Lauren B. Davis’s latest novel The Empty Room was the book I was most looking forward to reading this summer. Colleen Kerrigan just got sacked and finds herself looking for work and companionship without success. Instead she finds it in her long time friend and spiritual counterpart, vodka. The Empty Room is an unflinching, honest account of one woman’s journey into the dark depths of alcoholism, and Davis holds no punches about how she could have easily become Colleen had she not, without the help of her loving husband, stopped drinking eight years into their marriage. Because alcohol has been my friend a time or two, particularly during times of stress and change, I know that it is a slippery slope from having one drink with supper to six drinks four nights in a row. As you go through this novel you feel like you know and understand Colleen, her isolation and sadness. You see her rock bottom coming, and because you understand her addiction, you don’t know if it will even change anything. The Empty Room is at times alarming and disgusting, and other times lovely and beautiful. This is one of my favourite books of the year.
You provide a very real picture of what alcoholism can do to a person through Colleen. Did you set out to write a story with alcoholism as the subject or did Colleen’s character bring that forth?
In this book I’m speculating about what a day in my life might have looked like, had I not stopped drinking 18+ years ago. So, although my work is always character driven, this was always intended to be about a character under a very specific set of pressures.
The 4am anxiety attacks, the aches, the unexplainable bruises, anyone who has gone through a period of heavy drinking knows these effects. Where did you get your knowledge or do your research to so aptly describe it? Was it part firsthand experience, part observation, etc.?
Those of us who spend a lot of time in church basements trying to stay sober one day at a time joke about how there should be meetings at 4am. When we were drinking so many of us seemed to wake up at that time – jangled and filled with remorse and anxiety. A homeopathic doctor once told me that’s the time of day when the liver detoxifies, so perhaps that explains it. So yes, part of it is firsthand experience, and some of it comes from talking with others who’ve been through similar experiences.
In the dedication, you write “For R.E.D.–if it weren’t for you, this wouldn’t be fiction.” Can you speak to that dedication and if you’ve ever been close to addiction?
I’m open about being in recovery. The dedication is to my husband, Ron. He loved me when I felt utterly unlovable, and still does, bless him. He taught me how to trust. He taught me that my perceptions might be inaccurate – which is something Colleen never quit gets. She clings to the belief her drinking is a result of other people and the rough time she feels she’s had.
Ron and I have been together for 26 years now. I drank for the first 8. He says I’m wrong about this, but I still contend I probably would have died had it not been for him, because without his unwavering support for my sobriety I’m not sure I would have been able to put down the bottle and not pick it up again. It will annoy him no end that I’m saying this, but it’s what I believe to be true.
There aren’t a lot of minor characters in the book. Did you intentionally do this to create that world of loneliness, misunderstanding and despair that comes with addiction?
Yes! Exactly. Colleen is marginalized, isolated and self-pitying as a result of her alcoholism. I’ve seen that happen to so many people, sadly.
As an acclaimed writer, what are some of the highlights of your career thus far?
God Lord, am I am acclaimed writer? Snort. I never think of myself that way. I always feel I’m just struggling along. Every book is a challenge and given the state of publishing these days one never knows if one’s current book will be the last. It’s a rough business.
However, having OUR DAILY BREAD nominated for the Giller was a blast. I can’t deny I danced around my office and giggled like a six-year old that day. THE RADIANT CITY was shortlisted for the Writers Trust Award, and having both those books earn starred reviews in The Quill & Quire was delightful. Then, too, when Robert Adams included THE STUBBORN SEASON in his lecture series I was thrilled. He let me sit in on one of his lectures and I felt like I’d just won an Academy Award!
Can you generally explain your writing habits?
The process of writing is quite mysterious, I think, and ever writer has to find his or her own way to the page, so I can only talk about mechanics.
When I’m working on a novel the story must go forward by 1,000 a day. I begin every day by reading over what I wrote yesterday, and often I scrap big chunks of it. So that might mean I write 1,500 or 2,000 a day.
I’m one of those people who believe inspiration is more likely to find me if my ass is in the chair, so I work every day. I write because I’m saner when I do than when I don’t; thus, it’s in my best interest to write daily. (My husband agrees with this.)
Have any tips for novice novelists? How to write? How to keep at it?
Well, I tell my students if they can NOT write, they should do that. If one hopes to publish, the writer’s life is full of rejection, bad pay, criticism, isolation, long hours, and did I mention the rejection?
But, if like me you write because it’s the best thing for your mental and spiritual well-being, then get on with it. DO it. Lots of people talk about wanting to be writers, but don’t do much reading and writing. I suspect they really want to be authors, i.e. someone with their name on a finished product, a book in the shop window. There is no guarantee you will ever publisher, any more than there is any guarantee I will ever publish again. That can’t be your reason for writing. You can aim for that, hope for that, work towards it, but you can’t NEED it.
Perhaps the best advice I have is: There is no rush. No one ever believes me, but it’s true. Take your time, learn your craft and slow down. Write because you must, and because you love it. I talk about this quite a bit on my blog, and one post which may interest your readers is here.
What are the last few books you’ve read or are currently reading?
Right now I’m reading THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI by Helene Wecker. Great fun. Before that it was THE SISTERS BROTHERS by Patrick Dewitt, which I loved – the perfect picaresque novel. And, let’s see . . . THE PATTERN SCARS by Caitlin Sweet, THE TESTAMENT OF MARY by Colm Toibin, ALL PASSION SPENT by Vita Sackville-West and MY BRIGHT ABYSS by Christopher Wiman. All terrific books. Next up is BENEDICTION by Kent Haruf. I’m a big fan of his work – so full of compassion!
What are you working on now?
I’ve just finished ORPHANS (who knows what it will end up being called if it’s ever published?) – a story set in 7th century Britain about an orphan girl who becomes a seeress in the old religion and an Irish monk come to bring Christianity to the pagans. I’m fascinated by the moments in history (both personal and in the broader sense) when beliefs collide. That one took a LOT of research, including reading over a hundred books and a trip to England and countless visits with archeologists, church historians, museum curators and so forth … from Sutton Hoo in the south to Lindesfarne in the north east. My husband called it The Anglo-Saxon Forced March Northwards.
And also I’ve begun work on a book called THE GRIMOIRE, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s THE SNOW QUEEN, about a woman who goes into the underworld to try and rescue her brother. I love the idea in THE SNOW QUEEN of a demonically-made mirror that shatters and when shards get into someone’s eye they alter the way the person sees the world – everything beautiful turning ugly and vice versa. It seems such a great metaphor for alcoholism and drug addiction, which we call diseases of perception.