Fiction Points: Kristi Coulter

KristiKristi Coulter is the author of Nothing Good Can Come from This (MCD Books x FSG Originals 2018), a memoir in essays centered on her struggle to quit drinking alcohol. Coulter has published in New York Magazine/The CutParis ReviewLongreads, and elsewhere, including a forthcoming Amazon Original, “Yes, And,” on love, monogamy, and secrets. She is a former Ragdale Foundation fellow, National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts grant recipient, and Hugo House guest lecturer. Coulter holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan and resides in Seattle. Nothing Good Can Come from This 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 you what you write about, how do you answer?

“Do you guys realize your outfits all sort of match? No, it’s cute! It’s totally working for you.” 

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

Alcohol as a marker of liberation and equality has loomed large in feminist popular history/culture, from the flappers to Sex and the City to the more recent trend of booze-soaked play dates and wines with names like Mommyjuice. Which is all well and good if you aren’t an addict. I am *totally* an addict, and once I dug my way out of my own drunk-woman subculture (hard-driving urban professional), I started to realize the same white wine that had seemed like a feminist pleasure trophy had also kept me complacent about double standards and inequities in my career and daily life. I’d been fooled by marketing and pop culture and my own damn brain into believing I was ‘having it all,’ when really I was self-medicating in part to tolerate a life I hated. I’m not remotely suggesting that every woman who enjoys a drink is a tool of the patriarchy, or un-feminist. But I do think alcohol and drugs–like cigarettes before them–are often marketed as proof of liberation, when in reality there’s nothing *less* threatening to the status quo as a bunch of muddle-headed, hungover women who just want to make it through their daily chores to that next glass of mommy juice.

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

I had expected to find sobriety boring, but it turned out to be fascinating, and even more unexpectedly, funny. I mean, suddenly I was navigating familiar situations without the one coping tool I’d relied on for a decade. It may not *sound* like comedy gold, but I tend to find absurdist humor in a lot of unlikely places, and I realized it was a classic fish-out-of-water (or wine) setup. I started keeping a blog to capture some of those comic details–and the less-comic ones, too–and the blog led to essays, which led to me accidentally coming out as sober to the *entire globe* when one self-published essay, “Enjoli,” went mega-viral, which led to a book deal for Nothing Good Can Come from This, my memoir-in-essays about drinking and not drinking.

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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?

It took me a while to realize that I even wanted to write a book about my addiction and sobriety. There are so many addiction memoirs out there already, and often even the great ones follow a classic template where ever-escalating thrills and risks lead to a very hard, dramatic crash, which leads to rehab/AA…and then that’s kind of the end. But my own drinking and sobriety didn’t fit that narrative arc. I didn’t lose my job or my family to drinking. I didn’t get arrested. I quit because I was just (“just,” she says!) tired of thinking and worrying about drinking 24/7, tired that my life had narrowed to that one pinhole-sized focus. And when I stopped, it wasn’t through rehab or AA, just therapy and a lot of introspection and writing and the stubbornness to wait out the hard parts so the better days could come. And, as I mentioned above, I found sobriety to be not only comedy gold, but *much* more interesting than my drinking days–but I assumed readers would only want the gory drinking details, since most of the addiction classics focus on those.

Finally I thought “Hey dummeh [imagine I am saying this in the voice of Fred Sanford from Sanford and Son], maybe all these reasons not to write a book are why you *should* write a book.” I realized there was space in the canon or whatever for an irreverent, non-traditional, very specifically *female* addiction story–or sobriety story, really, since that’s what I chose to focus on. And I decided to be playful with the structure, because neither my addiction or sobriety has felt like an A-to-Z classic narrative journey. So I wrote NGCCFT with a prism in mind, or that Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”–examining exactly what the hell happened from a bunch of different angles and through different forms. Some essays in the collection are straightforward narrative but there’s also a quiz, a letter to a college friend, some instructions, etc. I could only tell my story prismatically because that’s how I lived it.

As far as having drugs in my writing arsenal, I can only say I might not be writing at all, or certainly not as consistently, without my longtime companion Effexor. It’s not a “fun” drug, but it’s a drug that makes fun a possibility for me.

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?

I realized halfway through writing NCGGFT that I was actually writing about my drunk and sober attempts to satisfy the eternal human craving for *something*–completeness, God, ecstasy–that for most of us will never be quite filled. I’m infinitely happier in sobriety than I was as a drinker, but I still crave completeness, ecstasy, etc. I still have deep wants. And I don’t feel a need to pathologize those cravings and wants. Often, they’re just the human condition. Since completing NGCCFT, I’ve published essays on sex and marriage and music, and I’m currently working on something about ambition, and the problem-slash-joy of want is at the heart of all of it. I find it both fascinating and feminist–women aren’t really supposed to want things for themselves, only for other people–so I imagine it can take me pretty far as a writer.

BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that Nothing Good Can Come from This gets made into a major motion picture. What song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?

In a nod to the eternal craving described above, the epigraph to the book comes from the Replacements song “Unsatisfied”: “Look me in the eye and tell me that I’m satisfied.” It’s my way of telling the reader up front that this is not going to be a story of a wayward woman who ends up in a state of 24-7 gratitude and contentment just because she moved past addiction. So I’d have to end the film the same way. Plus, you know how some credits start out slowly, with one major name per screen, and then the roll starts for everyone else? Well, “Unsatisfied” has a long, spare guitar intro and then opens up into a full, driving melody, so it would work *perfectly* for that credit format. Can you tell I’ve given this some thought, down to who should dress me for the premiere? (Balenciaga.)

Fiction Points: Red Dirt Marijuana by Terry Southern

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY.

As the globetrotting mass of drug historians have been preparing to make their way to Shanghai for the bi-annual conference over the last few days, I (who am, unfortunately, not attending) had a chance to sit down and read some fiction. I don’t often get a chance to read much fiction. I have a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five on a shelf on my desk, and the bookmark has been on page 50 since the day I purchased the book for the trip to Dwight, IL, for the ADHS conference there in 2016.

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The original hardcover edition

But this latest literary indulgence was more directly research-related. Terry Southern’s collection of short stories entitled Red Dirt Marijuana and other Tastes has been on my list following a very productive archive trip to New York City two summers ago. I spent a few days (not nearly enough) in the Henry W and Albert A Berg Collection of English and American Literature at the New York Public Library, checking out the collected papers of a number of Beat writers like Jack Kerouac, William S Burroughs and others.

My dissertation research is formulating an argument about a marijuana culture in the United States beyond the Beats, with which it is commonly associated in the period prior to the 1960s. My initial reasoning was simply because this cultural movement has received plenty of coverage by literary figures and historians of the period. But I didn’t want to pass up an opportunity to look at the Beat archives during my time at the New York Public Library. Southern’s papers contained drafts of a couple of the stories (including the title work) as well as some correspondence between Southern and other literary and showbiz figures from the fifties through the nineties. (Southern died in 1995.)

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