Updated: Aug 29
Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?
I can’t help but to notice the resemblance between these folks at the bar. But I don’t ask about that, nor do I tell them that I have written about a nun who looked like a penguin when she ran. Instead I tell them what I have in common with them. I write about Catholics, sort of like Alice McDermott but with a bit more of an edge.
Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?
For starters, I’d like them to know that thalidomide absolutely DID happen here in the United States. Younger people do not know what thalidomide is, but within the next year they will have heard all about it. The Weinsteins are releasing a film with Carey Mulligan later this year about the London Times reporters’ coverage of the drug that caused 10,000 babies to be born worldwide with major birth defects. It’s based on a documentary about thalidomide in England in the 60s called Attacking the Devil. Thalidomide is a sedative, but it was marketed in the 50s and 60s to pregnant women for insomnia. People say it was for morning sickness, but in the U.S. it was a marketing/advertising team’s plan to cash in on a baby boom, and it was postwar so a very high rate of sedative use was going on, especially among women. Valley of the Dolls ring a bell? My mother was given this drug, and I was born without legs from the knees down. One hand is a bit mangled, too. I will never know all of the side effects I accrued; some are not visible.
To learn the story behind thalidomide in the U.S., please read my posts at Huffington Post.
What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?
I could not escape the topic of thalidomide, so I ended up writing my memoir, Mermaid, which came out with Norton in 2014. There is some mental illness and alcoholism in my family history. I quit drinking at 27 because I recognized in myself the early signals of a problem. I have never regretted that decision.
Drugs and alcohol are never the primary focus of my work, unless I’m writing a journalistic piece about thalidomide. Alcohol is not far from my primary focus. I write about Catholics because that’s what I was born into, the Irish and German variety. I’m not a practicing Catholic but I want to be objective while revealing some of the flaws of Catholicism as well as the beauty in the culture. It’s what I know best, so alcohol is often a factor. I’m interested in character-driven fiction and creative nonfiction. I love storytelling that is centered around family dynamics. These interests come from my childhood in a family of eleven kids. They also come from my experience as a clinical psychologist. Of course, I cannot write stories about the people who see me in therapy but I see patterns and trends in our culture from knowing intimately the lifestyles of so many people.
What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?
In the novel I’m writing now, I’ve got a teenage character who smokes pot and ends up getting in a lot of trouble. I’m not concerned with whether he has a “diagnosable” drug problem but rather what it’s like when someone is young and experimenting, but they have some family history of substance abuse. Does someone either have to be an addict or a “normal” pot smoker? As I understand it, drug and/or alcohol use varies on a continuum. Some use is recreational, some “medicinal,” some is considered abuse, some is a dependence. Sometimes it’s supposed to be medicinal, but it ends up creating another set of problems. Sometimes it’s seen as problematic when it isn’t that big of a deal; for example, I feel that a smidgeon of pot is a lot healthier than drinking alcohol. But some pot users get into daily or frequent use, and they become very anxious or even paranoid. (This is just something I’ve observed in my practice since moving to California.)
Both alcohol and drugs are so much a part of our culture that we would benefit from seeing all gradations of these patterns or behaviors in our literature, if it’s going to accurately depict the American story. (I’m not convinced that the MFA approach to literary fiction or creative nonfiction is as interested in the “universal” story as it proclaims to be, but instead focuses on developing characters or stories about people who replicate the average MFA instructor. This is my perspective as someone who is in no way seen as “universal” when in fact I am so typical I cannot write another memoir because it would bore me to death.) As for the drug or alcohol story, I’m personally not interested in writing stories with some therapeutic goal. Those stories are best told in recovery literature. I’m trying to understand individuals and groups of individuals in their entirety and then make that the substance of my fiction.
BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that Mermaid: A Memoir of Resilience gets made into a major motion picture. What song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?
A screenplay is being adapted, and let’s hope it gets all the backing it needs to make a good film. [Ed. note: Congratulations! Fingers crossed!] Since the story opens with a disco scene, the Bee Gees will come in early, though I’m not sure that’s the best way to open. I’d like to see the opening take place just outside of the disco, on a beach in Florida with music more in keeping with the teenage Eileen as a person, which would make for a great contrast when she steps inside the disco. This ultimately takes her out of her element. So what would that song be? I’m thinking of early Elton John, something like “Tiny Dancer,” which would be a sweetly ironic foreshadowing of who Eileen is becoming inside and what lies ahead in her story.