CVLT Nation Interviews
Jonathan Shaw was born to Hollywood starlet Doris Dowling (Bitter Rice, The Lost Weekend, The Blue Dalia) and Big Band legend Artie Shaw. He grew up in Los Angeles, where, as a teenager he began writing for the Los Angeles Free Press, alongside Charles Bukowski. In his twenties, Shaw adopted a nomadic lifestyle, traveling as a merchant seaman and hitchhiking around South America. His experiences during this period heavily inform his three volume memoir-in-progress, SCAB VENDOR – Confessions of a Tattoo Artist. In his early thirties, after tattooing on his own in Mexico, Brazil and Central America, he returned to the United States to begin a formal apprenticeship under the legendary tattoo-man, Bob Shaw (no relation). His career as a professional tattoo artist took him from LA to New Orleans, Miami, back to South America, then eventually New York City, where he opened the city’s first store-front tattoo parlor, the still-operational Fun City Tattoo on St. Mark’s Place, and founded the world’s first mainstream tattoo magazine, International Tattoo Art.
After traveling the world tattooing, and sparking friendships with a star- studded client list of actors, musicians and other celebrities, Shaw left tattooing and moved back to Brazil to write full-time. His cult-classic novel, Narcisa Our Lady Of Ashes (reviewed here) was released on musician Wes Eisold’s (American Nightmare, Cold Cave) underground label, Heartworm Press, and quickly became a sought-after collectors item, as did Shaw’s subsequent poetry collection, Love Songs To The Dead.
Now, seven years since its original release, a new, completely revised edition of Narcisa is finally enjoying widespread, worldwide exposure on Johnny Depp’s Infinitum Nihil imprint with HarperCollins (launch info here). What follows is a long, in-depth interview with its author, a conversation spanning topics ranging from the creative process, his own recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction, his long-standing relationship with Johnny Depp, ayahuasca ceremonies, and metaphysical adventures in the spirit world.
Banner photo: Fred Pacifico
After years as an underground cult collectors’ item, Narcisa is finally receiving a new mainstream following through HarperCollins. How did its initial publication on Heartworm Press come about? What has the journey been like from that point to this current deal with Johnny Depp and HarperCollins?
JS: That’s a good question, man. They say if ya wanna make God laugh, tell him your plans. I’ve tried to live by that and not make too many plans, and that’s pretty much how this novel came about. I never planned to write Narcisa in the first place. I’d recently quit the tattoo business and moved back to Brazil to write. I was struggling through a first draft of my Scab Vendor memoir. I’d been working on that book for years already, on and off. Over the course of the writing process, I’d become like an archeologist, searching for clues to my own past, digging up memories of people, places and things I’d buried way in the back of my mind and forgotten about for years, decades. At some point, I started reading through this pile of old notes and journal entries I’d written way back in the 70s. It became sort of like doing straight biographical research, but it was weird, cause I was actually searching for clues to my own life. Back in the early 70s, I’d had a really tempestuous relationship with this magical, beautiful, tragic junkie chick, who ended up dying of an overdose. That had really fucked me up back then. I’d been journaling all through the 70s, during some really insane, self-destructive times, when everybody was dying all around me. I dunno how those old journals survived all the subsequent decades, as I traveled around the world like a crazed ghost. But they did. Then, a lifetime later, I dredged them up out of an old suitcase I’d found. Opening up those old notebooks more than thirty years after they’d been written was like cracking open the fucking mummy’s tomb or something (laughs). A very surreal experience, and reading through them had a profound effect on my current writing.
How so? What sort of profound effect did it have on your work?
Well, in retrospect, I think it was like some sort of weird, unconscious survival mechanism going on in me back when I’d originally written all that stuff. Having been a heroin addict, I’d never thought I’d live to see twenty. My general attitude at the time was like: “okay, well, as long as I’m going to hell here, I may as well take a lot of pictures along the way, leave something behind for posterity,” y’know? Those old journal entries became the pictures I’d taken along the road to hell, so to speak, and the posterity turned out to be a reborn, reincarnated version of myself. So, when I came across all those old journals, it was as if they’d been sitting there in limbo, like one of those time-capsule things, just waiting for me to reincarnate someday and come dig them up and do something with them, rearrange them from these little literary scrapbooks, like a sorta big, bizarre jigsaw puzzle, into a roadmap for navigating my present writing projects, the big long memoir I was trying to write. Somehow, I’d survived a perilous journey from the past to the present, and even gotten clean and sober, then gone back to that terrible old crime scene to write a book about it, all these years later, throwing in bits and pieces of other stuff I’d picked up along the way, right up to the present time. So anyway, I was weaving all these old junkie journal entries into my memoir book, Scab Vendor, when it suddenly veered off the page and into my life, and I found myself writing about this character called Narcisa. Rereading all those old journals, it was as if some crazy psychic portal had opened, and suddenly, it was like my old girlfriend, the one who died back in the 70s, was being resurrected from the dead and reborn onto the page as this Narcisa, and then that character just took over the whole writing process and became the protagonist for a novel. It was insane. At some point, the writing became compulsive, obsessive. It was undeniable that this was actually the only book that needed to be written at that point, so I abandoned the memoir completely, and then, there I was, writing this totally other book of fiction, which slowly, steadily evolved into Narcisa. Looking back on it, I think it was like the universe telling me I couldn’t go back to working on my memoir until I paid some deep psychic dues by writing Narcisa first. Very weird, like writing a book with the Eternal Muse standing over you with a fucking bullwhip (laughs).
