Ext. Midday. Rain pummels a tiny little city while the homeless runaways with face tattoos still sit in the open on the corner outside of Voo Doo Donuts, demanding baked goods from passersby.
Ext. Midday. Rain pummels a tiny little city while the homeless runaways with face tattoos still sit in the open on the corner outside of Voo Doo Donuts, demanding baked goods from passersby.
Yeah, I’m still as surprised as everyone. Basically, I discovered it by coincidence. My exchange program was a “critical studies” program with an emphasis on cinema and philosophy, and the goal was to expose us to as much Parisian culture as possible. On one of the outings we went to a “nouveau cirque,” a kind of contemporary circus, and I was blown away. It was absolutely nothing like the clichéd image of the circus that I had in my head. It was athletic and dynamic and dark, more like a piece of physical theater, with very able performers. I started seeing more shows and got hooked.
Wedlocked is an intimate, uncensored self-portrait of a man (once a boy) leaning towards infidelity. Perhaps that Leaning towards The Other began as I watched my older brothers and father leave my mom, our dog (a black lab named Bump), and me in the house in the woods, and perhaps that Leaning gained space-shuttle lift when I failed to cope with something as ordinary as marital loneliness. Wedlocked describes (among other things) my desire for The Other inflating my sense of self, filling my sense of self with POTENT PONTERI SELFDOM. This book is the car ride to the collision, the dark hallway to the Void, the burnt bulb dangling by wire from the ceiling.
I normally admire your forthright nature. At any rate, I’m aware of certain changes.
It’s not that you’re not appealing. You’re still the most interesting person in the entire universe as far as I’m concerned. I mean, I’m obsessed with you.
Look, I know exactly how you feel. I can’t get you out of my mind. And yet, you do seem different somehow.
First off, let me say I think it’s fabulous that you’re publishing a memoir about your son. Even though it’s a sad topic and, given a choice, you probably would have given up your writing life altogether for Silvan to be healthy, I’m glad this book is in the world. Holding Silvan is a great title, by the way.
Thanks. I needed to hear that. In fact, this is something I literally repeat inside my head: “It‘s good that I’m publishing this book.” Otherwise, I feel nothing but anxiety.
Anxiety? I didn’t know you suffered from that.
I didn’t either. But it must be pretty common before the publication of any book, let alone a first book like this.
How could you do this to me?
I thought we had a deal.
I know, I know.
You were supposed to go on writing your little stories about everyday woe in the New Jersey suburbs, and I was going to enjoy my obscurity here in Oregon.
That was always my intention.
March 24, 2013
That sounds like the start of a joke, but it’s not. It’s my life.
I do find it funny now – from a distance of some years and happily married – and even at the time I recognized how ridiculous the situation was, though mostly I was bewildered and devastated. I’d always prided myself on being someone who appreciated the absurdity of life, who didn’t take it too seriously, but there’s an enormous difference, I discovered, between reading a Kafka novel or watching a Woody Allen movie and living inside of one.
One of the premises of your book is that living without God is dangerous, can you explain why?
In my book, I argue that believing in God is, for me as for many others, simply not possible. At the same time, I want to suggest that if you remove this belief, there are particular dangers that open up – we don’t need to fall into these dangers, but they are there and we should be aware of them. For a start, there is the danger of individualism: of placing the human being at the center stage of everything. Secondly, there is the danger of technological perfectionism; of believing that science and technology can overcome all human problems, that it is just a matter of time before scientists have cured us of the human condition. Thirdly, without God, it is easier to lose perspective: to see our own times as everything, to forget the brevity of the present moment and to cease to appreciate (in a good way) the miniscule nature of our own achievements. And lastly, without God, there can be a danger that the need for empathy and ethical behaviour can be overlooked.
What disgusts you most?
