In Mother Noise (Scribner/Rucci, May), essayist House lays bare her own life with a deeply moving look at her recovery from addiction.
While working on your memoir, you told your nine-year-old son, Atlas, that you were a heroin addict back in your 20s. Did this admission change the book at all?
I think what really changed the book was when my editor suggested that it would be good to have an essay or a scene when I was actually telling him, and to think about that moment and how it changed our relationship, how it echoes afterwards. He’s such a great kid. He’s funny, and very cautious—we call him “Aunt Ruth” in the book. It’s funny, because I wasn’t an Aunt Ruth, and I don’t know how I ended up with this kid. It changed my thoughts about nature versus nurture, because he’s always been that way.
You’re both a writer and an accomplished artist. How did you approach combining the two mediums to tell your story?
I originally didn’t plan on putting drawings in the book at all. It became part of the book once I was figuring out how to put in the moment when I told my son, because everything about that moment was in leaning in and reading his face. Once I had that piece, it opened me to putting drawings in other places as well. I’d taken a huge box of old slides from my mom’s house, and it became obvious to me that to draw them would hold weight in a way that writing an essay about my childhood would not.
You’ve had 20 years of sobriety. What would you say to someone still struggling with addiction?
I hate to use the standard “one day at a time,” but in the beginning, I could have never pictured 20 years ahead that I would still be sober. You just really have to hold on and try to find people who will support you. I feel sick to my stomach when I hear about someone who didn’t make it. I’ll cry over strangers who didn’t find recovery. So many people are touched by substance use disorder, even if they’re not addicts themselves.
Since meeting humorist David Sedaris in college, you’ve become a regular opener for him on his national tours. What have you learned from your relationship?
It would take forever to list everything. What was so valuable was watching his career for 30 years. When he first asked me to open for him, I thought, “I’m not a funny writer. I don’t know if I can do this.” But I didn’t realize just how much I’d absorbed just from watching him—things like if you make a joke in the beginning of a piece, and circle back, it gets a huge laugh because the audience is with you.
© vivien stembridge