About Parenting, Faith, and Intoxication
Leslie Jamison and Jamie Quatro in Conversation
A conversation between Leslie Jamison, author of The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, and Jamie Quatro, author of Fire Sermon.
Jamie Quatro: I’m thrilled to have this conversation with you. I should say, I’m thrilled to have an excuse to continue the conversation we started…was it three years ago? Four? We were at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival. The Empathy Exams had just come out and everyone I knew was talking about it. I think we met in the salad line, in the magical self-replenishing Room of Free Food. It was the day after the prize ceremony—I was a finalist for the Art Seindenbaum Award but didn’t win—and you told me you’d been a finalist for that prize, too, for The Gin Closet, and that you didn’t win either. I wanted to hug you for being a not-winner, like me. For going on to greatness and proving that losing was actually the better career move.
We went our separate ways. We wrote new books. You got married to Charles Bock; I sent three of my four children off to college. Now I’m exiting the parenting stage and you’ve just had your first child (after becoming a second mother to Charles’s most adorable daughter Lily.) Want to talk about the intervening years? Has becoming a parent changed the way you approach your work—practically, and/or in a more metaphysical sense?
Leslie Jamison: Ha! I remember that conversation in LA, too. It felt impossibly glamorous to be hanging out in an authors’ green room (read: tent) and I’m sure my paper plate was piled high with as much free food as I could manage: Tiny pastries! Halfway decent grapes! My memory had actually rearranged things so that you won that award, which already goes to show that losing is the better move.
It’s been crazy but also strangely wonderful to have the arrival of my daughter and the release of this book coincide. I’ve spent the last few months in this wintry baby cave—spending all hours of day and night with this tiny creature, learning the exquisite rhythms of her being, her milk breath and shuddering sighs and fluttering eyelids when she dreams about… what? What are her dreams? I am so close to her in these bodily ways, so swollen with love, and yet so much of her is a mystery—and language doesn’t quite summon much of what we are experiencing. That said, I have been so hungry for other peoples’ stories of childbirth and early motherhood, in a way that only deepens my faith in how much narratives matter—which is so much of what this book is about, and so much of what my desire to be a writer is about. Of course, the world is full of narratives about motherhood and writing as antagonistic forces, hell bent on destroying each other—I want so much to believe in all the other ways they can intersect.
“Family life can look perfect and controlled, yet just beneath that placid surface is doubt, darkness, pain, dishonesty, chaos.”
In a daily way, as a parent to my stepdaughter, I have already found myself immersed in the midst of so many pragmatics: dry cleaning pick-up and after school schedules, and do we have the pillowcase ready for Halloween? I can indulge a certain fantasy that writing comes from a place utterly un-cluttered by logistics, which is not the life of parenting. But then I remember that the most intensely beautiful creative objects—honestly, all creative objects—come from the messy, imperfect, cluttered world; that’s inevitable and not necessarily a compromise. It’s harder and richer than you’d imagine in the abstract. So I’m excited to keep watching how parenting and creativity intersect. The fact that you have raised four children really puts me in a state of awe. How does it feel to have them leaving the nest? How do you feel like being a parent has shaped your work?
One of the things I love most about your novel, actually, is the way it narrates parenting and romantic love living alongside each other—in complicated, fascinating ways. You refuse to segregate experience: your main character is a wife and a lover and a mother and a writer and a woman of faith. She is all of this, all at once. I wonder how it’s felt to you, to be a writer and a mother for all these years. How have these fed each other? Or been in conflict? What kinds of relationships–between passion, parenting, creativity—did you want to document in the book?
JQ: About that state of awe—I have to say how lucky I’ve been to have a partner all these years. Scott’s a professor, with lots of flex in his schedule. He was a champion of my creative life long before I started publishing, or even sending work out. There were days he stayed home with our five year old, four year old, two year old, and newborn, while I sat in a coffee shop and stared out a window for six hours. I’d come home and say, I wrote nothing, I wasted all that time, and he would say, No, listen, that was work. The mothers and fathers who have full time jobs and raise their kids and find time to write and publish—I’m in awe of them.
