Addicted to writing
Prolific Jerry Stahl releases a flurry of fiction exploring the ‘maniacal workings of an addicted brain’
By Justin Chapman 02/13/2013
Fresh off a successful script for HBO Films, “Hemingway and Gellhorn,” which premiered last year, author Jerry Stahl is ready to take a step back from Hollywood for a moment to focus solely on fiction.
“I’m just working nonstop on fiction,” said Stahl, who has written screenplays for several television shows and movies. “It’s pretty great, just to kind of walk away from Hollywood for awhile, or for the duration. We’ll see. Just to work on prose has really been a luxury.”
Stahl, 59, has also written a half-dozen books and countless columns and articles for a slew of newspapers and magazines. He has contributed several short stories to various literary magazines and won the Pushcart Prize.
Stahl’s latest book, a novella called “Bad Sex on Speed,” is a rapid treatise that details the inner workings of a mind on methamphetamine and entire lives affected by a drug that seems to be everywhere these days. In it, Stahl utilizes second-person narration, a rare but fitting literary device, which he says was completely unplanned, yet works with the subject matter.
“I was typing for a few pages and realized, ‘Jesus, fuck, I’m in the second person. Alright then.’ There’s an immediacy with it. There’s a nonstop narrative on that drug, kind of a hyper-awareness where it’s like, ‘You’re doing this, you’re doing this now, now you’re doing this.’ I was trying to tap into that kind of, really, just relentless self-awareness.”
Stahl is clearly on a roll, with several projects already out or on the way, all while having his second daughter at the ripe young age of 58, an experience he blogs about for Rumpus.net. Those posts, under the title “OG Dad,” will be released as a collection sometime in 2014. Meanwhile, HarperCollins is putting out his new book “Happy Mutant Baby Pills” in September.
“Among other things,” Stahl explained, “it’s about a very radical woman with a backdrop of Occupy who wants to protest the debilitating and demeaning influence of capitalism by taking every kind of medication, over the counter, under the counter, huffing paint, whatever, basically trying to have the most mutant child she can as a protest. As like this thing, ‘See? This is what America does. This is what GMOs do. This is what capitalism does.’ It’s a lighthearted romp, as you can tell.”
Stahl recently edited and contributed to “The Heroin Chronicles,” a collection of original short stories by authors such as Gary Philips and Jervy Tervalon of Altadena, who co-edited “The Cocaine Chronicles,” the first in Akashic Books’ drug series. Stahl also contributed to “The Speed Chronicles” in 2011, but not the forthcoming “The Marijuana Chronicles.”
“I did not make it into the Marijuana, Aspercreme, Testosterone, or Skin-Tag Away (Chronicles), as far as I can tell,” said Stahl, known for his dry but always witty sense of humor.
Stahl will be reading from “Heroin Chronicles,” along with other authors who contributed to the collection, and discussing “Bad Sex on Speed” tomorrow night at Stories Books & Café in Los Angeles.
As an editor, he had the opportunity to choose the writers he wanted to include in the collection. He decided not to go after famous people so much as those who might not have had the chance to be in print. The “encyclopedia of bad behavior,” as Stahl refers to it in the introduction, includes hilarious and harrowing stories from both veteran and first-time short story writers.
“It’s nice to be able to give somebody a shot, no pun intended,” joked Stahl. “I think when it comes to heroin, there’s something for everyone. Everyone can enjoy a good heroin story. Ultimately, the stories, in the same way that being a drug addict is never really about drugs, you know, the subject may sort of, on one surface level, be heroin, but below that there’s sort of a universal level of desperation and confusion and striving and loneliness that sort of transcends being a drug addict. It’s just focused through that lens.”
Addiction is a running theme in Stahl’s work, having played a role in nearly everything he’s written, but it is by no means all he has to offer. Stahl’s writing penetrates all that is held sacred in American society, turning normal upside down and inside out to expose the strangeness of reality, as if to say, “Don’t kid yourself, this is what life really is.” His novels are refreshing and honest literary adventures in a tired world of popular fantasy books like “Harry Potter” and “Twilight.”
“There are great stories to mine from addiction,” said Stahl. “It might be a go-to place now and again, but I think it’s more about the mindset behind addiction. Like in this new book, ‘Bad Sex on Speed,’ it’s not really about addiction, per se, it’s about the maniacal workings of a brain that I was trying to chronicle. I was trying to write inside that head. So it’s not so much about the physical act of being addicted, as a few levels below that is just the kind of insanity that seems normal as you are in the grips of addiction, or in that world. Or what seems insane to a non-addict is just meat and potatoes to an addict.”
In 1995 Stahl penned “Permanent Midnight,” a haunting and candid memoir of his heroin addiction that was turned into a movie starring his friend, Ben Stiller, who called the book “funny and honest and scary.” It was a decidedly different role for Stiller, who hung out with Stahl for nine months while the studio was trying to get financing for the movie.
“Having Jerry there was invaluable to me, because he gave me the confidence to be this guy who was going through experiences I had never gone through,” Stiller told the Weekly after an earlier story about Stahl appeared in this paper in 2005. “He supported me in it fully and it really made the difference.”
One reason Stahl’s writing resonates so powerfully is because he’s not afraid to hold a mirror up to America’s addictive habits.
America seems to be an addiction-heavy place, he said, “although to all kinds of crazy drugs. It’s just non-stop. It’s just ridiculous. Doesn’t even need to be a substance. Addicted to addiction. It’s kind of a lost country. The great thing about addiction is it consolidates your obsessions. If you’ve got to be addicted to something, writing’s good. It’s slightly easier than life.”
Jerry Stahl will read, sign and discuss “The Heroin Chronicles” and “Bad Sex on Speed” from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday at Stories Books & Café, 1716 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. For more, call (213) 413-3733 or visit storiesla.com.