Junk Talk Interview with James Brown, author of This River

This River

We had the good fortune to sit down with James Brown, author of the recently released This River from Counterpoint Press. We think you’ll enjoy our conversation. Jim Brown is one of the most thoughtful, humble, and articulate authors writing today.

Tim Elhajj for Junk Talk: I’m a writer and recovering addict. With the stigma of addiction being what it is, I thought long and hard before publicly revealing my problems with drugs. One thing that really impressed me with your writing was how candidly you discuss your own struggles with mental health, alcoholism, and hard drugs—all subjects that have an associated social stigma. Granted the stigma with some of these subjects has softened in the last, say, fifty years, but do you ever feel the weight of having revealed so much of your life in your writing?

James Brown: Yes, like you, I thought long and hard before I decided to come clean about my past in my writing, particularly with my first memoir, The Los Angeles Diaries. Years of alcoholism and addiction had robbed me of my sense of responsibility, ethics, morality, self-confidence and self-esteem. When I was finally able to collect a decent amount of sober time, just over a year, I came to realize that there was no story more important to tell than my struggle with addiction, and I felt that if I didn’t write about it, that I’d never be able to move beyond that part of my life. I needed to tell the truth in order to confront and better understand the nature of my illness, the same illness that destroyed my brother and sister. Their suicides haunted me, and still do. The revealing of my past was painful in the recounting, the remembering, the reliving, the recreating on the page. It wasn’t cathartic, though it did, in the end, give me a sharper perspective and greater understanding of my family and what tore us apart.

Junk Talk: In your story “Our Japan,” you explore the experience of an unlikeable character, a young man who goes to extraordinary lengths to recoup from a failing grade, terrifying classmates and faculty alike with the potential, if not the actual threat, for real violence. Yet the story is told in such a way that the reader understands the character’s dilemma. And even if this understanding on the reader’s part doesn’t engender sympathy, it seems to be enough not to elicit scorn. Do you believe your experience as a member of a number of stigmatized groups offers you some special insight into the human condition? Have you become a spokesman for characters that normally might elicit public disdain?

James Brown: The character you speak of, a foreign exchange student, Yukio (not his real name , of course), had suffered considerable frustration at the hands of the reckless. By reckless I mean those who were clearly out to hurt him, on the street, by low-life who robbed and beat him, and by those whose recklessness came in the form of disregard by faculty at the university. He was lonely. He was depressed. His concerns, his very person, were invisible to those who couldn’t or didn’t make the effort to connect with the man. As an addict and alcoholic, I can certainly identify with that, and I saw in him a part of myself, dislocated and troubled. He needed to vent. So did I, especially in the early stages of recovery. He needed a boost to his confidence. So did I, especially in the early stages of recovery. He needed emotional support, if only in the form of conversation, of listening. So did I, especially in the early stages of recovery. Your question is a perceptive one, and though it offers no easy answer, I think I can honestly say that, yes, being a member of a stigmatized group gave me greater insight into Yukio’s suffering. Most are repelled by addicts and alcoholics, and that’s the last damn thing we need when we’re trying to turn things around, or just maintain some semblance of sanity.

Junk Talk: If there were one constant in This River, I would say it’s a the strong familial theme. This seemed strongest in the stories about your relationship with your father and your sons. Fatherhood seems like an important theme for you, as it is for me. Fifty plus years ago we had Ozzie Harriet, the perfect father. What does it mean in the start of the Twenty first Century to be a father who has not lived an exemplary life?

James Brown: Man, you ask some tough questions. But that’s good. Because even if I can’t answer them well, maybe I can still shed some light on the subject. Sober or not, I’ll never be a perfect person, let alone a perfect father. But it’s for sure I stand a hell of a lot better chance of being a decent man to my children sober than drunk. They’ve seen the worst of me in the worst of times. And they’ve seen me change, too, and life get better and better for us all. Children are remarkably resilient. Fortunately mine never stopped loving me, even as a drunk, but sober I now enjoy a love from them born of respect, which is something you can’t get, nor do you deserve, as an addict and alcoholic. I live with regret and remorse for the man I should’ve been and was not. But I also live now with a renewed sense of purpose. I’m there for my boys. In training for high school wrestling, I work with the youngest, 15, four days a week, two hours a shot, and we talk, argue a little from time to time as we should, and though still a teenager he knows full well that these days together are special, because there was a time when he didn’t have a decent father. Put it this way. When it comes time to check out, I want them to say, yeah, he was a loser for a while there, but the old man turned it around, and I love him. I want to go out loved and respected.

Junk Talk: What I love about your stories is that if, say, an AA sponsor shows up, (as one does in your story, Instruction on the Use of Heroin), he’s just as likely to be smashed out of his mind and selling drugs, as to offer the only hope for the narrator’s redemption. You seem quite able to find the right path between sensationalism and sentimentality in your stories. Do you ever worry that your work might promote the romantic aspects of addiction? How do you know when you’re hitting the right notes?

