Monday, February 7th, 2011
“It’s still a very fraught thing. There are people who haven’t read the book and fear that it’s an attack on my father. It’s still difficult for him to have this out there. It’s extremely brave of him to have trusted me to write it.”
Dave Itzkoff, author of Cocaine’s Son, laughs heartily when called a memoir vet. Itzkoff, writer at the culture desk of the New York Times and the lead contributor of ArtsBeat blog, recently published his second memoir, but the recondite writer still feels like he’s testing his voice.
While in some sections of Cocaine’s Son he seems emotionally driven, Itzkoff is not your average memoirst: it’s clear that he had made peace with the amazing and oftentimes heartbreaking situations he describes in the book. And the man is funny.
Itzkoff spoke to SMITH about the writerly process of taking an idea from a magazine article pitch to a full-blown memoir.Why do you include your female family members so briefly in your books? Your mother and wife aren’t in the picture.
There are a lot of different reasons why I chose their moments in the book. I think for some cases, they had their own experiences and they have a right not to be dragged into the story. This book is about my relationship with my father.
How did you push yourself to write this book?
There was an essay that I had written first for New York magazine in 2005. When I had pitched the article to them my father and I were still in the middle of our therapy sessions and I had specifically wanted to write about the the sessions. They asked me, why not write a broader essay about being a child of an addict? It was a satisfying experience to write about that. But I still wanted to tell that story of our therapy time together. When the opportunity for the book came up, the therapy sessions didn’t become the whole book, and I saw how the sessions would still be a major portion and that the book would evolve from that.
You write about how after the second date with your wife, Amy, you had an epiphany about how when meeting someone for the first time, you get to present a different window of yourself. How do you feel your voice in Cocaine’s Son is different from the voice in your first memoir, Lads?
It’s driven by the fact that the tone of the two stories is very different. With Lads, I could be more comedic. There was a huge comedic distance, especially in the magazine life portrayed. There’s humor in my life when compared to the magazine’s ideals and they’re basically pretty pathetic. Cocaine’s Son is about my father’s battle with addiction. Some moments have an unexpected comedy to them, but I didn’t want to treat it with the same light touch.
In many of the scenes of the book you take the reader directly into your mindset of the moment. How do you remember exactly? Is it like method acting?
There are certainly some moments that are very easy for me to recall, like being with him in Louisiana when we were traveling around the country. My dad and I wound up in a locker room and a Hasidic Jew told my dad that his circumcision was done wrong, without any provocation.
It’s easy to remember the frustration I have with him in many moments. I can relive the disappointment I felt with him. Then there is that scene when he asked if I was going to stop loving him and I hung up on him. I remember a fleeting satisfaction and the emotions that I felt after that.
You described the memories of your therapy sessions with your father as “charms hanging on a bracelet.” Is it hard to push aside your journalistic training as you go into your own personal writing?
I don’t think they are mutually exclusive in a lot of cases. With my childhood I had to reach. I had many interviews with my dad and there are certain things that would come out of his mouth and they would knock me on my ass and I wanted to get the language just right. Certain terms of phrase are indicative of him; those I wanted to get as precisely as I could. My dad’s arrest record has been told many times to me and I researched the tangible records of the arrest to pen down the one that took place.
I had him sit down at him and my mom’s house in the Catskills and talk me through his life story. That was done over a couple of days and I’m writing this down on these legal pads and there were lots of stories that I had never heard from him: specific instances of his drug use, like how he did not know about how to shoot himself up; there’s another story where he ties himself up and shoots up in front of his mother and tries to get her to do it.
Many memoir writers laud your book on its sleeves. Which one of those authors do you look up to and aspire to be like? What is your favorite writing style?
There are a number of people I would hope to emulate. Personally, I’m so tremendously thrilled that we got the blurb from David Sheff [Beautiful Boy] because he’s been through an analogous relationship, except he’s the parent with a child facing addiction. He brought a very affectionate touch to his book; the devastation of his son gets deeper as his son gets more enthralled with his drug habits. I was working with a different set of emotions. I like the Platonic idea of the father and son memoir of Philip Roth’s Patrimony. The book is about his father dying of a brain tumor. Somebody dying of cancer is sadly commonplace now–but just the full compliment of his writing talent and emotional authorial distance. He can be very stark and very straightforward at the most wrenching of moments.
I just don’t go in for flowery writing in the school of memoir. I’m not into that kind of voice, it wasn’t a natural fit for me. It doesn’t fit the subject matter. I don’t think there’s a lot of hilarity to be found–there is a kind of starkness to them. Rather than over-dramatize, I think you will grasp very quickly on why the situation I am writing about is important.
Most memoirists say that it’s a little startling when they actually put their work out there–it’s so different from just writing it by themselves. How do you and your dad feel about it being out there?
It’s still really challenging for my dad to read the book–just to see it through my eyes and to see how I was made to feel in some of those situations. Both he and my mother came to a reading I did last week, and I was really happy they came down from the Catskills. They were nervous about which portion of the book I would read. I tried to pick portions of the book that highlighted my relationship with my dad without being too graphic, I had to do it delicately. It’s still a very fraught thing. There are people who haven’t read the book and fear that it’s an attack on him. It’s still difficult for him to have this out there. It’s extremely brave of him to have trusted me to write it.
Finally, Dave Itzkoff, what is your Six-Word Memoir?
Wished he lived inside Portnoy’s Complaint.
BUY Cocaine’s Son.
FOLLOW the author on Twitter.
VIEW a slideshow of Itzkoff’s family.