David Schmader is a goddamned Seattle treasure. From his one-man shows to his Last Days column at The Stranger to his new job as Creative Director at the Bureau of Fearless Ideas, he has improved life in this city by roughly 1000 percent. I worked with Schmader for eight years at The Stranger and I'm proud to call him a friend, but the truth is that I still nurse a fan's awe of his writing. A Schmader sentence — crisp, fast-moving, and laced with wit — is entertaining in the same way a Wodehouse sentence is entertaining. Last week, Schmader published his first book, Weed: The User’s Guide, and he's about to celebrate with a few Seattle events: a mind-blowing video montage event with Collide-o-Scope at the Egyptian on 4/20, a reading at Town Hall on April 22nd, and a reading at Hugo House on May 1st. We talked about Weed, about weed, and about whether or not it's too soon to make fun of Nancy Reagan.
I really enjoyed the book and I learned a lot from it. Thank you for writing it. Could you talk about how it came to be?
Yes. [Sasquatch Books] approached me and said, “Do you want to write a book about pot for us?” And I said yes. How this happened, why they picked me, I think so much of it has to do with being at The Stranger — I was able to write openly about being a pothead. It started with my plays; there’s a scene in Straight where pot is a character, and it gets me through these support group meetings for ex-gays. I’m nervous enough that if I was at a place where I hadn’t actively gotten high with my publisher and editor, I would be worried they would be waiting to use that against me for some reason, because I would think “oh, they have something on me.” But because I was at a place where they not only encouraged radical truth-telling, but also smoked with me, I was like, “okay, I get to do this.” It just provided an unusually safe environment to do that type of writing. Someone eventually was like, “hey, you’ve written about pot — write this book.”
That leads to another question: were you ever worried about being stereotyped as “the pot writer?” Because pot has always had a stigma to it; obviously this is changing now with legalization, but it used to be that this stuff followed you around for your whole life.
Yeah. My big thing was to be more complete about it. Usually whenever I talked about pot, pot wasn’t what I was talking about. I was talking about doing pot and then doing something else.
I had been approached by other people to write pot books before, and I was like: “it can’t have stoner puns, it can’t have tie-dye.” I totally worshiped him, but I didn’t want a foreword by Tommy Chong. It needs to be like a book about scotch — you know, a grown-up pleasure, for people who might like this thing. Other people ran away when I said that, and Sasquatch was like “this is exactly what we’re thinking.”
I bet you’ve seen some of those cookbooks about cooking with weed. [A friend’s] mom sent her one as a gift, because it’s kind of naughty. That bullshit naughtiness has no place in it anymore. When you get over being gay, you stop pretending it’s naughty.
So you’d be okay being the Dr. Ruth of pot, like if someone offered you a pot etiquette advice column?
I guess. I care about etiquette — how you move in the world. You know, I probably would write an advice column about weed because if I got bored, I could make it about anything else in the world. Although I think I’d be better at tying pot to art. I feel I would be better at writing about pot experiences; I would love to be the go-to person for art pairings.
Do you see yourself as a full-on advocate for pot?
The one thing that I’m proselytizing about is shooting down the War on Drugs bullshit that lots of people — especially people who don’t like pot — still hold onto because they have had no personal reason to challenge those [assumptions]. I think the little girl whose seizures are stopped by CBD is the kind of thing that will make non-pot-smokers care about pot. That’s what any proselytizing I have is about: don’t believe the stuff we were all rigorously told over and over by our government.
There is a moral imperative to creating or to correcting the perception of what this drug is, and just the insidiousness of why the government can still say it has no known medical benefits. The key word there is “known,” because [scientists] haven’t been able to do the research, because [government agencies] have kept it classified as a Schedule 1 drug. You have to be deputized by the DEA to do research.
The reason people argue “we don’t know what it does” is because people aren’t allowed to research it through the channels that would add up to government knowledge. That is where I get lit up on fire: we need to change the scheduling because just colloquially we have so much powerful evidence of what it can do medically.
And how far does your advocacy go?
You should be able to kill yourself with your pleasure. That’s where my radical side goes, because I think all drugs should be legal. Everyone is killing themselves with their pleasure, whether they admit it or not. That’s a great American gift.
One of the things I was worried about with this book was that with the informational mission that it wouldn’t be funny, or that it wouldn’t sound Schmader-y. I was relieved to see that your voice came through. You still have your entertaining sentences throughout and it’s a funny book. Was there a challenge in balancing your voice with the mission?
No. The closest thing to a challenge was I misjudged how long I had to shovel information from at least three different sources and let it stew long enough until I could export a non-sucky original sentence about it. It was like doing a book report on weed. I didn’t go in the world and research history about weed. I read everybody else’s research of weed and was like, “here is the funny sentence version of that.” What I thought I had to offer was that I can distill information into sentences that aren’t terrible, and so I thought that is the only thing that will make this book special.