But parenting has been a wellspring, too. Having young children around kept me rooted in reality, in the tactile here-and-now: warmed milk and wet curls and gaudy Sponge Bob stickers plastered all over a kitchen window. When they were all really little I was constantly taking notes. My youngest daughter called honeydew “greenalope” and I wrote it down. Fifteen years later that detail found its way into my work.
As for Fire Sermon: I think the narrative documents what is often a vast chasm between appearance and reality. Family life can look perfect and controlled, yet just beneath that placid surface is doubt, darkness, pain, dishonesty, chaos. There’s a wedding scene early in the novel—from the outside it’s this picture-perfect day, but as the narrator moves back and forward in time, and into the heads of various people at the wedding, you begin to see the fissures and cracks.
The Recovering, too, explores the notion of perception versus reality. I so admire your ruthless yet always compassionate documentation of the ways you initially tried to hide your addiction to alcohol. You narrate your own story in the context of other alcoholic writers, and alongside cultural and political narratives/mythologies about the relationship between drinking and genius. The opening chapter, “Wonder,” addresses the ways we’ve mythologized the Great Drunk Male Writers, specifically the ones at Iowa, where you got your MFA: Raymond Carver, John Cheever, John Berryman, Denis Johnson. You go on to point out that women artists who were also alcoholics—Billie Holliday, Jean Rhys—were often characterized as troubled, abandoners of families, even criminal. (You discuss the patient/criminal divide in the context of race as well, which I also want to discuss.)
But there’s this notion that there’s a direct relation between hard drinking and genius: the bigger the alcoholic, the bigger the genius. And the attendant fear: if I get sober, will I still be able to write? Will the gift disappear with the drug? Is the alcohol the source of my genius? I wonder if you started researching these writers for your dissertation as a way to answer that question for yourself? Do you think we’re still mythologizing addiction in the context of artists? And why do you think the narratives surrounding male and female artists have been so polarized?
LJ: First of all, I love that Scott affirmed your hours of staring out the window in coffee shops—it’s so necessary to see the creative process as a long, windy, often foggy road, where you can’t always see how the present moment of frustration is becoming part of the larger project, even if it often is. There’s a kind of inscrutable compost heap that’s always at work in our lives: the Spongebob stickers and the wet curls, the lost and recovered cats, the daylight savings lethargy and the turgid sentences. It’s all part of the deal. I’m glad Scott told you that. I often need to hear it, myself—or find a way to believe it, when it’s raining outside and I’m running late to pick up my stepdaughter and wishing the sentences on my computer screen looked better than they do. I’ll stay alive for greenalopes lurking amidst the ordinary days; you help me believe in them.
In a way, all this talk about the fruitful, demanding, vexed, generative relationship between domesticity and creativity is also a conversation about the flip-side of the tortured artist mythology—the idea that art necessarily or organically comes from suffering and dysfunction, that survival and sustenance and caregiving and recuperation aren’t also deeply wild, in their ways, aren’t also where the truth of being alive dwells. That was really part of the gauntlet I threw down for myself in The Recovering: Can I tell a story where the part about getting better—being well, trying to care for myself and others—is as electric as the part about falling apart?
And yes, I really started to notice the ways that male and female addiction often get narrated differently: Raymond Carver’s drunken escapades make him look like an appealing rogue, but drunken Jean Rhys just looks like a selfish narcissist who couldn’t even take care of her own children. And the asymmetrical standards around race and addiction are the some of the deep sources of institutionalized injustice in our time: who gets to be a victim; who gets turned into a villain.
