I’ve just read a book (Writers Gone Wild by Bill Peschel) that is gently nudging me towards the conclusion that there was a more intimate connection between alcohol, drugs and writing than I was previously willing to concede. Turns out, practically everyone I read and admire was either a lush or a drug addict: Hemingway’s liver, when he died at his own hand, was possibly bigger than his stomach; Kingsley Amis reportedly drank a bottle of whisky a day; Stephen King was so knocked up by drugs and alcohol that he wrote some of his books while in such a deep haze that he had no recollection later of writing them.
I am a big fan of Hunter Thompson famous for being the most accurate but least factual reporter. His brains were fried most of the time. But back in literature classes in college I’d no idea that Samuel Taylor Coleridge was so addicted to opium that it gave him insomnia and nightmares in equal measure, as well as colon paralysis leading to constipation so much so that he became addicted to good enemas as well. Alas, back in college I thought he partook only whenever he wanted to write poetry. Now I know he partook all the time. I knew F Scott Fitzgerald had a problem when I read the Crack Up, but what I didn’t know was when he was trying to stay sobre and cutting back, he stayed away from champagne and gin, limiting himself to only 30 bottles of beer. A day.
Malcolm Lowry was not so particular. He was, according to himself, “a drinker with a writing problem”; he wrote a lot but published very little. According to Peschel, the author of the classic Under the Volcano drank everything from gin to mescal “and, if nothing else was around, shaving lotion, mouthwash and formaldehyde”. He died drunk. Anton Chekhov was no big drinker but the last thing he murmured just before his tubercular death was, “I haven’t had champagne for a long time” as he polished off one final glass, offered to him in a gesture of a fond send-off.
William S Burroughs tried to do a William Tell act at one druggy drinking party. Shot full of heroin and hallucinogens, he asked his companion Joan Vollmer (also drunk) to pose sideways with a glass placed on her head. As their four-year-old son, and everyone else, watched, Burroughs took out a .38 calibre gun. Then, he “fired, missing the glass but not her head”. Thereafter, an autobiographical account of his drug addiction—Junkie—emerged. “Shoot the b***h and write a book, that’s what I did” he was to say much, much later. (I really love a band called Steely Dan, named after a character in his subsequent work, The Naked Lunch.) Raymond Chandler found he could write faster when he drank. In his later years, Paramount hired him to do a script to a deadline. “For eight days, Chandler drank, passed out, drank, and passed out again. Twice a day the doctor shot him up with vitamins and fed him glucose intravenously.” Chandler finished the job ahead of deadline but spent the next month in bed, recuperating.
William Faulkner, who took to drinking when he was 15, usually drank round the clock. “In the morning, he had to steady his hand against the wall to pour straight.”
Predictably, all ended badly. So there’s probably a moral there somewhere and possibly a lesson as well.