The Desire for a Pain-Free Existence: Talking with Karen Tucker

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Irene, the protagonist of Karen Tucker’s debut novel Bewilderness, narrates with a distinct brand of raconteur’s energetic storytelling that will immediately put readers at ease. Set in the fictional rural town of Anklewood, North Carolina, Bewilderness doesn’t take long to follow Irene and her best friend, roommate, and coworker, Luce, through some dark and difficult moments, but the ups and downs are carried along seamlessly by Irene’s inviting barstool manner. It’s difficult to stop reading, because there’s a magnetic sense of intimacy—Irene is telling us something we need to hear.

Irene and Luce, along with Luce’s boyfriend Wilky, struggle with opioid use disorder, which not only disrupts the dynamics of their friendships, but also exposes them to violent and predatory systems that exploit their addiction. At times, they find temporary sobriety with the help of local NA meetings and sponsors. As Irene reveals more of their shared past, Bewilderness confronts many of the harmful myths and misconceptions around pill addiction.

Born and raised in North Carolina, Karen Tucker’s awards include an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant for Emerging Writers, a PEO Scholar Award, and the George M. Harper Award for Creative Writing. Her short fiction appears in The Missouri Review, The Yale Review Online, Boulevard, EPOCH, Tin House Online, American Literary Review, Salamander, Carve Magazine, and elsewhere.

I was overjoyed to discuss Bewilderness with Karen by email this spring. We talked about literary depictions of rural settings, writing about addiction, and finding humor in struggle.

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The Rumpus: I think books about addiction in rural areas of poverty present a lot of distinct challenges. There’s a sort of suggested genre expectation the author will examine class, racism, education, systemic failures, and place, which all come with potential criticisms related to representation. To name a problematic popular title, Hillbilly Elegy received well-deserved criticism for reinforcing harmful myths about poverty and addiction. This might be a tough question to start, but in fiction or nonfiction, what do you think we often get wrong about these narratives? Is there a risk that representations of addiction in popular culture can cause harm or reinforce problematic tropes?

Karen Tucker: You’re right! Stories set in rural low-income communities often fail those communities, and Hillbilly Elegy fails spectacularly, with the spectacle made far more public—and profitable—by a wealthy film director who first came to fame on a popular whitewashed series set in rural North Carolina called The Andy Griffith Show.

But the expectation that these narratives engage with class, racism, education, and systemic failures is in some ways pretty wonderful. Certain books by white middle-class authors, set in middle-class communities, would be far less boring and useless if they were held to similar expectations. At the same time, BIPOC authors, who are already expected to confront racism in their narratives, should be paid well and equitably to write whatever story they want.

Viewed generously, harmful myths about poverty and addiction stem from a failure of imagination. Too often, we writers fill our stories with timeworn tropes and stock characters. Where’s Meemaw at? Sitting on her porch swing, drinking hooch out of a jam jar and admiring the kudzu. If only she’d had enough sense to go get herself an education.

Worse, they’re an insidious attempt to retain power. Tell the same mudslinging tales over and over and soon people will believe them, no matter how false: poor people are lazy, poor people are stupid, poor people live in filth and squalor, addiction is a failure of willpower and morals, someone who abuses painkillers isn’t in any actual pain or experiencing a medical crisis—they’re being reckless with their one precious life!

And once they’re done dirtying things up, creators of poverty/addiction porn like to apply a romantic gloss to their product—similar to that old Hollywood trick of smearing Vaseline on the lens. Not because any actual romance exists, but as cheap and effective lubrication, making a difficult subject more comfortable for readers.

Rumpus: I should say here, one of the things I really loved about Bewilderness is how you manage to write a lot of organic scenes throughout the novel where your main characters, Irene and Luce, deal firsthand with the corrupt systems that support their pill addiction. I guess what I mean is you give your characters agency, but we see how larger systemic failures exploit their addiction and try to use it to steal that agency from them.

Tucker: Ah, I’m glad those scenes felt organic! It’s kind of like Dolly Parton’s joke, “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.” For me, it takes a hefty amount of manufactured effort to make a sentence feel even somewhat natural. Revise, revise, have a private tantrum about how hard it all is, revise.

