From time to time, we will post short interviews with interesting people about their thoughts and feelings on women and drinking. There is such a wide array of perspectives about this topic, and we are excited to gain insight into as many as possible and to share them with you.
Jennifer Egan is the author of The Invisible Circus, a novel which became a feature film starting Cameron Diaz in 2001, Look at Me, a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction in 2001, Emerald City and Other Stories and, most recently, the The Keep, which was a national bestseller. Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harpers, Granta, McSweeney’s and other magazines. Her new book, A Visit From the Goon Squad, was published this month.
Drinking Diaries: How old were you when you had your first drink and what was it?
I had my first drink when I was 11 years old. Our babysitter, who was only a few years older than I, made “gin and tonics on the rocks” for myself and my friend, who was sleeping over. The drink consisted of warm gin, straight up, poured into a tall glass. I’ve never been able to drink gin since, unless it’s a gin and tonic.
How did/does your family treat drinking?
My father was an alcoholic who gave up drinking after an intervention when he was in his forties. He never touched alcohol again, and it was fantastic to see how much happier and healthier he became after that. He and my mother had divorced when I was two, and my stepfather loved food and wine, and did not have a drinking problem. So I’ve experienced alcohol both ways–as a threat, and as a pleasure.
How do you approach alcohol in your every day life?
I’m lucky that I didn’t inherit the alcoholism gene from my father. If I had, I’m sure my life would have unfolded very differently, because in my unhappy teen years, and my uncertain twenties I drank pretty heavily to elude anxiety and (especially) to make myself feel more social. I love to drink, but I find that I drink much less now that I’m in my forties; more than a single glass of wine leaves a strong print on the next day. I’m vividly aware that time is short, and less willing to pay for a night of drinking.
If you have kids, how is the subject of drinking handled? Do you drink in front of them? With them?
My kids are seven and nine years old. My husband and I drink wine in front of them now and then, in a low-key way. The older one has picked up a swaggering attitude toward alcohol from somewhere–maybe school, or his friends. I’m extremely wary of it, given my family history. I’ve told them both that there is alcoholism in our family, that there’s nothing funny about drinking, and they may have inherited a gene that will make it hard for them to drink in a controlled way. I will get more serious about those warnings as they approach the teenage years. They’re very responsible and conscientious, and I have confidence that, if they’ve inherited the gene, they will react responsibly.
Have you ever had a phase in your life when you drank more or less?
As a teenager I drank a lot. I was uncomfortable with myself and with the world, and alcohol made me feel more outgoing and confident. When I look back on that drinking, I cringe. I drove so drunk that I couldn’t remember the ride home. I’m awed by my good luck at having survived those years.
What’s your drink of choice? Why?
Probably wine. Good wine with a good meal–there’s nothing like it. I also like martinis–their cold, medicinal quality–but I drink them much less often than I used to, because I feel them the next day.
Has culture or religion influenced your drinking?
My father was Irish-American, from Chicago. Though drinking became a major problem for him, and almost derailed his life, I do feel a cultural pull toward drinking, because of my background. In a strange way, it feels like home. When I was writing a story for the NY Times magazine that involved a girl who lived on the South Side of Chicago, I ended up there during the South Side’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade. People were stumbling drunk, literally falling down, wearing beakers of beer around their necks, and a part of me had this comforting sense of having returned to a place where I deeply belonged.
What do you like most about drinking?
I love the slight loss of bearings, the blurring of context. I like that only when I’m with people, though. I never drink alone; I’d rather read, and drinking makes me sleepy. But when I’m with a group at night, I always enjoy myself more if I have a drink. Otherwise there’s a part of me that wants to go home and read instead.
Why do, or don’t you, choose to drink?
Basically I drink when I feel like it. And because I’m lucky enough *not* to be an alcoholic, I don’t tend to crave drinking at unhealthy times. If I’ve drunk wine one night, I tend not to want it the next. And as I said, I don’t have the impulse to drink alone. So it’s not a charged thing in my life, thank God.
How has alcoholism affected your life?
I think it affected my relationship with my father enormously. We might have been closer if he hadn’t been an alcoholic. He did have a number of sober years before he died (in an accident) but by then I was an adult, and it was late in the game for us to build the groundwork for a close relationship, much as I think we both wanted to.