5 Questions for Kristi Coulter About Writing, Humor, and Getting Sober

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In the opening piece of her new memoir-in-essays Nothing Good Can Come from This, Kristi Coulter meanders through a Whole Foods stocked with displays of rosé and reckons with the demands of her new sobriety. The scene embodies the difficult journey she’s started. Alcohol is everywhere; on billboards, on ice cream, on coworkers’ desks, Worse yet, work meetings frequently involve drinks. Coulter finds ways to not only quit drinking, but to survive as a woman in a misogynistic culture soaked with booze, a culture where, as she describes it, “There’s no easy way to be a woman, because, as you may have noticed, there’s no acceptable way to be a woman. And if there’s no acceptable way to be the thing you are, then maybe some women drink a little. Or a lot.”

An erudite, reflective writer with a winning sense of humor, Coulter’s explorations move beyond drinking to examine feminism, sexism, privilege, happiness, and work. Many readers will see themselves in her, and the book will let those who have never had a substance abuse problem come to better understand friends and family who do—and maybe see the levity in the darker side of life.

When did you start writing about your life and recovery? And how was your experience of that initial process?

I started writing about my life and my recovery via a blog, Off-Dry, that I created in 2013 when I was about 60 days sober. At the time, my impulse wasn’t about writing so much as it was about being part of a community. There’s a vibrant sober blogosphere, and in those early days, I spent at least an hour a night reading posts from people who were far enough along in their sobriety to serve as a lantern for me. I wanted to start recording my own experience, both to process it and to help the newly sober. When I started the blog, I hadn’t written for the sake of writing (much less for art’s sake) in well over a decade. I’d gotten my MFA at 24, and when I had failed to magically become world-famous by 30, I sulkily turned my attention to other forms of achievement. It didn’t take long before I found myself using the blog not just as a way to test out my voice as a sober person, but to shape and experiment with my writing voice, too. I started writing fiction again at about six months sober, and once I’d come out publicly as sober on my second anniversary, I began writing the personal essays that ultimately led to Nothing Good Can Come From This.

What was it that moved you to switch from writing fiction to personal essays? Did coming out publically help you locate both your voice and material?

I think coming out publicly did help me to realize I’d stumbled onto some pretty rich material, yes. As I started to experiment with writing about sobriety — and the topics that float around it, like feminism and pleasure and willingness to live in permanent ambiguity — I found a voice emerging that was more direct and acerbic and edgy than either my fictional voice or my real-life one. Exercising that blunt voice worked for the topic — a lot of recovery writing is pretty earnest — and I wanted room to be funny and irreverent. It also somehow made me a happier, bolder person. Fiction writing is still important to me, but for now, I’m very glad my essay voice and I found each other.

What other essayists have influenced you?

So many! I read Nancy Mairs’s Plaintext in college and was taken by how matter-of-factly she wrote about her body and mental illness and sex. I was nowhere near ready to broach those kinds of subjects myself, but the permission I took from reading her stayed with me. I read David Sedaris for his mastery of tone, particularly the way he can have you giggling out loud and then just stick a knife in you. I read Claire Dederer’s Love and Trouble, which is a memoir but also a collection of essays, and it directly influenced how I approached topics of marriage and sex. Also, I don’t know if they are essayists per se, but I’m intensely interested in the work of writers like Sarah Manguso and Maggie Nelson, who write short, densely packed, aphoristic pieces that live somewhere between essay, prose poem, and memoir.

Between Roxane Gay, Megan Stielstra, Scaachi Koul, Angela Morales, Michelle Orange, Martha Grover, Alice Bolin and Meaghan O’Connell, we live in a golden age of female essayists. Many more commercial presses are publishing women’s essays, but book publishing is still a tough business. What was your experience like getting this book published in today’s market?

My publishing experience was pretty oddball. I had won a few prizes and published some short stories in literary quarterlies in the late 1990s, but my trail stopped there, e.g. I was basically a complete unknown as of 2016. What happened is that I self-published a version of “Girl Skulks Into a Room,” one of the essays in the book, on Medium, and it went very mildly viral. Daphne Durham, a former co-worker who had since become a literary agent, texted me even before she’d read the whole thing: “There’s a book in this.” I thought the notion of me writing a whole book about anything was wildly optimistic, but over a few coffee dates Daphne helped me to see what she saw, and we started working together on a book proposal. Daphne was an absolutely fantastic editor for my work, and in the process of editing me, she realized how much she enjoyed editing. So as we were getting close to having something ready to shop, she accepted an Executive Editor role at MCD/FSG, and after some time she and Sean McDonald spent working through their vision for the imprint, she ended up acquiring my book.

