Last month, Dallas-based author Sarah Hepola released her first book, Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget. The memoir focuses on Hepola’s alcoholism and ultimate recovery, written with a focus on her frequent blackouts. In a tone that’s funny, intimate and often heart-wrenchingly sincere, Hepola shares the early childhood experiences that predicted her alcoholism, the carnage of her drinking years — the vomit, the sex, the smoke alarms unheard — and how she’s overcoming it, now five years sober. We sat down with the Salon personal essays editor and former Observer staffer to discuss her book, why she wrote it, for whom and where she finds the guts to put the most painful and embarrassing parts of her life on the page for all to read.
Had you wanted to write a book before you quit drinking? How did that become the subject of your first book?
I wanted to write a book since I was pretty much a little girl. Especially since I was 12 years old and I was writing these really wicked, twisted Stephen King rip-off stories in my middle school and I was getting a lot of attention for them. The teacher would be like, “She’s going to be a published author by 30.” And I was like, “30! That’s super old! I’m gonna be a published author before that, lady!” I had this really weird mix through my 20s and into my 30s of totally insecure and wildly entitled: “I’m not very good, but I’m going to be famous one day!”
When I turned 25 and I hadn’t written a book, I was like, “I failed.” I wasn’t working at the Observer yet, I was working at the Austin Chronicle. It was this kickass job. If you’re a young person and you’re paid to go to movies and music for free, and if you’re a binge drinker and your binge drinking is just getting excused and ignored and indulged — it was a great job. But everybody’s got their deal. “As a young person, I haven’t done X.” For me it was totally, “I haven’t written a book.” I didn’t care that I hadn’t had a kid yet. I didn’t care that I wasn’t married. Because to me that stuff came along with independent singlehood and just delaying all that stuff. But I hadn’t written a book yet and that was a big deal.
When I got sober I thought I was done writing. I was so fragile. I was so accustomed to using alcohol as a kind of calming device and a way to plug into my creative brain or to unplug from my work brain or whatever. It was something I used in so many different instances that when I had to give it up I just thought, “I can’t.” I was an editor at Salon and so I was working all the time, and I thought, “You know, this is going to be my new life — my new life is going to be pushing other people on stage.” Because I needed all that booze to take the microphone. When people quit drinking, they’re not like, “And now I’m going to start my karaoke career!” No. You don’t do that stuff because you need alcohol to do it.
Did the tone of your writing change when you quit?
Yeah. I was always doing this funny, serious, sad banter where it was like I made fun of the drinking, but I took it seriously so you didn’t think I was in denial, but I didn’t dwell too much in that. And then once I quit drinking I was just in that tragedy place where I couldn’t be funny about anything. But about six months in, I wrote a personal essay for Salon and I was like, “This sounds like my voice.” This was so true of so many different things. I had this idea that drinking changed me or did something to me fundamentally and without it I wouldn’t be the same. And then you learn again and again and again that you’re the same person … Alcohol never gave me my voice. Alcohol took away my doubt and my insecurity and my inhibitions. My voice was in me all along. The way people say alcohol makes them funny — it’s not writing their jokes. They’re funny because they’re funny, they’re just not as inhibited.
So when I saw that personal essay and it was like, “Oh, that sounds like me,” I thought, “OK, maybe there’s something more there.” I was in that place where I wanted to do two things. I wanted to get out of New York. I was ready to leave my job and I needed something to do on the other side. And then two, I really, really needed sobriety to be better than drinking. What was the one thing I hadn’t done? I hadn’t written a book. So that’s where that whole idea came together. Of course, I thought it was gonna take me like four months and it took me four years.
In telling your drinking story, you focus on your blackouts and use it to explore the concept of memory. How did blackouts become the focal point? Did that happen naturally or were you looking for an angle?
For sure I was. When you announce that you want to write a book on any subject, you have to ask a couple questions. You have to look at all the books that have been written on that subject and you have to say, “What hasn’t been said before?” or, “What hasn’t been explored in as much depth?” And then you’re also just looking for a compelling way to tell a story. Recovery stories are basically all the same. “I fell in love with alcohol. I had problems with alcohol. I had to give up alcohol. Life goes on.” I was writing some early pages, trying to get out what it was I wanted to say. I’d picked up these recovery books, and one of them said, “Women are embarrassed by how much they drink and there aren’t a lot of social rituals around women's drinking.” And I was like, “That is not true.”
That really represents a generational shift. I had come of age at a time when I was very proud of the way that I drank. And also there were tons of social rituals around women and drinking. So that was the first thing that I identified, but it wasn’t enough. So I was writing and I showed pages to somebody, a very smart woman in the publishing industry, and she said, “You should write about your blackouts.” When she said that I was like, “Oh my God. That’s exactly right.” Blackouts had been the worst part of my drinking. And it was so weird that I didn’t really know what they were. That, to me, was so telling. It had to do with the denial of it, the distancing that you do with it where you’re like, “That’s not my problem. That’s not me.” I never even looked it up online.
