The Mark Blog

ERIC LAYER INTERVIEWS 2011 EMERGING VOICES MENTOR JERRY STAHL, PART 2

 

 
Here’s part two of the interview with my former mentor Jerry Stahl.  I was curious about how Jerry approached some of the issues that had come up during my writing process, from the more micro (which POV works best for this story?), to the macro (what’s this book really about?), as well as issues that will be coming up in the near future (publishers?).
 
Q: Much of Bad Sex on Speed is written in the second person, a less frequently used POV. What’s your take on it, and why did you choose it so often in the novel, though not in every chapter?
 
Every writer has his or her own MO. Mine, for better or worse, is not to calculate, plan how a book’s going to go. In other words, second-person-wise, it chose me, not the other way around.
 
Of more significance was learning to write minus what felt like a significant portion of my brain. It’s kind of like involuntary enlightenment – realizing there’s another path because the one you’re familiar with has gone away. If you can’t remember enough to plan, you’re going to improvise.
 
For me, in the end, every book is about finding a world you want to plumb and plunging into it. And keep in mind, before Bad Sex on Speed and Happy Mutant Baby Pills I was coming off nearly three years working on a movie – the HBO film Hemingway & Gellhorn.In that world, every move requires an explanation. Every line is scrutinized, studied, and – nine times out of ten – revised. In the new novel, Happy Mutant Baby Pills – while more character-driven and less overtly ‘random’ than  Bad Sex on Speed – it felt weirdly, fantastically liberating to just write from point A to point of no return without charting out every step along the way.
 
So perhaps, along with the chemical brain-savaging, the sheer dive-off-the-deep-end freedom of these two books was dictated as much by the writing I was doing before I started them as it was by what I wanted to say when I finally did.
 
Q: A lot of people tend to slow down and become more sentimental as they age.  Bad Sex seems to up the ante with the grotesque and macabre. Please explain why you refuse to write about the pleasures of domesticity, the divine truths of kindergartners and grandparents, the redemptive power of nature, etc… 
 
Who said I refuse to write about the pleasure of domesticity? I’ve had a long-running blog on The Rumpus, “OG Dad,” about being a late-inning father. (The OG stands for “Old Guy.”) That collection will be published some time in 2014. Doesn’t get more domestic than that. I've got a 24-year-old daughter that I love, a year old little girl I'm crazy about, and a great girlfriend who understands what it's like living with a writer, because she's a writer herself. Maybe that's why I can go the places I go on the page.
 
 The one doesn’t preclude the other. Besides which, as Flaubert – or was it Balzac? – wrote, “If you want to be avant-garde in your art, lead a conventional life.” One reviewer of Bad Sex compared the jump from straight-ahead storytelling to surreal and plotless narrative to Burroughs’ leap from the neo-noir of Junky to the narco-demented Naked Lunch. I wouldn’t presume to put myself in the same sentence as the late William B., but it’s a nice parallel. 
 
Q: Do you set out writing with a goal in mind, or come to it in the process?  Is it merely a dip into a meth-head’s mind & life? Or is the book trying to tell us something more specific?
 
All due respect, but I think when an author starts expounding on what his or her book is “trying to tell us,” the reader should run for the hills. If you’ll pardon the cliché, this book exists as a Rorschach of the reader/consumer’s own sensibilities.
 
Q: Tell me about your new novel Happy Mutant Baby Pills.
 
I didn't mention that, as part of the hepatitis C trial, I was not allowed to be anywhere near my pregnant girlfriend. The medication - it was explained to me - was so toxic that just my finger brushing her skin after I'd touched a pill could have turned the fetus into the subject of a Discovery Channel special. (The technical term is teratogenic.) The novel stemmed from the realization that the whole situation is just a more extreme example of what living in America does to us every day. A matter of degree.  GMOs and pesticides, drugs in the water supply and crap in the air, etc… etc… I mean, everybody from Bataille to Žižek talk about how humanity-destroying the Modern World is. But now just breathing, eating, existing can destroy you before your soul gets out of bed. 
 
