Interview with Liesl Schillinger, Book Critic, Culture Writer and Translator

by Leah on April 25, 2012

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. 

Liesl Schillinger is a culture writer and translator based in New York. She grew up in Midwestern college towns, studied comparative literature at Yale, and worked for many years at The New Yorker magazine.  She is a regular critic for The New York Times Book Review, and writes for numerous other publications.  Her translation of the novel “Every Day, Every Hour,” by Natasa Dragnic, comes out in May (Viking).

Since 2009, she has published the neologisms blog “Wordbirds,” which appears on her tumblr and on The Faster Times.

Drinking Diaries: How did/does your family treat drinking?

Liesl Schillinger: My parents entertained a lot as I was growing up, and that’s when I saw drinking happen. Otherwise, we were strictly an ice water or iced-tea-with-dinner family. Wine and beer were for parties or gourmet club dinners. My dad made pitchers of tequila sunrises if they gave a brunch; and for garden parties, my mother would serve wine punch called bowle with fresh peaches, garnished with mint leaves. I remember thinking bowle was incredibly elegant and festive, and admiring my mother for knowing it existed. When I give summer parties, I like to serve bowle or Pimm’s Cup, to keep up that tradition.

How do you approach alcohol in your everyday life?

For me, alcohol is a social pleasure—the signal that I’ve escaped from my desk, my thoughts, and my cats, and am out in the world looking to enjoy human company in as celebratory and interactive a way as possible. I don’t believe in eating dinner out alone, and I don’t believe in drinking alcohol in alone.  I marvel at my friends who pour themselves a glass of wine when they get home from the office. That would scare me.  To me, drinking is something you do to make socializing richer and more entertaining. Actually… lately I joke that, since I quit my day job, 7 years ago, I miss seeing other people without a drink in their hands.

Have you ever had a phase in your life when you drank more or less?

In the ’90s, I lived in Moscow for a few months. It was a very exuberant moment in Russia. Yeltsin was president, there was lots of optimism, a sense of possibility, and there were many, many dance clubs. I worked at a magazine by day, and went out to clubs with my roommate every night until the wee hours. The drinks never stopped flowing. When I returned to New York, I missed the casual revelry of Moscow so much that I threw parties every Tuesday night in my apartment for my friends and their friends for more than a year. I wanted the boisterousness of Moscow to continue here, without anyone having to make extraordinary effort to foregather; or having to pay $60 each for drinks and snacks during a simple, convivial evening out. Everyone brought bottles of wine, and I made sure to keep hard stuff and mixers on hand. Eventually, my downstairs neighbor complained, and I had to desist.  By then, I was secretly a little relieved.

What’s your drink of choice? Why?

A gin and tonic, or any not-oversweet gin cocktail has always been my favorite. It tastes like youth and summer to me.  But gin is awfully strong; and in the past few years, I’ve come to love the fragrant, refreshing taste of unfiltered beers, of Hefeweizen and Weihenstephaner, India Pale Ale, or even a cold little glass of Kölsch.  The bitterness guarantees that I sip slowly, and one tall beer can stretch to outlast my friends’ conversation.

What’s the worst time you’ve had drinking?

It’s kind of a best time, too—but in 2004, a British friend of mine got married on the island of Cyprus, on a hillside that rolled gently down to a beach. There were two days of informal (sort of) celebration before the ceremony, and one day afterwards. We’d all meet for a brunch in the sunshine, which would turn into dinner as the hours lengthened. There were hundreds of guests in their 20s and 30s, all of them dressed in a rainbow of Façonnable-style cottons, wearing suede shoes without socks. I longed to dance with the one who played Jerry Lee Lewis on piano, or the one who was a race car driver, nicknamed “Bad Boy.” But champagne was served all day long, all three days of the wedding– from the moment we padded across the grass for brunch (at which stage it was mixed with orange juice), until late at night. Champagne, sadly, is poison to me—delicious, but poison. I could never remember to stop sipping, and the wait staff continually replenished the glasses.  Every night of that trip, I ended up lurching from the lawn to my room well before 9, unable to join in the dancing. The others were completely immune to the bubbles.  Maybe it’s a European thing.

Do you have a favorite book, song, or movie about drinking? 

I’m smitten by the ‘pink gins’ Graham Greene’s expats drink in the blazing sun in Africa in “The Heart of the Matter,” as astringent solace for their woes. And Hemingway certainly conferred allure on roistering in “The Sun Also Rises.” When I saw the play based on that book, “The Select,” (by Elevator Repair Service) last year, I noticed, through the actors’ unceasing tippling, how very liquid that book was. But I’m most nostalgic about a drinking song that a group called the S.O.B.’s (the Society of Orpheus and Bacchus) would sing en masse, in harmony, when I was in college. As loving cups were passed around, hangers-on like me would join them in singing, “Put a nickel on the drum, save another drunken bum; put a nickel on the drum and he’ll be saved.”  Oh—and the sultriest song I’ve ever heard a woman sing is “Scotch and Soda.”

Why do, or don’t you, choose to drink? 

Drinking to me is a little like a costume that I –and everyone else—puts on, that says, “let’s participate in human theater now.” Social gatherings would be far drabber and flatter without it.

If you could be any drink, what would it be? Why?

The Gin-Gin Mule, at Pegu Club. It’s fresh and fizzy, with a gingery bite. It’s deceptively light, but carries a strong kick…but not so strong that you can’t come back for more. That’s my definition of excellent company. Who wouldn’t want that?

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