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Junk Talk Interview with Cheryl Strayed

Posted in authors with tags , , , on September 16, 2012 by Tim Elhajj

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Cheryl Strayed is the author of #1 New York Times bestseller WILD, the New York Times bestseller TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS, and the novel TORCH. Strayed has written the Dear Sugar column on The Rumpus since March 2010. Raised in Minnesota, Strayed now lives in Portland, Oregon.

Holly Huckeba for Junk Talk: Why choose non-fiction? You’ve written both fiction and non-fiction to much acclaim. Tell us what inspires you to write non-fiction.

Cheryl Strayed: I think I’ll always write both. What I love about writing fiction is how you take experience and cast it off into the limitless possibilities of imagination. What I love about writing nonfiction is the visceral power of the author standing immediately behind the work saying this really happened to me. Some stories demand that intensity. I think the story I told in “Heroin/e” is one. It’s the first personal essay I ever wrote, by the way.

Junk Talk: Many writers, when mining for ideas, return over and again to ‘origin’ stories: stories of our family, coming of age, or rebirth. Tell us more about your own idea-mining, and how it works in your fiction and non-fiction.

Cheryl Strayed: Anyone who has read my work knows I’ve been fairly obsessed with telling the story of my mother’s death and my grief over that again and again. I didn’t know that would be the case. It just is. I had to remake my life after my mother died. I had to re-imagine a world without her in it. Doing so was incredibly complex and difficult, so I suppose it’s not a surprise I write about that experience often. Though it’s been a powerful story for me so far, I do think I’ll move on to other things. In my next book my intention is to avoid dead moms entirely. We’ll see if I can stick to that.

Junk Talk: Your essay, Heroin/e, is two stories threaded together–the story of your start and stop of heroin, and the story of your mother’s death. You intertwine these stories without even a glimmer of the disease model of recovery. Instead, you choose a literary model–the hero’s journey–to talk about your recovery. This is, in some respects, a very old school way of looking at addiction; in other ways, it is refreshing, novel and perhaps more inclusive than a purely medical model. Tell us more of your thinking about your addiction and recovery, and your choice of story structure.

Cheryl Strayed: I wrote it that way because I lived it that way. I was heading down the path of heroin addiction, but I didn’t go all the way there. I never became an addict. I was on the cusp of that when I pulled myself away, or rather allowed myself to be pulled away by my ex-husband. It was very hard for me to stop using heroin, but it was a psychological struggle more than a biological one. I could see how heroin had the potential to engulf me entirely, but I ran away from it before it did. So writing about my experiences with heroin within the context of the hero’s journey seemed the truest way to write about it. In its most classic and distilled form, the hero goes into the darkness and comes back a changed person. Heroin did that to me. My mother’s death did that to me. It seems natural to intertwine these two harrowing tales.

Junk Talk: Some writers talk about writing as therapy. Others talk about the primacy of writing as art. What is your take on the debate about writing as art vs. writing as healing?

Cheryl Strayed: I used to be quite defiantly in the writing as art camp, and I still essentially land there. I don’t write to heal. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing as catharsis, but there is a difference between being a serious writer and writing because one seeks an emotional release. When that line gets blurred the art of writing is diminished and I think writers—by which I mean people who’ve developed their craft in intentional ways over a long period of time—tend to feel a bit defensive. Like they have to distance themselves from the writing as catharsis camp in order to be seen as legitimate. They didn’t have an experience and then accidentally and brilliantly spill it out on the page, no matter how it might seem. They worked long and hard to create that effect. Having said that, there’s no question that writing is often cathartic for me. I don’t write seeking to be healed, but writing has healed me.

Junk Talk: You make several references to the hero’s journey in Heroin/e. The quest seemed to involve a spiritual journey through death. But you portray neither yourself nor your mother as particularly heroic or successful in your respective quests. Tell us more about how the idea of the hero’s journey plays a part in how you think about the events of this time.

Cheryl Strayed: When my mom got cancer I had this distinct image of what a “heroic” cancer patient looks like. She keeps a positive attitude. She battles and at least temporarily wins. She loses her hair to chemotherapy, but doesn’t let that get her down. She wears brightly colored scarves instead. But my mom didn’t do that. She didn’t have the chance. She just got sick, then she got sicker, and then she died. She lived only seven weeks after her diagnosis. She had always been my hero, but how could she keep being that if she went so fast? I struggled with that question—of whether my mom did cancer “right,” whether she fought hard enough.

