Claire Rudy Foster’s I’ve Never Done This Before is more than just a raw, deeply affecting collection of stories about addiction—it’s also the first book published by Chris Aguirre, founder of The Recovery Revolution (KLĒN + SŌBR) and co-host of the Since Right Now podcast. Clocking in at just under 100 pages, I’ve Never Done This Before manages to be authentic, darkly funny and emotionally devastating in a short space. Foster’s writing is so beautifully precise that it’s almost easy to forget that she’s exploring messy worlds, thorny situations and haunted, fragile characters. Foster called from her home in Portland, Oregon to discuss how her creative process has changed since getting sober, where creativity and addiction intersect, and what she hopes readers will get from her debut collection of stories.
You’ve said your fear was producing “cleverly worded trash.” What was your creative process like back when you were using?
I was a problem drinker and a drug user from a young age. For me, my creativity, my drug use and my drinking were all very much tied up together. I was not that person who would just smoke a joint to unwind. It was a tool to get to those darker places. It turns out there’s a price to pay for that. [Laughs] To tell you the truth, once I turned 18, it was game on. I was in fear of my 21st birthday because I knew I could get it legally.
For me, the heavy drinking and that repetitive writing started when I was about 20. I sort of went in circles for the next couple years, and it got progressively worse. One of my mentors, Peter Rock, said “Liquid courage will only take you so far.” And he’s exactly right. At that point in my life, I was all liquid courage and all bravado. I was going to be the next Zoe Trope or David Foster Wallace and I was really, really interested in making you think that I was good. I had no sense of my own voice, I had no sense of identity, and I was working really hard at making “cleverly worded trash.” My hope is that the stories in this collection feel true when you read them, they don’t feel like a card trick and they don’t feel made up. My hope is that they feel authentic to the reader.
They absolutely do. How different is your creative process now?
Well, I’ve switched to coffee. [Laughs] I’m a single mother. At any given time, I have between one and four jobs. I’m self-supporting and I feel that I do it myself. When you have so much on your plate, something has to give. For me, the thing that has to give cannot be writing. I have to have it to be happy. It’s who I am. It became about finding ways of stealing time. And that meant writing on my cell phone. There’s a phenomenon in Japan about “cell phone novels”…
I’ve heard about these!
You’ve heard about these? Yeah. I thought, “Why can’t I do that?” So I wrote a novel on Twitter, which thank God nobody’s read. [Laughs] I tweeted one sentence at a time because that’s what I had time for. I’d keep a notepad and if I wrote one sentence in a day, that was good. If my son was napping, I’d write during the nap. If I was at work, I’d keep a Word document open and take a peek at it every once in a while. I texted sentences to myself. And over time, my lifestyle changed and my son got older, it just became easier.
That’s the most common problem I encounter with other writers: “When do you find time?” I don’t have time—I make time. I’ve been told that sometimes my stories feel rushed. [Laughs]
Well, I think it actually adds stylistically to your writing. There’s definitely a sense of urgency there.
Thanks. Ideally, I wake up when I’m ready and I sit for a few hours, type, have a cup of coffee, maybe do some reading. But that’s not going to happen for me. Realistically, I wake up, I do some push-ups, I make a cup of coffee, I write for 20 minutes before my son wakes up, I get him ready for school, and we start our day.
What was the very first thing you ever wrote?
Oh man, I was probably eight or nine. I distinctly remember sitting down at my grandparents’ typewriter. I’d woken up before everyone else and wrote this really bizarre story about a young woman who went to a swimming pool at night and found a mermaid swimming around in it. It wasn’t clear how the mermaid got in there but it was very apparent that she needed to get home. There was all this subterfuge about taking the mermaid out of the pool and finding a way of conveying her to the beach. Pushing her in a wheelchair. So much of that imagery is still important to me. I really wish I still had it.
No joke. I want to read it.
I was a weird kid. I’m a weird adult. [Laughs] That was the first one. And it felt like it worked. I was copying the stories that I’d been reading, which was a big step in learning how to write for myself.
Now that you’re sober, is it difficult to write about addiction?
You know, I’m one of those lucky ones where the memories are quite vivid. I don’t have to make it up. If anything, the way that I perceived my drinking and my drug use when I was doing them is very different now that I’m sober. When I was drinking, I drank because I liked to feel invisible and powerful and I liked to feel like I had a secret. I thought that it made me really glamorous and cool and that I was invincible. But now that I’m sober, I have a really different perception on that. Now that I see that I was this extremely lonely, kind of really boring person who went in circles and I had this distorted perception of herself.
I’m standing on the waterfront in downtown Portland right now, next to the river. People are walking up and down and I can see who’s loaded and who isn’t. And the ones who are loaded look really fucking dull to me. Addiction is not glamorous—it’s quite boring. I’ll go out and I’ll see these young, drunk, kinda stupid-looking girls and I’ll think: “I was one of you. But I thought I was different.”
Was that surprising to you?
That was a big surprise. It’s never pleasant to see what was really going on. Part of me wanted to believe the dream that you’re as beautiful on your outside as you wish you were.
While I’ve Never Done This Before is fiction, how much of it is true?
When I write fiction, it’s 100% true. When I write nonfiction, it comes in around 85%. Every single piece of what I write is true. Every word is true, and every person you could go out and meet them. Secrecy was a big part of my addiction and you’ll notice that lots of my characters have significant secrets.
You effortlessly go from first person to third person in your stories. Is that conscious?
