Ep 69 Luxurious libraries, cool maps of fictional worlds, how to write a bestseller while losing weight, advice from children’s book editors, and fewer versus less. And we talk to Writer in Residence Sarah Hepola, author of Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget.

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podcast-artwork In Episode 69 of So you want to be a writer:  The printed word is alive and well in luxurious libraries, maps of fictional worlds, a cunning way to write a best seller and lose weight, science confirms walking fosters creativity, great writing advice from children’s book editors, the difference between fewer and less, survival life, Writer in Residence Sarah Hepola (author of Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget), stay focused by planting a virtual forest, value based pricing, how to build your author platform, and more!

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Show Notes
Welcome to the world's most luxurious libraries

Cool Maps of Fictional Literary Places

How To Write A Best Seller While Losing Weight. Results Guaranteed

How Walking Fosters Creativity: Stanford Researchers Confirm What Philosophers and Writers Have Always Known

Top writing tips for new children's authors from top editors

Survival Life

Writer in Residence 
hepolasmallerheadshotSarah Hepola is the personal essays editor at Salon.com, where she reads people’s secrets for a living. She has written many stories about drinking and eating too much. Her essays on culture have appeared in the New York Times magazine, The New Republic, Glamour, The Guardian, Nerve, Slate, and The Morning News, where she has been a contributing writer for more than a decade. Her past jobs include: Travel columnist, music editor, film critic, sex blogger, and for about 15 seconds in the late ’90s, she taught high school English. She lives in East Dallas, where she enjoys playing her guitar poorly and listening to the “Xanadu” soundtrack.

Her memoir, Blackout, has been published by Grand Central.

Visit Sarah's website

Find Sarah on Twitter

App Pick

Forest: Stay focused, be present

Working Writer's Tip

Value-Based Pricing: A Smarter Way to Set Freelance Writing Rates

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Check out the Build Your Author Profile online course taught by Allison Tait!

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Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers' Centre

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Interview Transcript



Sarah, thank you so much for joining us today.



Oh, my pleasure.



Now you’re talking to us while you’re in Dallas, is that correct?



That’s right. I live in Dallas, yes.



For those people who are not yet familiar with your book, because it only just came out, tell us what it’s about.



Sure, sure. Well, it’s about falling in love with alcohol. Thinking that alcohol can save you and having to discover that it won’t and that you have to save yourself.


Why did you decide to write it?



Well, what happened was I was one of these women that came of age at a time when drinking was really part of my identity. We didn’t use the word ‘brand’ back then, but like my brand. I was a drinker.


When I had to quit drinking at the age of 35 I really thought my life was over. I had been a writer by trade, but I was so fragile, so vulnerable, I felt like I had lost my battle armor. I didn’t write for six months, but I wrote a story about quitting drinking and it got a lot of accolades. It was the first time I kind of heard my voice, the voice that has been mine as a writer all of along.


I thought, you know, “Maybe I still have that,” which, by the way, is the lesson that sobriety will teach you. You think alcohol does all of these things for you, it makes you funny, it makes you brave, it makes you smarter, faster, sexier. And what you realize is that you really are those things, what alcohol does is it lowers your inhibitions, it allows you to be freer with the things that you have inside of you already.


When I heard my voice and I thought, “That’s what I want.” I felt a real call to make my sober life good, to make it something that I didn’t have to drink my way out of.


Writing, in publishing circles, they tell you write what you know, and what did I know? I know two things really well, myself and drinking. Like, I had an unofficial PhD in drinking, so it made sense.


I also was picking up these recovery memoirs. Some of them would say things like, “Women hide their drinking, they’re very embarrassed by their drinking and it’s not part of their social circles,” and I was like, “What?!” And what that reflects is that there has been a cultural shift around women and drinking over the last 20, 30, 40 years. Those of us who came of age — I went to college in the ‘90s and it was just sort of a given that we all kind of drank with the boys. As I emerged into my adult life as a writer in alternative news weeklies here in Texas, and later in New York, of course I drank, and I drank openly and I drank with pride. I sort of always took a certain amount of — yeah, I took pride in the fact that I could keep up.



