JUNE 22, 2016
MISHKA SHUBALY EARNED his MFA in creative writing at Columbia University and then didn’t write for seven years. Instead, he used his student loan money to borrow a four-track and press 1,000 copies of an EP. Over the next several years, he persisted with his music, releasing three more EPs, before he wrote a pitch in response to an open call for personal essays from editor David Blum at the former alt-weekly New York Press.
When he finally picked up the pen, Shubaly went immediately to the center of his own personal tornado: a lifelong struggle with addiction. Blum didn’t publish that first piece but he liked it enough that he requested another. From there, he and Shubaly developed a solid writing and editing partnership, and when Blum moved to a position at Amazon, he prodded his protégé to write and release a Kindle single. Shipwrecked, Shubaly’s first short memoir, shot to number one and sold well. This led to five other successful Kindle singles and eventually his first full-length work, I Swear I’ll Make It Up To You.
Shubaly’s willingness to strip down in unflattering light allows his readers to find compassion for his headlong, angry dive into drug and alcohol addiction. He writes with a hungry, masculine energy that recalls Bukowski or Kerouac, drawing the reader into his corkscrewed narrative, pulling us jerkily through one crisis after the other: an adopted brother’s disappearance, bullying at school, the loss of a house, abandonment by his father, a college campus shooting, the deaths of friends. In recounting his childhood, he admits to being stubborn, anxious, on perpetual fast-forward, deeply insecure, and overjoyed to discover alcohol at 13. He moved quickly from drinking to pills and cocaine — it’s amazing how many details he’s able to provide, considering that much of his youth was spent either intoxicated or massively hungover.
Recently, Shubaly and I sat down in a park in San Diego. Though we were interrupted a few times — he kept getting up to retrieve the ball for some kids on a nearby basketball court — we were able to get into the good stuff: his past, his new book, and his life as a sober artist.
MAGGIE M. ETHRIDGE: In a series of questions on Reddit, you said about your first Kindle Single, Shipwrecked, “I expected to make $500 and I made $9,000.” Overall, you’ve sold over 200,000 copies over six Kindle Singles. Did that make for a significant change in your life?
MISHKA SHUBALY: Yeah, it was a radical transformation. Although I think people have the perception that I had best-selling status. I did have a couple of great years, but it’s not like making partner at a law firm — there’s no security. And, who cares? Security isn’t super-important to me. I make enough money to get by. I was never like, I’m going to move into the lucrative and stable field of writing and song writing. But yeah, it was fucking awesome to make a lot of money for a couple of years.
Here’s something you wrote: “There’s so many times in your life, where you think you’ve made it. And then the smoke clears and you have to go back to work.” That really resonated with me. I know I find myself thinking, “If only this would happen …” And then it happens, and of course it’s amazing for a minute, and then it’s over, and life continues.
Yeah — so many times I thought, this band, or this record, or this show is going to make me different. With the bands, the shows, there is a split second of transformation, but then the song ends and the moment is over. It’s always the Cinderella story. Or you have an amazing night, and you walk out the next morning, and your van’s been towed. But then the opposite is true, too. Almost my entire creative life I’ve had this sensation that I’ve been approaching something and approaching something, and never gotten there.
But I need to be honest with myself and admit that there have been several times where I have actually gotten there. You need to leave yourself open so that can soak in: I did it.
I was going to ask you about regret. The subject matter of all your work seems to be based on what went wrong.
Did you see my new tattoo? [Shubaly shows the tattoo on his forearm, which reads: KNOW REGRETS.] I just got this. On the one hand I like it because it’s succinct, on the other hand I just boiled my life down to a tweet.
Tattoos are just essentially body tweets, right? But “know regrets” — say a little more?
I get a lot of guys, 21, 23-year-olds, who write and ask me how to stop drinking. And I’m like, Drink until you’re 30, then you’ll be done with it. I wish I had something better to say than destroy your life, turn yourself into something you hate, and then you’ll have enough fire in your belly to kick it. I have a friend who stopped drinking when he was 14, and I’m like, That’s a long time to be in recovery. Are you sure you don’t want to go out and have a little more fun? I mean, that’s a terrible thing to say, and I don’t mean to make light of his experience or say that it’s insignificant compared to my own, or that he did it wrong —
Which would go against what I’ve read about you: you’ve often been quoted saying do whatever works for you.
Yeah. But I do think that human beings learn something from intoxication — that’s why our history with it dates back to when we were monkeys. I learned everything I could learn from alcohol; there’s nothing else for me to learn from that. I regret nothing, and by that I mean I regret everything. That’s why I got this tattoo because both meanings are absolutely true. I regret things I haven’t even done yet; I’m looking forward to regretting them.
It seems like you took all the energy you were putting into self-destruction and turned it toward creating. It’s interesting how quickly all this happened for you.
I’ve always been like that, always champing at the bit. I remember my mom telling me as a kid, just be patient. I thought about it and I was like, No, that’s bullshit. No, I’m never going to learn how to do that. I’m just going to yell and scream until the thing happens. I failed so many times, so spectacularly, I’ve been able to make a career out of it.
Although it seemed like you wrote your Kindle Singles in a big burst. How about the book: Did you write I Swear I’ll Make It Up To You the same way?