I also realized that the longer you walk into sobriety, the more how you see yourself shifts, your memories shift. What does that mean? Are you remembering it more clearly? Or worse with more distance? As a personal essay writer, I have these really specific memories of my life that I can use as material, and here is a place where there is just a blank space. People know more about your life than you do, which is the weird thing that drinkers get into where they’re so detached and distanced from their own activity and also the damage they do to other people. It just seemed to me that it was a really interesting way to talk about memory, the faulty mechanism of the mind but also the beautiful machine of the mind, and this weird thing that drinking, something that is celebrated across our culture, that is legal after the age of 21, but socially acceptable from the age of more or less 17 on, can give you amnesia, and nobody talks about it.
So many of the scenes are rendered in vivid detail, even ones that took place during your drinking years. It’s surprising that, when you weren’t blacked out, your memory was still functioning at such a high level.
I’ve realized that one of the ways my memory works is that I seem to be super-recording during moments of trauma and extreme self-consciousness. That’s why a lot of my memories are around boys. I can remember exactly where he was standing and what I said because I had extreme self-consciousness. I was robbed at gunpoint in New Orleans — this is not in the book — and I was drunk, but I was able to pick the guy out of a lineup because it’s burned in my memory ... I do not have a photographic memory. I can’t even remember how to get to most of my friends’ places. It’s just a super selective memory… and it seems to be a good selector mechanism for writing a book, because you want to write about things that really mattered to you in the moment and traumatic experiences.
You’ve said in other interviews that you’re not tough. Don’t you think it requires a certain toughness to be willing to share these intimate and potentially embarrassing details of your life with so many people? Or is that something you force yourself through, despite it not being in your nature, for art’s sake?
When I say that I’m not tough, what I mean is that I cry easily, I’m extremely sensitive, I’m hurt by criticism, I’m overly motivated by external validation — i.e., I need people to like me all the time — and I’m extremely worried about not being a nice person or if I’ve hurt someone else’s feelings. I have classic sensitive child problems. I worked so hard to get rid of those things. They’re not going away. I can’t drink them away. I remember in college [I had friends who had] this brazen way that they walked through the world. And I didn’t have that. I felt like a sensitive person and I felt like that was a liability.
What I do have is a strange kind of just willingness to be open about it and it is often described to me as fearlessness or courage, but it doesn’t feel that way. It just feels like how I am, and I can’t hide it … I was talking to a male journalist and we were having an argument about the way I perceived a conversation that we had, and he was like, “Well, you’re just really sensitive.” I knew he said it because he thought he was going to win the argument and I was gonna say, “No I’m not! I’m not sensitive at all!” and instead I said, “Yes, I am. I’m absolutely sensitive. My entire career is built around the fact that I’m sensitive.” That is part of the instrument that [writers] use — a sensitivity to our world, our surroundings.
You address the book to “anyone who needs it.” Are you writing specifically for people in recovery or trying to get there? Or do you imagine your readership as being more broad?
There are tiers to how I perceived who I was writing for. The first person I was writing for was me, because I needed to believe that I could write again. I needed to believe that there was something after alcohol. One of the things they say is write the book you wish you could come across. In that first year of sobriety I was so unhappy and I thought my life was over. I did love recovery memoirs but a lot of them ended when [the writers] got sober. I was like, what the hell happens after that? Cause I was in the “after that” period of my life and I didn’t know how to put my life back together.
The second tier is you start writing for other people who might be in that situation. The kind of core, essential demographic is if you want to quit and you can’t, or you want to quit and you’re afraid. You’re afraid that your life is going to be over and there’s nothing else. That’s where I was, and I needed someone to tell me that life wasn’t going to be over.
And then I think it goes out to all my female friends who all still drink. I wanted it to be a book that reflects all the conversations we were having over the years about men and body image and confidence and creativity and assertiveness and connectedness … The more sober I got the more I realized how much women stuff was underneath my drinking. And of course I drank with a bunch of men, so I wanted a book that they would enjoy, too. That was about the experience of being female, but also just being young and overambitious and having a core failure of self-acceptance. Wanting a big life. I think men do connect with that message.
You go through this roaring ego stuff with a book. Where you’re like, “Oh! Everyone’s going to read it!” “Oh! Nobody’s going to read it!” If you can take it away from the ego stuff and think about being useful, that this is not about the prizes you get, the reviews that you get and all the gold coins that you’re going to get from the universe — from the time I was 12, it was, “How am I gonna be famous?” Stop trying to be famous, it’s a dead end.
