How did you become a writer? I had no skills, was a horrible guitar player, and (we're talking my late teens/early twenties here) wanted to find something I could do naked and fucked-up at four in the morning and possibly make a dime. I know, it's a high bar. In fact, along with the fiction I'd been writing (badly) for years, I eventually started doing journalism, starting at a Santa Cruz free paper when I was twenty. My first piece was a review of a bar called Mona's Gorilla Lounge, which I was a year too young to legally enter. The pay was eight dollars an article. Oddly, four decades later, journalism now pays about the same as it did then – minus about eight dollars.
From California I went back to NY, wrote for the Village Voice, among other places, and cobbled together a living penning porn & journalism to pay for the expensive habit of writing fiction. (I used to write the fake sex letters at Penthouse, not to brag – a great apprenticeship for a fiction-writer.) At 21, I won a Pushcart Prize for a story that ran in the Transatlantic Review – but what makes this interesting is that the story got rejected by Hustler first. For better or worse, my work has always had a streak of schizophrenia running through it. It’s been all zigs and zags ever since the beginning.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, films, teachers, etc.). When I was 16 or so, my father decided the best way to deal with his life was by sitting in the garage with the motor in his Oldsmobile running. So, taking pity on me, my sister’s boyfriend gave me a bunch of books and albums he thought would get me through. Nathanael West, Terry Southern and Hunter Thompson. Dylan and John Lee Hooker and Lenny Bruce. Samuel Beckett, Burroughs, Celine, Dick Gregory, etc. Somehow, these guys gave me everything I needed: they were wild, angry, dangerous – but most of all, they were all funny as hell. I remember thinking, as I read them, I didn’t even know you were allowed to say this stuff. To this day, that’s the kind of material I love – artists who say the unsayable. About the world, about themselves, about…everything. At around that same age, I saw Lindsay Anderson’s movie If, and it was such a big kind of “fuck you” to everything that represented authority, it hit me in a way nothing else had. It was like striking a match in my head.
The first real life author I ever met was Bruce Jay Friedman, author of two of my favorite novels, Stern and A Mother’s Kisses. Early on, I got to do an interview with BJF for a literary magazine, in which he said something I never forgot: “When you write a sentence that makes you squirm, keep going.” Needless to say, I’ve been squirming ever since. I also had the good fortune to study with the Wolff Brothers – Tobias and Geoffrey, who both wrote memoirs that had a profound effect on my writing – and the whole idea of self-exposure in one’s writing. They’re very different writers – but both fearless. Which impressed me down to my toes.
The biggest influence, personally, was Hubert Selby. Selby was probably my first literary hero. In fact, the first book I ever shoplifted was Last Exit To Brooklyn. I met Selby when I was struggling to get off heroin, an ordeal he’d been through himself, as he put it, “strapped down in a West Hollywood holding cell.” In any event, when I finally managed to kick, I remember telling him how worried I was – it sounds so ludicrous now – I was afraid that, without drugs, I would “lose my edge.” To this day I can hear his cackle when he laughed in my face. “Listen, you idiot, until you’re off of everything, you don’t even know how crazy you are.”
For better or worse, he was right. Selby wrote Requiem For A Dream and The Room stone cold straight – and they’re two of the darkest, most disturbing books ever written in English. Staying clean presented a lot of problems, but lack of edge on the page was not one of them. Just the opposite. Sometimes, if you’re not careful, you can scare people – most of all yourself.
What are you working on now? I just started a new novel. Two came out in 2013, so I wanted to take a breath and do some other stuff. I generally like to work on a few different projects at once. So I’m also working with Larry Charles on adapting an earlier novel, Pain Killers, into a cable TV show. Pain Killers is about a washed up private detective who has to track down Joseph Mengele, the mad doctor of Auschwitz, who (in the novel) is living in the San Fernando Valley, and not happy about it. I guess you’d call it a buddy comedy – where one of the buddies is Dr. Mengele. Ultimately all the screen-work and journalism take a backseat to fiction. Only writing novels can really get rid of the voices in my head.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? No, but sometimes I wish I did.
What’s your advice to new writers? Destroy your life; then put it back together. You'll get great material, meet some fascinating characters and – side benefit – the skills you develop will give you greater compassion, insight and range with the people you create on the page – or run into off of it.
Jerry Stahl has written for a variety of publications, including Esquire, The Believer, and Details, (where he wrote the Culture column for three years.) He has also written extensively for screen and television, most recently the HBO film Hemingway & Gellhorn and the IFC series “Maron.” He is the author of eight books, including the memoir Permanent Midnight, made into a movie with Ben Stiller, and the novel I, Fatty (optioned by Johnny Depp). His latest novels are Bad Sex On Speed and Happy Mutant Baby Pills. His late-life fatherhood column, “OG DAD,” runs periodically on TheRumpus.net. Website: jerrystahl.co. Twitter: @somejerrystahl