A Chat with Neil Strauss

Neil Strauss may have had pop culture street-cred for his work as a journalist for Rolling Stone and The New York Times, but it wasn’t until he wrote The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, that he became perceived as a “guy’s guy” journalist…for better or worse. Now, with the help of collaborator Adam Kornblum, The Game has been turned into a game itself. Strauss talked with Bullz-Eye about the unique entity that is Who’s Got Game? while taking additional time to discuss some of his other literary endeavors as well.

Bullz-Eye: So The Game is now officially a game.

Neil Strauss: Yes. In a matter of speaking. [Laughs.]

How weird was that? Was it an idea that you came up with, or did someone else pitch it to you?

Yeah, I don’t think I ever would’ve come up with that on my own. [Laughs.] But now I’m really into it. Now I really love it. There’s two elements. One, it’s really fun – Adam (Kornblum) made a game, and I made it into more of a game that I’d want to play with my friends – and, two, it’s just kind of fun to have a game. It’s kind of a childhood dream. It’s not just Monopoly or Sorry! or Mousetrap or Chutes and Ladders or…there’s this game 221B Baker Street, which is, like, a better Clue. [Laughs.] But all those games…I’d always wanted to do a game, but what I think really motivated me to want to do it was that Adam contacted me, and…I didn’t know him at all, but sometimes in the deluge there’s a compelling email where we sit around and think, “Maybe we should contact this guy.” And he had done a game for Hasbro, so he had some credibility there. He said he had made a game based on the books I’d done already that he’d been, like, taking out to bars and playing there just to meet women. So I thought, okay, this guy’s field-tested his idea, he’s not just writing about an idea that he’s come up with while he’s sitting in front of his email. I guess he’s now engaged, so obviously it worked to some degree. [Laughs.] Anyway, I thought, “Okay, let’s kind of entertain this and take it seriously.” And he sent it over, and I kept just playing it with different friends and then adding tweaks and changing it and adding new types of cards. Like, I really wanted the game to be something that you play in bars but, like, for example, when I’d go out, I’d end up bringing people back to my house and I’d be, like, “Fuck, now what do I do with them?” And the game’s kind of like social lubrication, a way to get to know people and having everybody having fun and laughing and bonding without any awkwardness.

You said Adam got the ball rolling, but when someone’s playing the game of The Game, what’s something that you personally added to the game?

I think a couple of my favorite things are the Neg cards, where, like, whoever has the worst driver’s license picture or the most wrinkled shirt loses points. [Laughs.] It’s, like, I thought, what’s fun is people laughing at themselves and their own foibles in a non-malicious way, where you’re teasing someone like they’re friends might tease them. Another favorite is the Secret cards, which are basically…it’s a secret social mission to pull off over the course of the game. For example, if you make up something conversationally and someone else in the group believes it’s true, you get two points. So all through the game there are these two layers: the game itself, and the social mission. And it’s a fun layer. It’s a fun form of manipulation, because you’re, like, “How can I get everyone to believe this and get my points?” The social dynamics part is something that, as far as I know, hasn’t been seen in a game yet. There are games with fun challenges, tests, points giving and taking, but where you’re actually trying to execute a social mission within the group…? That’s where it becomes unique.

It definitely seems that you don’t have to be single or on the market, as it were, to enjoy the game.

Oh, definitely not. In fact, we had a dinner party a few nights ago, it was about 12 people, and I’d say about eight of them were couples in serious relationships. So, no, it doesn’t matter at all. Either it’s good to get to know someone or it’s just fun to play with friends. But, I mean, my girlfriend and I play it all the time. It’s fun to go to a party and bring your own game. By the way, you only do that at parties with really good friends who are proud of you and can appreciate that you have your own game, and not with casual acquaintances who are, like, “Why is this asshole bringing his game to our party?” [Laughs.]

Having brought up the fact that you have a girlfriend begs a question about the original book: how quickly did you admit to her that you were the guy behind The Game? Or did she know from the get-go?

Uh, yeah, at this point, I think I’m kind of screwed. I kind of have to say it up front, because if I don’t, one of these things happens: they know the book already, their friends are going to tell them, or they’re going to Google me and find out. Better that I be the bearer of the news. [Laughs.] It can definitely make it more difficult as far as getting people to trust anything you’re saying. I think my only recourse is to be as sincere as possible, because everything is tainted with suspicion.

