Dan Barden is a professor in the Creative Writing Program at Butler University in Indiana. His essays have appeared in Esquire, GQ, Details, and Poets and Writers, among other journals and anthologies. He is the author of the novels John Wayne: A Novel (Doubleday, 1997) and The Next Right Thing (Dial Press, 2012). The latter is a crime mystery set inside a recovery story, told by a hardboiled ex-cop for the ages. Check out the novel’s Amazon.com page for a glimpse of the rave reviews it received in all the right places, from The Atlantic to TheFix.com. He speaks to us today about the human beings who inspired it.
Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them that you’re a writer. When they ask you what your last book was about, how do you answer?
I’d like to think I’d have a different answer for the nuns than I did for the penguin. To the nuns, I would say that I was trying to justify the ways of God to man insofar as the book — The Next Right Thing, which is a literary crime novel set among a community of AA members — is about what I find beautiful and honorable and appealing in the lives of men and women who are recovering from addiction to alcohol and drugs.
Why would God do this to these folks? Why would He vex them so much with these intractable emotional and spiritual problems? And then make them so charming and wonderful on top of all those vexing and intractable problems? To the penguin, I would say that the book is about how strangely human beings are to love each other in the strange ways that they love each other.
Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about The Next Right Thing?
I hope that The Next Right Thing is a novel about the beauty of codependence, if such a thing is even possible. I guess I wasn’t kidding when I just said that thing about “justifying the ways of God to man.” It really bewilders me that I have spent so much of my life loving alcoholics and addicts. I’m one myself, of course. But I really still think that they’re the most wonderful, amazing, and beautiful people. I just adore them. I have always adored them, beginning with my own father. And yet they’re such a problem. They are, all of them, such incredible pains in the ass. They fill the prisons. They cause so much misery in the world. And yet I just adore them. The book is about that adoration. It was a story constructed from my fucked-up love for these fucked-up people. And I’m using the descriptor “fucked-up” in a clinical sense.
What led you to write about alcohol and drugs in the first place?
It occurred to me that many of the crime novels I loved — particularly in the hard-boiled genre pioneered by Raymond Chandler – were really about codependence — in the sense that they were about people who had unhealthy relationships with addicts and alcoholics. When I figured that out, I felt like I’d split the atom. It made sense of so much that I’d been thinking about all my life. I had been interested for a long time in writing a story about someone who had overdosed on heroin after a long time clean and sober, and this insight about codependence gave me the story that I was looking for. It gave me a way to write about a relationship that I’d always wanted to write about.
How would you describe the way that drugs and alcohol function in The Next Right Thing, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a story? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs/alcohol weren’t in your writing arsenal?
The characters in this book are haunted in a way that I completely identify with. Reality, an ordinary day on this planet earth, never seems like quite enough for them. A friend of mine put it to me this way: “If a mushroom cloud appeared above Los Angeles this afternoon, I would know what to do. I would be well-organized, efficient, and maybe even content in my response to that kind of huge disaster. It’s just an ordinary afternoon during the summer that makes me want to kill myself. I don’t deal well with ordinary.” For me, it’s that hauntedness that interests me, and that hauntedness is about addiction. That hauntedness is about a person who was designed, perhaps even genetically, but certainly spiritually, to love alcohol and drugs. I myself was born with this sense that life itself was not enough, that an ordinary day was just not good enough, that you had to jack it up somehow, give it some extra drama. That’s me as an addict. But I also love people like that. I love their predicament. I love their desperate need for an experience that’s somehow larger than their own experience. They break my heart and I admire the hell out of them at the same time.
What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs/alcohol work in your writing? Where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?
I’ve always wanted to write about God — I’m back with those nuns again — and I never knew how I could. Walker Percy could do it, and I grew up wanting to be Walker Percy. When I write about drugs and alcohol, I’m writing about a thirst for God — for that spiritual wholeness that drugs and alcohol promise (and almost deliver). It’s my way to write fiction about our yearning for union with something greater than ourselves. If that makes me sound like an asshole, I’m going to blame those nuns for starting this conversation in the first place.
BONUS QUESTION: If The Next Right Thing gets made into a major motion picture, what song do you hear playing as the credits roll?
I really hope no one ever asks me this question because there are so many awesome songs and I would hate to be responsible for a bad pick, but I think, for now, I’ve gotta go with “Thousand Dollar Wedding” by Gram Parsons. That song has always seemed emblematic of a certain kind of gorgeous despair.