November 2014

Lily James


Dousing the Brain on Fire: A Roundtable of Writers on Drinking

In the summer of 2011, within the span of a couple months, two of New York City's iconic bars closed for good: Mars Bar and Elaine's. Opened in 1984, Mars Bar was legendary for its squalor; a graffiti-covered hovel in the East Village frequented by junkie punk rockers and surly old men, it got shuttered for endless health code violations, foremost a nasty fruit fly infestation. Located exactly eighty-seven blocks north on Second Avenue, Elaine's -- opened in 1963 -- was far more sophisticated. Its Upper East Side clientele were famous writers and actors, including Woody Allen, Norman Mailer, and George Plimpton. It closed for financial reasons, though coming just six months after the death of its eighty-one-year-old proprietor and namesake, the boisterous Elaine Kaufman, it seemed as if the real cause was a broken heart, as if the bar were some elderly spouse that couldn't bear to go on after the passing of its betrothed.

That summer also marked memoirist and anthology editor Sean Manning's ten-year anniversary of moving to New York, and he was feeling awfully ruminative. He may not have cared for either bar, but they were a part of his New York, the city he'd fallen in love with, and -- sentimental bastard that he is -- he hated to see it change. New York being the media capital of the world, both bars received lengthy eulogies in the press, with Elaine's garnering remembrances in multiple print editions of The New York Times as well as at the Web sites of Esquire, Vanity Fair, and ESPN's Grantland. But what about bygone bars in other parts of the country -- in other parts of the world, at that? Didn't they deserve similar homage? Wouldn't it be fun and moving to read about those places? Hell, why limit it to defunct bars? Why not celebrate those still in business as well? And so he came up with the idea to edit Come Here Often?: 53 Writers Raise a Glass to Their Favorite Bar, published in October by Black Balloon Press. In the following roundtable, some of the anthology's contributors, Kevin Canty, Kate Christensen, Karen Olsson, and Manning chat about drinking, writing, and why the two are so closely intertwined.

More than seemingly any other art form, writing is associated with drinking. Why do you think?

Christensen: I know a lot of writers who don't drink, so it's hard to generalize. I can only speak for myself. After a day of writing, I love to have a glass of wine or a cocktail -- ideally, two. Writing is a sustained, forward-momentum-like effort of generating words from my brain, sometimes when I don't feel like it; this disciplined daily work often leaves me feeling simultaneously drained and antsy at the end of an afternoon. After I walk and feed my dog, my favorite thing to do is to put on some music, pour myself a glass of wine, and start chopping an onion, some garlic... cooking and drinking wine go together. A second glass of wine with dinner, and everything is all smoothed out.

Canty: I will hazard a half-assed serious response to this, which is to say that writers make their living with their unconscious selves -- with instincts, intuitions, impulses. You have to learn to trust your conscious self, and maybe to love it, maybe to embrace it. And drinking is maybe another way of embracing the unconscious. Certainly there's no logic to it. 

Olsson: Maybe it's easier for writers to fix the bad stuff they wrote while under the influence? (A drunk painter has more to lose?) Or maybe it's just the allure of letting your words come unbuttoned, in the evening, after spending your day trying to carefully control them? I'd also guess that it has to do with the loneliness of writing, which drives some writers to seek the company of the bottle or other drinkers.

Manning: Writing and drinking are two responses to the same existential quandary: What the fuck are we doing here? A writer sits down every day in front of a blank sheet of paper (or Word doc) and strives to figure it out. And at the end of the day, no matter how many words have been amassed, they're no closer to the answer. So some writers use booze as a way to mourn this futility. As Edgar Allan Poe once said, "It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom." Others use it as a way to celebrate the irrevocable fleetingness of it all. Jim Morrison said, "I wanna have my kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames." But as for why drinking is more endemic to writing than to other art forms, I have no idea -- though I'm sure there have been more than a few doctoral dissertations on the subject.

Some have argued that drinking was integral to the greatness of such alcoholic writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Carson McCullers, Jack Kerouac, and Shirley Jackson. Others have argued that without booze they might've been still greater -- living longer and producing more work. (Of those four mentioned, McCullers was the only to reach fifty, and she died that same year.) Where do you come down on that debate?

