Morbid Festivity: An Interview with Jerry Stahl

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky

Early on in Happy Mutant Baby Pills, author Jerry Stahl invokes Naked Lunch—a nervy move, I thought, since what book, what writer, could weather the comparison? Jerry Stahl can. Stahl’s supercharged prose, his black humor, and his dexterity in eviscerating the most toxic detritus of pop culture make his books some of the wildest rides since Burroughs. In Happy Mutant Baby Pills, Stahl follows Lloyd, a junkie with a perverse knack for penning pharmaceutical fine print. When Lloyd meets his romantic/psychotic counterpart in Nora, passive-aggressive greeting card writer, they embark on a trip through an amped-up landscape of modern discontent, with stops in Occupy LA and Christian dating site offices and every seedy bus stop along the way. It’s a totally deranged ride—and one I highly recommend.

I talked via email with Stahl about nuclear-grade testosterone supplements, CSI, and life in an age when, as Lloyd says, “What doesn’t kill us, just makes us us.”

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky: Nora and Lloyd seem to me represent both the symptoms and the cure for the addled cultural moment they inhabit; as a sarcastic greeting card writer and a side-effects/dating-website copy guy, no one is more conversant in feel-good corporate doublespeak than the two of them, but they’re also deeply, sometimes furiously, critical of the cultural sludge in which they’re trafficking. Am I right in imagining there’s some of you in Lloyd and Nora this way? Where would you place yourself on that continuum from disgruntled consumer to man behind the curtain?

Jerry Stahl: What strikes me is how subtly this pharma-language has crept into the general vocabulary. To the point where people discussing their lack of bowel control or genital malfunctions in commercials has now become the norm. I guess, my spot on the continuum is a bit off-center. I would describe myself as a fan. At this point, I confess to preferring the poetry of catheter advertisements to John Ashbery – though this says more about me than the great Mr. Ashbury.

EKH:  And a related question: do you think Nora and Lloyd are characters distinctly of our particular moment in time, characters who could only exist now? Are their grievances ones that are new, or ones that would have their analogs in earlier eras?

JS: I’m sure alienation and disengagement from the quote-unquote mainstream are as old as civilization. What makes Nora and Lloyd of our time is the particular bent of their disenchantment. You know, Job would have been given anti-depressants had they been around in Yahweh days – or else he’d have copped some dope or Mollys to handle the stress.

EKH: For me, one of the chief pleasures of Happy Mutant Baby Pills is its brilliance at a language level with all the great rhetorical flotsam of Monsanto and Christian dating profiles and the Occupy movement, and especially the stuff of our modern pharma-wonderland. (Maybe I was pre-disposed here; my mom is a psychologist, and I grew up in a house stocked with freebie Effexor pens and Rozerem wall clocks and squeezable rubber Abilify brains. I used to make sad-to-happy face flipbooks out of pads of Prozac sticky notes.) What appeals to you in playing with this particular sick vernacular?

JS: Pharma-toys for Tots! What could be better. Getting you primed for baby’s first anti-psychotic. I’m sure if Joseph Goebbels had the opportunity, he’d have passed out Auschwitz sno-globes to Polish mayors. Along with the requisite Bergen-Belsen pens and Lebensraum fridge magnets.

I don’t even know that it’s ‘vernacular.’ This is our language now. Side-effects are like selfies – something conceptually unheard of in earlier decades. Back in the 50s, you would have never expected the promoters of SERUTAN – “That’s Nature’s, spelled backwards!” – to end their spots with warnings of bleeding eyeballs or occasional night-drools. But now side effects are part of the package. But it’s not just the language that commands attention. It’s the ellipses: the unspoken, as well. The assumptions underneath the words. For example, the assumption behind Axiron, a testosterone supplement you smear in your armpit, is that, to grow more muscle mass and look more manly at 53, it’s worth the risk of stroke or inducing pubic hair in a two-year-old you accidentally touch with the shit. The trade-off, or some version thereof, is implicit in all pills with these morbidly festive side effects. But it isn’t openly discussed – it’s assumed. Like Count Basie said, ‘it’s the notes you don’t play that count.”

