Q & A
THE RECOVERING is at once a work of personal narrative, cultural criticism, and reportage. What first sparked the idea for it and how long did the writing, researching, and interviewing take you?
The Recovering began years before I ever wrote a word of it, during long blacked-out nights and early mornings of shame, when my mouth tasted like ash and my heart was pounding as I tried to remember what had happened the night before. It began when I stopped drinking at twenty-seven, and found—in recovery, in folding chairs, in basements—a community where stories were told in very different ways, and for different reasons, than I had ever heard them told before. Those meetings sparked the idea of a book about addiction and recovery that would be larger than my own life—that could work like a meeting, bringing my own story into chorus with the stories of strangers.
Seeking those stories involved years of research: deep dives into archives and immersive interviews, alongside—of course—the tangled and evolving process of reckoning with my own history, a process involves its own strange breed of research: diving into my own G-mail archives, talking through the past with the other people who lived it with me. All told, it took about eight years to turn the manuscript from a bunch of files on my hard drive (the folder was literally called My Big Messy Addiction Book) into the book it became.
How did you find the shape of the book? How did it stop being the Big Messy Addiction Book and come into its own?
Structure was the great joy and the maddening struggle of the book. I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to write a traditional memoir that focused solely on my own life, because I wanted the book to be a manifestation of the way recovery is about connecting to the lives of others, and I wanted that outwardness reflected in the DNA of its structure.
The book ended up with four major narrative strands: my own personal story; the stories of various famous writers who have struggled with addiction; the particular stories of ordinary strangers trying to live their lives in sobriety; and the cultural history of how addiction has been narrated in 20th-century America, thinking about how this history has been shaped by race and class. Each strand declared its own necessity at a different point in the process, which made it feel like the walls kept dropping away to reveal that I was standing in a bigger room—the structure of a larger book—than I had known I was inhabiting. That said (with apologies to my editor and generous early readers who read the early behemoth!) we also ended up cutting more than 100,000 words along the way.
You tell the stories of several famous writers (and some artists) who battled addiction—David Foster Wallace, Jean Rhys, Denis Johnson, Billie Holliday, Raymond Carver, Charles Jackson, Amy Winehouse, and John Berryman, among others. How did you choose which luminaries to include?
I chose all the figures I wrote about for a simple reason: their art was an important part of my own life, in some way. Denis Johnson and John Berryman and Raymond Carver were all writers I fell in love with during the early days of my drinking, in Iowa City, when I would stay at the bars till two in the morning, convinced that THIS is what it meant to be a writer. So it was fascinating to me to realize that each of those writers also had his own (sometimes vexed, but always profound) relationship to recovery.
Other artists came later. One of the writers I feel most honored to include in the book is George Cain, whose autobiographical novel, Blueschild Baby, is a difficult and deeply insightful account of being a black man addicted to heroin in Harlem in the late 1960s. While other writers in the book have been canonized, Cain has been largely forgotten—something that racial politics have everything to do with—and I wanted this book to push back, in whatever small way, against that forgetting. In addition to engaging with Cain’s novel—a story of recovery he wrote while he was still using—I contacted his children and ex-wife for memories so that I could give a fuller account of his life.
THE RECOVERING required a great deal of archival research and extensive reported interviews. Can you talk a bit about that process?
I am a real geek about archives. I love the anticipation of opening a box and not knowing what I’ll find in it, the hushed thrill of reading old letters or paging through papers marked by cigarette burns and coffee stains and knowing that these papers were deep inside the daily activity of a life. My fascination with archives is probably the legal/scholarly version of an impulse that would otherwise translate into opening other peoples’ mail or stealing their diaries. Over the course of working on this book, I visited nine archives, and found that each one deepened my sense of intimacy with my subjects, my appreciation for what they had lived through: Jean Rhys’s liquor store receipts, John Berryman’s 12-step-work, letters from addicts seeking entry into a 1930s prison-hospital that was supposed to offer them a cure.
I also felt changed, and often moved, by the process of conducting interviews—many of them with a group of people who went through a particular rehab center in Maryland during the seventies. The process of gathering their stories was constantly surprising: it took me down dirt roads, on riverboat cruises, up the slopes of Mt. Hood. Part of what I love about reporting is that your subjects are constantly thwarting your predictions with their actuality—with the substance of what they really say—and there’s so much necessary force and truth in that overturning.
Your last book, THE EMPATHY EXAMS, established you as a contemporary master of the hybrid nonfiction form. THE RECOVERING continues in this narrative vein, while simultaneously innovating on the trope of the “recovery memoir.” How do you see your book in relation to these other works about addiction and recovery?
While I was still drinking, I remember sitting on a bookstore carpet and reading Carolyn Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story cover to cover, in the space of a few hours, desperate for its account of an experience I’d never seen articulated so clearly—an experience that I still felt trapped inside of. That’s one of the great gifts of memoir, I think, if it’s written searchingly and rigorously: It can offer a sense of company. I wanted to write a book that joined the tradition of “recovery memoirs” while simultaneously interrogating that tradition: What do we look for from these stories of recovery? How do we ask them to provide an impossible kind of closure? Is addiction always the most compelling part of the book, and recovery always the tedious aftermath? Why do we think the story of falling apart is necessarily more interesting than the story of getting better?
My hope was that I could write a book that would innovate upon the tradition of the recovery memoir in a few ways: by including a whole fugue of stories, rather than just my own, and by making room for the story of recovery to be messier than it is often allowed to be.
You manage to bridge the “literary world” and the “recovery world” in THE RECOVERING. What do you see as the primary connection between the two?
As a writer, I have spent a lot of time in worlds where people, myself included, are passionately committed to telling the best stories, the most beautiful stories, the most original stories. But in recovery, stories aren’t supposed to be original. They are supposed to be interchangeable. They aren’t meant to be beautiful; they are meant to help people get better. With this project, I began to imagine a book that could bridge the literary world and the world of recovery by examining how each of these worlds approaches the act of telling stories: one looks for beauty, the other for salvation. But of course, every binary breaks down once you think about it long enough. We look for salvation in the beauty we consume and create, and hope there is also something beautiful—or at least shapely—about the stories we tell to help ourselves survive.
More than anything, I hope this book speaks not only to people whose lives have been touched by addiction in some way, but really to anyone who has ever felt crippled or overwhelmed by desire. Which is to say: all of us.