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.