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Paul Kix: Hello and welcome to another episode of Now That's a Great Story, the podcast where we break down a single piece of artistic work and discuss what makes it so great and sort of tangentially provide a roadmap for how you, too, can be as creative. I'm your host Paul Kix. Today I'm on with an old friend and colleague Sarah Hepola, author of the New York Times best-selling memoir Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget. We're going to be talking about one of the most harrowing chapters of a book: a magazine assignment in Paris that went awry you might say Sarah its first it's great to have you on the show.
Sarah Hepola: Ah, it’s good to be here.
Paul Kix: Okay, so the chapter we’re going to discuss is dark and so brutally honest at times, but it's also really personable and even funny it's kind of like you know when I was reading that chapter in the book as a whole it's kind of like to see who you are as a person so I'm wondering when did you gain the confidence to put on the page the woman you are in real life.
Sarah Hepola: Hmm. Well, that's an interesting question. I mean that assumes that I did -- and if I did that's good. You know that's what I was trying to do this more than anything I've ever written before. I'm trying to peel back the mask of performance and sometimes writing can be a performance. It can be -- and I think it was a performance I was good at. You know, it's something about you -- you really control the level that you get to let people see you as you want to be seen, and I think this was the chapter where more than any of the other chapters I wanted people to see me as it really was so that it begins in a certain. you know, the chapter begins optimistically. you know, like, I'm going to Paris on a magazine assignment. This is great! This is awesome! And then it unravels in a way that is beyond my control. I lost the thread of your question. You asked me when I got the confidence to do that, I mean, I think writing this was an attempt to to earn that on what you just said to me like I wanted to show people as I really was. I felt like vulnerability was the key to this book. I felt like vulnerability was a key to explaining the difference between the person you wanted to be and a person you really were and so I I think I've been trying to do that for years, but it's still hard because this is a very personal book and it means that if you don't like this book I sometimes can take that very personally you know? It’s like you don't like me.
Paul Kix: Yeah, you don’t like me. Yes and so there's -- well, first off that idea that this is a performance. It's something that's interesting. I've spoken with James Parker a columnist at the Atlantic and he said it's something that that he himself heard from Anthony Lane the movie critic at the New Yorker which is all writing is performative and you’d be best to try to do it well. I don't know if there's a link that both of those guys are British, but but it's it's like -- and I mean it's in the best possible way I've known you for the hobos 15 years and what I enjoy about your company is that you're always kind of on. And it's just it's great to have conversations with you so I just want to spend it to the beat more on this so they say so you feel even going way back in the day when you were like a music critic, and you weren't being able to fully express who you were on the page because that sort of runs in the face of at least what I have seen through your work through all these years it's like you always been sort of not only on but like your kind of beginning to fully address who you are -- especially by the time you were writing your personal essays at salon, right?
Sarah Hepola: Right, well, I mean there’s a few things going on here. One of them is it that as a writer I've always wanted to collapse the difference between what -- I wanted, when people spend time with me, to be, like, oh you seem like the person I read in that story. And when they read the story, I want them to be, like, oh you sound like the person I was hanging out with the other night. Like, I wanted those to be sort of the same and I wanted the writing voice to sound like someone was talking, and I wanted the talking voice to sound like someone was writing -- if that makes any sense.
Paul Kix: Yeah, it does. Does it also tie in with… Go ahead. You finish.
Sarah Hepola: Well, I mean you were making this comment, you had said I didn’t feel like I was able to able to be myself. I don't think that's true at all. I think that in my real life at that time I was more invested in being a certain way which was always funny, and the reason that I wanted to always be funny is because, first of all, it’s an awesome way to be! I mean, like I love funny people and I love people that make -- you know, I have a very short attention span as the reader so I'm always looking for reasons to ditch a piece of writing because there's too many things in the world. And I know that the reader is doing that to me and so there is a part of me that's always reaching out and being like, what if I make you laugh? What if I tell you feel you this? What if I grab you by the collar? I think I’m -- probably if I have … one of my faults might be that I do that too much, and I think earlier in my career I think I tried too hard to be funny and what I mean is that some of the things weren’t funny.
Paul Kix: And you had the jazz hands out?
Sarah Hepola: Yeah, you know. I think jazz hands is a great way to think about it. I mean, I think I was kind of codename jacket for a little and that's fine. I was writing for an alternative newspaper about music and that's probably not the place to be talking about like existential despair or you know that the night that went wrong. But I think that as I tried to evolve as a human and as a writer I wanted to set aside the part of me that was so desperate to entertain. Because underneath that is an anxiety in a fear that I'm not good enough. I'm not good enough as a writer on my own to keep your attention so I know -- I'm aware of that part of me really Ii think it’s one of those things I would classify as a strength and a weakness about my writing. Is that I’m trying really hard to to be present that I have to be careful that I'm not doing not too much -- not pushing too hard for those will the result.
