During the first half of this decade, New York Times and Rolling Stone journalist Neil Strauss courted infamy by co-writing and ghostwriting self-destruction memoirs for Jane’s Addiction and RHCP guitarist Dave Navarro, industrial metal bogeyman Marilyn Manson, modern porn icon Jenna Jameson and the baddest of hard rock’s bad boys, Motley Crue.
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While documenting their exploits, he garnered his own notoriety as Style, a master pick-up artist. The memoir of that bizarre episode in his life, The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pick-up Artists, was a sensation. He was envied by men, pilloried by women, some not even feeling the need to read the book before passing either judgment.
Also during this time, Strauss started seeing disaster at every turn. His neuroses manifested in an obsession with survivalism. From Y2K to 9/11 all the way up to Obama’s presidential victory, this newly repentant urbanite put himself into debt learning how to handle firearms, ride motorcycles, skin animals, build shelters, pick locks, and save lives. Preparing for the shit to really hit the fan, politically, economically and socially, Strauss learnt another thing – how to find peace in the inevitability of death.
The Enthusiast sat down with Strauss to discuss Emergency, the chilling, inspiring and hugely entertaining chronicle of his experiences. And, since our waiter conspiratorially whispered to Strauss, “Oh, I didn’t know you were in town,” as if he were Tyler Durden, we couldn’t help but discuss The Game.
The Enthusiast: So, after all this, are you a pessimist or a realist?
Neil Strauss: “First of all, all pessimists say they’re realists. Here’s the distinction: a guy named Lovedrop in The Game, one of the PUAs, said, ‘There are negativity avoiders and positivity embracers’. A positivity embracer is someone who walks around seeing the positive signs, everything’s rosy and the future’s going to be great. A positivity embracer writes a book thinking about the great reviews it’s going to get, how they’re going to be critically lauded and on all the talk shows. A negativity avoider writes a book saying ‘I hope nobody gives me a shitty review’. You’re still compelled to greatness but one is to avoid criticism and the other is to gain praise. I would fall into the negativity avoiders, because of the way I was raised.”
“I was born into a home where nothing was ever good enough. When the Marilyn Manson book hit the New York Times bestseller list I was like ‘Check it out, mum,’ and she says, ‘Well, that’s good but it doesn’t count unless it’s for two weeks.’ [Laughs] And when The Game made the bestseller list and I was excited that it was a book entirely by myself, she said, ‘Well, the Manson book was on for six weeks, so you gotta beat that.’”
Well, it’s obvious that both Emergency and The Game are driven by your insecurities.
“Totally. They’re really books about fear. One is fear of social and sexual humiliation and the other is fear of dying and fear of powerlessness due to economic and political forces you can’t control. And they’re solutions to that fear. Fear is usually due to ignorance, right? So getting knowledge, understanding and experience cures that. Therefore you’re no longer intimidated by social situations and the economic and political situations.”
It’s revealing to think someone learning how to fend for themself is so exceptional. Our generation doesn’t seem to have the physical capabilities, or the confidence in our capabilities, that previous generations have.
“That’s exactly why I did it. Because on the one hand it’s about disasters and terrorism but on the other hand it was just cool and grounding to know how to do these things: to walk outside and know what plants are edible, to know how to build a shelter, to find water, to know how to milk a goat and make some fuckin’ cheese [laughs]. This is what human beings did before we ended up learning how to write HTML code at 14 years old.”
So what is it about our generation not wanting to get our hands dirty?
“For me, it goes back to being a negativity avoider. One negative I want to avoid is death. My inspiration to learn and do all this shit is because I know I’m going to die [laughs]. Before I die I want to learn as much as I can.”
I almost welcome the apocalypse, because I’m curious to see how I’d handle it. Do you look forward to it?
“I’m at peace with death because I’ve done this stuff. In other words, if someone sprayed gunfire in here and we both got it in the head, my final thoughts would be, ‘Okay, that’s fine.’”