In brief. This is a book about a pregnant woman who, as a form of social protest, embraces all these toxins rather than avoiding them. Ingests them, finds even more. She's on a quest to bear an epochally horrific offspring as a form of protest.  Joan of Arc's boyfriend is a failed writer, a guy who makes his living creating the warning labels on all the drugs you see advertised in all the commercials on MSNBC or Fox at two in the afternoon or two in the morning... It's a love story. With side trips to Occupy L.A. and Christian Dating Services, among other things. My most overtly socially conscious book. And maybe the funniest. (At least to me.) 
 
Q: Can you talk about the difference between large publishers and smaller ones?
 
For me, size doesn't matter, so to speak. It's about the people you're working with. I have a great editor at HarperCollins, Michael Signorelli, who had ideas that completely changed the opening structure of the book. You know, taking editorial suggestions can be a little like having a trapeze coach: there you are in mid-air with someone offering suggestions from the ground. But when it works you make it through that free-fall to the other side. And the other side, if you've done it right, is not what you thought it was going to be going in. It's a matter of trust - and luck - and there's no question the book is infinitely better than it would have been, had I been left to my own devices, and didn't have Signorelli asking the right questions. At Rare Bird/Barnacle Books, I worked with Tyson Cornell, a real visionary. His background is in indy music and running Book Soup, an artist who's worked with other artists. So it was less abut editing than assembling. Putting together a book that's almost like a concept album. Or a stand-alone sculpture, some kind of gorgeous physical thing. (There are actually secret inscriptions on the book - like bonus tracks on an album.)  Rare Bird has an office in downtown LA that would make Marlowe blush. So taking meetings there felt less about publishing a book than joining a movement….  
 
But this is what I really want to say: big publisher or little --  it's like a musician who plays a club one night and an arena the next – what you can never forget is how fucking fortunate you are that you get to play. People accuse me of being negative, dark, whatever cliché you want to insert. But that's just the obvious. The truth is, the very act of sitting down to write is, by its very nature, incredibly optimistic. Even if, every morning, you have to machete your way through a forest of psycho-emotional demons to get there, when you sit down at your desk - in my case a couch - you are committing an insanely and irrationally life-affirming act. An act of faith. A sentiment that would have made me punch myself in the face at twenty, but now that I'm 106, it's undeniable. The only drug left is writing -- and I need it more than it needs me. 
 
Q: Finally, any reflections on your experience as a mentor in the EV program? 
 
Fantastic experience. As it happened, I was paired with a writer who was accomplished and skilled going in, so I can’t take credit for much of anything. But certainly being a party to the enthusiasm and against-all-odds devotion to the act of writing was nothing but great for me. There is nothing more inspiring than working with somebody who is inspired. And the same applies to the entire program. I am very grateful to have been a part of it.
 

 

Writers' Reel: Douglas Kearney at Indelible Ink

Douglas Kearney reads his poem "Live/Evil" from his first book, Fear, Some.

Come see Douglas Kearney read at Hollywood Forever this Friday.

For more information on L.A. Story, or to R.S.V.P., click here.

The Language of Music

I waited until senior year of college to complete most of my GEs. I thought they’d be easy and boring but, in my final year at UCLA, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed many of them. One of the classes I took to fulfill a requirement was Linguistics 1.

As was the case with many of my classes, only bits and pieces of what we learned really stuck with me. Something that has stuck, though, is the idea that some people’s brains attempt to interpret the sounds of instrumental music as language, while other people’s minds perceive the musical notes as non-lingual noises. This, I remember the professor saying, is the reason why some people can easily listen to lyric-free music while writing and studying, while others find it deeply distracting.

I’m one of the folks whose mind senses music—even without lyrics—as language. (Of course, it is a language of sorts. I don’t know much about music, but I do know that most classical pieces are organized in movements, which transition through an emotional journey and, in doing so, convey a story.) For those of us whose brains try to make sense of music as a language, we know that it’s tough to write while listening. It’s like there are two conflicting conversations taking place, vying for coherence and articulation.

At the same time, I know firsthand the merit that can be found in writing to music. For one, it’s a great way to cancel out noise. (I like writing in coffee shops and I can’t control the fact that there are often chatty groups at nearby tables.) It’s also an effective way for returning to a state of mind and mood; listening to a certain song sets a tone in me as a writer, which in turn lends consistency to the atmosphere of the book. It’s a sensory cue for writing, too. When I hear a certain song: ready, set, write. For me, this song is Beethoveen’s Sonata Number Fourteen.

