Memoirville

INTERVIEW: James Salant, recovering meth addict/memoirist

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2007

By piper

By Whitney Joiner

First-time memoirist James Salant grew up with a classic upper-middle-class family in James_Salant_7.JPGPrinceton, New Jersey: therapist mom, psychoanalyst father, and an older brother with a penchant for drugs and petty crime. At 15, following his brother Joe’s footsteps, Jim smokes his first joint. Then in an astonishingly quick turn of events, Jim transforms from a self-proclaimed mama’s boy to a junkie. “At seventeen, I’d been arrested once for pot,” he writes in his debut, Leaving Dirty Jersey (Simon Spotlight Entertainment). Read an excerpt here. “My parents had sent me to a month-long wilderness rehab in Montana, and I was using and selling coke, Ecstasy, and LSD.”

Hoping to avoid jail, 19-year-old Jim enters another rehab—this time for heroin addiction—outside of Riverside, California, where popularity often depends on who’s done serious time.

After a few weeks, he re-enters the outside world in Riverside, pledging to stay clean. Instead, he tries crystal meth and is instantly hooked. Obsessed with simultaneously divorcing himself from his comfy liberal background and repping a street-tough myth of his home state, he tattoos his left arm with his moniker: “Dirty Jersey.”

With its drug-crazed paranoids and criminals, scenes of anonymous sex and endless searches for a better high, Leaving Dirty Jersey is Salant’s remarkably unglamorous account of the meth-fueled year he spent in motel rooms and trailers throughout Riverside—-and a breakup letter to the tough kid he so desperately needed to be. Now 23, Jim has been clean for three and a half years.A Crystal Meth Memoir

As a kid, you weren’t an avid writer or reader, but you wrote Leaving Dirty Jersey immediately after cleaning up. When did you start thinking about writing a memoir?

I started writing it directly after I got out of rehab. As I describe in the book, my identity throughout high school was as a junkie. So I didn’t study anything; I didn’t learn anything. And that’s who I was up until 19, 20, when I was actually forced to get clean. One of the more difficult things about getting clean is that you’re not anything besides [a junkie]. I was a blank slate, and grasping for whatever I could to make me feel better about myself—some kind of hand in life; some kind of identity. And writing fit that perfectly. I started writing, and I thought it was the best thing in the world—I thought I was now a writer. And that’s where I was, essentially, just getting out of the program. I went into it with all the same energy that I’d gone into drugs; I found it comforting. Luckily, I also had a few people who could tell me, “Hey, you also have to read, you can’t just write. And no, your writing’s not the best thing in the world. In fact, it quite sucks.” I was determined enough to learn from there.

So you went through a process of educating yourself. Who was supporting you, and what kinds of things were you reading?
My mom brought a collection of George Orwell essays to rehab, and that made me fall in love with writing. She continued supplying me with books: Russian literature, Crime and Punishment. And then my uncle, who’s an editor at Doubleday, started recommending more contemporary stuff: Philip Roth, Tobias Wolff. And I really got into that. I showed him my writing, and he told me, very gently, how much it sucked. [Laughs.] And we started working together.

He helped you develop it into an actual manuscript?
Yes, this is before the book was actually a book: I was just writing episodically about stuff that had happened. Aside from working, that was all I did, especially the first year. It was very regimented and structured: I’d go to work, then I’d work out, and then I’d read and write for the rest of the night.

He started working with me about three months after rehab, and then we worked on the writing for maybe a year or so. Around that time, I was lucky enough to meet an agent at a party, and it actually took shape and I found a voice. That’s when I started writing the book proper. I put together sample chapters and sent them in; I was waiting for my first rejection letter, which I was going to frame. But they actually liked it.

It must have been incredibly intense to go back and relive this period.
It was a double whammy. It’s hard to get something down on the page, even if you have it clear in your memory, and it was all pretty recent. So I would write something and re-read it and say, Wait, that’s not how it happened at all. It took a lot of rewriting to get it clear so that it was kind of settled in my mind. And then for the emotions to work themselves out: I’d be writing about somebody and I’d be absolutely furious at them. And I wouldn’t be able to finish the scene until months and months later, because I was so emotionally tied up with people.It was a double whammy. It’s hard to get something down on the page, even if you have it clear in your memory, and it was all pretty recent. So I would write something and re-read it and say, Wait, not how it happened at all. It took a lot of rewriting to get it clear so that it was kind of settled in my mind. And then for the emotions to work themselves out: I’d be writing about somebody and I’d be absolutely furious at them. And I wouldn’t be able to finish the scene until months and months later, because I was so emotionally tied up with people.

