Jerry Stahl is probably best known for his 1995 memoir, Permanent Midnight, which details his struggle with heroin abuse in the 1980s while he wrote for such TV shows as Thirtysomething and Alf. He adapted the memoir into a film starring Ben Stiller, who played Stahl. Some of his novels include Bad Sex on Speed, Pain Killers, I, Fatty, and, most recently, Happy Mutant Baby Pills. In its fearlessness and ferocity, his work represents a strenuously vivid voice in fiction, one that I find myself inordinately fascinated by and returning to read often. His website is jerrystahl.co.
BRANDON HOBSON: Jerry, how did you capture the voice of Fatty Arbuckle so well in your novel I, Fatty?
JERRY STAHL: It’s funny, the first thing Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was originally slated to play Arbuckle, said to me was basically, “This is really an autobiography. You just wrote your own story in the voice of a fat guy.” Which, I did not realize until he mentioned it, is absolutely true. What made me fall in love with Arbuckle was hearing the story how, when he lost, like, one-hundred pounds after kicking the heroin some quack got him hooked on, he had to wear a fat suit so he could look like who the public thought he was. This was before air conditioning, and he had to go on a tour of the Midwest, in the summer, and the sheer hell of that – coming off dope and sweating your ass off, in public, where you had to look happy. Hard to find a better set up for hell on earth. How could you not love the poor bastard?
On some level – not to go zero sum metaphoric – this book was me putting on the fat suit, a disguise from behind which I could march out my own feelings and experience of the world. But voice-wise, specific ally, here’s what made the story really fucking irresistible. This was the dawn of the Wise Crack Era. So, in Fatty, I got to write in homespun wise crack-ese, the best delivery system for early 20th century bitter American wisdom ever invented. (Oscar Levant, another genius outsider I wrote a soon-to-be-never made script about, made a career out of saying things like “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.” Or, “Self-hate is just narcissism with its pants on backward.”) I could listen to that stuff all day. And writing it was pure joy. Weirdly, after she died last year, I realized some of this argot I got from my own mother, who was born in Monongahela, PA, in 1923, and occasionally busted out these killer Jewbilly-isms like, “I feel like a nickel’s worth of dogmeat.” Or, if you praised somebody’s kids, and she wanted to remind you where the kids got their talent: “Well, they didn’t get it licking the wallpaper…” There’s a kind of crude genius to some of those that I love.
So, in the end, voice is what it always is – some combo platter of yourself and what-you-don’t-even-realize-is-yourself-until-you-write the fucking thing.
BH: What was it about the book that interested Johnny Depp?
JS: Depp bought the rights to the book. Which, for a regular guy, is an exciting thing. He bought them in perpetuity, which is legalese for until man is gone and cockroaches roam the earth. Script has not been written. Originally the idea was for Johnny to play Buster Keaton, and Hoffman to step into Fatty’s pants. Which would be an awesome sight to behold.
BH: Yeah, no kidding. I really hope it gets made into a film. There’s a line in Happy Mutant Baby Pills where the narrator says: "Heroin. Because once you shed your dignity, everything’s a little easier,” which is a great line. Do you feel like heroin made writing easier for you?
JS: I remember, years ago, whining to Hubert Selby Jr. how I was afraid once I gave up dope I’d “lose my edge.” My writing would be boring. All the shit you think. Selby just laughed in my face and laid it out. “You don’t know how fucking crazy you are until you’re not on drugs.” Which, for better or worse, proved absolutely true.
I used to say, for me, writing was like walking a high wire, and heroin made me forget there was no net. Which is a fancy way of saying dope made me forget how shitty I felt for being on dope. And the many noble things I had to do to stay that way. But the older and farther away from heroin I get, the more I realize, you don’t need a fucking net, because it doesn’t matter. You know what I mean? It’s just writing. Calm down, Terminally Adolescent Artiste-Boy.
The grandiosity of my former angst is appalling. But what can you do? I always tell myself, when I remember the non-stop self-generated hell party that used to be my life, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t go there. And yeah, dignity was not a big part of the package.
BH: So do you enjoy writing more now that you’re sober?
JS: I don’t know if “enjoy” is the word that comes to mind. But I need – and occasionally love - to write for the same reasons I always did: hard as writing is, it’s generally easier than life. Though I have a problem now—because I have a pretty great life. In spite of myself, I’ve ended up happy. Sometimes the self-sabotage just doesn’t work out. And it’s kind of fucking with me. How do you write when you’re not miserable? The solution, of course, is to make yourself miserable about not writing. Years go by.
BH: Do you think your best work has come out of being miserable?
JS: Ultimately, it doesn’t fucking matter how you feel. The art (and act) of writing—speaking just for myself—involves getting your proverbial ass in the proverbial chair. Or out of it, in my case, as I prefer to write standing up. Beyond that, all your writing is your best writing—until it isn’t.
BH: That makes sense. Several years ago David Foster Wallace talked about struggling to find the “fun” in writing. Do you see the same onanistic motive in writing fiction?
JS: Interesting that you equate “fun” with “onanistic.”
BH: Wallace made the comparison by using the word when he talked about the fun in writing.
JS: No doubt there are people who weep when they jerk off, and others prone to full-on giggle fits. Personally, I would not have assumed that that’s the kind of “fun” Wallace was referring to, but God bless. I will simply admit that I don’t really know how to do much else besides write. It still feels dangerous. When it doesn’t, I’ll stop.
Brandon Hobson’s writing has appeared in The Paris Review Daily, The Believer, NOON, Post Road, New York Tyrant, Web Conjunctions, and elsewhere. His novel, DEEP ELLUM, will be released this spring from Calamari Press.