Jerry Stahl probably isn’t the only author who flipped burgers at McDonald’s before publishing his first novel—but he might have been the only one still toiling away under the golden arches at the age of 38. Stahl worked for the fast food restaurant after making thousands of dollars per week as a television writer for shows like ALF and thirtysomething, but he earned a ferociously dedicated fan base with his addiction memoir-turned-film, Permanent Midnight, and novels like I, Fatty. Stahl's latest novel, Pain Killers, was released this week and follows a codeine-abusing ex-cop, who goes undercover in San Quentin to find the alledgely dead Nazi death camp mastermind, Joseph Mengele. Decider spoke with Stahl ahead of his upcoming run of local appearances—kicking off tomorrow night at Skylight Books and then to Mystery Bookstore, Book Soup, and Vroman’s—to discuss America’s infatuation with incarceration, Republican anal rape, and President Barack Obama’s and Michael Phelps’ drug use.
D: How did the process of writing Pain Killers compare to your past books? Do you have a process?
JS: Well, I don’t think I have a set process other than the only thing harder than writing is not writing. So basically it’s the lesser of two occasionally terrifying evils.
D: What’s terrifying about not writing?
JS: Just the sense of, I didn’t really start publishing books until I was 40 because I was busy being a McDonald’s employee. So there’s always a sense of trying to make up for lost time.
D: You’ve said that one of the inspirations for Pain Killers is the current American fascination with incarceration. What does this fascination say about our culture?
JS: I think MSNBC for the most part, beyond Rachel Maddow and Hardball, is pretty much the all-prison, all-the-time network. My own theory is that people are just so desperate for somebody they can feel better than, in America. Now that everyone’s going broke and working 17 jobs—if they have one at all—at least they can look at these guys behind bars and think, “At least I get to wear my own clothes to work.”
D: Your previous novels have all been really “American,” to put it simply. Now, in Pain Killers, you’re bringing the Nazis into it. Why go there?
JS: I think if you read the book, you’ll see that a lot of the Nazis, including Mengele, there’s something very American about them. In fact, a lot of his research was paid for by American money, the Rockefeller Foundation. That’s a thrust of the book—it’s not really “not-American.” A lot of Nazis and Nazi sympathizers were American.
D: You have worked public figures into your stories before, like Bush and Cheney—
JS: It’s the least you can do.
D: What is it about these guys that led you to imagine them in the twisted scenarios that you have? Is it just because they’re such Bible thumpers in public?
JS: I think it’s just too kinda juicy and compelling to imagine people in their private lives, but then half the time people’s private lives are just so much more bizarre and Ted Haggard-like than you could ever imagine. It’s almost hard to write fiction anymore.
D: Any chance of Obama turning up in your writing?
JS: Who knows? I don’t believe he has any ties to Nazis that I can find, but, you know, what time is it now? Because he doesn’t seem particularly as fake, it’s harder to want to get to that private figure, because he seems like someone who’s not really hiding a lot. As opposed to the freakshow of Cheney and Bush and the sort of born-again weirdly closeted secret Republican sect that was running America.
D: Obama has admitted to cocaine and marijuana use, but it wasn’t even an issue in the campaign—did that surprise you?
JS: I think it became an issue because, for a while, there were people saying he hadn’t done as many drugs as he said he had. It was sort of the opposite, where there were these people trying to take away his cred. That was kinda bizarre. I guess the demographics have shifted a little. Apparently, Kellogg’s lost a lot more customers by kicking Michael Phelps off the cover of their cereal boxes than they would have by keeping him. So, go figure.
D: That’s a pretty questionable decision, for a cereal company to push away pot smokers.
JS: Yeah. From what I remember, I think pot smokers love cereal, you know, boxes at a time. They could be losing a key portion of their buying public.
D: Whatever outrage there was about Phelps, it seemed almost forced.
JS: Yeah, it seems kinda quaint now that people are struggling just to stay above water, to worry about flag pins and whether people inhaled. But I guess that was the key to the Republican method, to find those social issues to distract people while their pockets are being picked and they’re being anally raped.
D: In terms of future projects, what’s the status with the I, Fatty movie?
JS: Johnny Depp optioned it but, this being Hollywood, who knows. Who knows? It can take years.
D: Do you have any movie projects you’re working on?
JS: I’m doing a thing for HBO, a movie about Hemingway with James Gandolfini, and some other projects.
D: Gandolfini is going to play Hemingway?
JS: That’s what they tell me. It could be great.