While Rosie Schaap is best known for writing the “Drink” column for the New York Times Magazine, her memoir Drinking with Men was in the works for several years before she began writing the column.
And in my mind—though I adore her witty and informative column—I was always waiting for the memoir. I had heard bits and pieces of her past on This American Life, and also Rosie is a notoriously great storyteller in person. So I was interested to see what would happen when she mined her personal truth at length.
Now I’ve read the book; now I’ve had time to think about it. What is my understanding of her personal truth? I can only understand a small slice of it—269 pages is a fraction of reality—but it seems to have something to do with joy and spirituality and devastation and redemption and wisdom and poetry. Also: the hunger for knowledge, the quest for community, and the capacity for love. Great loves and small loves alike. It is good to be able to love. I felt it flowing through the pages of this book. Don’t be mistaken that this book is about booze. It is about much, much more.
Over email, Rosie answered a few questions about her love of poetry, her intriguing family members, and what she would do with her life if she weren’t a writer.
The Rumpus: Does having a poetry background impact your prose writing? Is there any sort of crossover inspiration?
Rosie Schaap: Poetry influences me in countless ways: in how I write, how I make decisions, how I reckon with my misgivings and mistakes, how I treat people. I read at least a poem a day; without that to anchor me, I’m pretty sure I’d completely unravel. Although I seldom write poems anymore, poetry does affect my prose writing—whether as a source of inspiration or a point of reference (Frost and Brecht have turned up in my “Drink” columns for the New York Times Magazine; Yeats and Blake, among others, are big presences in Drinking With Men), or as a kind of reminder to be careful with metaphors, to think them through, to make sure that they do what I need them to do.
Rumpus: Now I’ll do that awful thing where I ask if you have a top-five poet list. Or do you have any go-to poets? What poets are you greatest triggers?
Schaap: A top-five list. So hard! I share your devotion to Grace Paley—as a fiction writer, as a poet, and as a human. Blake, Dickinson, and Wordsworth are always with me. See? That’s already four. So I’ll pick one among the living: the great Northern Irish poet Ciaran Carson (who is also a brilliant prose writer); it makes me a little crazy that, although he has many fans, he’s not massively famous, especially on this side of the Atlantic. I often turned to a nonfiction book of Ciaran Carson’s, Last Night’s Fun, when I was really struggling with writing Drinking With Men. To me, it’s everything great nonfiction should be: smart, funny, surprising, insightful—just a joy to read from beginning to end. Its primary subject is traditional Irish music, but so much else comes into it: family, food, sports, history.
Rumpus: You are a woman with no shortage of opinions. I know that you have very specific likes and dislikes in writing. What turns you on in writing? What infuriates you?
Schaap: I think what I always want most of all is the sense that the reader matters to the writer. That a story, true or not, is being told not only for the sake of the telling, but because it might matter to anyone generous enough to take the time to read it. And I don’t mean it has to matter in some big, life-changing way (though sometimes literature has had that effect on me). I guess I’m annoyed by writers who seem only to look inward, and never out at the world around them. There’s a kind of willful obfuscation or opacity I sometimes detect in contemporary poetry that turns me off. All writers need to be introspective. I think that’s obvious. But I think we also need to signal to our readers that they’re part of this, too.
Rumpus: While some may get the impression from the title that this book is about drinking, I think more than anything else this book is about the importance of the sense of community. (I thought so often of the concept of a third place while I was reading this book.) You are a native New Yorker, and New York City gets a tough rap sometimes for being a mean, tough place. But I saw a lot of love.
Schaap: Community is absolutely at the heart of Drinking With Men, much more than drinking (although there’s plenty of that). You’re right about the “third place” idea. Bars have always been crucial to me as places that aren’t home, and aren’t work. Bars are pressure valves. And most of all, bars are people. And the people I’ve met—my community—at bars here in New York have been as warm and open as people I’ve met in bars anywhere else. This image of New York as a mean, tough place drives me a little nuts. But as much as I love my hometown, and cheerlead for it whenever given the chance, I frequently remind myself that, as a native, the perspective I’ll never have on this town is that of someone coming here for the first time, and making a life here. I will never know what that feels like, even thought most of closest friends have had that experience.
But listen, I am from here, and I’m not so tough and mean. I love giving people directions (I get stopped in the street for them all the time) and restaurant and bar recommendations, and other NYC-related advice, whether they ask for it or not. You know me. I talk to everybody. All the time.
