My Dark Secrets and Skeletons Are Not So Unique: A Conversation with James Brown
By Rob RobergeMarch 22, 2021
James Brown’s work falls unquestioningly in the former category. The author of several highly acclaimed novels, as well as essays published in a wide array of journals, Brown is best known for his three stunning memoirs — The Los Angeles Diaries (HarperCollins, 2003), This River (Counterpoint, 2011), and the latest, Apology to the Young Addict (Counterpoint), released in paperback this month.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Brown’s trilogy: All three memoirs surely focus on the hard road and lost compass of addiction, yet the works avoid, somehow, being reductive and falling to the level of numerous common and competent “addiction memoirs.” Brown explores and sheds light on so many subjects that the reader needn’t be an addict, or even know an addict (though the odds of the latter are frighteningly rare) to fully grasp the weight and depth in these narratives. There is so much here that will resonate with any reader — family, pain, regret, joy, suffering, love in all of its brilliance and sorrows, the staggering weight of the past, the eternally haunted nature of memory and, somehow, hope.
It’s easy, in these overwhelming times, to think nothing matters. But the best books do what art should always do: make us feel less alone in the world. And we need that desperately. As Bruno Schulz asked, “don’t we secretly clasp each other’s hands” under the imaginary table we call literature?
Yes, we do. And Brown offers a generous and non-judgmental, accepting, deeply scarred, and yet loving hand to the reader and lets them know, at least for a while, that they are not alone in in the face of our flawed, resilient, dreadful, and, at times, our beautiful humanity.
Here, I had the chance catch up with Brown and talk about his acclaimed upcoming release, and delve into the entire trilogy’s legacy, as well.
ROB ROBERGE: Let’s start with your start — I find a lot of our fellow writers/friends started writing very young. I came to the game kind of late. When did you know that you were a storyteller? And, after that, when did you feel like you realized that you were a writer?
JAMES BROWN: I wanted to be a writer from my early teens. For this I credit my older brother, who saw me going down the wrong path and encouraged me to read and write. Along the way, I also received important encouragement from two teachers, one who taught creative writing, the other journalism at Willow Glen High School in San Jose.
My brother had me read Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” when I was 13, and on a whim I wrote a kind of companion piece to that story, showed my brother, and he loved it. At that point, because I deeply admired and loved him, I wrote another piece. Again he liked it (or so he said; it wasn’t exactly great work), and in or around that time I began to think there was something else I was good at other than breaking the law, and so, in short, I began writing regularly, searching for his praise (later the praise of those two high school teachers), and by 19 I wrote my first novel, which was published by a small press when I was 21. I committed my last serious but nonviolent crime at the age of 17.
I’m going to get to some specific questions about Apology to the Young Addict, as it’s your newest, and also the conclusion of a trilogy. But there’s a lot to talk about with the trilogy as a whole, as well — so, here’s kind of a multiple part question: When did you know it was a trilogy? I think we’ve talked about Los Angeles Diaries not even starting as a book, at first — that you formed it (beautifully) into a greater narrative after many of the pieces were written. So, I’m guessing it came later, the realization that you were writing the books in some sort of dialogue with and among each other. They’re all organic and self-contained, yet the three books also resonate beautifully with each other. There are so many narrative arcs. The individual pieces have them. The books have their arcs (whether chronological or not). And then the three have another, even larger overreaching arc. When, if ever, did you know while you were working, that these pieces formed books and these books created space for more books? Could you talk about how that process evolved?
I wish I could say that I saw that far ahead, the planning and design of all three memoirs, that I envisioned a trilogy from the very beginning, but that’s not how it happened. The genesis of each book evolved from the changing stages of my life, and what I basically did was attempt to recognize those changes and make record of them in story.
It was nine years between the writing of my last novel, Lucky Town, and my memoir The Los Angeles Diaries. That gap was the result of my alcoholism. I’d reached a point in my addiction where, even if I could write, I had no desire for it. Addiction had become something of a full-time job, and it was only after I attempted to turn my life around and achieved a year of sobriety, that I was able to try and write again. Out of this came The Los Angeles Diaries, and you’re right, it began with a small piece called “My Papa’s Waltz.” At the time, I had no idea that it would trigger a flood of memoirs that resulted in a fleshed-out memoir revolving around the suicides of my alcoholic brother and sister, our mother’s incarceration, my own alcoholism, and the breakdown of my marriage, among many other ugly consequences of addiction. Did I see beyond The Los Angeles Diaries and onto another memoir? No. But I was writing again, and when I finished LAD, I embarked on the telling of other stories, these largely dealing with the next leg of my life and the damaging effects of my using and abusing alcohol and drugs on my wife and children. It was a logical next step, though, honestly, I didn’t consciously decide to follow a linear path in relation to LAD. I just had more stories to tell and felt compelled to tell them. Unfinished business.
