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August 11, 2015 | Interview

Blackout: an Interview with Sarah Hepola

Chloe Caldwell

Blackout: an Interview with Sarah Hepola photo

Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget (Grand Central) by Sarah Hepola is a meditation on life, on the complexities of being a woman and a writer, an alcoholic, a friend…The memoir deconstructs destructive behavior.

Sarah Hepola began drinking beer at age seven (sneaking sips from the fridge) and stopped drinking at thirty-five. In Blackout, she explores uncomfortable terrain: why we drink, why we overeat, why we hide ourselves, numb ourselves, unravel only to piece ourselves back together.

I thought I’d never experienced a blackout. (I learned in the book not everyone has them – something to do with the hippocampus.) I finished the memoir near the fourth of July, then went to a wedding. I took a bus home that night and woke up the next morning to find I’d eaten all of my roommate’s food and shattered glass on my bedroom floor. I had no memory of participating in either activity.

(Elizabeth Ellen and I were texting the other night about writing a memoir called Clarity. (She was taking a thirty day ‘hiatus’ from drinking.) We joked that no one would want to read a memoir of a woman who didn’t drink to excess, who was in control of her emotions and her life, who awoke every morning ‘refreshed’…How boring a book that would be!, we said. No one would buy/read a book like that!)

Sarah Hepola is one of those alcoholics who are still really fun once they get sober. When I saw her read from Blackout in June, I, along with most others in the audience, was enraptured by her charisma. Writers are supposed to be insecure; read quickly and then got off stage. Not Sarah. I could have watched her read for hours. Similarly, I didn’t want her book to end. It’s necessary, vulnerable, and intelligent, and almost scary in its poignancy.

-C.C.

***

CC: I related deeply to your complicated relationship with attention throughout the book. You write, I swear Ive spent half my life hiding behind the couch while wondering why no one was looking at me. Im the same way. When men walk towards me I become guarded and unapproachable and give off a Dont fucking talk to me vibe, and then when they dont fucking talk to me, I berate myself like, Im not attractive enough. Why didnt that guy talk to me? How have you dealt with these conflicting feelings? Do you think most writers feel this way?

SH: David Foster Wallace used to talk about being shy but also an exhibitionist. Writers crave attention and invisibility at the same time, an impossible wish. I also think the conflict is more intense for women, because of course there is a reward system set up through the male gaze — you gain power for sexual attractiveness — but you also become subject to scrutiny, judgment, and rejection. Like a lot of women, I resent the idea that I’m beholden to any man for my power. So it’s like: Who the fuck said I wanted your approval? But I’m also an inveterate people pleaser, and so when the guy passes me by, it’s like: Wait a minute, why don’t you like me? Eeesh, it’s a mess.

A few years ago, I did a story about Gloria Steinem and the current feminist movement, and I interviewed a writer named Laura Kipnis, whom I admire. She said one of the defining experiences of Western women today is internal conflict. I didn’t end up using that quote, but it echoed in my brain while I was writing this book. There were hundreds of ways in which my head and heart were split, or my politics dictated I go left but my ego or hormones dictated I go right, or society told me one thing and my mother told me the opposite. Just conflict, conflict, through and through. How do you navigate those competing forces? One way I managed it was to drink, which took the dilemmas out of my hand, but also left me with these evenings when my behaviors weren’t necessarily the real me. Or maybe they were, and I was just repressed. I didn’t know! It was all very confusing. You should not make alcohol the spokesperson for your true desires. You should figure that shit out on your own. 

 

CC: That makes so much sense to me, internal conflict definitely colors my days.

I loved the way you chronicled your twenty-year relationship with your best friend Anna throughout the memoir. Theres a terse scene nearing the end where you say to Anna, I dont think you know how hard it is to be single and alone, and she retorts, I dont think you know how hard it is so be married with children.

Did you share the bits about Anna or drafts of the book with her as you wrote it? Or did she only read it when it came out? Were you worried about how she would be portrayed?

SH: I sent her pages, but before that, she and I had a long conversation, in which I talked about some of the tension and sadness lingering on my side of the world. A lot of this was news to her. I think she was genuinely surprised by how shaken I’d been by a few exchanges — like the text message I sent after her daughter was born — and I felt like a drama queen for carrying around this small, insignificant moment like an albatross for three years. It was the first of several complicated and important conversations we’ve had since then, each of which brought us closer. 

Female friendships are based on “being there” for each other, and it’s a sad fact of life that we parted paths that summer: I went into the lonely valley of sobriety at the same time she went into the lonely valley of motherhood. We no longer had advice for each other. We no longer knew the right thing to say. She needed space at the exact moment I needed closeness. But it’s probably a good thing she wasn’t there, because I had to dig myself out of that ditch. The stronger we each became, the more we could connect again. As far as how she comes off in the book, her only complaint is that she’s actually funnier than I make her seem, which is true. I’ll work on that for the next round.