Good question. After almost a decade of constant editing and reflecting, polishing and rewriting, I can honestly say that this new version of Narcisa is to the original book about what a three story house is to an architect’s drawing of that house. In other words, it’s the same book, essentially, but infinitely more developed and refined on every level, with new characters, and new dialogue for the old ones. There’s a lot of new scenes, new happenings, and a much deeper, richer, more polished presentation as far as the language, descriptions, settings, etc. Just a better, deeper, more effective work of literature, all around.
I know many people, including Johnny Depp, really appreciated the original version for its rawness and Punk spontaneity and so on, but I seriously doubt a big, mainstream publisher like HarperCollins would have ever wanted to publish that version, not without all the revisions I did over the last several years. And at the end of the day, no matter what they may tell ya, just about every writer’s dream is to see his work reach as wide an audience as possible, right?
This gig is all about communication. Communication is really important for an artist. Hell, it’s really important to human beings in general. All the wars of human history basically break down to poor communication between human beings. Without clear and effective communication, we’re fucked as a race. Maybe that’s why I’m willing to work so hard to make my work as accessible and reader-friendly as possible, and that takes work. For me, it’s all in the editing process. Maybe I’m just a fly-fucking perfectionist (laughs), but I’m not the only one. Hemingway said the first draft of anything is shit. I wrote and edited the first draft of Narcisa in about six months, with a very enthusiastic indie publisher breathing down my neck. Then, I spent the better part of the next six years tightening it up so that it could find a wider audience, and now it has. I’m very grateful for that. It’s been a long haul, believe me, working all day and night to bring this thing to where it is now.
Describe a day in your life as this novel was being written and rewritten over the years.
Well, I’m gonna have to answer that question with a quote from my original author’s note to Narcisa here. This part didn’t make it into the new HarperCollins edition, but here it is. (Picks up the manuscript and reads…)
The characters of Narcisa and her partner in crime, Cigano stormed into my life one day like a pair of angry children demanding to be written. From that point onward I didn’t so much write about these characters as submit
to their lives, as in a sort of spiritual surgery; documenting their experiences in a maddening web of surreal shared hallucinations, as though following a couple of soot-faced miners, going back down again and again into the heart of my own festering, inflamed, infected wounds.
That’s what it’s been like (laughs), like undergoing a prolonged spiritual, emotional surgery. Painful. Because, personally, I had already suffered through the kind of anguished, codependent emotional torments described
by the narrator, Cigano, back when those old journal notes were written, back before I started running around the world in the 70s. So, it was as if I had all this unfinished business left over from my past, stuff that I had to resolve now through the writing process, and then, a whole new path just opened up, like magic, leading me all the way through Narcisa. It’s very weird, man, how the creative process can open up all these weird, mystical portals into other worlds, spiritual realms beyond time and space, where past, present and future all sort of merge together in this surreal parallel dimension, through the written word.
What kind of writing was in your original journals?
I dunno if you could really call it writing, per-se (laughs), not in the strict sense of writing a real novel, or what people call ‘literature’ and so on. It was just all this crazy poetry, a lot drug-addled, fucked up, day-to-day impressions I’d scribbled into all these little junkie notebooks I aways used to carry around in my back pocket. I went through a lot of ball-point pens back then (laughs). Some stuff from that period wound up getting published, almost verbatim, by Heartworm in a separate book called Love Songs to the Dead, and Narcisa is a novel that’s heavily extrapolated from the past.
So Narcisa basically emerged as a work of fiction from your old notes and memories?
‘Emerged’ is a really good word to describe it, man. Yeah. Because yes, that was the original point of origin, the catalyst, as it, she, whatever, just stomped into my creative world and took over completely. Yeah. Narcisa is a work of fiction, totally, but like I said in that original author’s note, this sort of fiction, like all art, is always deeply rooted in the artist’s real-life experience. But you know they say “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Well, for me, the process of writing this story was super surreal, disturbing, compelling, and absolutely unavoidable. So, on an emotional level, a day in my life as I wrote the book was like a day in the life of a combat soldier caught in raging enemy crossfire, taking notes from the battlefield. There was a constant sense of impending danger, like “what’s gonna happen next?” It was spooky, because as I went along, Narcisa really took on a life of her own, like the book seemed to be almost writing itself, just using me as a channel, and I felt like I was being taken over by some weird, troubled spirits that were shuttling me back and forth between my present life as a clean and sober writer, and a tormented past life where I’d been this fucked up teenage junkie with all my friends dying off around me. It’s hard to describe that sort of process. I don’t imagine it’s how most ‘real’ writers plot out their books at all (laughs). Besides having been a junkie, I’d always been an adrenaline addict when I was a kid. I’d always been attracted to high-risk adventures and extreme experiences. The experiences that eventually leapt out of my memoir work and brought this whole separate book into being were very real and very compelling at the time I’d lived them. Danger and impending death was in the air I breathed. So you could say the bulk of Narcisa was written in like another incarnation altogether.
I was way too strung out on heroin back then to ever be able to pull my experiences together into any sort of coherent perspective as they were happening. That all came decades later, when Narcisa came to me in a sort of trancelike series of very realistic déjà vu visions and half-memories. As I wrote this book, I was stone cold sober, of course, but it felt like I was living under the influence of some weird, paranormal portal to the past, a past where everything was surreal and kind of insane. But there was always the presence of some powerful, compelling spiritual Something, weaving its way through the whole process, too, something much bigger and wiser and weirder than anything I would ever deign to classify as consensus reality, emotionally or spiritually. So, I guess you could say that Narcisa was basically born from hallucinations, albeit persistent ones, resembling reality (laughs), to quote Einstein.
So, would you say that finding and trying to interpret those old journals, creatively, was a significant milestone in your own spiritual journey?