Paul Kix: Well, the result, at least here, is that this book as a whole and this chapter in particular is just compulsive, right? It's really hard to quit reading it, and it's to your great credit that you found a way on almost every page to make me laugh -- which is no easy feat especially as the chapter continues and then and also you, line by line -- I think it's just some of the some of the reviews but we’ll get to this a little bit, too, it's like you're just a great writer and there's this line that Updike had a line like, “how to give the mundane its beautiful,” due and you find ways to do this over and over and over again.
Sarah Hepola: Thank you! I appreciate all these compliments! I just want to be clear with you. I love that. (Laughter.) In case you were wondering if I am uncomfortable by that, I’m not at all.
Paul Kix: (Laughter.) You’re not in the least, no. My wife is like that as well, “Oh, I do like compliments! Yes!”
Sarah Hepola: Wow! Really, I would have -- a had no idea there were going to be so many of those here. I would have worn something different, you know?
Paul Kix: All right, so when you're writing a memoir do you have any reservations about writing this chapter in particular I think was actually.
Sarah Hepola: Oh, yes. This one in particular I think was actually the hardest one to write and I think it made me kind of sick to my stomach to write it. And you know people always say because my book is about something that’s difficult, which is my drinking problem. People often say to me, like, it must have been really hard to write and it's, like, no. I mean writing is really hard. Period. I think -- I actually think that this was a good. I enjoyed writing about this because it gave me a sense of control over something that had felt uncontrollable me which I think is one of the things that I'm drawn to as a subject. You know things that felt like I couldn't control them I get to control them in the narrative space and so as a blackout drinker, gosh, I didn't know what I have done the night before so, like, getting to the kind of fiddle the dials and control the way that people see me? Well, that's what I wanted all along so in some ways that the rest of the book was with much more pleasurable. But this chapter in particular was really tough for me only because an unresolved story in my own life. It it is kind of a messed up drinking story but I was very clear that I didn't want it to come out -- like I wanted it to have all four seasons, right? Like if it were only funny I would feel like I failed and if it was only scary or sad, I would feel like I failed. And I wanted it to have all the elements. I wanted it to be funny and absurd but also have dread and also frustration and despair because I felt like that was what a drinking story should be -- that it should have all those different colors or moods.
Paul Kix: Your pulling that off, Sarah, not only in paragraphs but in individual sentences, too. So let’s actually dig into it. Without further ado -- so it starts and you get this call from an editor and your, “giving sleep a second chance at 11 a.m.” so aside from that being a clever line, I'm wondering if you're hungover, right?
Sarah Hepola: I'm so hungover and one of the things about my drinking is that I can't -- I would always wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning and this is something that people maybe don't know about drinking but should -- that’s it’s a huge disruptor to your sleep cycle and so I had this horrible problem where I wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning and then I would be up for hours so I would finally go back to sleep around 10 or 11, which I did very commonly.
Paul Kix: And how often -- for how long you be able to sleep after that? Let’s say you are able to get to sleep. Are you sleeping until, like, the afternoon?
Sarah Hepola: No, like an hour or two. Like it was usually just like us like a small power nap that was then like help me feel like I was kind of right sided during the day. You know because I would just feel so shaky when I woke up. It’s one -- it’s bad enough to be hungover but then on top of that if you're sleep deprived it's like this extra level of deficiency.
Paul Kix: So you get this assignment is for this inflight magazine in the job is to interview the host of a reality show. You don't name the reality show, but it's fair to say it's The Bachelor?
Sarah Hepola: Yeah. I don’t know why I never named the reality show either except that it -- maybe I had a hard like the absurdity of just being, like, I’m interviewing the host of The Bachelor was just so absurd I just somehow found it more interesting to describe the reality show because -- I mean obviously most everybody is going to know what this show is because I’m talking about the catchphrase is the final rose and it’s all these women are competing to marry this guy, I don’t know -- anyway I was reading it again today, and I was, like, that’s a strange thing that I did not naming it, but I did that. I made that choice.
Paul Kix: All right. So you accept and you get on the plane and I actually want to -- you were saying a minute ago about all the different the range of emotions; the range of seasons that you wanted to experience in the course of any chapter and here’s a chapter in particular that I found it to just carry a lot. Okay, so you're on the plane. “I was nervous about the plane ride. I'm a clutch of armrests, a spinner of catastrophes. I have terrible control issues when it comes to letting someone pilot me across a vast and churning ocean. A point arrives in every flight when I fight the urge to bolt into the aisle and scream, ‘we’re in the clouds, people! This can't last!’ But I popped my sleeping pill and drank two viles of wine. Drinking on a plane is a line-item veto in the ‘Never Drink Alone Rulebook.’ Everyone drinks alone on a plane.” So there's a lot of different emotions and ranges is going on there but I have kind of a technical question for you which is who are the people you read who are as funny and lively as you are in that passage?
Sarah Hepola: Oh, you know I think the writers that I really loved and fell in love with our people like Chuck Klosterman who’d be one of them. Jonathan Safran Foer, Dave Eggers. People that -- like I remember reading those guys and the way that they would push funny things up against mundane things -- it was eye opening to me. Those three authors I was reading a lot in my twenties.