 

CC: Why were there no acknowledgements section in the book?

SH: I actually wrote an acknowledgements section. It was a personal essay about how the book came into being, which was not at all a solo journey. I’d been studying acknowledgement sections in other books, and what struck me was how lame they often were. Writers who would probably slave over commas and word choices for hundreds of pages would lapse into this cliched, hyperbolic praise. Best ever. Couldnt have done it without you. Eagle-eye, etc. I had to be different, right?

So I’m finishing up this essay at 2am, the night before the entire manuscript is due, and I honestly couldn’t stop. 2500 words grew to 4000 words. The more people I thanked, the more people I had to include. At one point, I was thanking the barista at this coffee shop in midtown, and I was like: OK, what am I doing? Meanwhile, I’m struggling with an anonymity issue. The people I want to thank the most are the people who don’t necessarily want their names out there, especially people who’d asked me to protect their identities. I felt like I was giving the reader a decoder ring.

I started googling about acknowledgements sections, and I discovered all this controversy about them. I read a few op-ed pieces against the practice, and found them pretty persuasive. I started questioning why I read them, because I always do, and I think it’s mostly to dig for clues. What famous people do you know? What fancy writing workshops did you attend? In other words: How come you wrote a book, and I didn’t? Also, if the book is a novel, I think you want to hear the writer’s real voice, but I’d just written 230 pages in my real voice. This unwieldy 4000-word epic was starting to sound like someone who refused to get off the stage after curtain call. So, at the eleventh hour, I made the decision to ditch it. The only part I regret is any suggestion that I did this all by myself. And I wish my agent, Amy Williams, and my editor at Grand Central, Helen Atsma, had their names in that book, because they are seriously the best ever. Maybe I’ll write something for the paperback. 

 

CC: I love that answer. Do it for the paperback! Im an acknowledgement junkie.

I appreciated the way you wrote so much about binge eating. The foods you binged on were my choice foods to numb myself as well: bread and cheese. Sometimes people say they will stop drinking to lose weight but I liked how you were open about bridging the gap between 6pm and midnight with food. How did you get your eating under control? Do you still consider bingeing and do you have any tips for people who struggle?

SH: What’s crazy is how much of a clean swap my drinking and eating were. The second I shut down the liquor store, the candy store opened (which was more like a candy store that sold foot-long lasagna trays). What I began to realize is that I had no healthy ways to respond to stress and emotional triggers, but I was stressed and emotional all the time. That’s a bad combo, to be highly ambitious with no way to soothe yourself aside from a Chipotle burrito or two bottles of Cabernet. I don’t think I could have gotten my eating under control working that insanely stressful job at Salon, putting in 70 hours a week. I don’t think I could have done it while living in New York either, which is a city that feeds all my worst habits: eat trash, don’t exercise, sleep poorly, work all the time, slog, slog, slog. 

Moving to Dallas disrupted that hamster wheel. I had all this time on my hands. So much quiet. What am I going to do? Well, why don’t I take a walk around the lake with a friend? Why don’t I go over to my mom’s house, where she eats homemade yogurt with my father on the porch every afternoon? That slower pace allowed me to pay more attention to my body, so I wasn’t simply dive-bombing it with crap designed to distract me from the pain of my life. That’s what drinking and eating had become for me: A pain management system. So how do you fix it? You try to remove the pain.

That said, I still struggle with binge eating. The last month has been bad. There is this weird compulsion in me that when I feel really vulnerable, I want to eat until I hurt. Why is that? Am I punishing myself? Hiding? Just distracting myself from the maw of fear that is putting a memoir into the world? I don’t know, but my cheese enchilada consumption has gone off the charts.

 

CC: Going to your reading in Austin was special for me. Id been waiting for your book for over 9 months. I didnt know you were from Texas, didnt know you were blonde, didnt know you were reading at Book People, but was coincidentally at Book People and saw the poster that you were reading the next night. You edited and published my essay Heroin & Acne, which was difficult and ugly for me to publish. It was a pivotal moment for meexposing something so private, and having your support was memorable. Do you like your job? Do you ever get sick of reading through peoples traumas? Was it draining or inspiring to write your book while also working on everyone elses nonfiction? Or both?

SH: I will never get sick of reading about other people’s difficulties as long as I have my own to navigate. It helps me make sense of my own behavior, as well as the larger world. It places my puny problems into perspective. Storytelling offers a lot of what I sought from drinking: escape, companionship, exhilaration, peace. And reading those stories while I was working on my own book was instructive. You get a better sense of what works and what’s cliched. 

