In this rare, unpublished interview from 2001, Jim Carroll talks about The Basketball Diaries, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, Harmony Korine, Sherman Alexie and more…
Looking back on it, it seems crazy that this interview has gone so long unpublished. It has a bit of a back story. In 2001, I was living in Brooklyn and my roommate was working at Harper-Collins. She brought me home a book called Still Can’t See Nothin’ Comin’ by Daniel Grey Marshall. It hadn’t been published yet, she had an early copy. I liked it and I was thinking about doing a piece on it for my online ‘zine, Pin-Up NYC. I noticed it had a blurb on the back cover from Jim Carroll, which is almost unheard of, so that caught my attention.
Shortly after, I went to a New Yorker reading that was held inside one of the Towers of the Brooklyn Bridge. Jim was there. I’d tried to contact him through his publisher previously for an interview but to no avail. I knew he wasn’t really into doing interviews, so I figured I’d try another tactic. I chatted with him and told him I was planning to do a piece on Daniel Grey Marshall, asked if I could interview him about Daniel’s book. I pitched it as if I had no interest in asking him about his own work and just wanted to interview him about Daniel, thought maybe he would be more comfortable.
He said yes and we arranged to meet at Bendix Diner in Chelsea. Jim invited some of Daniel’s friends, which was very helpful. So the first part of the interview is Jim and Dan’s friend Stephen talking about Daniel. The cool thing about the interview is that Jim segued into talking about The Basketball Diaries movie and his books all on his own. He really opened up once we got talking.
After the interview, Jim and I walked around for awhile, he asked me a lot about myself. Then I walked him home to his apartment in Chelsea. He was super nice and cool. I did end up interviewing Daniel as well. This was all just a few weeks prior to 9/11. After that things went so crazy that I never finished the piece on Daniel, and as a result, Jim’s interview has sat unpublished until now.
Jim passed away 8 years later on Sept. 11, 2009. He is one of my all-time favorite writers and I’m glad to finally share this interview! – Margo Tiffen
Stephen: Jim and I have breakfast every Monday and Friday. After he read Dan’s manuscript, I started bringing Dan. Once you bring Dan, then Jordan comes. All these guys are from Wisconsin. Jordan moved into my old space in Brooklyn.
Jim: Stephen and I know a lot of the same people from the scene. Stephen’s a musician and a decorator. He’s a Renaissance Man. Stephen and I started talking after I was in here for awhile, eating breakfast. He turned me on to Dan’s manuscript. Stephen did the cover photo for Dan’s book.
Stephen: I did the whole cover. Then they hired someone else and they totally destroyed it. That’s Dan on the front cover. We shot it up in Hudson where I have a little weekend house. Dan and Jordan used to come up every weekend. I shot pictures of Dan doing all kinds of things — walking the railroad tracks, and this is in front of a cool bar called the Iron Horse.
Margo: It’s a great shot. What’d they screw up, the lettering?
Stephen: See this? This is the worst design. You don’t put this kind of lettering over a photo, something that you can’t read. I do typography and I invented a whole new typeface. There was one block, and one block here. It framed all this chaos. Actually the French edition of this book they’re going to maybe use my original cover, which is a lot cooler. It’s Dan standing underneath the Flatiron building and it reminds me of the cover of… remember the last City of Night cover?
Stephen: That kind of cover. We hope that they use something. Harper screwed up.
Margo: ReganBooks is a really strange imprint.
Stephen: That’s because Judith Regan’s a [unintelligible]. She didn’t even want to pay me for the photo! I said, well, look, you’re going to be talking with my lawyer in two weeks.
Jim: Well, mainly she does… I mean she did like the Howard Stern biography.
Margo: The Rock.
Stephen: Yeah, World Wide Wrestling.
Jim: The Britney Spears book or something. It’s strange.
Stephen: Out of 14 books on the Times bestseller list, only two of them are literature.
Jim: I get all of these coming-of-age books for blurbs.
Margo: Do you often write them? I haven’t really read any others which is why I was surprised.
Jim: No, no no. I gave a blurb to Irvine Welsh for his first book because my ex-editor at Viking Penguin for the Book of Nods and Forced Entries Gerry Howard was Irvine Welsh’s editor at Norton. It really took him a lot of juice. He was a Vice President but they didn’t want to do it… It wasn’t Trainspotting, it was his book of short stories.