Were there times when you got so caught up in reliving your experience or the emotional intensity that you thought, I can’t do this anymore, this might take me back down this road?
I was pretty hard-headed; it had to be done. When I first started and I just thought I was the best thing in the world, I just naturally assumed that the book would be published: you write a book and it gets published. Then when I started reading more and I found out how hard it is and how hard people work for it, I just assumed that there was no way in the world that it would be published. But by that time I’d developed enough of a respect and love for writing itself that I thought it was valuable in just doing it by itself. So I just kind of plugged through.

The coddled life leading to drugs and then recovery/redemption has been told before. How is your story unique?
I don’t know what difference it makes that the coddled life to drugs to recovery story has been done before. So have stories about relationships. Lots of kids are still trading affluence for squalor, people want to know why, and since nobody’s going to have one definitive answer, it seems to me the more stories the better—the closer we come to understanding.

Still, I guess a book should introduce something new. And as far as I know LDJ is the first to describe the meth world through a coming-of-age story about wanting to be tough. Living in Princeton, I wanted to be tough the way most kids want to get into Harvard, and then all of a sudden, at 19, I was sent 3,000 miles from home to live with people who’d actually been to the Harvard-for-tough-guys: Chino State Prison. I don’t know that that story has been told before.

Can you talk more about the emotional impact of working on it? Was it healing? Painful? Embarrassing?
Those three sum it up. It was painful writing it—really painful—especially the stuff towards the end. And trying to figure out what happened and where I stand morally in terms of what happened.

It was intense. I wanted to explore as much as I could and intensely as I could, and at the same time, get away from it as much as possible. And at this point, just about now, it seems very much over. With the book being on shelves, drugs aren’t a draw at all anymore. They haven’t been for a while. It really seems like it’s over.

Throughout the book, your parents continue to support you—they send you money whenever you ask—while you’re lying to them the entire time about what you’re doing. What was their reaction?

They were great. The whole way through they were nothing but gracious when it came to the writing. And it’s kind of not really fair to them, because I say how great they are in the epilogue—when I come home—but I kind of come down on them hard throughout the book. I spend some time looking for causes, and they, being the parents, definitely factored in. I say that they could’ve been tougher on me; they were too lenient and I was able to play their game, and I say that kind of contributed to my becoming a junkie. But in the end, it was exactly that kind of open-minded liberalness, just loving, just being willing to take me in and put up with pretty much everything unconditionally—that’s exactly what I needed at that end. And that extended to the writing of the book. They were as close to perfect as they could be. After having lived it, reading it was more of a relief than anything else.

Who do you hope reads Leaving Dirty Jersey?
I hadn’t thought about that when I was writing it, since I didn’t know there was going to be an audience. Kids…although, when I think back to where I was when I started using drugs, I don’t think there was a book that could’ve helped. But maybe someone who’s kind of on the fence. I think it’s valuable to explore that world and reveal it for as banal as it actually is.

Right. Crystal meth, in particular, isn’t glamorous at all.
It’s not glamorous! But it was so glamorous to me throughout. When you step back, it’s really boring, and the people are all really lame. I’m meeting people and I think they’re the coolest thing in the world, but they’re just as insecure as high school or middle school kids.

Do you worry about comparisons/accusations to a certain other badass tattooed recovering addict memoirist?

I still think that most people can tell the difference between an honest and a dishonest story, so in that sense I’m okay. But the Frey business has had an effect.

With memoir there’s a distinction, I think, between being honest and telling the truth. Being honest means sharing everything you think relevant to understanding your story, no matter how painful or embarrassing. Telling the truth, though, is simply impossible. I can’t know for sure what somebody was thinking on a given day, or even what somebody was wearing, but in order to make a narrative out of the events I have to fill in those details. So long as I’m honest, though, there’s no problem—people should understand, at least intuitively, because they do it all the time. People need a narrative to make sense of their own lives, so they extrapolate from what information they do have to come up with a story that feels close to the truth. In a sense, I’m doing publicly with my story what they do privately with theirs.

I think this is why people were so upset about Frey. If somebody you don’t really know lies to you, you don’t particularly care. But with Frey, people had invested a lot of trust. They trusted him with the huge responsibility of filling-in details in search of the truth, and he didn’t go for the truth. He lied on purpose. And I think writers were so upset, writing op-eds and whatnot, because they thought Frey might screw up this crucial, tacit agreement whereby readers expect writers not to be infallible but to do their best. For example, if I’d written this book before Frey and someone had asked me if everything in it was true, I could have said yes and not thought twice about it, assuming that any thinking person would know exactly what I meant. But now there’s an impulse to explain, to say, “Well, I obviously didn’t have a tape recorder on me, and I’m not sure so-and-so was really wearing shorts that day”—when all that should be taken for granted.

Can you talk a bit about why you chose this excerpt for SMITH?
In this scene I tried convey how drugs and violence actually converge in that world. Drugs are always there, as is the threat of violence. Junkies are ripping each other off and talking shit, and every second you’re expecting somebody to get hurt. But more often than not, it happens when you least expect it—in a haze, because of something you hadn’t even noticed. These guys had never had any problems with each other; I looked up to both of them and therefore was happy that they seemed to be getting along—so happy (and high) that it never occurred to me that they might start fighting for my admiration.

What’s your six-word memoir?
I shot meth into my dick.

Leaving Dirty Jersey
is available now.


Whitney Joiner was an editor at Seventeen and Salon, and now writes for both from her home in Marfa, Texas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Spin and ID.

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24 responses

  1. Perfecto says:

    I, for one, hope to see many more interviews by Whitney Joiner in this space. She has a knack for establishing personal rapport and asking the writerly question.

  2. Taylor says:

    OMG! this book is soooo f**king good!!! I’ve red it like three times and i love it more and more everytime i read it…..not like I’m a drugy or anything like that ;)

  3. shuanae says:

    goodness!!!!
    i love tis book…
    you could say im addicted lol
    i felt sad when reading it b/c
    i alwayz wondered what it wuld be like 2
    become a junkie
    and now because of mr Salant
    who is so hot [[seriously]]
    i think that its not so glamerous after all

  4. richard O’Bar says:

    james im a recovering meth addict i ve been clean for about three years i just read youre book its 4:39 in the morning i bought it on amazon 3 days ago i just loved this book its the second book ive read in my life and im 27 years old man i loved it it really hit home

  5. jordan s. says:

    holy s*** guy! this book is truly amazing!!! i luv these kinds of books, thyre like, my favorite things to read. i’ve neva done drugs and i’ve wondered about them, but i think its safer to just read them…lol. hey, salant, your a one true survivor. i want to give you props. p.s ur writing doesn’t suck…not suckin up either.

  6. Karen Jacobs says:

    hey, i am also a recovery addict and live in South Africa, Cape Town, where there is a huge meth problem. I have been clean close to 2 years now. Some of the things that are written in the book i can so identify with - its scary and must say it takes me back to time when I was using. I feel immense guilt when I read about all the lying to the parents - such a reminder and a place I dont want to go back too. well done.

  7. Shivahn says:

    I absolutely love this book! My friend gave it to me when I told her I was using and wanted and needed to stop. She gave me this book and said read this and it will help you and you will do the same thing I’m doing with it, passing it to a friend! It is now circulating around my entire NA group and I’ve been clean for 20 days and counting!! I thank James Salant for saving me and my 2 yr old little boy. He has his mommy back!!

  8. Jack says:

    Massive prop’s on this book man, Its really opend my eyes on what a life like this would be like and its good to hear that your staying clean.

  9. kat says:

    I took my first shot of heroin just 2 months ago and already i’m addicted.i’ve just lost my job and been kicked out of home.Just finished reading this book and it’s really opened my eyes although i don’t feel ready 2 get help at the moment.

  10. Lauren says:

    I was in Borders a couple days ago and I picked up your book randomly, I’m not a big reader, I read the first page and was hooked. It really is addictive. The past nights I’ve been up till 2 in the morning reading it. I think it’s a truly amazing memoir especially because i live 15 minutes away from Princeton, NJ and I know the Princeton shopping center and I know how the kids are in Princeton. It’s crazy to think someone from princeton has gone through all of this. This book is also written very very well, it’s kind of crazy to think an ex-junkie could write this well. I’m recommending this book to all of my friends.

