Why another drug memoir?
Well, it wasn’t my idea, really. Other people encouraged me to write it. I’ve never been into memoirs or nonfiction much. I had reservations about memoir, that it was becoming the reality television of literature, that it was losing credibility, becoming not art, not literature, but just schlock. Bullshit. Garbage. But I began the project anyway, in the beginning partly to push back against that, you know? And then I received some encouragement and after a while it acquired a kind of momentum, especially after I figured out what I wanted it to be.
You wanted to prove your book wasn’t bullshit or garbage?
How did that work?
There was a process of elimination. The obvious thing would have been to do a journalistic document of a period in Seattle history, the Grunge thing, or an uplifting memoir of my personal struggle. But that sort of thing has been done before. So those were out. Of course, everything has been done before, but I wanted to find a fresh approach to the subject of drugs, heroin. That took a few years to get sorted out, while I fumbled around, eliminating one idea after another. At first I wanted to call it Dope Dealing for Dummies. I could have gotten away with it too, legally, framing it as an instruction manual on drug dealing, because the story ends badly, but the Dummies title is copyrighted, or trademarked or some such and I wouldn’t have been able to use it. Anyway, after I discovered how to approach the story, that’s when it took off.
It took off?
Yeah, once I began questioning the disease model of addiction and thinking about it as something more inevitable, or fatalistic, thinking about my addiction as a kind of slow death and my recovery as a painful resurrection. That might sound hyperbolic, and people look at me strange when I say it, but I was able to do that, and not deviate from the truth. Of course I wasn’t actually physically dead, but I was as close as one can come. I had totally given up on life, on living. I hadn’t seen that approach to an addiction story before. From the other books about drugs, you still don’t get an idea of how bad heroin addiction can be, the utter despair, how close one can be to death and how a person can welcome that and still go on for years and years. You really don’t. With any of the contemporary drug memoirs, you get the feeling that your reading something written by a person with something going on in their life besides drugs. You get the impression that the authors, the subjects, are and were alive, that they haven’t really, totally, given up. In terms of self-destruction, they were amateurs. David Carr’s book Night of The Gun for example is very interesting, the self-examination, the exploration on the subjectivity of memories, but really it’s about a journalist and family man who takes a little vacation into the drug world. American Junkie is exactly what it says it is, a story about a person who had no identity, who was unable to define himself, who had nothing to lose, a lost soul who made a home in a kind of dead place and stayed there for a long time.
It sounds depressing.
It is. It was. It’s a modern tragedy, more than anything else. It’s the story of all the junkies you don’t hear about, the ones that died alone in some shitty motel room. I certainly didn’t want to do what I call ‘the postmodern memoir,’ where I play the victim, where it’s all about my weird family and how it screwed me up. I didn’t get screwed up so much by any person, I got fucked by something more profound and eternal, my nature, my blood. But look, I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. American Junkie isn’t all doom and gloom, there are some funny parts. And there’s some hope, because I survived. It has an element of survival literature to it, like Papillon, who spent twenty something years trying to escape Devil’s Island. The difference is that after a point I gave up and accepted my imprisonment to heroin. I had reached that point where the drugs didn’t work anymore, and found something there. Limbo, purgatory, Hell, call it what you want. The point is I wasn’t actively trying to escape it. That just sort of happened.
You got fucked by your blood?
One of my guiding lights when I write anything is what Nelson Algren said in the 50’s, “a writers duty is to give voice to the voiceless.” I mean, who’s more voiceless than the dead, right? All the real junkies are dead, the “people who died” as Jim Carroll would say. I was one of them. Somehow I didn’t go through that last door.
Have you had any response from readers?
Riveting, heartbreaking, devastating, those are words I’ve heard to describe it. Girls read it and cry and wanna give me a hug. And I’ve been told that the book is addictive, people open it and then they’re hooked. They can’t stop. That was unintentional. But I’m glad people are affected by it, ordinary people. That was intended. I definitely wanted to avoid it becoming pigeonholed as ‘outlaw literature’ so to speak. A book that simply ‘preaches to the choir,’ a book by a junkie for junkies, serves no real purpose. So far, it’s looking like I achieved that goal, men and women like it, as do booky people and non-booky people, forty-somethings and teenagers, people who have done drugs and those who haven’t.
Some famous Seattle rock stars are in your book. Why are their passages so brief?
Again, it has to do with the kind of non-existence I was experiencing. I didn’t really know them. I didn’t really know anyone, and no one knew me. I sold drugs. That was all. I had customers, not friends. I saw them for a few minutes at a time, they gave me money, I gave them drugs, we mumbled a few words, slurred, and that was it. To have those people take up a larger portion of the book would have been untrue in the broader context and on top of that sensational and exploitative. But I included those parts because they contributed to the story, because it highlighted a theme of the book, my lack of identity, and despite them being like me they at least were someone, and were able to call themselves something.