Further, I’ve found that when I listen to this same classical song over and over my brain has a chance to make sense of it. After listening to something on repeat about 12,000 times, my brain no longer busies itself with trying to interpret the language of the music. Only the feel of the song, and the feeling it creates in my writing, remains.

RETHINKING REJECTION

I haven’t yet met a writer who enjoys getting a rejection letter. Over the years, I’ve heard lots of tips about dealing with rejection so that it doesn’t crush your soul into small fragments. I wish I could attribute the following advice to its sources. Please believe me when I say they come from good sources—published authors, produced playwrights, writing teachers, and professors. These are people who have been around the block.

Accept your feelings.
Rejection is going to sting some days more than others. Give yourself room to be disappointed, hurt, angry, whatever. Don’t deny how you feel. Even the most positive people are affected by rejection. But then they get back to creating.

Move forward.
The chips are stacked against you. There are many people out there writing and there isn’t enough room to publish each and every piece. Acknowledge this but don’t let it weigh you down. If you’re in the process of sending something off, start up another project. In this way, you’re not concentrating all of your energy in placing a story or landing an agent. Each time you go back to your notebook or computer and show up to do your work you are making movement forward. You’re moving forward with the project as well as developing your craft. You’re making yourself, and your writing, better.

Sheer volume.
If you don’t send your work out, then you’re not giving yourself a fair chance. Over the years I have heard that the average published story is rejected twenty-plus times before it is accepted. Gone with the Wind was rejected by more than 20 publishers. C.S. Lewis sent out more than 800 times before he made a sale. Keep being consistent and keep sending out.

Don’t give up.
Early on in my writing career, a college professor told me she had seen many talented writers fall to the wayside because they stopped writing or sending out. They were bogged down by the nos. Over time I have seen this happen. Don’t become overwhelmed by the negativity.

Hang on to positive rejections.
Not all rejections are created equal. If there is a personalized, scrawled note on your rejection, hang on to it. The digital equivalent is an email which compliments your writing specifically and encourages you to send more material. The slush piles are huge. The editor doesn’t have time to personalize rejections, so take their invitation and send them more work—when it’s ready, of course.

A shift in perception.
Every rejection gets you closer to a yes. This is true. In many ways, it is a numbers game. Not each story is for each editor. Even if you’ve written a fine story or book, there will be people out there that feel it’s not their cup of tea. This is nothing personal. It happens all the time. Haven’t you picked up a book others have raved about, only to put it down at page fifty, unable to continue?

Writing abounds with rejection. It’s a fact. You can’t let yourself get defeated by it. What you focus on tends to expand, so focus on what you love: the act of writing. Pay attention to your craft, to the word on the page. Make it the best you can, and when you’re sure, send it off and stay strong.

 

BOOKMARK THIS: 25 Insights on Becoming a Better Writer

99u has compiled a list of writing advice from acclaimed authors.

Here are a few of our favorites:

Steven Pressfield: On starting before you’re ready…
"[The] Resistance knows that the longer we noodle around “getting ready,” the more time and opportunity we’ll have to sabotage ourselves. Resistance loves it when we hesitate, when we over-prepare. The answer: plunge in."

Kurt Vonnegut: On finding a subject…
"Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style. I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way — although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do."

Sarah Waters: On being disciplined…
"Treat writing as a job. Be disciplined. Lots of writers get a bit OCD-ish about this. Graham Greene famously wrote 500 words a day. Jean Plaidy managed 5,000 before lunch, then spent the afternoon answering fan mail. My minimum is 1,000 words a day – which is sometimes easy to achieve, and is sometimes, frankly, like shitting a brick, but I will make myself stay at my desk until I’ve got there, because I know that by doing that I am inching the book forward. Those 1,000 words might well be rubbish – they often are. But then, it is always easier to return to rubbish words at a later date and make them better."

Haruki Murakami: On building up your ability to concentrate…
"In private correspondence the great mystery writer Raymond Chandler once confessed that even if he didn’t write anything, he made sure he sat down at his desk every single day and concentrated. I understand the purpose behind his doing this. This is the way Chandler gave himself the physical stamina a professional writer needs, quietly strengthening his willpower. This sort of daily training was indispensable to him."

Read the full list here.

