By Caitlin Kelly
One of the pleasures of being a non-fiction writer is knowing others who write well-written, well-reviewed serious non-fiction.
I met Gabrielle a few months ago at a social event and immediately loved her energy and sense of humor.
Her new book, her third, examines a key change in how American women are relating to alcohol use. Says Kirkus Reviews, famously stingy with praise: “an important addition to feminist literature.”
It is — but it’s also a lively read as well. As someone with female alcoholism in my own family, I read this one with specific interest.
Here’s my Q and A with Gabrielle:
Tell us a bit about you: where you live, how you got into writing/journalism and what sorts of things you typically cover.
I’ve been a journalist for 26 years, ever since graduating from college. I had hoped to get a Ph.D. in Brazilian history, but a friend who worked as the assistant to the late, great New York Times writer Johnny Apple invited me to a dinner party at Apple’s house. My friend was going to law school, and Apple needed a new assistant. I didn’t even know who he was — I’m from the West Coast and just happened to be in Washington for a brief stay. But we started talking, and he offered me the job. He told me my nice Oregon parents would be happier if I took a “real job” instead of worrying about me living on ramen for the next four years. (He definitely had a point!)
I loved the newsroom, the energy there, and just didn’t look back.
Since then I’ve covered a lot of things – crime in Baltimore in the late 1980s; the shift from communism to capitalism in Poland in the early 1990s; and basically since then, how health and health trends intersect with our particular culture. I’ve written two other books, including one that examines how our noses and scent affect our lives.
Where did you get the idea for this book and when?
I moved back to the East Coast from a six-year stay in Oregon in late 2008, just as the economy was tanking. Newspapers and magazines were laying people off, and it was really hard to find work. I had lunch with an acquaintance who is an editor at Simon & Schuster and all around us, women were drinking.
I drink, too, but drinking at lunch puts me out for the day. We started talking about women’s drinking habits, (and our own), and the cultural shift we’d seen around us. She suggested I look into it. The proposal hit her desk the same day as the news of a terrible accident in which a suburban mom killed herself and seven others when she had the equivalent of 10 shots of vodka in her system.
Was it a difficult book to sell to an agent or publisher?
No, because I was lucky to have already had her interest. I had written other books so already had an agent.
What were the most challenging aspects of reporting or researching the book?
At first I thought the book would be a straightforward trend book, about women drinking more than in previous generations, and why. But then I started researching how they got better if they got into trouble, and I found some really interesting new options. I hadn’t had exposure to harmful drinking in my life, and I assumed that the traditional 12-step methods we rely on in this country were effective. I was stunned to learn that they had a very low success rate and were designed by men, for men at a time when the knowledge of brain chemistry was at its infancy – and that it was used by the courts, employee assistance programs, and the medical establishment as a gold standard.
So digging into that was challenging – but fun. It’s always exciting to shift your thinking about something you’ve accepted, or taken for granted -– sort of like you did with “Malled.”
How did you research the book? Tell us where you went, who you spoke to, how you found sources.
At first I started looking into statistics, which as a reporter is the easiest starting place. Drunk driving among women was up; hospitalizations for alcohol overdosing were up among women; the number of older women who checked into rehab had spiked. The number of women who said they were regular drinkers was up.
Once I had those figures, I could sort of move backwards – contacting the researchers and interviewing them. Researchers typically know the others in their areas of expertise, and a lot of them are really generous. One man told me, “Oh, I’m nothing in this field – you should talk to so-and-so and so-and-so.” Those so-and-sos turned out to be amazing sources who were patient and funny and helpful, and pointed out where I had holes.
I also did a lot of searching online for women who would be willing to talk to me about their issues. It is a dicey thing to ask people to discuss a topic that is shameful or embarrassing to them, but I’m a good listener and sometimes that’s what people need. Talking helps a lot of us process our “stuff.”
How long did it take you, from signed contract to delivered manuscript?
Was this faster or slower than you anticipated?
Much slower. I thought it would take me a year! That’s crazy.
What did you enjoy most about working on the book?
I loved learning about our history with alcohol, and how our habits have shifted so dramatically over the years. I loved meeting people, and making new friends, but I also loved diving into the history of why we treat alcohol so oddly in this country. We went from Martha Washington, whose collection of 500 recipes included 50 for boozy drinks, (plus some hangover cures), to wild-eyed prohibitionists to Girls Gone Wild.
What was the least fun part?
Some chapters were torture. Reducing the history was particularly hard for me, because I found it so fascinating. At one point, I had about six pages on how the women who crossed the Oregon Trail drank whiskey and wrote about how it helped calm their nerves and sadness in their diaries. My editor, God love her, wrote, “I know this is fascinating, but I think we could carve this down to a sentence or two.” What? All those diaries I read to a sentence? Sometimes you need cold water on your face to knock you to your senses.
Who do you see as readers for this book?
I think any woman who has ever thought twice about their drinking would be interested in this book, and anyone who has ever thought twice about the drinking of a woman they love would be interested in this book. I tried to bust a lot of myths. I also think it would be a good read for anyone interested in women’s history and women’s studies. It traces the arc of female power through our relationship to alcohol in ways that are quite surprising.
If you have written other books, how is this one different – in tone, content, approach?
This was much better conceived and executed than my other books, because it had a tighter focus. I used history as a guide, and medical research as a foundation, whereas my nose book was a sort of kooky history – cool stuff you didn’t know about your sense of smell, the history of Kleenex, nose jobs. My first book was a starter book, on interfaith marriage. It was too long and not focused enough.
What advice would you offer a would-be non-fiction author?
Develop a good working relationship with your editor. That is absolutely key. If you don’t see eye-to-eye from the beginning, you aren’t going to see eye-to-eye at the end. I’ve had a great experience this time with a patient, wise, and incredibly generous editor who helped reel me back in when I needed to be. I haven’t always had that experience. Chemistry matters. My best working relationships have always been with editors I really admire and love. In other words, don’t try to force something that isn’t there. And also: don’t be afraid to lose your good material in order to save your great material. Nobody wants to read six pages about something only you find amazing.