Many first-time memoirists are motivated by self-serving desires: to make the world notice them or to make the world like them. Neither can be said of Bill Clegg or Darin Strauss. Both were already successful—Clegg as a literary agent, Strauss as a novelist—when they decided to write memoirs. Rather than polishing their images, their books explore the darkest moments of the writers’ lives. Strauss was a high-school senior when he accidentally killed a classmate named Celine with his car. The aftermath of that tragedy is the basis for Half a Life, which will be published in September. Clegg struggled with his own secret—the crack addiction that cost him his life savings, his boyfriend, and his business. Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, his memoir of the weeks leading up to his final crack binge, came out in May. The authors, who are also friends, spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Jennie Yabroff about what they’ve learned from the experience of literary confession. Excerpts from the conversation (download the audio / video for your portable device):
What made you feel that this was the time to tell your stories?
Bill Clegg: I kind of came through the cat door of writing it. When I was in rehab, I wrote down memories. The period that preceded my being in rehab was this intense two-month period of being in hotel rooms doing drugs 24 hours a day. When I surfaced from that, it was like surfacing from a dream, or a nightmare. I felt this urgency to write down what I could remember. At a certain point the shape of a book suggested itself. The writing happened first, and the thinking about it happened afterward.
Darin Strauss: For me it’s the opposite. I thought I would never write about this. I had written three books of fiction before this and I thought, I’m not going to be one of those people who profits from his misery. But I turned 36 and realized that [the accident] happened half my life ago, and my wife [NEWSWEEK writer Susannah Meadows] and I were having kids. These things seemed like big moments to stop and reflect on. I said, I’m a writer, so I should just write about it. I won’t necessarily publish it. Then a friend of mine who does stuff for This American Life said, “Why don’t you show me what you’ve got?” They ran it, and I got a lot of e-mails from people saying it was helpful for them. Usually as a fiction writer you get e-mails saying, “I liked your book” or “I didn’t like it.” You don’t get something saying, “I’m really glad this is in the world.” And I realized, had I had something like this when I had gone through it, it would have been helpful for me to read.
Did you ever wake up in the middle of the night saying, “What have I gotten myself into?”
Clegg: I had a lot of worries. First and foremost was: Did it have value? Did it have literary merit? Did it have worth in the world beyond my own experience of expressing it?
Strauss: This is a story of a girl who died, and so I felt very strongly that I didn’t want to seem like I was being exploitative. When the piece aired on This American Life, I had another book out and somebody did a story on me for The Village Voice, and someone wrote in saying, “This guy is a murderer and a sociopath.” That was kind of painful.
Have Celine’s parents read it?
Strauss: I haven’t been in touch with them. They said to me at the funeral, “We know you’re not to blame, and whatever you do in your life you have to do it twice as well because you’re doing it for two people.” And then six months or so after that, they sued me for millions of dollars. That was pretty painful and surprising. I’m hoping to send them a letter before the book comes out.
And you dedicate the book to them, as well as to your own parents.
Strauss: Part of the reason I started writing about it was the fact that I was becoming a father when it started, and I realized that I don’t know how I would deal with it from the other side, so I have a new appreciation of the intense grief that they must have felt.
Did you feel that you had them in your mind as readers when you were writing it, or were you able to just put aside the idea of anybody reading it?
Strauss: I think if I thought of them as readers I wouldn’t have been able to do it. But I did have readers in mind. When you write fiction, you have an ideal reader in your mind who’s sort of you but smarter. But with this, I had the imaginary reader being someone who could benefit from a book about outsized grief or outsized guilt.
Clegg: So in a way it’s like you were imagining yourself as your ideal reader, but like prior to the book.
Strauss: So it’s more solipsistic than I realized.
Clegg: I had a great weight of shame, and it feels so isolating. I felt like I was the only person who had a day job who was a crack addict. And so to see that you’re not the only person …
Strauss: Part of my book is that I hid what happened from everybody. The accident happened two or three weeks before the end of high school, so I treated college as a witness-protection program. Friends have called me and said, “Is this another piece of fiction? How could I have known you for 20 years or 15 years and not know this?” So it was definitely something that I kept inside.
Clegg: I think I have been in training since childhood to have something shameful and difficult that required a lot of concealing. So I became expert at creating a successful façade. It was just second nature to me.
