Friday Tyrant - Karl Taro Greenfeld Doesn't Write on Meth
Jan 6 2012
Karl Taro Greenfeld is the only writer I know who's purposefully moved backwards in his writing career. Not backwards, but sideways. Or upwards, I suppose, depending what you call up and down. Having already published several books with powerful publishers and maintained some enviable magazine writing gigs, Greenfeld decided to stick his nose into the measly indie lit fiction scene. His stories have been peppered throughout the lit journals and anthologies of the past few years (he was even in the New York Tyrant, which is like whoa), and now Hobart, one of the stronger independent presses, has just released NowTrends, his cigarette-pack sized short stories collection that looks like a travel guide. I was skeptical about this idea at first but when I finally saw it I was kind of floored. In general, I don't give a shit about book design. I've cared often and deeply for ugly books filled with great writing, but I’ve never given a shit for a beautiful book that smells like warm garbage inside. Greenfeld's skills as a journalist make his voice stand out because, unlike many others "in the scene," he actually knows how to hold a thought and write a clear badass sentence that you don't have to read twice because it's fucked up and wrong and written badly just like this one kind of is. Sometimes I get so tired of all the forced poetics and just want to be spoken to clearly. The voices in NowTrends make you an accomplice from the first beat. I know Karl a little, but I've never talked to him about this image I have in my head of him being crazy and doing a bunch of speed in Asia. So we finally got around to it.
VICE: I just pulled this quote from a piece you wrote for TIME back in 2001: "The sparkle and shine had been sucked out of life so completely that my world became a fluorescent-lighted, decolorized, saltpetered version of the planet I had known before." That's heavy shit. What made you say this?
Karl Taro Greenfeld: That was from a story I wrote for TIME about meth addicts in Thailand. I went to Bangkok to write about the yaba epidemic, as it is known in Thai. While I was hanging out with these hooker speed freaks, I couldn't help but think about my own meth use, which had started in Tokyo around 1990. That was before the huge meth epidemic in the US. The drug didn't even have a horrible rep yet so when a friend of mine in the Japanese music business brought some over to my place, we smoked it and it was a revelation.
So I wrote this story about the speed addicts in Bangkok, but I interspersed it with first person stuff about my own addiction, which sort of kicked in with meth and then proceeded through most of the stations of the junkie cross. It was a really raw piece, and if you go back and read it, it's astonishing that TIME published it. It is definitely the best thing I ever wrote for TIME.
I did read it, and I couldn't believe it was in TIME either. I had to scroll up once or twice to make sure it actually was. Wasn't this back when all the papers were calling it ice? (I remember reading about an ice-user who busted out her eardrum with a paperclip because she thought there was a bug in there.) I've always thought of speed as the writing community's dirty little secret, and how way more writers use it than care to admit it. Did it help you get a lot of writing done, or was it a social thing?
Yeah, that's right. Ice in LA. Shabu in Japan. Batu in Hawaii. Yaba in Thailand. I suppose in the Mid-west it was just good old crank. I don't think it was ever any good for writing. I mean, I could certainly type a lot, but as for usable prose . . . not really. It was good for organizing my receipts, cleaning the heads on my golf clubs, cold calling editors, that kind of thing, but as for writing clean sentences, damn, that's hard enough sober. The last thing I need is to handicap myself by occupying my brain with narcotics. I've never done Ritalin or Adderall or any of the ADD drugs, which sound like a lower grade of speed. But for a while in Thailand, they had these ethyl-amphetamine tablets. We called them, "pink and whites" because half of the capsule was white and the other was red. You could get them over the counter at pharmacies. We would send boxes of them back to Tokyo. They were sort of lower grade and not as euphoric as the meth, you would pop one or two—you had to chew the pellets inside the capsules because otherwise they were time release—and you could really concentrate, crank out a magazine story, especially a story for an in-flight magazine, which I used to write a lot. Those helped with the magazine stuff, but for real writing, like fiction or serious non-fiction, I pretty much needed to be clean. That's why I eventually cut out the drugs, because they messed with my writing. Like I said, writing is fucking hard enough.
You stopped using drugs but you still drink. Was that tough to manage? People like to tell you that that's impossible. They say if you have a problem with any substance at all, you have to quit everything.
I didn't drink for 11 years. I was told when I was in rehab that I had to stop everything and I believed that. For me it was good to totally clear everything out. I began drinking socially again about four years ago. We'll see how that goes. I know recovery doctrine says you can't do that, but so far it's been fine. But I was never that heavy a drinker even back in my using days, so maybe there is a difference? I don't really know.
The details in your writing, especially in NowTrends, are rendered so perfectly that your stories take on this strange indubitable quality. Within these stories, I'm with you all the way. Do you take notes for your fiction, do you have an unbelievable memory, or do you make it all up?
