‘Permanent’ insanity

Polka, drugs and lots of sex are all in a day’s work for ‘Cocaine Chronicles’ contributor Jerry Stahl

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 6/16/2005

It seems author Jerry Stahl may never be able to say enough outrageous things about the wildly fluctuating worlds of sex and drugs than what has already been chronicled about his real life in David Veloz's "Permanent Midnight."

In the 1998 film, Ben Stiller plays Stahl, who was once a Hollywood screenwriter making $25,000 a week but ended up blowing his fortune -- along with a number of close relationships -- on heroin.

The now-long-sober Stahl's latest work appears in "Cocaine Chronicles," a collection of short stories compiled by Altadena author Jervey Tervalon and Gary Phillips.

"Jerry has written extensively about addiction, and we were glad he could be a part of the book," said Tervalon, who teaches writing and literature classes at UCLA. "His story is funny and heartbreaking."

Tervalon went on to explain how the idea for "Chronicles" came about:

"Gary and I were on a panel for another book I edited, 'The Geography of Rage,' which was about the LA riots," said Tervalon. "We were musing about how cocaine increased the violence in the inner city to the point where it had set the stage for the riot to happen. It made the neighborhood explosive. It was like throwing kerosene on a smoldering fire."

Stahl, now 51 and sober for the past 12 years, says his offering is based on reality, and is definitely not for the squeamish. In one scene, for instance, the narrator is asked by an elderly woman to blow coke up her butt with a straw in order to score free drugs.

The curators of this narcotics-themed collection of stories by a number of authors contacted Stahl out of the blue, saying, "We heard you did some research on the subject, perhaps you'd like to contribute a story," Stahl recently recalled with a laugh about his talk with Tervalon.

Other writers in the collection include: Suan Straight, Lee Child, Ken Bruen, Laura Lippman, Nina Revoyr, Bill Moody, Emory Holmes II, James Brown, Kerry West, Robert Ward, Manuel Ramos, Detrice Jones, Deborah Vankin, who is a student of Tervalon's at UCLA, and Donnell Alexander, who is a staff writer for LA CityBeat, a sister paper to the Pasadena Weekly.

With credits that include writing for the TV show "Alf," countless magazine articles and a number of books, the latest called "I, Fatty," a fictionalized account of the trials of once-famed movie icon Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Stahl was in France recently pimping the French edition of "Plainclothes Naked." First published two years ago, that novel launches from a photograph of George W. Bush having kinky sex with the mayor of a small town outside Pittsburgh.

Erik Himmelsbach, Stahl's editor at the now-defunct LA Reader, met Stahl after doing a story on him when "Midnight" came out. Stahl liked the article and was invited to write a column for the Reader called "Bad Liver," which first appeared in the beginning of 1996.

"He was always really helpful with my work," said Himmelsbach, who until recently wrote the "Valley Boy" column for LA ValleyBeat, another sister publication of the Weekly.

"He would give me honest feedback. We had the same agents for a while. He was a good person to talk to about stuff because he's been through everything. I always appreciated his advice."

Stahl and other "Chronicles" authors will be reading their works at Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz, at 7:30 p.m. Friday.

He'll be back at Skylight Books again on July 29 to promote the paperback edition of "I, Fatty."

Pasadena Weekly: Are you working on any new projects?

Jerry Stahl: All the time. I'm working on a new novel and some scripts. My last book, 'I, Fatty,' was optioned to Johnny Depp, who's done a lot of work on the book. I love Johnny, man. He's the purest artist. Great fucking painter. Unbelievable painter. I may be doing a movie on Oscar Levant with Ben Stiller, and I have completed a remake of 'Sharky's Machine' for Warner Bros. I just accidentally sold a pilot to FX. I owed someone a meeting. I haven't written it yet, I just sold the idea in the meeting. It's called 'Junky Boy.' It's about those people who come to schools and give their little speeches, like, 'I shot heroin.' The main guy does that and becomes famous. But he hates himself because he's an asshole. And then he falls in love with the abstinence chick. You know, that Silver Way thing, that Bush-funded abstinence program. But statistically, the girls in the abstinence programs have this massive rate of oral and anal sex so they can stay virgins. No way is it going on their air. I just thought of the gnarliest shit to give them. Any time in Hollywood when you hear that someone wants 'dark and edgy,' run the other way. I always get hired for that and then I turn in scripts and they don't just reject them, they spray the room with Lysol.

