Each week, we 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.
Lauren B. Davis is the author of the award-winning novels Our Daily Bread, The Stubborn Season, and The Radiant City. She has also published two collections of short stories, An Unrehearsed Desire and Rat Medicine & Other Unlikely Curatives. A creative writing teacher who has taught in Geneva, Paris and Ireland, as well as in the USA and Canada, she leads monthly SHARPENING THE QUILL writer’s workshops in Princeton, New Jersey, where she now lives with her husband Ron, and Bailey, the Rescuepoo. She is also a past Mentor with the Humber College Creative Writing by Correspondence Program, and past Writer-in-Residence at Trinity Church, Princeton. You can find out more about her on her blog or on facebook.
Drinking Diaries: How old were you when you had your first drink and what was it?
Lauren B. Davis: Family lore says the first sentence I spoke was, “Nana gonna buy mo bee?” Which translates to “Grandmother, are you going to buy more beer?” Apparently I used to walk around the house draining the beer bottles my grandmother left lying about. Alas, eventually she died from alcoholism.
I don’t remember those early tipples. What I do remember, though, was one day when I was about eight and my parents had left me alone for a little bit while they ran to the store. For reasons that now escape me, I raided the liquor cabinet and drank a rather large quantity of crème-de-menthe. My parents came home to find me in floods of tears after I’d apparently watched a sad cartoon involving lost puppies. That rather set the tone for my future drinking, now that I think about it.
But the first time I got drunk, well . . . I was fourteen and had, at last, been invited to tag along to a my-parents-are-gone-party at Paul Wade’s house. For me, this was social nirvana. I don’t remember all the details, but I do remember mixing drinks (possibly influenced by drugs of some sort) on the basis of color, which is why crème-de-menthe made a return visit. To this day I remember the exact moment, and the exact sensation when the ‘switch’ went off and I felt prettier, funnier, smarter and, finally, as though I fit in. I also wanted more. Lots more. Right now. After that there are some hazy memories about crawling around on all fours, sitting on the grass outside the house and puking through my fingers in the front seat of my parent’s car. I also remember hugging the toilet and my mother asking me if I was drunk. I summoned up all my dignity and replied, “I am plastered.” When she drew back her hand to crack me one across the mouth I recall thinking it wouldn’t hurt much, since I was so drunk. It didn’t and I woke up in the morning without much of a hangover. It didn’t take long, however, to figure out that projectile vomiting doesn’t make you popular in high school.
How did/does your family treat drinking?
I come from a long Dynasty of Drunks (and yes, I will probably use that in a novel one day!). I was born into a family with generational alcoholism, drug addiction and mental illness. I was put up for adoption as a baby and adopted by a family with generational alcoholism and mental illness. Go figure. In my adopted family my maternal grandmother died from alcoholism. My paternal grandfather was an alcoholic, and so was my father, although he got sober through Alcoholics Anonymous when I was 15. My mother came at him with a butcher knife one night and he ran out of the house to an AA meeting, and never drank again. (Okay, yes, he did leave me in the house with the crazy lady and her butcher knife, but that’s another story.) Bless him. From him I learned that when you’d had enough, when you found yourself in that emotional cul-de-sac where it was either die or stop drinking, there was a place you could go where people would help you.
I met my birth family – mother and father separately, as they broke up when my mother, at sixteen, was sent to a home for unwed mothers. I discovered another family rife with addiction: my maternal grandparents, my mother, my father and my father’s two sons. Later, both my half-brothers committed suicide as a result of alcohol and drug addiction.
If I thought up until that point that I’d dodged the genetic alcoholism bullet, I had to think again.
How do you approach alcohol in your every day life?
I don’t approach it at all, and haven’t for over sixteen years.
When I was in my late teens and early 20s there was no one I couldn’t drink under the table. I had drinking contests with 300 lb men and at the end of the evening poured them in taxis to go home and sleep it off. Then I became involved in a spiritual discipline which called for abstinence, so I quit, and didn’t find it a problem. If I’d never started up again years later, I wonder what might have happened since alcoholism stole a lot of years from me, particularly in terms of my career. I married a man – a bass player – who also didn’t drink or do drugs (although not for the same reasons) and I didn’t drink at all for about five years. The night the marriage broke up I went out and got drunk. After that I drank every day for ten years, and although I still drank copiously, it wasn’t fun anymore; in fact it damn near killed me and caused a great amount of grief for the people who loved me.
