“No cheap shots”: An Interview with Sarah Hepola

Zan Keith/Grand Central Publishing

I remember the day I stumbled upon Sarah Hepola’s essay, “Wigs are my superhero costume,” in Salon. Before I reached the second sentence, I was a fan. A woman sitting at her kitchen table with a strange man in the early hours of the morning, wearing a geisha robe and a wig? Come on now. 

I wouldn’t say I stalked every piece Hepola wrote, but I kind of stalked every piece Hepola wrote. She wasn’t just some writer that lived in the 1940’s I was trying desperately to grasp; she was a crazy friend who had a poignant, raw outlook on life, and more importantly, on herself.

Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, her recently published memoir, offers an account of her journey into and out of alcoholism. The personal essays editor at Salon, Sarah Hepola’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, Glamour, The Guardian and The Morning News, where she has been a contributing writer for more than a decadeI had the chance to correspond with Hepola recently to talk about Blackout and other things.

There is a longstanding cliché that to be a great writer you must also be a drunk. Hemingway, Cheever, Parker, Kerouac, the list goes on; all these writers wrote while drunk or lived a lifestyle deeply rooted in alcoholism. In your work, you talk about being a functional alcoholic while working. What did you notice about your own writing process when starting to approach writing sober again?

I couldn’t write a word for about six months, and the best way I can describe this is to say that if there is only one road to town, and the road closes, it’s going to take a little while to build a new one. I was reading a lot—personal essays for Salon, and books in my spare time. Reading was an escape during that lonely time, which is exactly the role it played for me in my childhood, and it also helped me sharpen my tool set. I was so overwhelmed by stage fright and self-loathing and the scolding voices of the online commenters—all these things I’d been drinking away—that I needed to take a step back from all that and just focus on what I wanted to say. That’s what writing is: An expression of the self. Cut out all this other noise, and focus on that.

By the way, there’s a great book by Olivia Laing on the alcoholic writers you list, called The Trip to Echo Springs, and one of the common themes is how sensitive those writers were. You think of those guys as swaggering, macho, but it was a defense against the tenderness that made them writers in the first place. It’s debatable how much drinking did for those men, but what that book makes clear is how much it took away.

Hepola Sarah Blackout cover

You write that you saw alcohol as “an emancipator of creativity.” Now that you no longer have alcohol to free this side of you, what have you picked up instead to get you there?

I try to write first thing in the morning, before I have time to think better of it. I need to get the writing out of the way. Otherwise, my judging brain gets too sharp, and I’ll become fearful and I’ll procrastinate and rationalize. I’ll do that tomorrow. So first thing is: Get it done. Then I take long walks, I sing and play guitar, which allows my brain to flat-line for a little while because I’m thinking about the lyrics and the chord shapes, and I talk with friends. I find that talking with friends it’s extremely helpful as I’m trying to untangle the knots of a piece, because I start to hear what I’m trying to say, and they reflect back to me what’s interesting about what I’m saying. I do think alcohol was a form of companionship for me in the solitary walk of writing, and I try to avail myself of other forms of companionship now.

A large focus in Blackout is the idea of consent and how blurred it gets when alcohol is involved. Dating apps like Tinder and Plenty of Fish focus on the hook-up.  To get to from Point A: hey to Point Z: let’s hook up often requires booze. A lot of it. Somewhere around Point R. self-control and insecurity fade away into the caves of empty pint glasses. At what point does it turn from “loosening up” to dangerous, especially for women? 

Great question, but it’s tricky because there is no one point. My point might be different than your point. What I wanted to do was prompt women—and also men—to reflect on why they needed so much alcohol for their sex lives. Why is that a requirement? If you’re a guy, and you don’t want to date a woman who doesn’t drink, what are you saying about yourself? That you need someone to be inebriated in order to sleep with you?

If you’re a woman, and you can’t be intimate with someone without drinking first, what is that saying about your true level of intimacy? Sobriety called bullshit on a lot of my dating rituals and sexual habits. Maybe sex for me really isn’t that casual. Maybe hook-ups with random guys really weren’t that fun — I simply enjoyed being someone who had those stories to tell.