I am most disgusted by wormy things. The wormy shape is so disgusting to me that even inanimate and abstract it is repulsive. For example, in high school I was very and I have to say uniquely among my friends grossed out by those silver or gold squiggle pendants that certain boys in the late 1970s favored and had dangling off chains around their necks. In fact if I was attracted to a boy who happened to be wearing one I was immediately turned off and there was no turning that around, basically because I couldn’t even look in his direction. I’ve calmed down about this in the time since then, but I still don’t like that shape. At the risk of self- psychoanalyzing I attribute my worm-shape horror to two events. One is that when I was seven years old my nasty new neighbor cornered me on the steps of someone’s house as we were walking home from school and threw what seemed like hundreds of live wriggling earth worms all over me from head to toe. I think I screamed for an hour straight. The other explanation, though I have no proof of this, is based on the similarity of the shape of worms with feces, and the fact that the origins of our repulsion towards moist coiled things is connected to our first disgust lessons in that regard, so I surmise that I must have had especially rigorous toilet training. It is also the case that the peculiar, unpredictable, curling, slithery movement of worms when actually animate is extremely disgusting to me. Maybe I subconsciously fear that I will be overwhelmed and swallowed up by a giant, moist, coiled thing.
So, I understand you’ve written a book.
I have! It’s still sort of magical and bizarre to me. Before I wrote the book, I was a blogger, and there are two really sweet things about blogging. The first is that you don’t have to answer to anyone but yourself, so the field is wide open for topics. The second is that blogs are by their nature a little ephemeral, so if I write something that years later I realize is absurd, odds are good that nobody else is going to find it.
Do you want to get stoned?
Huh? I thought this was going to be a serious interview.
So, your first week on the Los Angeles Times Bestseller List, you were #8; you were recommended in People magazine for ‘Great Fall Reads’; you had a full page in the New York Times Sunday Style section, a half page in the New York Post, you’ve done many radio shows, and Connie Martinson’s PBS television show Book Talks. And, well, how do you feel with all this success?
When did you decide to write your memoir, and why?
I knew I would write when I was ten (in 1953!), when I read The Diary of Anne Frank, and I wanted to escape my molesting, child-beating stepfather.
I started writing in 1988 to talk to young people coming into the hairdressing field, to share about this town and the celebrity hair history of the ’60s and ’70s. I wanted to share about being a woman and breaking into an all-male field, life before credit cards, cell phones, and when a drive-by meant a visit, not a shooting. And most importantly, I wanted to talk about recovery in many areas.
How did you come up with the title Upper Cut?
I had the title before the book.
Then everyone said that Uppercut sounded like a boxer’s story. But I didn’t relent. I defended the title! I was the Upper hair-Cut-ter, in the upper echelon town—Beverly Hills. And I knocked myself out with drugs and alcohol (okay, so there’s a bit of a boxing metaphor going on there).
However, I have a code: if ten people tell you that you have a tail, you better turn around and check your butt! So I thought about it, then did what I do best, I cut it. Into two parts. Upper Cut.
Luckily my agent and publisher never questioned my title.
Why did it take so long to write the book? From 1988 to its release date on September 20, 2011?
I started when people didn’t have personal computers. I wrote my book by hand on twelve Steno pads. In 1990 I got my first computer, handed down by a friend. I hired someone, as I read from my Steno pads, to transcribe my book into my computer. Finally one night I wanted to write. I pushed that power button and said to myself…’I’m going in!’ I still salute on bended knee: Cut and Paste, my best friend.
In the years to follow, it was writing, re-writing, vacations, romantic distractions and new hobbies, my own photography shows, poetry readings. (Helloooo, it was the hip 90’s, with the hip-hop and poetry slams.) I was on NPR with my poetry, recording my poetry, including presenting my own poetry show with the best poets of this town, every Sunday night at a popular coffee house called Lulu’s Alibi. People didn’t even know I was a hairdresser. Finally, though, I’d heard the painful question one too many times: ‘Are you still writing that book of yours?”
I stopped everything and enrolled in Jack Grapes’ writing class. For the next two years I immersed myself in his two books of writing assignments. When I completed that, I hired the teacher’s pet and my favorite writer from class, who was starting his own editing class, Chiwan Choi. He worked with me another two years…guiding me with no frills, just strong direction to expand on this, and eliminate that, and get deeper. As he insisted, I started Upper Cut all over from scratch.
