Monday, October 09, 2006

Wendy Blackburn, Beachglass

Beachglass is the story of Delia, a teenage addict who meets Timothy at rehab. The two form a bond and develop a friendship that is a source of strength for both of them as the years go by. Delia is living in Seattle with her husband and daughter when Timothy summons her back to California to take care of him during his final days battling AIDS.

The story is told in flashbacks as Delia cares for Timothy. We learn about Delia's family, her alcoholic father and enabling mother, her friends and life in West Hollywood during and after recovery. We witness how she pulled herself together and created a very decent life for herself, all while Timothy was there for her.

Beachglass is sentimental and touching and sad. I loved the wise character of Joan, she seemed to take on the persona of an angel in human form. Delia is completely relatable especially as she tries to distance herself from an old boyfriend. I would love to have a friend just like Timothy- gay male, creative soul, decent, loving person. He cared deeply for Delia and wanted the best for her. She in turn, wanted only the best for him which is why she was by his side as he lived out his last days.

This book was written by Wendy Blackburn. I can only imagine the emotional toll it took on her to write this book. I am really excited to interview Wendy and get the word out about Beachglass. Be sure to check out the Beachglass website and Wendy's blog. Oh and of course, buy the book!

Does beach glass mean anything to you personally? Do you collect it?

I don’t collect it per se, though after I started writing this book I have picked some up here and there, and I was given some beautiful pieces as jewelry when the book came out; my dad gave me a necklace-and-earring set that I wore to a few of my first readings. Also one woman gave me her grandmother’s collection, which has some really beautiful and rare deep blue and aqua colored pieces. But historically, no, it’s not a ‘thing’ of mine. It just seemed to work so perfectly as a metaphor/analogy for the characters in this book: their transformation from trash to beauty, from sharp to soft, from worthless to precious.

Are you a writer who struggled with addiction or are you an addict with a story to tell who happens to have a talent as a novelist?

Um…yes. I have always written, and I have always had my addict genetics. I have been in recovery for more than half my life, a counselor for 14 years. Recovery is a very familiar, very well-trodden landscape for me. So while this novel is not “my story,” recovery is something I felt comfortable writing about and a subject about which I have a lot of passion and experience and a TON of material to draw from.

I would like to think that this novel could stand on its own as a piece of literature, with or without my personal background being a part of the equation. But then, I like to imagine lots of things.

I have to ask what you think of the James Frey debacle. Yes, his book was powerful and gritty enough to help addicts and to teach how unpleasant recovery can be, but there are many who think he did a disservice to the addict community. Your thoughts?

The answer lies in your words “how unpleasant recovery can be.” My novel shows the opposite. My experience is the opposite. The experience of the people I surround myself with is the opposite. Recovery is not “unpleasant” (at least no more or less than regular life)—it is amazing and brilliant and miraculous and filled with joy and contentment and wonder.

I know real life isn’t all of those things all of the time, which is why I brought some struggle and sadness and “real life” into the story: to say, ‘okay, so tragedy strikes, relationships fail, family does not support, bills have to be paid, people die, whatever—things aren’t always perfect—but here’s this great set of steps and friends and new behaviors and tools to help you through it, and isn’t that just nifty?’

I hear time and again when I talk with friends and families of addicts, “I wish there was a treatment center for us, or meetings, something, just so we could get the tools and do all this self-discovery like they get to do.” Not have to do—but get to do. I think James Frey’s only mistake as far as his book goes was not including a small disclaimer letting people know that there were parts of the book that were more like creative non-fiction, or even fiction, than straight “fact.”

As far as a disservice to the addict community…? We as the recovering community know what’s what, and are used to dealing with stigma and weird press and misconceptions, and his book gave us one more thing to have to try to explain (that we aren’t all liars, that recovery isn’t a big freaky drama, that we don’t all throw chairs and get root canals without Novocain, or not, or whatever). As far as those addicts still using, I don’t think it kept anyone from getting clean, but that was a thought, like those still using may have read it and gone, forget it! What I worry the most about is the potential disservice done to the non-addict community: do they now think that’s what recovery is like, or that all recovering people are bitter and grandiose and dishonest? I hope not. My book had already been finished when his came out, and I remember wondering if mine would be seen almost as a rebuttal, an anti-Frey. Which would be fine with me.

There are lots of different views on recovery, different ways to get there (AA or not, rehab or not, etc) and A Million Little Pieces was basically an account of his own experiences and opinions, whereas mine is a novel and therefore encompasses more than one person’s story and gives a general picture of what it can be like—there is creative freedom in writing fiction. I got to combine all the thousands of recovering people I have known into these characters and this story. And hopefully the disservice can be undone with the message of healing, hope, and happiness found in Beachglass. Of course, more people have read his book, so I have a lot of catching up to do! But what’s been great for me is hearing from recovering people that I hit the nail on the head. That’s very gratifying.

How long did you think about writing it before you actually began working on this book? How long did it take from writing page 1 to having the published book in your hands?

I started writing this book in 1998, and from the moment I started, it just sort of poured out; there wasn’t much thought given to it beforehand, and I never did an outline or a plot treatment. I just wrote and wrote—but my older daughter was a baby/toddler then and I was an at-home mom, so I wrote in small snips of time, during her naps, with long stretches of not writing, or just moving things around on the page without making much headway.

