Kristi Coulter on Drinking, Laurie Colwin, and Writing with Humor
In Conversation With Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi, I’m Will Schwalbe, and this is But That’s Another Story. My reading this week was interrupted by an emergency trip to the dentist. I can read almost anywhere, and even when I can’t, I can at least listen to audiobooks. But not in the dentist chair, I’m afraid. I certainly can’t read—and with the drill going, I can barely hear myself think. There’s nothing to be done but to lie there and wait for it all to be over. One of the great things about being a reader is that you don’t just look forward to all the books you’ve yet to read—you can also look back on all the ones you’ve read already. And so for some reason, with the sound of the drill overhead, my mind went to the marvelous Nero Wolf mysteries by Rex Stout. Nero Wolf is one of the great detectives in literature and generations of readers have fallen in love with him. One of his great passions is orchids. I cared very little for them before I read Stout’s mysteries, but ended up finding them fascinating, even if I’ve yet to succeed in getting one to bloom myself. While lying in the dentist’s chair, I engaged in my own form of mindful meditation, trying to ignore the whine of the drill and thinking instead of all the orchids I’ve ever seen—in friends’ homes, in botanical gardens, and in the pages of Rex Stout’s wonderful novels. Before I knew it, the dental work was done. Books enrich my life in so many ways, and sometimes I learn about things to love from characters—and authors—who share that love with me. On the way home, I decided I definitely deserved a little treat for me fortitude. So I bought myself a Rex Stout novel I hadn’t read. . . and an orchid too. And recently, I got to talking about the way the simple pleasures of certain authors burrow into our hearts with today’s guest.
Kristi Coulter: I’m Kristi Coulter, and I’m the author of the essay collection Nothing Good Can Come From This.
WS: Kristi Coulter is a Seattle based writer whose work has appeared in The Paris Review, The Awl, The Mississippi Review, and other places too. Her memoir, Nothing Good Can Come From This, was published this summer. In it, she writes about her pre- and post-sober days in equal measure with a trademark wit that set her apart ever since she was a kid.
KC: I was a little bit of a fish out of water. I’d say it was a childhood where I was always looking at the people around me going, I’m not like you. Why am I not like you? How could I be like you? Never figured it out.
KC: I grew up mostly in south Florida, in Boca Raton, Florida, and it was a sleepy little beach town of about 30,000 people—nothing going on. And by the time I was 18, I think there were about 200,000 people, so it exploded.
KC: It was a lot of popped collars, boat shoes, yachts. It got so that my school bus was constantly going in and out of gated communities. Everything was really ostentatious—big gold chains. It was the ‘80s, so the odds of good taste were against us to begin with, but linen blazers, kids getting Mercedes on their 16th birthdays. It was all very glitzy.
WS: For Kristi, whose parents were academics, she always felt like she lived life a little bit on the margins of that glitz. In a town filled with boat shoes, she was a bookworm who just wanted to stay inside.
KC: I read everything. I would have these projects, like when there would be bookathons or readathons, my mother would warn the neighbors, you know, be careful what you pledge, because she’s going to hand you a big bill at the end.
KC: I was obsessed with this one series of books by Elizabeth Enright, about the Melendy family. They were this family of like, World War II kids, and the mother was dead because the mother’s always dead, and they moved to the country with their father. And they were sort of this bohemian family who put on shows and who I think had their own radio show and were finding hidden treasures. And I must’ve read those books ten times. And I still read them every few years as an adult because they’re just absolutely beautifully written.
KC: I got a lot of them from the public library, and the school library. And my mother went into the school library and said, you need to let her take out books for the fourth and fifth graders too. I started reading when I was three, I think, so I was really ploughing my way through.
WS: And soon, books weren’t the only form of entertainment Kristi found herself diving into.
KC: It was the summer of 1986. The movie Pretty in Pink came out, the John Hughes film. And it had this great soundtrack—I think The Smiths were on it, New Order, a lot of the bands that are iconic now. And I just felt like I found something great and I felt like I found something that was a great secret. And it really did open up my world. And I suddenly became cool for the first time in my life. I wasn’t like the kind of geeky, weird chick that no one could figure out on the margins. I was sort of popular in my way. And it kind of set me on this path of just looking for things that were a little bit different, or just not waiting for like culture to be handed to me, kind of going and finding it.
WS: And back in the library one afternoon, when she was a teenager, Kristi came upon a book that would have an outsize impact on her future.
KC: I came across Happy All The Time by Laurie Colwin pretty randomly at my public library. I think I was just browsing the stacks, and for some reason I saw that book and my hand landed, and I picked it up, took it home, and I think she had probably written three or four, or maybe five books at that time, and I think I read them all within a month because I fell in love with Happy All The Time so much.
WS: While Laurie Colwin is best known for her food writing, she also wrote novels. Happy All The Time, her third novel, took a look at two couples and their relationships.
KC: There’s not a ton of plot. It’s very interior. She’s a very Jane Austen-ish writer. The stakes are, you know, low in some ways. No one’s getting sick, no one dies, no one’s poor, no one’s life is falling apart, but they’re all desperately in love. And in some ways, the stakes don’t get higher than that.