You said that you’re a writer by trade. Before you wrote this memoir you’ve been a journalist, a columnist, a blogger. If you can just take me back, when did you decide that you wanted to become a writer?



Well, my mom tells stories about me writing next to her while she was working on her dissertation from a very early age. I think I was lonely kid and I think writing was a way of having companionship, which by the way I think alcohol served that role later. But, when I was about 12 years old I started writing these kind of crazy horror stories, because I was obsessed with the writer Stephen King. I was getting a lot of attention for that. Kids are always trying to figure out, “What’s my specialness?” “What can I do that nobody else can do?” Writing was something that I identified pretty early on.


I wanted to be a writer since the time I was 12. Then when I graduated from college I got a job at a newspaper. It was kind of a surprise thing, like I interned there and they gave me a job and it was like, “Whoa, wait a minute. You mean I get to see movies free and go to shows for free?” It just seemed like it was too good to be true.


I stayed for many years. It’s been a good career for me.



You started off in journalism, which is a very objective craft. Then later on you moved into personal essay, and obviously now into memoir. Do you find it odd to switch to talking about yourself? Going from a very objective discipline to talking about yourself, where usually you’re not meant to be in the story at all?



Yeah, that’s a good question. I can remember being in college and I would get irritated when a critic even used the word ‘I,’ you know? It was like, “We know it’s your opinion, you don’t need to tell us it’s your opinion.” I had very specific feelings about that.


What happened for me was first of all I worked at an alternative news weekly and I don’t know what the Australian equivalent of that would be, but, see, here it’s kind of like these newspapers that are a little bit outside of the mainstream, you know? A little artsier or a little edgier. There was a lot of first-person narrative because it didn’t have the traditions of your daily journalism.


That was the first thing, but the second thing was I was surrounded by people who knew so much more about politics and pop culture than I did. For me to pretend like I had that kind of authority felt fraudulent. I think also, going back to that ‘write what you know thing,’ it was like for whatever reason, whether it’s my mental obsessions or my own personal navel gazing, or the fact that my mother’s a therapist, I just had this lock on writing about my internal emotional experience and other people seemed to like it.


Then I think what happens as a writer is once people start liking what you do, you’re kind of like, “Well, forget that thing I said about using the first person — it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine, because everybody likes it.” You start swimming towards the warmer waters, as they say.


It’s a form that I have come to have tremendous fondness for, that doesn’t mean that I don’t think sometimes it’s overused, sometimes I think it’s done badly, but I think to talk about our own experiences, I think it’s a very valid, an extremely valid and important form of story telling.



It’s obviously a form that comes naturally to you, because some people try it and they do fall into the trap of becoming self-indulgent or [inaudible; 0:06:48.4] gazing, or writing about stuff. It’s just like, “I don’t care about reading this.”






At any point did you have to learn how to identify when you were doing this? Or if you were falling into that trap?



The thing is I always have to be honest with myself. That sounds so easy, but it’s like we tell ourselves lies all of the time. For me, it’s just lies of convenience. Like, “Oh yeah, I like that person,” but then you have to dig down and be like, “Actually, you know what? I don’t really like that person, I’m just saying that because it sounds good.”


I’m always having to dig inside myself. When my writing feels flat it’s normally because I’m not being completely honest, because I believe real life is tremendously fascinating material. Psychological motivations between two people talking in a room, you know? What they say versus what they think, what they want to believe versus what they do. All of that stuff is really fascinating, it’s full of tension.


What happens is people too often write a narrative like they’re either the hero or the villain, and those people are neither, we’re somewhere in the middle, wey’re just playing a part and that part is complicated. Even in my most heroic moments parts of it were kind of messed up and wrong. There’s never, like, pure intention, I guess is what I’m saying. I feel like as long as I can stay connected to that and the kind of rich emotional complexity of a moment, then you’ve got really good material.


