Few writers are more talented or more twisted than novelist and screenwriter Jerry Stahl, whose work was cemented in the American consciousness in 1998 when a film adaptation of his memoir, Permanent Midnight, hit silver screens. Stahl is a fascinating blend of both the ultimate American insider and, as a former drug addict, marginalized pariah. He is both Hollywood (he’s best friends with movie stars— though he claims not to be) and decidedly New York. Although he grew up in a working class section of Pittsburgh, he is now a central figure in American film, television and literature. I first got to know Stahl around the time he wrote Permanent Midnight—in which he chronicles his tortured rise from obscurity to fame—but I now know him as the author of everything from the critically acclaimed novel I, Fatty (a fictionalized autobiography of Fatty Arbuckle) to the 100th episode of crime show CSI. Most recently, he penned his sixth book, Pain Killers, the story of a drug-addicted private eye named Manny Rupert who goes undercover at San Quentin to meet a man claiming to be Josef Mengele.
Is it fair to say you’ve expanded your literary realm beyond personal experience since Permanent Midnight?
At one point I was asked to write a sequel to Permanent Midnight—If You OD Now, We Can Make You Famous. But I couldn’t do it. It’s one thing to write a book about being an asshole if you have drugs as an excuse. If you’re no longer a dope fiend and you’re still a dick, that’s some tough sledding. My last few books are not, happily, about me. At best—or worst—they’re sort of me-adjacent. But that’s why it’s called fiction.
When did you become interested in the Holocaust?
I once heard the phrase, used by a Holocaust survivor, â€˜It was raining babies.’ The image has not stopped resonating in my brain. The subject itself has obsessed me since I was knee-high to a brisket.
What does it feel like to get into the head of a Nazi?
It’s thinking your way out that’s tricky. Part of being an addict, for me, is being addicted to crisis—to extremes. I can function in the midst of screaming trauma, but break a shoelace and I’m a fucking wreck. So characters whose deeds careen beyond the pale, in any direction, offer more psycho-emotional Velcro to adhere to. Or maybe it’s just growing up in a Jewish household. In my house, you were either screaming or shut down.
Pain Killers is pretty funny. I can’t get over Mengele—he sounds like a Jewish grandmother. Can you explain your strategies for finding humor in tragedy?
Researching the book, I stumbled on a paper presented at a conference about humor and the Holocaust. One of the contributors, Dr. Conrad Hyers, makes a point that I love: â€˜Comedy stubbornly refuses to let tragedy have the final say.’ This is the kind of defiance and survival mechanism for which Jews are justly famous.
There is a very unconventional romance in this book. You’ve even got some necrophilia in there. Do you think your belief in the incredible sexiness of death is unusual?
It’s not the specifics of death that imbue sex with heat. It’s the fact that death is always in the mail, and the older you get, the louder that mail truck gets coming up the street. Thank God they’re thinking of non-delivery on Tuesdays due to record first-quarter losses by the postal service. That’s the one silver lining to the non-economy.
How in touch are you with your Jewish side?
My grandfather used to say, â€˜If you ever forget you’re a Jew, a Gentile will remind you.’ He also used to say, â€˜A Goyishe cock is like a dunce cap and a Jew’s is like derby.’ But maybe I should save that for your other magazine, Hebrew National.
How deeply rooted in Judaism is your struggle with self-loathing?
I don’t really experience much self-loathing. Actually, I hate myself a little for not having more self-hate. Which may be deeply Jewish. That’s something I just have to live with. On the other hand, Chasid or Chipster, if your name is Seymour Fishbein, you’ll have a tricky time buying a condo in Mecca.
For more on Jerry Stahl and Pain Killers, check out Jerrystahl.com.