There is a very dark moment in Blackout when you have a sexual encounter as a teenager with a boy you never give consent to. He shushes you and puts you in a position of feeling guilt and obligation rather than repulsion. The next day you are grateful that he doesn’t regret it. You kill your own feelings to keep his alive and valid. Do you think that the reason women are drinking, or self-harming, so much is due to the social pressure for a woman to be seen as sexual object that is simultaneously submissive and adventurous? 

That’s an interesting way to put it—that the essential sexual conflict for women might be between being submissive and adventurous. I’ll have to think about that. I feel queasy speaking with any authority on issues that still feel mysterious to me. The best I could do in my book was to present that section as unvarnished as possible—which is why I used a transcript of me telling the story at 14 (I was technically 13, but days away from my birthday). I wanted that story to be free of my adult polish and shine.

I do know that you have placed your finger on the hot spot of my own story, not just in my book but in my life. But I would gently disagree with your description that he “puts you in a position of feeling guilt and obligation.” I don’t think HE necessarily put me in that position; I think everything leading up to that moment did. The story that I tell about that night—there is an ocean of fear and longing and desire and total confusion underneath each movement. Guilt and obligation were feelings that I brought to many interactions in my life, and still do.

Do you think that once you became sober and began to remember the details and unravel them, that the writing process became a cure of sorts? How long did it take you to write and organize Blackout?

The process of sobriety has a lot in common with the process of writing a memoir: It’s an investigation. It’s a long and slow process of self-examination that, if done properly, should not tip into indulgence. You talk to people from your past, you re-examine, you ask hard questions, trying to understand the essential human question that I ask in the book’s opening: How did I get here?

One of the heartbreaks of sobriety was realizing that my problem wasn’t necessarily booze. I thought if I just quit drinking, I’d be OK, but the booze was a symptom of the deeper problems, and so sobriety becomes the process of understanding the feelings underneath the drinking. I’m not sure writing is a cure for anything, except maybe my feeling of failure when I’m not writing. But when the writing is going well, it is a balm. It does what booze did for me all those years: It makes me feel like I’m not alone.

The book took more than three years to write. It was written in many stages, many of them simply failed attempts or bad directions. I would guess that I’ve written a million words in order to figure out which 70,000 were going to end up between a hard cover. Like I said: Long and slow, and I am someone who loves short and fast.

Writing memoir can be painful in many ways. You reveal your secrets and expose yourself, not just to those who also liked your book on Amazon, but you are also giving the truths to your parents, family, exes, and friends. While your tribe knew that you were an alcoholic, how did they react to you laying it all out in Blackout?

It’s been intense. I’m still discovering the ways that people are reacting, because the book has only been out a week as I type this. When I finished the final draft, I started sending relevant pages to a lot of the people I write about in the book. That was such an anxious time. But what I found is that every single one of those people was generous, thoughtful, supportive. They tolerated uncomfortable passages, and laughed at fond memories. I have no doubt there are passages in this book that hurt people, but of course it’s also true there are people in this book who hurt me, even when they didn’t mean to. That’s the risk you take when you are close with other humans. I tried my best to minimize other people’s pain, while remaining honest to the material. No cheap shots.

The hardest audience, of course, has been my parents, because it’s very heavy to learn that your only daughter was in such pain. They’ve had to swallow hard a few times. But we’ve had so many great conversations through this process—about family, about addiction, about what parents are responsible for and why kids lie. It’s been a big growing-up process for all of us.

So much of your nonfiction focuses on identity and the idea of becoming who you imagined yourself to be when you were a young girl. Over the years, you hid your insecurities with alcohol, eating, and redirecting yourself to avoid becoming the real you.  At one point early in the memoir you write about Hunter S. Thompson and his work being “a locus of debauchery and creative nonfiction, the intersection where I planned to build my bungalow.” Where would you say your intersection would be located at this point?

Oh my God. It’s got to be at the corner of rigorous honesty and surprising humor, in the town of cheese enchiladas.

Jacqueline Kirkpatrick’s work has been published in Creative Nonfiction, Thought Catalog, and Nailed, and forthcoming in The Rumpus. She is a graduate of the M.F.A. creative writing program at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY. Follow her on Twitter at @thebeatenpoet.

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