I happen to like kind of busting myself on things, you know? And being like, “You know what? I said this, but I was totally lying at that moment.” That’s interesting to me. I think somehow it makes me feel better to admit it all on the page, like somehow that’s like a confessional booth, to me. Sometimes in life we don’t get it right the first time and so this always gives me a second time to be like, “Here’s what I meant to say…”




Yes, yes. And, “Here’s a way for me to help understand what happens.”



That’s exactly right! I’m always unpacking that moment, “Why did I say that?” Like, I leave sometimes arguments and be like, “Why did I say that?” You know? And then I have to go back and understand that there were these kind of intense motivations behind it.



You do write about some very personal and revealing things in your book and also in some of your essays. How comfort are you in laying it all out there? Are there certain things that you don’t reveal and you have a boundary where you go, “I’m not going to talk about that, but I will talk about everything else.”?



Well, I think it would be so strange to me if every writer told you everything. Yeah, there’s totally boundaries. I’m always looking at what serves this story? What do you need to know? Is there going to be a detail, it might be salacious, but it’s distracting. If I give it to you, then your mind is not going to be locked in what I’m trying to tell here, you know? It’s just like when you’re putting together an outfit, you don’t just put on, like, all sorts of bling all over yourself. Like, how do you create a landscape or a look? I’m trying to tell a story.


That said, I really try to stay rigorous with myself, you know? A lot of times I’ll have conversations with readers, first readers that I have and say, “Well, there’s also this… is that important?” “No, that’s not important, that’s just distracting,” because also in memoirs there’s often been this game of brinkmanship, like how many gross details can you include? I think that’s distracting, because just like an action movie shouldn’t be an accumulation of explosions, because then the explosions become dull. You really want one explosion that is done with high emotional stakes.


I always want to focus in on that moment, “What do you need to know? What’s the stuff that’s important for you to understand what’s going on?” That said, I do say a lot of things about myself. I always think… sometimes Lena Dunham, the actress in America, do you know her?



Yeah, of course.



OK, cool. She talks sometimes about being naked on her television show and it just doesn’t bother her. Well, let me tell you I could never do that in a million years — like never! That horrifies me, that’s my nightmare is I’m on a show and I’m naked. But, for whatever reason, like, these stories, when I tell these stories I’m lacking the embarrassment gene.


A lot of people will say to me, like, “That’s so brave, I would be really embarrassed,” and it sometimes makes me think, “Should I be embarrassed? I guess I should be more embarrassed than I am.” But, I’m not and I don’t know if that’s because my mother is a therapist and she from a very young age kind of gave me this idea that every human being deals with these kind of crazy, conflicted emotions inside of them, but there’s nothing shameful about that. The fact that I do it in public, just to me, it’s what I can contribute as a writer. It’s what I can do maybe that other people can’t do, because you’re always looking for that as a writer.



When you were a freelance journalist, I understand that you’ve been a music critic, you’ve been a travel writer, you’ve been a beauty columnist, you’ve been a sex blogger, did you decide to try out different beats? Was that part of your training? Did you have a strategy in the development of your freelance journalism career?



Yeah. My strategy was you go wherever the money takes you. I was living in New York and I had a really high rent and I had to just do whatever they asked me to do. I remember I was writing about video games at one point, it’s like, “I don’t know anything about video games.” But, you know, you do it because they ask you to do it.


I think that’s one of the cool things about journalism that I don’t really have any specific area of expertise, but you become what the publication needs and if they need somebody to write about sex and culture, then you do it. If they need somebody to write about travel, then you do it. It’s this wonderful excuse to become, maybe not an expert in that, but like to find some expertise and to deep dive into some of those territories.


I’ve got this funny little dilettante’s tool kit of all of these different things that I’ve done, I did them for six months or a year, however long the contract or the money lasted and it’s been great, it’s been really fun.



You’re now a personal essays editor at Salon.com what makes a good personal essay? What are the key elements that you always look for when people are sending you personal essays?



