In 1997, a young writer appeared on the Chronicle doorstep seeking an internship. As she'd worked on the entertainment staff of The Daily Texan – a proving ground for many a Chron writer through the years – she seemed a fine fit for the paper. And oh, how she was. Over the next five years, Sarah Hepola made a memorable mark on the Chronicle, reviewing theatre, writing one-of-a-kind features (going undercover to high school prom, anyone?), reviewing film, and serving as Screens editor. Since leaving Austin a dozen years ago, Hepola has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Guardian, New Republic, Slate, and Salon, where she's now personal essays editor. Next week sees the release of her memoir, Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, and Hepola returns to Austin to read from the book and sign copies Friday, June 26, 7pm, at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar. An excerpt from the book follows, but first Hepola explains how the book came to be.
Austin Chronicle: You've written essays about your drinking in the past. What led you to make this the focus of a book?
Sarah Hepola: The short answer is that I knew about drinking better than anything else. It had been my unofficial area of expertise for decades. I also knew women's drinking was on the rise, and the culture had shifted dramatically in our attitudes about it. I picked up recovery books that talked about how women were ashamed of their alcohol consumption, and I was like: No, no, no. I was proud of drinking. I flaunted it.
This was four years ago, and Chelsea Handler's books were very popular. She wrote stories about getting wasted and laughing off the damage, which had been my routine for years, and I wanted to write a book that pushed past the schtick and got at the real emotional stakes of a woman's heavy drinking in the 21st century.
AC: There's a long tradition of books about alcohol and recovery. Did you see yours covering territory that hadn't been covered yet?
SH: Nobody had written about blackouts in an in-depth way, and it wasn't until fairly recently that we began to understand them – what's happening in the brain, how common they are, how women are particularly prone. I also thought there was an opportunity to talk about how women's relationship to alcohol had changed. One of my favorite memoirs is Caroline Knapp's Drinking: A Love Story. It's a gorgeous book, but it was published in 1996. A lot has happened in the generation since: Carrie Bradshaw, girl power, wine-soaked book clubs and bachelorette parties. Alcohol has become threaded through women's social lives.
And last, I wanted to follow a person in recovery. So many addiction stories end when the main character stops drinking or using drugs, and in my experience, that's when the real drama begins. My first year in sobriety was hideous. I hated everything so much, especially myself. Our society indulges this fantasy that change is fast, instant, and transformative, but it's actually slow, agonizing, and quietly profound. I wanted to take the reader through those first anguished years, because it was a chance to tell a fish-out-of-water story, too – someone discovering the world for the first time.
AC: Did you have an audience in mind?
SH: More than anything, I probably wrote this book for myself: to prove I could do it and to convert some painful experiences into another form. I've always been like that. Sadness, grief, despair – it's all fuel. I felt so lonely in that first year, like I didn't belong anywhere. I hated recovery people, and I resented drinkers. I wanted to believe there was hope for me, and the recovery memoirs I read gave me that. I've heard other writers say, "Write the book you'd like to find." So I did.
AC: You often contrast your experiences as a woman to those of a man. How much of a role did that play in telling this story?
SH: I never thought of myself as a "woman drinker." That phrase would have offended me. I was a drinker, who happened to be a woman, and I drank a lot like the men in my life: with gusto and a cigarette dangling out of my mouth. But "keeping up with the guys" is a lifestyle with some roadblocks. That's part of why I was blacking out so often. I was drinking like guys a foot taller than me, while I was also trying to keep from gaining weight, so I would skip meals, and then black out more. Insanity.
The further I got from my drinking years, the more I realized how much of my drinking had been tied up with being a woman, and the softer parts of me I was always trying to hide. My body-consciousness, which was massive. My self-doubt and my need to be liked all the time. Like a lot of women, I had a complicated relationship with my own vulnerability. I have always wanted to be stronger and tougher than I really am.
AC: Was it harder to write about the time when you drank or your time in recovery?
SH: They both had their challenges. It took longer to write the drinking section, because I had so much material, and I had to avoid being repetitive. A drinking life is a lot of "next verse, same as the first," but I didn't want the reader to feel stuck simply because I was. The second half I wrote much faster, but I had to fight against recovery cliches and my own concern that the reader would lose interest as soon as I quit drinking. Emotionally, both sections were hard. I did the audio book for this, and I had claw marks in my hands from trying not to cry through the last few chapters. Not that it's sad – some of it is quite happy, in fact – just that I feel so grateful for those relationships. They carried me through.
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