Paul Kix: I was going to say because all those guys first hit the scene about 10, 15, 20 years ago, right?
Sarah Hepola: Twenty years ago. And I think they were all around at the beginning of my writing career, and that's why they made such a big impression on me. You know, they were doing something that I wanted to do so I saw in their words, like, who I wanted to be when I grew up, you know? And I would read them and I would be like, oh, that’s the feeling I want to give somebody -- is that feeling of I see myself I'm laughing because I recognize that I do that and then maybe there's a phrase or two that's kind of like I've never thought of it that way it is really funny. So yes those were the guys that really shaped the way that I write because yeah I was I was probably 23-25 during those years. and that's what I'm just wondering like who do I want to sound like who I want to be.
Paul Kix: Yeah, okay. So your first day in Paris, you get to play tourist for a little bit and you end up at a cafe and you order a glass of Bordeaux and even though you know that you shouldn't do this; even though you know we should be drinking alone, you justify it because you say the wine is actually cheaper than a coffee. And then, if I can, I'd like to do is just sort of a rip-off what you said again which is, “and so I sipped my one glass of red wine just one and I let It roll along the sandpaper of my tongue, and the wine was better this way. Tiny sips. And it floated through my bloodstream like a warm front, and it would not be an overstatement to say this felt like the very point of existence: to savor each moment. Then I ordered another glass.” What I love about this and it's kind of another technical question is just that slight edge of foreboding there at the very end and is somewhat similar question from whom did you learn this?
Sarah Hepola: Well, I can -- let me answer the first part first or address the first part which is. I wanted the beginning of this chapter to have that little sense of dread and foreboding, you know, This is somebody who's going on the trip of a lifetime and she thinks that it's you, know, the best thing that's ever happened to her but it's going to unravel. She doesn't know that yet, and I think I was thinking a lot about scenes of people bottoming out in addiction memoirs or in movies or in anything like that. And it seems like it always happens like people are like I'm going to go get wasted! And then -- or they go out and then these things gol off the rails so quickly. I wanted to give the sense of what a slow careless, drift can be. You know there's no point in my life where I am going out to get wasted -- I'm actually I think that I'm having the time of my life. And I remember so well sitting in that Cafe in Paris -- I can see it in my mind right now -- and I remember how lucky I felt and the drinking really was the primary joy of my life for much of my life. I never would have given it up if I didn’t feel like I had to and I wanted to pay tribute to what a pure, beautiful joy it felt like just sitting in this cafe in Paris and I think everyone has this feeling when theyr’e traveling that’s just, like, my life could be so perfect if I lived here, if i got to drink a glass of wine everyday -- everything would be so great, this is so perfect! I’m so lucky! You know, and yet I just can’t help but get another glass. Like there’s just a little bit of that, like, DUH-DUH-DAAAAAH at the end of that because it’s, like, I can’t -- you know, you’re savoring the moment and you just can’t help doubling down. You know. It’s such a tough thing. I don’t know where I learned that. I’d have to think more about that. I often don’t learn much of anything although I feel certain I’m imitating people at all times and if I’m successful it’s because I’ve successfully interpolated all these people and kept you off the trail of how many voices I’ve kind of combined inside myself. You know, but, yeah, I don’t know who does that. I remember, though, that this was a chapter that I carefully edited and so there was a very deliberate, like, pacing, so it was like I wanted to end each part with a tiny little cliffhanger.
Paul Kix: Yeah, and each section is building on the last. It’s pretty -- it isn’t as through any of the book is poorly thought out or poorly edited, but part of the reason why I wanted to discuss this one in particular, again, there is a propulsive force this chapter in particular, and there is something that it is obvious that you are saying this at this point for a reason and it’s going to build to something else.
Sarah Hepola: Yes.
Paul Kix: So all right. You meet the host of this show and his wife and there's a bottle of red wine with dinner and then another bottle back in their apartment -- and by the time he asks about opening a third bottle you beg off because you're able to read the room and kind of see that you should probably go. His wife is red-rimmed, has red-rimmed eyes and she's been putting the kids to bed by the way while you two have been chatting. And the wife the wife agrees a little bit too quickly you say, so I'm wondering do you realize in that moment that you've been annoying her all night?