Eric Layer Interviews 2011 Emerging Voices Mentor Jerry Stahl

Now that I’ve turned in my draft and await final judgment, er, Final Review, I thought it’d be a good time to check in with Jerry Stahl, my mentor from the Emerging Voices Fellowship (which is now accepting applications, for all you writers out there). Jerry is the author of the memoir Permanent Midnight, a story collection, and six novels, including the upcoming Happy Mutant Baby Pills, due in October from Harper Perennial. I bought his latest, Bad Sex on Speed (referred to from now on as BSOS), a few months back and finally got around to reading it. It’s a collection of short pieces revolving around, well, you can probably guess from the title.

Q: Tell me about the genesis of your last book, BSOS?

I had been asked to write a book of poetry for a French publisher. Something around 100, 120 pages. Instead, in a crazed six weeks or so, this came out.

Q: What exactly is BSOS? A novel? Novella? Novelette? Novel-in-stories? I ask because I’m struggling to figure out what to call my own collection.

It’s a novel. But I don’t think too much about labels.

Q: What drew you back into writing about drugs, and, in particular, the world of meth addicts?

Last year I began a trial program at a hospital in LA to try and cure the hepatitis C I contracted a couple of decades ago, shooting heroin. One of the side effects of the drug was what the administrators called ‘brain fog.’ In fact, I couldn’t think straight. Couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t string a coherent thought together. It was a bizarre situation. Needless to say, this freaked me for a minute. Then it hit me, what the hell, why not treat this, to steal a phrase from Iggy Pop, as some weird gift? So, given what was on my psycho-emotional plate, so to speak, at the time, a book crammed with the demented observations, memories, irrational writhings and rantings of meth-heads would not exactly be a stretch. What began as a liability would in fact make the book possible.

Q: The penultimate chapter in BSOS, “Crank-Tastics,” details a slew of famous speed freaks throughout history and especially in Hollywood. I’ve compared speed for artists to “juicing” for athletes; it can improve productivity in the short term, but wreak havoc in the long. Is there such a thing as responsible drug use? Are we, as the narrator of BSOS seems to believe, becoming a nation of addicts: Amphetamerica? And what the hell can we do about it?

Well, it’s no secret that Max Jacobsen, AKA Dr. Feelgood, (about whom a terrific biography has just come out), was feeding a steroid-and-amphetamine cocktail to everybody from JFK, Rod Serling, and Truman Capote to Mickey Mantle, Tennessee Williams, and Bob Fosse – to name a few. But, fascinating as the backstory may be, what a writer, painter, actor musician or any other kind of artist ultimately had to do to get the performance they got should make no difference. There’s a quotation from E M Cioran in my new novel, Happy Mutant Baby Pills – which of course I can’t completely remember. (The quotation, not the novel. Did I mention that trial drug thing?) The gist is, My life may be a living hell, but at least it is a hell of my own making.

As to ‘what we can do about it” – it’s a dreary and pointless question. We live in a fucked up world in a fucked up time with what looks like a brutal and fucked up future ahead. Not everybody can face reality with an all-natural smile. I don’t judge.

Q: BSOS feels very lived-in, we’re right in the meth-head’s mind. I’m curious how you entered that mind-state, while, presumably, you weren’t high yourself, and it had probably been a while since you were? Did your research, speak with current or recent addicts, etc.?

See above….

Along with my own hep-c-cure-induced, meth-adjacent pharmaceutical weirdness, I’ve also known my share of speed freaks over the years. One man’s blow-off-his-own-penis-on-bathtub-meth agony is another man’s happy anecdote. Not to mention there’s a grand tradition – one of my favorite underground books of all time is Warhol Factory denizen Taylor Mead’s little classic, “On Amphetamine and in Europe.” Not that I was a particular amphetamine fan. But why should that matter?

Stay tuned for next week’s Part Two, in which we delve into more of society’s ills, the pleasures of domesticity, the joys of writing screenplays, and the elusiveness of the second-person P.O.V. 

Jerry Stahl is the author of six books, including the memoir Permanent Midnight, (made into a movie with Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson) and the novels I, Fatty and Pain Killers. Formerly "Culture" columnist for Details, Stahl's fiction and journalism have appeared in Esquire, the New York Times, and the Believer, among other places. He has worked extensively in film and television and, most recently, wrote Hemingway & Gellhorn, starring Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman, for HBO.

