TCR Talks with Kristi Coulter
BY CHARLI ENGELHORN
Alcohol is the drug of choice for many people, and the war on drugs tends to kindly turn a blind eye to the copious amounts of alcohol consumed daily and advertisements that glorify social drinking. Yet, millions of Americans are living with alcoholism, and thousands die alcohol-related deaths each year. In her debut collection of essays, Nothing Good Can Come from This, writer Kristi Coulter tackles the prevalence of alcohol in society and the motivations behind the desire to overconsume. Through her personal narrative of drinking and sobriety, Coulter examines the reasons why women drink, the effects of drinking on her life, and the long road to self-discovery and strength as a sober person.
The author spoke with contributing writer Charli Engelhorn about the inception of this book and the value of discussing the role alcohol plays in our lives.
The Coachella Review: In the acknowledgments section, you imply that publishing this book made your No. 1 childhood dream come true. What has it been like since your book has come out, and how does it compare to the dream you envisioned as a child?
Kristi Coulter: I think I was two when I started reading, and I started writing really early, ever since I was three or four. I was someone who wanted to share what she wrote with people, showing it to teachers and classmates, so I did want to publish a book. It’s been six or seven weeks since the book came out, and it’s like everything changes and nothing changes. In some ways, your life kind of stays the same. I’m still doing laundry and stuff, but it’s been amazing to actually have it connect with readers. You can forget at a certain point, because writing the book takes so long and publishing it takes so long, that people are actually going to read it, so to have it be out in the world and have people write to me and say, “Oh you’ve said things that I have thought and never said or things I didn’t know I thought and couldn’t put into words,” it’s been incredibly validating. The funny thing is, I went on a little book tour to New York and LA, and I realized I had imagined doing all of those things as a drinker . . . you know, having martinis with my publisher or being in a nightclub in LA, and I thought, how funny that I’m doing this as a sober person. I don’t think it would be happening unless I was sober. This book wouldn’t have gotten written unless I was sober, but I don’t think any book would have gotten written. It’s been interesting to realize this is all only happening because I stopped drinking. As usual, I got what I wanted, but not in the way I thought I would get it.
TCR: Your essays expose many personal facets of your life as a child, young woman, and married adult, often with raw frankness and vulnerability. It seems like that level of self-expression could be cathartic but tricky to navigate. Can you discuss the process of mining your life for significance and sharing it with the world?
KC: It was pretty scary. I don’t ask permission before I write anything because I think that is creative doom. I wrote the truth, but I also wanted to be as ethical as I could. I did a lot of reading and talked to friends who write about their own lives, and I came up with some ethical precepts that I could work with—tell only your own story, be compassionate, don’t guess too much—and I tried to stick with what I could remember. After I was done, the only person I showed the work to and said if you aren’t comfortable with this I won’t publish was my husband, and he was so on board. But I didn’t share it with anyone else. I’d written about my childhood before, so there was nothing in the book that was particularly new or surprising to my parents. I did tell my parents I recommend they not read my book. I heard Roxanne Gay say that on NPR, and I thought, “Oh, I didn’t realize you could do that.” It’s not because of anything I wrote about them. It was more that there’s a lot of stuff about me that if I were my parents, I wouldn’t want to know about my kid. I also told them, if you do read it, I’m not going to be able to process the content with you. I’m not here to relitigate my childhood or talk about my sex life with you, so I would have to ask that you handle that on your own. And they respected that wish. I changed names and tried to be as kind as I could. And my feeling is always that I’m hardest on myself. I think if you’re writing memoir and you’re not being hardest on yourself, you’re probably not telling a very interesting story, unless you were a victim in some way. I felt like as long as I was always rigorously asking what was my part in this, I was being pretty fair. Self-exposure was scary, and so far, the response from readers has been really validating. I was especially nervous about writing about my marriage . . . there are things about me and infidelity, and I expected to be judged for that a lot more than I was. I think what I figured out is there are lots of people like me in the world.
TCR: Can you talk a little about the impetus for “Enjoli” and “Girl Skulks into a Room,” the two essays previously published that went viral, and how the response to both assisted in the creation of your book?
