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20 Questions: Jim Carroll

Biography: If the Hudson River could talk, it might sound like Jim Carroll: gritty, rambling and packed with great New Yawk stories.

It has been 15 years since Jim Carroll's autobiographical tale of heroin addiction and hustling, The Basketball Diaries, was published, and over 20 since it was written. At the time, Carroll wanted to publish a book of poetry before he released the Diaries so he wouldn't get marked a "street writer." But the book was an instant cult classic, and the movie version of The Basketball Diaries has helped put it on the New York Times bestseller list. Like many critics, the author has mixed feelings about the movie.

These days, the 44-year-old Carroll wakes up at four in the morning and starts writing. He's currently working on two novels and living on the northern tip of Manhattan -- far away from the East Village action he immortalized in his prose, and close to the middle-class Irish neighborhood of Inwood where he grew up.

His band, the Jim Carroll Group, broke up in 1986 and he has turned down many offers to record again. He considers the rock 'n' roll period of his life over, but recently wrote four songs for The Basketball Diaries movie. Although those songs weren't included in the film, he's very happy with them and might release them as an EP. Last month the retro-punk band Rancid invited him to record spoken word on one of their songs and he agreed.

Carroll will be reading at the Tin Angel on Saturday, July 22 at eight and ten p.m.

Are you still inspired by the energy of New York City?

I suppose I could draw some energy from being downtown or going to a show or some interesting reading, but I don't go to them that often.

At this point in my life I don't draw my inspiration from anything except my own imagination. I can't afford to wait around for inspiration about things... There are certain times when poems come in, one rush of inspiration, but they're few and far between. With poetry, you do hear a voice dictating it to you almost from outside like a muse or more like a schizophrenic throwback.

Sometimes it's just straight inspiration, usually it's some overwhelming event, like if you fall in love or if somebody dies. Unfortunately, I get a lot of inspiration from elegies.

Have you always wanted to write novels or is this a recent development?

I like writing prose. All my prose has been autobiographical, aside from the prose in The Book of Nods or in Fear of Dreaming, but they're more like prose poems. Some of them are short stories.

These ideas for novels were like a gift. I'd never had a sustained idea before, where a plot twist and characters would continue through a whole book. One of the books is very straightforward, a traditional novel with a twist in it. My editor says that's the one they'd like first because it's a "money book."

The other book is more fragmented, closer to my other work. They're both in the third person and one has nothing to do with drugs or sex. The more fragmented one does, in a rather peculiar way.

You've been clean for a while now, right?

Yeah, Yeah.

How do you feel about being a role model for the creative use of drugs?

When all this publicity came after The Basketball Diaries came out it was overwhelming.

People thought that they really knew me and thought I hadn't changed. They thought when the last page of the diary was written, I went into a state of stasis. When I was playing with the band, people would throw me syringes and rosary beads on stage. I've got a great collection of rosary beads. Usually they're cheap, glow-in-the-dark rosaries, but I have a really great collection of crosses.

What do think about The Basketball Diaries - as a movie, as a fair representation of the book and in relation to your life?

The few people that know me from those days that saw the film think there's a remarkable similarity between Leonardo DiCapprio and me. His features and gestures. I find it complimentary in a certain way.

I remember when I saw the first rough cut of it with Lou Reed. He knew me when I was 16 and he thought that Leonardo spent a year living with me to learn the part.

There were some scenes like, when he's crying outside of his parents' door, that hit a nerve. There were times I'd be like that just out of total frustration. It wouldn't be about giving me drug money like it was in the film. I was not that foolish. It was just that my parents didn't "get it." I think that happens to a lot of people.

I like the movie on its own terms just because the acting was so good and Leonardo was really terrific. But as far as it being close to the book, I don't know. It just got too dark and dank...

In the movie I'm in Catholic school all of the time. I thought Marky [Mark] and Gene and Patrick were great in those parts, but if I had just hung out with those same three mokes, I would have never gotten into writing. I had a natural inclination to be a writer. But I think if I didn't get scholarship to private school and get into all of that hip stuff, I might have been a sportswriter. It was by vacillating between these class lines that I learned a lot of knowledge that isn't available in these Irish Catholic intellectual ghettos.

They brought in Ernie Hudson's character, Reggie, to try and get Leo straight. Reggie's not in the book and I thought he could have been a guy who knew about literature and the art scene and could teach Leo about literature.

When Leo was wising off to Ernie after he got straight, saying: "Hey get me a bag when you go out." Ernie could have said: "If you want to be a junkie, fine, but if you want to be a writer, you have to understand how important voice is and you have to find it and be true to it." That would have shown that the kid was building as an artist and thinking about it, but you don't get that.

Scott Calvin, the director, is a real techno guy and he tended to tune things out. The night we were working on that scene was the night I just stormed off of the set. Leonardo got pissed too because I told him what I was thinking...

With The Basketball Diaries I didn't have any agenda. It's not a pro-drug book or an anti-drug book. I think if you have half a brain when you read it you realize it's not too smart to take hard drugs.

Are there any young poets that you like in particular?

My taste in poetry is not the gods of poetry slams or the people who are on MTV that much. Poetry slams are kind of detrimental because your worst poem is probably going to be the one that's most effective to some hooting crowd. The poets I care about now are mostly the tried and true ones. There's a poet, Nicholas Christopher, who terrific, but he's basically my age.

Are you religious?

I like the rituals of Catholicism. I like the feminine side of it -- the cult of the virgin and stuff... I don't like the politics of the church at all. I think it's pathetic.

One of the novels I'm writing is about two priests. So I've had to read the Gnostic gospels and all of the comments on them. It's become like an evocation for me. Biblical archaeology has become a hobby for me, and also the occult.

Are you in contact with Patti Smith much?

Well, Fred, her husband, died and then Todd, her brother, died a month later. I didn't know Fred that well, but when Todd died I called her up and spoke with her very shortly. I speak to Lenny Kaye, whose been around Patti a lot now. But otherwise, not.

I did speak with her because the Mapplethorpe biography came out. I hate to do those things because they end up offending somebody one way or another. But Robert wanted everyone to speak with her. What she wrote was very sympathetic at first but then she just skewers him in the end. She makes him seem like the most venal person of all time, which will probably make his myth that much better.

What do you think is the staying power of The Basketball Diaries?

That book is very old; I guess it's honest, and it's written from the point of view of someone who's that age. It had some pretty good lines in it, being that young. But you can't rest on things like that -- if you do you're sunk. It makes you that much more determined to get stuff done. I feel like have a whole new period that I have to get into. If I don't do that, that's the closest thing to a real sin that I could think of.

Jim Carroll will be reading at the Tin Angel on Saturday, July 22 at 8 & 10pm.

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