About 300 pages into it, my hard drive crashed and burned and I lost about 150 pages. No, I didn’t have them saved onto a disk. Or printed out. Or backed up anywhere. I took the poor hard drive to a data recovery place, one of those places that recovers data lost in fires and works with the FBI? No dice. It was all gone. Dust self off, get back on horse. I completed the hefty (688 page) “first draft” in 2001, and the editing and revising took about as long as the writing did (three years, on and off). It was submitted to publishing houses late in 2004, I signed with St. Martin’s Press in February 2005, and the book was in my hands in May of 2006.

There are many themes throughout the book including addiction, recovery, friendship, and loyalty, truth, love, family. If you had to pick only one main theme, what would you say it is?

A tie between friendship and recovery.

Delia's dad was so mean. Do you think it was her father who drove her to her destructive, addictive behavior?

No—I am a firm believer in genetics and in taking responsibility for one’s own actions. So while Delia may have inherited the gene from his side of the family, and while his drinking, having alcohol in the home, and/or being unsupportive of her sobriety might not have helped her any, it certainly didn’t drive her to drink, so to speak.

There’s never one thing that drives an alcoholic to drink, though I know some who would like to tell you there is, when they’re in that angry, blaming, victimy place. But it’s never the boss’s fault, the husband’s fault, the childhood trauma, the prescription-happy doctor…it’s a disease, and until the person is treated for it, it’s going to be active, regardless. If anything, I think there’s more of a connection between Delia’s dysfunctional relationships with men and her dad than there is with her addiction and her dad.

In your experience as a counselor, is there a single common denominator of all addicts—an overbearing parent, childhood abuse, depression?

There are two common denominators: A genetic predisposition and chemical use. Combine those two things, and it really doesn’t matter what side of the tracks you’re from, you’ll probably find yourself addicted. There are plenty of abuse victims who don’t become addicts, and plenty of people with untraumatized lives who do. That’s probably one of the biggest misconceptions out there—that something “had to have happened.” It didn’t. There’s no event that causes addiction, and there’s no guarantee that “a good life” won’t produce an addict. If the gene and the use is there, your chances are higher than average that you will become chemically dependent.

Why did you make Timothy have AIDS as opposed to cancer or another serious disease?

Living in Southern California through the 80s and 90s, I knew lots of people who died of AIDS, who were living healthily with it, who were slowly dying, who were testing positive, who knew someone that was dying, I mean, it was everywhere—it was all hospital visits and funerals. And although I have never experienced the direct caretaking relationship that Delia had with Timothy, I was on the fringes of that world, if not a little closer in than some.

At the time I started writing Beachglass, it seemed like HIV/AIDS was starting to fade from our consciousness, from the media, from the ribbon-wearing, walk-a-thon, fundraising, cause-supporting people. They had moved on to other causes, but I wanted to bring it back into our awareness, I wanted to put a very likeable face to the name, and I wanted to honor those people that have died and their family and friends. This book is my square of the AIDS quilt. I wanted to capture a time and place that feels already gone, and that slipped away too quietly. Coincidentally, the book came out in 2006, the 25th anniversary of the first case of AIDS in America.

I know you edited the book down quite a lot (got that from your website!). What did you leave out? Was it hard to delete scenes and dialogue? I don't think everyone realizes how much editing goes into a novel; writing is only part of the process.

There were entire characters, 3 or 4 of them, cut out completely, a trip out of the country that was no longer taken, one character’s suicide that was scrapped (we let him live, as there was too much other dying going on), a bunch of descriptive prose and back story that was just not needed. Pretty, but extraneous.

Yes, it was hard to delete, and there were times I doubted my ability to make the changes. There were other times I kicked and screamed and argued and didn’t like the changes that were being called for, but the beauty part of computers is that I still have it all in a file somewhere, and I can go back through and see if I can use any of it another time, like when you find stuff in your closet from 5 years ago that is now back in style. A quick dry-cleaning and different accessories, and you’re good to go. The thing is, I trusted my agent, my editors, and my writing group, and I trusted that they were right. I knew that the paring down would make the story better. So while it’s not exactly the same story I started out with as a “first draft” (which was nearly double the size of the completed manuscript), it’s a better story.

I know you live in Washington, are you near Kirkland, home of Costco? Will your book be featured in the store? Do you wear Kirkland jeans?

I actually drive past the flagship store on the way to and from work every day—which is in the Seattle suburb Kirkland, hence the brand name. Imagine my delight. I actually do not wear the jeans myself, though they are quite popular up here, especially paired with either a fleece or a Microsoft polo shirt. This is quite upsetting to me at times, having been born and raised in Los “it’s not who you are, it’s what you wear” Angeles. And no, Costco is not yet carrying my book, though I think they should. I think they should sell it in bulk.

Can you tell me what your next book is about—will there be a next book?

I don’t know if what I’m working on now will turn out to be an actual book or not, but I am writing again. I am resurrecting one of the characters who was deleted from Beachglass just because I loved her so much (my hypochondriac pill-popping nurse). This new story seems to be about a 40-ish year old woman, her teenage daughter, infertility, pregnancy, and some juicy family secrets. I hope it turns into novel number two. Perhaps if I clad them all in Kirkland jeans, Costco will feature it in their store.


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