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.
Ann Leary is the author of The Good House, a novel which was recently released. She has also written another novel, Outtakes from a Marriage, as well as a memoir, An Innocent, A Broad. She has written fiction and nonfiction for various magazines and is a co-host of the NPR weekly radio show Hash Hags.
Drinking Diaries: How old were you when you had your first drink and what was it?
Ann Leary: I was about 10 years old. I was at my aunt’s wedding and was seated next to a man who was a Mormon. Apparently Mormons don’t drink alcohol, so whenever his champagne glass was filled, I would offer to drink it for him so he wouldn’t feel self-conscious.
The first time I drank with friends was when I was in ninth grade. We had moved to a small New England town where there were plenty of places for kids to go and get drunk at night – beaches, woods, baseball fields, cemeteries. The first time I did this, we all drank Cold Duck and Knickerbocker beer that somebody’s older brother had bought for us. I was a new kid in town and a little insecure, very awkward around boys and this Cold Duck and beer combination really worked for me. Each anxious gulp made me smarter and funnier and prettier and more outgoing. I vaguely remember tackling a boy on the beach and then it was the next day and I was at my best friend’s house, having no understanding of when and how I got there. Or how I had managed to vomit into my own hair. I repeated the booze, beer, inappropriate lunging at boys and odd geographical awakenings throughout high school and college.
How did/does your family treat drinking?
My parents and their friends drank a lot when I was growing up. It was a different time and that’s all I’ll say about that. I stopped drinking in my early twenties, when my drinking was very seriously out of control, and I didn’t drink for about 14 years. Then I decided to try to just drink wine for a few years, but it didn’t work out, so I resigned from drinking altogether.
I often tried to drink less, but whenever I drank, I never got to a point where I felt like I had had enough. I never left a party or restaurant after a couple of drinks and thought, “That was great, now I’m satisfied.” I knew from a very young age that alcohol affected me differently than others – not all others, and I could spot a fellow booze-hound instantly in any crowd. They were always the people I was drawn to – but I really didn’t want to be like the other messy drunk girls. I wanted to be a cool social drinker, and I had a hard time with that. I did go through this very delusional but romantic phase with alcohol during which I fancied myself as a sort of cross between Zelda Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker – a madcap devil-may-care misunderstood writer/genius. But, in fact, I was writing lame short stories in college fiction workshops and waitressing and partying into the wee hours of the morning.
I started drinking alone when I was about twenty, living in a studio in Boston, attending college classes and working in restaurants, which is a very fun place to work if you like to drink. But I liked drinking alone because the shame possibilities were almost nil. And I felt that a blackout wasn’t really a blackout if nobody was there to see it. It was like the tree falling in the woods. Did it matter that I couldn’t recall part of an evening, if nobody was there to see it? No, it did not.
Things changed when I met Denis, my future husband, who came from a family that didn’t drink at all the way my family did. His parents were from Ireland, but alcohol was not the center of their lives and I was very fascinated by them. They had so much fun but were never really drunk. I stopped drinking after we had been together a couple of years, and fortunately, before we had our kids. It was a relief to surrender to something that I had sort of known from the very beginning of my drinking. I drank differently than most others. I lost control when I drank. Friends had told me that for years, but I finally came to accept it as a fact rather than as an attack on my character. When I stopped, there was a tremendous relief and my obsession with alcohol was lifted almost immediately. I experienced this lovely surge of joy every morning when I woke up and remembered going to bed the night before.
Can you tell us about the best time you ever had drinking?
I had many, many fun times drinking when I was young, but honestly, and I know this sounds sad, but I really enjoyed drinking alone best of all, especially at the end, when I did my experimenting with just drinking wine after many years of not drinking. If I was out with friends, I’d have my glass of wine or two. Then, when I got home, I’d enjoy my own bottle, without the meddlesome looks or judgments of others. I just loved my party of one. Loved to open a bottle of wine and enjoy it in the company of my dogs, after the kids were in bed. I would write such brilliant prose that I unfortunately couldn’t read when I found the pages the next morning, crumpled and strewn around my bed. But I also enjoyed drinking with my friends and my husband. I had so much love in my heart when I drank. I wasn’t a mean drunk. After one drink, I liked you a little more than I had liked you before. After three, drinks, I loved you, and by my fourth or fifth drink you had to peel me off of you.
What about the worst time?
If only there had been just one.
Has drinking ever affected—either negatively or positively—any of your relationships?
Yes. Oh yes. Both.
Why do, or don’t you, choose to drink?
I just don’t drink and my life is better as a result. It’s not even a conscious choice I make anymore. I rarely think of drinking. If I’m out and offered a drink, I decline, but I don’t really like people to know I don’t drink at all and sometimes I’ll mumble something about how I can’t because of medication or something. I hate for people to feel uncomfortable about their drinking in front of me, because it doesn’t make me uncomfortable at all. We have alcohol in our house, serve it to friends, etc.
Life is short. When I quit drinking I added many hours to my day – hours that I used to lose when I was too drunk to do anything but drink – and the hours have added up to years of being awake and alive and present for my family and my friends and for myself.
Do you have a favorite book, song, or movie about drinking?
I’ve always loved John Cheever and Raymond Carver because of all the drinking in their stories. Hemingway too, of course. There’s such beauty and sorrow in a good drinking story. Cheever’s published journals reveal his very painful struggle with alcohol – it made him mean and taciturn, wrought havoc with his family, and he knew this, but couldn’t stop for many decades. But he had such a big heart, as do so many drunks I know. Another favorite is The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, by Brian Moore, about an Irish woman who drinks alone. One of the saddest books I’ve ever read. The title sums up my relationship with alcohol. It was a lonely passion.
Nick Lowe wrote a song about drinking called “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide,” which is so great that I’m going to post the lyrics here. There’s nothing I can say about this song. It says it all:
LATELY I’VE LET THINGS SLIDE, by Nick Lowe
With a growing sense of dread
And a hammer in my head
Fully clothed upon the bed
I wake up to the world
That lately I’ve been living in
There’s a cut upon my brow
Must have banged myself somehow
But I can’t remember now
And the front door’s open wide
Lately I’ve let things slide
I go to the bin
I throw the laundry in
And pick out the cleanest shirt
Then I tell myself again
I don’t really hurt
Smoking I once quit
Now I got one lit
I just fell back into it
Along with my pride
Lately I’ve let things slide
I go to the bin
I throw the laundry in
Dig out the cleanest shirt
When all at once I’m seized again
By exquisite hurt
That untouched take-away
I brought home the other day
Has quite a lot to say, the evidence is clear
Only resign piled high and wide
About how lately I’ve let things slide
I’m just about holding on
But lately I’ve let things slide
Note: This interview was originally published on Drinking Diaries in March, 2011.