Oh yeah! It was like a very clear and compelling invitation, almost like a straight up directive from the spirit world to pay attention in my writing to all sorts of things beyond the realm of what’s seen and perceived by the five senses, especially to pay real close attention to creative insights that were being revealed to me through my work with the Umbanda.
Tell me about that, your Umbanda practice.
Well, that could take a while (laughs). As you know from reading the book, some of the action in Narcisa takes place in an Umbanda ceremony, where the whole thing is very graphically described. For those who haven’t read the book yet, or seen that mystical side of Brazil, Umbanda is a very old, venerable Afro-Brazilian spiritual practice. The Umbanda has its roots in traditional African Yoruba tribal religions. In the Umbanda doctrine, the thoughts and actions of each person in Ayé, the physical realm, interact with all other living beings, including the Earth, Nature. Practitioners are seeking transcendence over the physical realm, ultimately, in search of spiritual growth, for the benefit of all living beings. The Umbanda was brought over by African tribesmen when they came to the New World as slaves. In Spanish-speaking countries they call it Santaria. In Haiti, it’s known as Voudoun, and so on, but it isn’t like black magic or anything like the typical Western stereotype of Voodoo and all that kind of shit. The Umbanda is a very rich, colorful, complex bridge between the material world and the spirit world, a World Unknown, populated by all sorts of really diverse, iconic spirit entities. Each one has its own special purpose and power. In Brazil, this crazy cosmology is even more confusing to the uninitiated than in a lot of those other places, because when the slaves started to unpack their traditional tribal rituals here, their Portuguese masters, who were staunch Catholics, banned it. That’s when they came up with a very ingenious way of disguising these ancient African dieties, the Orixás, under the guise of traditional Christian Saints. So, Ogum, the ancient Yoruba warrior god, became Saint George, slaying the Dragon, and Iansá, the Mother of the Winds got tucked away, hidden under the skirts of Saint Barbara, and so on. So, here in Brazil, over the centuries, the Umbanda evolved and blended with all sorts of other regional shamanic and religious traditions, ancient Amazonian indigenous shamanic practices, the use of sacred plant medicines like ayahuasca, and so on, and even incorporated the doctrines of neo-European metaphysical cults. It’s taken on a lot of its present-day influences from a real well-developed, medium- oriented esoteric practice known as Kardecism or Spiritism. Spiritism is a metaphysical, neo-Christian esoteric doctrine which had its origins in Europe, then got brought to Brazil by followers of a French spirit medium named Allan Kardec, sometime back around the turn of the century. It’s pretty amazing. They have all this incredible literature, written by reincarnated, or disencarnated entities in the spirit world, working through mediums in a sort of literary trance. They call it Psychograping, something like that. Anyway, all this stuff that’s evolved into the modern-day Brazilian Umbanda practice basically constitutes a very complex, colorful web of roads and portals into the spirit world, a world of unseen powers and entities we seek guidance and healing from in our Umbanda works.
Anyway, long story short, one thing led to another as I was doing all this writing and digging, researching people, places and timeliines for my ongoing memoir book. I was constantly praying for guidance as I went through the process. Well, you know they say “be careful what you pray for”, right? Suddenly, I started getting all these random invitations to visit different Spiritist centers and Umbanda terreiros, places which were like open portals to the spirit world. I started going, and right from the start, I learned I was a Filho de Ogum, someone living under the care and guidance of São Jorge or Ogum, a powerful warrior spirit of protection and spiritual awakening in the Umbanda iconography. I kept delving deeper and deeper into it, with the help of different spiritual advisors here in Brazil, more experienced adepts of the Umbanda. I’ve gotten a lot of guidance and strength through these shamanic practices over the years, even though I’m not really an expert on it or anything. Some people I know certainly are very well-initiated in it, though, and they became like my spiritual advisors and guides.
When you start hanging out and working with these spirit cults, all sorts of strange and wonderful things start to happen. This is gonna sound weird to some people, but today, I have no doubt that I’ve been guided and protected and fortified in my work as a writer by powers beyond any human power. I’m really grateful for all the roads they’ve been opening in my life and my work, I really am. But, the more I hang around people who really know this stuff, the more I come to realize just how little I actually know myself. It’s an infinite road. Sometimes, I feel like a fucking lobster trying to contemplate the Origin of the Species or something (laughs), but as I keep going and studying and incorporating the spiritual principles of these ancient practices in my life, and applying them into my work, I always know that more will be revealed to me.
I’m just glad to be stumbling along some sort of haphazard spiritual path, something that helps me become a more aware, awake human being, and a more effective artist. I’ve seen this stuff literally save and enrich people’s lives, again and again over the years, so for me, there’s always a good reason to keep seeking more knowledge and a better understanding of it. But on another level, it’s like I said, be careful what you pray for, man (laughs). A lot of us have so much messed-up, faulty old programming stuck in our emotional hard drives, working to undermine our psychic integrity, way down below the level of our conscious awareness. That can be dangerous turf to tread. With all the warped concepts and surreal, unconscious pretzel logic that makes an alcoholic or drug addict tick like a time bomb, even stone-cold sober in recovery, the road back to coherence and sanity can take you through some pretty uncomfortable, scary territory. This Umbanda work seems to open those kinds of healing channels in very harsh, dynamic ways, sometimes (laughs). And while you’re going through that kind of a psychic cleansing process, it can feel a lot like a drug withdrawal or detox. Really painful. It’s almost like a fucking exorcism or something. Literally. I think William S. Burroughs described it best when he wrote that every man has inside himself a parasitic being who is acting not at all to his best advantage. Learning to live with and overcome these kind of persistent parasitic spiritual entities is like living on a daily battlefield. For a conscious human being, especially an artist trying to seek some sort of clarity through creative work, it’s like a bloody spiritual war, man! (Laughs). That’s a constant theme running all through Narcisa, but for me, writing this kind of book, these concepts became very heavy and very real. It’s an overwhelming process to work your way through, like walking a trembling tightrope between some hellish nightmare realm and a state of Grace.
