Fiction Points: Amy Long

 

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Amy Long is the author of Codependence: Essays (Cleveland State University Poetry Center 2019) and a founding member of the Points editorial board. She has worked for drug policy reform and free speech advocacy groups in California, D.C., and New York; as a bookseller at Bookpeople in Austin, TX; and as an English instructor at Virginia Tech and Northwest Florida State College. Her essays have appeared in Best American Experimental Writing 2015Ninth Letter, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere, including as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2018. Codependence is her first book.

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask what you write about, how do you answer?

“Myself. I find myself inherently interest–sorry, I’m maybe having a Topamax flashback. You’re sure that penguin’s really here?” And then I’d probably ask the bartender for a cup of water, down a Klonopin, and run like mad out of there.

Points is primarily a blog for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?

The juxtaposition of medicinal and recreational opioid use would probably most interest drug historians, as would the descriptions of “doctor shopping” in 2003 versus 2012 and 2015. All the events in Codependence take place prior to implementation of the 2016 CDC guideline, and it’s harder now to find doctors who are willing to write opioids in doses high enough to actually control serious pain. My ex-boyfriend David, a major figure in the book, was a master doctor shopper back when it was still easy to get opioids from a doctor for any relatively believable pain complaint, and I doubt even he could get them now. I don’t give him credit for much, but watching him trick doctors into writing him pain pills taught me how to act in pain management offices and is likely a major reason I’m still able to treat my intractable headaches with opioids in today’s restrictive climate. It’s not that I’m lying; I wish I were! But he taught me how to present myself and that presentation matters.

I also hope literary historians like reading a drug memoir that doesn’t end in recovery or tie up in a neat bow. Feminist historians interested in relationships similar to the one I was in as an older teenager and college student might find something interesting about the emotionally abusive, codependent dynamic David and I share.

Scholars interested in gender disparities in medicine will hopefully appreciate reading about my experience as a pain patient with a “women’s problem.” I experiment with non-opioid headache medications, too, and depict my use of illicit drugs such as marijuana and LSD, which should interest historians who study medicine and pharmacology. I was also an early Suboxone adopter  (at one point in the book, I get off opioids entirely and stay off for a year, but I go back to them after I get dependent on Advil–Advil!), and I write a good bit about how quitting alcohol (it’s a migraine trigger) affects my social life, so there’s something for everyone!

Mostly, though, I’m writing about opioids and other drugs, pain, addiction, dependence, recovery, and mental health in ways that I’ve never seen represented in literature, so the essays work as a sort of case studies in what it’s been like to rely on opioids during the past 15-plus years.

 

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What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?

I started Codependence in my MFA program. I always knew that I wanted to put these two kinds of drug-related experiences in conversation with each other, but I thought I’d write it as a novel until I took a creative nonfiction workshop with Matthew Vollmer in my second semester. That class totally changed the way I think about writing and even just being a person. I narrated my drug history in a medicine cabinet as my final project (if you’re ever at Virginia Tech, ask Matthew if you can see it; he’s its executor!) and used that as an outline for my thesis, which turned into this book. But drugs have been a big part of my life since I was 18, so I was always going to address it in some way. To me, Codependence is the book I had to write in order to ever write anything else. But my writing will probably always involve drugs in some way. I mean, I take three drugs right when I wake up; they’re hard to ignore!

How would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a narrative? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?

Nearly every decision I made had something to do with drugs. I needed a way to wrap a coming-of-age story into one about a druggy relationship and a medical memoir without using chronology to connect the dots. There’s no way I could have left drugs out of the book. But I spent a lot of time thinking about how I’d use them. Codependence is an essay collection, but it’s also a non-linear memoir or memoir in essays; the essays touch on different parts of or events from my life, but they create a distinct arc when you read all of them together, so I had to decide when it was right to introduce certain elements. For example, the first essay centers on me telling my mom that I’m back on opioids, and the second kind of sums up my relationship with David, but neither refers to the events depicted in the other, and readers have to figure out as they go how those two strands connect. I didn’t want to spell it out, and there’s a degree to which I don’t know what it means that I used to take drugs for fun, and now I take them to treat chronic pain either, so building a sort of puzzle-like, incantatory narrative structure made up of essays that might not always seem related puts the reader in a position similar to mine, which is the other thing I most wanted to do: trap the audience in my body, my head, my pain so that the book mirrors both chronic pain and addiction and hopefully builds in some empathy (I know, I’m really great at selling this: “Let me trap you in my pain!”).