No. The difference between writing a Kindle Single and writing a full-length book is like the difference between building a tree house and a real house. If you’re building a house and the foundation is off a quarter inch, by the time you get up to the second or third floor, it’s off by six inches. This is the first full-length book I’ve written. It was incredibly hard because I was writing about my past, and I felt an obligation to be honest to the prick I was without completely alienating people. It’s challenging to look back and write in the voice of a 20-year-old misogynist who’s angry at his father, to write the way he’s thinking … You can’t add: “If I knew then what I know now, I would have realized I was being an asshole,” after each paragraph. You have to crawl back to the prison that you freed yourself from, and then force yourself to make the same mistakes that got you there in the first place.
When you were writing this book, were you concerned about the effect this would have on your family and friends?
I really feel that a memoirist is charged with the responsibility of exposing his own secrets and protecting the secrets of others. I’m not writing an exposé. Almost everyone in my book signed off on what I wrote about them. All my immediate family read the book before it published. My father was involved with the book every step of the way (because I wrote so much about him), and that was a trip.
Do you know the Pat Conroy story? He published The Great Santini, a fictionalized version of his life with a very abusive dad. His dad was furious when the book was published, until he saw that it was dedicated to him. At which point his dad started signing books with Conroy, really enjoying the stardom thing. I was thinking about your book, and wondering about your dad’s response.
My dad came out to this reading I did for the National Arts Club. I wanted him there; I pressured him to come. But then also he went around telling everyone, “Hi, I’m the villain in the book.” He sort of took a little victory lap. So I said, “Dad, I’m proud of how far we’ve come, and I’m glad you’re here, but this is my moment. You’re not being celebrated for what you did. You’re being celebrated for what I did in forgiving you.”
I love my dad. But I was careful to portray our relationship accurately: there’s no tidy ending. Being sober, being an adult: it’s about living with ambiguity.
When you were writing, did you ever feel stymied by knowing your family would read it? If you’re writing a scene where you are getting a blow job, do you think, my mom is going to read this? How did you deal with that?
Two things: One is that, whenever I sit down to write, I trick myself, I fool myself. I say, This is private. No one else will read this. Or when I’m writing my Amazon work I just write to David Blum, my editor there. He’s my ideal reader — my friend, my confidant. I send it to him, and he sends it to everyone else.
But as far as my mom goes, she’s not just mom with a capital M. She had a life long before I was part of it. She’s person, a woman, and before that she was a girl, and before that she was a kid. So much of this experience was just seeing my parents as kids, kids like me who grew up and had kids and did the best they could.
I told my dad, “You know, this is going to hurt your feelings. I’m writing from my perspective, my memory, from when I was 16. I’m not pretending it’s objective; if it doesn’t jibe with your memory of the situation, write your own book. Anything you don’t want in there, I won’t put it in there.” My father gave me a huge gift when I was interviewing him. It’s the quote that opens the book, “People misremember things. Even if I remember it wrong, this is how I remember it.” So if there’s a scene where I remember the car red, but it was really brown, I’m making it red, because perception is reality.
What do you have to say about the value of an MFA for a writer?
I can’t recommend that anybody get an MFA unless you can get it for free. I’m still $90,000 in debt and probably will be until I die. But that’s easy for me to say, because I got one. And I can’t evaluate clearly who I’d be without it. I know I didn’t write for seven years afterward. And much of my job as a writer now is to unlearn everything I learned. My MFA was for fiction, and it wasn’t until the last semester I realized I’d be a nonfiction writer. I don’t think getting an MFA makes you a writer; and sleeping around and getting drunk doesn’t make you a writer. Writing makes you a writer.
What writers were important to you, are important to you?
The writers who were most formative for me are the writers I write against now: swinging-dick guys like Hunter Thompson, Hemingway, Bukowski — he’s a ghost who looms over me all the time. I was fortunate to be exposed to Chekhov and Flannery O’Connor early on. Lucia Berlin was a mentor at the University of Colorado; she’s always been the good angel on my shoulder to Bukowski’s devil. David Gates. But also John Prine and Richard Pryor: a songwriter and comedian have influenced me more than any writer has. Pryor took sad stuff from his life and made people laugh about it. He would take lowbrow shit like being poor, or drunk, or high, or fucked up, and turn it into art. We have this bullshit — like over here is high art, and over here is vulgarity — that’s historically inaccurate. Doug Stanhope is the most brilliant comedian of our time, and possibly one of the most important intellects of our time. People can’t see that because of all the dick jokes. Ever read Shakespeare? Full of dick jokes.
Has your voice changed since you were in school? When you finally returned to writing, did it surprise you?
I was surprised how comfortable I was writing about things I’d fought so hard to keep private. In some ways, I wish I sounded like I did back then, because you’re reading a fantastic novel every day, and talking to writers all the time, so you’re working at this very high level. I’m less fastidious now about crafting the perfect sentence, and more concerned with telling people the unadorned truth. There’s a songwriter, Guy Clark, and in one of his songs he’s describing somebody’s demise, and he just says, “And so he dies.” It crushes me every time. Sometimes people have been nosing around the bottom and one day they just cease to exist, and he did that in one line.
In Norman Mailer’s The Spooky Art, he says you should be careful not to write too much about your own early life experiences, because you will dry up your well. Are you concerned that when you turn to fiction, you will have expunged your soul, have nothing to draw from?
Fuck Norman Mailer, he’s a blowhard. But I’m glad he makes bold statements like that, because then we can have this conversation. I think it was Flannery O’Connor who said you can live to be five years old and have enough material for a lifetime. I mean, human experience is incredibly broad, detailed, and meaningful. Just look around here, where we are.
The more I’ve written from my own life, the more I find there to write about.