Exclusive Interview with Jennifer Sugar & Jill Nelson: Authors of John Holmes, A Life Measured in Inches

Jennifer Sugar and Jill Nelson have written a new book on John Holmes. It’s called John Holmes, a Life Measured in Inches and it’s a very compelling read. It is a comprehensive look at the life, career, downfall and eventual death of the biggest legend the adult industry has ever seen. I got to meet the authors of the book in Vegas at the AEE and they agreed to a an interview about their project. It is short and sweet, but I hope you find it interesting.

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What are your backgrounds?

Jennifer Sugar: I am a graduate from Michigan State University with a background in math and biology. Besides my background in research, I didn’t have any specific qualifications when I began writing the book.

Jill Nelson: I am a 51 year old married mother of two and a Hearing Instrument Specialist by profession. I have always enjoyed writing as a hobby, but never attempted to have anything published prior to working on this book.

What led you to do a book on the adult industry? / Why John Holmes as the central figure?

Jennifer Sugar: I had no affiliation with the adult industry and I didn’t know enough about it to have an opinion, one way or the other. At that point, I had only seen a couple of porn movies, but none of Holmes’.

Of course, at 21 years old, I understood the intimation on the radio, “Our sets are longer than John Holmes,” and I was naturally curious. One random day in October of 2003, I skipped class to see a movie. I guess it was fate, because Wonderland was the next thing playing, and I was instantly interested in seeing it when I heard it involved John Holmes = — sex, drugs and an unsolved multiple murder. Ironically, after I saw it, I remember saying to my husband, “I will never see a John Holmes movie!”

Over the course of the next few days, I became more curious about the murders, but also about John’s entire life, being that he was a country boy from Ohio and I’m from Michigan. I watched my first two Holmes movies that weekend, California Gigolo and The Adventures of Dickman & Throbbin, I watched all of the documentaries and I read everything I could find, but was disappointed that there wasn’t a biography dedicated solely to exploring John Holmes with the depth that I felt the subject required. It seemed unreal to me, so I decided to begin a comprehensive and definitive biography in 2004. That was the conception of Inches.

Jill Nelson: I became interested in John Holmes as a person after having rented the Hollywood film, Wonderland, in 2005. Afterwards, when I started to do my own research on John, I met Jennifer on a message board for the film Wonderland. Privately, she informed me that she had commenced to write the first and definitive book about Holmes and about a year later, when she became bogged down with school work and realized the sheer magnitude of the project, she invited me to become her collaborator.

John struck me as a mult-dimensional person, rather than the simpleton many people assumed that he was. Although not academically smart, John was a bright and enigmatic individual throughout his life and career. When Jennifer informed me that she had decided to write John’s biography, I was impressed that it was her mandate to present a fair and unbiased look at his life. Holmes is a seminal figure who is an influential and important forefather of the X-rated adult entertainment industry, so it was challenging but also exciting to work through the process together in order to produce this very complete look at John’s life. Part of my interest in the subject was due to the fact that I had no prior knowledge of the adult entertainment industry.

The book includes comprehensive interviews. How much did you do and how did you put the material together?

Jennifer Sugar: Between Jill and myself, we talked with a total of 35 people who knew or worked with John Holmes, and this includes several extensive interviews, which resulted in plenty of new material for the book. I began putting material together after doing the first couple of rounds of interviews (because of being a full-time college student and working to pay the bills, I was limited to working on the book during summers until the final year, when I took a year off after graduation). In the beginning, I experimented with several styles, but it was clear that the oral history format with some narrative was the best way because John’s story is so complex. Throughout the process of writing, Jill and I endlessly reworked chapters because it was important, with the idea of creating something definitive, to remain as unbiased as possible.

Jill Nelson: Several of the people Jennifer and I interviewed for the biography had not gone on record before to speak in depth about John. People such as John’s girlfriend and Exhausted director, Julia St. Vincent, Marilyn Chambers, Jamie Gillis, Seka, former L.A.P.D. homicide detectives, Tom Lange and Frank Tomlinson, and others, opened up to us about their interpersonal relationships, friendships and experiences with John. Because Jennifer and I reside in different countries, we sent our interview transcriptions, chapters, film/loops reviews and the filmography, back and forth via e-mail, once we had decided upon a format that worked.

