Olivia Laing Unbottles the American Writer


The Trip to Echo Spring is a work that seems like it must have already been written. Olivia Laing’s book is an exploration of alcoholism in six 20th-century American writers—John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Berryman, and Tennessee Williams—that dazzles in both the scope of its ambition and the depths it reaches in analyzing its subjects. Laing, through the lens of extensive research both into the writer’s biographies and into literature about alcoholism as a disease, paints these writers with a brush that renders them in new light. Yes, they are tortured souls and occasionally swaggering figures of massive ego and import, but they are also victims of drink. The book also contains elements of travelogue and of personal history; you feel Laing’s connection to these people and places as she moves through them. Her own personal connection with alcoholism is, no spoilers, both heartbreaking and provides her with a firm firsthand knowledge of the potential ravages of the disease. While there may be more uplifting books about writing and writers, few present the reader with such sobering realities about the downside to all those romantic, drunken nights in Paris or Key West.

MICHAEL HAFFORD: What was the decision making process to pick these particular authors at this particular time?

OLIVIA LAING: I wanted it to be six authors that I really loved, because I was aware that I was going to be dealing with dark material for most of the time. There was a potential for it to be sleazy or cruel unless I had real affection for the authors as well. I wanted it to have some conversation with itself. Some similarity. Some of these guys were friends, some of them knew each other socially, they were aware of each other’s work, so they were sort of crisscrossing back and forth.

HAFFORD: You could almost draw a line. I think Fitzgerald was the first. Fitzgerald knowing Hemingway, knowing Tennessee Williams, knowing Cheever, etc.

LAING: Yeah.

HAFFORD: And they’re all Americans.

LAING: They’re all Americans. Again, I knew very early on that Tennessee Williams was central because his play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was the first text about alcoholism that I encountered as a kid. That was an important juncture for me. I wanted it arranged around him, so I knew they had to be American.

HAFFORD: There’s also an element of travelogue to the book, but that’s very in the background compared to their biography.

LAING: Yeah. It’s a way of examining it without it becoming too flat and repetitive. The stories are similar between them all.

HAFFORD: I found myself leaning in on those travel sections; they’re such a nice break from the brutal exposition about alcoholism.

LAING: That’s what I wanted. It’s also a way of structuring it around the trajectory of alcoholism itself. It starts off with these very intoxicating stories and then it deals with the darker bits of their lives. The darker bits of their alcoholism, and then it comes out and that is the recovery stories. That’s where Carver and Cheever come in.

HAFFORD: That’s interesting, can you expand on that a little bit? Structurally, how do you see the book working?

LAING: There are lots of good books about alcoholism and writers, but what they tended to do was take each character one by one and deal with the whole of their lives. When I read them, I found that there was something being repeated, and that was the arc that I wanted to explore. The physical journey across America is about wanting to explore how alcoholism moves through a life and looking at the same pattern in all of them. Going to different places to explore different elements. So New York is where those early drinks happen, which is where I’m dealing with Tennessee Williams first drinking. When I get to Key West, things are much more bloated and out-of-control, and that’s where I’m dealing with late-stage Hemingway and Tennessee Williams. And then the darkest part of the book, the most difficult part of the book, is [poet] John Berryman’s suicide, which, by then I’d traveled up to St. Paul. And then the last part of the book is set in Port Angeles, which is very much to do with recovery stories. So you can map the trajectory of the book across America.

HAFFORD: The Berryman section is the most heartbreaking in the book, to me. You can see him fighting against himself and feeling split within himself. It struck me that that’s a little bit of a microcosm of what you have to go through creatively. Not necessarily alcoholism, but to sort of be at war with yourself or be somehow apart from yourself.

LAING: I’m not sure I always do personally, and I’m not sure that creativity always has to be that nightmarish a process. I think the Berryman story is incredibly sad and touching and potentially quite dangerous. Because I think that writers tend to think, “That’s what creativity’s like. It’s that destructive of life.” I’m not sure that that always has to be the case.

HAFFORD: There’s a particular moment in the book when Hemingway is on a drive with Fitzgerald, and they’re sitting under the tree drinking whiskey. Hemingway mocks Fitzgerald for his inability to hold his liquor, which is a big symptom of late-stages alcoholism.

LAING: Yeah. I think I read A Moveable Feast, which I love, a lot more innocently the first few times. The more I learned about what was going on inside it and both of their lives at the time—in Hemingway’s life as he was writing it—which I really didn’t know much about—that completely changed its meaning for me. I still love it, but it’s a very different-feeling book now.

HAFFORD: Have you returned to these texts after writing this book?

LAING: I’m not sure I have. I started immediately working on another book, so no, I haven’t. It would be interesting to come back to them now. The one I really fell for was For Whom the Bell Tolls, which is such a terrific novel. I read it at a point where I was starting to really sour on Hemingway. It’s just a majestic novel. It was so great to read that in this point where I’d really read a lot about bad behavior and behavior that was sort of despicable, and then to rediscover something that is so beautiful and so durable was really a pleasure.

HAFFORD: Were there any other texts that you found surprising?

LAING: It was very touching and distressing reading late Tennessee Williams. There’s this whole incredible thing about Tennessee Williams where until the end of his life, he would still get up every morning, have his cup of black coffee, sit down at his typewriter and work. He had this very dogged work ethic. His plays weren’t really put on anymore; when they were they put on, they got terrible reviews. And he still really didn’t want to quit. Reading all of that, I like Tennessee Williams an awful lot; you really want his work to be extraordinary or to have something that isn’t spotted in it. And those late plays are really difficult. They’re tangled, they’re repetitive, they’re all over the place, and that’s really upsetting. We’re at the stage now where there’s this sort of renaissance of interest in him and maybe people are doing exciting things or finding ways to make the work exciting, but on the page they’re chaotic.

HAFFORD: It was heartbreaking reading about it even in your book, him sort of losing it so publicly and visibly in his work and then being savaged by reviewers, which couldn’t have helped his alcoholism.

LAING: No, and it’s such a vicious circle. You see his drinking affecting his work and his work is getting bad reviews and he needs to drink more to handle that. It just goes round and round and round. The sort of wastefulness of that when he’s so incredibly talented was just really heartbreaking.