Strauss: I guess you and I have very similar experiences in that way, because this is something that I told no one, and now I’m telling someone in the loudest way possible. I wouldn’t lie about it, but I wouldn’t bring it up, and no one’s going to ask, “Hey, were you ever in a car accident where someone happened to die?” So it felt like a secret.
Bill, do you have any advice for Darin about the experience of having your memoir out?
Clegg: The best advice is to not really get too involved in other people’s responses. You have to just recognize that it’s their emotion, and it’s their process, and they’re going to be angry with you.
Strauss: It is scary. But I think you’re right, that’s why I didn’t want to do it as fiction, because it wouldn’t mean as much if you didn’t tell exactly what happened and what you can learn from it. As with your story, I think if you had made up a character it wouldn’t have had the same teachable moment, to steal the president’s phrase.
Clegg: I think if there’s any opportunity for service and use in the crisis, you’ve found it.
Clegg: But other people might see it differently. It’s just like any other thing. Somebody might not like your shirt, and that’s their business.
Strauss: Do you not like my shirt?
Clegg: I like your shirt! It’s a lovely shirt.
Strauss: Yours is pretty nice too.
Clegg: Thank you.
Strauss: Is there added pressure now? I mean, I’m sure there’s always an intense pressure to stay sober, but do you feel extra responsibility now because people are going to be looking up to you?
Clegg: I do. Any encouragement to stay sober is a good one. I just had five years sober on June 11.
Strauss: One of the many reasons I feel lucky that I did it with [publisher] Dave Eggers is that he has gone through something very similar [with his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius]. His words of advice were basically just “Gird your loins.” I mean, you get a bad review with a novel and it hurts. But I imagine if you get a bad review with a memoir it hurts more, because you can always say, “Well, they didn’t like my characters,” but when you’re the character, it’s like, oh yeah, they actually didn’t like me.
Clegg: I’ve definitely had that experience of feeling like I’m being reviewed more than the book.
Did you think about writing this as fiction?
Strauss: Never for me. I mean, I realized after I wrote this book that all my novels are about this subject and I hadn’t known it. My first book is about twins who are attached, two people who are joined and can’t escape each other. And this book is about me and the girl who died and how we can’t escape each other in a way. My second book is about a guy who is a fraud and a con man masquerading as someone else, and that’s how I felt, I think, about this. My third book is about this terrible thing that happens in a family and no one wants to talk about it. So all my books are about the limits of intimacy and how well you can know somebody, and that’s everything that my memoir’s about. William Gass has a line about, if you’re doing writing well it shouldn’t be cathartic because it’s too hard. I always believed that, but this was very cathartic. So hopefully he’s wrong, or maybe I just didn’t do it well.
Was it cathartic for you as well, Bill?
Clegg: The cathartic part is after the writing for me. The letters and Facebook messages and stuff. The writing of it was not a lot of fun. But also, there was that moment in writing separate from the subject matter that’s just the pleasure and grace of being able to express something that is amorphous. W. S. Merwin describes the writing of a poem, and he says, “Any day now, I’ll make a knife out of this cloud.” The idea of taking something so sort of pregnant with possibility and turning it into something as specific as a knife—those moments weren’t cathartic, but they were thrilling.
Has writing these books changed your view of the memoir genre?
Strauss: I think most novels are bad, and I think most memoirs are bad. But I think if you do it well, it works.
Strauss: You have to make sure that as the writer of a memoir you’re not trying to make yourself look good. That’s the difference, I think, between Bill’s book and, say, A Million Little Pieces, where you feel the writer trying to show what a badass he was. I think there’s a reason it was rejected as a novel but then was snatched up as a memoir—I don’t think it’s a very good book. But it’s a great sensational story, so if people think it’s true then they’ll buy it.
Bill, have you heard from any of the people you write about?
Clegg: I talk a lot about my life with my father, and he doesn’t come off well. There’s also just the frank description of where one goes on crack cocaine, and where I went was having sex with taxicab drivers, and you know, I’m gay, and my dad’s a former TWA pilot who had been in the Navy, he’s in his 70s and just a certain generation. He read it. And he was amazing. When he was like 50 or 60 pages into it, he left a message and just said, “With every page I love you more.”