Canty: Self-serving horseshit. I don't believe that drinking ever made anybody a better writer, and writing in itself is not an excuse for killing yourself with alcohol. Having said that, from what I've read of those four lives, none of them had an easy road to go down, and maybe booze did make things feel less unpleasant. 

Christensen: Both sides are true. They just drank too much, to put it mildly. "It's fun to have fun, but you have to know how," as Dr. Seuss said. Or, "Moderation in all things," as my grandmother said, to which she always added, with a twinkle, "especially moderation." The attraction of a writer's brain and body to alcohol is one I profoundly understand, but you also have to take care of your brain and body -- they're all you have. It's an attenuated balancing act, I think, at least it can be. That high-wire balls-out giving of yourself to your work is an existence of extremes. It's all too easy to crave a dousing of that brain that was on fire all day. I can't judge anyone for going overboard with booze. I did it myself for many years. I still let myself do it on occasion. It's a tonic for the writer's brain that's only toxic if you're not careful; otherwise it's a balm.

Olsson: There may be an underlying sensitivity that makes someone both a great writer and an alcoholic, but I don't believe that alcohol itself does an alcoholic much good.

Manning: Would The Great Gatsby be the same book -- or a book at all -- if F. Scott Fitzgerald hadn't been a lush? Probably not. And would the world have been worse off for it? Absolutely. And yet, in my opinion, it would've been worth it if it meant Fitzgerald got to live long enough to meet his grandkids.

Does alcohol play a part in your own writing process? Do you ever drink while you write, or have you ever? When you're in the midst of a project, do you find that you'll refrain from having an extra glass of wine or an additional cocktail with dinner, in order to be fresher for work the next day? Or is a post-work drink perhaps part of your ritual?

Olsson: I'm generally a morning writer (and not a morning drinker), so I don't drink and work. Before I had kids, I used to drink more, but now sleep is at a premium. Another glass of wine usually isn't worth the two a.m. wakefulness.

Christensen: I can't write while I drink, and I rarely write well if I'm hungover, and maybe that's what's saved me, ultimately, from being a drunk rather than a drinker. There's a sweet spot I like to hit: two drinks over the course of a night seems to be it, sometimes three, in the spirit of the nightcap. I like to sip slowly as my brain soaks up the liquid relaxation, lets go of its residue of writing-thinking, like an evening's vacation. It allows for a kind of meditative daydreaming, a switch from one lobe to another, from one mode to another. Drinking gives me a feeling of a loosening expansion, like stretching muscles after exercise. And it helps me sleep more deeply, and the next day, in a perfect world, I wake up refreshed and ready to write again. 

Canty: Honestly, writing with a mild hangover is pretty much the best. You don't really feel like doing anything but sitting in your nice leather chair, and you're just cranky enough to bring out your fussbudget impulses, which are useful when distinguishing the correct sentence from the nearly correct sentence. But I never try to write after I've had a drink. That little boozy voice tends to say that everything's OK, maybe even genius.

Manning: In my early twenties, there'd be nights when I'd come home after a night of bar feeling really amped up and sit down at the computer and just let 'er rip. It was always fucking garbage -- though any time you're sitting down at the computer and writing it's not a waste of time. My hangovers have always been brutal all-day-in-bed affairs so I'm usually worthless for anything but binge-watching Boardwalk Empire. If I'm looking to clear my mind after a day of working, I'm more likely to go to the gym than to the bar. But there is one way drinking has been a crucial resource to me as a writer: there's no better place than a bar to hone your ear for dialogue. It's so easy to eavesdrop. Hell, it's pretty much expected -- should you overhear some stranger's woes and have advice to offer. You hear it all in a bar -- from small talk about sports to life-and-death stuff. And of course the pickup lines.

What's the ratio of you drinking in bars versus drinking at home? Has that ratio changed at all over the years? What's the single biggest draw for you of drinking at a bar versus drinking at home?

