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Literary Agent and Recovering Drug Addict Bill Clegg Talks to Details About His New Book

Addiction memoirs are hardly new—who can forget Thomas De Quincey's 1821 classic, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater?—but in a culture obsessed with substance-related falls and rises (Celebrity Rehab, Intervention, the life of George W. Bush), it's hardly surprising that they're more popular than ever. Bill Clegg, the high-powered literary agent who described his own descent into crack addiction in the 2010 best seller Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, is back with a sequel, Ninety Days (Little, Brown; $25), which details his attempts to reestablish his life after rehab without money, an apartment, or an occupation.

DETAILS: What made you want to write a second book?

Bill Clegg: Want is sort of a funny word. Actually, I feel like I started writing a second book before I wanted or before I decided to write one. When I was writing Portrait, there were certain memories that bubbled up, and I would just stop and write them. That's sort of how I write. And then just whatever mattered to the book, to Portrait, it went into that book, and then the rest just got kind of cut and pasted into other files. But the stuff about recovering kind of kept tugging. Like it just didn't feel finished. So for a couple of weeks I was up in the house that I go to in upstate New York, and then I just sort of wrote the entire time, and something surfaced that sort of looked like the shape of a book, and I talked about it with the people I talk about these things with—my friends and people in recovery—and decided that it may be of use.

Also, I got a lot of letters after Portrait came out, and e-mails and Facebook messages and stuff like that, from people who were sort of asking, "Well, it looks a little easy there at the end, like you didn't go into how you got sober and how you got a job and all that stuff." I didn't include that in Portrait because I really just wanted it to be just a close transcription of active addiction. And recovery is its own complicated, difficult narrative. Or at least that's what became clear to me.

DETAILS: And now you're done?

Bill Clegg: I can tell you right now, I have no instinct to write at all, so when I finished Portrait, I thought I'd crossed some finish line. I'd been writing it for years, and there was no pause in writing, so I didn't feel released from whatever that center of gravity was. It was drawing me towards reoccupying those memories. And I can safely say now that I don't feel inclined to write anything, even long e-mails. The gas tank is empty.

DETAILS:It's interesting what you say about people writing to you and thinking the first book was easy, because in a way, the structure of addiction memoirs in general—the way they always end with someone getting or deciding to get clean but then not often showing the messy and often relapse-heavy process of recovery itself—can make it seem easy. Your new book makes it very clear how difficult it is and how there's no real ending.

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Bill Clegg: Yeah, I mean, of course, that's the narrative we want. You know, somebody goes to rehab and then, 28 days later, or five weeks later, they're fixed. I mean that's what we want from any illness. It's like we have a broken arm, we want to go to the doctor, get a cast, and have it be fixed as soon as possible.

And any time there's sort of residual therapy, or going back and having the bone reset, it's like, you don't like that narrative. But especially when there's so much pain and agony and worrying and anxiety that sticks around an alcoholic or an addict for all the people in their life. You know, so there is this sort of hope, like, "Oh, they've entered a facility or they've gone to this program and they're fixed." And the ugly truth is that that's just the beginning of the story. And as somebody who was trying to get sober, bumping up against that fact and getting over the fact that I was failing time and again—that was part of the process, for me anyway. It was really hard to come to terms with that. It just feels like failure, and it feels like you're one of the people who won't be able to get sober. And then from the outside, it's just incredibly exhausting to be alongside somebody getting sober who relapses or who doesn't seem like they're getting it.

I guess if there's any worth in transcribing that experience, it's just to say that it can be really ugly in the beginning, and it can be ugly for a long time. And there are setbacks even later down the road, but I think if somebody's committed and stays in the community of addicts and alcoholics who are in recovery, there's hope.

DETAILS: Both as a writer and as a literary agent, you probably have thoughts about this question, but do you have any theories about why addiction memoirs and rehab memoirs are so popular, especially recently?

Bill Clegg: Oh, I don't know. I mean, all I know is that for addicts and alcoholics, and also the people who love them, it's a very lonely, isolated experience. And so it's important to recognize that you're not the only person going through it. And also it's so bewildering for people trying to get sober and for people who are in their lives. Any story or any possible roadmap or evidence that suggests that it's possible, I think people seek out.

A lot of people who have written to me about Portrait are not in recovery. They're not active or recovered alcoholics or addicts. They're the family members or the brothers or the wives or the colleagues of people who are or who have been addicted. I think for a lot of them it's just so mysterious, and that any clue as to what that experience is, what could possibly be going on in their heads, is something that they seek out through stories and television shows. I think people seek that out because they're lost.

DETAILS: Well, it must be strange, especially to be working in the book business, to have everyone know what you've been going through and have gone through. Has it helped, in a weird way, or has it made it more difficult?

Bill Clegg: I spent so many years hiding what I was doing. Before I became a literary agent, there were a whole host of secrets that I kept and shames that I nurtured, and then when I became a literary agent, my crack addiction and all that that entailed and the whole double life that it required—I buckled under the weight of that. Now I feel like I'm not somebody who can afford to have secrets. I'm not somebody who can afford to have a double life. So if there's any value in the experience that I went through, any value in the wreckage that my active addiction caused, and the agony that it caused other people, if there's any use in having the details of that experience and the details of my recovery known, then it's worth it, and whatever discomforts come along with that are minuscule compared to what I feel is some way of finding a worth in all the pain that it's caused.

—Timothy Hodler, research director at Details


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Main image courtesy of Little, Brown. Photo of Bill Clegg by Christian Hansen
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