The writers of this material know exactly what they do not have to say. They don’t have to persuade – they just, by law, have to warn. The subtext is simple: if you want to feel better, just take all this stuff that is going to make you feel horrible and possibly kill you. And people don’t think twice. On some level, this is all you need to know about America.

EKH: How did you conceive of the structure of Happy Mutant Baby Pills? Lloyd’s trajectory here is one I could never have foreseen—but then such is the nature of world in which he lives. Still, I wonder if you were as surprised as Lloyd and I both were to find him, say, executing murder-by-paperclip in a bus station bathroom?

JS: I always related to what Norman Mailer said about novel-writing. How it’s like driving at night: you can see twenty feet in front of your car, and when you drive that twenty feet, you can see what’s ahead in the next twenty… The story reveals itself as  you go. Lloyd stumbling into a bus station bathroom and paperclipping some poor bastard to death while he’s sitting on the toilet – yes, that was as much a surprise to me as it is to reader. Sometimes you make yourself squirm. I do, anyway…

That said, one history of civilization is how its citizens murder each other. Besides which, a guy getting paper-clipped in a Greyhound station would be a squib on Huff-post. Two days on the news cycle, until they find the bent stress victim who committed the crime. But in the context of the story, the grimy reality of living and breathing bus-world felt right. Not just as a place to commit a crime, but as a kind of a crime in itself.  The low-end vaguely desperate emotional geography of a bus station men’s room – that’s where this country has been psycho-emotionally rounded up and shipped off to.

EKH: Another thing that struck me about the kind of cultural riffing you do in the book is its particularity. The guest Lloyd sees on a morning talk show isn’t an invented composite celebrity but January Jones advocating for placenta-eating; when Lloyd falls into a job writing for a TV crime show, he’s not writing for some off-brand reimagining of CSI, but for a show actually identified as CSI, penning episodes that sound a lot like ones you’ve penned. Where others might fictionalize, you often dial direct. Why that choice?

JS: Again, choice implies a kind of willfulness, a pre-ordained intent. I got to this point in the story and what felt perfect, for the moment, was a chunk of my own experience. Transposed onto the character. It’s not like Bret Easton Ellis writing himself as a character – which is the perfect vehicle for an author whose life became, in some ways, a fabulous spectacle in which he was, in fact, a character. That’s a move which, as a writer and, more importantly, as a fan, I admire and love reading. But it’s not Lloyd’s situation. Lloyd and Nora are anti-fabulous. They don’t even have some particular street-glamour. (The real criminals I’ve known in life have gone to great lengths to blend in. As in, no tattoos on the face. They don’t want to be memorable.)

But even the CSI thing was just a backdrop. It’s not like, in real life, I went in there with a maniacal kleptomaniac girlfriend who stole death props and wanted to put poison in her vagina. If you’ve been to Iraq, or a steel mill, or the corner of Crack & Eightball – you throw in details. I’d worked at the studio in Santa Clarita, so I put the characters there. Just because something really happened doesn’t mean it isn’t fiction. And vice versa.

EKH: You’ve done so much screenwriting in addition to writing books. Are the two very different processes for you? I wonder especially about what it’s like to inherit (or at least share) a cast of characters with other writers on a show, versus having more complete control over their conception and the paths they take. Is it liberating or inhibiting or both to step into a story-in-progress that way? Do you have a different relationship to the final product in each case?

JS: I was about to get pretentious and quote Stravinsky – “the more limitations I have, the more creative I can be….” The truth is I don’t do much screenwriting these days, unless I’m working with people whose work I love, who I love hanging out with. You know, I put a couple of books out last year.  And after the prolonged hell-party of writing novels, collaborating is a joy.

Before the fiction binge, the last two jobs I had were doing Hemingway & Gellhorn, the HBO movie, where I worked with Phil Kaufmann for a couple of years. I mean, go watch Quills, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, or The Right Stuff. Kaufmann’s like some European master craftsman, so by definition you’re stepping in as an apprentice. But writing and character-wise, the art of it was making the most familiar (and first) celebrity-writer on the planet – Ernest Hemingway — a fresh character. To me, Martha Gellhorn was the more interesting of the pair, so I made the choice to have her tell the story. She was that classic Noir combo – the self-deprecating, wise-cracking badass. Except she was real, and wickedly funny. She could laugh at herself in a way Hemingway never could. This is a turf I’m fascinated by anyway – so it was lush to be able to immerse myself in her work – Travels With Myself And Another and The View From The Ground are classics. Plus which, their world. The Spanish Civil War, World War Two, Cuba, New York, Old Weird America – just talking about it, you want to use the word “Panavision!”

