Jerry Stahl


“What I always loved to write about were subcultures and fanatics, people who really believe—it doesn’t matter in what.”
Places explored during Jerry Stahl’s formative years as a journalist:
Mona’s Gorilla Lounge
A clothing-optional resort
Columbus, Ohio

Jerry Stahl is best known for his first book, 1995’s Permanent Midnight, which was later adapted into the cult-classic film starring Ben Stiller—and for good reason: it’s a scabrous, fearless confessional about being a heroin addict in Hollywood, and it ranks with the work of Burroughs and De Quincey. But in the decades since its publication, Stahl has complemented and expanded upon his debut with seven books, including Perv—A Love Story (1999); I, Fatty (2004), recently optioned by Johnny Depp, which plunges into the volatility of early celebrity; and Pain Killers (2009), a Nazism-meets-noir romp. He is also the editor of a recent anthology, The Heroin Chronicles (2013). These days it might be more accurate to think of Stahl as one of Bukowski’s few true heirs: he’s a writer whose dredging of Los Angeles has created a literary universe of damage, humor, and hope.

Stahl should feel comfortable in his sixty-first year. He made his debut writing short fiction, winning a Pushcart Prize in 1976. He started screenwriting in the mid-to-late ’80s for the popular TV series ALF. He went on to write for other successful shows—Moonlighting, thirtysomething, Twin Peaks, and Northern Exposure. He also had an incredible run as a consultant on CSI, offering insights into episodes about furries, S&M, and infantilism. He cowrote the screenplay for what he calls “the art-house sleeper” Bad Boys II, and more recently he cowrote the screenplay for HBO’s Hemingway and Gellhorn, which was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award.

Habitual drug dependency has complicated Stahl’s life, and he is the first to admit that he’s still working things out. He is flagrantly honest, with a been-there-done-that wisdom that lets him say with finesse what others only think. But ask him about his ability to connect with people, and he’ll say, “Happily, I have no idea what other people think, or I’d probably never leave the house.” Stahl’s recent and turbulent reentry into fatherhood (he has a twenty-five-year-old daughter, Stella, from his first marriage) inspired his latest novel, Happy Mutant Baby Pills, about a failed novelist who finds success in writing the lists of side effects of prescription drugs. The novel is based in part on his experience taking a super-toxic experimental hepatitis C medication, which made him temporarily forbidden to touch his pregnant wife. Stahl tells truths rarely heard at the local sandpit. On the Rumpus, where he writes about fatherhood for his column, OG Dad, he claims, “Screaming babies exist as metaphors for the universe. Diapered humility machines.” I was introduced to Stahl after hearing him speak at a fascinating “Page and Screen” panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. A subsequent exchange of friendly and hilarious emails followed.

—Sabra Embury

THE BELIEVER: Tell me about your hometown.

JERRY STAHL: I grew up in Pittsburgh. I played sports, but the last time I really gave a shit about them was when Bill Mazeroski hit the winning home run against the Yankees in the last game of the 1960 World Series. I can still recite the starting lineup for the Pirates, from Smoky Burgess behind the plate to Roberto Clemente in right field to Vernon Law and Elroy Face on the mound. Back then, baseball players had names that normal humans didn’t have, like Vernon Law and Elroy Face. I mean, Elroy Face! That’s fucking gorgeous. But I’d be hard pressed to name one Pirate today.

BLVR: What kind of kid were you in school?

JS: I was not what you’d call a dreamboat. I was like that scrawny lion who preys on caribou who can’t keep up with the herd. Or maybe I was a scrawny impala. I don’t know. Let’s just say there was no indication back then that I would end up a guy with three wives. Sequentially, of course, not Mormonistically. Otherwise I’d be Mitt Romney’s great-uncle.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Sabra Embury’s writing can be found in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Rumpus, NANO Fiction, and other places. She lives in Brooklyn with her son, Felix.

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