Can you tell us about the best time you ever had drinking?
In my early 20s I remember not only a lot of wonderful, giddy times in Montreal cafes and dance clubs, but also endless nights sitting at my desk in my tiny basement apartment with a glass of scotch at my elbow, writing, writing, writing. To me, this was what Real Writers did, and the words – in the beginning – flowed effortlessly, as though sent by The Angels of Libation. Of course, it didn’t last. A friend of mine, Ojibwe Elder Betty Pamp once said, “They don’t call it ‘Spirits’ for nothing, and honey, these Spirits you don’t want knowing where you live.” Tricksters. Windigo.
What about the worst time?
During the last few years of my drinking career, any morning, round about 4 a.m., when I’d wake up, sick, terrified, riven with panic and queasy with shame for things I could only vaguely remember. Every one of those mornings I vowed I wouldn’t drink that day, and by four o’clock every afternoon (if not earlier), I’d broken that vow. The isolation, the remorse, the throbbing anxiety was torture.
Do you have a favorite book, song, or movie about drinking?
For obvious reasons, the book known as “The Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous has been a lifesaver. Although for the sheer terrible beauty of it, and the accurate portrayal of a woman drinker’s despair, you can’t beat “The Lonely Passion of Miss Judith Hearne” by Brian Moore. Also, Alistair MacLeod’s depiction of the drunken brother in “No Great Mischief” is searingly vivid.
And I can’t overlook Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano.” Its inebriated death spiral is a psychological masterpiece, and it’s only through Lowry’s brilliance that the reader doesn’t condemn the protagonist. It’s haunting and rightly considered a landmark.
As for films, I am an enormous fan of Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick in “Days of Wine and Roses.” “The Story of Bill W.” with James Garner and James Woods is wonderful, and I made My Best Beloved sit down with me and watch “When a Man Loves a Woman” with Andy Garcia and Meg Ryan. This last film does a terrific job of exploring what happens to the woman alcoholic and the dynamic between husband and wife.
Sober or not, I am a HUGE early Tom Waits fan, and you don’t get much more drunk-friendly than that! The Nighthawks at the Diner CD, or Small Change or Closing Time . . . still give me the shiver-me-timbers.
What did you like most about drinking?
Well, I did enjoy feeling prettier, smarter and funnier, although discovering that was a Big Fat Lie was hugely disappointing. I was so WITTY when I was drinking. I never knew what I was going to say, and I was always most fascinated to hear what it might be. Unfortunately, it turned out that others weren’t so thrilled.
I remember the night I got sober – I was crying in those hiccuppy little cries when you can’t catch your breath. I said to My Best Beloved, “But, but, w-what if I-I-I’m not funny anymore?” He blinked a couple of times and said, “Actually, babe, you haven’t been funny in a while.” Really? I thought I was HILARIOUS.
Finally, I decided I’d rather live to see 40, and I’d rather stay married to My Best Beloved than down another bottle of vodka.
How has alcoholism affected your life?
Did I mention the damn-near-died bit? How can I possibly explain the moment when my Best Beloved looked at me and said, with tears in his eyes, “I just don’t feel like you’re on my side anymore.” If he’d hit me upside the head with a white-hot bat it couldn’t have hurt more, since he was absolutely right. Of course, I wasn’t on my side either – I was on the side of the booze. The fact that we’ve now been together for twenty-three years is a testament to his strength, compassion and loyalty.
So, apart from nearly ruining my health and my marriage, it also shut me down as a writer, which is ironic since for so long I believed all Real Writers drank. Since I was fourteen years old I’ve written incessantly (if not well), and then I began to drink more than I wrote, and then I began to write only (brilliant!) first paragraphs and the rest was drunken drivel. In the last couple of years of my drinking career, I didn’t write at all, not one word. As someone once said, “At first alcohol gave me wings, and then it took away the sky.”
It took me a while to learn how to write sober, and the truth is I never wrote anything worth publishing until I put down the bottle. I published my first book – a collection of short stories through which a friend said “alcohol ran like an unholy river” – a couple of years after I got sober.
If you could be any drink, what would it be? Why?
An elderflower pressé — non-alcoholic, refreshing, a little tart, effervescent and elegant, with a hint of sweetness, and it doesn’t induce projectile vomiting, blackouts, liver damage or car crashes.