I read a bunch of essays, maybe like a hundred a week. I’ve never really counted. But, one of the things that I am looking for is get my attention. If I’ve got that kind of a load in front of me it’s all going to start to blend together. Once somebody is kind of taking their time and painting a scene, it’s like I don’t have time for it. It’s like, “Grab my attention.” You know? Start with drama.


Then I’m looking for surprising truths. I’m looking for somebody to say something where I go, “Ha, yeah, that’s right. I know, I do that too.” Or, like a story that’s riveting.


I got a piece not long ago by a mother whose child had swallowed a bottle of pills. The story opens with her four-year-old coming to her with a bottle of pills that are empty and the kid has just swallowed all of them. I think it was Xanax or something like that. It’s like, “Oh my god! What’s going to happen?” You start at the top of the hill of the roller coaster. You want to find out what happens.


I love stories, I’m a sucker for stories. I want a beginning, a middle, and an end. I want to be taken on this journey, I want to be taken out of my own brain. But, I’m usually looking for people that I feel like I can trust, I like their voice and I want to go with them wherever they’re going to take me.



Are the quality of the essays that you receive, obviously you get them in a large volume, are they standard where you can go into a sub-editing phase and then they can get published? Or do you actually work with writers structurally to say, “You know what? Can we have a bit more of this? Can we have a bit less of this?” Where on the spectrum does it fall?


I wish I had more time to do what you just described because I do enjoy it. I think sometimes people don’t quite know exactly what the beats of their essay should be, because I read so many I’m pretty good at it. I like working with writers on their essays. I don’t always have enough time to do it. My time has been tremendously compromised over the last two years, three years, working on this book.


More often I’m taking pieces that don’t require as much, but it really depends on… if I know that you have a story that nobody else can tell. Like, say, you had an affair with a congressman or something like that and it’s a really interesting story about intrigue and politics and getting caught in a scandal, if I know that’s something that you can tell I’m going to put in the extra time to work with you on it and try to craft it a little bit better.


I don’t necessarily have that time for somebody who has got a story about being a first time mom, because it’s a more common story and I just have to kind of look for those pieces. I have to kind of look for something that’s a little bit more ready to go.



Yeah, of course.


Talking about the writing of your book, how did you juggle that and your commitments as the editor at Salon and your other writing commitments? When you were in the thick of writing it did you have any kind of particular routine, like wake up at this time, have a cup of tea, meditate?



Yeah. Yeah, exactly.



Tell us about it.



Well, one of the things I learned was that I have to do my writing first thing in the day, otherwise I will procrastinate and put it off and I will make up excuses and my brain will go… the longer I stay awake the more kind of fuzzy I am.


I would wake up at 6:30, I would make my coffee. I’d do a little meditation and then I would start at 7:00, I would go from 7:00-11:00. Now, I didn’t always do this because then also sometimes you get, like, email and Facebook and stuff, but I would try to do that four-hour block and then I would do Salon work in the afternoon.


What was nice about it was reading other people’s stories took me out of my own, because I was a little stuck inside my story, which is fine, but it’s also like, “Uh, let’s open the windows in here a little bit.” It put me more directly in contact with what are the clichés that are being done again and again that I shouldn’t do. It helped me hone my craft and it helped me get out of my head, and it was a different kind of skill set. Writing and editing kind of used two different parts of your brain.



In that four-hour block did you have a target, like ‘X’ number of words or anything like that?



I’ve seen that before. I’ve never been able to do that. Me, it’s just like, just go as fast as you can. It’s just like do as much as you can. The way I write sometimes four hours, like if my editing machine… if I can manage to put that away and I can just type, that will be thousands of words in four hours. But, there’s other times when I’m not like that and I’m not hooked in and I’m doing that annoying thing that’s like rearranging furniture, where it’s just like moving words around and you’ve done 50 words in and an hour has past and it’s like, “I hate this.”