James Brown: Hopefully the sponsor is solid with her sobriety, but as you know that isn’t always the case. Some of us collect a year of clean time and go out. Some collect 20 and relapse. Some get clean and stay clean and die with their dignity intact. Far too many simply die in their disease. I hope never to be accused of sensationalizing or romanticizing drug and alcohol abuse. There is nothing romantic about being a drunk or a junkie. It’s always ugly. No exceptions to the rule. I’m sorry so many embrace and defend Jim Frey, who inadvertently or not romanticizes drug use and denigrates 12 Step programs. He’s done considerable harm to the recovery community. If I romanticize drug addiction and alcoholism, it will never be intentional, and I hope, if I walk too close to that line, that someone will be kind enough to point it out to me. I think I’m hitting the “right notes,” imparting the right message, when I write honestly about where booze and dope eventually took me, into a world of hurt and despair.

Junk Talk: One time a writer whose opinion I admire mentioned that the traditions of certain recovery programs ask all its members not to reveal themselves as members of the group in the mass media. This may present a dilemma to some writers in recovery: on the one hand, readers might benefit from knowing our exact experience with recovery; on the other, members of various recovery programs may want us to proceed with an abundance of caution. As writers of memoir who are also in recovery, do you think we owe it to our readers to explore our experience in these types of programs? Or, are we better off leaving certain things unsaid?

James Brown: I’ve also been approached with this question on several occasions, this issue of anonymity, and if you’re a member of A.A. whether or not it’s appropriate to publically admit it. The traditions in A.A. make it plain that members shouldn’t reveal themselves as alcoholics involved in the program. But when talking or writing about recovery it’s pretty damn hard to maintain your anonymity.  A.A. has it’s own language and logic, and anyone with a minimal knowledge of the program will easily pick up on the fact that you’re a member simply by virtue of how you talk about alcohol and drugs. So, frankly, at some point it becomes impossible to hide behind the shield of anonymity and still carry the message, as expressed in the 12th Step, on any basis other than one-on-one communication with another alcoholic.

I believe the intent of not revealing membership in A.A. to the mass media implies that members shouldn’t attempt to profit from, or advertise, their involvement. And I understand and respect that — “a program of attraction rather than promotion.” But I also believe that the times have changed, and though there is still great stigma attached to being an alcoholic or addict, it has lessened considerably over the years, and that the basic need for anonymity (possible public and private ostracism and reproach) isn’t what it used to be. I think the message of recovery, A.A. related or not, on a personal level trumps anonymity when it comes to the writer exploring the experience of recovery for the benefit of the many suffering. But no one has the right to breach the anonymity of other members; the spirit of this tradition should and must always be maintained and is vital to the health of the A.A. program. It’s also important to keep in mind that Bill Wilson, along with many high profile A.A members, was certainly a public figure, and that in the early days of A.A. it was the mass media in the form of an article about the program in Life magazine that boosted the membership roles into the hundreds of thousands.

Read Tim Elhajj’s review of This River on the Internet Review of Books.


8 Responses to “Junk Talk Interview with James Brown, author of This River”

  1. I really enjoyed this I look forward to picking up the book.

  2. I hope you enjoy it, Shannon. I know I did.

  3. Roberta S. Cooper Says:

    James Brown is to be commended highly for his courage in writing about his battles with drugs and alcohol, and the steps he is taking in life to overcome their tenacious, destructive hold.

    James Browns’ characterizations of his former dealer, “Eddie,” and Eddie’s
    hard-luck teenage girlfriend, “Crystal,” (as well as the messy, “Hoarder”-type house in which they existed) glamorizes drug addiction about as much as Frank Sinatra’s frantic, twitchy performance as “Frankie Machine,” the heroin addict in the movie version of Nelson Algren’s “Man With the Golden Arm.” The mental image of “Eddie,” with syringes full of narcotics hanging from each arm brings to mind the legend posted above Dante’s Inferno: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Insofar as drug addiction goes: romantic, it is not.

    Additionally, James Brown is doing a public service by disclosing his membership in Alcoholics Anonymous because it has been a Godsend for him. He acknowledges that he must be vigilant against backsliding or relapsing, but with the support of his family and his friends, he is staying the course, and maintaining sobriety. His memoir, “This River,” may actually HELP someone seek treatment to overcome his or her addiction than all the cajolings, threats, and condemnations of society.

    Not only is Jame Brown’s “This River” a great and gripping book, it is also (as I described it elsewhere, very aptly): “a survivor’s manual.”

  4. Roberta, thanks so much for your insightful comments. I’m not sure if you saw my review of This River for IRB, but I was particularly impressed with Eddie and Crystal. What you’re saying about their characterizations makes perfect sense to me, but I love them because they’re just fascinating, visual, and so real on the page. A truly inspired story. Exaclty the kind of story we strive to publish on Junk.

  5. >> Not only is Jame Brown’s “This River” a great and gripping book, it is also (as I described it elsewhere, very aptly): “a survivor’s manual.”

    Hi Roberta: Are your comments online? I’d love to see them. I’m sure others would, too. Care to post a link? The comments forms here accept some basic html.

  6. Thank you for a most informative and intelligent interview. I enjoyed reading.

  7. Thank you for reading and commenting, Fiona. We have a few more author interivews lined up.

  8. […] landed an interview with James Brown, acclaimed author of The Los Angeles Diaries and his newest memoir This […]

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