KC: So, “Girl Skulks into a Room” is really the first full-fledged essay I’d written in 15 or 20 years. I’d started a blog called Off-Dry, which I still update sometimes, when I got sober, because there is actually a big world of sober blogs out there, and I found them really helpful, and I thought I want to be helpful to someone too. I had wanted to write about going to my first AA meeting, which I did when I was 18 months sober, and I just found I had a lot to say, so I blogged about it and got some great response. When I published the essay on Medium, the woman who is now my editor, someone I’d known for many years, said, “I’m halfway through reading this, and there’s a book in this. You could change lives.” I was utterly like, “What? That’s ridiculous.” She was an agent at the time, and she kind of convinced me there could be a book in this. While we were going through the process of putting together a proposal for the book, she said, “You know, you don’t really have anything that expresses anger. Should we have something in the proposal that expresses anger so we could show your range?” I said sure, but it was a beautiful summer, and I was happy. It probably took about six weeks, but I wrote “Enjoli,” and I was like, “Oh, I am angry. Who knew?” I ended up putting that on Medium, too, just to see if it would do as well as or a little better than “Girl Skulks into a Room,” and within four days, I was on BBC Scotland. It caught like wildfire, and an editor at Medium highlighted it, and it ended up on their front page and email . . . it was an utterly life-changing experience. My agent at that point had gone to work at FSG, my publisher, as an executive editor, and they were trying to decide what kind of books the new imprint was going to publish, so I was kind of in a holding pattern. But publishing that essay and the response it got made them realize there really was a book in this.
TCR: Some of the feedback to “Enjoli” on Medium seemed to critique the suggestion that women drink to assuage oppression from the patriarchy and question the viability of your perspective as an affluent white woman in privileged society. What was your reaction to those critiques, and how did that feedback affect the revised essay published in the collection?
KC: There was quite a backlash to “Enjoli.” I took the feedback seriously. I quickly learned to discard the feedback with anything that used the word feminazi and set up a Google filter so I didn’t see those . . . there’s no need to use the word Nazi in an email to me. But there were other people who misunderstood the purpose of a personal essay. They thought I should show the other side or should have interviewed people who drank wine, but that wasn’t my project. My project was to be personal. I did think there was some validity in the idea that the essay could be read as me saying that any woman who likes a glass of wine to take the edge off is a tool of the patriarchy. That certainly isn’t what I’d meant; I was talking about overdrinkers. But, I get where you could get that reading, so one thing we did when we edited the essay for publication was to make clear that this book was not about how women should never have any fun or go out and get crazy. It was about alcoholic drinking and drinking as a way to not look at what’s happening to us out there. But I also wanted to make it more personal, so the version in the book is less about us and we and more about my own experience. For the kind of writer I am, that’s what I can speak to. I also had some valid commentary that it was from a very privileged point of view . . . I’m white. I’m upper middle class. There was one woman who commented on Medium very thoughtfully that it would be very different if I was a woman of color or poor, and the way I am allowed to drink and get sober is very different. I responded that she was absolutely right, but I’m not the person to write that essay, and I’m not a social scientist. It’s not my project, but I hope someone writes that book. In the book itself, I wanted to address that head on, which is why you see essays like “Elephant Gray,” which is about the amount of money I was making and the way I was privileged and how that allowed me to get sober more easily and allowed me to keep lying to myself a lot longer. What I did reject was the idea that a privileged woman had no right to tell her story, and I heard a lot of that. I just thought, “Well, don’t read it,” but I reject the idea that there is a certain type of person that doesn’t have a right to speak.
TCR: You touch on many occurrences that women must endure on a regular basis, from micro-aggressions, like attention from men on the street, to fundamental aggressions, like men purporting to tell women what they can do with their bodies or being judged differently for the same actions as men. Do you consider your book to be a commentary on feminism, and was the book written with the hope of reaching women and causing a palpable change in how they view and manage their lives?
KC: I definitely consider it to be a feminist book and a commentary on feminism, partly because everything in me is feminist, so I can’t write a book that’s not feminist as I view it. Part of that was just me claiming all my flaws. I think it is very clear now that the stereotypes that women are dumb or weak are stupid, but we’ve replaced it with a sort of goddess and warrior woman stereotype that I find equally limiting. You know, women are so strong or women are so powerful, well, not all of us are all the time. So, my feminism is that women are human, and with that in mind, I wanted to tell my story in a very specific way, where sometimes I am strong and powerful, and sometimes I’m a total jackass, and sometimes I’m a wonderful wife, and sometimes I suck at it. That was the most feminist thing I could do. Also, I wanted to show that I drank my way past a lot of really bad situations to numb them out, and a lot of those situations were gendered. But I certainly don’t think that gender issues are the only reasons women or men drink. The other thing is that in sobriety narratives, the male model tends to be, “I drank and drank and drank and realized I was powerless against drinking and I was humbled then I was fine.” I felt powerless a lot of my life. I drank as a powerless person, so when I quit drinking, I realized I was powerless over alcohol, but in all other ways, I feel infinitely more powerful now than I ever did, so I wanted to show that there is something other than that male model. It may be that women don’t need to be beaten down when they get sober; they may need to build themselves up.