How did you find out that you were ”sensitive” to the Spirit World?
Well, I’m not special in that respect. I believe everybody is inherently “sensitive” to what we call the Spirit World. This IS the Spirit World, man, right here and now (bangs his fist on the table, laughing). We just can’t perceive it with the five senses usually, but we’re all eternal spirits, trapped in these sophisticated space suits called human bodies. More like emotionally-armored clown suits, equipped with built-in time-bombs, when you think about it from a spiritual perspective (laughs). Anyway, for me, becoming more “sensitive” to other realities, or other dimensions of what we think of as reality, has been an ongoing process of, I dunno, opening up the channels to it, just going through the creative process in a spirit of dedication and service to some sort of higher purpose, in the making of art. The creative act is a very powerful force, you know. Once you hit a certain level of willingness to let go of your own little shit-brained, ego-driven ideas and seek guidance from spiritual powers, all sorts of bizarre happenings and revelations start to open up and manifest in the work, as if you conjured a genie out of a lantern or something (laughs).
Can you give me an example of how that has worked for you in your own process?
Sure. (Laughs). Thought you’d never ask. Like this one time I was living up in this friend’s place in LA, way up in the hills there, this place where I’d been staying and writing, right after I moved out of Johnny Depp’s house…
You’d been living with Johnny Depp?
I was staying at JD’s house in Hollywood while he was off making a movie somewhere. He’s always been a sort of patron of my work and a cherished supporter, like a guardian angel, God bless him. The man has a heart of gold, and the soul of a poet. A great friend and an amazing artist. We’ve been close friends for many decades, like brothers, but that’s another long story. Anyway, I had to move out of there at some point, for some reason I can’t remember, so I went to stay at another old friend’s place up in the hills. At the time, before I came back to Brazil and started writing Narcisa, I was right in the middle of working on this big, long outline for that memoir book I told you about, Scab Vendor. Somewhere along the way, it had briefly morphed into this screenplay I was writing at Johnny’s urging, something I eventually did a rewrite of with the legendary American writer, Hubert Selby Jr. Working with Selby was a big honor for me as a writer. This was around 2001, right after I left New York, before I moved back to Brazil. Anyway, I was in the middle of this very deep, painful sort of soul-searching, digging process I was talking about before, a lot of real heavy, introspective writing, taking me back into some real painful, uncomfortable areas of my past, my fucked up childhood, all that sorta shit. So there I was, dealing with all these excruciating old memories and personal ghosts, holed up in this big empty house up in the hills of LA, totally isolated from humanity and surrounded by all these terrible trauma spirits from the past, nipping away at my ass like the cackling demons of hell (laughs). I’d never felt so alone, not since I was a little child, and it was a really scary, unhappy time for me, revisiting all those old childhood terrors, all alone. I just felt it was something I had to do for my own recovery, so the writing process became like a big, long exorcism, exorcizing demons of childhood traumas and fears and hatreds. Purging. So there I was, living up in the hills there, all alone, going through this gut- wrenching, solitary psychic inventory process. Nobody ever came up there to visit. I’d been staying there for months, and hadn’t seen a living soul the whole fucking time. Then, one Sunday morning, really early, I was asleep on the living room sofa in there, when, suddenly, there’s this knock on the door, really loud. I jumped up and went to see what it was, and it was just some random lost guy, looking for some other address or whatever. After he went away, I tried to go back to sleep, but as I lay there on the sofa, I just heard this little inner voice in my head, very clear, telling me there was something important I had to do, that the knock on the door had been an omen, a call to get up right away and get out of there. It was a very clear intuition I had right then, telling me I was supposed to get up and go out onto the street. Well, I’d been doing a lot of praying for guidance, and reading and studying a lot of heavy metaphysical texts and so on, so I didn’t even question it. I just got up and threw some clothes on and stumbled right out the door. I got into this old car I had and drove down the hill, still praying the whole time for guidance and orientation, for direction. I had no idea where the fuck I was going or anything like that. It was a Sunday, really early in the morning, and the streets of Echo Park were completely deserted. When I got down to Sunset Boulevard, I hung a right and just keep driving down this big empty deserted avenue, praying and driving along, with no particular destination…
This was when you were staying up at Billy Shire’s house in Echo Park, right? (Billy Shire, owner of the infamous La Luz de Jesus Gallery in Hollywood). I’ve heard you’re good friends with him.
