April 5, 2018KR BlogBlogChatsInterviewLiteratureReadingWriting

An Interview With Leslie Jamison

Caroline Hagood: In The Recovering you braid literary criticism, memoir, and cultural criticism in an innovative manner. How do you see these different strands interacting with and enriching one another? What were the challenges of making these at times divergent spheres cohere?

Because of the book’s distinctive format, I see you as working in the tradition of many of my favorite hybrid writers, including Chris Kraus. I remember your calling her a writer just made for “smart women who liked to talk about their feelings” in The New Yorker, which is how I see your work, as well as much of the writing I admire. Do you see yourself as working in a hybrid tradition in this book?

Leslie Jamison: I definitely think of the book as hybrid—and would be honored to live alongside Chris Kraus in any kind of hybrid tradition of smart feeling-talking women—but it’s definitely not hybridity for its own sake. It’s more like hybridity as the most authentic transcription of reality—at least, as I’ve lived it. I don’t experience my own life in a vacuum, so why should it occupy a vacuum on the page? If I’m engaging with the world in a way that is constantly informed by the lives of others, the books I’ve read, the social history of my country—it feels exciting and organic to include these strands of influence as part of any document of my experience, any inquiry into my driving questions. That’s how I think of this book, and most of my work: in terms of inquiry. In this case, my questions were multiple: What drives addiction? What kinds of stories do we tell about addiction in order to understand where it comes from, or transcend it? How do sobriety and recovery catalyze new kinds of creativity? How do we tell stories about getting better? I wanted to invoke all my various strands to reckon with these questions: my own blackout nights, Jean Rhys’s notebook-scrawled inventories, Raymond Carver’s editorial fights about his sober stories, John Berryman’s unfinished rehab book, the rhetoric of a prison-hospital in Kentucky in the 1930s. . . .

CH: You highlight that fear many writers have that they’ll lose their gift, “that shimmering link between drinking and darkness, between drinking and knowing,” when they get sober. You refer to the distinctive topography of your book as “speculative autobiography.” You talk about seeking to locate a map of what creating without alcohol could look like for you. What does that map look like now that you’ve written the book? Has writing the book changed that terrain?

LJ: In a way, of course, the book became the terrain it was trying to map. It became the fulfillment of the desires it was setting out to chart: to create something worthwhile (or hopefully worthwhile!) from the space of recovery. But that doesn’t mean that it’s the end of that creative space, or that zone of creative possibility. Many of the ways in which recovery has inflected my creative life—particularly as it has given me inspiration and a bare minimal amount of confidence in approaching the task of writing about other lives—have continued into the work I’ve done since: reporting stories, often about “ordinary” people, and trusting that core belief that there are compelling and meaningful stories to be told about any life. Another humbling and hopeful part of recovery is learning to admit you have no fucking clue what’s coming next, and in that sense, I want to confess/believe the same about my writing life—it’ll unfold in ways I can’t quite yet imagine.

CH: You write of Googling “just another addiction memoir.” You’re clearly aware that people think they’ve heard the recovery story many times before. Tell me about the pressure to find a new way into this story—especially when you felt the competing drive to tell a story all your recovering readers would recognize because it’s also their own?

LJ: The desire to make this book unconventional in structure—to include all these other stories alongside my own—felt less like a bid for originality and distinction (although I won’t humblebrag too insufferably and pretend it wasn’t, in some sense, also that) and more like a desire to structurally enact the kind of outward attention I found so exciting and liberating about recovery. Put another way: if recovery was all about engaging with other lives, it would have felt strange to write a book about recovery that engaged only with my own. But I also believe that every addiction story is its own beast, even as it’s hitting unoriginal and universal themes—I’ve loved reading so many “straight” recovery memoirs and felt grounded, by that love I felt for those books as a reader, in telling my own story—that that could be valuable on its own. I believe that specificity doesn’t block universality—that in getting deep into the specifics of any story, you illuminate what might resonate about it, rather than blocking people out because the particulars don’t match their own.

CH: In the book you discuss the moment Malcolm Lowry found out Charles R. Jackson’s The Lost Weekend was coming out, while he was still laboring away on Under the Volcano. You mention so many works that deal with addiction in The Recovering. Is there a book you’ve read on addiction that you loved so much you almost wish you’d written it yourself?

LJ: Well, dare I say Infinite Jest. . . .

CH: You share that a certain prisoner on drug charges burned to death while incarcerated the same year you quit drinking. You discuss how the stories we tell about addiction separate your narrative from hers and how you no longer want to live by these laws of separation. What are some steps to breaking down this divide?

LJ: Well, some of the things I talk about in the author’s note: decriminalizing drugs so we don’t have this false divide between booze and other substances, focusing on treatment rather than punitive approaches to addiction, making room for harm reduction alongside abstinence when we talk about recovery. I think policy and storytelling live in a reciprocal relationship, so changing our stories will help change our policies, and changing our policies will shape our stories and our collective public vision/imagination around addiction.

CH: In the book you quote David Foster Wallace’s point that, “All stream of consciousness writing, in order to rise above the terrible fascination with itself, has to find something other than itself to love.” You write about that move from inward-focused to outward-focused creative output. How do we get there? How did you get there? I know you’ve taught writing; do you have any writing exercises that you would recommend to your students to get them to broaden their scope in this way?

LJ: One exercise that I love comes from a series published in a magazine that one of my best friends started. The magazine is called Off Assignment and the series is called “Letter to a Stranger.” The call is simple: think of a stranger you’ve met—anytime, anywhere—who got under your skin, for whatever reason, and stayed there, even if you never encountered that person again. Now write him/her a letter, and see where that letter takes you. It’s a pretty fantastic exercise, and it’s produced such wonderful acts of speculation, attention, and outward gaze. Of course, it’s still largely about the speaker, but there is this sense of curiosity embedded in the exercise, an admission that our lives are made, in part, of all the strangers we’ve met.