The thing is just stay there. I think for so long I would just get frustrated by the writing, so I would just leave, because I didn’t like uncomfortable feelings. But, it’s like if you don’t leave, if you just stay there it will get done.


Absolutely. How long did it take you, in that routine where you did the writing in the morning and you did your Salon work in the afternoon, how long did it take you to get to your first manuscript?



Well, it took about a year, but I should say prior to that there was another year of just free writing to kind of figure out what kind of story I was going to tell. And then there was like a year of honing and editing. The whole process of the book took three years.


Then there was a year of waiting for it to come out. Part of that, most of that, was that when you’re going to tell a story about your life you’re kind of standing down a corridor where you have a hundred different options, which door are you going to go through? You’ll try one door and say, “Not that one.” And then come back… finally you just have to pick one door and keep walking. And, that’s what I finally had to do.


There was a long time there where I was kind of trying different things. It was just a lot of feeling my way around.



When you were writing, or before your writing and perhaps you were just thinking about writing a memoir, were you inspired by any other memoirs out there?





Yeah, absolutely. One of the really central books about women and drinking is a 1996 memoir by Caroline Knapp called Drinking a Love Story. It’s just a gorgeous book about the feelings underneath the drinking. She’s a beautiful writer who writes with incredible psychological insight.


I read that book when I was like 23 or something and I first thought I might have an alcohol problem. I read it while drinking wine, which I thought was so transgressive of me. I remember just being like — like I saw myself in it, and I saw like, “That’s probably going to be my future.” Like, “I’m probably going to have to quit drinking.” And I went, “[gasps]…” I wasn’t ready yet. Then I would come back to it like every five or seven years, I would read it again. Then I read it when I was in recovery, I always found new things in it. There was always a message in a bottle for me. It’s just a beautiful story.


Then I read a whole bunch of recovery memoirs, because I think you can develop your own little addiction to those, because you love hearing other people’s stories. When I was new in sobriety I was just so eager to get out of my own head, my own tortured head space. That’s what literature does, it offers an escape. I was just thrilled reading these other stories of other people’s struggles, other people’s downfalls, other people’s frailties.



When you’re you a journalist you write very short pieces in comparison to a book, obviously. Personal essays are very short. Did you have to do anything to switch gears to go from, “I’m writing a 1,000 or even 2,000-word thing, and now I’m writing an 80,000 book.”?






What did you have to do to switch gears?



Well, it was really hard and I think that’s one of the reasons it took me so long, was because I had a really hard time switching that gear. I think it’s like if you’re really used to running wind sprints you’re not necessarily sure how to run a marathon. I kept running wind sprints. It really took a long time to break the habits of personal essay writing, which is that you do 1,500 words in one blurt and then you start over completely.


I had to learn to do a sustained work, where the first chapter still relates to the last chapter and there’s 60,000 words between them, you know? That was so hard for me, I really felt my way through it.


I think one of the problems that I had was that I held on too tightly in the beginning and I thought that I should be able to write it front to back… I did not have faith in the editing process. I did not have enough faith that I would sort it all out. I wish I had let loose a little bit more and let myself go free and figure out as I went along.


It was like I was trying to be perfect the whole time, you know? I think that really stops up writers.



How did you do it? Did you write it in a linear fashion in the end, after you had that time of free writing, or did you write bits and put them together like a jigsaw puzzle? How did you do it in the end?



I think it was more or less written in a linear fashion, once I figured out… I think the first thing was like, “Where does this begin?” And then I wasn’t even sure it was going to begin in this hotel room in Paris, because I thought the book begins with coming out of a blackout and I’m in a hotel room with this guy and I don’t know where he came from, even though I had been talking to him I just had no memory of it because the blackout is this self-imposed amnesia.


I was a little bit worried that was going to be a little over the top for people. And so I played around with other beginnings, but that was the one that I kept coming back to, because for me it was the scariest blackout of my life. Once I knew that was the beginning that kind of helps to slot things. “OK, I’m going to go back to that in a later chapter.” Things start falling into place.