Yep, that’s the place. We’ve been tight for decades. Billy Shire is an art hero, very generous, important contributor to gonzo culture, whatever ya wanna call it. Anyway, Billy was mostly staying with a girlfriend across town at the time, and he had kindly lent me his house to hole up and get away from the world and just write. Another really great friend, like Johnny. But, man, what a lonely place to be doing that kind of painful, introspective work, especially at that particular time in my life! Dredging up all these terrible memories from the past, it was like an endless horror movie, like living in a haunted house or something. Creepy! No wonder Billy never came home (laughs). But seriously, it wasn’t the place that was haunted. It was me, the ghosts of my own past that I brought up there with me. And Los Angeles was the perfect place for me to start exorcising all those creepy old psychic phantoms, cause I grew up there in L.A., y’know, and the place has always given me the creeps, ever since I was a kid, all these big, lonely, isolated homes up in the hills, nobody even knows anybody else. Not my kinda city. That’s probably why I took to the road so young. I prefer action and busy crowds on the streets. I’m one of those people who can’t get to sleep without the sound of screams and gunshots and breaking glass (laughs). I’m sure that’s why I ended up living in all these big, raucous, dangerous South American cities all my life. Cause I was totally traumatized by growing up in a real sterile, soulless, secretive alcoholic home as a kid, surrounded by this stark, unhappy sense of total isolation. I always hated isolation and solitude, so it’s kinda significant that I chose to do my own personal exorcism work in total solitary isolation, and in a place called Echo Park, of all things (laughs). It was perfect, metaphorically, cause all the psychic pain I was experiencing there was literally being produced by echoes of the past. That’s how most post-trauma people live their lives, chased around by a lot of really realistic, terrifying echoes. Phantoms. Ghosts. It’s a horrible way to live, and that’s why I’d become so willing to go to any lengths to try and work through all that shit by writing this massive, epic, horror-show memoir book – which, by the way, I’m still working on to this day. Takes forever. Long, weird life, a lot of long, weird stories to write. It’s a double-edges sword, man (laughs).
So, anyway, there I was, driving down Sunset in Echo Park with nowhere to go, haunted by creepy ghosts, and suddenly the car I’m driving just goes ‘CLUNK’ and stops dead, right in the middle of the street. What the fuck? I try starting the motor and nothing, it’s completely dead. Shit. I get out of the car and lift the hood. Nothing. I was never much of a mechanic, except for minor motorcycle repairs and stuff, so there I am, standing there, scratching my head in the middle of this big empty avenue at eight in the morning, and it’s this real gloomy LA Sunday, and there’s absolutely no sign of life anywhere, like one of those old Charlton Heston movies, The Last Man On Earth kinda thing (laughs). I’m looking up and down the street, asking the universe to tell me what the fuck I’m supposed to do next, and feeling totally retarded. Then, suddenly, I see this big red pickup truck coming down the road. I’m standing next to this burned out car with the hood up, and this red pickup with Texas plates pulls alongside and stops. Well, I go up to the driver’s window to see if they can give me a hand, and this lady is sitting there, smiling at me, asks me if I need some help. Well I sure did (laughs). LA is one city you don’t wanna be stuck without wheels, believe me, anybody who’s ever been there knows what I mean, so I asked her if she could give me a push with her truck to move the dead car over to the side of the road, and she does. Once the thing’s parked there at the curb, she asks me if I need a ride somewhere. Well, I remembered I had my motorcycle still parked over at Johnny Depp’s place across town, so I asked her if she could give me a ride over there to get it. She said, “sure, get in,” and I did. Well, as soon as I got into the pickup truck with her, I noticed there was something different about her. She was this blond, blue-eyed, white-skinned American lady, but she was dressed all in white flowing gowns and wearing a lot of guias, the long cristal bead necklaces they wear in ceremonial Umbanda rituals. This was before I got real deep into the Umbanda, but having lived in Brazil most of my life, I knew what it was and recognized the clothing and everything. She had a white scarf tied around her head, like a Mãe de Santo, an Umbanda spirit worker, and just carried this whole otherworldly aura about her. It was very strange. Well, we started talking, and she told me she’d just that minute arrived in Los Angeles, after driving all the way from Texas. Sure enough, the back of the pickup was packed with all her stuff, and she had a couple of really big dogs back there. She told me she’d just flown over to Texas from Haiti, where she’d been studying with traditional Voudoun priests, and had gotten guidance from her spirit guides to pack up and go to Texas, then drive to the West Coast with all her stuff, so there she was.
She was telling me this, when, suddenly, she just pulled the car over to the side of the road and started to literally incorporate some other being. Then, this wise old spirit entity started talking to me, through her, telling me all sorts of really heavy personal things, giving me answers to some of my deepest questions and doubts and conflicts. It was amazing! We sat there for hours like that by the side of the road. She told me all this stuff about my life and my spiritual destiny. She told me, among other things, that I’d be going back to Brazil soon to continue fulfilling a “promise.” She told me I had to seal some sort of spiritual “agreement” I’d made in another lifetime, that I was gonna be writing about things that had to do with a soul that needed to be ”rescued,” that I’d agreed to rescue, spiritually, through my own recovery from drug addiction. I didn’t know it then, of course, but she was talking about a whole series of happenings and events that would eventually lead up to me writing this book, Narcisa.
Looking back at this stuff later, it all fit. I got my little pocket note pad out and started scribbling down everything she was telling me, trying to get it all down on paper, cause, even though I didn’t know what it meant, exactly, I intuitively knew there was really important things being revealed to me. That’s why I’d been woken up out of a sound sleep and told to start driving, so I could meet this spirit and be told all this stuff. Even then, before I knew how much it would all fall into place later, everything she told me made perfect sense. All of it. After that, she just dropped me off and drove away, and I never saw her again. Oh yeah, another detail. She had told me she was a recovering alcoholic too, that that’s how she’d gotten onto a spiritual path in Voudoun, as part of her own recovery. And, right after she revealed that about herself, boom, she shape-shifted into this crazy, clairvoyant spiritual entity. Amazing, right? Oh, and her red pickup truck. Red is the color of Ogum, my spirit guide in the Umbanda, which I wouldn’t know about till years later.