My Steno pads, and previous renditions of Upper Cut became flash card notes.
Chiwan was a 36 year-old, Korean NYU literary snob. I knew if I could keep his interest, I would have a good book. His poetry book The Flood and soon-to-be-released Abductions are so stunning. I knew he wouldn’t tolerate shallow writing and would challenge me to do my best.
Writing is so isolating. Did you feel alone all those years?
Never. All of my people, and all of the memories in Upper Cut, were so alive in my house, before I even flipped on my computer. I would sense Billy lighting his Sherman cigarette, Richard rolling a joint, hear the music of the Rolling Stones, the bubbles dancing at my nose from the champagne in my mind, and I would feel my children running all through the house with my Newfoundland, Max, sitting by my side like a big sleeping bear.
Now I feel alone. Now they are all out in the world. It’s so quiet in my house. I have empty-nest syndrome.
Can you believe that you’re published by Simon and Schuster/Atria Books?
No, but here it is, so it must be real. I slept with my galley the first two nights. I kept looking at my words printed on pages, words and sentences I had written and re-written a million times.
Can you share a little wisdom with hopeful first-time writers?
I say finish your product to the best of your ability before you let anyone you want to do business with see it. If you get an advance and are just starting… you will now have a boss!
What if Salvadore Dali had a backer, and halfway through he said to Dali: “Hey, what’s with the melting clocks buddy? Dump them!” But when finished, you know the guy would say, “Wow, fantastic… and I love the melting clocks!”
What is your bottom line message?
Never give up.
Any regrets with Upper Cut?
I regret that my beloved Michael Crichton is not here to know all the wonderfulness that finally happened for me and the book. His recommendation to his agent, Lynn Nesbitt, changed my life. He didn’t even think she herself would take me on, but he thought that if I was represented by her agency, I would have a good chance of getting published. Well, she did take me on, and I am forever grateful to him.
Do you have new goals?
Of course, Upper Cut...the movie. Upper Cut the Musical! And dare I say: Book 2.
You have a lengthy background in the New York comedy scene. That must have made writing a humorous book easier.
Actually, I think it made it harder.
Why? That seems counterintuitive.
Well, having told so many of the stories [in A Bad Idea I’m About to Do] on stage made me know what the funny parts were, I’ll give you that. But when you’re on stage telling stories, you have charm working for you. You have the ability to control the timing of things. Most importantly, your audience can see that you’re alive and okay and a relatively happy, well adjusted person. So you can go dark and know that your presence and performance help blunt the grim side of your funny tales. On the page, you don’t have those luxuries. I had to do a lot of altering of things, a lot of expanding of certain areas, and a lot of soul searching to include some very personal stuff in the book that I wasn’t used to delving into as deeply on stage. My earliest drafts read like transcripts of a stage performance. That’s not good. The stuff that shows up in the book is a lot more fully fleshed out and brutally honest, which is saying a lot, because I think I was already pretty brutally honest about this stuff when I would talk about it on stage.
Are you referring to how a lot of the funny stuff came from you being in a rough spot emotionally?
Yeah. I like to mention that stuff with a smile on my face when I tell these stories on stage, then move on. In the book, I had to own up to it, head on, and also dive into not just my, but my family’s history. It was pretty tough. That stuff is very real. It has had a very real impact on my life.
What did your family think of you talking about them so specifically?
They liked it. I talk about how my grandfather was genuinely nuts. I was scared they would be upset with me, but they liked it. I had a very touching talk with my dad before I turned the final draft of that one in, and was so impressed that he wanted me to just be honest about his dad. My father is a good dude.
Even though you wrote about him trying to kill teenagers?
Yeah. I mean, he has his moments of complete rage-filled insanity, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a good dude.
You’ve written books before, but nothing like this.
Yes. I worked at a magazine called Weird NJ, and that turned into a book series. I co-wrote a number of books and authored Weird NY. We covered local legends, ghost stories, weird people – it is by far the best job I’ve ever had, or will ever have.