When I’d written and published this second memoir, This River, I’d for the most part mined and drained my past. And again it was close to nine years before I came out with the last of the trilogy, Apology to the Young Addict. By this point, I had over a decade of sobriety, and in the process of gaining that sobriety, I had a whole host of new life experiences to draw on. How I got and stayed sober. How I worked with others to achieve the same with some success and others of sad consequence. This last memoir, I like to think, offers more than a dark picture of addiction, and instead focuses on the often grueling process of recovery.
It does it quite well. While writing memoir, have you ever had any of the pieces, scenes, reflections, moments, and even memories surprise you as a writer, even though it’s culled from your experience and thoughts?
Absolutely. In the process of recalling a certain event in my life, and then trying to replicate it in memoir, I found myself remembering all sorts of scenes, moments, and memories that surrounded that event. Details I seemed to have long forgotten or repressed rose to the surface of my mind, each one often sparking another detail, then another and another, until something akin to a fuller, clearer picture began to emerge. It amazed and surprised me how all these smaller but telling details of scene and setting and feelings came back to me when I homed in on a larger, often more traumatic memory. So much of writing memoir is about discovering what’s inside of us — dormant, seemingly hidden or lost, but nonetheless still there, just waiting to be returned to life.
Often, I’m asked if writing my memoir was a cathartic endeavor for me, and I’m always a bit startled by the question. I’m not a big “Oh, look how much we suffer for our art” person, but I found the writing to be harrowing when I was writing about harrowing moments. Perhaps amplified because now others would see it. And I never want to over-equate writing struggles to real struggles. While it was hardly life in a Turkish prison, I didn’t find the least bit of catharsis in writing about my past honestly. The finished book may have left me more unsteady than before I’d done it. Have you found any catharsis in the process/experience of writing? If not, how does it feel to you?
Like you, I didn’t find writing my memoirs cathartic. And, like you, I’m always taken a little off guard by the question. It seems logical that writing about the past could somehow free or enlighten us to some of the things we’ve experienced but would prefer not to remember. Unfortunately, reliving some of those things brings them back full force, often sinking the writer into depression, regret, anger, and rage. But once the storm has passed, once record has been made of the memory in story, I will say, in looking back on my work, that the end result has given me a clearer perspective of my life, particularly as it relates to those who lived it with me. I learned about myself by writing about myself. More importantly, I learned about others by writing about them and the role they played in my life and the role I played in theirs. It’s a special kind of learning. It’s a special kind of knowledge born of insight that could never have occurred if I hadn’t attempted to make sense out of all the chaos and sadness and loss and joy I’ve experienced.
Both recovery and writing call for a strong discipline. You’re also a gym rat — you write about various fevers of obsession in your work. Not to mention that it’s hard work (not good work, but work nevertheless) to be an addict. I’m not being glib here, but it’s obviously a behavior sparked by obsession in some way. Do you find that your obsessive nature is something that’s a gift for you as a writer? Or a hindrance? Or, as I’d guess, a combo of the two?
I’m not sure, but I believe it was Bukowski who said something to the effect that being a drunk requires great strength and perseverance. Waking up each morning drained and hung over from the night before, and then having to go about your day making a living is far more physically and mentally taxing than waking up sober and refreshed. Being a drunk, as you say, is “hard work.” But it’s hardly good work. In fact, it’s ruinous and self-destructive, and sadly, typically, we inflict as much if not more damage on others than we do ourselves. By this I mean, it’s one thing to hurt ourselves; if we choose to self-destruct, so be it; but in that process we invariably inflict great harm on those who love us most. Wives. Children. Husbands. Close friends. I’m rambling here, but the point is, yes, there is similarity between the obsession to use and abuse and the obsession, or passion, to excel in healthier endeavors. Like working out. Like writing. I think I would’ve given up on writing long ago if I didn’t feel compelled — or obsessed — to keep on doing it when it pays so little. And as for the desire for fame and recognition, for most serious writers it’s almost always brief and fleeting and comes mostly from other serious writers if it comes at all. I write because it’s one of the few things I like to delude myself into believing that I do well. That’s reward enough for me. So-called “normal people” aren’t likely to spend long hours alone in a room, day after day, month after month, year after year, doing something that pays terribly and drains the hell out of you. That’s a pretty decent definition of obsession. Or insanity. I guess we all have to be a little crazy to be writers.