So, there were always all these little omens like that going on, which would all come together in my understanding many years later, when I started writing Narcisa. Very weird, magical process. Anyway, I’ve been kinda jumping around a lot with these random stories (laughs), but to answer your original question, how did I find out I was ”sensitive” to the spirit world, it’s been a long, haphazard, experiential process, punctuated by all sorts of weird paranormal happenings like the one I just described. And this kinda thing was just the tip of the iceberg, believe me (laughs). By the time I went back to Rio and started delving into the Umbanda, this kinda stuff was happening all the time. By the time Narcisa and her partner-in-crime, Cigano came marching out of the pages of my memoir and morphing into the novel, I was pretty well prepared to take on the whole task, spiritually, emotionally, whatever. And then, the book just started writing itself through me. At the end of the day, the book is entirely its own entity. These characters took on a life of their own, and I just became like sort of a custodian, a caretaker, a servant. Sometimes, I felt more like their fucking slave (laughs), but ultimately, it’s the dynamic between these two archetypal characters, their relationship to each other and to humanity at large that’s important, not their relationship to me as a writer. In that sense, Narcisa and Cigano belong to the world, where they’re universally relatable to everybody, not just me. I’m nobody. I’m just the parent who has to let his children go out into the world and live their own lives now, hopefully to serve a purpose of their own, maybe to help enlighten and edify the reader. Cuz, ultimately, I believe they’re characters that we can all relate to, on some level
How is the dynamic between these characters universally relatable to readers? How does reading a story like Narcisa enlighten and edify its audience?
That’s a good question, man, and one I’ve asked myself over and over. Cause there really are no new stories under the sun, just endless variations of recurring human themes. It all boils down to the old ‘boy meets girl’ plot, I guess, and then all hell breaks loose, and blah blah blah. It’s not an original concept when it comes to our mythos as a race, because the basic themes of Narcisa are basic universal human themes. On a surface level, the story is steeped in all this wild sex, drugs and hedonistic, dysfunctional adventures, but then it goes into all sorts of other areas, esoteric areas, delving into surreal levels of spirit possession, madness, violence, betrayal, anguish, terror, but always underscored by a deep and pervasive undertone of unconditional love. Love, and a basic quest for salvation, the redemption of the human spirit. These are basic human issues, so there’s all sorts of deeper subtext to this story. But it’s nothing fancy or lofty, you know, just basic human stuff.
On some real basic level, I think anybody can relate to these characters’ insecurities and fears, their hopes and dreams and nightmares, their feelings. Because Narcisa deals with bottom-line human feelings, the kind of strengths and weaknesses and all the little daily comedies and tragedies we all experience in our feeling world, the stuff that propels the human experience as we all live it, whether we’re living extreme, dangerous, dysfunctional realities like these two characters, or just coming and going from home and the office every day.
Just last night, I got a phone call from another recovering alcoholic who was going through a hard time in his relationship. He called me up in the middle of the night and said he really needed to talk, so I rode over to the beach in Copacabana, and we met up. Without going into details here, basically he told me he was dealing with some really gut-wrenching emotions involving a romantic relationship, you know, the kind of stuff we’ve all been through, the kind of stuff Narcisa deals with, and when I started talking to him and sharing my own experiences, suddenly I felt like I was talking to myself a couple of years before, like right before I wrote Narcisa and discovered all these things about relationships and about myself through the process of bringing Narcisa to life. And right then, it dawned on me that this is exactly how this shit works. As human beings, we share our experience, strength and hope with each other in order to help one another navigate this big, confusing sea of trouble and pain called the human experience. And story-telling is a very powerful tool for that. It’s an evolutionary tool, which makes it a revolutionary weapon, too (laughs).
What were your reservations, if any, when writing Narcisa? Was there anything holding you back?
No, nothing. Absolutely nothing at all… It’s almost the opposite. It’s as if I was being compelled to write this thing so strongly, that once it started rolling, there was no holding it back. It would have been like trying to stop a speeding freight train by standing on the tracks and holding your hand out (laughs). There was never any question about any choice or premeditated thought process or plan or plot or whatever. This book just wrote itself. On some level, I never really saw myself even being involved in it at all, as a writer, other than being present enough to become the instrument by which it chose to manifest itself into the world. I know that may sound sort of new- agey or whatever, but that’s exactly how it went down, right from the start.
A very painful process for me, not just as a writer, but as a human being. Gut-wrenchingly painful, but ultimately effortless, too, completely devoid of any personal forethought or afterthought or any of that kinda thing. It was just compelling and obsessive and compulsive and spontaneous and essential, from start to finish. Like channeling something way bigger and more important than my own little ideas and experiences. A very, very powerful process. I highly recommend it, though, because, like Nietzsche said, whatever doesn’t kill ya makes you stronger. And weirder, too (laughs).
Where did you come up with your protagonist’s name? Narcisa?
I actually knew a girl named Narcissa once, but with two s’s. The book is definitely not about her, not at all. But I thought the name itself was just so poetically fitting… and coincidentally, the original Narcissa happened to be a young junkie street prostitute in Tijuana.
How did you wind up meeting a young junkie prostitute in Tijuana?
Ah, (laughs), you just had to ask me that, huh? Yeah, well that’s some more of that crazy synchronicity I was talking about, all these fucked up, mystical events, seemingly unrelated coincidences that weave together into some kinda weird higher destiny. (Pauses) Let’s see how I can explain this? (Laughs) Ok, so I’d been staying in L.A., writing this screenplay I told you about for Johnny Depp, which never got off the ground, by the way, but that’s another long story. One that may never get told (laughs). Anyway, Johnny was off working in Europe, and I was holed up all alone in his big, empty Hollywood mansion. It was a really spooky place, totally haunted and creepy, and there I was, all alone, going stir-crazy and writing this really depressing screenplay and slowly going insane, like blow-your- brains-out-in-Hollywood-insane, y’know? So one night, I just couldn’t take all the creepy solitude over there anymore, so I got on my motorcycle and hauled ass out of town, like the devil was chasing me with fire. A few hours later, I rode across the border into Mexico, and then I was back on familiar turf. I parked the bike and went for a walk around the dirty old red-light slums of Tijuana, feeling really happy just to be there, to be anywhere, as long as it was a world away from all that plastic-fantastic Hollywood horseshit.
