In The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, Olivia Laing studies six great writers—Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman, and Raymond Carver—and their fraught relationship with alcohol.
What commonalities did you find among these writers and their alcoholism?
As kids they were anxious, unhappy boys with troubled families, who got by on their gift for storytelling. There’s a relationship between that knack for fantasy and the desire to escape with alcohol. Fitzgerald said drinking helped him make stuff up; that fabulous fantasy world seemed much more pleasing and safe to him, and drinking accessed it. And issues of sexuality were huge, especially for Cheever—he desired men but also desired a kind of security that meant he had to be heterosexual. That tension and division of self was something he wanted to drown out with drink.
What struck you as the most tragic saga of alcoholism?
Definitely John Berryman. He was tormented by his father’s suicide, which was mixed up with his mother’s love affair. He went from marriage to marriage while his drinking became worse, all while writing great poems. He went into recovery three times, managed to stay sober for a year, and wrote a novel based on his experiences—and then jumped off a bridge into the Mississippi. The waste of it—such an extraordinary, brilliant man.
How does alcoholism affect their writing?
Long-term alcohol addiction causes brain damage with loss of memory and cognition. Somebody who has incredible control over narrative can lose that. Tennessee Williams’s late plays became incoherent and repetitive—they lose the structural perfection of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Streetcar. You see a similar sloppiness in late Hemingway, and drink had a lot to do with why Fitzgerald struggled so much with Tender Is the Night. The loss of an ability to think clearly is something they all discussed in their diaries.
How do they portray drinking itself in their writing?
In private life they avoided the subject, but they were uncompromising in their portrayal of alcoholics. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a superb portrait of just how evasive a drunk can be.
You describe recovery from alcoholism as an act of faith.
Faith means that you give up relying on yourself and let go, as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, to a higher power. Alcoholics often find that extremely difficult; they have issues with control and trust and anxiety. Certainly for Cheever and for Raymond Carver, who felt that he poisoned his life, in getting sober they found a kind of faith, a wholeness that had eluded them.