  11. Olena says:

    I actually picked this book up at a random bookstore in Philly. Being a Jersey Girl, I was immediately intrigued. I read the book in a matter of days. I have to agree that it was addicting. It was almost exhausting reading the writer’s experiences. It was crude, vulgar and to the point. LOVE IT LOVE IT LOVE IT

  12. Sarah says:

    I am planning on getting this book for my friend and love of my life who just kicked a six year habit of Meth. I have seen his ups and downs, what a “RollerCoaster Ride.” Now as each day goes by he is gaining control of his life and I can see the hope and strength in his eyes. I am so very proud of him and all of you that have fought for the life that we are all blessed with. Cherish every moment we are given because the time is passing by! Your reviews rocked, thanks to everyone and “Stay Sane and Sober.”

  13. Traci Jennings says:

    I am amazed, appriciative, enertained… just some of the words to describe experiencing the work you’ve put out for us to read. I read a million lil pieces n despite all the crap over it, love it and was looking for more material in that subject. only comparing in that it grabs me, inspires me and fulfils my reading wants. Leaving Dirty Jersy was the perfect find. I feel I’m a part of it as I’m reading it, like I’m there. exeptional!!

  14. pradyut says:

    not much knowledge on this in india but as im interested in studying drug addiction these facts help me understand the psychology of the addicts as well as the trauma which the family has to go through because of their realtives or children….

  15. sheltonsmith` says:

    Hi
    well this forum has the total giving look which makes it a well informer website or web blog. Thanks for making such a beautiful blog
    ————–
    smith
    Crystal Meth Addiction

  16. dolli says:

    Hero underground was a better drugy book. James story angers me. Fucking spoiled ass white kid who put his parents through hell should fucking grow up finally. Your story was trash boo…

  17. pina says:

    I really enjoyed this book, because it seemed very real. I’ve read it a couple of days. Not only I was very moved by writers experiences, but also felt very sorry for his parents. I think that people have this perception that meth is a problem of working class people- but unfortunately it reaches all the way up to the suburbs…..
    Good job James!

  18. Amanda says:

    I love this book I have been telling all my friends about it. I am really into stories about recovering addicts considering my mom is one. This story was great. It’s the first book I have read since seventh grade and now I am a freshman in college.

  19. Kayla says:

    I had to read a book for psychology, a non fictional story. Reading is something i do all the time, i read about a book a day, but i wanted something really really good for my psychology book report. I found this book on amazon, and it was just amazing. i read alot of memoirs, for some reason, im drawn to them. this is probley my favorite ive read in a long time, and thats saying something, because i have a new favorite everday.

  20. Phoebe says:

    Being from Dirty Jersey myself and a in and out of recovery addict i can totally relate to your story, my brother who also spent years in and out of rehab, jail, drugs crazy things whos in the process of writing sa book about his life, had reomneded it. Truely amazing and powerful story. Thank you for getting clean and writting about it! iIve always wanted to be a writer and while goign through my hopefully last detox i picked up a pen and started to write my story down You’ve totally inspiered me.
    Write another one!

  21. giselle says:

    This book was so dope I finished reading and it left me speechless ive truly got inspired and I love it I couldn’t belive how you got through it especially towards the end it was so sad it touched me makes me think twice about my life and how I don’t want to go the bad way I give it a two thumbs up and encourage for evryone to read it :] stay up!

  22. sherrie says:

    well done. you are a very very brave and honest person. that must have been very hard for you to not just be honest with yourself, but to be honest with the rest of the world. my almost 17 yr old daughter read your book and then passed it on to me. not quite finished it yet, but i still love you anyway.you are a very handsome man. dont worry, im just over 40 and have been more than happily married for .over 20 yrs. im hoping your book will make my baby understand
    wots out there and how much it can fuck up your life. no offence to you handsome man, just be good and be happy and safe. i wish only the best for you and yours. thankyou jimmy. you did so good.

    .xxx

    .dont

    ……………………………………go n.ear ……..m.y gi

    .rl

    .

  23. Bry from P-town says:

    Yo Jim! Great book bro. Happy to hear things are going good for you.

  24. Dogbrainz says:

    Nice interview, all the right questions.
    Salants book is the most honest addiction memior I’ve read, it’s a well needed account of a modern drug problem that is relatively new to most countries. In Australia meth (in it’s crystalised form) has only existed since about 2000, most people know very little about it, and should know more

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