Describe your latest book.
The Trip to Echo Spring is an investigation into the liquid links between writers and alcohol, examining the relationship between creativity and drinking through the work and lives of six extraordinary men: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver.
I grew up in an alcoholic family myself and was deeply suspicious of the heroic myth of the hard-drinking author. One spring, wanting to make sense of this ferocious, entangling disease, I took a journey across America, travelling from Cheever's New York to Williams's New Orleans, from Hemingway's Key West to Carver's Port Angeles. As I travelled across the country, I began to piece together a topographical map of alcoholism, from the horrors of addiction to the miraculous possibilities of recovery.
A combination of biography, travelogue, memoir, and literary criticism, The Trip to Echo Spring strips away the myth of the alcoholic writer to reveal the terrible price that creativity can exert.
My first book, To the River, is the story of the Ouse, the English river in which Virginia Woolf drowned in 1941. One midsummer week over 60 years later, I walked Woolf's river from source to sea, investigating how history resides in a landscape and how ghosts never quite leave the places they love. It was a book of the year in the Evening Standard, Independent, and Financial Times and was shortlisted for the 2012 Ondaatje Prize and the Dolman Travel Book of the Year.
I'm currently working on The Lonely City, a cultural history of urban loneliness that explores the complex crosscurrents that exist between loneliness, sex, technology, and art. It's set in New York and, like my previous two books, will be a hybrid work, bringing together elements of biography, criticism, travelogue, and memoir. Among the residents of the lonely city, I'll be looking at Edward Hopper and Alfred Hitchcock, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger, and David Wojnarowicz. I'll be thinking about communication and sexuality, about apocalyptic cities, Aids, and the art of the machine age.
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
I worked as a life model for a long time. Literary editor and life model, that's my span.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
All my books are literary pilgrimages of one kind or another. Lives occur in physical places, and I'm interested in what remains there after the person has gone. Also, what doesn't — in the gaps, absences, and changes that take place in the intervening years. It's a way of thinking about time, and of exploring some of the problems or tensions implicit but often ignored in more formal kinds of biography.
What scares you the most as a writer?
Everything. I find writing a very unpleasant, acutely painful business, though I like the sense of a pattern emerging and gathering, and I love the last few months on a book.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
In loving him, I saw a cigarette between the fingers of a hand, smoke blowing backwards into the room and sputtering planes diving low through the clouds. In loving him, I saw men encouraging each other to lay down their arms. In loving him, I saw small-town laborers creating excavations that other men spend their lives trying to fill. In loving him, I saw moving films of stone buildings; I saw a hand in prison dragging snow in from the sill. In loving him, I saw great houses being erected that would soon slide into the waiting and stirring seas. I saw him freeing me from the silences of the interior life."
From Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration by David Wojnarowicz
What is your idea of absolute happiness?
I love walking around New York, and I love swimming outside, preferably in rivers or the ocean. I like fluidity, so any kind of liquid experience makes me happy, really. Actually, my day today was perfect, wandering around the Met with some friends, going boating in Central Park and then eating herring and lox at Barney Greengrass on the Upper West Side. Walking and looking, that's my ideal life.
Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration.
I'm obsessed with the artist and activist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992 and who is one of the main subjects of the book I'm currently working on, The Lonely City. At the moment I'm also very inspired by visual artists, particularly Warhol, Francis Bacon, and Basquiat. Musicians too: Arthur Russell, Klaus Nomi, Justin Bond. Many of them are also subjects of the new book. I like artists who are uncompromising, a little melancholy perhaps — who consistently break new ground, and who have a kind of deviance about them.
Five books I'd take with me if I were running away to sea:
These are the books I'd grab if I were escaping from a fire, the ones that I read over and over, that have shaped my thinking and the way I feel.
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Olivia Laing is a writer and critic. Her first book, To the River, was published by Canongate in the U.K. to wide acclaim and shortlisted for the Ondaatje Prize and the Dolman Travel Book of the Year. Her new book is The Trip to Echo Spring. She has been the deputy books editor of the Observer, and writes for the Guardian, New Statesman, and the Times Literary Supplement, among other publications. She is a MacDowell Fellow and has received grants from the Arts Council and the Authors Foundation. She lives in Cambridge, England.
Books mentioned in this post
Olivia Laing is the author of The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking