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Interview: Neil Strauss, Author

(alternate text) The setting sun against the cyclone wire fence casts a glare that momentarily blinds me as I open the envelope. It’s late afternoon, clocks are being punched out, and I hear car radios blare from the road as factory workers and pipe fitters screech out of warehouse parking lots.

I see an old Camaro, once primered gray but now the front panels are back in black, flashing around a corner, signaling the start of Miller Time. I block the glare with my hand and look at the book pulled from the envelope. UPS trucks finished with their deliveries roar by me in the parking lot, you ain’t going to see what Brown can do for you no more today, and a driver yells for me to get the fuck out of the way as I stand there laughing uncontrollably. He sees the book in my hand, assesses the hysteria on my face, and suddenly stops honking, gives me an embarrassed shrug and a wave, and slowly drives around me. The glare off the fence may be the glow of revelation, I’m about to be converted, and there’s no way Brown is going to stand in my way.

On the drive home, talk radio features this group bitching about that group, some guy claims a religious crusade is scouring the country free of personal liberties while a lady calls in to shriek that her church is desperately defending family values and morals in this corrupt society. And I have sitting beside me a book about picking up women, about getting laid, a book that I will soon learn contains never-ending erections, Playboy playmates, dog training tips, notorious Hollywood madams, celebrity dirt, Juarez whores, threesomes, and international trysts. And this damn grimoire of seduction is designed to look just like The Bible. Fake leather cardboardy cover, gilded pages, red fabric bookmarker, gold embossed lettering on the cover. I can remember my grandmother being offended at Def Leppard’s use of the title Rock of Ages and now I can’t imagine what she would do if she picked up this bible with stripper girls on the cover. The UPS driver thought I was a holy roller waiting for redemption. Instead, I’m on the road to perdition and Neil Strauss, a guy with an uncanny ability for bestsellers but previously lacking all game with women, is my Elmer Gantry, leading me to the promised place of endless sex, complete control of any situation, and book deals without proposals and pitches.

A longtime fan of loud, raunchy music and a book fiend dedicated to studying every aspect of musicians’ lives, I had been a fan of Neil Strauss’ work for some years. His work with Motley Crue, Dave Navarro, Marilyn Manson, and Jenna Jameson (not a musician but a headbanger in her own way) line my bookshelf so I started calling publishers trying to track him down for an interview. I didn’t know anything about his new project until a publicist said “I suppose you want to interview him about his new book The Game? I can send you a review copy if you’re interested.” In 1989, I used my byline in the high school newspaper and the luck of the ignorant to stumble into press passes for a Motley Crue concert and this contact with Strauss seemed like a similar break. All I knew was that The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists was about scoring chicks when I gave the publicist my address and later ripped open that envelope in the UPS pickup location parking lot and roared at the hilarity and perfection and ambition and execution, and yes, the balls, of the bible design, I knew I had something entirely new on my hands.

A few days later, I sneak away from the office for a long lunch and launch into a conversation with Neil Strauss that redlines my tape recorder’s motor. He’s got a lot he wants to say, and a lot that’s worth hearing, and Strauss speaks rapidly in a torrential rhythm that, as we talk, I know is going to make transcribing the tape feel like deciphering an Yngwie Malmsteen guitar lick.

“I got this idea of doing a really serious big work—it would be precisely like a novel, with a single difference: Every word of it would be true from beginning to end.”
—Truman Capote

A self-described workaholic, Neil Strauss was always “willing to work for anyone, for free, no matter how small the publication.” In college, a visit to the newsstand often found his byline in five different publications. He started at Ear, a small, avant-garde magazine and then moved to the Village Voice. There, he lurked around the office, doing whatever menial task he could to justify his presence. “At the Village Voice, I would go there and I’d do copy-editing, I’d do fact-checking, I’d write ad copy,” he recalls. “And if I got to write like one article in six months, I was happy.” Devoted to the work, Strauss was never discouraged during the years trying to establish his career. While many authors gush horror stories of piled-up rejections and soul-numbing editor indifference, Strauss doesn’t have any such memories. “I was just so excited to be around it that I never felt frustrated,” he says.

Although the hits piled up quickly, Strauss built his career methodically, story by story, publication by publication, leveraging whatever exposure was handy. “You need to get your writing seen,” he advises. Publishing a book is tough for aspiring authors “just like it’s hard for a rock band to have their first tour be a stadium tour so start playing the clubs where there are four people in the audience because that’s easy to do,” says Strauss. “Write for that small weekly paper that’s like the third best weekly paper in the city” and work up to the better publications.

Following that strategy, Strauss became a cultural critic at the New York Times after his stint at the Village Voice and then began writing for Rolling Stone. He received an offer to ghostwrite a book with Marilyn Manson which hit the New York Times list, and followed with bestselling efforts with Motley Crue, Jenna Jameson, and Dave Navarro.

Aspiring writers are often sucked into buying book after book that claims to teach how to write and sell a book. Strauss ignored all that and simply worked hard and worked often. “People buy books on proposal writing, but you really have to be smart and realize that the proposal is not some magical tool,” he says. In fact, not a single one of Strauss’ bestsellers was the product of a proposal. Just write and then write some more. And then write some fucking more. Get the words out there.

It’s also imperative for aspiring writers to have “the ability to take in criticism and have a filter that knows what’s correct and what’s wrong and discard the wrong criticism without getting emotional and incorporate the good to change your work,” he says. “You have to have confidence without ego.” Confidence without ego is exactly what’s necessary to take the small “with Ghostwriter Jones” byline after the celebrity name in big letters on the book’s cover. But confidence in writing skills and a willingness to sublimate ego aren’t the only skills Strauss needed to pen bestselling books.

To ghostwrite hit biographies required a serious connection with the subject. “I need more than the words,” says Strauss. “I need more than just a voice on tape. I really need to be around that person all the time so I can see what their life is like. And if I’m ghostwriting, I need to be able to write how they would write if they could write.” To soak up his subjects, Strauss toured with Manson and the Crue, he managed to keep his clothes on in a Jenna Jameson film, and he watched Dave Navarro tie off with a RCA cable. “I always had a rule with everyone I would write about,” he says. “You gotta be willing to tell everything. You have to not be embarrassed if it makes you look bad sometimes. You’ve got to be willing to show those sides and understand that in the end you’re going to look like a human being and people will relate to you better.” Strauss drew everything out from these celebrities in what seems like a cathartic vomit of confession.

For example, Jenna Jameson overcame sexual abuse but she never “told anyone about either the Montana experience or the one with Preacher because I don’t want to be thought of as a victim. I want to be judged by who I am as a person, not by what happened to me,” she states in How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale. Strauss recalls that Jameson “had a lot of things about her kind of dark past that she didn’t want to talk about. And you have to talk about those things. You have to be honest.” This vulnerability and humanity, away from the lights and the makeup and the film crews is what makes the book interesting. The public perception is that porn stars are somehow different creatures than the rest of us. However, “the fact that a woman can read Jenna Jameson’s story and relate to her as a woman is kind of a shocking thing,” Strauss says. “But we all have these commonalities and if you stop worrying about what other people are saying, because they’re putting these fronts and social facades, and you’re one hundred percent honest,” readers will sympathize with the person and enjoy the book.

Reaching that level of sharing, experiencing those memories, serving as a therapist without a couch and a priest without the confessional, solidifies a connection that lasts far beyond the release date a book. “When someone sits around with you, and they tell you about their childhood and confess all these intimate details, you definitely make a connection, a relationship that is pretty deep and strong,” says Strauss. “All the people I’ve written with, I still consider friends.”

Strauss’ career is a fusion of hard work and an amount of luck that seems at odds with his ambition and drive. He’s carved out a niche as a respected co-author while many other ghostwriters are viewed as hacks churning out ass-kissing books that are the literary equivalent of straight-to-video films. Top celebrities such as Tom Cruise request him by name when setting up interviews. And although some journalistic purists are critical of his interview devices (such as when he crawled into bed with Jewel for an interview), he has managed to create a body of work that beats outside the normal 4/4 pattern of rock journalism. But he still remains dumbfounded and humble by his success. “Maybe it’s because I haven’t always done traditional things,” he guesses. “It was really never a plan,” he says. “I just try not to follow any rules. I just follow whatever I’m interested in.”

And with a simple phone call, Strauss became interested—which for him often translates to an intellectual obsession—with the gurus from around the world who could cure his lifelong problem with women.