Have you tried any other mediums for artistic outlet?

Not many people know this, but I was deeply into interpretive dance for a long time. I still have a leotard underneath. I mean if you're comfortable, you know, with male grace, I could give you a little demonstration. No, man. I basically just write. I love to write in planes and while traveling. There are no distractions. I write all the time. I think I started getting stories rejected by magazines when I was 15 or 16. That's when I started sending my stuff out. I'm still getting rejected by the same magazines all these years later. That's pretty much how I started out, doing journalism of one kind of another. My first paying gig was for the Santa Cruz Free Press when I was about 20, for eight big one-dollar bills an article -- not to brag.

Will you be doing any more columnist work?

I was a columnist for Details for three years. I don't know if I'll be doing any more columnist work. I miss it, though. I loved doing it. It was great. I was in the [Los Angeles] Reader for awhile, LA Magazine, and Details later.

How long were you with the Reader?

Chronology, along with other certain motor skills, is gone. I couldn't even tell you what decade that was. They were very cool, though. I could write whatever I wanted. I used to be the starlet boy for Esquire at one point. They would pay me like $400 a month and I would interview some up-and-coming starlet. Inevitably, I would fuck up the tape recorder and have to make up what the latest gossip was.

Do you ever want to direct?

No. I became a writer so I wouldn't have to leave the house. The last thing I want to do is order people around and get bitched at by producers. It would be very arrogant for me to walk in somewhere and assume I knew what the fuck I was doing. I know that's not a trendy answer, but I'm not one of those guys who wants to direct.

How did Ben Stiller research you for his role in 'Midnight'?

Ben did a lot of research. The money kind of fell apart after he committed to the role, so he asked me to write this movie for him. We hung out for about a year and became really good friends. He pretty much taught me how to write screenplays because I had never really written them before. I took him down there on Eighth and Alvarado and Fourth and Bonnie Brae and all those old stations of the LA junkie cross. He lost a ton of weight, made himself really sick and made himself feel and look like shit. It was hardcore, man. It was very De Niro 'Raging Bull' and Christian Bale 'The Machinist,' you know, he went way out there. I thought he was great. He's a great actor. Have you ever had someone play you in a movie? It's a strange experience.

Watching 'Midnight,' do you regret getting into that lifestyle?

There's no use regretting it now. I mean, there's nothing I can do about it. I regret all the people I fucked over, that's for sure. On the other hand, it gave me a marketable skill. I don't think you should regret it. If you lived through it, it's kind of a good thing to have survived.

For going there and coming back.

Exactly. It sort of burns the bullshit out of you. I stopped sticking things into my arms when I was 39. I always ate healthy, though. I was a vegetarian for 20 years. Shootin' dope and eatin' wheatgrass was the yin and yang that kept my liver crawling for another month. My 105-year-old liver basically lives in Ohio right now, so we made an agreement. It's not good or bad, it's just what I do. I think it's the worst when someone comes off as some preachy motherfucker. I go to great lengths to say, 'You know what? This is my deal. Whatever you do, God bless.' And afterwards, in interviews and such, people want you to be this after-school special guy. Have you ever watched a movie that depicts junkydom and think, 'That's bullshit'? Like, they stick the needle in, but never get a register. I lose them right there. I'm like, 'I'm out.'

What kind of music do you listen to now?

Nothing but polka. I'm the polka guy. I don't talk about it much. I'm not bragging. It straddles the universe for me.

Writer R.J. Chmiel contributed to this report.