February has been an exciting month of exploring nonfiction, specifically memoirs and personal essays for us at Write or Die Tribe. And now, I’m absolutely thrilled to share my interview with New York Times bestselling author, Sarah Hepola.
Sarah Hepola’s essays have appeared in the New York Times magazine, Texas Monthly, Elle, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Guardian, Buzzfeed, Slate, and Salon, where she was a longtime editor. She also contributes short personal essays to NPR’s Fresh Air.
She lives in East Dallas, where she enjoys playing her guitar poorly and listening to melancholy songs about other people’s broken hearts. Her first book, Blackout: Remembering The Things I Drank To Forget (Grand Central), was a New York Times bestseller. She is currently working on a memoir about women’s relationship to their own bodies, particularly around motherhood and sexuality, to be published by The Dial Press/Random House in 2020. You can follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook
This interview was particularly special for me because I read Blackout when it first came out, at a point in my life where I was lost, confused and drinking a lot with people that were bringing me down. I was comforted by the fact that me and Sarah shared some similar mindsets. I think connecting with someone this way, helped me move on from my situation.
I did some research on Sarah and learned a lot about her career, writing personal essays and editing for Salon, and about personal essays in general. As a fiction writer in college, I didn't know I had anything of value to say when it came to writing nonfiction. But I ended up taking some classes in Boston, and now here I am working on my own collection of essays and hosting a memoir/personal essay month here on Write or Die Tribe.
Sarah Hepola speaks of her time writing Blackout, our current drinking culture, the importance of transparency and how memoir can be used as a tool to control trauma.
With so many memoirs out there on addiction and substance abuse, did you have any apprehensions about writing your own? What propelled you to want to tell your story?
Absolutely. When I first started thinking about writing a book, I had coffee with a book editor, a friend of a friend. He said: Listen, there are too many memoirs, and nobody cares about your drinking story. If someone wants to read a drinking story, they’ll read Mary Karr or Augusten Burroughs, writers who have a reputation for personal writing. He was trying to push me toward a more journalistic approach, although at one point, he also suggested I write fiction. I think that guy just had memoir fatigue. Who can blame him?
Writing a book is such a lesson in listening to your own voice. People are full of advice and bad directions. I spent a lot of time figuring out the best way to tell this story, as well as what original ideas I might add. I think when people complain about too many addiction memoirs what they’re really complaining about is too many mediocre addiction memoirs. The material doesn’t get pushed hard enough. The breakthrough for me was structuring the book around blackouts, which wasn’t even my idea. I had given some early pages to a smart woman in the book industry, and she made that suggestion. Nobody had written much about blackouts, and certainly not the neuroscience of blackouts, which was still fairly new at the time. So, while I just said you have to listen to your own voice, you also need to listen to other people, too. I still find this to be one of the most challenging parts of writing: Whose ideas do I let in, whose do I let go? And when do I shut everyone out — and simply write?
As for what propelled me to want to tell my story, that’s a riddle I’ve been trying trying to solve since I was a girl. It’s just who I am. Some part of me seems to have an almost desperate need to reach through the page and make a connection.
Did you write your memoir, “Blackout” with a specific purpose in mind? For example, to speak on addiction or to hopefully change some perceptions about women and alcohol?
I was browsing the addiction section at Barnes & Noble one day, and I picked up this self-help book about women and drinking from the late Nineties. The opening chapter talked about how women hide their drinking, and they have no social rituals around drinking like men do, and I was like: What planet are you living on? About thirteen years had passed since the publication of that book, but culture had shifted dramatically. Bachelorette parties and girls night out and book clubs that were like open bars. Drinking had become threaded into the experience of being a woman, and that gave me an opportunity to speak to a different generation of drinkers, and explore what we might call the shadow side of sexual and social liberation. I think one of the first sentences I ever wrote for Blackout was: I didn’t hide my drinking, I flaunted it.
But the book began with humbler goals. I was just so lonely after I quit drinking, and I was driven by the idea that I might accomplish something in sobriety I’d never when I was sitting on a barstool. As time when on, and I grew happier and healthier, I liked the idea of writing a book that could find someone in that low place and give them comfort. I still have this hope that the people who need that book will find it. Like it will just wash up on their shore one day.
It’s been almost 4 years since Blackout was published and you are still writing a number of essays on the subject for various publications. What are some of your thoughts on the rise in excess drinking or drinking to the point of blacking out “epidemic,” especially around young people?
My biggest concern around oblivion drinking and young people is the ways alcohol and sex intersect. I’m fairly agnostic about how other people drink, but I am absolutely certain that college kids should learn about blackouts: What they are, how to avoid them, the fact that you can’t necessarily tell when someone else is having them. A hookup culture runs on alcohol, but how do you square that with an understanding of consent?