But I get tired of reading bad personal essays. Boring stories, written in a blurt, lacking in self-awareness or any larger insight as to why this story might matter, as if we’re all entitled to a stranger’s attention. Most people are not interested in your life. They’re interested in their lives, and how you might help make sense of it. I get tired of not having the time to work on stories the way I should, and I get tired of certain demands of the online marketplace, like provocative headlines or online commenters — which, by the way, have gotten much better at Salon since we hired moderators. But I will always enjoy being halted in my tracks by someone telling me something I didn’t know, or did know but hadn’t heard articulated in quite that way. In your story, I could sense from the first sentences that you were telling me the truth, which is exciting to a reader. Finding a piece like that in the slush box is a little bit like falling in love. 

 

CC: That is kind of you to sayI swear I wasnt fishing. Well, maybe A little.

 I watched you do a reading on Youtube called Cooking With The Gas. In the essay you read, you talk about waking up in a dog bed after not knowing your own address. People are laughing heartily. Do you think this is part of the problem, the way our culture looks at our drunken behavior and tell us were funny, celebrating reckless behavior? For example, Amy Schumers film Trainwreck. Its exciting women are now writing films about messier, truer, complex, women. But drinking is always a huge part of the mess. Have you seen the movie? Will you?

SH: I saw Trainwreck. Amy Schumer is a bad ass, and so needed right now. But that movie is occasionally cutesy on a topic that is serious to me, so the scene where she wakes up after a blackout in a guy’s apartment in Staten Island, for instance, isn’t going to get much of a laugh from me. But I love that she is out there, poking fun at our own absurdities and hypocrisies. Drunk people are ridiculous. They make ridiculous decisions and wind up in ridiculous scrapes, all in pursuit of being cooler and more glamorous. It should make us laugh. 

It was so important to me not to lose my humor after I quit drinking, because I’d spent so much of my life so sad. Laughter is one of the greatest drugs available. So maybe the trick is to laugh, because it eases the pain of everyday life, but not to laugh so much and so often that you ignore the pain underneath it entirely. Comedy is tragedy plus time, right? So don’t forget the “tragedy” part of that equation. 

 

CC: Whats something you wish people had asked you about Blackout that they have not?

SH: That’s a good question. There’s a moment in the second half of the book, where I’m diving into the online dating world, and riffing on ways we become close at a distance. Alcohol created this instant intimacy with strangers, but it was a false intimacy, which is the same seductive dynamic you find on the Internet, where you end up doing and saying things you might not if you were face-to-face, which can be good (telling the truth about your sexuality for the first time) or bad (internet cruelty). Drinking is declining slightly among younger generations, probably in part because they don’t need to go to a bar to meet people. Maybe their big addiction will be to virtual realms. Anyway, the whole intersection between alcohol, intimacy, and the Internet — it’s not like I have a great soliloquy on this topic, but I do find it fascinating to think about how hungry we are to be close but how scared we are of actual physical closeness, and the cheats we find to lower the stakes.

On a superficial level, I’m surprised nobody has asked me about The Girl on the Train, which is one of the biggest fiction blockbusters of the year, and it centers around a woman who has a blackout and has to untangle what happened during that lost time. Given how little has been written about blackouts, it’s kind of weird that these two female-written books have them front and center. 

 

CC: Sometimes I feel like I spent the first seven years of my twenties creating bad habits, and spending the past three years undoing those habits. Similar to you, many of my friendships were bonded by drinking, so now that my friends and I dont binge-drink anymore, we have to find other things to do together, like take hikes and go to movies. Did you have to do hard work on your friendships when you got sober? Did you seek friends that also didnt drink? My roommate is sober, so that helps me to be mindful.

SH: I take a lot of long walks with my friends. I don’t go to many parties, although I don’t really get invited to them, and I’m not sure if that’s because people know I’m sober, or because I’ve become a bit of a recluse in the past four years as I’ve been working on this book. I have a very small circle of close friends: We go to dinner. We have long talks over coffee. Honestly, I need more friends. I popped my head out of the rabbit hole of this book, and it’s like: Oh wait a minute, I’m too much alone. 

It’s hard when you don’t have that instant fix: Let’s go to the bar. Let’s get a drink. I used to seek out drinkers, because they were so much fun. Now I love former drinkers for the same reason. They have the loud laughs, the good stories, the searching and open minds. 

 

CC: What do you like to do in Dallas? Can we go to a yoga class if I ever find myself there?

Yes! I go to the best little yoga place in East Dallas, which is small and earthy and run by this friendly woman named Jen who dyes her hair pink. And then we can go to the Truck Yard, and buy tacos at one of the food trucks, and sit on the back patio sipping ice tea and telling each other about all the parts we can’t figure out yet. On a good day, I never miss drinking. You think, why would anyone want more than this?

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