All these people you think are a big joke. Go ahead and frigging laugh your frigging head off… All these people you thought were urban legends, well, they’re human. Complete with names and faces. Jobs and families. College degrees and arrest records… None of these people in Room 234 are Romeos or Casanovas or Don Juans… These are people you shake hands with every day. Not ugly, not beautiful. You stand next to these legends on the elevator. They serve you coffee. These mythological creatures tear your ticket stub. They cash your paycheck.
—Chuck Palahniuk, Choke

Despite years in the company of rock gods and porn stars, Strauss lacked confidence with women. “In all that time, with all those backstage passes, I didn’t get so much as a single kiss from anyone except Tommy Lee,” Strauss writes in The Game. “After that, I pretty much gave up hope. Some guys had it; other guys didn’t. I clearly didn’t.” Then a phone call with his editor at ReganBooks introduced Strauss to an online community of pickup artists. These modern alchemists knew that the most powerful transmutation for man is not converting a base metal into gold, but rather innovating a loser into a chick-magnet. After all, if the ancients could have gotten the girl, they damn well wouldn’t have needed the gold. Determined to improve himself, “I went into that community of pickup artists that I wrote about, not as a writer but as a guy who (like millions others) had problems with women in his life and was too scared to approach women or was always the guy caught in friend-zone,” he says. “I really wanted to go in and fix that area of my life that I ignored by becoming such a workaholic at such a young age.”

Most of the people in this community are known only by their online screen names so Strauss chose the nom-de-guerre “Style” and apprenticed with masters such as Mystery, David DeAngelo, and Ross Jeffries. He traveled the world to seduction workshops and competed with people named Herbal, Playboy, Papa, Sickboy, and Extramask for beautiful women everywhere. A quick study, an obsessive researcher, and an unassuming threat, he was eventually ranked by his peers as the number one pickup artist in the world.

For a writer accustomed to examining others, Strauss didn’t hesitate to strip down and bare, literally and figuratively, the intimate details he normally pries out of someone else. Recalling his rule about celebrity honesty, “I had to live up to the standard that I gave them. And I had to be completely honest even to the point of making myself look bad or look stupid or doing something embarrassing.” Strauss records his sexual escapades: the failed efforts that remind us of junior high groping as well as the amazing exploits of a skilled swordsman. He goes so far as to display his high school poetry and admit to his number of sexual partners before entering the game. And even the act of stepping into this community and documenting it is an admission of something most people would never reveal. “This was, far and away, the most pathetic thing I’d ever done in my life,” he writes in the book. “And unfortunately—as opposed to, say, masturbating in the shower—it wasn’t something I could do alone. Mystery and the other students would be there to bear witness to my shame, my secret, my inadequacy.” And also thousands of eager readers.

Interpretations of The Game vary wildly. Some men studied the book more thoroughly than the bible. While that book promised riches in the next life, Strauss’ text promised abundance in this one. Teaching pickup skills to men is certainly one of Strauss’ goals. He wanted the book to contain enough concrete how-to tips and instruction “so someone could read it and then go out and help their lives,” he says. As a music critic at the New York Times, Strauss was instrumental in launching new bands and musical trends. But he feels his time in the guise of master pickup artist Style may actually have been more beneficial. “Working with these guys one-on-one to help them meet women, and knowing now that some of the guys I helped are married with children, I actually feel like I had a better effect because one is just working with people’s cultural taste whereas the other one, you’re actually helping them breed,” he laughs. “Which is kind of funny to say, but you’re dealing with a much deeper issue when you’re dealing with mating.”

Meanwhile, some women pored over the book the way a football coach examines the other team’s playbook. They learned to beware of freakishly dressed men in bars wielding magic tricks. Other women gained a sense of empowerment from The Game. “The one place where women indisputably hold the power is in sexual choice,” Strauss says. “And no matter how good these pickup artists get, and how many techniques they get, I really think the woman still chooses the guy. All the guy can do is present himself to be chosen in the best possible way.” While some woman may be repulsed by the extremes would-be pickup artists go to in attempt to build seduction skills, “there are just as many women who read it and realize that wow, I do have the power in this situation,” Strauss says. Indeed, when Extramask ties a bra around a pole in a Portnoyesque exercise to practice removal with one hand, it’s hard to imagine being threatened by some of these men, at least not in the beginning stages of their training.

Many readers of both genders see how the pickup artist community disintegrates into a Fight Club meets The Lord of the Flies power struggle and interpret the book as a cautionary tale against the dark arts of seduction. Those multiple perspectives were exactly how Strauss intended his work to be received.