About half the essays use received forms (I’ve seen them called hermit-crab essays, but I call them “formally inventive”) such as a map or a series of glossary entries. One of my favorites is a set of six prescription-informatic-like essays that tell the story of my and David’s relationship. After I wrote it, a friend said, “You’ve found your form! You could write the whole book like that,” but I thought writing about drugs in a drug-label format would be too on the nose. I included the glossary in part because I wanted to catalog all the migraine and headache medications I’ve tried, but I also thought readers might need actual definitions of some things, especially since I can’t assume that all my readers have had the prodigious drug experiences I’ve had! So, decisions about how to write about drugs played an important role in shaping the narrative, its structure, and the meanings it can make.

What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?

Mostly, I like that I blur the boundaries around medicinal and recreational drug use or abuse, and I’m interested in stories that don’t really resolve at the book’s end. In my next project, I’d like drugs to take something of a back seat to other themes, but I know what I want to write next, and I can’t do it without writing about drugs again! And I like writing about drugs. Maybe what most interests me is looking at how to live in a drug-dependent body without letting drugs structure every interaction, every thought, every relationship, even though there is a way in which they have to for me.

BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope [oh, we hope!] Codependence gets made into a major motion picture. What song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?

“Dance, Dance” by Castanets

Raymond Raposa, whose band is Castanets, and I are going on tour together this fall (we launch the book at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn on Sept. 14!), but I started thinking of that song as my “credits song” for a long time, way before I knew Ray and I were doing the tour (I have been thinking about this answer for literal years!). It just really captures the feelings and themes of the last essay and of the book as a whole. It’s evocative and paints this kind of bleak but beautiful picture in a way that’s similar to what the  book does.

Fiction Points: Sophia Shalmiyev

Sophia-Shalmiyev_c-Thomas-TealSophia Shalmiyev’s first book, Mother Winter (Simon & Schuster 2019), is a memoir of immigration and motherhood. She holds an MFA from Portland State University and a second master’s degree in creative arts therapy from the School of Visual Arts. Shalmiyev was born in the Soviet Union; emigrated from Leningrad to New York in 1990; and now resides in Portland, Oregon with her two children.

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

I write about feminism across genres because closets, gag orders, hangers, boys’ clubs, and a fear of jogging in the park at night are still weapons used against us. Also, inconsolable loss.

Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?

That my mother was seen as a lost cause, especially because she was a woman with a familial history of alcohol abuse, and no one knew how to help her or have empathy for her plight. I have a line in my book where my father’s university professor back in the Soviet Union instructs him to steal me away from her and give up on his wife getting sober because of some made-up diagnosis called Stage II Severe Alcoholism in Woman. She was considered terminal. I am a product of that traumatic theft, but I also lived without the added chaos of addiction in my household. The violence, poverty, and emotional instability from my father was challenging enough.

What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?

First of all—a drunk girl is the biggest target for violence. The men who willfully and casually misuse their power will find the sloppy girl with falling lids and swoop in (and there is nothing wrong with being that girl, yet we are judged way more harshly for losing control). What if even one woman ever thought in such a predatory way about men? Not that it has to be that bad, because men just interrupting our fun when we are out and following us around and acting creepy because they hope our defenses are down is scary and a real drag, to say the least. The irony of taking a substance to get loose and forget your troubles only to find more of the same trouble in the form of sexual violence or even a coerced or manipulated experience is my nightmare.mother-winter-9781501193088_lg

I spent my twenties trying to get closer to my estranged mother by taking drugs and drinking to black out. I didn’t know how to survive being motherless and wondered if I am doomed to be just like her–so much of what we are told about addiction is that it is genetic–and, yet, I came through mostly all right somehow. It wasn’t my cross to drag on my back, it turned out, though I do tend to have problematic drinking from time to time.

How would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a narrative? Do you think there are things you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?

I do write in a feverish way, but with a lens trained on reconstruction and a posed, theatrically bratty tone around serious issues–no one with money actually cares that much about studying women’s health. Hahahaha. So, let us die, I guess. Our holes of mystery are vast when it comes to estrogen, socialized subordination, and emotional labor women perform and how that folds into substance abuse and recovery. I have this great insight, through never having to reject my mother because I was taken away from her, the shamed and shunned alcoholic, that allows me empathy and nuance. I often say that a useless woman is a dead woman. That’s a mother under the influence. She must heal herself through community and self reflection, which requires the luxury of alone time and the grace of a collective, but we insist that she shut up and be nice and take care of us instead, dammit. A useless man is a man waited on and soothed; his self-destruction is stoic or romantic. We [women] are garbage if we fail at being clean and come clean as good worker bees and maternal influences.

What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs function in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?