Well, addiction is a disease of relationships. If you’re an addict, you have a deep, abiding dependency on something that is not alive. Caroline Knapp, in Drinking: A Love Story, called it a love affair with something that will never love you back. It’s about learning how to relate to humans and yourself—and how not to relate to, say, heroin, which wants to kill you. It’s important for me to gauge how that relationship or disconnection will be best be showcased. That’s where the point of view comes in.
You have a great ear for dialogue. Where does that come from?
Spying on people. [Laughs] I’m serious. When I was little, my hero was Harriet the Spy. I’ve been a spy and an eavesdropper ever since. When I started going to AA, I listened really carefully to how people told their stories. I’ve always been a careful listener. I think it’s really important the way that we use words—and the words we use will betray even when nothing else will give us away. I think you can have a conversation with somebody and in one sentence know where they’re from, their education, what they’re insecure about, or that they don’t belong in that suit. [Laughs] I know immediately.
What was your proudest moment with this collection so far?
When I saw [the illustrator] Aaron’s drawings. He’s from Kentucky. We were on a call and he said, “You seem real nice. I didn’t know you’d write such fucked-up stories.” [Laughs] That got us off on the right foot. Once his illustrations started showing up, the book became real. Seeing my stories through someone else’s eyes gave me a new perspective. I was stunned.
What do you hope someone gets out of your book?
You are not alone. [Pauses] I got sober alone. I was super strung-out. One of the reasons I was able to stay sober is because I was ferocious about finding other people who were willing to write about what I’m writing about now. If it had a drug in it or a sober person, I read it. It didn’t have to be a white-light, come-to-Jesus narrative because, frankly, that’s not real for a lot of people. You get sober and life goes on. To be able to find those stories was a lifeline, though, so it means a lot to put my own out there.
Just because you get sober doesn’t mean you become different. You just become more like yourself.
Aguirre also took time to discuss his foray into book publishing, how he came upon Claire’s work, and what voices he’s hoping to release as one of his next “KLĒN+SŌBR Literary Interventions.”
What spurred your jump into publishing?
An amazing collection of writing that Claire had generously shared exclusively with The Recovery Revolution.
Do you simply see this as a natural extension of your other endeavors?
It was a natural extension of having the aforementioned collection of writing. I wouldn’t have taken the plunge with just any writing but with work of this caliber it sort of demanded that I publish it. Or someone else would. It is worth noting, though, that “Recovery Media Mogul” is a title I didn’t even realize I wanted until it fit.
How did you and Claire first connect?
I think we connected as similarly-minded people who kept bumping into each other in the circles of the #recoveryfriendlyweb.
What specifically drew you to Claire’s writing?
Her fearlessness. She’s not afraid of her characters. If that makes sense.
The artwork by Aaron Lee Perry is haunting and beautiful. How did you two connect and how did you know he was right for this project?
Much the same way I connected with Claire, I think we traveled in the same online recovery circles, specifically Twitter, and at some point I saw some of his work and was immediately a huge fan and supporter. I knew he had the insight and intellect to treat Claire’s work with the same unflinching eye that she has for her characters.
What uniquely makes a “KLĒN + SŌBR book”? What distinguishes the books that you’ll release?
My hope is that all KLĒN+SŌBR Literary Interventions (aka books) will be by—but not exclusively for—people in (or near) recovery. Beyond that, I think it remains to be seen if a pattern emerges. I’m not averse to publishing something humorous or experimental, or FreakFi, etc.
You’re a writer, podcaster and prolific creative person. What are your personal creative processes? Do you have rules for yourself (i.e. write for X period of time at Y time of the day)?
The only rule I’ve had since I began this project (né KLĒN+SŌBR) is to jump in and keep moving. If I stop I’m afraid I’ll get stuck so everything about the project from the site to the podcast to the pod network to the publishing is always in flux. It’s a living organism.
How do you find the time to do everything that you do, and do it well? I know lots of people who can do the first part, but not both.
I’m fortunate to have an exceptionally patient and supportive wife who serves as the Medici to my Michelangelo on this project. My foundational skill set is graphic design and writing and my professional experience is in advertising as an Art Director and later Creative Director so…
From beginning to end (inception to printed page), how long does a book project take you to put together?
We turned I’ve Never Done This Before from an idea to a printed book in a matter of months. I think it might have only been two. But, it’s worth mentioning that judging the passage of time is one of my worst skills.
When did you feel this book was ready for release?
As soon as I had the final images next to the title pages for each story and had made the final proofing edits, I made the conscious decision to not tweak the cover or rethink the formatting and be confident that the work would render moot any lapses in my layout/design judgment.
As a former graphic designer, do you have a pretty good idea of how a book is going to look and feel from the get-go? Everything from the font choice of the headers to the length seemed calculatedly perfect in Claire’s book.
I generally do come to a project with a strong existing vision but am always open to revision and well-considered input from respected sources. In this case I had presented Claire with an early layout that didn’t feature the brush script inside. I thought it might be too much. But she wanted to take a look at it and she was right. By the way, I consider her Co-Art Director on this project.
What sorts of works are you looking to publish? Are there specific voices you’re searching for? Are you bound to fiction? Since you’re a fan of comics and art, will you consider publishing those genres as well?
I mentioned this earlier but I’m open to just about any genre or voice. I do think addiction, recovery and mental health will be the three pillars of content and context but I’m not sure how that will play out.