While it’s true that Bewilderness is a work of fiction, the monstrous institutional failures that the narrator and her best friend experience are still Bigfooting their way through the US, targeting vulnerable individuals and communities. Some tracks in the woods: this book wouldn’t exist if a VA hospital hadn’t killed my father with indifferent care and a sloppy diagnosis. If my ailing mom hadn’t been sent to a rehab center where the staff was egregiously underpaid, and patients suffered medical neglect. In this country, the health of low-income individuals—who, because of institutional racism, are often people of color—is treated with appalling carelessness.

Rumpus: Irene and Luce also spend much of the novel negotiating their addiction. There’s always an end date in mind, but they struggle to stay clean. Did those kinds of internal character negotiations, the mental cycle between addiction and wanting to be sober, change your approach to the plot and structure of the novel?

Tucker: Funny, I’ve seen the geometry of this novel described as either a cycle or a spiral by multiple large-brained readers—so maybe this is exactly right! Besides, about the last person you should trust to say anything reliable about a novel is the person who wrote it. And yet from my admittedly limited and unreliable perspective, all I see is one mostly straightforward line: Who among us doesn’t want a pain-free existence?

Sometimes the desire to be pain-free leads Irene and Luce to use illicit substances. Sometimes the desire to be pain-free causes them to pursue sobriety. And sometimes, the desire to be pain-free means making use of harm reduction strategies. This made plot and structure delightfully easy (says the author), since all I had to do was attempt to keep my characters away from what hurts them. And yes, I failed.

Rumpus: Bewilderness takes place in North Carolina. In my reading, setting felt very important to the novel, not only as background, but also regarding plot and progression. Irene and Luce drive around a lot and everything seems pretty spaced out. How were you thinking about geography?

Tucker: Anklewood, where most of the novel’s action unfolds, is based loosely on two places. The first is Black Ankle, North Carolina—where my dad grew up—and Troy, North Carolina, a somewhat larger community about fourteen miles south.

My sister and I spent considerable time there as kids, hiking all over the Uwharrie Mountains, camping out, roaming the church graveyard in search of Tucker headstones, watching my grandmother cheerfully toss thawed-out chickens to the three-legged alligator who lived in the pond behind her house. If you’re going to commit to writing a novel, it means you’ll have to spend a lot of time in that world, and it was a pleasure to return, day after day, to the peculiar realm of my childhood.

Rumpus: I know you currently live in North Carolina. Do you get excited or nervous at all about people in your home state potentially reading the novel?

Tucker: I get excited and nervous for anyone at all to read this thing! I’m grateful for every single human person who so much as takes a peek. Years of working in restaurants preceded this experience, and so did years of rejections as I tried to stake out a place in the world of writing. I will never, ever take readers for granted, and every morning, as I plop my bottom in my writing chair and get started, it’s readers I’m thinking about. Will this make you laugh? Will this get you to lean in a little? Here, let me show you something I’ve never shown anyone. It’s you and me now, we’re in this together. To anyone out there who has or might read this book: thank you, thank you, thank you.

Rumpus: You mention years of rejection. How long did this novel take to write? What parts of the process were most difficult?

Tucker: The long answer is it took me roughly twelve plus years, give or take, to write this novel. Short answer: two and a half years.

The story though, is that I began writing my first novel in 2007, and after six hard years of work the novel turned out to be unpublishable. I spent all of February in bed grieving, except for the restaurant shifts I couldn’t no-show on without getting fired. Dragged my sorry self out sometime in March and began writing a second novel. Four years later, that one also went exactly nowhere. Back to bed I went.

In January 2017, my pillow-creased face and I signed up for a novel workshop with Mark Winegardner (by this point, I’d fought my way into grad school) and it was there I started Bewilderness. It took me until May 2019 to get a complete draft down—I do that inadvisable thing of revising as you go—and then I workshopped it with my brilliant writing group, did another quick pass, and by mid-July I was once again seeking representation, having been dropped by my two previous agents. Things moved fast after that.

In the alternate universe where my third attempt to publish a novel has also failed, I’m back working as a food server in the North Carolina mountains, wearing safety shoes and refilling iced tea over and over, earning a base wage of $3.25 an hour and paying out-of-pocket for terrible health insurance. It’s not so hard to imagine.

The thing is, this time I got lucky. There are so many novels out there that we’ll never get to read, for any number of reasons. You asked what parts of the process were the most difficult, and first on that list is the publishing stuff we have no control over. Coming in at a close second would be the exploitative side hustle so many of us rely on to stay fed and sheltered. Tip well, people!