My thinking is that everybody is dying, so you shouldn’t waste people’s time. If they sit still and look at your book for hours, that’s an incredible gift they’re giving to you. And when smart people tell me that they didn’t suffer when reading it, it’s like, “oh great.” Because it could have been of no interest to people like you.
Well, for me, I started late on pot. I had some very bad experiences when I was younger where I would just shut down when I smoked, and so as a consequence, I didn’t learn all of this stuff that everybody else did. I had a lot of questions that were finally resolved by reading your book, so it was very useful to me.
Nice. I love it.
Yeah, and it was entertaining. I think it did exactly what it was supposed to do for me. I was almost the exact intended audience for it because I’m an adult who was afraid to ask questions about pot because by the time I got around to it, everybody else had seemingly already figured it out. You explained it really well.
Changing the subject: Do you regret making the Nancy Regan joke, or at least the timing of the Nancy Regan joke? I read the book right after she died and then I came across the part where you called her a…
Faulty wig stand?
Yeah. Do you regret that?
Oh, no, wait. I just found the quote. You called her a “diabolical wig stand.”
I think I went “diabolical” because of the AIDS stuff, because really she was more than just a faulty wig stand. No, I’m fine with “diabolical wig stand.” I stand by it forever. It should go on her tombstone. Do you think I should have gone harder?
I know. I did not know she was still alive until she died. She lasted longer than Abe Vigoda?
Yeah, and I bet you because she was an actor she’ll get in the Oscars death reel next year and Vigoda didn’t make the cut this year.
Yeah. Next year. Just wait for it.
Her best work was with ALF.
You’ve already talked a little bit about the research, but there was so much on different fronts. There was the biological stuff and the historical stuff and the legal stuff. You figured out which presidents were most likely to have smoked, which I really respected as a fan of presidential history. Was it really just reading different books?
The big thing with all pot talk is because it hasn’t been overt, there is lore and then if you look a little deeper, there may be an actual fact that you can report. I couldn’t ignore lore. Hopefully in the tone you got a sense of what was lore and then what was provably true. A lot of it was just finding enough examples and then getting to find a close enough thing to a consensus.
If there wasn’t a consensus, I would just offer the various lore. I don’t feel bad about that; if something is kept contraband and bootleg for so long, it’s going to have an amazingly rich lore that you’re going to want. You don’t want to pretend it doesn’t exist.
You recently did a video essay about writing in films as part of the APRIL Festival.
And you’re working at the Bureau of Fearless Ideas, which is a nonprofit youth writing education center. It seems like you are thinking a lot about the process side of writing right now in your career. Am I making that up or is process something that you are thinking a lot about right now?
I have just done a couple of performances, that were all about, like: “why do you believe me?” When I come out on a stage, why do you believe me? I’m fascinated with that. That might be tied to working in a newspaper, where you’re wondering what do people respond to? What do people care about now? How do you tell a story that people care about?
I think you’ve always been interested in process. You changed my whole perception of my own job forever in Short-Term Solution to a Long-Term Problem when you referred to blogging as “good noticing.” You kind of ruined blogging for me for a little while...
If you’re a good noticer, you are good noticer. You’re the best at the sport.
You seem to be continually curious about how all that writing stuff works. For a lot of writers that internalized thinking about process gets paralyzing, but you use it to explore some interesting ideas.
I think it’s tied to the idea of writing what you know and just being honest about stuff and shining a light on things that people don’t shine a light on, whether it’s talking about being a smart person that smokes weed, or what are the doubts that a solo performer has, or why it feels gross to put yourself out there, and asking why do you believe me?
God! I wonder if it’s tied to white guilt. Why does this work? How does this work? What is the currency we are all working on in the storytelling culture? Yeah, interesting.
As much as process is the through-line for things, and maybe this is just because it makes my heart leap, but if I love something enough, I can write about it and other people will love it — like Axl Rose, Showgirls and hopefully, now, weed. I had no idea anyone would see the same thing that I saw when I saw Showgirls. That was just a delight. When your experience is mirrored by other people it’s like, “oh I’m not alone on Earth.”
The place where you work recently blew up. How is that going for you?
Prior to that we had an indoor flood, so we’re awaiting the locusts. First of all, everyone loves a place when it blows up. And everyone is like, “how the fuck can we help?” There are tons of challenges but it’s heartening to see what a well-loved place and what a well-loved neighborhood can bring out in people.
Nobody at the Bureau of Fearless Ideas had a problem with your writing a book on pot?
No. I was like, “hi, this is what I plan to do” and they were like, “okay.” Nothing in my BFI world acknowledges Showgirls or Weed. It’s just something I do afterwards. It’s like that girl who goes to school in a van and is a hooker. We’ve all seen that movie. Walking the Halls, it’s called.