I wonder how you thought about gender double-standards when you were writing Fire Sermon. The novel, as you articulated so beautifully, X-rays a family that has a perfect surface and so much doubt and chaos underneath—but I love that you don’t offer a simplistic narrative of inversion: It looks like love, but it’s actually dishonesty and pain. You insist on something truer and more complicated: It IS love, but it’s also dishonesty and pain. Much of your book examines infidelity, and I wonder how you thought about the gendered standards we project onto that kind of betrayal: Is it different for a woman to have an affair than a man? For a mother to have an affair? Why and how? How were you exploring templates of womanhood? Was there something about infidelity that was a useful narrative tool in terms of that exploration—that sharpened questions of domestic expectation into sharpened relief?
JQ: I didn’t think about gendered approaches to infidelity as I was drafting. Male adultery versus female adultery—the divide didn’t occur to me. To a certain degree, I think I’ve always understood male and female as surface constructs, and have tried to write from, and to, what’s beneath: the ineffably human. Of course a wife and mother could want to sleep with a man who isn’t her husband; of course a husband and father could want to sleep with a woman who isn’t his wife.
It wasn’t until I was on book tour that I encountered the double standard related to gender and the portrayal of illicit sexuality. I was invited to speak at an all-men’s book club, and the only thing they wanted to talk about was what my husband thought about the affair stories. A woman I know in my community told me that after she read my book she didn’t want her husband to be around me anymore. She didn’t want him to read it because she was afraid he’d look at me differently. I don’t want my husband to know you have that kind of imagination, she said. I can’t tell you how many times someone asked, after a reading, “How does your husband feel about what you write?” The implication: women don’t think like that, or shouldn’t. I’d written something shocking, something I should be ashamed of. And this was fiction! I couldn’t imagine a male writer being asked, after a reading—fiction or nonfiction—“How does your wife feel about your work?”
I realized there might still be a hangover from the past, especially down here in the South: men think and write about sex. Women don’t. The whole men-watch-porn-women-don’t myth. It’s a lot like your male drunks getting cast as tortured geniuses and your women writers cast as losers and criminals. Like Rhys’s character Sasha, as you beautifully point out: “Sasha’s pieces can’t sit up and write. When she gets expressive, her expression is shameful, something others ask her to hide: the embarrassment of drunken tears, not the brilliance of song.”
“I wanted to tell the story of how our country has gotten such a fucked-up relationship to addiction; why we’ve locked so many addicts away; why we’ve deployed addiction as rhetoric in massive acts of racial injustice.”
It’s maddening, the way we weave these polarizing narratives and counter-narratives—to make allowances on the one hand, to guilt and shame on the other. You open your “Blame” chapter with a similar observation: “America has never been able to decide whether addicts are victims or criminals, whether addiction is an illness or a crime… White addicts get their suffering witnessed. Addicts of color get punished.” You go on to admit your position of privilege in this system: “I am precisely the kind of nice upper-middle-class white girl whose relationship to substances has been treated as benign or pitiable—a cause for concern or a shrug rather than punishment.” Do you think this is a uniquely American tendency, to eradicate gray-area individuality and cast everything in terms of black and white, good and evil, male and female, rich and poor? Is the tide even slightly turning? How can we, as a country, begin to change these polarizing narratives that, as you brilliantly argue, Harry Anslinger launched in the 1930s with his “language of contagion,” his drug-scare narratives and moral crusade against the “psychopathic” addicts?
LJ: At first, when I started writing about addiction, I wasn’t thinking much about the social narratives we construct around it: the ways that we think of male and female addicts differently, as you note, or tell very different stories about white addicts and addicts of color. I was thinking mainly about the internal experience of addiction, which binds together people from all different walks of life—in its tyranny and its claustrophobia, its debilitating constancy. I wanted to find a way to write that experience, and write what the way out of it might look like—has looked like, for me and for others. But a few years into the project I realized it was going to be impossible for me to write about addiction without writing about the ways we tell stories about addiction—not only because recovery is so much about storytelling, but also because addiction is simultaneously an “internal” experience and a set of shared social understandings about what that experience is. I didn’t want to deny the ways that race and class and gender inflect how very similar cravings might manifest themselves differently, or be understood differently. I wanted to tell the story of how our country has gotten such a fucked-up relationship to addiction; why we’ve locked so many addicts away; why we’ve deployed addiction as rhetoric in massive acts of racial injustice. Anslinger was like an evil matchmaker, introducing America to one of its favorite enduring scapegoats: the addict.