TCR: Beyond the other issues addressed, the principle concept in these essays is sobriety. Your essays approach sobriety in an unadorned fashion, speaking quite matter-of-factly about the desire to drink and the desire to stop without falling into melodrama. Rather than a fascinating look at one person’s struggles, the essays are written in a way that feels like our stories. I’m curious about whether you’ve received a response from the sober community or those attempting to get sober to your collection.
KC: I’ve heard from a ton of sober women, and they’re kind of sober women like me—white, middle class, professional—that they feel like I’m telling their story. First of all, a lot of drinking stories are just not that dramatic. I probably could have gone on drinking like that for the rest of my shortened life. There are a lot of women out there kind of drinking their lives away, and nobody knows it, so women have been grateful. Also, I’ve received support for showing the everydayness of getting sober, because when you get right down to it, you just have to start not drinking, and yes, you do need to work on yourself and figure out why you’re drinking, or you’re not going to have a very good time of it, but it starts with just not drinking, and I think a lot of times people think they have to figure a lot of things out first, when all you really have to figure out is you need to not put that liquid in your mouth and somehow do it. A fellow writer wrote to me and said she thought I was making sobriety seem cool and how that could change lives. There is a whole movement now of women writing about sobriety where it does seem cool: we’re having a good time, we haven’t become earnest and reverent, your life actually gets better. I know more women who are saying, “I don’t think I’m an alcoholic. It just wasn’t adding to my life, so I dropped it.” If I can be part of that wave of making sobriety seem cool and a viable way of life, like people who don’t eat meat, that’s awesome because the great shock to me was that you don’t actually need it. I never would have believed that, but it’s this way of living life and kind of looking at it straight on that I found really empowering. And anyone who wants to call me cool is more than welcome to any old time.
TCR: You vary the structures, writing some essays as diary-like entries, such as “A Life in Liquids,” and others as streams of consciousness, such as the “Notes to Self” essays, and still others as lists or Cosmo-esque quizzes. What was the strategy behind these forms, and why did you feel one worked better than another for certain essays?
KC: There were some essays that were started for a column I used to write about how to not drink, and that was a sort of a theme I wanted to carry out. Sometimes it was just me wondering how to deal with my entire life history and how to not make it boring. Well, what if it was a drink menu? “Life in Liquids” started as a much shorter piece—almost a prose poem of things I was drinking and when. Also, I love compressed language, and I started as a poet many years ago, and I still write prose poetry for fun, so some of the structures were ways that I could really deal with compression and not have to do all the furniture moving of normal prose. It was a fun, creative constraint. Anything that can game-ify writing is great for me, and I find I get more inventive when I have to work within those constraints. Also, for the Cosmo quiz, there are so many of those online assessments for if you have a drinking problem, and I had heard a couple of guys on the Book Fight podcast taking one, and it was absolutely hilarious. I remembered that I used to actually lie on those quizzes even though I was the only one to see the results. That probably should have been a red flag. I really wanted to play with the idea that we’ve all taken these quizzes whether we’re alcoholics or not, but alcoholics take them and don’t tell the truth.
TCR: Nothing Good Can Come from This seems to capture your life of drinking and not drinking in-depth. Is there more to say on the topic in future essays or collections, or will you turn your focus to other personal or social issues? What’s next for you in your writing life?
KC: I think there probably is more to say, maybe not another book worth of more to say. There are people who make a career writing about recovery and sobriety, but for me, it was just a topic for this book. The thing I’m working on now are essays about work and ambition. I worked in high tech for twelve years in a pretty high-level role, and it’s a very gendered environment to work in. My environment was about 80% male. There’s a lot being said these days about women in high tech or in the workplace, but it’s more from a reportorial standpoint or an insta-memoir about a big legal case or something. There hasn’t really been a memoir about what it’s like day to day, what the good and the bad are. In my writing, I don’t know where it will go, but I’m sort of exploring some of that, and it will touch on my drinking because I think a lot of my drinking was a stress management technique, but it’s not the primary topic. I expect to write more about music. I published a piece in the Paris Review in August, which was a dream come true, about my history with certain types of Indie music. Music has been a huge part of my life forever, and I’d love to find a way to write more about music, not as a critic, because I don’t think I have that skill set, but as an essayist. There are not enough women writing about music. Jessica Hopper had that collection a few years ago called The First Rock Collection by a Female Critic. It was the title because it was true.
Charli Engelhorn is a freelance writer and editor and currently pursuing an MFA from UCR Low-Res MFA for Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. When she is not reading and writing, she can be found frolicking in the woods with the best travel dog in the world, Jacopo. She lives in Los Angeles.