The Rumpus Interview with Olivia Laing
Writers have a fraught relationship with alcohol. We are, in ways, expected to drink to get through the stress of putting pen to page, and when we don’t, we’re looked at as exceptions to the rule. (I should know; I’m a writer, but not much of a drinker, and if I had a dollar for every time someone told me I should start drinking—well, I don’t have to finish that thought.)
This association of the writer as drinker is one that’s ingrained, thanks in part to the legacy of many great authors. That history is what Olivia Laing explores in The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, delving into the alcoholic pasts of six writers: Raymond Carver, John Berryman, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, and John Cheever. On her journey tracing the pasts of these writers, by visiting their physical landscapes and combing through their texts, Laing tears down the glamorous veil of the writer as alcoholic that sometimes gets lost in currency.
A writer and critic with a background in journalism, Laing is also the author of To The River: A Journey Beneath the Surface, which details the story of the river in which Virginia Woolf Drowned. In her books, Laing unearths ghosts and pares back the mystique and myths surrounding her subject matter, all in an attempt to make more dimensional the human experience.
On one of the most frigid nights in January—an evening perfect for a drink—I sat down with Laing in the lobby of the Roger Hotel in New York City’s Murray Hill. Having arrived in the city from the U.K. hours earlier, Laing curled up on one of the couches by the door, neck wrapped in a scarf, and settled in to answer my questions. As we talked writing and alcohol, the cold crept in and out of the high-ceilinged space. We sat facing the bar.
The Rumpus: In a lot of the interviews I’ve read, people have been talking about the historical nature of writers and alcohol—but I’m quite interested in the mind side of writing, too, because you really do take a deep dive into the cognitive, as well. Was that something you were personally interested in, too? Or was that the part two that came along with digging into the writers and their habits? You really have to look into the mind there.
Olivia Laing: There are really two things there. There’s the neurobiological layer, which I talk about a bit, and then there’s the emotional and the psychoanalytic. That’s the lens through which I look at the world—my background is in medicine, so I’m really interested in that kind of anxiety, depression, what causes them, and how they function in the personality, and how that works in fiction as well. That gap between life and art where someone’s got unhappy elements of their life or their childhood, and the way they work that through in their fiction, and the gulf between the two things. It’s never literally like a diary entry—this is just my life—but there’s something being transposed, that process and transformation is something that I’m really intrigued by. There’s some sort of correlation between that and alcohol—that’s another sort of transformation, isn’t it? I’ve never thought about it like that before, but that’s a transformation that’s going on, as well.
Rumpus: I know you looked at the gritty neurological basis of alcoholism for a clip in the book. Did you do any research on the biological manifestations of writing’s effects and how they engage certain areas of the brain?
Laing: No, absolutely not. I read Kay Richfield Jamison’s Touched With Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, but nothing about creativity. I’m always really uncomfortable about that way of looking at creativity. I find it quite…almost alarming, because it feels like it’s got the potential for being reductive in a way that I don’t like. That’s not my natural way of looking at personality, whereas the neurobiological stuff seems much more direct. That did make sense to me.
Rumpus: Which identity is stronger: “writer” or “alcoholic”?
Laing: Wow, that’s really interesting. I think it’s going to depend on who you’re talking to [with respect to] which one you’re looking at. Writer is a core identity—it’s part of your personality. I think alcoholism overtakes and catches hold of and completely transforms your personality. There’s a bit where I’m talking to Petros Levounis, the director of The Addiction Institute, and he talks how about there’s a point that clicks in with alcohol addiction, which he describes as “the big beast,” the part of the brain that just takes over. I think once that happens, the alcoholic identity—I don’t know if you’ve got any experience with alcoholics, but I’ve got a lot—completely overcomes the other self. So, I think at that point, that’s the stronger…but that’s a pretty bleak way of looking at it, isn’t it?
But then the writer’s self is another really interesting identity, because what interested me when I was writing is that—though denial is such a part of alcoholism—they were all capable of writing about alcoholism in incredibly insightful and honest ways, even if they weren’t very honest about their own experience. Which makes me think that the writer’s self is also very powerful and full of resistance.
Rumpus: Well, it also seems like “writer” is an identity people want, and “alcoholic” is an identity people don’t want.
Laing: Yeah, but “drinker” is an identity people do want, and sometimes a more tempting identity than “writer.” And also, that predicates on the idea that being a writer is nice, whereas when I think once you’ve been doing it for a while, a lot of that glamour falls away, because a lot of the time, I think it’s just brutal. I think that’s a really good question for exposing how those tensions are just rubbing off each other the whole time.
Rumpus: In terms of the accessibility of the mind, what are the unique challenges of looking into the mind of the alcoholic versus the mind of a writer?
Laing: I think the thing with alcoholism that makes it very difficult to write about is how much a part denial plays in it. So any text written by an alcoholic—and I’m looking at all sorts of stuff: lectures, diaries, novels, things that have very different truth bases, anyway—and trying to find examples of denial, or trying to sort of track denial through that, is a really tricky process as a reader or a critic. That’s the kind of great challenge of writing about alcoholism in this way: nothing you ever handle is straightforward; nothing is every completely honest, and even the most honest-sounding statements are often ways of trying to evoke self-pity or avoid responsibility. It’s really difficult material.
