Interview by Rupert Dastur
Hi Peter, thanks for speaking to us at TSS about A Wild and Precious Life: A Recovery Anthology. What can you tell us about this book?
It’s an anthology of fiction, poetry and essays. Each piece, by a writer in recovery. Recovery from addiction, physical illness, and mental health issues. There are pieces by established writers such as Kerry Hudson, alongside emerging writers, and total beginners, and there’s an introduction by Will Self. The project began in Hackney, with a group of recovering addicts. Their teacher, Lily Dunn, was a writer in her own recovery, following her father’s death from alcoholism. Lily and her teaching partner, Zoe Gilbert, made a national callout: this is the result.
The project has just been awarded an ACE grant from the Arts Council. Those things aren’t easy to get: any project that applies needs to have credibility. What this award means is that four of the contributors will be mentored. Imagine that, an aspiring writer getting a mentor. That is priceless.
Why is this anthology important and what do you think it says about our changing attitudes towards addiction?
It’s vital: recovery from addiction; and illness — whether that illness is mental or physical — is a very lonely place to be. If just one person reads this anthology and gets identification, then it has served its purpose. I don’t need to quote stats; everyone will recover from something in their lifetime.
The thing about addiction is that it doesn’t discriminate. It’s people who discriminate. I don’t really believe that the public’s core beliefs about addiction have shifted that much; that’s my experience. So, not everyone wants to talk openly about their own private hell; and I can understand that. If you’re a recovering addict, and say… a civil servant, GP, or airline pilot, then it might be best if you keep your counsel. I’m a writer and a recovering alcoholic. It seems easier for the public to accept that a writer has the disease of alcoholism than it does for them to accept it about someone who doesn’t work within the creative industries.
Also, I’m very fortunate that I’m built the way I am — I really don’t give a damn what people think — but I fully understand that not all people have the luxury and freedom of thinking this way. This has nothing to do with strength on my behalf: it’s just my default setting, it’s the way I am.
Would you be open to speaking about your own experiences and your involvement in the anthology?
No problem. I saw Lily Dunn’s call out on Twitter, so I submitted something. The story I contributed, ‘F is for Fish’, is absolutely true. It’s about alcoholic paralysis. And two goldfish.
For someone like me, sobriety is a daily reprieve from madness. And I’ve been sober for 14 years now, through the 12 Step Program. That Program didn’t just get me sober it changed my life, and it became a way of life. Today, I know who I am. I’m restored to sanity, on a daily basis. And I have the tools for survival; it’s entirely up to me whether or not I choose to pick up those tools on any given day.
You’re also TSS’s Short Story writer in Residence and have been doing some wonderful essays on the short form. How did you come to short fiction and writing and what has the impact of setting words on paper been on your life?
At the age of 11, in my first week at grammar school, I wrote an essay. I now know it was a short story. I still remember it: a story about my elderly neighbour’s beautiful and secluded overgrown garden. The English teacher read it aloud to the class. And he was supportive for the next few years. I had always dreamed of being a writer, nothing else. Unfortunately, I became a binge drinking alcoholic at 14 — I was absolutely hooked from the first drop — and I left school a year later. Despite not attending school in my final year I sat six ‘O’ levels — my mother insisted, God Bless her — and I passed with six grade Cs. You couldn’t make it up!
At age 16, I left home for a truly disastrous attempt at adulthood in London, then Reading, then America. For the next ten years, I worked on building sites or bars and didn’t return to education until I was 25; eventually scraping a degree in zoology. I’ve heard the term functioning alcoholic but it’s a misnomer; you only function on the outside, in one area of your life. The parts of your life that others don’t see are truly catastrophic. I lost years to drink.
At 32, I suffered a brain tumour. After successful surgery, I woke up with one working eye, and all sorts of damage to my frontal lobes. However, for the first time since school, I had no choice but to remain still. And the writing came out; really awful poetry, at first, then really bad short stories.
It was such great therapy for me. It also took my mind off drink, took away the fear, even the pain, and it passed the time. Writing also gave me purpose — and this is essential; that was something I had lacked my whole life.
I have always had poor concentration and stamina, although it has improved somewhat, so the short story was the perfect form for me to both read and write. I’m also an everyday, garden-variety addict. And I know that good stories alter my mood within a short space of time, like smoking does. That’s what good writing does. It takes you out of the place you’re in. Short stories helped me enormously.
After the brain tumour, I retrained as a journalist, but I didn’t quit drinking. During bouts of sobriety, I read everything I could get my hands on, learned everything I could about craft and technique. Then, following years of the most destructive craziness, I finally quit drinking. And I ploughed all of my energies into writing, while trying desperately to remain sober. And, most importantly; I wrote hundreds of thousands of words until, slowly, I got better mentally and physically, and you know what: my writing got better too. I’m privileged to be doing what I love. And I’m grateful for that. I wouldn’t change a thing.
For anyone beginning to explore the world of recovery, what other literary fiction – especially short fiction – would you recommend?
‘Chef’s House’ is my favourite Raymond Carver story (published in the short story collection Cathedral). And I’m not entirely sure why. I think it’s because I believe what I’m reading, and I’m moved. In the space of ten minutes reading, I have changed. There is a particular line at the climax of the story: ‘He lifted the cup but he didn’t drink from it.’ That line, in the context of what has been written, tells me that the central character, Wes, has decided to drink again. I haven’t been told this outright, but it has been intimated. His decision to drink again, a few paragraphs later, tells me so. ‘Having made up his mind he was in no hurry…’ The thing about this type of elliptic writing is that everyone has their own individual interpretation of the story they are reading; the reader participates. There’s also a little known story by Anton Chekhov: ‘The Beggar’ — he perfectly defines alcoholism 40 years before the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given about writing?
Try to write a quick first draft from the unconscious mind (you are trying to replicate that mental state where/when you are about to fall asleep at night, and all of the answers come).
During the rewrites, apply Ezra Pound’s famous quote: Fundamental accuracy of statement is the one sole morality of writing.
When you have absolutely nailed a final draft, let it sit for a week or so, then list five things wrong with it. And fix them.
Any parting word about the anthology and where our readers can sponsor the project?
Unbound will publish the book when the funding target is reached. We’re nearly there, but we need the public’s help: https://unbound.com/books/recovery/
Peter Jordan is a short story writer from Belfast. He has won numerous bursaries and awards, including three Arts Council Grants. In 2018, he was nominated for Best Small Fictions and Best of Net. In 2017, he won the Bare Fiction prize, came second in the Fish and was shortlisted for the Bridport. Over 50 of his stories have appeared in literary magazines and journals, including Flash: The International Short Story Magazine, The Nottingham Review, The Pygmy Giant, Flash500, Thresholds, Litro, The Incubator, The Honest Ulsterman, Dogzplot, Spelk, Fictive Dream, FlashBack Fiction & WordFactory. He has taken time out from a PhD in Belfast’s Seamus Heaney Centre to complete the edits on his short story collection, Calls To Distant Places, which was published on 22nd August 2019. You will find him on twitter @pm_jordan.
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