I’ve always wondered about this assumption that fiction expresses reality, and the bald willingness to vocalize that assumption. It totally shocks me that someone would say she wouldn’t want you around her husband after reading your fiction, but it probably shouldn’t. People are so frightened of their own inner reaches, frightened of imagination, frightened of desire. (I am frightened of these things too, but it’s part of why I lean into them by writing.) At one of the first literary festival panels I ever did, after my novel came out, the first question I got asked (by the moderator!) was: “So, did you really have an eating disorder?” It’s not that I don’t understand the curiosity: What’s the relationship between experience and fictional narrative? How does an author’s life relate to what she writes? It’s more that I don’t understand the assumption that it’s probably a one-to-one correspondence: you write what you lived. I mean, I hate assumption in general, but aren’t there so many other possible relationships one could imagine between life and work: you write what you haven’t lived, what repulses you, what obsesses you; the choice you didn’t make, the mystery you never solved?
That’s one of the things I found most powerful about Fire Sermon: its willingness to recognize the ways our lives are always haunted by the specter of all our other unlived lives, and its ability to dramatize the condition of living between two possible lives. Also: its insistence that emotions often point in multiple directions simultaneously, and its exploration of the ways in which sexual connection is often intricately connected to other forms of connection: intellectual, spiritual, emotional. There’s also a willingness to see a relationship as multiple things at once: corrosive, hurtful, destructive—also beautiful, passionate, singular. The affair at the center of the book obeys few of our typical infidelity scripts. I’m curious how this relationship evolved in your imagination: Did you want to subvert certain ideas about what infidelity looks like? How did these two characters come into focus for you? Their dynamic? How did their relationship evolve across the course of various drafts?
JQ: Yeah, those one-to-one correspondence questions related to fiction—did you have an eating disorder—are so frustrating. I love Ann Patchett’s rejoinder: “None of it happened and all of it is true.” Yes. In Fire Sermon I wasn’t interested in writing what I knew; I wanted to explore precisely the things I didn’t know.
For years I’ve thought about something David Gates said to me when I was in his fiction workshop at Bennington: that I needed to let my characters do, on the page, things I would never do in real life. Let them mess up in consequential ways, push them into painful or horrific situations they might not be able to get out of, or fix. I struggled to do it back then. In my first book there was a linked series of stories about a non-physical, emotional affair between a married man and woman. While there was something erotic about keeping them in that place of almost, I knew David was right, I was going to have to push further.
Then I went to the MacDowell Colony, supposedly to finish drafting the manuscript of the novel I’d sold to my publisher, but all I did for two weeks was cheat on the contracted novel. I was intimidated by its scope and subject matter—sex trafficking and end-times outsider art—so I kept sneaking off to write about an illicit love affair. A physical one this time. I think the imagined secrecy gave me the license to let my characters go for it. Around the bases to home plate and on into the dugout and locker room.
When the intersection between illicit sex and religion reared its head again, I realized that it, too, was a topic I was going to have to plumb in all of its terrifying depths. Terrifying, in part, because of the current socio-political moment. It’s a bizarre time to be writing about anything related to religious thought, with so many “Christians” supporting the administration of an insane racist misogynist. The far-right has hijacked the language, eradicated all the nuance… really, they’ve all but irreparably damaged what is beautiful and historically compelling about the Judeo-Christian faith. Even simple words like “prayer” have been sullied by the “our prayers are with the victims and their families” posts after yet another mass shooting. “Prayers” from officials who cow to the NRA and won’t enact gun control legislation.