Fame’s not something that motivates you anymore?
No. Money and power give you access to very extraordinary things so it’s very alluring, but fame really messes people up. It’s that terrible feeling of, “I thought it was going to fix me and it didn’t, and now I have X and I can’t even complain about not having X.” What I want is to be able to keep working. I do feel like the fame delusion got kicked out of me, and I’m really grateful for that because it drives a lot of American culture. We don’t have much of an organized religion, so you grow up with celebrity. For me it was how I first understood you could be valuable in the world. Be an actress, be a pop singer, be Michael Jackson — it was a very narrow job interview. I got this idea that I wanted to matter, and how do you matter? You matter by being famous, as opposed to being useful, which I think is such a better way to think of your life as a human.
Is the relationship between your femininity and your drinking one of the primary things you discovered about yourself and your alcoholism in writing the book?
It’s one of the primary things. I thought of drinking as a very gender neutral activity. The idea that I drank because I’m a woman — that would have offended me. But then I was going to these women-only meetings and [I started] noticing all the things that women were talking about when they’re alone together … [things that] had a lot to do with body image, sexuality, perfectionism, the tyranny of the mind, and for me it certainly had to do with that shyness and insecurity and wanting that bravado. I’ve heard from women who don’t have drinking problems but really connect to that. It’s not that men don’t have those things as well, but because of the social moment, because of the extent to which empowerment and drinking kind of became entwined at a moment in pop culture, I think there is a certain generation of women of which I’m a part who really believed that drinking made her more powerful and attractive. For me, at the end of the line, it wasn’t doing those things. It was robbing me of those things.
Was there anything you were nervous to reveal?
One of the things that you hear when you write a memoir like this is people will say, “Wow you just put it all out there!” And it’s like, “You know I didn’t tell you some things, right? Maybe you want your money back now, but that’s not a top-to-bottom inventory of every bad thing that ever happened to me. I could have gone worse. What I tried to do was to take certain moments and to tell you everything you needed to know about that moment to understand the emotional stakes of it. There might be things in the background or periphery, but they’re distracting. There was one sex scene in particular, and [my editor] wrote me back and was like, “You know, there’s a lot of sex in this book. Can we think about whether we need this scene or not?” It’s like in an action movie. When you have 10 explosions on top of each other, they stop mattering. If you have a couple of explosions you have the tension, you have the fear, you build up to it.
But I don’t have a problem telling people things about myself. This is the part where I do have some kind of either toughness or tone-deafness to the way that I’m perceived in the world. Cause I don’t have good enough sense to be embarrassed. But what really does make me nervous and unsettle me and what kept me up at night is that I was dragging all these other people along with me. When I was starting to see what this book was gonna look like I was like, “Oh my God. I have to write about my sweet parents, my dear friends, the men that I dated.” The men that I dated — I don’t date them anymore, but I’m still friends with them on Facebook.
I’m not a break all the dishes and get out of your life kind of person. I’m still connected to those people. Some of them I showed pages to, some of them I didn’t. I had to make decisions about each of them. How much of their life do I reveal? Those were decisions that were really scary. I know that it probably flies in the face of some first-person manual that’s like, “It’s your life and fuck 'em if they don’t want you to write about that,” but that is not how I go through the world. I really feel that there are moral ways to write about your life. And I’m sure that I fucked up in a few ways. I’m kind of dealing with that. I tried really hard though to strike a balance of honest but fair, and that was the good feedback that I got from nearly all my friends that read it. That’s also a way of testing my memory, [sharing] pages with them, because I don’t want to just rely on my version of events.
I’m embarrassed about that [drunken night in the] Paris hotel room. But I feel much more vulnerable talking about my cat dying. My true and bone deep connections to people. The stuff that is sincere. That tape recorded thing when I was 13, that was really hard. When I finally decided to just use a transcript of that, it was because I just didn’t trust myself. I kept trying to tilt that story and massage it and make myself sound a little better. That’s still really hard for me. If you heard your voice at 13 or 14 — it’s really cringe-inducing.
That moment, where you share the transcript of you at 13 describing a sexual encounter, is really heart-wrenching because it’s so raw and unvarnished in a book that's often funny.
I wasn’t even drinking that much. I’d had a few wine coolers but that’s not a blackout story. That’s probably a story about how I became a blackout drinker, much more so than it’s a blackout story. It’s one of those linchpin moments. The question I ask at the beginning is, “How did I get there?” And that’s a really important part of that story. And it’s not funny. It’s just sad. But it’s not tragic either. How many women have stories like that and it haunts them? I can’t tell you the number of women who’ve told me those kinds of stories. So one of the things I had going into it was just, I know it’s my name on the book and it’s my story, but I’m not alone.