One of the hard things I found when it came to writing memoir was that I figured it would be more or less like a novel. Long-form narrative. All the same governing principles of craft. Character, action, background, and so forth. But what tripped me up, what I never saw coming, was the realization that I wasn’t just writing my stories (as if such a thing could exist alone), but I was writing other people’s stories as well. And it struck me that I had to write with a great deal more respect than I would, perhaps, no matter how much I may have cared for the fictional characters. What do you feel is your responsibility to the people represented in the book(s)? Is it ever hard to manage with certain individuals/subjects? If so, how do you handle it as a writer and a person?
Our lives are inextricably linked to the lives of others, and it’s impossible to write about ourselves without writing about those who’ve played a role in our lives. But telling the stories of others while telling our own is risky business. In writing about others, I always feel guilty for invading their privacy, which is why (along with legal reasons) I make a good-faith effort to disguise the obvious distinguishing features of an individual. If the person in real life is a plumber, I’ll change his occupation to, say, a carpenter. If a person’s eyes in real life are blue, I’ll change them to brown, and in cases where I’m writing about immediate family, I just take a deep breath, hope for the best, and tell the truth. But that raises another question. Is my sense of the truth the same as others, and typically it’s not. Two people can witness the exact same event and have completely different interpretations of it. I don’t know if there’s any solution to this issue, or controversy, so, in the end, I rationalize and tell myself that I’m only capable of telling my own sense of the truth as it occurred and let the chips fall where they may. Do I feel responsible to the people represented in my work? Yes, without a doubt. But I don’t see any way around rendering a story and the person or persons involved in that story through anything other than the lens of my own experience and still be honest, if only to myself. In the end, I suppose, it’s about trusting your own version of your experience while being as careful as possible not to consciously deceive, lie about, or denigrate those who’ve played important roles in your life, especially at the expense of perhaps making yourself “look better.” I should also add that even though I’ve come across people who I clearly don’t like or admire, who I would otherwise openly pass judgment on, I try to check myself and leave them out of my stories. Belittling others, even if you think they deserve it, makes the writer look small-minded and weak. I’m sure I’m guilty of failing on this front, but I’m from the school that it’s better to write about those with whom you share a certain empathy and compassion and render them as such.
One of the intended effects of art is to make its audience feel less alone in the world. To find a place in readers where some inarticulate emotion resides and give it language. And then, it’s something shared between the author and reader. This is possibly true of all narrative, as I think it applies to the narrative aspect of recovery. We share stories. Partially to own it. To tell it. But also because the one thing I’ve heard from literally everyone I’ve known in recovery was hearing themselves in a stranger’s story. Do you think that narrative just does this when told honestly? Do you see a parallel with the effect of stories in a meeting, and the stories we tell on the page?
Story is what brings us together as humans. Story is what connects and instructs us. Story is about sharing our experience in all of life’s messiness and giving it meaning, shape, and form. Story is about making sense out of what on the surface may seem senseless. We all have dark secrets. We all have skeletons in the closet. But in telling our stories honestly and truly I’ve found that my dark secrets and skeletons are not so unique, and that others, even if they haven’t experienced the exact same things, are still able to identify with my stories. As you say, particularly in recovery, we hear ourselves in the stories of others, and it gives us solace, a sense of belonging, a sense of comfort to know we’re not alone or all that different from one another. Seems to me this world could use a whole lot more honest stories along with a whole lot more open-minded listeners. It’s a short trip, this life, and time is running out.
Who are a few of your indispensable influences? Those who changed your writing and world when you read them — the ones that make your head split open with the possibilities at your disposal as a writer?
This is another question that so many writers are asked. And it’s a good and fair one, as it’s reading other writers who emotionally and intellectually affect us that initially makes would-be writers want to be writers themselves. My first influence, as I mentioned earlier, was Ernest Hemingway. He made writing seem simple. His prose seemed simple. His stories, however, were anything but. And it was that undercurrent, what he didn’t say, what he chose to leave out, the pauses in his work, the seemingly empty spots, those are the things that made me as a reader have to think and feel and that impressed me most about his work. I know he’s far from politically correct, he’s not taught much if at all at the university nowadays, but he nonetheless remains the single most influential writer of the 20th century. So of course Hemingway had a major impact on my work, less in terms of content than style. Later I came to admire the works of all kinds of writers, from Baldwin to Flannery O’Connor, Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. I could go on for a long time. The list is long and varied and moves to my contemporaries, like Tim O’Brien, Jerry Stahl, Raymond Carver, and Lucy Grealy. All these writers and many others inspired me and continue to inspire me.
