert from "Plainclothes Naked" is sent to San Quentin by a powerful manipulator named Zell — Stahl growls that that any resemblance to a media mogul is intended. In the book, Manny's not posing as an inmate but as a drug counselor, trying to find out whether a ninetysomething inmate is, in fact, Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele.
Jacket Copy: Of all the Nazi criminals, why Mengele?
Stahl: I was sort of fueled by this free-floating rage at the time, the Bush years, all the stuff being done in our name — however that might sound now in the pre-disappointment Obama years. I stumbled on the fact that much of the really heinous scientific experiments were paid for by American families like the Rockefellers, for example. It was that same sort of click of recognition where you know, here we are living in this country with this one myth about who and what we are, when the reality is this other thing. So there was that kind of parallel; however conscious or unconscious, it was a rage-fueled book. A rage-fueled decision to write.
It was fueled by the fact that this is what America was, which was mortifying to contemplate. Similarly, we were living in a time when the stuff that was being done in our name was also just disgusting.
JC: Do you really think that the extent to which he did these horrifying things America has continued in that vein? Do you think we’re that bad?
Stahl: I don’t think you can – it’s not about the one-downs-manship of they chopped off three fingers, we chopped off a hangnail. But there’s no doubt that we’ve been doing prison experiments on African Americans and anyone unfortunate enough to be in there for centuries in this country. It’s not just Tuskegee; there’s plenty of other examples. I wrote something about this a couple of years ago. They have evidence of chemical companies testing pesticides in the houses of impoverished families in the housing units of some ghetto somewhere and paying off the mothers to see what the physical reaction would be for the children. There was a big lawsuit. Nobody’s hands are clean. This superiority that we kind of strut around with as America – is not necessarily earned. And that’s something I wanted to pursue in the book.
JC: How does using a detective allow you to explore that?
Stahl: I wanted a way in, with a guy that was finding out as the reader, and as I, was finding out. There’s a certain kind of classic trope of using Virgil down in the underworld, however pretentious you want to take it, but there is that level. You want a guy to take you through.
It wasn’t I woke up one day and decided I wanted to be Mickey Spillane.
JC: Some writers have a problem putting pressure on their characters, putting their characters in difficult situations —
Stahl: They do?
JC: Maybe it’s a graduate school thing.
Stahl: I never heard that. Tell me. Is that an issue? Like they’re little children?
JC: Like you become fond of them and you don’t want to put them in harm’s way. ...
Stahl: Oh, it’s like having a baby and pushing it in front of traffic.
JC: Yeah. It seems like you take a bit of sadistic pleasure — you put Manny in horrible situation after horrible situation.
Stahl: I don’t really ascribe to the parental view of authorship, that these characters are like my little children. It’s more about trying to describe certain, ah, emotional and adrenal states of mind. And not really about putting preschool between two hard covers. I like that idea; it just never even occurred to me. I don’t think I’m the only one who writes characters who are dire – I mean, life’s pretty dire.
JC: You went to Columbia.
Stahl: Don’t throw that in my face.
What happened at Columbia — after the jump.
Stahl: I dropped out, but then I went back.
JC: Did you finish, when you went back?
Stahl: I finished in a year and a half. I was taking writing classes, so it wasn’t that hard to get through. I think I had to take a swimming test to get my diploma — the shape I was in, it was not easy. I might have had to hire someone off the street; I can’t remember.
I was writing for the Village Voice, the N.Y. Press. I was always trying to write, doing journalism. The fake Penthouse sex letters to pay for the privilege of writing massively nonselling fiction.
JC: You also have a collection of short stories, "Love Without" (the photo is from a 2007 reading at Skylight Books). For you, what’s fun about doing a short story, other than the fact that it’s shorter than a novel?
Stahl: I haven’t written short stories for quite some time — they were elderly short stories. I’m just grateful I get a chance to write, as cornball as that might sound. So the whole genre thing, about whether it’s short stories or fiction — whatever. I didn’t get a book out until I was 40, 42. So it still amazes me that I get to write all day. Or all night, as the case may be.
JC: Do you write all day? Do you get up at 8 in the morning?
Stahl: No. One of the reasons I got a dog — I really love living in this neighborhood — I got this dog so I could wander the streets at 4 in the morning without getting arrested. It’s great to have an excuse — otherwise, you get busted for schizophrenia, muttering to yourself at 3 in the morning thinking about characters and wandering the hills like some total freak.
It always feels wrong to be walking around at 4 in the morning (unless you’re in New York). You want that sort of sense of outside the quotidian, I think, when you’re writing, at least I do.
Would that I could write fiction all day.
JC: Are you still writing for TV?
Stahl: Writing movies now, at the moment. It’s definitely a great day job, and I’m happy to have them. I’m writing this thing about Hemingway. He wrote standing up. Because, he said, “travel and writing both broaden your ass.”
JC: In Los Angeles, there's a weird divide between people who write for the screen and who write books, but you seem to be able to comfortably inhabit both places.
Stahl: I don't seem to be having lunch with either of them [laughs]. I don't get into that. You're writing, you're creating, if you're lucky enough to be able to do this.
JC: Do you get something different out of working on a novel than working on films?
Stahl: I love them both. But obviously, when you're writing a novel, it's not like somebody's going to walk into a room and say, "We love it, but make it a 9-year-old Chinese girl. ..." Not that there's anything wrong with that.
For me, I always wanted to be a novelist. I've done a lot of weird gigs, from working at McDonald's to other very creepy (stuff) to writing jokes and stuff, the odd sitcom. Those are just gigs. It's always about trying to be a novelist, whatever you have to do. I mean, Charlie Parker played bar mitzvahs. You do what you do. I hate talking about this.
JC: How do you write? Do you have a laptop?
Stahl: I’m such the techno-peasant. I have a laptop, but I also have an IBM Selectric that I write on. So great. For me, it’s almost sentimental. Back when I was trying to write and have the day job of being a dope fiend — I used to get them. Some guy used to steal them from L.A. Public Unified and sell them from the back of a truck, and they only came in blue and brown — those great horrible office colors.
JC: Do you write creatively on it?
Stahl: I do sometimes. Because you have less options. You’re less inclined to go back and rewrite the same paragraph 50 times if it means pulling out a paper and opening up that Wite-Out.
JC: You also got a master's degree in writing from Goddard College. Were you writing nonfiction/memoir then?
Stahl: That’s the last thing I ever wanted to do. I had six unpublished novels before "Permanent Midnight." I would publish the first chapters — I won a Pushcart when I was a kid. I’d publish the first chapters in magazines — Playboy, a couple of them — and then I’d write the book and I couldn’t sell the book.
JC: What made you decide to write “Permanent Midnight”? Were you still using?
Stahl: No, I was like five minutes clean. I was super-desperate. I'd been a journalist, I was walking down Hollywood Boulevard looking like — looking like green crayon. And somebody I used to work with said, "Geez, what happened to you?" And I told her, and it ended up being a story in this magazine, it doesn't exist now, I think L.A. Style? Anyway, I wrote something for them, called "Naked Brunch."
The last thing I wanted to do was ever write about myself. It was not my style, but it was a desperation move, and I didn't really give it much thought. I'm not complaining.
I was one of those people who wrote to hide what I was, not to reveal what I was.
JC: But you'd stopped hiding a lot of things when you got clean.
Stahl: I literally had to get clean. And it kind of dropped in my lap. The good news is, it's a book; the bad news is it's memoir.
JC: Seems like altered states of mind — using drugs, drinking a half-toxic box of wine (which Manny does in "Pain Killers") — still seem to be a big part of your fiction. Do you —
Stahl: Do I drink a lot of boxed wine?
JC: No — are you still mining those days?
Stahl: In this book I did.
JC: You've got this guy who's sort of in recovery and sort of isn't.
Stahl: Well, there was definitely a period in my life when I was that guy who was sort of half in and half out. I had the experience of relapsing while writing "Permanent Midnight." So I became the guy who wrote that great book about kicking heroin while kind of on drugs. Which I had to own up to later, and did, and it was fine.
I remember extreme states. There's sort of a visceral memory. The sensation can kind of infuse different situations, that visceral memory. It's something you tap into.
JC: Some of "Pain Killers" is really nightmarish, like the character who blew off half his face, the horrific Nazi doctor. I wonder if it kind of cleans you out, so you can have dreams of rainbows and unicorns.
Stahl: I'm all about buttercups and puppy dogs. That's what's on my pillowcase.
JC: It seems like a hard world to inhabit.
Stahl: I'm always baffled by that question. Read the ... New York Times. You want noir? Gimme a ... break. It's like, oh, you write this dark stuff. Really? Go to any part of the world right now, and this is nothing. This is nothing compared to the real world.
In fact, when I was writing this, they found another Doctor Death. Another Nazi doctor, they discovered he'd died a few years ago in Egypt at like 92. It was the same story, in a way. So it's not like there's this dark book, but outside of the covers of that book, the world is an inhabitable, blessed, wondrous place for those stumbling around in it. Maybe it's just my zeitgeist, but it's not like I'm twisting the happy times we live in.
That isn't to sort of elevate my book to linking it to really tragic and enormous political issues. But at the same time, I don't think you can just separate it. I think life is pretty bleak for a lot of people, and you try to find those moments within it that kind of transcend. You can't have those moments if you don't have that surrounding kind of maelstrom.
— Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Carolyn Kellogg