Sarah Hepola: That was, like, this moment that -- you know, I never had any sense this might be really obnoxious: that I'm at this married couples house, and she's putting the kids to bed and I'm hanging out with her husband and talking. Like all we're doing is drinking and I'm getting his full attention and maybe she might like his attention and he's about to open another bottle of wine and continue this, like, people have asked me if I thought Chris Harrison -- who’s obviously the person that I’m referring to there -- was flirting with me I don't know neccessarily he was flirting with me. I think they were in Paris and they were really hungry for company but she -- as what often happens with a married couple -- she’s having to do the difficult work of putting… You know, she’s had to negotiate the children all night. I've been interviewing him for a story. He’s gotten to be in the spotlight and the recipient of my attention all night long. She's meanwhile, you know, been cleaning up the messes and doing all this stuff that's not as fun so that he can have this uninterrupted time with me and basically at the time that’s she’s ready to enjoy time with him. he’s brought me back to continue this interview and we’re going to open another bottle. You know, it’s one of those things where I never paid attention to was I -- I always thought, well, I’m having a great time so everyone’s having a great time, and there’s this little moments that I can go back to and I can see someone’s face, because I’m actually -- as out of touch as a drinking person can be, I’ve always had a pretty intuitive sense of people’s moods And so there are these moments when you get a zap of another person’s and you’re, like, oh, this isn’t cool for them. And this was definitely one of those moments. And I was actually had a bunch of moments like that with someone else’s wife. And there’s a funny gender thing going on in there because guys that were drinking, and I’d be, like, oh, their wives don’t care! I have no idea if their wives care or not. Why do I feel like I can speak for their wives? And, like, you know, and even though I’m not flirting with their husbands? You know you’re drinking, you get loose, you start talking dirty. I think there were boundaries that I wasn’t necessarily aware of. And so this is a part of my own drinking life that I’m a little blind to. But sometimes you get that person who gives you a check and you go, “oh, hi! Time for me to leave now. Okay.” And, by the way, if I’d had been drunker I would have just stayed and it would have been two more bottles of wine and I would have had no idea how pissed she was.
Paul Kix: Okay. So that’s a good segway. And this next question is geared more about nerding out as a writer. So the next day you say you wake up and your full of possibility. And you go to meet Chris Harrison and he says something to you as you meet him that morning. He says, “I was paying for that last bottle this morning.” “I know,” I said. I didn’t feel that bad like I like the comradery of the hanger. He asked, “Did you do anything else last night?” “Nah;” I said, omitting the two glasses of wine that I had at the hotel bar.: So I love that nHereot only for that little back and forth but because you’re delaying information. Like you could have very easily said, oh, after I left the Harrison’s place that night I left and had two more glasses at the hotel bar, but you don’t say that. Instead, you sort of deliver that information when it’s most important. And I’m just sort of curious, is that something else that you’re editing in? Like, oh, maybe it could have gone in earlier but now I’m adding it here?
Sarah Hepola: I know that I wanted the reader to watch me lie twice. I mean, first of all that's how that conversation happened. That’s the first thing. That is actually a basic -- my memory transcription of that conversation but was interesting to me about the conversation is that I lie ti him twice and I lie needlessly. The first lie is that I have a hangover when I don't -- like why do you do that? I did it because I didn't want him to feel alone and so it's like I liked it when people were like, oh, I’m hurting. Oh, I’m hurting, too! Oh, we’re both in this together. Well, if he knows I’m actually feeling pretty good, then he's going to feel left out so I needlessly -- or maybe I felt needful in that lie in the moment I think that’s interesting -- that I wanted him to know that he wasn't alone in that. And then the other second needless lie or the other line is I don't tell him that I stopped at the hotel bar and had two drinks alone. And the reason I don't tell him that it's because I was worried that I would look like a loser doing that. I think I had a problem as a drinker -- it was it was a commonplace thing for me to leave an event and continue to drink on my own afterward. Like I often left bars in New York with friends, and then I would pick up a bottle of wine on the way home. And I had a pretty deep shame about that. You know, it seems to me that whatever everyone else needed I needed an extra two to four and that was something I wanted to keep to myself. It felt like I felt like volatile information so instead of having you walk through this shame with me, you know, I just wanted you to see me negotiate that pretty quickly and it felt like that would be an easier way to dispatch all the information which is to watch me lie.
Paul Kix: Yeah, that's really clever. It's really well done. All right, so now let's skip ahead. It's your last night in Paris, and this is where I'd like you to actually start taking over the storytelling itself. So if you can, just walk listeners through this. What's the first thing you do that last night in Paris?
Sarah Hepola: Yeah, so, I mean, it’s funny. This is the only place in the book where the reader kind of sinks into the everyday details of my life you know the rest of the book is pretty fast paced and so this is where you kind of watch me straight iron my hair and get ready and talk about what I'm going to wear so that makes me look thinner and all this stuff, you know, getting ready for the big night and I go to a friend's house. I have a friend that works at the international Herald-Tribune. She lives very close to the hotel that I'm staying at, and we go to a restaurant together, and the restaurant is one that I think, like, Fitzgerald and Hemingway really loved and so she thinks kind of touristy and of course I’m completely taken with the tourist cliches of it, and I think it’s, like, the most beautiful place ever. And actually it’s funny I went back to this place while I was doing research and it's not nearly as nice as he remembered it being, but in my memory it’s like the nicest restaurant -- so like all the romance of the evening was really working on me, and we drink cognac at her place and I had never had cognac and it’s so sophisticated. You know that's just one of these drinks. Sherry or Scotch, like, it's just a sophisticates drink and we had several. I think we had to glasses while we were at her place. We might have had three. I can't even remember, but we get there and then I'm just in full-on buzz mode. But you know when when I was in a drinking buzz, it felt to me like a little bit of a manic state. You know, like, I was really enthusiastic about everything that was really into everything and we’re ordering all this food, and I’m…
Paul Kix: And you’re telling her you love her and youre’ saying these things… Would you say those sort of things to her if you were sober?
