Often it’s noted that fiction work mimics reality; especially the author’s known and experienced reality. This would certainly explain Jerry Stahl’s newest release Pain Killers. After all, the protagonist is a jaded ex-addict whose tone sounds similar to Stahl’s own narrations in his narco-memoir Permanent Midnight. How would one explain, though, how he writes with such familiarity about the book’s other key concepts – Nazis, hookers and transvestite urine (oh my!)?
Over the years, Stahl has used both his version of reality and the boundless imagination to pen stories for porn magazines, create a fictionalized memoir of comedian Fatty Arbuckle entitled I, Fatty and get Permanent Midnight adapted into a screenplay starring Elizabeth Hurley and Ben Stiller. Now under his name emerges Pain Killers, a novel weaving an intricately odd plot that truly, no synopsis does much justice. Ex-cop and murdering wife battle a demented evil genius doctor? Frightening commentary on the media’s obsession with prison television? Perhaps it’s better to let Stahl dissect it a bit himself… or simply read and interpret yourself.
Becky Fritter: Let’s jump right into your new book Pain Killers. It was apparent that Manny Rupert’s character draws a parallel to your own life. Was that consciously done?
Jerry Stahl: What do you mean?
BF: The addiction, the passive stance compared to the other main character Tina who was very gung-ho about things… it mirrored the depiction of yourself in (autobiography) Permanent Midnight.
JS: He was the main character in an earlier detective book I did called Plainclothes Naked, so it’s more about him than it is about me, but we both were addicts of course. When I did the research, I tried to utilize some of what I could recall.
BF: It was also curious how in passing, your characters’ dialogue and thoughts contain so many references to television and movies. Was that inescapable with you being a TV writer?
JS: I actually didn’t write that much for television, to tell you the truth. A few episodes here and there, but it’s been a couple years. But no, I think it’s more that we live in America and things like billboards and television and people screaming on the sidewalk at four in the morning are part of what goes through your head. It’s not about giving it weight or validity, it’s an inescapable landscape of crap that we inhabit.
BF: Even with minor TV experience, don’t you feel that allows your book to be more easily adapted to screen, with these constant references to pop culture that date the book?
JS: I would think just the opposite; dating stuff means if no one buys it in the next five years, it won’t be a movie. But I mean, Permanent Midnight was kind of a fluke and nothing else went to the screen. I think there are plenty of books with cultural references but I don’t think that translates into adaptability.
BF: I’m assuming you’re not going to explore getting Pain Killers into a screen format, then.
JS: Hey, if someone wants to buy it, they should feel free. I have children to put through college. But that’s not what it’s about. I could make more money assembling tennis shoes then I could writing novels.
BF: What effect do you think your time writing porn had on your depiction of the female characters in your book?
JS: Oh, God… I don’t think there’s any relation whatsoever. Did you feel offended as a woman?
BF: Not offended. I loved Tina’s character and I felt like her sexuality added onto her idiosyncrasies, but I also felt all of the female characters were overly sexual and that significantly drew away from her character design.
JS: There were only two female characters though, a hooker and an ex-hooker.
BF: No, there weren’t. I’m referring to your minor characters. The therapist who, after Manny says one single sentence, gets down on her knees and starts sucking his dick. Or Dinah, the woman on the train who starts trying to fuck Manny after a glance… how do you think the book could have benefitted from being a little less phallocentric? Maybe having a female character who wasn’t introduced as sex-crazed… if only to draw a stark contrast between those women and Tina, but also to not alienate some female readers who could perceive that unfavorably.
JS: You might be absolutely right. The interesting thing about writing a novel is that the characters are perceived and described in a reflection of the first person, that unreliable narrator. So if she sucks dick, as you say, and these women are over-sexualized, that’s kind of like saying they have red hair. But I think you might be right, I could have been more calculating, certainly to be aware of a more sensitive demographic of my audience. That’s a really smart comment, but kind of out of my hands now. It was a conscious choice at the time, almost a parody to show the guy for what he was, but when you put it that way, it makes a lot of sense. And if it gets picked up for a movie, it won’t be on the Lifetime Network, that’s for sure.
BF: I don’t know, the Lifetime Network’s pretty ironically into exploiting women with all those rape movies…
JS: Oh, Jesus. (Laughs.) Maybe I’m more square and conventional than I thought… good point though.
BF: Now to your previous work, because I feel like we should move anti-chronologically, Permanent Midnight. Is that going to be your last memoir? Because I feel like with some authors, the second they write a memoir it’s like Lay’s Potato Chips, they can’t write just one.
JS: (Laughs.) Yeah, that’s very true. I’ll tell you something. One, when you start to write a memoir, you get this disease where you start to think everything you say is interesting… and two, I have to ‘fess up. I was going to do a follow-up to Permanent Midnight and we were thinking of calling it If You Die Now, We Can Make You Famous. But I just decided not to and gave the money back because it’s like, if you’re on drugs and you’re a dick, you have an excuse. If you’re just a dick, stone cold sober, there’s really no way around it. So the idea seemed boring and lame and I wouldn’t want my kid to have to read it.
BF: Do you think you would have experienced more or less success without your addiction? Obviously Permanent Midnight would have never come about. Would you have possibly been more active in TV?
JS: Well, I fell into the role of television writer on two occasions just because I married someone who needed a green card who was a producer. I’m certainly not Johnny TV Guy. But if what you’re asking is, was being a junkie a good career move? Maybe. Accidentally. I had six unpublished novels before Permanent Midnight, so you might be right.
BF: That’s just how it is with our culture, I think. We love reformed junkies and the like. People who are talented get more recognition when they’re also talented and have an addiction they can or can’t overcome.
JS: I know. Are you completely disgusted with that trend?
BF: I don’t know if I’m completely disgusted with it, but I’m trying really hard not to capitalize on it… (Laughs.)
JS: (Laughs.) The results of those trends are shows like Celebrity Rehab and Sober House, where you can just watch these B-level celebrities like Jeff Conaway go staggering around for pain pills. It’s like narco-porn, like nothing is more satisfying than watching former TV stars turn to dribbling pieces on screen. Fun for the whole family.
BF: After our obsession with this type of culture subsides, which I’m assuming eventually it will have to, what will we turn to next?
JS: What do you think will come next?
BF: Me? Well, I’m pretty sure we’re all going to revert back to childhood and start jerking off to Sesame Street. After sex and drugs and violence don’t satiate us anymore, what else could we find pleasure in but wholesome goodness?
JS: Jerking off to Sesame Street? (Laughs.) Well, you said that and not me, baby. Hadn’t even occurred to me, although you might be right. The last frontier could be cookies and milk. ~