Once I knew it was mostly I was going to start at my childhood and go forward, I mean I just pretty much wrote linearly.



It’s a very powerful opening.


What was the most challenging part of writing this memoir?



I think making it good. I mean it sounds so simplistic. I work in the publishing field, I work in media I should say, publishing sounds like books. But, it’s like I work in media and I work with a lot of critics and I work with a lot of people that don’t BS me, you know? There’s a lot of memoirs out there and you better make this one good.


There’s a lot of recovery memoirs, what can you do different? I was always giving just a tremendous amount of thought to that. I wanted to push the material so that it would not be something that people said, “Oh, this is so self-indulgent,” because I wasn’t the worst addict in the world by any means. I think there are plenty of people that would read my story and be like, “Oh, her drinking wasn’t that bad.” I mean I fell down staircases and I woke up in strange places, but I think some people would say, “That’s not that interesting.”


You have to kind of push the material and give it more insight or awareness or something, you know? That’s what was so hard.


I think the other part was dragging all of the people in my life along with me. One of the things about personal essays was I could mostly just focus on myself and this was something where it was like I knew I was going to have to cast the net a little wider. I was going to write about my parents, I was going to write about the people I had dated. I was going to write about close friends. I worried tremendously about what effect that would have on them and what it would do and how they would take it, and if I was being fair, was I being tough, was I being not tough enough — that whole dance. That was hard.



Were you being truthful?






What was the easiest or most fun part about writing the memoir?



Well, the second half of the book came out really easily, and that was sort of a joy and a surprise. It’s interesting, the first half of the book is really kind of going into the tunnel of addiction, which is all of my drinking years. The second half of the book is coming out of the tunnel, and the years of sobriety. I thought that was going to be the hardest to write, because it would be the hardest to make interesting. Drinking sort of like sells itself. It’s like, “Well, there’s going to be damage and bad decisions,” it has the velocity of the drinking itself. But, I had so much material and it was really hard to structure it and I was holding on so tightly.


Somehow when I came out of the tunnel and I started on that second half, I just tore through that material and that was really a joy and a surprise to discover. I don’t know if that’s because the second half of a book is easier to write than the first, because you’ve learned the lessons. Or if sobriety was just a little more clear to me, as a subject, than my drinking, or I don’t know.



What are you working on now? Even though the book is out now, you finished writing it awhile ago, did you start on another major project shortly after? What are you doing now?



I gave that a lot of thought. I did start on something. Blackout turned out to be a lot about my relationships with women, my mother and my female friends, and I didn’t expect it. I didn’t know that sitting down to write it that it would be about women.


I wanted to write a collection of essays about my relationships with men, starting with my father who is this very shy, quiet, hard to know man who has probably given me 50 percent of my genes and it would serve me very well to know him better.


He’s still a mystery to me and my relationship with him is very different than my mother, who is very kind of extroverted and verbal and warm. My father is Scandinavian and introverted.


I wanted to write about all sorts of different relationships with men. I wanted to take a title that I used from a personal essay series I wrote years ago called Crying in Restaurants. Crying in restaurants is a tremendous habit that I have. I cannot tell you the number of fine dining establishments where I have ended up with a wet Kleenex, mascara over the napkin. It’s a horrible thing, it’s like passing gas in church or something, it’s like you’re not supposed to do it, but I can’t help doing it. It’s got me into all sorts of scrapes over the years.


This is a collection of essays that I’ve been working on.



Wonderful, so is that coming out soon?



I’m still working on it.



You’re just working on it as your current creative project.






Very exciting. It’s a wonderful memoir, it’s a wonderfully written memoir, it’s a very powerful memoir, it’s a very honest memoir. I would also like to direct listeners to your website sarahhepola.com, because there are some of your personal essays there, which range from very intimate to also very funny, like the one you wrote on Spanx. Everyone should check out sarahhepola.com as well.


On that note, thank you so much for your time today. Really appreciate all of your insights.



I enjoyed it, thank you.

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