Sarah Hepola: When I got drunk I became very aware that all my jealousy that I might have had when I was sober like thinking like somebody was prettier than me or smarter than me it would all turn into this thing of love -- of this, like, gushing love -- and I would always feel like, you're so beautiful! Do you know how beautiful you are? Like, I’ve never seen anyone speak French like you. Like, if I were a guy? I’d be in love with you right now. And like this is how women are with each other. Earlier in the book, I quote one of my favorite Onion headlines, “Drunk Women Validate the Living Shit Out of Each Other All Night,” or something like that. So this is what I would do -- and I would especially do with women I felt admiration for. And this woman Meredith -- who I continue to feel admiration for her. She’s just one of these incredible women, and so I get drunk enough to just start… almost like I'm hitting on them but I'm not because women feel safe with one another so even though you're doing things like stroking their hair and touching their hand, touching their leg, you know it all feels very safe. And you know this was just the way that I was with other women. I can't tell you the number of times I would wake up and have this number from a woman would you like your new BFF and it would be like her number written on a scrap of paper. And I’d be, like, who is that woman? I don’t know who she is!
Paul Kix: And you two or sort of exchanging sort of conspiratorial glances and I think that around like 11 or so at night you guys end up ordering another round of cognac and then... and then you go into your cab. And what happens at the cab?
Sarah Hepola: And so I get to the cab and that’s where the whole evening just starts to kind of strobe in and out because I'm getting to the point where my memory doesn't actually retain what's going on so what I'm trying to do in this section is to create a kind of stutter stop with the with the visual images so you get like the blur of the meter and the confusion about, like, I don’t know what these coins are in my lap. Like how do I pay with Euros? What's a Euro? You know, you're getting the derangement of being that drunk and there's actually somewhere around here where I shift in the present tense and it happens kind of subtly, so you don't necessarily notice that it's happening. But it’s meant to be a kind of turn of the screw where, you know, I'm no longer noticing. Like I'm not -- I'm not quite processing the entire moment. It’s just sort of happening to me so..
Paul Kix: And at a certain point you say -- this is towards the end, at the end when you get out -- the curtain descends. you know what happens next actually neither of us does.
Sarah Hepola: Yeah, and that’s a call back to the beginning of the book, you know, the opening of the book is a scene -- the reader has already experienced this scene where I’m on a magazine assignment, and I’ve come out of a blackout. And I’m in the middle of having sex with someone that I don’t know who he is. And that’s kind of where the story began, so something we haven’t really said is that part of the reason this chapter has such a kind of foreboding is because the reader already knows where some part of this story is going to end up. It’s going to end up with me on top of someone and not knowing where they came from. And we’ve not reached the part of the story where that black hole exists.
Paul Kix: That’s exactly where you pick up, though, right?
Sarah Hepola: Yeah, and I want to make one thing clear, which is that I didn’t -- you use the phrase “wake up,” and I was actually awake the whole time and this is something that’s actually extremely confusing and it actually became difficult to talk about the book because it almost felt lack we were lacking the right language. My memory goes offline. I can't remember what happened before I would guess about an hour or two. I often would say I woke up into consciousness or I woke, you know, but every time you use the word “wake” it makes it sound like you fell asleep. The reason that I think this is actually really important point -- and now we've reached the controversial section of this interview -- is because there's actually a difference in whether or not somebody is raped or whether or not we at least from a legal standpoint. You know, of course we can talk about emotional or moral standpoint from a legal standpoint there's a big difference between if you wake up and somebody’s having sex with you or if you're coming out of a blackout and you're having sex with someone. There’s issues of your own intention and your own kind of collusion in the activity and I think this is a place where a lot of people don't really understand the difference between blacking out and passing out or being asleep and being an agent in their own life in a way that they can't later remember. And it was something I really tried so hard to get right but like I said I almost feel like language fails me some time because it's such a strange thing but it's the best I can explain it is basically I went in -- my memory went into some kind of wormhole. So it disappears for about an hour or two and during that time I'm talking to someone, I'm meeting somebody but I don't remember what happened. So now I have no memory of that time whatsoever and when I came out of that blackpit I have no memory of it. And so I come out of this blackout and my awareness sort of is foggy at first like I was very confused. I was aware that I was on top of somebody and I was having sex with them but I didn't know who that person was and I have these very strange thoughts. And again this is the derangement of too much alcohol. You know, I started to think maybe this is the person I'm interviewing or maybe this is my boyfriend because, you know, surely I know this person because I'm having sex with them and so it's going to come to me in the second. You know, and I remember all of this very intensely -- and I’m talking about me, Sarah the person now. I remember this this sort of process of elimination I was going through like I'm looking down at this person beneath me like it's going to come to me a second who this person is but I -- but in the end I just want to play along. I just go along with, well I'm going to pretend like I know who this person is because it's been -- it becomes clear to me that he and I have been talking for a while and he knows me and so I'm just going to keep going with it. And so I realized what time it is about 2 a.m. and I make an escape from that room I do my best to kind of be like, oh, this was lovely! Thank you! You know, again, sort of the weird leave and I start heading toward the elevator and that’s when I realize I don’t have my purse with me. The purse was sort of the first alarm bell. I mean, obviously the alarm bells are when you’re in the bed with the guy you don’t know, but at that point in the story, I actually thought I had just escaped and wow another narrow escape! Hepola made it out! And then I realized I don’t have my purse. And then I turn around but I've passed so many doors at this point that I don't know where I came from and so I don't know whose door to knock on and so I'm just standing there looking at this long labyrinth of doors and I don't know what to do and so I knock on the door and nobody answers I knock on a different door and then I decided it was the first door and I pound on the door and nobody's coming and I don't and I just freaked out and I pretty much just have a breakdown in the middle of the hallway.
