Jerry Stahl returns with Pain Killers, an uproarious novel about a disgraced cop turned PI who's hired to find out whether a San Quentin inmate is actually Josef Mengele.
Were you concerned about having a universally reviled war criminal as a main character?
What's most terrifying about a character like Mengele is that, at the end of the proverbial day, we all belong to the same species. It would be easier if he were a monster—but he was a man, which is what makes him both more horrifying and more grimly fascinating. If we weren't fascinated with evil, nobody would be writing or making films about the whole roster of real and imagined serial killers. But to not write about Mengele, as if he were “off limits,” is to give him a power and reverence that is the opposite of what a man like him deserves. As is the case with most vicious, powerful individuals, the closer you look, the more ridiculous they appear.
Humor and the Holocaust don't often go hand in hand. Why go there?
Despots understand that the most dangerous weapon against them is humor. Mark Twain, no slouch when it came to funny, wrote that the secret source of humor was sorrow: “There is no humor in heaven.” Saul Bellow put his own twist on the subject: “All oppressed peoples are witty.” Obviously, no one is mocking the suffering of the victims. But the Nazis' pompous and moronic “science,” combined with the ludicrous, exalted myth of their superiority—these I feel almost a compulsion to go after. The parallels with our own current history, however uncomfortable, are worth exploring. In fact, I would argue that because they are uncomfortable, they demand our scrutiny.
Dare I ask about research?
I tend to go for the total immersion approach. If I keeled over now, I shudder to think what the paramedics would think when they dragged me off, having to plow through the mountains of articles, books, DVDs and videos about human experiments, Joseph Mengele, the Third Reich, Nazi sex fetishes, bulimia, Revelations and other disturbing, grotesque and incriminating subjects. The scholarship in these areas is staggering.
You've also written for film and TV. Do you approach those projects differently than you do your fiction?
The most honest answer I can give you is no, they are all equally tortuous: scary to begin, treacherous to complete. What drives me is voice and character. Obviously, with fiction, as opposed to movies, you don't have a dozen people peering over your shoulder saying “We love it, but change the main character to a nine-year-old Chinese girl and set it in Bosnia!” Beyond that, what I'm always going for—with varying degrees of success—are emotional honesty and a kind of, for lack of a better term, universality of experience.