Way back, my non-fiction was much better because I would use all this fictional stuff in it, reinventing scenes, dialogue, whatever I needed to make a plausible narrative. But then people began getting in trouble for that and the journalism police began busting people so I had to knock it off and be much more cautious with my non-fiction. I also began working at TIME magazine and places like that where that kind of creative non-fiction just wasn't allowed. So I had to write strictly the facts which made for less interesting non-fiction and sort of forced me to write fiction if I wanted to tell a real story. And now, you're not the first to accuse me of passing off my non-fiction as fiction. Like, I can't fucking win here no matter what I do. But yeah, some of my fiction is sort of non-fictional, but most of it is pure fiction. I'm always taking notes about stuff, scribbling details down or bits of description or a piece of dialogue I overhear. Most of that goes into whatever I'm writing at the time. If I don't use it pretty quickly, I forget about it. My iPhone notes are full of bits and scraps of stuff that when I read them now I'm not sure what they mean. Like, "Leaves worn to a net of veins." Actually, that sounds good but I must have stolen it from something I was reading. Or this, "This film's crap, let's slash the seats." Or, "Would you rather have incredibly fat children or racist children?"
In “Toddy M.” (from NowTrends) you create a strong and clear sexual tension between the narrator and a young teenage girl named Liddy without ever mentioning sex (except for the narrator noticing the tampon string hanging out of her labia). I kept thinking, "This story is true except Karl fucked that teenage girl in real life." Am I right? Defend yourself.
Wouldn't that have been something? She didn't exist. But damn, she is sexy in that story, isn't she? That whole story came from an anecdote this guy told me. Only the way he told it, it involved this German heavy metal band that was renting a house on this remote Osa Peninsula beach in Costa Rica from this surfer with two gorgeous daughters that surfed naked. After a while, these girls, who had never been around guys their own age, basically became groupies of this Rammstein-like German metal band.
The first piece of short fiction you ever submitted to a magazine was accepted by The Paris Review. You must know how upsetting this is for others. This is your chance to apologize.
Should I really be sorry? If that story hadn't gone in there, then maybe I would never have embarked on this whole fiction writing career which, let's face it, is not exactly the most efficient use of one's time, paying, as it does, at about ten cents an hour. The Paris Review should be apologizing to me. After the Paris Review published that story and paid me $1000, I thought, "Hey, this is great. You just write stories and send them to journals and they publish them and pay you." So I must have sent out stories to like 30 magazines and nobody even responded to me. Then American Short Fiction took a story. They gave me like $500 and that story ended up in Best American Short Stories, which was great. And then New York Tyrant took a story of mine, and you guys paid me like $0. So I found my level really quickly.
But yeah, I was lucky. The Paris Review published four of my stories in total, which was fantastic. If it makes anyone feel any better, I don't think they'll publish me again.
One thing about you being so good at what you do is that this causes the reader to think that all of these things you write about in your fiction are actually closer to non-fiction. Have you ever caught hell from anyone about what's in your fiction?
My wife gives me hell about my fiction. Especially when I have characters with her exact same name and description. But generally, most people don't really read anything I write in my fiction, so it's a really safe place to publish awful things about everybody I know. I've noticed that reading is like the last thing anybody wants to do. I mean, to the point where you can write books about people and those same people can't even be fucking bothered to read the book THATS ABOUT THEM. So what are the chances anyone will read fiction that may or may not be about them? I used to joke that you could be a serial killer on the lamb from the FBI, publishing your whereabouts in the third to last page of short stories in literary journals and the FBI would still never find you.
I've noticed you like to write about lies and the people who tell them. The protag in Death or Glory (from NowTrends), and a story I read of yours awhile back about a James Frey-ish character come to mind. A lot of writers I know have problems keeping fiction from coming out of their mouths on a daily basis. Did you ever have a problem with telling the truth? Writers are all liars trying to lie their lives out of boredom, aren't they?
We're a bunch of dirty liars, all of us.
Out of all the writers (or liars) living and writing today, who do you think knows what the fuck they're doing? Who doesn't?
I don't know what is happening to me, but everything I read these days seems pretty great. I mean the professionally written literary stuff, not like can opening instructions and repair manuals. I've been reading tons of novels because I'm judging this book prize and this thing keeps happening where I think they're really good but then don't feel any compulsion to finish them. I don't know if it's because there's this huge stack of books that I feel like I have to read, or if these books aren't as great as they seem to me or what. It's the same when I pick up a literary journal, every damn story seems pretty good to me. I've become under-critical, I guess. Or maybe I'm just wet-brained or something. I suppose I'll never be asked to judge another literary prize after admitting this.
One last thing. What happens when we die?
Assets are distributed to heirs according to a testament left behind by the deceased. In the event the deceased leaves no testament, the assets go into a trust, which is overseen by the closest surviving relative and then are distributed to the next of kin.
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