Wandering around, I came across this little lost blond-haired, blue-eyed surfer girl, who’d caught the wrong wave and ended up out on the streets of Tijuana (laughs). Her name was Narcissa, and she was just crawling the gutters of this decrepit third-world hell pit, all strung out on heroin and turning cheap tricks for dope money, down on Calle Coajilla, one of the meanest, low-down, dirty old ho-strolls in the western hemisphere. When I spotted her there, she was standing on a corner in the middle of all these short, stubby little brown Mexican street whores, ya know? She had this really blond, blond hair and super bright blue eyes, and she stood out like some beautiful translucent fairy. Well, we went off and had a quick shag in some roach motel, and then we kinda hit it off and became friends. So, I just wound up hanging out there in TJ with her and, you know, just kinda got sucked into her demented little junkie whore world (laughs). I was only a couple of years sober at the time, and she was about the most tore-up dope fiend I’d ever met. But she had this amazing inner beauty, this shining inner light, and it was about to flicker out. She was really half-dead, man. A mess in a dress. Tore up from the floor up. This poor, young, innocent- looking little white babe, with tracks on her tracks, like Frankenstein scars, all running up her neck and down to her fucking feet. She was holed up in some roach-infested dope house with all these strung-out, fucked up killers and ex-cons and dope monsters, and it was this really surreal, nasty scene there. Death was in the air. But this girl, Narcissa, she was really smart and sweet and charismatic, and I just saw something in her that was so alive and innocent and good. Like somebody who just really needed to be saved from herself. So here comes good old Captain Save-a-Ho, that’s me (laughs). I started telling her about my recovery from heroin addiction and she really related. I guess she related to me as a friend, somebody who wasn’t lying to her, and my victory over addiction gave her some little scrap of hope to cling to, cause she was really going down fast.
Anyway, after a while hanging out together like that, one night I cracked out a recovery book and started reading it to her. She just broke down and started weeping. After that, the walls came tumbling down. She asked me to help her get clean. Long story short, I threw her on the back of my motorcycle and rode across the border with her. By the time we got up to LA, she was already dope sick. I locked her up in a motel room and fed her some methadone I got from a guy I knew who had all that kinda stuff. It was like a ten-day detox, with decreasing doses, until she was finally clean. As soon as she was strong enough to stand up without puking, I started taking her to these recovery meetings in Hollywood, and threw her into the mix with all those sober people there. A bunch of these Hollywood clean and sober chicks snatched her up and took her under their wings, and she ended up getting clean and staying clean. She’s still clean today. One of my fondest accomplishments (laughs). She still sends me emails and stuff, from time to time. She’s married and working, having kids, going to school and working, building a professional career. She’s living a kick-ass sober life, like a square, happy little middle-America housewife. A miracle girl. She’s still kinda freaked out about the name of my novel, but she’ll get over it (laughs).
So, that’s part of where the name Narcisa came from. But it mostly comes from it just being such a perfect name to personify the overall character of a drug addict. I mean, there’s nothing more narcissistic than a drug addict, right? (Laughs.) Cuz there’s so many different levels of sub-text to a name like that, isn’t there? It’s really a perfect name when you’re talking about the psychic booby traps of addiction. In the first edition of the book, I actually pulled the dictionary definition for the word ”narcissism” and put it right on the first page. It says: ”Egoism: a doctrine by which individual self-interest is the valid end of all actions.” That pretty much sums it up, all the pathological Ego factors in alcoholism and drug addiction. Root causes of a selfish, self-centered, Ego-driven spiritual affliction. So, this Narcisa character isn’t based so much on any real people, as much as being like a sort of composite character, a living, breathing, walking, talking metaphor for the damaged, overinflated Ego that leads addicts into the jaws of self- destruction. Narcisa personifies the root causes of all our human failings, the dark side of the human condition. She represents egoism, also known as narcissism: “excessive concern for oneself, with or without exaggerated feelings of self-importance.” So, that’s my Narcisa. A very sick, twisted little narcissist (laughs). There’s a quote in my book by Nietzsche, where he says that no one surpasses a sick woman in their refinements for ruling, oppressing, tyrannizing. Once again, there’s Narcisa, but at the end of the day, Narcisa is the dark side of us all.
It seems like you quote Nietzsche a lot. Is he your favorite author to quote from?
No. Not at all. I’ve used quotes from lots of different writers. I just happened to stumble across a book of Nietzsche’s while I was writing and editing Narcisa, and then the Narcisa character just became like this idiot- savant, spouting Nietzsche all the time, in the middle of all her crazy, psychedelic crackhead rants. Nietzsche was Narcisa’s idea, not mine (laughs), cuz you never know what a character like that is gonna come up with. As a writer, I just hadda go with the flow. Nietzsche does happen to be a very quotable thinker, of course, but, like most things about the whole crooked journey of writing Narcisa, it was never anything like a premeditated thought. It just sorta fell into the mix, and there it is. It’s all grist for the mill for a writer, y’know. Mark Twain said that, and I really do believe that truer words were never spoken, pertaining to the kind of psychic process one goes into while constructing a work of fiction. So Nietzsche wound up getting thrown into the soup, and then, when I decided to put quotes at the beginning of each chapter heading, it just seemed appropriate to use a bunch by Nietzsche.