In both these books you emerge as some sort of uber-man. In The Game you became the ultimate pick-up artist and in Emergency you become a super survivalist. While writing, did you have to make efforts to humble yourself?
“I think it’s about being as honest as possible. Anyone who says, ‘I’m the king’, who is a total egomaniac, is obviously the most insecure person in the room. Why do you have to say that you’re better than anyone else? It’s not even logically rational. You’re saying it to compensate for your insecurities. So when I write something I’m trying to be as honest as possible. I’m not trying to purposefully humble myself, because embarrassing shit happens.”
But you should hugely proud of yourself.
“Not about urinating all over myself in a tent! [Laughs] Look, there are things people fantasise about; I’ve had some crazy post-Game experiences. To say exactly what would sound too much like bragging, but some of it was beyond what I thought was possible. And for most of it, the fantasy was greater than the reality. I also think with those who reach these achievements, who get really famous, it just magnifies what’s wrong with you. My interest wasn’t to be the best.”
“Both books never began as books. It’s not like I said to my publisher, ‘Let’s do a book on survivalism and a book on pick-up artists’. I started pursuing these things to make up for something lacking in my own life.”
All right, at what point did you know there was a story in all of these experiences?
“I can tell you the exact point in each book. In The Game it was when I was taking a road trip with Mystery to all these crazy places. It was during that road trip that I thought, ‘This guy’s crazy, this shit is getting out of hand.’ And finding that community was like finding an underground rock band that you want to share with everybody and you’ll know they’ll like it. With Emergency it was when I was with all the billionaires who were trying to escape the country. I thought, ‘This thing’s bigger than just my own weird ideas.”
In each book there’s a point where you indicate that you’re out of control. Are you excusing your actions?
“It’s possible to go into something too deep and lose perspective. Like every relationship that doesn’t work out. After you’ve gone in too deep and you step back, that’s when you have 20/20 hindsight.”
Taking notes at the time and writing them up afterwards gave you that perspective?
“I don’t really understand a book until after it’s done and I start doing interviews and I have to ask myself ‘What was that about?’ and try to explain it. Like when I told you that both books were about fear, I didn’t realise that when I was writing them, I just realised that afterwards.”
In part two of our interview with pick-up artist, rock’n'roll biographer and newly-minted survivalist Neil Strauss, we discuss his obsession with The Game of Love and The Game of Life, pandering to sleazebags, how to make a credit card into a knife, and how his new book Emergency has already saved lives. (Part one of the interview is here).
The events in Emergency and The Game happen concurrently with you writing The Dirt and the other biogs. Why isn’t there any crossover in either?
“There are teeny bits of overlap. You know that quote about ‘Life with the boring parts cut out’ or whatever it is? Obviously you cut out the boring parts. No one wants to read about me working 20 hours trying to finish a book on deadline. You just isolate parts of your life to what’s relevant to the story.”
So the survivalism obsession wasn’t as all-encompassing as it seems in the book?
“Oh, it was all-encompassing. As I was in Project Hollywood in The Game I started to get the idea that I wanted to get out. I didn’t have the idea for the book yet. But I would say definitely for the last year and a half it has been fully all-encompassing. There was so much knowledge I had to learn, condensed into such a short amount of time. Same with The Game, that was all-encompassing. I even left the New York Times while I was doing The Game.”
I thought you would be distancing yourself from The Game. You got a lot of stick for it.
You still stand by it?
“Most of the stick I get is from people who haven’t read it, because they think it’s some kind of lad’s manual.”
But you did do a manual, The Rules Of The Game.
“The Game was all the knowledge of everyone I’d met. Some I agreed with and some I didn’t. The Rules Of The Game is just what I thought worked. That way women can read it too and not be offended. I’m more interested in storytelling so I added the stories. I kinda have a rule with myself now: no more sequels.”
