You know – despite spending a good deal of our time either looking up weird websites or thinking of new ways to insult Mariah Carey – we're a literary bunch here at hecklerspray.
That – book-readin' and stuff – is how we discovered the frankly brilliant Koren Zailckas, whose memoir Smashed is one of the most eye-opening, honest and exceptionally well-written things we've clapped our eyes on in many a month.
We caught up with Koren to chat about alcohol abuse, flag-burning, the rubbishness of Jonathan Franzen, Finding Forrester, Johnny Cash and all the fun stuff in between. And you know what? We've only gone and put it online for the whole bloody world (well, about 60,000ish of you per day) to read.
That's how nice we are.
To those readers unfamiliar with you or your work, how would you describe yourself?
Me? I'm just a literary girl gone wrong. Slow with the tongue. Quick with the pen. Undeniably cute. But, on the whole, ill-equipped for the privilege of living.
'Smashed' is very much a confessional tome to say the least. Was there a catharsis to be had writing it?
All said and done, I'm reluctant to say writing 'Smashed' was cathartic. For one, I think we assign that term to women far more often than we assign it to men. All too often, men's works are deemed "literature" and women's are dismissed as "therapy." On a personal level, sure, it's easier to discuss old indignities. Talking, for instance, about a horrifying blackout doesn't rattle me the way it used to. (To be honest, it moves me little more than talking about today's chance of rain.)
I'm not convinced I've come to term with old aches as much as I've had to numb myself to them for the sake of spreading the book's message. Ultimately, I think a memoir leaves its author with more terror than comfort, more questions than closure. More than anything, I feel a growing breach between "me" and the "me" on the page. It's an occupational hazard, I guess. I feel sort of exiled from my own experiences.
Do you find the same sort of catharsis/emotional impact from writing fiction?
For me, fiction-writing is about escapism. Whereas memoir-writing is about facing cold, harsh realities. I'll let you guess which one is more of a party… Naw, in reality, there are challenges to both. In memoir, there's the burden of truth. And in fiction, there's the burden of fantasy.
Me, I find fiction harder. There are so many possibilities in fiction. The story can go absolutely anywhere. And that overwhelms me. That strikes fear in my timid, little heart. I like being restricted to the cage of fact, the coop of reality. Without it, I feel a certain agoraphobia.
I panic whenever I write fiction. I put my thumb in mouth; I curl up like Sean Connery at Madison Square Garden in "Finding Forrester."
Are you working on fiction now? Has your prose style/working method changed with this?
Right now I'm working on another book of non-fiction. It began as a memoir about my experiences with anger and aggression. Beneath my mild, sweet-tempered veneer, I've always been firecracker, ready to blow, ready to throw stars. But a funny thing began to happen when I started writing about that: the more I started talking and writing about my aggression, the more the women in my life (particularly my mother and sister) started to reflect on their own rage.
They began to share their stories with me. And, with their green light, I began to write about them. As it stands, the book's an interesting hybrid. It's a kind of family memoir. Or maybe, a non-fiction novel. My mom and my sister stand alone in it, as characters. So it certainly reads more like fiction. All in all, I'm really excited about it.
Your writing is very vivid yet there's also a certain immediacy to it and (shoot me down in flames if I'm just projecting here) an almost Hempel-esque feel to things (in terms of structure and directness). Are there any major influences who have coloured your writing?
I wouldn't dare shoot you down. I adore Amy Hempel. She IS direct. She writes the emotion of a story, and she writes the F out of it. I bawled the first time I heard "The Cemetery Where Al Jolsen is Buried" read aloud. (And I'm not talking a few rogue tears. I'm talkin' chin trembling, jagged breath, snot on the sleeve.)
I admire anyone who writes with clarity, anyone who has the courage to do what George Saunders always says: "treat the reader as though they're riding in the sidecar of your motorcycle." Any writer who really grabs the reader by the elbow and says, "You and I, we're gonna go for one hell of a ride. It's gonna be fast. It's gonna be sharp. But I'm gonna be right here, beside you at every turn."
So many authors, especially youngish authors (and I'm not gonna name names here… ahem Eggers, Foer) keep their readers at arms' length. They hide behind those damn gimmicks. They obscure rather than illuminate. They're not storytellers, those guys. They're riddle-writers. And no one ever goes back and re-reads a riddle after they've solved it.
When the world's turning to shit all around you, when you're missing your dead parents, when you're doubting the existence of god, when you're smashing your head against a door jam somewhere or reading the newspaper headlines and wondering if we're all gonna torch in some forthcoming nuclear holocaust, you don't find solace in a fucking Sudoku puzzle. You find it in poetry, artistic sincerity, in honest-to-god human experience. As a reader, I'll break bread with any writer who gives me that.
And any influences outside the world of literature… lyricists or musicians perhaps?
Sure, I think, if you're a writer, there's a lot of inspiration to be found in lyrics. That's the first thing I do before I get to work in the morning: have a cup (okay, a pot) of coffee and put on a record.
I think the lyrics of Van Dyke Parks ought to be bound in leather and kept on the shelves next to Czeslaw Milosz. Dylan's obvious. Johnny Cash, too. And there's undeniable beauty in the new kids on the block: Regina Spektor, Joanna Newsom, Chan Marshall, the Friedberger siblings. A friend just turned me on to Jeffrey Lewis – he's a wunderkind. Also, M. Ward, Red Hunter of Peter and the Wolf, Eamon Hamilton of Brakes. They all have poetry. They all have that spark of human truth. I think that's the stuff that inspires anyone: to arrange words, to put images on film or paper.
How do you think 'Smashed' will affect your future career? Do you think its notoriety will prove something of a burden?