My interest in bringing to life discarded and desecrated bodies will keep being a thread in my next book, a novel called I Married the Butcher to Get to the Bone. Addiction is also about trying to mute the ringing bells of fight or flight so that one can feel peace and ease rather than an alarm going off at all times, screaming hold me. I am fragmented. I also see charm and sense of humor and the adventure my mother (and sometimes I) chased when drinking socially. I took drugs almost exclusively due to peer pressure–welcomed peer pressure. I wanted to bond at all costs, and I wanted to fall down a well in a pile of like-minded bodies with heads dangling.

BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that Mother Winter gets made into a major motion picture. If you have your choice, which is it, and what song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?

X-Ray Spex, “Germ Free Adolescents

Fiction Points: Sarah Gerard

SarahbyDavidSarah Gerard is the author of a novel, Binary Star (2015); two chapbooks, BFF (2015)  and Things I Told My Mother (2013); and a forthcoming collection of essays, Sunshine State, centered on her childhood in Florida, the home state she shares with PointsShe also writes a monthly column on artists’ notebooks, “Paper Trail” for Hazlitt. Gerard’s chapbooks garnered praise from tastemakers such as Hobart and The Rumpus, and Binary Star received glowing reviews from, among other publications, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, NPR, Vanity Fair, and The Los Angeles Times, which chose the book as a finalist for its Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction.  Buzzfeed, Flavorwire, Largehearted Boy, NPR, and Vanity Fair put Gerard’s debut novel on their 2015 year-end lists. Her short stories, essays, and criticism have appeared in venues including BOMB Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times, New York Magazine’s “The Cut,” The Paris Review Daily, and Vice, as well as in anthologies for Joyland and The Saturday Evening Post. She teaches writing in New York City and has been a visiting writer at the University of Maine, The New School, Pratt, and other institutions.

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

I write about the intersection of arctic birds and religion. Can I interview you?

Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?

Well, the protagonist of Binary Star is anorexic and addicted to diet pills. Her boyfriend is an alcoholic and takes his psychiatric medication not exactly as prescribed. So, they may find that interesting. I write about drugs and alcohol in a rather different way in my essay collection, which I’m finishing now. I kind of toy with the boundaries of what is a drug: alcohol is a drug, ecstasy is a drug, but is religion also a drug? Is capitalism? Is success? Also, I don’t like to categorically vilify drugs and alcohol. Sometimes recreational drugs are a lot of fun, and sometimes they’re used as medication when another isn’t available. Continue reading →

Fiction Points: Eileen Cronin

CRONINEileen Cronin is a writer and clinical psychologist. Her book Mermaid: A Memoir of Resilience (2014) centers on her search for the truth about her body and the role that the drug thalidomide played in its shape, her childhood in a large Catholic family, her mother’s mental illness, her marriage, and her own struggles with alcohol. In addition to nonfiction, Cronin writes poetry and fiction. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Bellevue Literary Review, Los Angeles Times, Third Coast,  and Best American Essays, among other venues. She also writes for The Huffington Post. Mermaid appeared on O, The Oprah Magazine‘s Best Memoirs of 2014 list and Pop Sugar‘s “Must Reads of 2014.” In 2008, Cronin won the Washington Writing Prize for Short Fiction. Her nonfiction has earned her a Pushcart Prize nomination, and her two novels were finalists for the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Award for Novels-in-Progress. Cronin serves as an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine and lives in Los Angeles. 

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

I can’t help but to notice the resemblance between these folks at the bar. But I don’t ask about that, nor do I tell them that I have written about a nun who looked like a penguin when she ran. Instead I tell them what I have in common with them. I write about Catholics, sort of like Alice McDermott but with a bit more of an edge. Continue reading →

Fiction Points: Chloe Caldwell

Chloe Caldwell in Kingston, NY for Grazia 5/31/14Chloe Caldwell is the author of the novella WOMEN (2014) and the essay collection Legs Get Led Astray (2012). Her work has appeared in VICE, Salon, The Rumpus, The Sun, Men’s Health, several anthologies (including Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York)and elsewhere. Lena Dunham named WOMEN among her 10 Favorite Books in the New York Times, and Caldwell’s work has earned her praise from Bitch Magazine, Buzzfeed Books, The Master’s Review, and Publisher’s Weekly, among others. Coffee House Press/Emily Books will publish her next essay collection, I’ll Tell You in Person, in October 2016.