It seems to me there’s been a narrowing of the distance/the time of the reminiscence with each book. Los Angeles Diaries is often (not always) about the traumas the foundations in younger life of what later became behaviors of self-destruction and depression. While it’s of course not true of the entire first book, it feels like it’s laying groundwork and initial context for some of your adult writer’s narrative.
Whereas This River happens in more of a present, the author exploring the new plot — the plot that one can never outrun the repercussions of the past. And yet it is dealing much more with a sort of “present” action. We see the exploration and hope for light, even among the storms of darkness still revealing their threating selves. Yet, This River also plays its cards on the table from the first essay, “Talking to the Dead.” And this is where the books start becoming undertows after the waves. And the torque, the power only becomes stronger. We see the terrible losses of your brother and sister in Los Angeles — both hauntingly and beautifully and brutally rendered — and then we see their ghosts first thing in This River. It sets the tone for the book’s narrative distance. The writer is older. Time has passed. There is a literal distance of time between the two books. Yet, the ghosts of the books have returned. They seem to have stayed fixed in time in some ways. While the authorial voice shows how time has passed, some things don’t dissipate with the passage of time. There are plenty of pieces that introduce new narratives, new struggles, new bonds the reader sees. There’s tenderness to the self that seems to have entered the second book, maybe. But the movement toward self-forgiveness, which I realize is not a linear endeavor, bleeds closer to the surface in the new book.
Finally, Apology to the Young Addict feels like a combination of the first two of the trilogy. It seems to open up the scope of the first two books and share a greater number of other people’s stories. Yet it’s viewed through your lens — the lens that has guided all three books. But there’s a slight difference in, say, the opening piece in Apology. The piece, “The Good Neighbors” is about a pair of older neighbors you become close with. And then we see their terrible descent into pain pill addiction. And what’s different about this — what was striking to me — was that this isn’t a piece of you telling your story of addition. It’s, in this case, you watching the sad arc of a narrative you know all too well. And it’s about you showing the effects not only on the addict(s), but on you and your family while you’re in a position of sobriety. There are many other pieces in the book that focus directly on others’ narrative and not just your own. This, for me, gave Apology a difference in the narrative voice. It’s quieter. More, dare I say, comforting. And more expansive. Did you have any thoughts on the different reminiscent narrators (even though they are all, obviously, written by you) of the three?
Of my three memoirs, Apology to the Young Addict strikes me as my most mature in terms of vision and voice, if only because it’s written from the point of view of a more confident and stable sober alcoholic-addict. In The Los Angeles Diaries, though I was sober when I wrote it, that sobriety was tenuous, and in fact I relapsed shortly before it was published after the unnecessary and tragic death of my first wife. I’m not making excuses for my relapse, as there are no good excuses for relapsing. All I’m trying to say is that the loss of my first wife weakened my own resolve to stay sober at all costs and that I was so distraught and guilt-ridden that I returned to the bottle for relief, which of course backfired, as it always does, only intensifying my grief, guilt and pain.
The narrative voice in that first memoir was, for the most part, that of younger man looking back on a troubled childhood and the lives of those he loved and lost to suicide, namely my brother and sister. In the follow-up memoir, This River, the ghosts of my brother and sister are alive and well, still haunting figures in my life, but I also needed to address the devasting effects of my alcoholism and addiction on my three sons and my first and second wives. In this one, I make record of my relapse and mental breakdown that preceded the publication of LAD, my stint in rehab, my renewed resolve to get and stay clean and sober, and I end the book on a note that although there is hope for this seemingly hopeless drunk there is also no guarantee that I’ll succeed, let alone survive. When my second wife, Paula, comes to pick me up after my release, as we’re driving home, I look out the window and “glimpse the reflection of a hopeful man firmly determined to stay sober,” but in that same reflection I also “glimpse what is burrowed deep inside his other self, the alcoholic, the addict, always waiting to reemerge.”
