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An interview with novelist Sarah Shotland

Debut novel Junkette depicts addiction in New Orleans

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Fractured paragraphing: Sarah Shotland
  • Photo by Heather Mull
  • "Fractured paragraphing": Sarah Shotland

Sarah Shotland's striking debut novel, Junkette (White Gorilla Press), is an alternately lyrical and matter-of-fact account of a few months in the life of college-graduate junkie Claire, a twentysomething bartender in pre-Katrina New Orleans. In chapter 1, Claire says she's splitting for Boulder, Colo. But she can't bring herself to leave, and over 168 pages of episodic first-person narration, she deals with scoring, her job, her boyfriend and various characters in her neighborhood's heroin demimonde.

Shotland, a Dallas native, is a widely produced playwright who's also taught English in China. She now teaches in Chatham University's graduate writing program and at Pittsburgh's High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. She is co-founder and director of Words Without Walls, a local nonprofit that holds creative-writing classes for some 350 students in prisons, jails and rehab centers. "The possibilities of who you can teach writing to are pretty endless," she says.

Shotland lives in Friendship. She recently spoke with CP.

How does your writing relate to your Words Without Walls work?

I'm definitely as a writer and as a person interested in disaster, and how people deal with disaster in different ways, especially the disasters that happen on the weather of your insides. Definitely the content of Junkette ... would be similar to what a lot of my students at Sojourner House especially — because it's all women addicts — are writing about. And that was really interesting working in that environment while I was editing the book. Because it kind of made me realize how universal the experience is of being isolated, of feeling out of control. And also of feeling that you really love the people that you're around when you're in an addiction. Sort of like clinging to them.

Claire inhabits a very circumscribed world.

She loses the ability to see new things. She loses the ability to travel. That's really her lack of freedom. She can't leave this two-block radius. Even though through the whole book, she's saying, "I want to go to Colorado."

Why does the book's layout leave horizontal gaps between every paragraph?

On one hand, I think the sort of fractured paragraphing is just the way that addicts think. And maybe more than just addicts! We're all always thinking of a couple different things at the same time.

What about how the book toggles between procedural passages — the how-tos of getting a fix —and lyrical ones?

I think I intentionally do that. I think for better, for worse as a woman writer, I sort of carry the fear that people will criticize my work for being somehow too lyrical, or hiding behind lyricism. And one of the things that was a big challenge for me in revisions of this book was cutting through that, and really saying it straight. Saying it to the point. And a lot of the things that a lot of these characters are dealing with are striking enough on their own, just to say them.

And also I think it mirrors her own sort of conflict between, "Who do I want to be? Do I want to live in this world that's gonna make me hard?" And she sees Suzette getting beaten by her son, she knows, "I'm not hard enough to live in this world. I don't wanna live here. I want to be able to appreciate beauty. I want to be able to admit when I'm scared." [But] she also wants acceptance in that world. She wants to impress her older boyfriend — be part of the family. So I think, hopefully, the contrast of the styles is also Claire's back-and-forth in shaping her own identity.

How autobiographical is Junkette?

I would say that there are certainly autobiographical elements to the novel. I have had experiences with addiction. However, I always say, I was sort of a boring addict. I really liked to take baths and read novels, which is what I like to do now, too. So the plot is not at all autobiographical. But the internal experience of addiction, of feeling isolated, of being in inner chaos, is very autobiographical, and probably true of many experiences beyond heroin addiction. And a lot of the characters are certainly collages of different people I knew in New Orleans. But my life was never so ... eventful. [Laughs]

And you're letting Claire live on.

I'm doing this postcard project. If you buy the book from me at a reading, or just email me or Facebook me and request a postcard, I'll send you a postcard. And I'm asking people to send Claire their questions. I scan the postcards and I upload them on my website, and I write back in Claire's voice. I have about 30 postcards now, and I want to collect more. It's been a fun way to keep the book alive past the last page.


Junkette Excerpt

Claire tries to kick heroin:

The back and forth subsides and I can smoke a little Afghani and drink a little sip of Evan Williams and hope the wave will last. I feel like I could sit up and make a phone call or walk to the bathroom or turn the page in the book, that's when my mind starts in, and what passes for logic starts churning. Chip's right there. No point in going cold turkey, no one's done that since the 70s. You've already started to wean. Then the rehab stuff starts to morph. We didn't become addicted in one day, so easy does it. That's right. Easy does it. I shouldn't try to get clean in one day. How about one bag a day? One bag a day is affordable. One bag a day is totally acceptable. Totally workable. Totally totally what I should do. One bag a day. Then half a bag a day. Then a shot a day. Then I'll move to Nicaragua and teach English and smoke hash on the beach. That's what will happen. One bag a day. It's almost like one day at a time. That's the most reassuring part of the whole bullshit. Seems like the way I already operate — the way we all operate. I'm practically in recovery already. One bag at a time.


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