But, going back to all the weird, syncronistic, paranormal sort of coincidences we were talking about before, after the book first got published in America, I had another really strange revelation come to me about those chapter-heading quotes, out of the blue. Check it out. There was this writer, Tom Nolan, a well-known, seasoned biographer who’d written a big book about my father, Artie Shaw. I’d gotten to know this guy pretty well. After the old man died, Nolan came around and did a lot of really in-depth interviews with me about Artie and our relationship, such as, it was, and so on. I even gave him access to all my archives and research I was doing for my own memoir, including hundreds of hours of tape recordings I’d made of me and Artie just sitting around talking – well, more like Artie talking and me listening and recording. Artie was a real talker.
Guess some of that musta rubbed off on me (laughs). Anyway, I saved all those tapes and transcribed them to use as bits of dialogue in my memoir book, Scab Vendor. I’d given Artie’s biographer a copy of the original Narcisa manuscript to read. After he read it, he called one day and made a remark about all the quotes I’d used. He said he only knew of one other writer who did that, putting quotes at the beginning of each chapter. He asked me if I knew who it was and I said no. “Your father,” he told me. And it was true. Artie had written this book called The Trouble With Cinderella, a pretty good book. Johnny Depp actually was trying to get the rights to make a movie, before Artie put the kibosh on the whole thing (laughs). Anyway, there were all these quotes like that in Artie’s book, too. It was pretty weird. I hadn’t read Cinderella in many years, and had totally forgotten about him using those quotes, but I guess somewhere in my unconscious, or maybe in my DNA or whatever, there it was.
So, if you weren’t aware of your father’s influence, what exactly made you decide to put those quotes at the beginning of the chapters?
Well, it was kinda funny, the way that came about. When I did it, I didn’t have the slightest idea why I felt so compelled to do that. It was almost like an addictive vibe spurring me on in the beginning. You know how you start a book off with a quote, the way I did with that famous quote from Kerouac, and then it just felt so right and appropriate, looking at it there, that, like a good addict, I started craving more (laughs). Like they say, ‘one’s too many and a thousand’s not enough,’ right? So I came up with the idea of putting a relevant little literary quote at the beginning of every chapter like that, something pertinent to the overall theme or vibe of each chapter, just how I felt the Kerouac quote was pertinent to the book as a whole, at least to its central characters and the whole dynamic going on between them.
Quite a few reviewers have compared your work to Kerouac. Was he a big influence on your writing?
Of course. Kerouac was a huge early influence on me, and just about everybody else, but there were a ton of other writers who inspired me even more over the years, long after first reading Kerouac, guys like Bukowski, Miller, Fante, and especially Celene. There’s a boatload of really fantastic writers whose work has informed and shaped my own literary vision. While most of those comparisons where favorable, some shit-brained reviewer recently wrote they thought I was trying too hard to write like the Beats or some shit. Totally ridiculous assumption! Some people just don’t get it. Any thought of emulating Kerouac or anybody else was completely unconscious at the time I wrote Narcisa. But the influence is always there, I guess, sort of tattooed onto your soul— so much so that when I showed the original manuscript to an editor friend as I started in on this huge rewrite for this new HarperCollins edition, one of the first things she told me was how much it reminded her of On The Road. She told me that Cigano’s obsessive fascination with Narcisa and his unbreakable attraction to her was reminiscent of the interdependency between Kerouac and his Dean Moriarty character in On The Road.
Now, I hadn’t read Kerouac in over thirty years when I wrote Narcisa, but there it was again. This weird, unconscious synchronicity. I’ve come to really believe that sort of thing is like the shadow of the Eternal Muse standing over us with all these weird little signs and directions. But on another level, I guess it just goes to show you that all those books you read thirty years ago, they’re still in there somewhere, buried away down in the old hard drive, and it all just comes out in the wash somehow, eventually.
I read somewhere that your original title for Narcisa was Savage Grace, but when a movie came out with the same name, you changed it. As appropriate as the original title was, having read this incredible book, I can’t imagine it being named anything other than Narcisa: Our Lady of Ashes. Where did that part come from? Our Lady of Ashes?
Yeah, well, I always envisioned this Narcisa character as something iconic, mythical, mystical and transcendent. Like a religious figure, you know, something almost Biblical, larger-than-life, in her absolute tragedy and her mad, violent, uncompromising thirst for redemption. I was driving down the freeway in Los Angeles one day, and passed this Our Lady of something-or-other church, and it just sparked the idea. And, since Narcisa was a crack addict, you know the way they smoke crack in Brazil, and other places too, is by using a soda can as a crack pipe. They punch little holes into the can and then pack cigarette ashes around the holes to use as like a filter or screen for the rock, so when they light it up to smoke, it doesn’t all go down the holes. So, if you read the book, you know Narcisa always has like three cigarettes burning at the same time (laughs). She’s saving the ashes to smoke her crack with, so she keeps all these little piles of ashes all over the place. And it just seemed to be a fitting title for this strange, ash-hoarding, tragic, self-crucifying Christ-like being, sort of a metaphor for the sins of humanity and its fumbling, stumbling quest for Salvation, the search for God, whatever. Pretty deep stuff, right? (Laughs). So I guess I just wanted to give her a sort of iconic, religious-sounding epithet, and that one just sort of fit. Our Lady of Ashes. Then, there’s also the image of the Phoenix rising up from its own ashes, the whole concept of death, destruction, ruin, then rebirth and redemption, I dunno. Something like that.
Thanks to Jonathan Shaw for the awesome interview!