Had I continued to falter, had I failed to remain sober, I couldn’t have discovered the narrative voice that led to the telling of Apology to the Young Addict. As you suggest, there is similarity in the voice of all three books, but in the third and last book that voice, I like to think, is, as you say, more “comforting” and “expansive.” And that tonal difference has much to do with my sense of security and self-confidence, of being more accepting of who I am and where I’ve been, of coming to terms with haunting memories, and ultimately freeing me to write less about myself and more about others struggling with their own demons and addictions.
Hope is essential to recovery but it doesn’t ensure peace. Or sobriety. But, however fragile hope can be, it’s the only thing that makes even a sliver of peace possible. I’m after empathy, not condemnation. I’m after a certain calm and faith in not so much redemption itself but the possibility of redemption.
The title essay is an amazing piece of work that contains so much. It’s so dense; so rich. It’s a direct address to the child of, at different times, your sponsor and later, your drug buddy. That child has grown up and is now a 20-year-old addict, showing pictures of herself with a meth pipe on Facebook. But years before, as a child, the kid comes home at one point, and finds you and your one-time sponsor, unaware of the kid’s presence, strung out on the couch. You write:
There is no excuse, accidental or otherwise, for an adult to use narcotics in front of a child, and my presence alone that night makes me complicit in your addiction today.
I am and am not guilty
I am and am not responsible.
And that’s where this can be so insidious. Because it wasn’t like you dove in the deep end alone when you developed into an addict. Surely there were several figures, whether they knew it or not, who were complicit. Guilty and yet not. Responsible and yet not.
This brutal cycle perpetuates itself. Yet, as you say, the only thing an older recovering addict can ever offer is their example that, yes, there is the possibility of a different life. While also recognizing that, even for the older recovering addict, there’s that terrible possibility of that old same life returning.
The essay itself is a wise and weary narrative that understands all sides of this. This addiction. This life. And, it’s the title piece, an apology to the unnamed young person in the direct address. But can you — in seeing all of this so clearly — can you find forgiveness for everyone in the implicit chain? The countless years of those complicit and yet suffering deeply themselves. The title offers apologies to this young addict. Does that make you more or less capable of self-forgiveness, knowing that someone, more than one someone and more than one time, owed you an apology, too? You would forgive the Young Addict of the title, no? Is there a measure of, if not redemption, self-acceptance and maybe some self-forgiveness when your writing illustrates that this didn’t start with you nor will it end with you?
It wasn’t until I had some solid years of sobriety under my belt that I was able to look back on the many times I’d used and abused with budding, younger addicts and realized that my actions were selfish and irresponsible. It never once crossed my mind that I was directly or indirectly contributing to their downfall. All I cared about was getting high, and, frankly, I didn’t give a damn about who I was getting high with, so long as the drugs were good and plentiful. It was all about the drugs and the bottle, never the people around me.
The unnamed girl in the title story is by no means the only child, teenager, or young person to whom I owe an apology. Adult alcoholics and addicts who “party” with kids are basically sending the message that it’s okay to get stoned or drunk or high when in truth it’s dangerous, self-destructive behavior that is likely to ruin their lives. Getting high kills motivation. Getting high destroys personal incentive and ambitions and dreams. And in our early years, when we’re deciding what “we want to be” or do with our lives, anything that interferes with the pursuit of those goals and dreams is especially egregious. Teenagers are notorious for being conflicted and confused, under pressure to make long-term life-affecting decisions, like going to college or learning a trade, and drinking and using obscures and obstructs their clarity of mind, motivation, and desire to achieve whatever goals and dreams they may have.
Did older alcoholic-addicts set a bad example for me, too? Yes, and unfortunately I have to include my older brother among them. I looked up to him, and he was a drunk while at the same time a successful actor who had starred in two major movies, one with Cybill Shepherd (Daisy Miller), the other Jeff Bridges (Bad Company). In a review of Daisy Miller written in March 2020 by Quentin Tarantino, he praises my brother’s performance, but also adds that he had a drinking problem and took his own life at the age of 27, and wonders aloud if he’s the only one who remembers Barry Brown, and is “it,” the remembering, “enough.” I was deeply heartened to hear Tarantino acknowledge my brother’s life and work.
Your question asks if I can forgive the adult alcoholic-addicts in my life for influencing my own addiction, and given the context in which you place the question, that these adults were themselves suffering deeply, caught in their own ugly vices, I would have to answer “yes,” that I can forgive. They were as blind as I was to their moral responsibilities to our younger counterparts. Can I forgive myself? Will I? Right now, I don’t have the answer.
Rob Roberge teaches at UC Riverside Low Residency Palm Desert 's MFA program. He is at work on a new novel.
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