While the tendency might be to avoid literature that still engages with faith, I believe the current moment is a crucial one in literary history for artists of faith who don’t identify with the far-right, who recognize complexity and doubt as the marks of spiritual viability. We must become voices crying in the wilderness of contemporary American evangelicalism (though I hate to use that lovely 1530s word in its tainted context): but that isn’t Christianity. That is a perversion of it. Now more than ever, artists across mediums must commit to forging a new language for the ineffable. How do I tell this story without employing the very words that have been used to pervert it?
This deeply unifying act—sharing stories, recognizing one another and ourselves inside them—is the crux of your book, and of the AA model of recovery. I love how you acknowledge both the homogeneity of recovery story and its stark originality: “It wasn’t new, our talk. It was just new for us.” The language of faith—“God,” “prayer,” “Higher Power”—is central to AA. Did you struggle with writing about your relationship to spirituality, in The Recovering? With trying to wrest meaning out of, or into, the worn-out words? How did your ways of writing about the spiritual elements of recovery (including your submission to a Higher Power) evolve across drafts?
LJ: Aaah!! I am once again exploding from resonance. (Which of course I write about in my book, too: the siren call of resonance, how fervently we seek it, or even construct it, and how good it makes us feel.) Anyway, that advice from David Gates makes me remember something that my most important teacher, Charles D’Ambrosio, once told us in a fiction workshop: Abandon your citizen self. I loved that—the idea that your characters couldn’t be constrained by the same decorum, the same recalcitrance, the same propriety.
There’s something incredibly generative about feeling that you are letting your characters do what you would never do. And something incredibly generative about breaking your own rules—or your own expectations—for yourself as a writer. What you say about working on the book as a secret side project actually chimes so powerfully with the trajectory of how I came to write essays. After my first novel came out, I was working for years on a second novel about the Sandinista Revolution. I wanted to write something Big and Important (much more Big and Important than my solipsistic first novel about women and their feelings) and this felt like my ticket into significance, social consciousness, you name it. But it had no pulse, and I started writing essays on the side—feeling liberated by the fact that they weren’t really for anything, and weren’t really the genre I was supposed to be good at, anyway—and I started calling them my mistress project. I think it’s so necessary to feel that you’ve somehow surprised yourself, to work in the secret dark spaces, sometimes, rather than out in the bright open spaces of the map.
I’m so glad we’ve come around to land on faith—which, as you write about so beautifully, isn’t a stable landing pad so much as a wondrous planet. Ever-shifting terrain. It’s something you treat so beautifully in Fire Sermon—as an intimate radio channel of communion and connection between your lovers, as an experience electrified by doubt rather than undermined by it, perhaps like marriage itself. I completely agree that American religiosity has been unfairly co-opted by the far right. (Have we talked about the fact that my mother is a 73-year-old Episcopal deacon who gets arrested at union protests wearing her clerical collar?) I really struggled to write about faith in my book, because—as you know well, and so many have discovered before us—there’s an ineffable quality to spirituality that makes it so difficult to capture with language, so difficult to crystallize. But in the book, I try to describe the ways that spirituality in recovery felt liberating to me because it allowed for belief in a vision of the divine without rigid contours. Ultimately it really felt more like believing in something—anything—that wasn’t me, that was beyond my full grasp. Faith also came to believe in doing things I could not understand, in trusting that authenticity wasn’t always about feeling something and then acting on that feeling; that it could involve acting toward feeling a different way—trusting that there might be something on the other side of intention that felt less willed, more sublime. So much of that trust-fall shows up in other parts of life, of course: Showing up for another day of marriage. Showing up for another day of writing. Showing up for another day of parenting. Feeling frustrated, cloistered, doubtful, but believing in the other side of all those feelings. Believing in another horizon, beyond what you can see.