Rumpus: You come from a family of many magnificent Schaaps. Your father, Dick, was a famous sportswriter and wrote many books; your brother Jeremy is an ESPN anchor and also a sportswriter and author; and, of course, there is your cousin Phil Schaap, the jazz historian and DJ, who inspires so much obsession from music fans. Was there always a sense of this is what you are going to become, that you would be a writer someday? And although those other Schaaps are, for the most part, very different in terms of what they write about, did they still inspire you? Do you see any commonalities between your work?
Schaap: Ha! You are too kind, Jami. “Magnificent” is a very charitable way of putting it. My parents split up when I was very young, and I was raised by my mother (who was pretty magnificent in her own way). But I vividly remember watching my father write. What he modeled, inadvertently, just out of necessity, was that writing is a job. He was very, very good at his job. But what I saw was someone putting in marathon stretches at an IBM Selectric II. He didn’t seem to give himself much time to plot, reflect, outline, fret, ponder, pace, despair (though I suspect he must have done all of these things when I wasn’t looking). What I saw was: he wrote. Like a man possessed. (He was married three times and had six children, and in a brilliant, and comically cynical moment, he once told me that “alimony is the greatest muse.”) But I know how much he valued good writing, so I don’t want to say he stripped all of the romance or excitement from the work of writing; he just made it clear that without putting in the work, there could be no romance attached to it. In the sports world, my brother has followed in his footsteps, and has done so beautifully, and very much in his own fashion. I could not admire my brother, or his work, more.
And then there’s Phil. Amazing Phil. I hadn’t seen Phil very much in my youth. What really brought us together was a ride we shared back to New York after another cousin’s wedding in Maryland in the mid-1990s. He took up much of the five-and-a-half hours telling us the heartbreaking story of the genius cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. By the time we arrived in front of Puffy’s Tavern, well before last call, I had tears in my eyes. I was deeply moved by Phil’s telling of the sad tale. I was also so happy to be reunited with my wonderful cousin in this way, and we’ve stayed close ever since. He’s a gift to all people who love jazz—and to me.
I guess we all share an obsessive strain. For my dad, it wasn’t just sports—it was people. He found people endlessly fascinating, and so often brought out the best in them. I hope I share some of this. My brother knows as much about history and culture as he does about sports. I’d just as soon talk about poetry or music or social justice as I would about drinks. The things we’re into, we are really into. And we are all talkers. Epic, unstoppable, kind of superhuman talkers. Just try to shut us up. But I’ve also known that I’m inherently lazier, less focused, and less driven than these other Schaaps. (And since our name is Dutch for “sheep,” it was kind of irresistible to consider myself the black sheep). I always wrote, but in terms of really thinking of writing as a career, I was a late bloomer; it didn’t click until my late thirties. I wasn’t terribly ambitious. And I didn’t have the ideas or the resolve or the will to commit myself fully to writing until adulthood, after I’d given many other, varied professional paths a chance.
Rumpus: We have discussed before our different feelings about writing. I enjoy the act of writing and am very happy in the moment, whereas my impression is that you enjoy more having written. What is important to you about writing (or being a writer) if it is not the act of writing itself? And what do you enjoy more than having written? You have had so many careers in your life—if you could swap writing as a career for anything, what would it be? I like to picture you just officiating weddings for the rest of your life.
Schaap: I wouldn’t say I enjoy the idea of having written any more than I enjoy the act of writing, but I always do enjoy reaching the finish line (whether it’s with a book, a column, an essay, or a poem). I love the act of writing during those rare stretches when I know it’s going well, when my brain and my heart both feel fully, richly engaged. I wish it felt like that all the time, but for me anyway, it doesn’t. There’s so often a slow-burning, burdensome sense of wanting what I write to be so much better. And that’s frustrating, but it’s also productive. I want to keep going mostly for those moments, when I know I’m really communicating something in a way that I think might move or entertain a reader (if I can do both, I’m especially happy). I can’t help wanting more of those moments. At the same time, I’m grateful beyond measure to have arrived at a point when I really can have a life as a writer, to get to do what I get to do. Writing the “Drink” column is a total pleasure; I think the scale of it—just 600 words or so—and the steady deadlines make it hard to indulge in the fretfulness and occasional agony I felt while writing a book.
So I think that regardless of the difficulty I have with writing, it’s exactly the career I want. But I do daydream about running a little pub someday, while still working as a writer. A cozy little bar, where I could read and write in the back office when things are slow. Talk to the regulars who drink during the day. And officiate at weddings in the garden out back. It will have to have a little garden out back.
Photograph of Rosie Schaap © 2013 by M. Sharkey.