Jerry Stahl Discusses His New Book About Heroin, the Drug That Nearly Destroyed Him
Jerry Stahl knows heroin — the good, the bad and the literary. That's why Stahl was the perfect choice to be editor of The Heroin Chronicles, an anthology of 13 chasing-the-dragon stories by junkies and ex-junkies. Released Jan. 1, the third entry in the Akashic Drug Chronicles Series (after The Speed Chronicles and The Cocaine Chronicles) focuses on the mysterious opium poppy and all its paradise-delivering derivatives, prescription and nonprescription alike.
But as these gut-bucket stories by writers including Lydia Lunch, Eric Bogosian and Michael Albo make clear, the road back from instant paradise can be brutal, with stories of overdoses, hepatitis C, degradation, self-loathing and self-destruction.
Stahl made his mark with his 1995 addiction memoir, Permanent Midnight, later made into a film of the same name starring Ben Stiller. Since then he has written the novels I, Fatty, told from the perspective of Fatty Arbuckle, the silent-film star falsely accused of rape in Hollywood's first great tabloid-worthy scandal, and Pain Killers. He also wrote the screenplays for Bad Boys II and, for HBO, Hemingway & Gellhorn, about the romance between writers Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn.
L.A. WEEKLY: Who is the target audience for The Heroin Chronicles?
JERRY STAHL: Clean livers everywhere. It's good, family entertainment, good for everybody from 6 to 60.
Are all the authors junkies or ex-junkies?
I'm pretty sure they're either ex or they may still be indulging. I really don't ask.
Even Eric Bogosian?
Eric has been down that road. We definitely had some of the same hobbies.
Is Oxycontin, which you associate with Rush Limbaugh, now a bigger problem than heroin?
Hillbilly heroin is definitely on the rise. Rush's picture should be on the prescription bottle. When I was coming up, you had cool junkies like Keith Richards, Miles Davis, Lenny Bruce, Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin. Is there anything less cool than a 300-pound, right-wing, talk-show host? For me, that would have been a real preventative.
Who is the most surprising celebrity addict in history?
Former Chief Justice William Rehnquist was addicted to Placidyl. Placidyl makes you want to snake around in some creepy orgy situation. I like to think that under his robes Rehnquist was just going gladiator. And a lot of Nixon's cronies were big fans of Dilantin, which originally was an epilepsy drug. They were all recommending that Nixon slow down on the California wines and try some Dilantin. Frankly, I'm surprised that all celebrities aren't narcotics addicts.
Is marijuana a gateway to heroin addiction?
No. If you're going to go there, you're going to go there. You don't need a leafy gateway to get there.
What do you think of the explosion of medical pot shops in L.A.?
A lot less people will be going to jail. The people who make money off private penitentiaries are going to have a lot less profit. Fuck them.
What's the best film about heroin use?
I love Panic in Needle Park, The Man With the Golden Arm and Requiem for a Dream. And there's a really weird drug movie called Bigger Than Life from the mid-'50s. It stars James Mason as a mild-mannered teacher who became a raging cortisone addict. James Mason has never been sweatier.
How many years did you shoot heroin?
I was a junkie for a decade and change.
In the introduction, you write that it wasn't heroin that made you a crazy, pissed-off, outsider sleazeball and one-man crippling-fear machine. So what was it?
I'm not of the school that blames drugs for my behavior. The really bad part about getting off drugs is that, at least when you're on narcotics and strung out, you have an excuse for being an asshole. What induces confusion and despair is when you realize, "Jesus, I'm a total dick now, and I can't even blame it on drugs."
Did you relapse?
I had gotten sober for a year and a half and gotten everything I wanted — a book deal and the whole dream come true. But I realized it still didn't fill that God-shaped mommy hole inside of me. The day I went back on heroin, it was like going back and sitting in your kindergarten chair when you're 35 years old — you realize this is just lame and corny and doesn't work anymore.
So you had a relapse?
I had a million relapses. I was a slow learner.
What's your sobriety status now?
It's been a long time since I fucking brought out a needle, that's for sure. It's a new frontier — I don't drink and don't smoke cigarettes. Tobacco was a hard kick, a brutal kick.
Can you explain the Algebra of Need, as William Burroughs calls it?
It's an addiction to addiction. You become strung out on needing something. You can get off heroin and still behave like a junkie, which is kind of terrifying. That's how it worked for me — always feeling cornered and desperate, still using people, still thinking in terms of, if I don't get this or that. Junkies are just a species of humans with one aspect amplified, which is rank, terrifying, nonstop need. When you're a junkie, you consolidate your problems so essentially you only have one problem — getting heroin. You don't sweat all the other stuff, like rent, relationships, jobs, showing up for work or what's going to happen tomorrow when you give your car to some guy named Rex.
Better writer: Gellhorn or Hemingway?
Martha Gellhorn was a bigger badass than Hemingway. She had more balls. She lied her way into covering the invasion of Normandy on D-Day and was actually there on the beach while the rest of the press corps was safely ensconced on a distant ship. Hemingway was with the other journalists on the government-sanctioned ship.
Bush drove you crazy. How is Obama doing?
If I were a Pakistani child and I saw that drone coming, I wouldn't be too happy about the job Obama is doing.
As an American, how do you feel he's doing?
I have the same opinion as a Pakistani child. Those kinds of maneuvers are disgusting and unforgivable and murderous.
Do you believe in God?
It depends what time of day you ask. Let's just say I err on the side of spirituality over religiosity — although I do sacrifice animals on a regular basis.
The Heroin Chronicles' book launch party will be held Thursday, Jan. 17 at 7 p.m. at Book Soup in West Hollywood. Stahl and contributors Antonia Crane, Ava Stander, Michael Albo and Gary Phillips will attend.
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