So what was the original impetus for writing The Game? You’d written in the medium of pop culture quite a bit prior to that, certainly, but…

I think the initial impetus was being a rock critic at Rolling Stone and The New York Times and going to all these shows, which are carnivals of flesh and sexuality, really. But that’s rock ‘n’ roll. [Laughs.] And I’m just the lonely guy with the notepad watching everybody else have all the fun, hoping that maybe some girl’s going to come up and talk to me because I’m writing something in my notepad. And then I’d say, “Oh, yeah, I’m going to this show next week and these other shows the following week, if you want to come with me,” and I assumed that was going to be a date, and…I remember once I met this girl at one, and she ended up making out with the guy sitting next to me. And I was, like, “What the fuck…? What’s wrong with me?” So it really came not from a desire to go underground and assume an identity and be an investigative journalist or even to write a book but, rather, to help get over my own problems with women. [Laughs.]

So what’s the status of the movie version of The Game?

It looks like…they’re in casting mode for the movie version, which I think is probably a great leap forward. [Laughs.] I’m always hesitant. Until the day they begin shooting, I don’t believe it’s going to happen. But it’s definitely the closest it’s been.

Is that how you feel about the movie version of The Dirt as well?

No. Unfortunately, I’m a lot less certain about The Dirt. [Laughs.] But, by the way, The Dirt‘s script is fricking incredible. This guy Rich Wilkes wrote it, and…I think it’s the first book of mine that was optioned for a movie, and that was, what, 10 years ago now? I don’t even know how long it’s been anymore. And, literally, people come up to me who’ve read the script for The Dirt that haven’t read the book, and they’re, like, “Great script! I really need to go read the book now!” That never happens. I just hope…they’ve got to make it. They’ve got to. I just don’t when it’s going to happen. But if you haven’t read the script, you really need to. He really captured it well. I read it, and I was, like, “This is why I don’t write the scripts for my own books. I never could’ve done as good a job as he did.”

Of the other books you’ve collaborated on with musicians…well, I’m hard pressed to believe that The Dirt can be topped, but do you have another favorite experience among them?

Well, I’d say the Marilyn Manson book, but all my books were kind of crazy experiences. The Marilyn Manson book was really the first, and it was fun. The fun books are when a band is just getting huge and they’re sort of really enjoying the decadence of that. I remember when I first went out with Marilyn Manson, calling my friend back home and saying, “I think I’m gonna die if I’m on tour with this band.” [Laughs.] And then I did a book with Dave Navarro which was just crazy, because I basically kind of lived with him for a year while he was shooting up cocaine every 15 minutes and heroin every few hours. Doing that book, I thought he was going to die.  I can’t even really explain it. I mean, I got a call from him once, and he said, “Dude, I’m overdosing.” I’m, like, “Fuck, man, what do you want me to do?” “I just want you to make sure you record this and get it in the book.” I’m, like, “Okay, I think you’re going to be fine, if you’re worried about wanting me to record this.” [Laughs.] But, yeah, that was really, really dark, that book.

We had a weird experience with him right when the new Jane’s Addiction album was coming out. We had a chance to interview him – this was actually my buddy David who did the interview – and he’s trying to ask Navarro about the album, and he just has almost nothing to say. Finally, he’s, like, “I thought this was for a guy’s site.” Apparently, he just figured we were going to be asking him about porn stars.

Ah, so he wanted to talk about that stuff and not the music…?

Yep. He had almost nothing to say about the music.

Yeah, it’s funny. I suppose it shows where his mind is at these days, huh? [Laughs.]

Has there been any book that you’ve attempted to write that fell through, either because the person ended up not wanting to give you the go-ahead for all-access that you’d anticipated?

There are definitely books where I’ve met with the person and decided not to write the book, for sure. And there were even, like, very, very famous people whose books would sell well. But they weren’t willing to go to the mat and say everything and were, y’know, too worried about how they were gonna come across or what they looked like, so I didn’t take them.

Did any of them eventually move forward with someone else?

Yeah. But I don’t want to call them out. [Laughs.] And there were a couple of books early on that I kind of started to write but never got past the first chapter. I thought it’d be fun someday just to put out the excerpts from unpublished autobiographies. Some of them were of kind of funny characters. There’s one I’m doing right now, though, that…I can’t say who it is, but it…I mean, the person’s telling me these stories, and I can’t even focus, they’re so intense. And it’s not someone you’d ever guess, but when you hear who it is, you’ll be, like, “Okay, that makes sense.” But it’s not someone you’d ever guess.

Can you say if it’s a musician or an actor?

Someone from the music world. Musicians have better stories, y’know? Actors have to behave to get a job. Musicians don’t. Lindsay Lohan or Charlie Sheen behave a certain way and lose their jobs, but rock stars do it and get raises. [Laughs.] No one would have blinked an eye if a rock star behave the way Charlie Sheen has.

How did you make the jump from writing articles to writing books?