In the interim, another essay I self-published on Medium, “Enjoli,” went hugely viral, and that brought a lot of agent and editor attention my way. It was a life-changing experience. But when it came to finding a home for the book, I didn’t feel a need to play a bunch of angles to maximize that one moment. I knew I wanted to be with an influential but smaller house like FSG, where a debut author wouldn’t get lost in the shuffle, and where they would have an eye on my long-term potential. And I already knew I loved working with Daphne. So it was pretty much a no-brainer to go with FSG. The day I got the offer, I pulled a bunch of FSG books off my shelves — Joan Didion, Frederick Seidel, Ben Lerner, Laura van den Berg ─ and stacked them on my coffee table and just stared at them going “Holy fuck.” And two years later I’m still largely in that “holy fuck” place. So my experience was a bit of a fairy tale. I know how hard it is for even very good work to get recognized in this business, and that it’s on me to take a fairy-tale start and turn it into a sustainable career.

Joan Didion famously said, “Writers are always selling somebody out.” How have loved ones reacted to your book so far?

An advantage of having “Enjoli” go viral is that there are now strangers on literally every continent who have now read or heard me talk about drinking and sobriety. That’s fantastic desensitization therapy. I feel as matter-of-fact about that part of my life now as I do about having brown hair or growing up in Florida. And I’ve also heard countless addiction stories from other people in the last few years, so addiction feels very normal to me now, probably more standard than it actually is. I could hang out and chat about addiction with friends, family, or Dick Cheney (why did he come to mind? I don’t know) all day.

It’s the Other Stuff — about sex, adultery, being kind of a selfish jackass sometimes — that gives me palpitations. My husband, the only person whose permission I sought to tell some of these stories, is fully on board. He’s so on board that he has threatened to have the book cover airbrushed onto the side of his surf van, and to wear a t-shirt with “John” (in quotes) on it to events just so he gets full credit. Friends have also responded with astonishing enthusiasm and acceptance, even nonchalance. I’m only slightly disturbed that people don’t seem to find any of the revelations very surprising. My parents have yet to read the book, and I’ve actually requested they not, because I just don’t think anyone needs to know some of this stuff about their kid. (I was inspired to make that request by hearing Roxane Gay say she’d asked her parents not to read Hunger. “I didn’t know I could DO that!” I thought.) They might still choose to read it, but I’ve let them know I’m not available to process it with them from a content perspective. I’m not going to use the book as a vehicle to relitigate past history. (Same goes for ex-boyfriends, in case any are reading this!) The book is a memoir, yes, but both memoirs and their narrators are constructs. What readers are getting is one truthful view into my life, not a diary.

Your book is deeply reflective and probing, but it’s also hilarious. I laughed countless times, frequently in public. Can you talk about your ideas about the role of humor in personal nonfiction or literature in general?

I’m glad you found it funny! I’m fortunate to have a temperament that can find humor in nearly anything. When I first seriously contemplated getting sober, I had the misconception that it would require a depth of earnestness on my part that would crowd out humor, and that was not an appealing prospect. When I finally got unhappy enough to make the leap anyway, I quickly realized that getting and staying sober demanded seriousness of purpose, which is not the same thing as earnestness or reverence. In fact, I learned that if I couldn’t find humor in sobriety, I probably wouldn’t make it, because I’d be covering up my authentic self, not revealing it. So in writing this book I liked the idea of showing others that you can be dead serious about remaking your life without falling into groupthink or a cult of positivity. (Though I’ll add that, as Leslie Jamison discusses in The Recovering, groupthink can be very useful in its way, especially early on when it’s dawning on you that literally millions of people have been in your shoes and have things to teach you about finding new, better shoes.)

In terms of humor, in personal nonfiction or literature in general, there’s nothing more exhilarating than realizing an author finds the same weird things funny that you do. It’s a tiny but deep bonding moment, like when I meet someone who agrees with me that celery tastes like metal crossed with evil. But that humor has to be organic. I don’t use humor in my writing because I think it should be funny; I use humor because it’s one of my natural ways of coping with my own core desperation and terror and whatnot, so that comes through in my voice. Forced humor, which I can fall into as much as any writer, is just painful. I also think it’s important, at least in books, to be funny in a way that will age well. It’s one thing to make super timely, Shrek-type jokes about pop culture in a blog post or other ephemeral form, but a whole book full of one-liners about, like, This Is Us, or Scott Pruitt’s Ritz-Carlton hand lotion? That makes me feel tired now, and in five years it won’t even sound like English.