Christensen: I drink wine with dinner, at home and in restaurants. I don't go to bars much, except with a group of friends once a month or less often. The thing I love about a bar rather than drinking at home is that it's a special thing -- festive, social, talkative, interpersonal, and public. It's an occasion rather than a regularity for me.

Canty: I tend to hit the bars with friends or colleagues or girlfriends or students, never alone. But I do enjoy getting out of the house. Writing tends to be a solitary business, so it's nice to get out in company. 

Manning: I'm pretty cheap, so I usually won't go to the bar by myself unless there's a game on I want to watch. I don't own a TV. Like I said: cheap. But I also don't drink at home. I just don't see the point. Drinking to me has never been about unwinding. My parents weren't big drinkers. They weren't the type who'd come home after a long day and mix a highball or crack open a cold one. Instead, my mom would kick back with a Diet Rite and my dad would make himself a root beer float. So my first encounters with booze were all about partying. And that's pretty much how it still is. I might not have a single drink all week but then go out on a Saturday night with friends and overdo it a little.

I also prefer drinking at bars to drinking at home because of the music. I get so bored of the music on my iTunes and I always feel like I pick the same stuff on Spotify. I like going to a bar and not having any control over what's playing and maybe hearing something I've never heard before. There's this one bar in Brooklyn near where I live called No Name Bar. They always play metal. I don't really like metal, but in that tiny, dimly lit space it's the absolute perfect soundtrack.

Since the mid-1990s, and primarily within the last decade, nearly thirty states have banned smoking in bars, including New York and California. Are you a fan of this trend?

Canty: Yes and no. I don't miss waking up with my clothes smelling like an ashtray, and I expect we'll all live a little longer. But bar owners and bartenders tell me it's killing their business. 

Christensen: Yes! I am all for it. Although sometimes I miss that smoky haze of tobacco that used to hang over bars like a magic veil. But I don't miss waking up reeking of stale smoke and hacking with a second-hand cough.

Manning: Yeah, there was definitely something romantic about that smoky haze and all those threads of smoke drifting languorously and cinematically up toward the ceiling. But I prefer not having my clothes stink. Plus, you know, cancer.

Olsson: I was sorry when the city of Austin, where I live, banned smoking in bars, but I've since come around. The bars are nicer without the smoke, and the smokers can make friends with each other out on the sidewalk!

Are there any other trends in contemporary bar culture of which you'd like to see more (or less)?

Christensen: If I never drink another craft cocktail in a Mason jar in my life, I will not complain.

Canty: I basically hate everything but the basics. I don't like ten-dollar cocktails or wine bars or theme bars or dance bars. Give me a place with two-dollar mixed drinks in happy hour, a place where I can eat peanuts and drop the shells on the floor, where the World Series will be on the TV if there's a game on, and I'm a happy man. It's probably a good thing that I live in Montana, where these things can still be seen. 

Manning: I don't get this obsession with ice -- these bars that make their own from specially sourced water and use spherical molds or whatever. I know there's a science to it and it's supposed to make the drinks taste better but it's gotten a little ridiculous.

If you could have a drink with one writer -- living or dead -- who would it be? And where would it be (pick any bar, past or present)?

Olsson: Ryszard Kapuściński, the Polish journalist who died in 2007. I would let him pick the place, somewhere in the tropics, which he wrote about so well. 

Christensen: I'd choose Dawn Powell. She was witty, boozy, great hearted, gimlet eyed, smart as hell, and she knew everyone. I'd love to have a night of drinking and gossiping and talking about writing with her. I think we'd have a lot to say to each other.

Canty: I know I'm supposed to say the Floridita with Hemingway or something -- and it's true that I would love to have one more beer with Larry Brown at City Grocery -- but I'll stick with the living and the possible and say David Gates at the Depot [in Missoula, Montana]. Because I expect to see him there at about six o'clock this evening, and that's a bird in the hand, baby.

Manning: Well, I was gonna go with Joseph Mitchell at McSorley's or Frederick Exley at the bar of the New Parrot Restaurant in Watertown, New York. But Canty and Gates at the Depot sounds pretty damn good if they'd have me.