In her New York Times best-selling memoir, Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, Sarah Hepola writes a harrowing tale of her battle with alcoholism, which, as the title indicates, more often than not led her to drink to the point of blacking out.
Hepola’s story is more than the typical tale of redemption, though. It’s a brutally honest — and, at times, outright funny — look at one woman’s struggle to understand her inner self and become the person she knew she could be, without the liquid courage of alcohol.
In advance of her June 14 appearance at Wild Detectives to chat about Blackout (which is being released in paperback this month), we asked Hepola about her sobriety, what she loves most about Dallas, and what she has planned next.
CultureMap: What led you to write Blackout?
Sarah Hepola: I was hell-bent on accomplishing something in sobriety I had not done in my drinking life. I’d wanted to write a book as long as I’ve wanted to do anything. I was so scared and broken after I quit that it took about six months to realize this was an opportunity.
They say write what you know. I didn’t know anything better than drinking. I had an unofficial Ph.D.
CM: You’ve talked about how you drank to deal with issues like body-consciousness, self-doubt, and the need to be liked. Do you still struggle with those issues?
SH: Always and forever I will deal with those issues. I don’t know many people who don’t. The good part about quitting drinking is that when you take away the anesthesia, you can start addressing the original wound.
Why am I so mixed up about my body? What could I do about that? You leave the land of numbness and enter the world of action. That said, I’m reminded every day why I used to drink. Oh yeah, dealing with life on its own terms is hard.
CM: What do you miss most about drinking?
SH: The easy camaraderie. The promise of release at the end of the day. The abandon. There’s not one thing I miss. I miss a lot, but the mental obsession goes away.
It’s like when you miss the good parts of an old fling: Ohhh, man, that was so amazing. And then you start to remember the fights, the tears, the disasters. Eh, never mind.
CM: You’ve also mentioned that you wrote well when you were drinking. Did you have to learn to write sober?
SH: Definitely. What drinking did for me — not simply in writing, but in sex, and in bar-room conversations — was to turn down the volume on my own self-doubt. The disinhibiting qualities of booze can be very powerful for someone as inhibited as me. So in every one of those categories, I had to learn a more sustainable path to reducing my anxiety and doubt.
These days, I write in bed, which is a terrible habit, but it makes me feel safe. I have to find that place where I feel like no one is watching, or I’ll get freaked out.
CM: In some ways, you are where you are in your career — i.e., a New York Times best-selling author — because of your drinking. If you had it to do over again, what would you change?
SH: I would wear better clothes.
CM: Would you advise someone to become a writer?
SH: Writing isn’t a career you pursue because someone advised you to do it. It’s a career you pursue because you feel in your bones you need to it. Financially, it’s a bad decision, like investing in mimeograph machines. It makes me laugh when someone’s flailing in their job and says: I should just write a book. It’s a bit like saying: I should just win the lottery.
I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but I’m saying don’t count on it. However, if you know the risks, and you still want to pursue the writing life, it can reward you in many other ways. I feel enormously grateful to be doing something I love, even if it’s something I occasionally hate.
CM: What’s next? Are you planning another book?
SH: Yes. After this paperback tour ends, I’m devoting myself to a new book, which I think will be a collection of essays about my relationships with men. I say “I think,” because you never know what you’re going to get until you sit down and write the thing.
It’s like when you spitball an outline for English class, and then you actually sit down to write the essay and realize, wait, this was all wrong.
CM: What inspires you?
SH: I keep a list on my desktop of people whose work inspires me. Here’s a random sampling: Joan Didion, Marc Maron, Kristen Wiig, Rhett Miller, Paul Thomas Anderson. Each of those people has some quality I would like for myself. And they’re just in it.
I also listen to music a lot, although it tends to be the same album over and over and over again. I think I have a touch of the OCD, and listening to the same songs on repeat soothes me somehow.
Also, I’m really inspired by the work of other writers. Inspired, and envious, but that’s pretty good fuel to get moving. When I read Cheryl Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” columns, I felt like the bar had been raised for personal writing online. Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable made me want to be observe more closely. Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams made me want to be a better person.
Ta-Nahesi Coates blew it out of the water with Between the World and Me. My friend Pam Colloff writes these stories for Texas Monthly that get at the human experience in a profound way. Oh, and David Foster Wallace. The *other* DFW. My hero.
CM: Why did you move back to Dallas?
SH: I knew I had to get out of New York, and for years I’d had these fantasies about Austin, where I lived in my 20s. But when I actually visited Austin, I was like: Oooh, this is expensive and crowded.
Dallas was the shift I needed. My rent was a third of what I paid in New York, and plus, my family is here, and I liked being close to them again. I had been home to visit a few months before, and we all took this walk near the lake, where my parents live, and I was like: Oh, wow, I’m home.
CM: Do you like being back here?
SH: Some days. Other days, I feel like I don’t belong. Dallas is a completely underrated town in terms of culture, affordability, convenience, and diversity. Will I live here for the rest of my life? I doubt it. But I’m proud to be from this place, and to live here now.
CM: How do you feel that Dallas has changed since you lived here before?
SH: It’s such a better city. Look at the development of the last few years: the Arts District, Klyde Warren Park. There is a park in downtown Dallas, and people actually go to it!
I end up having half my business meetings and online dates on Lower Greenville, which basically looks like Brooklyn in 2008. Cool coffee shops, food trucks, macarons, upscale chocolate, artisanal whatever. And Brooklyn in 2008 was a great place to be.
CM: What do you like to do in Dallas? Any favorite haunts?
SH: Oak Cliff is amazing. I love every restaurant in Bishop Arts. The first time I stepped into the Wild Detectives bookstore, I almost cried. Dallas has needed a place like that for so long. I’m honestly glad I don’t live any closer to Emporium Pies, because I don’t need any more proximity to their Cloud 9 pie, which is insane.
But most of my haunts are near where I live in East Dallas. I think my favorite restaurant in the city might be Sissy’s on Henderson. That combination of great Southern cooking in an impeccable setting is so Dallas to me.
When I’m totally stressed or in the mood to eat my feelings, I go to Matt’s El Rancho. Hey, there’s a new slogan for them: The home of Tex-Mex, and emotional eating.