However, in his opinion, the book is a memoir more than anything else. Memoirs often record a growth or transforming experience and The Game is no different. To use the language of the community, Strauss began his education as an average frustrated chump, someone who felt “the few times I did get lucky, I’d turn a one-night stand into a two-year stand because I didn’t know when it was going to happen again,” he writes. Before reaching his master pickup artist status, Strauss suffered embarrassment and doubt during his training and he experienced chauvinism, sexism, manipulation, greed, and uncontrollable egos. Phrases like “sarging could be hazardous to the soul” and “we may have been supermen in the club, but on the inside we were rotting” begin to bubble up more frequently as the book’s seduction sorcery progresses. “This thing really turns dark and there are some unsavory parts. But in the end, I’m a better person for it,” he says. “It’s almost like the Joseph Campbell hero’s quest where you have to go into the dark forest and fight these battles and demons but in the end, you return back to your normal village with some sort of illumination that enriches your life, but you have to go to the dark forest to get it.”

Ultimately, as the hero exits the forest to return to his village, Strauss advocates that men in the community learn what they can and then leave it behind for good. “I think you should go in and not be afraid to take that dark path but also get out of it,” he says. “Because I think if people spend a lifetime trying to learn to be a pickup artist, you’re wasting your life.”

“The sketch of Clark—which reveals the way Ernie sees Clark—is different! As Clark, I look frailer… and not terribly handsome! Some unknown property of the Kryptonian plexiglass must intensify the low-level hypnotic effect of my eyes! So when people look at Clark, what they see is the image of Clark I project!”
–Superman on how simply wearing glasses makes him unrecognizable in his Clark Kent alter ego in Superman #330, December 1978

It’s easy to see why this guy gets a long with even the most notorious celebrities. I hang up the phone, think about dousing my exhausted tape recorder with water the way movie cowboys cooled their overheated rifle barrels, and stagger back to the office. Strauss is engaging, polite, intelligent, and likeable. All in all, a conversation with Strauss is like meeting a new best friend.

However, there is one nagging suspicion. When you watch a hypnotist on television pull someone out of the audience and make them cluck like a chicken, you always think you’d never fall for that. But so did Lydia from Des Moines who just squealed like a pig in front of a national audience. Is it possible that Strauss used the pickup artist’s Jedi mind tricks on me? When the tape runs out and the recorder clicks off, will the playback reveal Neil Strauss or will it play Style’s voice, possibly with some ghostly backward-masked stylemogs?

This is, after all, a man who built a career on a Rich Little-like ability to mimic others’ speech patterns and habits. After years channeling Marilyn Manson’s intelligent decadence, Tommy Lee’s psycho surfer, Jenna Jameson’s voluptuous hardness and Dave Navarro’s intellectual sensitivity, he’s a trained actor with language, like the people who provide voices for cartoon characters, only he performs his imitations on the page. And then, adding to that skill, he spent two full years studying the power of influence and persuasion. And as the group learned, the skill used to pickup women can also be aimed at manipulating men. Strauss writes in The Game, “we had created a dangerous precedent by studying how to control social situations in clubs. It had led to a mindset that everything in life was a game that could be manipulated to a player’s advantage with the right routines.”

Strauss’ intelligence and understated demeanor are exactly what made him successful in The Game. Fellow pickup artist Thundercat writes “the thing is, this guy comes in totally under the radar, and that’s why he’s so dangerous. His subtlety is so amazing that before you know it, you are qualifying yourself to him and he has you right where he wants you. And the thing is, he does it with both girls and guys. No one is safe… He is practically Machiavellian in nature and is someone I both admire and fear. Add to this the fact that he’s a rather average-looking guy, and you have the most powerful of the Jedi, bar none.” In addition to Thundercat’s assessment, Strauss did admit to using pickup techniques to spice up a lethargic interview with Britney Spears. Does he do it now and not even realize it?

Listening to the tape, slowing it down to transcribe the man’s words, and re-reading the book, I have to say the answer is that this is probably the real Neil Strauss. Honesty is a topic that frequently pops up in his conversation. And his own life has benefited immensely from dropping the pickup ninja cowl and revealing his true self. Girlfriend Lisa Leveridge says in The Game that all the pickup artist techniques almost prevented their relationship from blossoming. “I want you to just be Neil: balding, nerdy, glasses, and all,” she says. Add to her definition the descriptions of hard-working, industrious, curious, brilliant, ambitious, determined, balanced, bookish, and literate, and you have not just an accurate assessment of Strauss but also of his career as a whole. He has accomplished an awful lot in a short amount of time and it’s clear that if he ever decides to teach young writers, the way he tutored average frustrated chumps, that aspirants would flock to his side. And then my conversion, started in the UPS parking lot, would be complete.