KC: Her sentences are perfect. I was writing seriously already at that age, and I think something about the musicality of her sentences, and how low-key and funny she was in a way that was very cerebral just really appealed to me.
KC: I also think she dealt with domesticity and happiness in a very serious way—she took these subjects seriously. And that really appealed to me, and part of it is where I grew up. I was in this very glitzy new place where no buildings was older than 50 years, which would have been extreme. And she would write about this kind of old style New York where people go to Nantucket and wear tweed, and I found all that very glamorous. In south Florida, even Christmas is a little strange if you’re a kid because all the iconography is snow and roasted chestnuts, and you’re going to the water park in December. It’s just a very different life so I kind of fetishized these tropes of what I thought of as real America, which is only above the Mason-Dixon line where it was cold. And so I really fell into that world.
WS: And though the plot was simple, Happy All The Time’s immediate impact on Kristi was not.
KC: I knew it sort of struck a chord in me. I couldn’t have articulated why, but I knew that it just made everything about me sort of wake up. And it’s funny—I’m glad I could recognize that because it’s not at all what you would think of as an important book. And in high school, we were mostly reading men and it was always huge stakes of war books, or books about, are you going to catch that fish and feed your family? Today, we would say, ugh, those are first world problems. What do they have to complain about? And so I’m really glad I was able to sort of get past all these built in prejudices I had and just say, no, I really love these people. I really care about them. What they want matters.
KC: After I read Happy All The Time, I thought about my own writing differently. I realized that writing about “small things” could be really interesting—that I didn’t have to strive to make up stories that I really didn’t have to tell yet. That just a conversation two people had could mean a lot. I realized that being funny was. . . hard, and worth trying for, and that there were different ways to be funny. And she was obsessed with small, homey things like the perfect roast chicken or chocolate cake. And so I started thinking about the things around me differently. When I went to college and was able to start kind of forming my own taste. I would think, oh, this is my perfect coffee mug. This is my mug. And really kind of curating my life. Sometimes I just think, oh, I made this chicken and it’s in this dish, and it looks so pretty and Laurie Colwin would probably approve of this. I’d very much like her to approve of me, wherever she is.
WS: When we come back from the break, Laurie Colwin’s humor and wit continues to influence Kristi—especially as she begins writing her own story.
WS: When Kristi Coulter found Laurie Colwin’s Happy All The Time, it painted the picture of a life she could have—a life full of good food and simple pleasures, far from the glitzy south Florida town where she’d grown up. And as she settled into adult life, Kristi found herself returning to her favorite book as a source of joy—and inspiration—when things got tough.
KC: I was in Paris for work. I had the weekend free. And I was very unhappy and I hated Paris. I had been to Paris a few times and just never had a good time. My job there was kind of depressing. And I woke up that morning—as usual, I had a low grade hangover, and just felt really sad. And I just thought, oh, poor me, I’m in Paris for the weekend, and just felt so sorry for myself. So I thought, is there anything you can do to rescue this day? And what I always do when I’m feeling bad, in my own city or especially a foreign city, is I find a bookstore.
KC: I looked up the Village Books Books, which closed a few years ago, which makes me sad. It’s an incredible bookstore—all English language books. I went down there and I did my bookstore test, which is I always check to see if they have Laurie Colwin’s novels. They can’t just have the food books, they have to have the novels. And they had all of her novels. And I thought, oh, boy—this is great. And I bought Happy All The Time and I spent all day reading it. First, I sat down near the bookstore on a park bench, and then I read some at a cafe, and I think I read some on the metro, and it just absolutely turned my day around. Partly it was being enveloped in that world and starting to see the pretty things around me the way she might’ve seen them. And also I think it was just giving myself permission to do that, like, no, you don’t have to go see the Eiffel Tower. You can just sit here and read this book if you want to—that is fine. And at the end of the day, I got off the metro at the Tuileries because I wanted ice cream, and I walked up the steps and I was in the middle of a carnival, or what they would call a fun fair. And it just felt like a Disney moment. Like, I don’t know if I’ll ever have another moment like that again where it just felt like the perfect thing had happened. And I was so happy, and it smelled like cotton candy, and I just fell in love with Paris at that moment. And now I love Paris. And I credit it to that day. That day really changed things for me.
WS: But there were other more difficult changes looming in Kristi’s life.
KC: I started drinking when I was about 16. Before that, I was kind of a nervous kid who was anxious about there being a keg at a party I went to. And I would hold a beer and not touch it all night. I think it’s also I just don’t like beer. But when I was 16, I was at a pool party and someone gave me a wine cooler and—oh my god, my teeth feel fuzzy just thinking about it. And I drank it, and I suddenly felt much more sociable and like I could talk to boys, and like, oh, this is great! And I think from then on, when I would go to parties, I would drink wine coolers or Strawberry Hill wines, and then eventually, you know, actual alcohol. My dad was a science professor, computer science professor, and he had a lot of students from the Middle East who would give him bottles of liquor from their homelands at Christmas. A lot of it was like, liquorice, anise flavored stuff and they would just put it in the liquor cabinet and no one drank it. And so I would sneak that. But I should’ve known then because I hated the way it tasted. Like, if you’re willing to drink this, something is wrong.