Margo: Marabou Stork Nightmares?
Jim: No, um…
Margo: Acid House.
Jim: Acid House, yeah. I gave him a blurb for that, I liked the stories. It didn’t have a glossary like Trainspotting did. I couldn’t get some of the things (laughs). That was a good blurb too, I used a metaphor. A billiards metaphor saying it uses trippy English and it makes strange bank shots. Then there’s this poet Nicholas Christopher, they keep using this blurb of mine on all of his books ‘cause I gave it for a book about ten years ago. He’s a really underrated poet. He’s a total genius. He writes novels too, a real fantastic writer. He has this novel Veronica, which I think Ang Lee is going to make into a film.
Margo: What struck you about Dan’s writing?
Jim: I can’t give too many people… I gave my friend Harmony Korine a blurb for his book. The guy who wrote Kids and Gummo. But we would see each other every day. I get those coming-of-age books all the time. I even passed on a blurb for that book by the guy who was reading the other night. Jesus…
Margo: Denis Johnson? Jesus’ Son? You passed on that?
Jim: I don’t think he knew it. I hope not ‘cause I met him the other night.
Margo: Did you read Jesus’ Son?
Jim: I read it about halfway. You know, there’s only so much time I have and I’d rather be reading Rilke. Also, those books just remind me of being in a place that I don’t want to see, even if it’s somebody else. With Dan, it had this kind of archly contrived naiveté. It was very well written at the same time. It wasn’t written in real-time like The Basketball Diaries, it was written in reflection, looking back. He started really writing the book, he told me, when he was about 16. It’s a long process. He just kept rewriting it until, how old is Dan now? Like what 23?
Jim: Like I said in the blurb, he had a really good sense of judgment, you know, not wasting words. Well written and the story just took me in a different direction than some… I think that they fucked up in the hardcover issue that I have. Right here – it takes up the whole back cover. Which is not…
Margo: What takes the whole back cover?
Stephen: His blurb.
Jim: The blurb is unintelligible… this is like a bound galley. Yeah, it says “his lifestyle began to catch up with him.” See on the other one, the hardcover one that’s out, it says he’s taking drugs and drinking and stuff. But Dan, if you know him, is very pensive and thoughtful. He’s not a partier and it’s not like a big… The thing is if you read this it says it’s a novel but it makes you think it’s a Roman à clef novel. That it’s totally autobiographical, but it’s not. That’s why I didn’t think they should have that shit in there because that’s not him now. Maybe it was then to an extent, but that’s not what the book’s about, you know?
Margo: That’s what I thought. I like the way he handles that kind of stuff in the book, because the book is about what he’s going through and about his mental analysis of these situations that he’s thrown into. His feelings of inadequacy as he’s trying to handle everything. I feel like the drugs and alcohol are really very…
Jim: Totally. If it was like that I wouldn’t have liked it.
Margo: When people focus on that. It’s just an element of the narrative.
Jim: Also, he doesn’t have that skewered drug perspective on his thinking. He has a lot of clarity in what he sees in these situations. He’s very precocious in the way he analyzes things. Which to me, I know, early success can sometimes lead to arrested adolescence. I don’t think that’s going to be the case with Dan. You know that ‘okay, you did this, what are you going to do now?’
Margo: Do you have any idea how the book is doing? His publicist said he got a write-up in the NY Times that’s going to come out this weekend.
Jim: Oh yeah, is that Times thing, when’s that coming out, this weekend? Yeah, it was supposed to be a couple weekends ago and the Times postponed it. I remember when The Basketball Diaries went back on the bestseller list after the movie came out and they told me about a month in advance that it was going to be on. It was definitely at least three weeks, so they know.
I remember I was in Boston when the reviews came out for Forced Entries and that wasn’t the Sunday Times review, that was the Christopher Lehmann-Haupt Daily Times review. He actually reviewed…The Basketball Diaries had already been published by Bantam but by some legal maneuver Bantam was putting on a new cover. They left it out of print for like seven days or something, which gave us some time to break the contract and have Viking Penguin put it out along with Forced Entries. That way all my books… This was after I stopped doing rock ‘n’ roll, I made a two-book deal for a book of poems and a book of diaries. Penguin had already done Living at the Movies, my first book, which Viking had done when I was like 22. Then when I stopped doing rock ‘n’ roll the first book I did was The Book of Nods and then the next year, Forced Entries. Then that’s when they got The Basketball Diaries. That way they had all of my books, which was kind of good.