Rumpus: To switch gears—and forgive me if this is a tough question—while the novel hasn’t come out yet, I imagine the pandemic will in some ways change the conversation around it. Reports of struggling with addiction have increased over the past year, but seeking treatment has become more challenging due to social isolation. Have you started thinking about Bewilderness differently since March 2020?

Tucker: This is probably one of those bad news, worse news, good news situations. Should we go in order?

So, yes, probably anyone who hasn’t retreated into total hermit-land during the pandemic knows that we humans are struggling more than ever. This includes people with substance use disorder, which research tells us is often linked to trauma.

I walk a lot—one of my personal coping mechanisms—and while I used to see two or three discarded syringe caps each time I wandered through my city’s downtown, in the past year the quantity of those orange plastic bits has rocketed skyward. More people are using, and using more often. Early CDC data bears out this unhappy anecdote. Another coping mechanism, is what it comes down to. We all do what we can to stay alive.

It’s not just needles. Because prescription opioids have become difficult to access, even through legal channels, counterfeit pills have taken over the market. The one thing I want to stress in this conversation: these days, any opioid tablet you encounter, unless you get it straight out of a pharmacy bottle or a foil blister pack, has a very high chance of containing fentanyl or one of its analogs—deadly if you hit a hot spot.

Maybe one day I’ll do an AMA-style interview, but for now all I’ll say is I experienced this firsthand with a loved one in January 2021. Thank god they survived. That alternate universe is unspeakable.

Test your product. Get Narcan nasal spray. Never use alone.

The existence of life-saving naloxone/Narcan is a big part of the good news. Same goes for fentanyl test strips. Needle exchanges, absolutely. Also, medication-assisted treatment: Suboxone, Vivitrol, buprenorphine, methadone, medical marijuana, and other harm reduction strategies. There are many ways to help a person stay alive.

More good news: virtual appointments. Before March 2020, an initial in-person appointment was required to begin treatment for substance use disorder. That changed with the pandemic. If you’re in need of help, Eleanor Health, co-founded by Dr. Nzinga Harrison, who also hosts In Recovery, might be a great place to start.

Rumpus: I do want to make sure I’m not overlooking the bright, humorous, kind aspects of this novel. Irene and Luce’s friendship is the glue of this book. It reminded me of Julie Buntin’s Marlena. 

Tucker: Haha, I’m glad you and a few other readers are finding some humor in this story. I certainly didn’t set out to write a novel that was anything close to funny, and one of my primary concerns when I started drafting was the abundance of poop jokes, pee jokes, and vomit jokes that kept appearing in the manuscript. Now, I’ve come to accept that even though this is a story about pain and love and struggle, a little foolishness is fine on occasion. My final edit included the addition of one last dick joke, which cheered me up.

Viewed from a certain distance, the painful struggle itself is funny. Gallows humor is one way to describe it. Whistling past the graveyard. Maybe that grizzled old saying, “comedy equals tragedy plus time” has some viable juice left. No doubt Freud has something to contribute to this conversation—but then we’re back to dick jokes all over again.

I just typed “why is sad stuff funny” into my browser, in hopes of getting some insight into this phenomenon, and a creepy Wikipedia entry called “Sad clown paradox” was a top hit. I didn’t spend too much time reading it—it seemed important to quickly X out of that window—but I think there was maybe something in there about self-medication and self-preservation? Not me.

As far as any other qualities go, I have no idea how they got there. Once upon a time, I started writing this story, having only the vaguest of plans before me and the icy winds of failure at my back. I did my best to take things moment by moment. I did my best to be true to these characters, even when they were lying their faces off. Now I’m almost fourteen years into this whole writing thing, and lately it feels more mysterious than ever. These days I’m blundering my way through another novel draft, and most mornings the best I can hope for is a zingy sentence or two and minimal self-loathing. Instead of writing smarter and faster now that I’ve logged some experience, I’m floundering around in cartoon quicksand. Instead of the prose sounding Rachel Cusk-esque, it’s open-mic night at a Myrtle Beach saloon.

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Photograph of Karen Tucker by Jared Lipof.


Aram Mrjoian is an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books. His writing has appeared in Cream City Review, Boulevard, Gulf Coast online, The Rumpus, The Millions, Longreads, and many other publications. Find his work at arammrjoian.com. More from this author →