Paul Kix: And ultimately you decide, okay, well the only resolution here is probably to go down to the concierge desk and see if maybe somebody there can help me.
Sarah Hepola: Yeah, I basically realize that I’m going to have to own up to the fact that I just came out of a room I don’t know, with a person I don’t know. doing I don’t know what. I’m going to have to go and admit to the guy at the desk, like, I'm in this weird situation. I need you to help me. And so I go down and I do the thing of, like, straightening the skirt and wiping the makeup underneath your eyes and doing the thing, okay, I’m normal! Everything's normal! I look good, right? Okay! Let’s go! And I go down, and I talk to him, and I'm, like, you know, I just left my purse in someone's room, and he's like no problem. What room? I'll get it. I don't know. And he’s, like, no problem. What’s the guest? And at this point I realized that he… you know, that I realize that I'm having to admit to him basically what would have been going through my head at the time, like, what a ridiculous slut I am. You know, like, I have just slept with somebody that I don't even know who they are and now I've left my purse there and you're going to judge me for this and you're this normal sober person that working behind a desk and I'm somebody that just came out of like the weirdest situation of her life so… And then as we continue talking, he said, “we'll do you think it's the guy that you were talking to in the hotel bar? And I realize like oh my God this guy is going to know who it is because he saw me and so this is a weird thing you know. Earlier in the book I have a line that says blackout is like detective work on your own life.
Paul Kix: I was just going to bring this up Sarah because like there's you can play this for laughs as you do and as the movies, like The Hangover does, but then there's his other part of it where you're trying to piece this together, and it's like oddly mesmerizing to figure out what happened and you trying to figure out what exactly did I do? And how did I get here? And this is one of the chapters where perhaps that emotion is at its starkest. And there's just a lot of, like, I don't know. I just want to ask a question again: Is hard for you to put on the page and own this?
Sarah Hepola: The part that was really hard to put on the page was probably the last section which will talk about. And this part was actually -- because it engages almost like a puzzle… The movie Memento. Do you know the movie Memento?
Paul Kix: Yeah, yeah.
Sarah Hepola: Okay. It’s a brilliant movie and it's actually probably one of the best depiction of a hangover. I mean I'm sorry of a blackout because actually the case that that story is based on the case with the guys hippocampus was snipped. The hippocampus is what actually gets disabled in a blackout so what happens is that you sort of don't know what you just did and so Memento was a brilliant puzzle movie it's it's it's really hard to explain but you to me this part of the book felt like I was getting to do that I was able to recreate the puzzle... you trying to do the Rubik's cube of what you did three hours ago and it's such a bizarre scenario because there are so few situations in real life where you would actually have amnesia. amnesia is the kind of thing they have in novel or in soap operas, right? Like in soap operas, people have amnesia, and they’re, like, oh, I don’t know the day before. It’s like the biggest plot twist but for a blackout drinker it's actually true. You don't know what you did three hours ago and so I thought I was writing this particular section which is kind of like detective work on your own life and I really wanted the reader to watch me try to puzzle this together. They could realize how completely bizarre this is -- that you're having to basically... I'm having to go to this guy and say, oh, you saw me with this guy that means that's giving me the clue that I was in that hotel bar, which I didn't know before that moment. And it's so bizarre that... actually I was reading it this morning preparing for this I was thinking, I bet a lot of people get confused during the section because it's just such a really bizarre thing to watch somebody to not know their own life.
Paul Kix: The novelty… I was just going to say the novelty of it for me is the novelty of it for me is what actually what keeps me going there right it's like wow that's actually have somebody to have what you describe as amnesia, right? This blackout, oh I got to try to piece this together my own personal dignity be damned and so you do right so he's able to help you any and what does he tell you?
Sarah Hepola: Yeah, so he basically says, like, okay I'm going to figure out who this guy is. I want you to go back up to your room and relax, like, he was taking pity on me. He was really very sweet, and very kind, and I was doing the kind of lavish thing that I do when I'm feeling degraded which is, oh my God, thank you, you're my hero, you know, you're the best thing that's happened to me tonight, because I feel so low. I'm so embarrassed at where I'm at and so he says go up to your room and so I go up to my room and I’m so happy, like, this is finally going to get solved. You know, if I can't find my purse and my flight back to the states later that day I'm not going to get on the plane. It’s a whole ordeal that's going on. There’s a real ticking clock that’s going on and then I get up to my hotel and I walk inside and then my stupid bag is right there -- right inside the hotel which is kind of like WAAAH-WAAA.