That must have helped you write this book as well.
Definitely, in the sense that I know how to sit in front of a computer and produce words. I can crank out words when it’s time to do it. But those books were specific projects with specific goals. They were humorous to a degree, but that was not the focus. Merging my writing life with my comedy life was a surprisingly strange and difficult process. Also this new book is so personal that I found it terrifying when it came close to the publication date.
I worked on it for close to six years, from proposal to publication. And that was mostly in a vacuum. The only people who read it for the majority of that time were myself, my agent, and my editor. I’ve read each of these stories over a hundred times. By reading number seven of each one, I had no idea if they were funny or not, I had no perspective on it by about a third of the way into the process. Then all of a sudden, we’re just gonna let anyone read it. That was scary. It’s so, so personal to me. I just hope people get laughs out of it. I hope if someone is having a bad day and they read my book, it makes them have a slightly better day.
Do you have confidence issues?
I have a very unfortunate blend of unwarranted cockiness and crippling self-doubt.
Wait, those contradict each other.
Yeah, it’s confusing.
Does that mean you land in the middle as a completely normal human being?
Not at all. Not at all. Instead, I think I exhibit the worst aspects of both of those traits, somehow simultaneously.
You seem complicated.
I try not to be.
Wait, did we just quote the Wes Anderson movie Bottle Rocket?
Yeah. Good pickup.
If any young people are reading this and they identify with how you were feeling in the book, do you have any advice for them?
Be yourself. Don’t worry about if you’re normal or not. No one is. You’re good to go. Decide what you want to do and do that thing. Make it happen. You can. It just takes a lot of work. If you have a dream, live it. I promise you, you can do it. Know that quitting is an option, but it’s not necessarily a solution. Work as hard as you can. You might fail. That’s okay. It’s good to fail. People who work as hard as possible sometimes don’t wind up living the dream they set out to live, but more often than not they wind up where they’re supposed to be. I have seen that happen dozens of times. It’s happened to me thus far. I know this reads like sappy, inspirational dreck, but it’s so important to me that kids just go for it. Be punk rock. It works. Decide what your dream is, then give yourself no other options. Don’t spend as much time doubting yourself as I did.
Are the Knicks gonna get their shit together this year?
Probably not, man.
Why do you host a public access TV show? It seems like a “bad idea,” just like the stories in your book.
Because it’s fun.
But why don’t you have a show on a real TV network?
No one at a real TV network seems interested.
But you starred in a sitcom once.
Yeah, but I didn’t write it. I just acted in it. My show on public access TV can only be described as “bonkers” and sometimes “bananas.” It is truly crazy. It can only exist on public access. If it was on network TV, it would be by far the weirdest show on network TV.
Do you think anyone will take a chance on it?
Does that bug you?
Nah. I do the things I do for love, and then just pray I can pay my rent.
Yeah, but I live with a roommate in Woodside, Queens.
It’s okay. It’s like the sixth coolest neighborhood in the fourth coolest borough of New York.
Sounds sorta shitty.
Nah, it’s fine.
Do you have any questions you want to ask me?
That’s a moot point. You are me. I have asked you all of these questions, just as you have asked them all of me. And you have answered them already, as you are me and I am you. The premise of this endeavor is a confusing and tricky one.
Is The Rules of Inheritance about how you inherited a bunch of money and acted like a Kardashian?
Sadly, no. It’s more depressing, gritty and uplifting than that. Both of my parents got cancer when I was fourteen. My mother died when I was eighteen and my father when I was twenty-five. I’m an only child and these losses left me very much alone in the world, and going through something that none of my peers had really experienced. The book is kind of a coming-of-age story. It follows me through cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, through various relationships I cultivated with men and with alcohol. It’s definitely a grief memoir, but it’s also a lot more than that. You don’t have to have lost someone to relate to someone who is trying to figure themselves out and fucking up a lot along the way.
Aren’t you kind of embarrassed to publish a memoir?
