Interviewing Uncle Fester

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Living in Missouri in the 1990s, the local news regularly featured raids of illicit methamphetamine labs. Raids, mind you, not the exploding meth trailers which were far less prevalent than the mass media led you to believe. The news loved to show the filthy conditions post-raid, including frequent mentions or displays of the meth cook's bible: Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture by "Uncle Fester."

So, I searched the web for a way to contact Uncle Fester, surely he was a curious fellow. There were very few leads even in the newsgroups--then primarily message boards for like-minded people to talk shop about everything from Star Trek to illegal chemistry. Decades later, this locale is considered a back alley of the Internet, a wild, unregulated place not safe for law-abiding citizens.
Months after I began casually searching, I got a hit: a post allegedly from Uncle Fester. I responded, asking if it really was the infamous chemist/author. The contact info was actually for one of Fester's neighbors, who informed me that Fester was no longer online, but he'd pass my interview request along to him (perhaps Fester was pretending to be his own neighbor, but I didn't have that thought at the time). The neighbor subsequently explained that Fester was open to doing an interview with me but since he didn't trust phone lines and was not online it would have to proceed via snail mail. Yes, an interview in the form of something akin to a pen-pal exchange. I dispatched a first batch of questions and a few weeks later, I received a large manila envelope with several pages of typewriter-printed responses from Steve Preisler, a.k.a. Uncle Fester.

Blended with the answers to my questions, his letters were filled with the latest details of his child-custody case, novel new clandestine drug manufacturing methods, his travails in dealing with a journalist from George magazine (JFK Jr.'s acclaimed but short-lived publication) who he believed to be working for the Feds (Steve set up traps to test the journalist and claims he fell for them in the course of his spying) and so much more. The typewriter origin added a personal touch that I had not anticipated, something that's much more obvious nowadays--decades after PCs and printers replaced typewriters or hand-written letters. Once, he sent his latest book with a note that if the Feds weren't already tracking our correspondence, they would be now that he sent a package rather than simply a flat envelope. This was all incredibly weird (and outstanding) and I believed it would make a great story. I pitched a heavily edited version of the interview to my publisher friend James Kent, but he wouldn't touch it--even for his psychedelic culture magazine, the subject of methamphetamine (even if only a bit player in the interview) was crossing the line (or maybe the interview sucked?).

In December 1999, George published its expose of Steve Preisler/Uncle Fester, titled “The Most Dangerous Man in America.” Barely a year later, George ceased publication (no connection to the Fester story).

I missed the issue when it hit newsstands, but years later did find a copy at Half Price Books. Reading through my correspondence with Steve, which was taking place before, during and after the journalist for George interviewed him, allows one to remove yet another filter from the presented reality. Through the George piece, I learned what the journalist thought about Steve; through Steve’s letters, I learned what he thought about the journalist.

Steve Preisler is more visible now--everyone knows that he’s Uncle Fester and about his place in the history of clandestine chemistry. He’s since appeared on mainstream television news networks and has been interviewed countless times in print and online. There's even a very strange, experimental documentary about him, "Friction" (2001/2002), during which he references the George piece through an odd spoken-word bit.
The story of my mail-order interview with him, which is only partly told here, is perhaps more interesting than the interview itself. One day, I may publish the full story--the letters and the full context in which it manifested. The immediacy of trying to get it published back in 1999 is no longer there, yet this story doesn’t have an expiration date and I know it will age well.