There are two big things going with me these days. The first is the publication last week of The Acquittal, my third novel with Bold Strokes Books. A new release brings with it a lot of joy and a lot of work. Self-promotion is not something I’ve ever been terribly comfortable with. I do love giving readings, however, and as I was going through the scenes I’ll be reading over the next couple of weeks I was reminded of the other big thing going on in my life.
Let me explain. At my reading in Milwaukee on Oct. 25, I read from The Acquittal and a short teaser from Sometimes Quickly, which is coming out in January. As I was reading through these I realized that the scene I want to read from SQ and one from The Acquittal are concerned with drinking – alcoholic drinking. It’s a theme that has popped up in all of my books. In Sometimes Quickly it’s a major part of the plot. You’ll see how this intersects with the other big thing in my life right now – on Nov. 8 I’ll be celebrating twenty-five years of sobriety, a milestone that means the world to me.
Here’s the challenge in writing about alcoholism. If your main character’s an alcoholic, you’re asking a lot of your readers to hang in with her, waiting for her to get her act together. An alcoholic is seldom an attractive character and you want your protagonist to be sympathetic. In Sometimes Quickly my main character is a stone alcoholic, but when the book begins we see Peg is sober and has been for some time. I show her drinking years in flashback, so the reader knows she’s not always going to be a jerk. And Peg’s drinking made her do bad things. She was not a stand up person. She was a falling on her face drunk most of the time. I wanted to show the reality of how ugly that can be without alienating the reader. Hopefully, I succeeded (you’ll be able to read Sometimes Quickly in January, when it’ll be published by BSB). In The Acquittal, one scene I’ll be reading shows the alcoholism of my main character’s mother.
My own drinking history plays into this intimately. I don’t need to go into the details; suffice it to say I was a stage 4 alcoholic at the age of thirty-five. If I hadn’t stopped, I wouldn’t be alive today. I’m positive about that. I wouldn’t want to be alive, at any rate. So the disease that almost killed me plays a big role in my life. I have a happy sobriety, but I’m never complacent about it. One slip and I could easily find myself worse off than the day I had my last drink. In other words, I work at my sobriety. It would be almost impossible for me to not write about alcoholism in some way.
Which brings me to the second difficulty in writing about alcoholism. It’s essential that it not be preachy. I’m not preachy, but tones of recovery do not land well with many readers. It’s easy to misunderstand and to make fun of. And let’s face it, the drinking is more interesting that the recovery, at least in terms of fiction. So I tend to stay away from talking about recovery and instead write with verisimilitude about what being an alcoholic is like, what it means, how it affects others. And, just as importantly, I try to write it with a sense of humor. It’s dark enough on its own. My own sense of humor didn’t return until I’d been sober for awhile, and then, as with others like me, I found it hilarious to tell and listen to stories of the idiotic things we did as drunks. Without a sense of humor, everything feels lifeless. I don’t want my fiction to feel that way.
I feel I’ve been successful in not imbuing too much of my writing with alcoholism. Just a bit here and a tad there. But it’s an important connection for me, one that I can’t not write about. As they say, write what you know.