From his gut-wrenching addiction memoir Permanent Midnight to his latest novel, Pain Killers, Jerry Stahl’s biting, fast-paced prose has always resisted compromise. He’s explored almost every genre, from TV scripts, memoirs, and short stories to historical and crime fiction, but it’s his refusal to hold anything back that makes him one of contemporary literature’s most dynamic authors (whether he likes it or not). Flavorwire caught up with the tenacious wordsmith via email for a mini tell-all, whereupon we get the dirt on Café Flesh, PERV: A Love Story, and the notorious Nazi physician, Josef Mengele — one of Stahl’s main characters in Pain Killers.
Flavorwire: Do you write in longhand or type? Could you describe your writing environment?
Jerry Stahl: Mostly type these days, but I am an inveterate notebook scribbler, after which I can never read what the hell I wrote, and I create from memory — or lack thereof. I have a laptop, so sometimes in a big airy room staring at the mountains, sometimes in a dark room so I don’t know if it’s day or night.
FW: Do you feel that changes in technology over the past 20 years or so has affected the way you write, or your writing in general?
JS: Sure, what with computers, I can make more mistakes faster.
FW: Do you ever listen to music while you write, or do you need silence? What kind of music do you listen to?
JS: Runs the gamut. Not much I don’t listen to, outside of Bluegrass, which makes my hair itch. Silence sometimes. TV with the sound off sometimes. I’ve written in a lot of weird situations, and have a great ability to disassociate.
FW: How do you feel your level of sobriety over the years has affected the way you write?
JS: I haven’t turned anything in with blood on the pages in quite some time.
FW: What can you tell us about writing the cult film Café Flesh?
JS: It’s a pretty dim memory, but I do recall being paid in quarters, from peep show machines on Hollywood Boulevard. Rinse Dream and I had the idea for a post-atomic movie, before Mad Max and the rest of them. But when we screened it for the money guys, they said, “Great, boys, now howzabout you stick in six extra scenes?” After which we had to work the, uh, “money” scenes in… My sharpest memory is that when they screened it for a bunch of Japanese tourists at a Pussycat Theatre, the entire audience ended up fleeing after five minutes. But it failed as a porn movie and lived on as a cult movie, replacing Pink Flamingos at the Nuart in Santa Monica. Porn was great preparation for Hollywood.
FW: Where did you draw inspiration for the main character of PERV? How balanced is that book between fact and fiction?
JS: It’s all fiction. I swear. Not a fact within fifty feet of my novels. I swear, your honor, it’s all made up.
FW: Which work of yours has given you the most fulfillment? Is there one you still wish you could revise?
JS: There isn’t one I wouldn’t want to revise. And they’ve all scratched some kind of itch, one way or another.
FW: Could you describe how you chose the title of Pain Killers?
JS: Raymond Carver used to say that a story is the house and the title is the roof. I guess Pain Killers fit the house.
FW: While you were writing Plainclothes Naked, did you think you’d continue to use Manny as a main character in future novels? Do you think he and/or Tina are going to appear in any works again?
JS: I had no idea when I wrote the first one there would be a second one. And I can’t honestly tell whether they’re going to come reeling back or not.
FW: Do you feel San Quentin itself is a “character” in Pain Killers?
JS: Great question. Another writer, Craig Nova, used to say that landscape is character. In the case of Quentin, that landscape, physically and psycho-emotionally, informs the experience top to bottom.
FW: Did you conduct most of your research on Mengele before you started to write the book, or after?
JS: “Conduct” makes it sound like a controlled, deliberate endeavor. What I did was gather up as much information in as many genres as I could — books, articles, DVDs, videos, weird-ass Web sites. Nothing more chilling than stumbling on a Mengele Fan Club. God knows what kind of government watch lists I’m now gracing.
FW: How much of what you’ve unearthed about Mengele do you believe to be true, considering its horrid nature?
JS: There is no way to exaggerate the man’s behavior — nor any need to do so. The truth is enough.
FW: In Pain Killers, Mengele not only reveals Nazi atrocities, but little-known American crimes of humanity as well. Did wrapping up the book around the election affect what you wrote about American history?
JS: Living under George “Torture Memo” Bush for eight years definitely informed the book. The notion of complicity-by-citizenship was uppermost in my mind. Were Germans going on about their lives while the ovens churned out human smoke any more or less responsible than Americans who go on about their lives during Guantanamo, Abu Gharib and the rest of it? Our government did heinous things?
FW: How do you feel about the US now, considering its past?
JS: Nobody’s hands are clean. Evil — if that’s the word you want to use — transcends boundaries. A country’s borders are the ultimate con on the citizens enlisted to fight for them. Prescott Bush was in bed with Hitler, as everybody knows. It wasn’t about nationalism. It was about money, and delusions of racial grandeur.
FW: What’s been attracting you to the crime genre?
JS: The word “genre” isn’t in my vocabulary. If you read the paper, you’ll come across a lot of crime. It doesn’t get much more noir than the New York Times. I don’t really buy into the notion of ‘crime’ fiction as opposed to fiction-fiction. Crime and Punishment is about a murder — but you won’t find Dostoyevsky in the same rack as Ellroy. There’s a kind of ghettoization involved in this kind of branding, but critics love to categorize. That being said, I love Chandler. Which in no way diminishes my love for Don Delillo, David Foster Wallace, Flannery O’Connor, Hubert Selby, Ralph Ellison, Thomas Pynchon or any other batch of geniuses it makes me sound pretentious to even list.
FW: How do you feel about David Foster Wallace’s suicide?
JS: I think he had more brains, heart and vision than any writer of his generation. As for checking himself out, I do believe that, on any given day, under any given set of circumstances, we are all of us capable of making that move. The trick is getting through that day.
FW: Towards the beginning of Pain Killers you wrote “All of us, at some point in our life, choose our cliche.” What’s yours?
JS: I suppose mine is that I wrote that sentence.
FW: What do you think your legacy will be?
JS: That, for better or worse, is for others to decide.