Rumpus: What does looking at writers’ and alcoholics’ minds share?
Laing: Well, writers are terrible liars as well, aren’t they? Hemingway says that brilliant thing about “all writers are liars.” I think they’re making stories better, and riffing on stuff, so I think there’s a similar sensibility there, but…there’s that real coldness in writers, just wanting to get stuff down that happens. Even if something’s uncomfortable, it still finds its way onto the page somewhere. There’s an urge in truth-telling, too, which makes it really interesting.
Rumpus: How do you think the idea that alcohol is a permissive behavior plays into its allure, versus something that’s explicitly forbidden?
Laing: That’s interesting—and the thing that’s just occurred to me a couple of days ago, which hadn’t at all during the book, which is kind of related to that, is that alcohol is a driver of plot, like, in life. Stuff happens when you get drunk, you do stuff—for some reason that completely escaped me before. So, obviously, it’s going to have some fertility and interest for writers because it’s a way to make one thing slide into another, both in life and on the page. I wish I’d thought of that while I’d written the book! It’s kind of a late revelation. But I think that’s part of the combination of writers and drinking.
Rumpus: What is it about alcohol that’s such a draw—what does it give that prescription drugs don’t?
Laing: License. Pleasure. And conviviality. Prescription drugs tend to be a privately taken thing. Other drugs are illegal…and I think the sociability side of it is important, as well. The thing that Hemingway talks about, and that lots of them talk about: writing is a really lonely business, and you’re at home all day, and at the end, you want this kind of light and noise and action, and it’s a very pleasurable kind of escapism. And later on when people are drinking on their own and barricaded in their apartments and that’s when you can really tell that the alcoholism has kicked in—the social drinking seems to be an earlier, safer stage of it.
Rumpus: Culturally, I was really arrested by John Montague writing that Berryman was the only poet for whom he thought alcohol was a positive stimulus. That line…
Laing: It’s such bullshit! It makes me so angry. I don’t know what he was playing at, though. I don’t know whether he genuinely thought that…there are so many crazy things said about Raymond. Saul Bellow says something else that’s totally untrue, about [how] inspiration was a death threat and drink was the only thing that stopped fatal creativity—it’s just so silly. Why they’re saying those sort of things has a lot to do with the sort of insidious denial that surrounds the friends of alcoholics, and a kind of clubby male sort of arrogance: what he’s doing is fine! Wanting to protect it, not wanting him to be exposed, all probably coming from a genuinely good place.
Rumpus: How do you think a statement like Montague’s could hold up with the way alcohol’s place has changed in modern culture? We’ve definitely come a long way from sort of Mad Men-style being-drunk-at-work-in-the-middle-of-the-day, to where alcohol is in our culture now.
Laing: It doesn’t hold up, does it, at all? People quite often ask, Is this still a story that goes on? Is this still a 20th century story? It’s kind of over. We feel very differently about drunkenness now. We feel very differently about how people behave around their bodies. Things have really sobered up in a lot of ways.
I worked as a journalist for a long time and when I was first a journalist, we’d go out for drinks at lunch, and people would be kind of tipsy at lunch in the afternoons. Some people were probably really quite drunk. And then quite suddenly, it got to the point where you’d never come back to work drunk. You might have a tiny drink probably, but the culture just changed. I think that’s the kind of cultural change that’s happened all over, and I think it’s so interesting if you look at programs like [Mad Men]—there’s this nostalgic interest that’s quite unattractive.
Rumpus: But has the culture changed for writers?
Laing: I think it’s changing. I think for younger writers, in particular. They’re not getting wasted the way people of my generation are, and certainly people who are older have.
Rumpus: We’re sort of coffee shop-dwellers and not bar-dwellers?
Laing: Yeah. And we’re on our laptops, and we’re on our phones—it’s a very different world. I don’t know, maybe you’ve got a different sense of it, but my sense is that it’s cleaned up a lot. I’d be amazed if in a hundred years time someone writes this book about this century. I’d be absolutely staggered.
Rumpus: I get a weird eye every now and then when I say that I’m working on a project and people are like, “Oh god, how many times has it driven you to drink?” and I’m like, “Eh, I don’t write and drink?” And they go, “How do you not do that?”
Laing: I wonder if that’s just how strong the myth is, and people just think that you should be like, Well, you’re a writer and that’s what you do.
Rumpus: That idea of ritual—I know in another interview you mentioned that one of the things you enjoy about drinking is this idea of “ritual.” What did you mean by that?
Laing: It’s the ceremonial aspect. There’s so many different kinds of drinking, and while I grew up in an alcoholic family, my parents were separated and my dad’s approach to drinking I find really pleasing. He drinks for pleasure, and he always has a bottle of something amazing to bring out on occasion, and the drinks come out at a certain time, and he’s very ritualized about it. That sort of drinking, to me, seems really nice. I really enjoy it, rather than drinking to get out of your mind, which I find frightening, if anything.
Rumpus: Those two rituals seem really difficult to parse sometimes.
Laing: I guess they slip into each other because that’s the nature of drinking. It’s like, Oh, one more! Or, Oh, dear, one too many. I feel like I’ve kind of found the knack now. It’s an art to drink sensibly.
Featured image of Olivia Laing © by Jonathan Ring.