For a long time the word memoir really made me cringe. When people asked what I was working on, I would go to great lengths to avoid that word. I’m actually a big fan of memoirs, but there can be something really trite and embarrassing about them, especially given our culture’s obsession with the intimate details of other people’s lives.
So, why did you write a memoir?
Well, when I was grieving and trying to figure out how to move through my life as a young woman without parents, I turned to other people’s stories for answers and solace. These stories often came in the form of memoirs, and I found some of them enormously helpful. That’s all I really want from my book — to help people.
For some reason no one has really asked you about the writing style you used in Rules, although it’s kind of unusual. You don’t indent your paragraphs and you don’t use quotation marks. What’s up with that?
It’s true. People like to use the same three words to describe by book: gritty, poetic and heart-wrenching, and they talk a lot about how well the book flows, but no one comments on the liberties I took with the writing style. I don’t indent any of the paragraphs, I let a lot of lines stand alone and I don’t use quotations. A lot of this has to do with the poetic nature of the writing and the way I wanted the language emphasized, but I also just wanted the writing to have a kind of immediacy that I think gets lost with a more formal approach. And I also just felt weird using quotes around sentences that were based on memories.
Got it. Makes sense. I heard you’re working on some weird afterlife book now, doing seances and stuff. Is that true?
No seances. Yet. But yes, I’m working on a nonfiction book in which I explore different beliefs about the afterlife in an attempt to work out what I believe for myself. If you call it a spiritual memoir I’ll shoot you. I’ve been doing all kinds of fun stuff for it though — seeing mediums, getting hypnotized to find out about my past lives and taking Kabbalah classes. Stay tuned!
The book jacket for Panther Baby reads: “Activist, Urban Guerilla, Drug Addict, Poet, Convict, Filmmaker, Professor, Youth Advocate, Oscar Nominee.” Is there any life experience you haven’t had?
I’m not a very good cook, except for breakfast, and that’s because the Black Panthers had a free breakfast program that I worked in. I should probably take a cooking course with Chef Ramsey.
What is the biggest misconception about the Black Panther Party?
That the Panthers were racist and hated white people. In fact, the Panthers believed in class struggle and created the slogan “All Power to the People,” which meant Black power to Black people, White power to White people, Brown power to Brown people, Red power to Red people, and Yellow power to Yellow people.
I went into the Panther office as a fifteen-year-old thinking they would give me a gun and send me out to kill a white guy. Instead they gave me a stack of books and told me to study and to report for duty the next morning serving breakfast to schoolchildren.
Why did you join the Panthers?
I joined the NAACP Youth Council when I was thirteen years old. I was fifteen when Dr. King was killed and was furious that a white racist killed our Prince of Peace. The Panthers were the most militant group around, so two of my older friends and I found the location of a Panther office and went there without knowing what the organization was really about.
I also grew up without a father and was seeking the path to manhood. The Panthers were brave, strong, and “super bad,” all qualities that appeal to young men searching for identity. Kids join gangs, sports teams, and the military for the same reason — the search for belonging and identity.
How did you become a writer?
I spent nine-and-a-half years in prison. When I first arrived at Leavenworth Federal Prison an old convict told me, “Young blood, you can serve this time, or you can let this time serve you.” His advice became my daily mantra. I earned two college degrees, started a theater company, and wrote volumes of plays, poetry and essays. When I was released from prison, I studied film, and received a fellowship to the Sundance Film Institute. That was the beginning of my career as a screenwriter and filmmaker. I also kept writing and directing plays.
Why did you write Panther Baby?
Partially because friends and family kept pushing me to write a memoir, but mainly because the teenagers whom I mentor through my youth program IMPACT, and teens and students whom I speak to when I travel around the country always ask the question: “What was it like?”
So I tried to tell a story through the curious eyes and passionate heart of a fifteen-year-old manchild trying to find his place in the world during the Civil Rights/Black Power era. It’s a story that I hope will resonate with all of us who have a dream and with all young people who are trying to make their way to the mountaintop.
*Listen to Jamal Joseph in conversation with TNB founding editor Brad Listi on the Other People with Brad Listi podcast.