 

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

This is my worst nightmare. I change what I write about depending on who I’m talking to and what I think they can ingest. I meet them where they are. So female! When I’m talking to a parent’s friend or something, I say, travel essays. I really dislike talking about my work with strangers. It takes away the magic of the work. I suck at talking about my work. I’d rather have it speak for itself. So I’d probably get guarded and weird and tell them I wrote a novella. Then I’d text my friends saying OMFG there’s a penguin and a nun in this bar.

Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?

I’m stumped!

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What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?

Because I was using drugs and alcohol and writing about my life. So….was inevitable.

How would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a narrative? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?

The essay I wrote “Heroin and Acne” for Salon is a good example of this. I like exploring gray areas and middle grounds of themes. Our culture always wants people to be black or white: you’re either a drug addict or you’re not. You’re either a lesbian or your straight. I’ve struggled with identity issues throughout my twenties (like everyone) because often I fell in between, and there weren’t many narratives for me to read that were coming from that place, so I wanted to write them.

What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?

WOMENI like how drugs and alcohol inform the narrator’s choices in WOMEN. One event in the book is the narrator moves to a new town to get away from the drugs she’s doing, but she finds Finn and begins an addictive relationship with her. I’m interested in any addictive behaviors. in my own life, in books and films, in my friends’ lives, and I don’t mean with drugs and alcohol specifically—with the internet, chocolate, fruit, exercise, coffee.

I’m not sure where it will lead me in future projects. I don’t do drugs anymore, but I still reflect on them a ton and am always fascinated with them as much as I am with recovery and health. It’s important to me to un-cliche the way addiction and recovery stories are told. The ways people stay physically and mentally healthy are just as if not more fascinating than addiction stories.

BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that your novella Women gets made into a major motion picture. If you have your choice, which is it, and what song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?

Better Off” by Haim or “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” by Natalie Prass or “Daydreaming” by Dark Dark Dark.

Fiction Points: Scott McClanahan

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Scott McClanahan (credit: HTMLGiant)

Scott McClanahan is the author of the novel Hill William (2013), the nonfiction work Crapalachia: A Biography of Place (2013), and the short story collections Stories (2008), Stories II (2009), Stories V! (2011), and The Collected Works of Scott McClanahan Vol. 1 (2012), which includes the out-of-print Stories and Stories II. He cofounded the production company and press Holler Presents with Chris Oxley, who plays beside McClanahan in the band Holler Boys. McClanahan also makes films, available online via Holler Presents. Crapalachia received positive reviews from the New York TimesThe Paris Review, Paste, and The Washington Post, among others; The Huffington Post gave Stories V! a heartfelt rave, and The Fader has called McClanahan “one of [its] favorite writers.”  He appeared on Dzanc Books’ “20 Writers to Watch: An Alternate List” list in 2010 and won Philadelphia’s third Literary Death Match in 2012. He lives in West Virginia with his wife, the writer Juliet Escoria, who has also been featured on Points.

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

First, I’d never introduce myself as a writer, but I’d probably ask them about being a nun or a penguin. That seems a hell of a lot more interesting. I think if you found a penguin talking you should probably ask the talking penguin about how it learned to talk rather than babbling about your stupid writing. “Well, it’s called flash fiction Mr. Penguin because it’s really short and flashy.” Nah. Continue reading →

Fiction Points: Elissa Washuta

elissawashutapicElissa Washuta is the author of Starvation Mode: A Memoir of Food, Consumption, and Control (2015) and My Body is a Book of Rules (2014), the latter of which was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. Washuta has received fellowships and awards from Artist Trust, 4Culture, Potlatch Fund, and Hugo House. Her essays have appeared in Buzzfeed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Literary HubSalon, Third Coast, and elsewhere. Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and teaches nonfiction in the Institute for American Indian Arts’ MFA program, where she is also the faculty advisor for Mud City Journal. Additionally, she serves as the undergraduate advisor for the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington, from which she earned her MFA. She lives outside Seattle.

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

Differently than I would answer almost anyone else, probably, because my first book, My Body Is a Book of Rules, is about sex, (psych) drugs, violence, alcohol, Indigenous identity, and the nuns who tried to teach me how to live. I might whisper to the penguin that I still have all the issues of Cosmopolitan from December 2007 to May 2011 that I used to create a quote-comparison of the magazine’s sex tips and text from The Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?

Prescribing Information,” one of the chapters in My Body Is a Book of Rules, takes the form of a list of the prescription drugs for bipolar disorder I used and, occasionally, abused between 2006 and 2009. The voice is inspired by that of the information pharmacies dispense alongside prescription drugs. Throughout the book, I write about the effects—helpful and harmful—of those drugs, including Seroquel, Abilify, Xanax, Ativan, and lithium. Continue reading →