[Stephen interrupts to say goodbye and a few other people leave.]Jim: I gotta leave in about 10 minutes, too. Any other specific questions you want to ask?
Margo: I’m wondering what you think about this kind of fiction in the marketplace nowadays. Not sales potential but the idea of it – do you think people generally ignore it now? These coming-of-age novels. There’s such an influx of them, and Dan’s is such a gem. I’m worried that it will get ignored. Everybody tries to compare everything to Catcher in the Rye nowadays.
Jim: I know, I had that too. I had it in good ways, like ‘This is the Catcher in the Rye for real’. I never really had a bad thing with the comparison with Catcher in the Rye, but that’s a real trap you don’t want to fall into.
Jim: Catcher in the Rye is a great book, but it’s completely different from a book that was written in real-time. Dan’s book was written almost in real-time, too. Although those years make a big difference. Like I said – judgment. The Basketball Diaries always did so well and I think it was a combination because my first record album did so well.
The Basketball Diaries came out before the Catholic Boy album came out. I mean, rock ‘n’ roll, you get such a big audience, especially when “People Who Died” became a hit and the album did so well. It boosted the book. The book came out first but I think it was a symbiosis because people knew I was signed to the Stones’ label already. They planned to have them come out much closer together but I’m glad they came out with a distance between them of about nine months. At any rate, that definitely helped it. It sold very well every year. And of course – even though I didn’t like the movie that much – it really helped. I mean, it put it on the Bestseller list, which my publisher didn’t even expect. I got this whole new audience of young kids. When it sold so well, a lot of copies over the years, we wondered who was buying these books in such a rush to put it on the Bestseller list. Kids are not buying it because they’re just going to see Leo and Mark, we thought. But it WAS kids, because I started to get this influx of mail from kids like twelve to seventeen. And when I went to Toronto to this radio station that’s like the big FM station there – it’s like the Today show. They let viewers come in, not even look in, you can come in. You gotta stand behind a railing and they watch DJs while they’re interviewing people. I said, ‘who the fuck are these kids here for? Is Evan Dando coming or something?’ They said, ‘no they’re here for you.’ There were all these little kids with cameras, who were like twelve to eighteen or nineteen. Not only did they buy The Basketball Diaries, but they bought books of poems.
‘Who the fuck are these kids here for? Is Evan Dando coming or something?’ They said, ‘no they’re here for you.’
Margo: That’s why I think this stuff is vital because there’s so much bullshit thrown at kids. They don’t have anything they can relate to, and they don’t have anything that is spoken to them in an intelligent manner.
Jim: Well, it’s true that kids want to read books. And they will. I mean, unfortunately, it takes a movie or a record to nudge them. That’s why I did this, because I’d like to get the word out about Dan. I really like him and I think he’s really terrific, you know? So the answer is, yes, there’s definitely an audience, but the word’s got to get out. I mean, with cinema now, all the young writers I know who I know I’ve influenced… You know Sherman Alexie?
Margo: I love him.
Jim: He’s a great writer. He has all these quotes from me in his first book. I remember he came to a book signing one time and he gave me his first book. In Seattle. He’s a great guy, but now he’s getting completely into film. They did Smoke Signals. But now, that novel he did about the killer… See I love his poems.
Margo: Yeah, I love his poems.
Jim: And Smoke Signals was made from his first book – Tonto…
Margo: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.