I think the transition was…I started out doing an article on Marilyn Manson for Rolling Stone, and I originally took it because I just didn’t like him. I just thought, “This guy’s a big phony,” and I’d never written a negative article, but I was just going to call this guy out. And then I ended up really liking him and ended up writing a positive article. So his book editor contacted me and said, “Hey, how’d you like to try writing a book?” And I said, “Sure,” but I remember I put it in the contract that if I didn’t like it, I could remove my name from the book itself. I thought, “Hey, this way I get experience writing a book, but I’m not on the hook for it.” [Laughs.] I probably wrote for…I don’t know, but probably for at least ten years before writing a book. And I probably wrote other people’s book for five, six, seven years before I finally had the balls to write my own book. So it’s really been a slow build. But the good news is that by the time I finally wrote my own book, I had so much writing experience that it held together.

With Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life, the content is a significant jump forward from The Game. I think a lot of people might’ve envisioned you as being a one-trick pony, like, “Oh, the pick-up artist guy,” but that’s a much deeper topic.

Exactly. And, y’know, I think that’s the whole thing. [Exhales loudly.] God, all the topics I want to write about are so deep. My biggest challenge is…I’ve got four books under contract that are non-collaborations, and they all require so much research and immersion like Emergency did. But I think the secret is that you just write what’s interesting to you. You don’t write what you think other people are going to like. That way you’re passionate about it. I remember thinking I could sit there all day trying to figure out what people are going to like and do surveys and things like that, but I think they’ll like anything that you’re really passionate about and connect with and communicate well. I’ve read plenty of books on subjects that I wasn’t interested in that were great books.

I’m sure there were several moments while writing Emergency that would qualify for this, but…was there a particular revelation you discovered about the financial situation in America and the economic downturn that was just heartstopping?

Well, you know what really got me? The fact that people aren’t worried about anything in the world until it affects their wallets and their bankbooks. Do you know what I mean? Like, what gets people more panicked than anything is when gas prices go up. More than terrorists acts, more than natural disasters, more than all these things that are more likely to happen than a complete economic Armageddon. People in various places are experiencing earthquakes or wildfires or tornadoes, yet no one really thinks about themselves until they suddenly go, “Omigod, gas prices went up,” and feel it in their own bankbook. That seems to be the only way to get people to respond. And that was just sort of…worrisome. And disappointing. If you look at the Great Depression, the people who survived that were, like, “You suffer, and it makes you stronger. You survive.” You learn to have community gardens, you learn to economize your resources, and in the end, having to struggle and suffer isn’t so bad. I was surprised and yet not surprised that the big epiphany was that no one takes anything seriously until it hits their own wallet.

You’ve had some pretty high profile pieces in your career, including your piece about Kurt Cobain’s suicide and the Eric Clapton profile you did for The New York Times. Is there an article you’ve written about someone perhaps not as immediately notable that you’re particularly proud of?

Yeah, for me, I think it’s the article about Paul Nelson (“The Man Who Disappeared”). He was a music critic at Rolling Stone, and…basically he gave Bob Dylan these Woody Guthrie albums and said, “Oh, you should check these out!” And Bob Dylan became Bob Dylan. He signed the first punk band – the New York Dolls – to Mercury. And he was just a great rock critic. Unlike the Lester Bangs style, he had a very literary style. And he died alone of starvation in his apartment, just completely neglected and with 10 years of writers block. It was very humbling. You spend all this time, you care about culture and film and music, you sacrifice personal relationships to culture. He couldn’t have personal relationships. He could only have relationships with culture. And in the end he died alone. I mean, you sit there, you write all this copy, and in the end you think, “Well, what am I doing with my life? What is it adding up to? I’m not going out at night because on my deadlines. What am I doing?” It was a very brooding, humbling article to write. It took me so long to write it, just because it struck so close to home. You just don’t want to end up like him, because, y’know, he had an estranged son, an ex-wife, and…he was forgotten about.

Just to wrap up, as a TV critic, I have to ask you about The Product, the series that you, Navarro, and Cliff Dorfman (Entourage) were set to do for FX. It obviously never made it to air, but how far along did it get? Did you make a pilot, or was is strictly a concept?

Yeah, The Product was an actual pilot, it made it over to FX, but they didn’t greenlight it in the end. I’m actually doing a show now that…I guess it hasn’t been announced, but I’m writing a show for HBO. We’ll see what happens with that. But, you know, it seems like a lot of writers…now, I’m not saying I’m the same pantheon here… [Laughs.] But you look at, like, Ayn Rand, William Faulkner, they did some of their worst work in Hollywood. In the end, it just kind of sucked up a lot of their time and kept them from doing the writing they really should’ve been doing.

  

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