Backstories Discussion of writing style Literary analysis

2 The Creative Process – Unreliable authors and narrators

Does an unreliable narrator mean the author is also unreliable?

In the previous article, about “mad, bad and dangerous to know” authors, I posed the questions of how and why authors create entire œuvres with the same disreputable characters as they themselves are. Interestingly, some authors have led lives as disreputable as their characters, but some have not – contrary to expectations.

Donna Tartt: The answer is hard work

This link puzzled the heck of me, particularly when I read Donna Tartt’s descriptions of a drug-addled existence in The Goldfinch. How could she have gotten it so compellingly realistic? (People called it “eerily accurate”.) People asked the question straight out: Does Donna Tartt use drugs? Well, as the main character, “Theo”, a compulsive liar and petty criminal, put it in the book, and as Tartt herself has confirmed, the “hard, lonely truth” is that it takes years of daily slog and sheer hard work to write a novel – whatever it is about. The famously reclusive author is not known to use drugs, and has never explained what it took to write about it. And that’s that.

Ernest Hemingway on writing: “Writing is the only thing worth a damn. Unless you’re a painter. Then it’s painting.” (Source:

Peter Finlay/DBC Pierre – Drugged-up for a decade

Vicariously living the drugged-up, suicide-obsessed life of the delinquent first-person narrator, “Gabriel Brockwell”, in DBC Pierre’s Lights Out in Wonderland, was a strange and unnerving experience for me. But I got through it, mainly because I was too weirded-out to stop reading. DBC Pierre is a pseudonym (DBC meaning Dirty But Clean) and that’s how it gets spelled, but the author was born Peter Finlay. His previous Man Booker Award-winning novel, Vernon God Little, was not about the same types of characters as in Lights Out in Wonderland, but Finlay had some experience in his past of drug addiction. He says that after he turned 27 he spent nine/ten years in a drug-induced haze. By the time he was 37, his prospects were bleak.

“Flat broke, he’d been unemployed for a decade – and when he applied for a job stacking shelves in a supermarket, he was turned down. “They didn’t hire me because I was too weird, plus I was very honest, which doesn’t help you in life these days. They’d say: ‘What have you been doing for the past five years?’ And I’d say: ‘I was in rehab for three years and before that I was in the courts.’ He told them about his drug addiction and the narcissistic personality disorder he had struggled to overcome. Whether the illness was caused by the drugs, Pierre doesn’t know, but he was told that his clinical disorder manifested itself in him having lofty and completely unrealistic dreams.”

Source: The man who fell to earth, in The Independent, April 16, 2006
Lights Out in Wonderland, by DBC Pierre

Finlay has cleaned up his life and wrote the charming Ludmila’s Broken English (2006), and his latest is Release the Bats (July 2016). So, his past only shapes his characters up to a point. Unlike some authors, his complete œuvre is not defined by his addiction or mental illness. He is an example of an unreliable narrator in a book, not being created by an unreliable author.

NOT writing from personal experience

Some authors write from a basis of personal experience, others, no experience, and these approaches require different amounts of effort, particularly for far-removed subjects, plots and characters. But the fact remains that some authors have written about alcoholism, drug addition, mental illness and generally unsavoury conduct, while being like that themselves. The bodies of work of these authors are entirely about their own addictions and illnesses. The link is extremely close.

David Cornwell/John le Carré – Not the same persona

But sometimes the link may not be so definitive. Take David John Moore Cornwell, who is the owner and creator of the pseudonym John le Carré. (Did you know that?) Though Cornwell had enough of an interesting career and family to give him material on which to base his mysteries and spy novels, there is a very wide gap between him and the fictional author “John le Carré” and John le Carré’s characters in the novels. You could even say he and his pseudonym are opposites.

“Each book feels like my last book. And then I think, like a dedicated alcoholic, that one more won’t do me any harm. David Cornwell’s not a functioning alcoholic but he’s created a stable full of imperfect characters over the years as John le Carré, a name he does not answer to. It’s an abstraction that exists in his writing studio, and on the cover of his books, like a spy’s name on a phoney passport.”

David Cornwell in an interview on CBS 60 Minutes, Jan. 21, 2018

Don’t misread that. He says “like a dedicated alcoholic”. Interesting that he refers to himself in the third person.

Irvine Welsh – Clean living

Another author who is almost comically sober and civilized is Irvine Welsh whose novels, particularly Trainspotting, is just a riot of depictions of recreational drug use. The titles of his novels pretty much tell you what they are about: 

  • Trainspotting (1993), 
  • Marabou Stork Nightmares (1995), 
  • Filth (1998), 
  • Glue (2001), 
  • Porno (2002), 
  • The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs (2006), 
  • Crime (2008), 
  • Skagboys (2012), 
  • The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins (2014), 
  • A Decent Ride (2015), 
  • The Blade Artist (2016), and
  • Dead Men’s Trousers (2018).
Irvine Welsh in 2006 (Photo by Kubik)

He said that, as a youth, he used drugs, particularly heroin, which were part of the “normal landscape” when he was in his early 20s. To fund his habit he got into scams and theft, but got clean after a work accident and spent his life since 1991 doing ordinary jobs and writing. He sounds like anything but his characters:

“How does he “choose life” in 2016? Welsh says he’s “talked enough shite with guys in bars”; consequently he’s replaced alcohol and heroin with boxing and yoga and swapped Edinburgh for Chicago, while counting most of his friends now as women, a product of his wife being younger than him and having inherited her social circle.” (Thomas Gorton, Irvine Welsh on 25 years of choosing life, Arts + Culture, Dazed Digital, Oct. 13, 2016)

Nowadays, Welsh’ particular addiction is writing

“I’m the same kind of writer as I am a drinker. I’m a binger. Abstinence followed by … well it’s an addict thing, I’ll sit there and my eyes will hanging out my head, it’ll be five days later, unshaven not changed, really, really bad. And eventually I’ll just get told: ‘You fucking minging bastard, get a shower, for fuck’s sake.’ And then I’ll get in the shower and be like, this is good, I’m going for a walk. I’m off down the pub.”