You know, Calvino writes this great bit in his preface to "The Path to the Spiders' Nests." He says, essentially, that the first book defines the author. And after that you have to carry this definition around with you for the rest of your life,
"trying to confirm it, or develop it, or modify it, or even deny it," but you're "no longer ever able to be without it."
Sure, 'Smashed' has defined me. I mean, the definition is right there on the copyright page, just below my ISBN number. It says: "1. Biography, 2. Women alcoholics, 3. Girls–Alcohol Use." But I'm not gonna piss and moan about that definition. It's not for me to worry about. It's there for the staff of Barnes & Noble to worry about, when they're fretting about where to shelve me.
You're clearly determined to help highlight the problems of alcohol abuse in young people, and you've made a number of college/school appearances. Have you heard any eye-opening stories on your travels?
Yeah, I bear witness to some debauchery during my college tours. One of the things people always ask me is, "Koren, if you were such a drunken douche during college, how did you manage to keep your grades up? How is it you didn't fail out of school?" And my response is always, "I don't think every drinker does fail out of school."
I think there's this prevailing "work hard/party hard" sensibility on our college campuses: whereby kids think as long as they're studying as hard as they're drinking, they're in balance, everything's just fine. I see a lot of that when I visit universities. Like U.C. – Santa Barbara for instance. The school used to have a reputation as a big party school. And, in UCSB's defence, the administration has really made an effort to clean things up.
But, during one of my visits to UCSB, I was really anxious to go and check out Del Playa – this street snaking over the Pacific Ocean, where kids go to booze. Well, it was the Friday before finals and all day long, the administrators had been telling me, "No, Koren. You won't see anybody drinking at Del Playa tonight, all the kids will be home studying."
Bullshit. I took a drive out there at quarter to 1 a.m. and here's what I saw: Drunk girls hunting for lost shoes. Drunk guys doing the Technicolour yawn in the bushes. One kid (thoroughly hammered) trotted over, shoved his gnarled, bloody hand in my face, and asked me, "I know THIS finger’s bleeding, but can you tell me if THIS one's bleeding too?"
But here's what I also saw: kids making study dates to meet in the library the next day. Kids talking about the course reading they were going to do when they got home, wasted, at 3 a.m. that night. I thought that was pretty eye-opening. It was really indicative of that "work hard/party hard" credo.
Any literary contemporaries that you like/dislike/are furiously envious of?
Like? Oh, the usual suspects. Memoirists: Mary Karr, Nick Flynn, Tobias Wolff. Novelists: T.C. Boyle, Jeff Eugenides, A.M. Homes, Richard Ford, Haruki Murakami.
Loathe? Jonathan Franzen. Dude really needs to have his voice box removed. The high-art crap he spouts is toxic. In this day and age, we really needn’t classify what people read into categories: "worthy" and "unworthy." We should just thank our fucking lucky stars they're reading, period. I mean, they could be listening to their iPods, or talking on their cell phones, or playing Line Rider.
Furiously envious of? Noria Jablonski. Her imagination deserves a shrine atop a mountain somewhere. If you haven't read her book, "Human Oddities," you need to. Immediately. No joke. Also, Phil Lamarche has this tremendous novel, called "American Youth," coming out this April. Lamarche is gonna be bigger than Elvis. Just remember, you heard it here first.
You've been published at a remarkably young age. Do you worry that publishers may try to use your image/personality/youth as a selling point rather than concentrating on the seriousness of your work?
Oh yeah, I was 23 when I wrote 'Smashed.' And looking back, I was such an easy mark. I was so trusting, so naïve, so revoltingly eager-to-please. And any other publisher might have taken advantage of that – I might have found myself on my book cover, posing top-naked and passed out with my cheek on a toilet seat or something.
But I really lucked out with the folks at Penguin. From the very beginning, the folks over there – the editors, the sales staff, the publicists – really gave me their support. They really seemed to believe in the strength of my narrative and my message. If anything, I think just the opposite: people have a tendency to take me too seriously sometimes. People come to me wanting to talk exclusively about social hosting laws and the effectiveness/ineffectiveness of the legal drinking age, and I'm like, "Hey, anybody wanna talk about writing? Anybody? Anyone at all?"
Any plans to turn 'Smashed' into a movie? Would you have anything to do with it? Who would you like to play yourself?
Incidentally, yes. The film rights just sold to Dan Halstead, the producer who made 'Garden State.' It's a horrifying thing – hawking off the rights to your real character, your real life. Ordinarily, I wouldn't have done it. But, when it came down to it, my screenwriter sister had already written an adaptation and I really wanted her to get the writing credit.
Also, I trust Dan. He's a good, smart guy. And, with a little luck, he'll make a beautiful film, one that neither embarrasses my family nor resembles a Lifetime movie starring Tracy Gold… In terms of actors, I have no clue who I'd want to play me in it. I think, if I had any say in the matter, 'Smashed: the Movie' would be Pixar film. And I'd be some well-meaning invertebrate – a bumblebee or an earthworm – with the voice of Karen O.
What are your plans for the immediate future?
I'd like to keep on writing, reading, paying rent, paying taxes, paying my debt to society. Likewise, I hope to keep traveling, keep pissing people off, keep doing things I'll live to regret.
Finally… maybe you could help us settle an office debate… The Da Vinci Code: Harmless Pulp Fiction or Culturally Moribund Spawn Of Satan?
Da Vinci Code? Global phenomenon. I don't think you can discount anything that pervasive. Personally? I'll go to bat for anything that offends decent, right-living people. If it inspires rage, that means it's culturally relevant. Don't burn books, people. Burn flags instead.
Smashed is available in paperback from Viking. You can get yourself a copy at any good bookshop (and most pretty bad ones too) or by clicking here.
[story by C J Davies]