WRITERS' REEL: William S. Burroughs On How Art Teaches Us

 

William S. Burroughs discusses writing, art, archetypes, and how breakthroughs in art permanently expand awareness in humans.

Nicaragua

When we boarded the first of our return flights this afternoon—the one from Managua to Houston, before Houston to LAX—we found our seats beside the same elderly gentleman from Mexico City who we flew beside on the way down, eight days ago. As the plane ascended, the Lago de Managua spread below the plastic double-pane window, its clay shores the color of chocolate, the lush fields around it so fresh they looked wet, the older man reached from his aisle seat and tapped the pane. The plane was nosing the underside of the lowest clouds. “It is a sin,” he said, nodding to the miniature land, “to not watch until it disappears.”

When we arrived at the hotel near the airport on our first night we were hesitant, confused by the language barrier, when we were told our luggage had to be tucked behind a column, out of sight, while we checked in. As the lobby flushed with media, the manager beamed a little: “I am not authorized to say who.” Then the doors slid open and we heard, El presidente, el presidente. In the elevator, when we asked the bellman if he liked his country’s president, he said, vehemently, no—Liars—and when the doors opened and we saw the secret service agent manning the hall, we were silent.

After this, on the long beaches of the Pacific coast of Nicaragua, we saw that the big swell had thrown fish from the sea to the sand, dozens of large ones struck dead along the high tide line—swollen bubbles for eyes, swim bladders like balloons expanded from their mouths, some with spikes that were frightening even on land.

One night, the thunder and lightning were so close it was impossible to sleep. The next morning, a local boy said he’d taken off his metal bracelet and climbed from his bed, afraid that perhaps he was feeling a zing run through the mattress’ springs.

On this flight home, I realize that traveling opens my eyes to what can also be done in the everyday. I remind myself to really pay attention, moment by moment, interaction by interaction, spark by spark. Because, to not—perhaps as a writer, certainly as a human being—would be to miss out on some of the world’s fullness.

WAR AND WRITING

For the second half of The Mark Program, Antoine had me revising—and lengthening—a couple of stories set during the Croatian War of Independence. These stories were especially difficult to revise in many respects because they’re set against a backdrop of violence. Not a lover of the war genre, I originally found these stories difficult to write. This may be why they were the shortest in the collection.

Part of me wonders if I had a right to write about this topic. After all, I’m not a Croatian citizen. I didn’t inhabit a bomb shelter for weeks at a time, didn’t run from sniper gunfire as my relatives had. A passerby of sorts, I am tied to the country through blood relations. I happened to go through Zagreb and the Dalmatian coast in 1993. I saw the signs of war firsthand, but managed to stay away from the hot spots of danger. What qualifies me as someone who should write about this war? Other writers have pondered this dilemma. Ben Fountain’s novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was nominated for the National Book Award in 2012. The novel features Iraq War veterans who are at a Dallas Cowboys game. In an interview with the New York Times, Mr. Fountain said, “Since I’ve never served in the military, never been in a shooting war, I felt like I had to earn the right to write a book like this. I’m still not satisfied that I had the right to do it.”

I’m not sure the alternative, which is to not write the stories at all, would solve anything. Consciousness begets consciousness. Not telling a story because one has not lived through an experience would silence a lot of voices. If we qualify to write a story only when first-hand experience is earned, then many admired stories would never have been written. That’s the beauty of writing: we can assume another point of view, another life, if only temporarily, on the page.

And when assuming another point of view, stories come alive because of character. The war may be a strong presence, a backdrop, part of the setting. However, it is not the story. In the end, stories are about characters who desperately want or need something in their lives, characters who are grappling with the reality of their experiences, whether inhabiting a city under siege or a quiet nursing home in the suburbs. After a number of revisions, I fleshed out by the stories by focusing on characters, not the war.

Bookmark This: Zadie Smith's Rules for Writers

Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, and NW provides The Guardian with a list of golden rules for writers.

Here are a couple of our favorites:

3. Don't romanticise your "vocation". You can either write good sentences or you can't. There is no "writer's lifestyle". All that matters is what you leave on the page.

4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can't do aren't worth doing. Don't mask self-doubt with contempt."

To read the full list, click here.