Interview with Irvine Welsh by Decca Aitkenhead, Irvine Welsh: ‘I’m the same kind of writer as I am a drinker. I’m a binger’, in The Guardian U.K., Apr. 15, 2012

Alcoholism and drug use as mental illnesses

While drug and alcohol use in many instances just remain peoples’ pleasures, their abuse of them, and dependency on them, make them recognized mental illnesses, or psychopathologies. In the case of alcohol, it is medically classified as alcohol use disorder. “DSM–5 [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM5) ] integrates the two DSM–IV disorders, alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence, into a single disorder called alcohol use disorder (AUD) with mild, moderate, and severe subclassifications.”

The APA (American Psychiatric Association) states that addiction is a complex condition, a brain disease that is manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequence. People with addiction (severe substance use disorder) have an intense focus on using a certain substance or substances, such as alcohol or drugs, to the point that it takes over their life. So authors who were alcoholics or substance abusers actually already had a mental illness, without also having other disorders like depression, personality disorders or ASD. It is not just a matter that they weren’t stone-cold sober in their lives, but that they were actually ill.

The image of the suave, laid-back author, with drink in hand, tortured but lucid, delivering masterpiece after masterpiece, is largely an urban legend and rarely true.

Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond books, with cigarette and drinks, as was fashionable in the 1950s, 1960s

DEFINITELY writing from personal experience

William Burroughs – Drug-crazed and sick

William Burroughs, who was addicted most of his life, called his drug use “the sickness”. The way he describes why he tried to stop using drugs is a picture of a life in ruins.

“I was living in Tangier in 1957, and I had spent a month in a tiny room in the Casbah staring at the toe of my foot. The room had filled up with empty Eukodol cartons; I suddenly realized I was not doing anything. I was dying. I was just apt to be finished. So I flew to London and turned myself over to Dr. John Yerbury Dent for treatment. I’d heard of his success with the apomorphine treatment.”

William S. Burroughs, interviewed by Conrad Knickerbocker in The Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 36, Fall 1965

By the way, the treatment was not effective. He was soon back on drugs.

Why do writers drink? Or drinkers write?

As to why anyone would turn to drink or drugs while writing a novel? Here’s a good analysis by Adam Gopnik:

“If a theory is called for—and when is it not, in these woods?—to explain this phenomenon, it is that writing is work in which the balance necessary to a sane life of physical and symbolic work has been wrested right out of plumb, or proportion, and alcohol is (wrongly) believed to rebalance it. Anyone not a writer is probably sick of hearing how hard writing is, and obviously writing is not nearly as soul-destroying as coal mining or burger flipping or whatever you like.

But writing is, if not uniquely hard work, then uniquely draining work. Some basic human need for a balance between thinking and acting is still kept intact even by the most tedious of other tasks. […]

“The only cure, or hope, is to make the act of writing physical—to move it from your head to your gut—and, in doing so, to make it automatic, aerobic. That’s hard, and can be done in only two ways, both calling for outside assistance. One is to take the drug, or drink, and hope that it helps to ‘physicalize’ the work, move the pedals, and start the breathing—the theory used by those writers, like the elder Hemingway, who do the drinking and the writing simultaneously. Or else, to make the transition from mind to hand sober, knowing that the exhaustion it engenders will call for an antidote.” 

Adam Gopnik, Writers and Rum, in the New Yorker Magazine, January 9, 2014

So, the problem is that writing is a mental act that has to be made physical. And drinking or drugs help, some people think.

Another reason might be that writing and acting are both deeply personal activities that are just plain darn hard, and writers and creative people are more than usually sensitive about criticism of their work.

Writing as an extreme art form

The Trip to Echo Spring is British journalist Olivia Laing’s group biography of six alcoholic writers — Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman, and Raymond Carver.

The Trip to Echo Springs, by Olivia Laing (2014)

She explains in an interview with David Gerrard:

“Writers tend to be introverts. Is a lot of writerly drinking just about longing for connection and killing inhibitions? Maybe. And whatever kind of person you are, writing is a tough life. You are totally on your own. You have to be on your own to write. Lots of my friends are film directors or in theater. Their creative life is so different, in that they’re constantly collaborating and working around other people.

Writing seems to me one of the most extreme art forms, in that you have to spend hours and hours each day by yourself with this world you’ve created. Until you get to the editor stage, which is a long way down the line of the book, no one really cares what you’re doing, no one really cares about this thing you’ve managed to do with a sentence or a paragraph.

“However damaged or introverted you are, or however totally healthy, there’s still a need to change the channel. ‘Now I need to go to the bar and be around people and noise.’ This is a punishing life.”

Olivia Laing in All The Drunk Dudes: The Parodic Manliness Of The Alcoholic Writer, interviewed by David Burr Gerrard, in The Awl, January 9, 2014

Next article: The redemptive power of fiction

Back to part 1 of this long read.

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