Paul Kix: Which in itself is its own clue, right, because now it's like oh what were you thinking then?
Sarah Hepola: Oh, then so you have a new clue which now you have to revize your idea what happened that night so now I realize, okay, okay, okay. I know what happened, I came into the hotel, l I went up to my room, I decided my room was too quiet -- because I knew I did this a lot this was something very common to me that I would come home and feel like my ears were… it’s kind of like when you get off the roller coaster and you could still hear that the roller coaster you know when your body and I feel like it’s quiet in here I need to keep moving, and so I bet I came up here and I left my purse because I knew otherwise I would leave it somewhere and then I went downstairs and that's how I met the guy. So I'm basically putting together -- but, again, these are all theories. Because I still have no idea how that purse got to my room. But that’s my best guess for how it got into my room.
Paul Kix: And then something almost as shocking happens, which is that the concierge calls you. So what does he say?
Sarah Hepola: Yeah, so I get in bed and I put on pajamas, and I’m, like, oh, another narrow escape! You know? Like I’m going to actually talk to myself in real life like that but that is the feeling, you know, is that at everyone one of these turns there’s this sense of like I'm done with that, oh, whew. I’m done with that. it's over. And then the concierge calls me and says, yeah, there’s this leather jacket down here in there hotel bar. Do you think it’s yours? And I’m, like, oh, yeah, it’s totally mine. He’s, like, okay I'll bring it up to you. And so he brings it up and this is the scene that was really hard for me to write because I don't think I understand it in a lot of ways so but but but what happened was that he came up to my room and he walked inside my room and took a seat on the bed and as he’s talking to me and he's delivering that the jacket. And remember I’m feeling very indebted to this person and he's doing what I -- one reader told me described this guy’s behavior as sordid opportunism, which is really correct, you know. Like instead of being, like, here’s your jacket, good night, he comes in, and he's basically seeing that I'm available. And so he kind of makes the moves on me, and he starts talking about how when I cried earlier tonight it really upset him, and he wanted to help me, and he puts his hand out and I put my hand in it and like this whole thing, I’m sitting -- I remember thinking like, who’s downstairs? Like, who’s at the desk right now? You need to go back! You’re going to get in trouble! Like, don't stay here! I had this feeling like we're going to get in trouble which is very childlike and beside the point but it was very much where my mind was going at the time and instead of saying you know, like, hey this is uncool. You need to leave, I was, like, I'm really tired, you know, like, I don't feel very good. And then he gets this idea of well, I’ll help you feel better, you know, and pulled me towards him and he kisses me and then we lie in bed together and it's just this whole thing of, like, I don't want this at all and I don't know how to stop this and the easiest thing for me to do is going to just be going along with it and then there's this some part of me that is so scared and alone that I'm kind of grateful for it even in the -- at the same time that I feel repulsed by him. And I think that to me with the hardest, and I'm not, you know, it was a part that I'm not sure I really captured. When I was reading it today I felt like I could have stayed in this moment a little longer. Maybe it's just it's my still unresolved feeling of like not knowing what that was exactly because we're getting into very very tricky territory between men and women which is what is coercion and what is what is complicity and..
Paul Kix: And especially at this moment, right? Like your book came out in advance of Me Too but it certainly, like, yes this certainly at the intersection of a lot of different…
Sarah Hepola: That’s exactly right, and I didn’t know I was writing -- I think that one of the reasons a book caught on so much was because it came out at that time when people wanted to talk about that but I had no idea I was going to be writing that. I was just trying to write my experience to the... honest to the bone. I didn't want to put more blame on him than I thought he deserved and I didn't want to put more blame on myself than I thought I deserved.
Paul Kix: Well, I was just going to say he comes off is really creepy but at the same time like you -- this is, again, a real credit to you Sarah are you completely own this. “The confounding part is how good this feels. the truth is I like being held. I like not being alone anymore.” And when I read that my first time reading this book I've known you for fifteen years and I just honestly I just ached. I'm like oh, Sarah I didn't know it that bad.