How willing were people to talk about the various aspects of John’s life, career and issues?

Jennifer Sugar: Most people who had worked with John were very willing to share their experiences, although many of them were cautious at first and asked questions about our motives and how we planned on portraying John. It was important to us to be unbiased toward John, and also, not to take sides — to be fair to the everyone who was quoted in the book.

Jill Nelson: People were open and forthcoming in talking about the various aspects of John’s life, career and issues. For some, their memories are bittersweet, but overall, they have been very supportive and are pleased with the finished product.

What was the most surprising thing you learned?

Jennifer Sugar: I think the most surprising thing was the many facets of John’s character. I suspected that there had to be more to him than what had been shown before, but we showed everything — the good, the bad, and the sometimes very ugly, but the result is that John was simply a human being, just like you and I, and we felt that was the central theme.

Jill Nelson: It was surprising to learn that John was an artistic person who indulged his creative side whenever he had an opportunity. He enjoyed woodworking, gardening, building, refinishing furniture, sketching, writing and sculpting. It was interesting to have an opportunity to flesh out these aspects of John’s character since those elements had not really been focused upon in past projects about him. He definitely was a multi-tiered and flawed individual.

After all these years, why do you think the world is still fascinated by John Holmes?

Jennifer Sugar: I think the world will always be fascinated by John because of his massive size and the fact that he was the first world famous porn star, back when porn in America was new and illegal to make and sell. John was and always will be a figure of American pop culture from that alone, plus his name has been cemented in infamy, because of his association in the 1981 drug-related murders in Laurel Canyon and his 1988 death from AIDS. It’s an unflinching look at a real person that will make you laugh and cry.

Jill Nelson: John was the very first adult film superstar and the first can never be replaced or replicated, which is why he is known to this day by his contemporaries as The King. At a time when it was illegal to produce and perform in hardcore films, John was a pioneer in his chosen field. I believe that our book reveals John as the complicated and conflicted person that he was, and because of the many contradictions that typify his life, John’s story makes for a fascinating read. His is truly a tragic tale.

What do you think Holmes legacy is?

Jennifer Sugar: Like any other film star, John immortalized himself. His death from AIDS raised awareness of sexual health practices in the adult film industry, and John’s is probably the best anti-drug story around.

Jill Nelson: To add to what Jennifer has said, I think John’s legacy is also that he is porn’s anti-hero in the minds of many who remember the Golden Age. Before the days of Viagra and augmentation, John had a screen presence that was natural, non-threatening, but also commanding. Men could identify with his average looks and because of his unique size, women found him to be desirable.

Do you have any other plans for books on the industry?

Jennifer Sugar: I would never say never, but it’s not my plan. I would like to write more non-fiction, but my goal isn’t to become an adult industry historian.

Jill Nelson: If I were to write another book about the industry, it would be about the women of the Golden Age. I am interested in their stories and I believe that they are worthy of being told. At the same time, it would be fun to explore other topics.

If you could ask John one question and be assured of a 100% honest answer what would you ask?

Jennifer Sugar: Because my initial interest in John’s life story stemmed from my interest in the unsolved murders, I would want to ask him to tell me what happened from beginning to end. I’m not sure that I would ask that, though, because I believe that John already said what he wanted to about that topic in the tapes he made prior to his death. We printed his side of the story in the book, and it all fits surprisingly well with what the police believe happened. I’d probably ask him to explain how he became involved in the adult industry, since there is a lot of conjecture about that, and it appears that he first started as a nude model almost immediately after moving to California and meeting his first wife.

Jill Nelson: In his audiotapes, John joked when talking about writing his autobiography that he would like to dedicate his book “to the only woman I ever loved” and then leave people guessing as to who he had intimated. Jennifer and I were able to include some of John’s primary relationships in the book, but it would be interesting to find out who he had truly loved. I would also like to ask John to list his five favourite leading ladies of his 20 year film career. Because he was a person who often did things contrary to what one might expect, I suspect that his answer would be quite different than what most people would predict.

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