We had to cover continents and wars on a very small budget. Which we did with archival footage – so sometimes the writing involved a kind of reverse engineering. If we had footage of Basques throwing Molotov cocktails off the roof of a Madrid church, then we found a way to get our Fun Couple up there on the roof with them. Of course, afterward, all the Cannes stuff was ridiculous – naturally I popped a shirt button during the red carpet shots with Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman. So, in most of the press photos I look like Clive’s creepy, mentally challenged older brother.

And the last TV I did, just a couple months ago, was an episode of Maron. On the surface your question would seem to apply here, because I’m walking in with an established character, into a room full of writers in the second season of a sitcom. And my job is to sound like the star of the show. The difference, though, is that Maron and I go way back. He’s one of my closest friends, and we’ve been to the wars together. I know his voice because I’ve heard it over a million meals and rides and phone calls. And I can more than relate. It’s hard to think of a better gig than hanging in a room full of comedians discussing crazy-ass relationships. Let’s just say I’ve done some research. The muscles aren’t all that different from fiction – but if I laughed that much writing novels, I’d be locked down in a corner somewhere on a stellazine-drip.

EKH: What other projects do you have in the works right now?

JS: I’m about a third into a novel, but – for me, at least – it’s bad juju to discuss. Like ripping out a fetus and saying, “Look at those eyes!” Once it’s exposed to air it’s over.

Aside from the fiction – which eats the bulk of my time – I’m working with the director, Larry Charles, adapting my novel Pain Killers, into a limited cable series, “Manny and Mengele.” Because, really, who isn’t hot for a buddy show where one of the buddies is Joseph Mengele? Again, he’s an old friend, and our sensibilities completely jibe. He also directed my author video. What I really admire is the fact that, aside from being insanely funny, there was a degree of physical danger involved in shooting, say, Bruno, that people don’t even realize. Most art doesn’t require that kind of balls. Plus, we’re more-or-less the same age, so we get all of each other’s references. He can make a George Jessel joke, and I’ll get it…. I’m also working with the author Nic Sheff, who wrote Tweak, on a couple of projects. We used to have some of the same hobbies. Of course, at this point it’s just two guys in a room with a dream and a mortgage. I’m also working with John Albert, who wrote the amazing memoir Wrecking Crew, on a show about the dark, rarely glimpsed underbelly of early Hollywood – back when apartment buildings had signs that said, “No Dogs, No Coloreds, No Actors.” It’s a world I first explored in I, Fatty, and return to here.

The novels are the constant, but show biz, when it works, offers its own kind of demented gratification. (Phil Kaufman used to call movie-making “living in the dream.”) Most novelists I know either teach college or write scripts. Somehow, Iowa and Columbia have not come calling – though I have taught  at San Quentin.

EKH: Finally, I know it’s but one bullet point on a very crowded resume, but I’m a big fan of your OG Dad column at The Rumpus—can we keep expecting more installments?

JS: I love writing those. In fact, now that I have a little time, I’ve jumped back in. I just turned in a new installment, my 21st, and I’m halfway into another one. This morning I found myself writing the sentence  “I just ordered a potty,” and had kind of a moment. I mean, right when you think you’re losing your edge – I just ordered a potty! What would George Bataille say about that?

The truth is, much as I may love kids – especially my own, strangely enough — I hate parent-writing in general, and daddy blogs in particular. It’s either too fucking whimsical-precious or goateeishly hipster-ironic. So I guess, since I have a little girl, whom I adore, and about whom I want to write, I’ve got to work through my own issues… Babies, ultimately, resemble Hobbes’ legendary description of life: “nasty, brutish and short…” It’s all downhill from there.

Jerry Stahl is the author of six books, including the narcotics memoir Permanent Midnight (made into a film with Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson), and the novels Pain Killers and I, Fatty. He has written extensively for film and television.

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky is an assistant editor at Tin House.