Setting aside for a moment the grave question of when drunk sex becomes rape by intoxication, I also think it’s a lousy idea to get into the habit of drinking in order to have sex, which I see a lot of young people do. First of all, it makes for bad sex. Second of all, it’s a trap. I’ve seen married people stuck in that pattern, and it sucks. I loved college, but the binge drinking I did there set the blueprint for fifteen years of excessive drinking, and it took me a long time to understand that I could be social and sexual without booze.
My suspicion is that Animal House-style ragers are on the wane. Maybe I’m mistaken, but teenagers are drinking less as a whole, marijuana is on the rise, and everything goes out of fashion eventually. I can imagine a girl in the future looking at her mom and saying: You drank till you puked? Why would you DO that? I’m sure something nefarious will sweep in to take the place of college boozing, and then we’ll start writing nostalgic odes to the days when kids got blackout drunk.
What drew you to tell your story through the lens of memoir instead of, say, autobiographical fiction? What is it about this genre this captivates you?
I’m better at memoir than other genres. I don’t know why. I think something happens when I’m writing where it’s almost like I’m trying to reach through the screen. That doesn’t happen when I’m reporting stories. I also find it very satisfying to use the dark material of my past to try to build something meaningful. Recently I was moderating a Q&A with the writer Dani Shapiro (Inheritance, Slow Motion), and I was saying how her books manage to be gripping but also well-modulated, like she’s able to control the trauma. She said, “Well isn’t all memoir an attempt to control trauma?” I thought: Oohh, see, that’s why you’re Dani Shapiro. I definitely think memoir has been a tool I use to shape and manage moments that felt unmanageable at the time.
As far as why I didn’t write a thinly veiled autobiographical novel, well — twenty years ago, I probably would have. But we live in a more transparent age, and people who write like me (personal, using the material of your own life) tend to write memoir. To be crassly commercial, memoirs tend to get a wider audience and more attention, because “it happened to me” is a harder hit than “it may or may not have happened to me.” But also: I just didn’t feel I needed the veil. Maybe if I had a different relationship with my family. Not everyone has parents as supportive and open as mine.
I’ve always been drawn to other people’s stories. I’ll read it any form: Memoir, literary fiction, historical novels, longform journalism. I’m a junkie for that moment when someone tells you the truth about their life.
Can you share with us some of the best advice about writing or getting published that you have received? What is something you personally would like aspiring writers to know as they seek to share their stories?
When I first got the idea for Blackout, I reached out to my friend Anne Lamott, who is very wise about writing, among other things. She said, this is a great idea, but don’t get an agent, don’t jump to the proposal, don’t do all the things that make writers sick and crazy with frustration. Just write your book for a while. Discover what you want to say. And I thought: That’s very good advice — and I didn’t take any of it. I got an agent, I wrote a proposal, and the proposal made me crazy with frustration, and the agent dropped me a few months later, and that’s when I took her advice. I just wrote for a while, and tried to figure out what I wanted to say.
Writing is hard. Writing a book is even harder. Next to quitting drinking, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And what freaks me out is: There are so many times I almost quit. I have emails from before I sold the book, saying, “I think I need to throw in the towel.” And that could have been it! There’s some alternate history where I gave up, and I never would have known the sheer exhilaration of putting that book in the world. It still boggles my mind that I wrote something with my hands that can be held in the hands of someone half-way across the world. I still get emails from readers and it’s one of the great joys of my life.
I’m so excited about your upcoming memoir, about women’s relationship to their own bodies, particularly around motherhood and sexuality. This sounds fascinating and completely in the realm of what I love to read and talk about! Can you tell us any more about this project?
For the last few years, I’ve been circling around the question of how I ended up in my mid-40s single, with no husband and no kids, despite the fact that I always wanted both. Maybe that’s become unfashionable to admit, because we’ve thankfully come to a place where single women and child-free couples don’t feel so much stigma. But I had expected something different for myself, and it was a question I kept rolling around in my head: Did I choose this — or did this happen to me?
The book looks back on that question, and we travel through past relationships with men, but also through lessons and challenges around sex, motherhood, and my own body. The current title is All Those Curves. And only because this is going out other writers, I will add that I fight a daily battle with myself over this material. Just to have patience while it finds shape, to be kind to myself on days when it’s not going so hot (and hot is a rare temperature around here). The voices in my head get ugly — and I have to keep shushing them, and showing up to writer each morning at 6am.
What are you currently reading?
I read multiple books at once. I’m a poly-reader. (Is there a word for that? There should be.) So on my nightstand now you can find Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, because I’ve never read it before, and Stephen King’s Night Shift, because I’m currently writing the chapter in my memoir about middle school and that was a book I loved back then, and then also Christopher Hitchens’ Letters to a Young Contrarian, because I’m trying to figure out how to care less about what other people think of me, and I thought he might have some good advice. Also, I miss the guy. I often disagreed with him, but he had such a roving mind, and wrote some knock-out sentences.
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