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the story behind the book

Olivia Laing delves into the myth of writing, drinking

David Wilson for the boston globe

In her new book, “A Trip to Echo Spring,” English writer Olivia Laing chronicles six American writers whose alcoholism and literary work were deeply, often devastatingly, intertwined. The subject fascinated her for personal reasons.

“I grew up in an alcoholic family myself,” Laing answered simply. At 17 she read “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” by Tennessee Williams and found herself struck by the playwright’s portrayal of drinking and addiction. “That play really struck me hard,” Laing said. “After awhile, it dawned on me that many of the writers who’d written so well about alcohol had suffered from alcoholism themselves. It felt like a sort of hidden subject within literature.”

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Along with Williams, Laing focused on Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Berryman, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver. “They were all writers whose work I really loved,” Laing said. “I knew I was going to be dealing with very challenging elements of their lives, and so I wanted to be sure that they were people whose work I could genuinely celebrate.”

Some of the details she encountered took her aback — Carver assaulting his wife, for instance. “I went through stages of feeling like the work’s not worth it; these people are monstrous,” she said. “Then I came out of that again and re-encountered their humanity, particularly seeing the courage with which they tried to stop drinking.”

The idea that drinking and writing go together is one of America’s more enduring and seductive myths, Laing argues. “It’s a really 20th-century American male writer,” she said. “A lot of it has to do with machismo. Being a writer is something that requires sensitivity and softness. These men were sensitive and soft, and at the same time deeply invested in this kind of machismo.”

And yet, Laing pointed out, both Cheever and Carver wrote some of their best work after getting sober. Legends aside, Laing said, “Alcohol is really detrimental to creativity.”

Laing will read from her work Monday at 7 p.m. at Brookline Booksmith.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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