Interview with Olivia Laing, Author of “The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking”

by Leah on January 1, 2014

Olivia Laing_credit_Jonathan RingFrom time to time, 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.

 Olivia Laing  is a writer and critic. She is the author of “The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking,” and “To the River.” She is the former Deputy Books Editor of the Observer and writes for a variety of publications, including the Observer, New Statesman, Guardian and Times Literary Supplement.

Drinking Diaries: How old were you when you had your first drink and what was it?  

Olivia Laing: I don’t remember an exact time, but probably red wine at Sunday lunch alongside roast lamb and gratin dauphinoise, probably with Tosca on the record player. That would have been a pretty classic Sunday in my family in the 1980s, and I’m sure we were sometimes allowed to sneak a sip. I don’t think I liked it though. I can remember thinking ‘I will always like lemonade better than beer’.

How did/does your family treat drinking?

My parents are divorced, and my mother’s partner was an alcoholic, while my father is a very gifted bon viveur. So on the one hand I experienced drinking as frightening and dangerous, and on the other hand as a source of great pleasure.

How do you approach alcohol in your every day life?  

I’ve taken my dad’s route – I drink for pleasure.

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

I don’t drink daily, but I’ve never had a period of long abstinence either. It’s very much part of my social life, though I rarely get drunk. If I drink too much these days I get terrible hangovers, so as I’ve got older I’ve become more moderate – the days of tequila slammers are long gone.

What’s your drink of choice? Why?Trip to Echo Spring

I’m a pretty loyal bourbon drinker: Maker’s Mark, one cube of ice. When it comes to cocktails I like a Boulevardier, which is a negroni with bourbon instead of gin. In the summer, nothing beats a Campari and soda. And I never say no to a glass of champagne.

Can you tell us about the best time you ever had drinking?

There’ve been so many. I have a tradition of having cocktails at Dukes Hotel in London with my editor to mark special occasions. It was a haunt of Ian Fleming, and is where the classic James Bond ‘shaken not stirred’ martini is said to have originated. In New York, I always have a great time at Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle. Sancerre in a French fishing village, Hemingway daiquiris on a beach in Key West, whisky with friends after swimming in an outdoor pool in Cambridge, champagne on Christmas morning… the list goes on.

What about the worst time?  

Well, I don’t really like to be drunk drunk. Last time I really had too much was on a friend’s birthday in the Lower East Side a few years back. One too many margaritas, and I was fairly sure my headache was going to kill me the next day.

Has culture or religion influenced your drinking?   

Well, I can’t say I’m totally immune to the allure of Humphrey Bogart sitting at a bar. But I’m also very suspicious of the glamourising myth, and how it is used to cover up genuine alcoholism. Hemingway is a case in point here.

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

I’ve just written a book about writers and drinking, so there are lots I could list. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams, the short story ‘The Swimmer’ by John Cheever, almost anything by Hemingway or Fitzgerald, particularly The Great Gatsby. As for movies, James Stewart’s hiccuping drunk scene in The Philadelphia Story is hard to beat. Also The Man Who Fell to Earth, with David Bowie as an alcoholic alien – weird, beautiful and very bleak.

What do you like most about drinking?

I like the ritual, the taste, the sense of ceremony and celebration. My house is full of champagne corks – my dad likes to put coins in them and write the date to mark special occasions. That’s the kind of drinking I really love: communal, pleasurable, joyous.

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

It really is a very enjoyable part of my life. Not dominating, but a pleasurable element, absolutely.

How has alcoholism affected your life?

That’s a big question. So big in fact that I wrote a book about it. Alcoholism is a frightening condition. It really marked my childhood. It’s very damaging to anyone who encounters it, particularly if you’re a kid. I’ve always wanted to understand it, to make sense of how absolutely overwhelming it can be. That’s really why I wrote The Trip To Echo Spring, to try and work out why an alcoholic carries on drinking, even when it’s clearly destroying everything they hold dear, including their own health.

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

A very cold, very good glass of champagne. Who doesn’t want to be delicious?


Author Photo Credit: Jonathan Ring