Where’s new material going to come from then? You were involved in The Game so heavily and survivalism so heavily…
“I actually have four more books under contract and I’ll probably write two of them before the end of the summer. One’s easy, it’s an anthology of stuff I’ve written for Rolling Stone and the New York Times. The other one, I had this idea for a book through my publishing company: no promotion, plain cover, just my name and the title. No illustrations. Something I just want to do for myself to get it out. After that I have two more books under contract [laughs].”
You talked about illustrations and Emergency has those instructional comics. Alongside a few little prose gimmicks and ‘This book will save your life’ coverline, I fear that you’re dumbing yourself down for your previous audience of sleazebags and rockdogs.
“I know what you’re saying. Here are two things: that ‘This book will save your life’ stuff? Obviously that’s just marketing. The cover is marketing, it’s not the book. The illustrations are another thing. First of all, I wanted to do some of the cool How-To stuff that didn’t fit into the book, just cool knowledge like how to pick a lock with a soda can, just cool subversive stuff in an Anarchist Cookbook sort of way.”
“To be honest, I never thought in a million zillion years that a publisher would ever let me print a book that showed someone how to turn a credit card into a knife. That I got that in the book, I was just waiting for the hammer to fall the whole time. When it was at the printers and gone, I’m like, ‘I can’t believe I got that in there.’ I thought they would freak out. I was actually going to put something in there about how to make a gun out of household items but the credit card is actually cooler.”
“The other reason is, it’s not like I’m trying to pander, I just get bored of myself. Like, 500 pages of yourself droning on and on? Sometimes your brain needs a break and so I put those [comics] in there. Same with the Jenna Jameson book, that’s a long freakin’ book for a porn star. Every now and then you just need a break from someone whining about their own life.”
Actually, you’re giving secrets away in both books. I mean, if you were trying to remain under the radar like you suggested in Emergency – not getting your fingerprints recorded and the like, although I know you give in towards the end – why is your address is in here about five times?
“I had someone change the numbers and information around, because another one of my paranoias extends to identity theft. The address goes to a PO Box, and the phone number I gave up and made into a voicemail.”
Why choose to do include them at all? For authenticity’s sake?
“Originally I blacked out certain information but it felt like I was holding something back. But here’s the main reason I put all the documents in there: for every book I’ve written, people ask one question. Like for the Dave Navarro book, people ask, ‘Is he still on drugs?’ For the Marilyn Manson book, ‘What’s he really like?’ And for The Game they all asked, ‘Did this really happen?’ I don’t want to get asked that again so I thought I’d provide evidence. Yes it’s friggin’ true because here’s my ID, here’s the napkin from the White House. And now no one’s asked me that question.”
You’re very willing to engage with your readers. There’s this weird cult around The Game and you stay in touch via a blog and mailing lists and whatnot. If Emergency also inspires people to try this stuff, you’re going to have another strange group surrounding you.
“Yeah, it’s weird. I’ve got emails from guys. As cheeky as the title may be, the book has actually saved people. Guys have taken CPR and first aid courses and one guy saved his mother’s life. He did CPR on her until the medics arrived.”
You’re saving lives, where previously you were ruining them!
[Laughs] “Exactly! Depends on the person, of course. Look, it’s not hardcore. I don’t think the world’s going to end. I don’t think an apocalypse is going to wipe us out or anything. It’s definitely scary that North Korea and Pakistan have nuclear weapons and the Taliban are making inroads there. There’s definitely some scary shit out there. But it’s far more likely for you to get in a car crash, or something like that. Not texting and driving is a good way not to die in a car crash. It’s amazing how often that happens.”
But you’re not preparing for accidents in Emergency; you’re preparing for disasters.
“But it’s as much about quelling anxiety as it is about preparing for disaster. It’s peace of mind, like insurance. As Spencer said in the book, about having health insurance and fire insurance, even though those things are unlikely, this is my insurance against the economy or politics or falling on the wrong side of the law.”
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