So many writers, past and present, have been alcoholics. Why did you choose to focus on Cheever, Carver, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Williams, and Berryman?
Olivia Laing: I liked them, is the simple answer. I knew when I set out to write about alcohol and writers that I’d be dealing with very dark elements of their lives, and I didn’t want to produce what Joyce Carol Oates has described as pathography, or to be cruel and punitive, or to take pleasure in exposing them. So it was vital that it was people who I liked, and whose work I thought was extraordinary. That’s why traveling the physical landscape was so important too. All six of these men were deeply responsive to landscape, and wrote about it in very beautiful and heartfelt ways. It seemed to capture what was best about them, and I wanted to keep returning to that, as a respite or contrast to these incredibly bleak stories of drunkenness and degradation.
What is it about landscape that you’re drawn to? It’s definitely a theme in your first two books [To the River, a book about the river Virginia Woolf drowned in, and The Trip to Echo Spring] and the book you’re currently working on.
OL: Things happen in places. And when they’ve stopped happening, the place remains, though sometimes in different forms. Which means they’re ideal for a writer who is interested in assessing loss, which I guess is my true subject.
Is there a reason you stuck with American authors?
OL: I knew Tennessee Williams was central, because Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was the first thing I ever read about alcohol. And then I slowly sifted my way through the ranks of other alcoholic writers. It became clear pretty quickly that the story I was interested in was about America, about men and alcohol and writing in the America of the 20th century. There are no doubt other books that can and will be written, about different countries and different times. You didn’t ask directly about gender, but I’ll answer anyway: I stuck with men for a more personal reason, which is that my experience as a child was with a female alcoholic and the subject was just too painful for me. That’s a book I hope someone writes. Patricia Highsmith, Jean Rhys, Marguerite Duras — such fascinating characters. But I didn’t have the necessary critical distance to do it. It leaves a legacy, fear in childhood.
From “The myth of the alcoholic writer: an interview with Olivia Laing” by Michele Filgate in Buzzfeed.