Playing the Game with Strauss

I‘ve really seen the face of darkness…. I’m not even going to have my name on this book because it’s so dark and dangerous; when you see the face of evil, stare into the abyss… I think I’ve come really close to the fire and if I get through this book and don’t get consumed alive I think I may be done with the dark side.” It was going to be an exciting interview when this was the answer to my first question, on why Neil Strauss professed to only be interested in exploring the dark side of human experience.

There are few people who’ve mined the well of human hedonism, fame and insanity as deeply as him; he’s shot guns with Ludacris, been kidnapped by Courtney Love, made Lady Gaga cry. He’s gone drinking with Bruce Springsteen, tried to prevent Motley Crue from getting arrested, received Scientology Lessons from Snoop Dogg, flown a helicopter with Madonna, been taught mind reading by the CIA and been soaked in a hot tub by Marilyn Manson. He’s also slept with more of the world’s most beautiful women than you can imagine, as chronicled in the his infamous “The Game”, which details how he became one of the world’s greatest pickup artists, an sobriquet that has earned him the ire of the majority of women and the burning jealousy of the majority of men.

He’s shot guns with Ludacris, been kidnapped by Courtney Love and made Lady Gaga cry

I put to him a proposition that many, from Rainer Maria Rilke to Christopher Hitchens to Robert Fisk have all advanced; if you want to be a writer it must not be a question of wanting to write; rather it is that you must write; it has to be the only thing you know you can do. He tells me “Yeah I think that’s very true; I was the kid in second grade who always had his nose in a book. When I was 11, I wrote my first book and earlier than that I made a magazine. In second grade I wrote this essay that said that when I grow up, I want to be a writer and own a million books.”

He goes on to say “I don’t think there’s any lifestyle more exciting than journalism. A rock star or a politician or whatever is stuck in their lifestyle; as a journalist you get to jump into whatever you want; it’s a roulette wheel. When I was writing for the New York Times I’d think ‘what would I like to explore?’ and then I’d get to go to Cuba and Iran and Uzbekistan and hang out with movie stars and religious leaders. You can enjoy whatever lifestyle you want and you don’t have to stay with it.”

His list of interviews surely dwarfs that of any other celebrity journalist. I ask him for his advice on what to do when an interview starts to go wrong. “The bad interviews sometimes make for the best articles; I had an interview with the Julian Casablancas of the Strokes where he just got wasted and kept turning off the tape recorder and tried to kiss me and then just rolled off in a wheelchair. At the time I thought the interview was a disaster, but it makes for a really funny article and it shows you who they are.”
As for a less interesting descent into madness, “African blues singer Ali Farka Toure just answered everything monosyllabically. It’s really funny because it just shows his personality.”

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With this in mind, I ask him about the technique involved with coaxing important or revealing information about of an interviewee, as well as his favourite “gotcha moment,” for which he scolds me. “I never think of it as a gotcha moment – I’m never going in antagonistically. Most important of all, be non-judgemental; I’ve been on both sides of an interview many times, and I can say when people feel judged they shut down and maybe just tell you what you want to hear.”

“When I’m doing an interview, particularly if it’s something big like a Rolling Stone Profile, I’ll read every story ever written on this person and I’ll try to avoid anything they’ve already said. I want to push the public’s knowledge about this person further.”

“When I was 11, I wrote my first book and earlier than that I made a magazine”

He goes on to illustrate this with one of his most poignant anecdotes; “I remember when I first interviewed Christina Aguilera and she just kept looking out of the window of the car and spacing out. I said to myself ‘what kind of people just disconnect like that?’ People who are abused as children do that, because they can’t run away so just go somewhere in their heads.

“At this time she’d never talked about her past, so I asked her if she’d been around abuse and she opened up. She talked about growing up around domestic violence; when I first met her she was just this bubblegum teenage girl into shopping and I thought this would be the worst experience ever; but at the end we really grew close.”

He goes on to relate a similar story about his recent Rolling Stone profile of Skrillex. “When it was the last day after the interview he was saying that people make fun of his hair. The reason he shapes it like that is because he has acne scars. It’s to show that he’s not afraid to show who he is. It was a beautiful, vulnerable moment and that only came out after building that special kind of rapport.”

The conversation then turned to the more salacious part of his journalistic oeuvre – his expose of the world of Seduction community, a group of previous beta males turned wannabe Casanovas that topped the New York Times bestseller list and earned him scores of closet readers. I wish I could tell my readers that I read this book purely out of journalistic interest. One thing that struck me about the book was that its ending plays it out as a moral fable, with Strauss renouncing seduction for a girl he falls truly in love with.

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Life itself tends to dislike simple happy endings and the relationship broke down shortly after the book’s publication. I ask him if he has any regrets about making the book’s moral hook something that turned out to be transient and fleeting: “Not a word, and I’ve never even thought about changing it. I ask you, if a relationship doesn’t last for ever, does that make it a failure?”

Rather put on the spot, I mumble a rather banal truism about how what is important about a relationship is what you learn from it and if it helps you grow. He replies, “I think there’s a funny idea in this culture that if a relationship doesn’t last forever then it’s a failure. What I wrote about Lisa, everything was true. It was a great relationship and it got me out of the dysfunctional Pick Up Artist world and taught me a lot about myself; she was and still is an awesome person.

“I think we have a lot of ideas in our culture like this – that love or a relationship has to be forever to make it worthwhile and I just don’t think that’s true.”

“The Game is a book about male insecurity much more than tactics to have sex with women” 

The Game, unsurprisingly, is often accused of being fervently misogynistic. It recounts a series of ploys and tactics that turn women into sexual objects worthy of conquest rather than value. Pick Up Artists claim that they are merely levelling the playing field for men, who Neil describes as “guys who are virgins at 30, guys who may have never even been on a date or held a girls hand” having lost natures lottery of looks, charm or attractiveness. I put forward Saul Bellow’s quip about the American dream to Neil. These men have ‘the universal eligibility to be noble.’

“I think that’s an interesting thought. It’s funny, because to me whenever someone criticizes ‘the game’, they think the book’s a giant endorsement of this lifestyle when it opens with the ‘world’s greatest pick up artist’ having a complete mental breakdown and preparing to kill himself. To me it’s a book about male insecurity much more than tactics to have sex with women.”

He continued, “I had to go through the dark side, losing authenticity, separating men and women in this odd way. If you take this journey with some self-awareness, I encourage guys to take control of an area of their lives that many men are particularly uncomfortable with and struggle with. There are loads of people who are living life and aren’t comfortable in their own skins. That’s the message I was trying to get across.”