Interview | Jerry Stahl: Old Guy Dad
The first time Pushcart Prize-winning author Jerry Stahl became a father, he was 35 and in the dark throes of heroin addiction, as chronicled in his brutal 1995 memoir, Permanent Midnight (later made into a major motion picture starring Ben Stiller). Now 61, the Los Angeles-based author and screenwriter has been clean for two decades and is raising a three-year-old daughter, Nico, with his second wife, Elizabeth Stahl.
Stahl’s parental re-do is the subject of Old Guy Dad, his ninth book. The collection of essays, some previously published on The Rumpus, was released by Rare Bird Books on Father’s Day, 2015. Written in Stahl’s searingly blunt style, the new father describes his parenting experiences in visceral and humorous detail. Stahl spoke to CRAVE about the book, becoming a dad again, and where his career is headed next.
Crave: For comparison’s sake, describe the state you were in when you became a father the first time.
Jerry Stahl: I’m happy to describe it or you can go rent the movie. I was strung out like a lab rat, basically shooting up in the OB-GYN room, and freaking out when I had to wear scrubs with short sleeves—which I hadn’t worn, being a dope fiend—and when I went to cut the umbilical cord, I couldn’t even see straight. I’m lucky my kid isn’t a Cyclops. That’s where I was at.
How did you find out that you were going to be a father for the second time and what was your reaction?
I found out the normal way people find out, when my girlfriend at the time looked up from the pregnancy test and said, “Look!” My reaction, you know, it wasn’t what I was expecting.
I was certainly happy, the only complication being that a day later I started a trial treatment for Hepatitis C, which I got shootin’ dope, and the first thing they told me was, “You can’t touch a pregnant woman or your baby will be born with dorsal fins and a three-day beard.” So things got a little complicated.
Beyond that minor calamity, I was happy. A little freaked out, I won’t lie. But happy.
How does your style of parenting compare to the way that you were parented?
That’s a good question. I was parented in the traditional, neurotic style of my family with a very nervous mother and a somewhat absent father. My theory of child rearing is “Fuck up your kids the opposite of the way you were fucked up.” Hopefully you land in the middle.
How do you relate to other fathers? Do you enjoy their company or do you feel like you’re in a category of your own?
I have to say my favorite thing about being a parent is not other parents. You just gotta be nice. The first time around, I was that bizarre creature, the Celebrity Dope Fiend, which made people sort of back slowly away, checking their wallet. This time around, I’m older, so I don’t know what they make of me. I’m just some tattooed, leathery old dude.
Do you think your age is a benefit this time around? Or is it more about maturity and being in a better place psychologically and health-wise?
I’m not running the streets with my kid in the back of the car, copping dope, so that’s a good thing. Beyond that, yeah, I think there’s a certain level of ease. I don’t have a lot left to prove in the world and I definitely have a lot more time to be with my kid than I did then. Being a dope fiend, as Jim Carroll said, is the worst nine-to-five gig in the world. So, yeah, I’m here more. As my first daughter will never fail to remind me, she didn’t get what this one got, but somehow it’s all worked out. It ends up being a weirdly, if unexpected, happy family.
Is there anything that you’re dreading in the future in terms of your younger daughter?
Yes, pretty much everything. Running out of water, shit that gives you cancer, no antibiotics, fires burning everywhere. You name it. You can read Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Dr. Helen Caldecott talking about radiation coming over from Fukushima. It’s all there, a great big hell party waiting to happen. That is very terrifying.
How do you hide that fear from your child?
She’s three years old. I’m not going to tell her that there’s a good chance she’ll get cancer, that she shouldn’t have her cell phone next to her head because it’ll give her blastomas. So, yes, I hide it in the sense that I don’t elaborate on it.
I think the best you can do is be as non-negative as you can be and show them a happy time in whatever pre-cancer, pre-Holocaust, pre-Apocalypse time we got left. Call me a cock-eyed optimist.
What advice would you give to young men who are wary of marriage or fatherhood?
First of all, I would tell them not to take any advice. I think a lot of miserable fathers—and mothers, for that matter—will tell people to have kids so they can enjoy their company while they’re miserable fucks. In my case, I’d just tell them to relax. It doesn’t really do anything but enable you to stop thinking about your own ass. Once you have a kid, self-obsession ends. It’s not about you anymore. In that sense, I would recommend it for all egotists and narcissists. It’s a great way to cure that.
Do you miss any sense of freedom since you became a father again or have you maintained a separate self?
If I understand the subtext of that question, I’ve pretty much done all the wild shit I could squeeze into my life. I don’t know that there’s any new vice I could partake in. I don’t miss it. I think, for me, square is the last frontier.
Was there any hesitation about writing about your daughter before she was even born or thoughts about how she might feel reading it when she’s older?
Well, the good news is, by the time she’s old enough to comprehend, I’ll probably be dead or drooling in a corner somewhere, so she might have mercy. I don’t say anything bad. One thing I’ve learned, having written two memoirs—Permanent Midnight and then this—I always make myself the biggest asshole in any narrative and everybody else comes off looking pretty good.
What are your goals professionally from here on out? Are you happy with the amount you’re writing and how your work has been received?
I have no expectations for my books, really. I have a hardcore cult following who always buy them. I’m certainly not a mainstream dish. I make no claims to be Jonathan Franzen. Weirdly, my books do great in France. I always feel like some Dexter Gordon cat who doesn’t get the heat in his own country but who, over in France, is treated like a fucking rock star. It balances out. To answer your question specifically: nah. I’m cool with it. It doesn’t wow me. I’m not on the covers of magazines like I used to be but when you write the stuff I write, it would be pretentious to think that everybody’s going to embrace you.