WS: And as an adult, Kristi reached a point where she decided to take action.
KC: Eventually, I was worrying about my drinking all the time, I mean, 24/7, I think it was on my mind. Even when I was drinking or drunk, I was worried about my drinking, which you’re really getting to the point where like, why bother? And there was no big dramatic moment—I didn’t have like, a DUI or lost a job or anything. I was really good at holding it together. But I got so tired of worrying about drinking and it hit me one day, the one thing you could do to stop worrying about drinking is to stop drinking. And I was like, no, no, no, I don’t want to do that. But it was, that was like, it was like the voice of God saying, there is this one thing you haven’t tried. And I thought about that for about another week. And, I had actually googled the phrase “tired of thinking about drinking,” and got to a website called that, and I thought, oh, so it’s not just me. And so that website had a 100 day pledge that you could take, where you would not drink for a hundred days. So, I went there maybe a week after having this revelation, and I took the pledge, and said I wasn’t going to drink for 100 days, and it really was just this moment of realizing if you want to kill this worry, you need to actually stop the thing making you worry. It—I had kept waiting to stop. I kept thinking when my anxiety gets better, I’ll drink less or I’ll quit. When I get less depressed, I’ll drink less or I’ll quit. I was doing it backwards. I quit when I did not want to, and then I got a lot less anxious and depressed within weeks.
WS: Kristi began to write about her sobriety, and it turned into her memoir, Nothing Good Can Come From This.
KC: It’s kind of a prismatic look at different aspects of drinking and sobriety. It really is a series of looks at just moments in my life that were impacted by drinking and then particularly, the moments in my life where sobriety really defined itself for me. I wanted to focus on sobriety because there’s not that much out there in addiction literature about sobriety. A lot of memoirs, including some very, very good ones. Drink, drink, drink, drink, drink, hit bottom in a big way, and then oh, I surrendered my power and got better and everything’s fine now. And I thought, but you’re really just getting started and it gets so much more interesting once you get sober. When you’re drinking the way I was, it’s really boring. It’s really monotonous. Sober life for me is fascinating. You’ve basically given up the one thing you think you need to get by in life and like, what do you do then? I thought, that’s suspenseful, so that’s what I wanted to focus on.
WS: And Laurie Colwin’s signature wit and way of looking at the world had an impact on her writing process.
KC: Her very droll, low key sense of humor has just been a part of my life for so long now, like things will happen that are funny, and I’ll actually find myself thinking it’s like she’s my friend. I’ll find myself thinking, oh, she would think this is funny, or she would just roll her eyes at this or something. And so I had that in mind going in.
KC: I wanted this book to be affectionate about myself. I wanted to show my bad sides, but I didn’t want to rake myself over the coals unnecessarily. And so there was this kind of affectionate humor, and also I knew if I did not go into sobriety willing to laugh at things that I was not going to make it. I was really afraid for years that if I quit, I would have to become some different kind of person who was very earnest, recited affirmations, very, very serious. I just had this image of what it’s like to be sober that wasn’t really accurate. I haven’t seen a whole lot of that. So when I got sober, I thought, I have to keep my reverence, I had to find it funny. I mean, you’re in all of these weird situations suddenly where you’re a total fish out of water, nothing’s right, you have no idea what to do and you just have to find it funny. I guess there’s other ways to live, but for me, it was like, no, I need to do this. And so I also wanted to show other people that it could be funny. That they’re not necessarily looking at a life where you’ve suddenly joined a cult or something. That you’re going to still be you, you’re going to be more you honestly because you’re not altering your nervous system. And that that was okay.
KC: When I was thinking about what book to talk about, at first I did think of things like To The Lighthouse, you know, things that, stylistically or really profoundly changed my view of the world or what it meant to be a woman or something. This one—ultimately I thought, no, this one changed me the most and I think it’s because it’s almost rebellious for a writer, especially a female writer, to write about domestic life or to write about things that are not what we traditionally would consider high stakes. I don’t think she thought of herself this way at the time, but it was something radical about saying, no, this is what I care about. I’m going to claim it and write about this and not try to make myself into a writer I’m not. And it actually influenced the way I wrote my book, which is that I thought, I’m not going to make the story of my drinking more dramatic than it was. And I’m going to make the story of my sobriety very every day. Because that’s exactly what it was like. So I think she gave me the courage to stick with what was actually true for me, whether the world would judge it as being big or meaty enough, or not.
But That’s Another Story is produced by Katie Ferguson, with editing help from Alyssa Martino, Alex Abnos, and Becky Celestina. Thanks to Kristi Coulter and Daphne Durham. If you’d like to learn more about the books we mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on LitHub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at AnotherStory@macmillan.com. We’ll be back with our next episode in two weeks.