Jim: Yeah. That’s the one he has quotes from The Basketball Diaries in. Somebody told me he had a quote from one of my songs in his new book of poems, actually. From “I Want the Angel.” He’s got good judgment too. Cause it’s like my favorite line. ‘I want the angel / whose bones are so sharp / that they can break through their own excuses.’ That guy who wrote The Crow stole that line too. At least Sherman gave me credit. But I’ve spoken to him and he’s going to direct the movie version of… He’s got this real ‘in’ with Miramax now and he wants to direct this next film of this novel that they bought. I mean, Harmony, I know I influenced him totally. When I first read Kids, I couldn’t believe it. I never read a screenplay in one sitting so fast. I called him up immediately. He’d been trying to reach me for years. He used to tell people on the Lower East Side that… Actually, when I was in this recluse period after Living at the Movies first came out, in California. Right before I started doing music, I was living in this little town where a lot of poets had moved, outside San Francisco on the ocean. Bolinas. It’s like a hippie town. It’s true that Harmony was born in that town. But he used to tell people that I was at his birth. Where his mother had the birth in a Eucalyptus grove and that I was there and I cut his umbilical cord.
Margo: Oh, man. That’s the best story I ever heard anyone fib.
Jim: (Laughing) Sick. So I said I do not want to meet this kid. Then somebody who knew him and knew me tried to hook me up with him. Then I met Chloe and they were together then. She came when they were shooting The Basketball Diaries and she said to me “They’re going to ruin it.” And I remembered her. Harmony was so pissed that she met me first. He put his phone number in the screenplay and his producer Cary Woods sent it to me. And he had written on it “By the famous writer, Harmony Korine.”
Margo: He had balls.
Jim: Oh, Harmony, believe me, that’s his gift. But I called him up immediately after that and I said, I’m going to tell people I cut your umbilical cord now. I’ll be glad to snip away! He was actually born there, but I never knew his parents. The fact is… um…
Margo: You were talking about cinema.
Jim: Yeah, he has so much literary talent, his story-telling and style. You know? But he puts it into cinema. So many young people who would be writers… I mean, I always took Burroughs with a grain of salt when he said “Writing is going to be obsolete soon,” you know? I mean, even movies as we know them now will probably be obsolete. There will be some sort of ability to feel something, some kind of sensation, some Orwellian thing.
Margo: They’re working on that. My Dad works in Hollywood and his friends are making that kind of stuff. They already have it. You put this stuff on and you’re inside these places… I don’t even think ten years down the road it’s going to be anything like film is now.
Jim: Absolutely. So, you almost need to get to a young audience, you need a film that appeals to a young audience that is based on a book. They will buy the book, despite what people think. It really surprised us with The Basketball Diaries, too, all these young kids.
Margo: It gets them reading. My little brother doesn’t read. I gave him The Basketball Diaries and The Catcher in the Rye and On the Road. Novels I thought he would relate to. Those are the books that started him reading.
Jim: Maybe Dan will sell the film rights. It took me fourteen years. Well actually, I sold the film rights every year. It was like a stipend getting the option. You sell the film rights, you think “Oh, great!” But I sold them every year to different studios. I went through the whole Brat Pack. I sold them for Matt Dillon when he was like 16. Which was good, because I’m still really good friends with Matt. Then Eric Stoltz, they bought it for him. Then Columbia, the studio, bought it for Anthony Michael Hall for two years.
Margo: Oh, really?
“You sell the film rights, you think “Oh, great!” But I sold them every year to different studios. I went through the whole Brat Pack.”
Jim: I think he would have been good. He’s a real wise ass and he was the real age at that time. He could play basketball pretty good. Better than Leo, actually. The thing is, I was still doing music when that came out in the paper and fans thought it was blasphemous because he always played the nerd. But he really was a wise ass and I think he could have done it. Then it was River Phoenix, who I didn’t even know about. I was watching Entertainment Tonight, they were interviewing him after he got nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. They said, what are you doing next? River said, well, I just want to do ensemble pieces with other good actors. He said, the only lead I want to do is… and he whips out a copy of The Basketball Diaries! And says “Play Jim Carroll in The Basketball Diaries.” I was sitting with my girlfriend in bed, you know, like just a citizen! I could have been a worker in the sanitation department, the state of mind I was in, you know? I was living way uptown. I said ‘What the fuck?!’ Then on some talk show Ricky Schroder came on. The guy asked him why he had a beard, he looked terrible. He said, ‘Well I want to get into character, because I want to play Jim Carroll in The Basketball Diaries.’ Like I had a beard! When I was fourteen! I said – oh no, this must be just some figment of his imagination! But River Phoenix – then I saw him on MTV pushing the book, it was great. I met him and stuff. I don’t think he could play basketball at all, though. But you could get away from the basketball scenes.