The answer is, yes she did. She wanted to live. We don’t always get to choose whether we live or not. We simply like to think we do. Seeing my mom die that way was a tremendously painful thing, but it was informative too. It changed the way I understood almost everything about the world. As far as my own journey, by writing what I did about myself in “Heroin/e” and elsewhere, I’m saying I believe in the strength of the jagged path. We don’t always do the right thing on our way to rightness.

Read Cheryl’s lovely essay Heroin/e, available in this month’s issue of Junk.

Junk Talk Interview with Tom Catton, author of The Mindful Addict

Posted in authors with tags , , on July 1, 2011 by Tim Elhajj

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Tom Catton is the author of The Mindful Addict, A Memoir of the Awakening of a Spirit, a reflection on his many years in recovery from an addiction to heroin and other drugs that he acquired in the sixties. He has been in recovery since 1971.

Tim Elhajj for Junk Talk: The granddaddy of all twelve-step programs is the venerable Alcoholics Anonymous, which has been around since the late 30s and has spurred an unprecedented growth of similar programs for all sorts of problems from eating and sex addictions to compulsive gambling. In deference to the twelve step tradition of anonymity, we’re not going to press you to reveal the name of program to which you belong. However, you’ve been in recovery for 40 years and AA itself has only been around for 76 years. Whatever program you’re in, you must be one of its original members, or quite nearly. What you can tell us about how the program has matured over the last 40 years? Has it matured?

Tom Catton: First Tim let me thank you for this chance to talk about and expose my book to a few more people. I believe all the 12-step programs have matured over the years and this is because of the traditions we follow as our guide, thank you for respecting that. When I went to my first meeting in 1968 there were about 25 meetings world wide of the fellowship I ended up in; now this fellowship has about 60,000 meetings in 136 countries. I would say it has matured. I and another member started this same 12 step program in Hawaii in 1973.

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Junk Talk Interview with Ned Vizzini, author of, It’s Kind of a Funny Story

Posted in authors with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 20, 2011 by Holly Huckeba

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Ned Vizzini is the author of TEEN ANGST? NAAAH…, a collection of personal essays about high school, many of which were published by the New York Press. He went on to write a young adult fiction novel, BE MORE CHILL and several years later he wrote another novel, IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY, which was later made into a major motion picture (pictured). FUNNY STORY is a work of fiction, but it’s largely based on Vizzini’s own experience with mental illness, suicidal ideation and a week spent in a psychiatric hospital when he was 23 years old. Most recently, he has released a limited-edition comic he wrote while in high school, UNCLE TUMBA, the tale of a septuagenarian monk and his pet pig ($2 on Etsy).

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Junk interviewed Ned Vizzini about his high school comics project, his current efforts to educate about mental illness, and writing fiction and memoir.

Holly Huckeba for Junk Talk: In your senior year at Stuyvesant High School, you applied for early admission to Harvard and landed an interview with admissions staff. Your comic, UNCLE TUMBA, may have played a role in the eventual outcome of that interview, with the chief criticism leveled against UNCLE TUMBA being its use of profanity and other naughty bits. When you look back at that interview and your decision to try and sell UNCLE TUMBA to the interviewers, what do you think is the “lesson learned”? If you had it to do all over again, would you change anything, either creatively (content) or politically (the interview)? Or would you do it all exactly the same?

Ned Vizzini: The lesson learned is that you shouldn’t be too interesting in your college interviews. I wanted to get into Harvard, so of course I felt stupid that I tried to sell UNCLE TUMBA and basically got this look from my interviewers like, “This guy’s weird.” What can I say—it was my Italian peddler heritage. If I could go back and do it again, I’d change the content and curb my entrepreneurship, but thankfully I can’t.

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Junk Editors Talking Trash with Theo Nestor

Posted in editor's corner with tags , , , , on January 11, 2011 by Editors

We recently sat down with Theo Nestor, author of How to Sleep Alone in a King Size Bed and all around sharp cookie, to talk about Junk on her blog, Writing is My Drink. We discuss how the idea for the journal came about, where we want it to go, and many other interesting bits.

Here is a little taste:

Theo: I really like Holly’s piece about the addict being the noun and those around the addict being the adjectives and your piece about fatherhood. Have you found it challenging to be open about how addiction has impacted your life?  (One reason I ask is that I’ve also written about this topic for print but haven’t written about it online.  Online feels scary to me, like it’s forever and anyone can access it at anytime, which of course is also exciting.)

Holly: I find that, ironically, my self-esteem increases when I share who I am and where I have been, through my writing. When I am most honest about myself, a giddy sense of authenticity overtakes me. When I hide who I am and where I’ve been, I am safer from recrimination and criticism, but feel crippled by weakness and insecurity.

Check it out.

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