Why the flashbacks, the backstory? Why all the childhood stuff?
If you ask any true heroin addict, they’ll tell you that their addiction began long before they stuck that first needle into their arm. That’s what the backstory is all about, a self-examination where I try to find where my addiction began, how my life got so fucked, charting the events that changed my attitudes, the events that led me to the point where a kind of death was preferred over life. Charting the erosion of hope. How living in America and our culture contributed to it. Most addicts are predisposed to drug abuse, but all that means is that they’re on the fence, in the balance. They could go either way. At some point something, or an accumulation of somethings reach a tipping point and sends them down the wrong path. I wanted to explore the forces that pulled me off the fence, and then the wind that blew me over the wrong side of the tracks. It fascinated me because I didn’t have a particularly bad childhood, you know, the usual things, abuse and that shit people often point to as the cause of anti-social behavior. I just always had this immense aloneness that was like a steel bar inside me. And I wanted to see if I could find out why my addiction was so much worse than most.
You can’t possibly be the worst?
I stayed with heroin using and dealing even as my body was completely falling apart, even though I was obviously dying, because unlike most addicts, I wasn’t good at anything except selling dope. I wasn’t a writer, or family man, or father, son, anything, before the drugs. Sure, I was okay at playing music, but I was utterly unsuccessful with it, and a person can’t live in a vacuum. When you don’t have an identity and can’t define yourself by what you do, and you are not strong in yourself, you will cling to that one thing you are good at through Hell and high water, even if it’s destroying you, because otherwise it’s like you don’t even exist. That’s what this story has that other drug memoirs don’t.
Why did you include photocopies of documents, the newspaper articles, medical reports, etc?
I was halfway through the book when the James Frey scandal broke, and I just wanted there to be no question of the book’s truthfulness. So I dug up everything I could. I think some kind of documentation should be a requirement in nonfiction now, actually. Besides people making up these fantastic stories, memories are just so fallible. If a writer’s going to classify their story as nonfiction, as real, they should have to be able to prove it. Otherwise, just say it’s an autobiographical novel. Originally I got the idea from Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted. She used her psych reports as a counterpoint to the narrator, another view to what she saw. But with me it was just about proof. Call me a cynic, but this is one of the problems with memoir in particular, an author is writing about themselves and that makes it highly vulnerable to spin. It’s insidious, omitting certain facts here and there, focusing on one aspect and ignoring another that paints a slightly different picture. It’s like reality TV, the subjects know they’re being filmed. The author is aiming his camera at himself. So I undertook this method where I wrote about myself as if I were writing about a stranger. I disconnected my ego from the process, as much as I could, without making things up.
Besides all that, I just thought people aren’t going to believe some of this unless I have some documented proof. You say you have a huge open wound on your leg and you’re pulling fragments of bone out of it and making them into a necklace–I’m just not gonna believe that unless I see something. Plus, the documents were necessary for me to reconstruct the story. There were 276 pages of hospital records, daily doctors’ notes, etc. I was in such a fog in the hospital that I never would have been able to recreate the timeline of events without them. Just like I had to interview dozens of people to reconstruct the other storyline, of my addiction and drug dealing. It was nonfiction, so I had to be accurate and truthful.
The ending is kind of ambiguous. Why did you decide to end the book there?
I have never really been into nonfiction. My influences, as far as style and theme came from novels, most of which were based for the most part on the author’s experiences, most of them more concerned with creating understanding for their characters rather than sympathy, most pretty bleak with depressing and/or ambiguous endings. I asked myself “Why can’t I do that? Do I have to follow this drug memoir formula?” I encountered some resistance about this, actually. When the big publishers in NY looked at American Junkie they loved it, but thought it was too bleak, too grim. They wanted the happy ending, they wanted me to find some redemption. I understand why. It has to do with a kind of escapism and simplicity that the public wants. Well you know what? It’s not that simple, it’s not black and white, drugs bad, recovery good. There is always the grey. I was a heroin addict and dealer for a long time. I found a degree of success doing it, money, status, stability, security. I found peace. That was the truth. And when I quit, it wasn’t like the sun came out for the first time in twenty years. I was in the hospital for six fucking months and came out a broken man, physically and emotionally, to an extent. There was no saccharine happy ending. I did permanent damage. There were lasting consequences. Besides being the truth, I felt it was the responsible thing to do. Apparently it wasn’t as uplifting as some people wanted, but they seem to have forgotten that the ending of nonfiction doesn’t have to be that way any more than a novel’s does. The catharsis a reader experiences when they finish a book, even nonfiction, doesn’t have to be all ‘happy shiny time,’ all it has to show is that the protagonist has turned a corner. Which I did.