“Then on some talk show Ricky Schroder came on. The guy asked him why he had a beard, he looked terrible. He said, ‘Well I want to get into character, because I want to play Jim Carroll in The Basketball Diaries.’ Like I had a beard! When I was fourteen!”
Margo: What’d you think about Leo in the end?
Jim: I thought Leo… Marky was fantastic. I was worried about Marky, so was Leo. I hadn’t talked to Leo. When I saw Marky audition, I thought he was great. He’s much more like the kids I grew up with than anybody else. Even though the night before I had dinner with Leo and the director, but Leo and I, pretty much they sprung on us the Marky thing. That he was going to audition for the 6th time, for us. Which is SAG rules that after the fourth time you either gotta let them go or give them the part. But he was willing to do it, audition for anyone, he wanted the part. The guy who directed it was an MTV director. He had done all of Marky’s videos, so he was the one who wanted him. I said, okay. I said to Leo, it would be terrible. We had this great cast – I mean, Lorraine Bracco had just been nominated for an Academy Award, Leo had just been nominated, Juliette Lewis has been nominated. She just took it for a small part because she liked the book. I said – Marky, he’s a rapper, he’s an underwear sales guy, no one’s gonna take him… he has so much bad baggage.
Then when I saw him audition, he blew me away. He did this scene where his brother beats him up because he didn’t steal the car right. He was really crying and stuff. So I told the producer, I don’t care about the baggage. He’s so good, he deserves to get the part.
Margo: I was surprised also, he was really good.
Jim: Yeah, he stole the movie. I told her, I think he’s great. Then she says, well, that’s great but now you have to talk Leo into it. So Leo said, yeah, but I gotta do every fucking scene… cause practically 3/4 of the scenes are with this guy. And I don’t know how good his acting is and I don’t feel comfortable with it. I said, from an acting point of view, I can’t tell you. I said, but I think he’s real. I said, and he really likes you.
Leo said ‘Ah, he’s just pretending to like me because he wants the fucking part.’ I said, ‘no, he really likes you, I know this.’ And actually they were best friends after that. It was Marky who introduced him to the club scene in New York. Which Leo hasn’t stopped or recovered from yet. So, I mean, I thought the performances were great, but the director just blew it. I even liked the screenplay on paper. Even Harmony liked the screenplay on paper and he hates everything! He wanted to break the director’s knees out at Sundance when he finally saw it. Cause they showed Kids then, and he walked in the big star, him and Larry Clark. Larry Clark and him are in this breakfast place, and all eyes are on them, and they go ‘Where’s the guy who directed The Basketball Diaries? We want to break his fucking knees!!’ I didn’t go out there for it, I had to do something. They said ‘but we got you a chalet!’ I said, ‘fuck the chalet!’ But the guy, I don’t know. It would have been great if I had met Harmony earlier and he could have directed it and done the screenplay.
“Leo said ‘Ah, he’s just pretending to like me because he wants the fucking part.’ I said, ‘no, he really likes you, I know this.’ And actually they were best friends after that. It was Marky who introduced him to the club scene in New York. Which Leo hasn’t stopped or recovered from yet.”
Margo: Would you consider doing it again? Or do you figure if it’s out there, it’s out there.
Jim: I don’t think anybody’s going to do that movie again after all that shit with Columbine and all that.
Margo: That’s true. I loved the book and I was really disappointed when I saw the movie. I thought the same thing as you, I could tell the actors tried so hard and the screenplay was good, but the director was really bad. He just chopped it up. And the book is so funny.
Jim: I know! It doesn’t have the funny… See, there were other years that some screenwriters wanted me to work with them. The guy who was writing it for Columbia wrote a really good screenplay. When Redford’s company, Wildwood, bought it for one year. When you sell it, say you sell it for $500,000, you get 10%, you get $50,000 if they don’t make it within a year. Then you keep the money and you can sell it to someone else.
Margo: I never knew that. That you can keep on re-selling it like that.
Jim: Oh yeah. If they don’t do it within a year. So it’s like a stipend every year.
[People start leaving.]
Jim: Yeah, I gotta go too, shit.
Hear Jim Carroll read from The Basketball Diaries
Hear Jim Carroll read from Forced Entries