Sarah Hepola: I know it's so sad and it's really like I think that's why that chapter is so hard for me because that is really sad and I -- I didn’t want to put that in there because that might not be how other people felt in that situation and you feel this weird, like, obligation to speak for other people that I really think what that moment had to be was about speaking for myself and I had not been able to speak for myself in that moment. And I think what's so weird about that scene is that it's bookended, like, there's two sex scenes in this night, right? And one of them is so much wilder and weirder than the other. The other one, like, I'm come out of the blackout and I’m totally naked and on top of this guy, and we’re horny and, you know, it's real. It's kind of like very dramatic but I have almost no feelings around that, and I'm not saying I didn't have them then, but I was certainly embarrassed that it happened but I didn't have any sense of like you know, feeling vulnerable or revealed because I don't remember what happened. So it's almost like there's no -- there's nothing there so I felt very detached about it it was like, well, that was just -- it's really weird thing that happened and I don't know how it happened and I don't know why it happened and I’m embarrassed that it happened but I don't know what the story was but this part -- which I do remember and which I did feel like I had choices, and I didn't take them and I don't know why I didn't take them, you know? Like that this was the part that was incredibly difficult for me to come to terms with to write about and I think ,you know, you describe the guy as creepy but he was -- but he also wasn't violent or menacing, Like I didn't have any doubt that I could have said get out of here but it didn't and I think understanding why women might not say that is really important and whether it's about social pressures internal pressures not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings. Whatever it is to me that's essential, you know, what is it in women that they feel like they can't say no. And I know for me I felt indebted to him because I had become so low in that moment and he had helped me and I felt like I owed him. I didn’t think he was going to be looking at me that way. I have always struggled with my weight and I have never really had had a sense of how attractive I am to a man which I think is really true for a lot of women and sometimes I wildly overestimate it and I think everyone in this room is hot for me and there’s not at all. And then sometimes I'm like nobody paying attention to me and I don't realize that men are. And I think this is one of these moments where I had no idea that this guy had been thinking of me that way because a lot of a lot of times in my life I thought guys were and they weren't so I felt really -- really corkscrew about that and the fact that that's how it turned out. I was tired, I wanted to get out of it and then at the same time there was also this crushed part of me that wanted to be held and wanted to be taken care of I think trying to get all that it’s almost like a crumpled tin can can of emotion like trying to get all of that into a few scenes was really tricky. And this was actually the chapter that would give me headaches when I read it -- when I wrote it. It would make me sick when I was editing it, and I don't mean -- I just I think that something very uncomfortable was happening in my body when I was revisiting this time in my life it just was a it's some combination that is feels uncontainable in some weird way,
Paul Kix: Yeah, there’s a final gut-punch to this. You're telling yourself I will never talk about this night with anybody and then you say, “real drunks wait and watch for the moment where they hit bottom. As I lay in my hotel bed, covers pulled my neck, I felt the gratitude of a woman who knows, finally, she is done. But I drank on the plane ride home and I drank for five more years.”
Sarah Hepola: Yeah you know I really wanted -- when you write a book about your drinking problem, one of the most common questions people get is, when did you know? When did you know that you had to stop? And we’ve so thoroughly absorbed this idea of the rock-bottom moment that I think people mistakenly believe there’s only one. Or that -- I mean, the answer to when did you know is there was about a hundred times. Like, you know and then you take it back. Like you know and then you convince yourself otherwise. I mean, it’s like anything. I think if you left a bad relationship, very rarely -- I don’t know. I think this also has to do with people’s personalities and they way they can rationalize themselves in and out of things and to me, my brain, is like the great spokesperson for, oh, well you were being dramatic. I think you can have another drink -- I could convince myself of something so thoroughly and then in four days unconvince myself. And I wanted people to see that you could have an epiphany and you could see something so clearly -- I mean this was so clear to me after that night, like this is it, I’m done. And then you could drink the next day, and you could spend the next five years trying to make that work. And I think the reason somebody like me tries so hard to make it work is because alcohol is so thoroughly a lifestyle. You know, it’s not -- we can talk about a physical addiction or a behavioral addiction. But the lifestyle element of it which is this is what I do with friends. And this is what I do when I’m bored. And this is what I do when I celebrate. And this what I do when I want to be sexual. Like all all of that is so thoroughly threaded in your life that to think of a life without it, you know, yes, you have a night like that and, okay, that’s it. I’m done. And then you kind of start to stare down the barrel of what that change would mean, and you’re, like, oh, never mind. And the thing about drinking is that it’s one of the great forgetting drugs. You know, I mean, it really, you take a couple of glasses of wine, and it’s like, oh, I don’t need to go to that thing. I’m not that worried about my story anymore. Like, I’m not -- it convinces you that drinking is a good idea whether you have a problem or not. It’s an incredibly coercive substance for most of us. I mean some people don't care about drinking and they take it or leave it and I think that’s an incredible position of power but for those of us that have a little bit of weakness. And I’m not talking about people who have problems, I’m talking about people who just like to drink. You know, that drinking sort of presents itself as the cure for your problem, right? Even if your problem happens to be drinking. It’s like how can I get away from the shame of drinking to much last night? Oh, I know, I could drink a little bit.
Paul Kix: The book is “Blackout, Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget.” I love this book. And I love you, Sarah. You’re great people.
Sarah Hepola: Aww. Thank you, Paul.
Paul Kix: Now That’s Great Story is produced by Jeff Willet. You can find me either here at Paulkix.com or on twitter, although I don’t check Twitter all that much. If you haven’t, read my book “The Saboteur.” I think Sarah’s bought many copies, right? Probably fair to say?
Sarah Hepola: Many. Dozens, yes.
Paul Kix: All right, then. Until next time everybody. Thanks so much.