You Live and Die by the Prep Work: The Millions Interviews Karen Tucker

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Irene and Luce wait tables at a pool hall in Anklewood, a rural North Carolina town. After a fateful night in which the girls get revenge on a vile customer, they fall under the spell of pills and, at once, become best friends. Written with both humor and gritty clarity, Karen Tucker’s novel Bewilderness is Irene’s devastating reckoning with the year of her life she spent with Luce.

The novel spares none of the joyful details of the characters’ lives, like the hilarious chorus of Reddit users who respond to Irene’s post on r/opioids asking for advice on getting Luce to a meeting. Nor does it avoid looking into the hardest places of addiction, like the moment when a dealer teaches Irene how to use a needle and syringe for the first time.

I read excerpts of Bewilderness in writing workshops with Tucker when we were both attending the graduate creative writing program at Florida State University. For The Millions, I spoke with the author over email about what it takes to write about substance use disorder, the relationship between art and activism, and the importance of prep work—just as in waiting tables—in writing an honest novel.

Whitney Gilchrist: When people ask you what your book is about, what do you tell them? Is it a different answer from how you described it when you were writing it?

Karen Tucker: As someone with questionable skills in the verbal department, I usually say something like, “You know. Friends, drugs,” and let my voice trail off. Sometimes I add the food server angle, and––depending on who I’m talking to and their personal interests––I’ll mention the many pee and poop jokes. I’ve found “trauma and grief and substance use disorder” doesn’t quite have the same zing.

WG: With addiction so stigmatized and misunderstood, you must have made countless decisions in order to write about it responsibly. Could you talk about the choices you made that you felt were important in portraying the opioid crisis?

KT: The correct answer is that I’m an irresponsible writer, since I spent little to no time considering how to present the opioid epidemic in a responsible fashion.

Certainly I did copious research to better understand how this disaster unfolded (late capitalism strikes again!), but my obligation, as I saw it, was to portray these characters’ lives as fully as possible. To not omit the moments of genuine joy and pleasure, and to avoid prettying up any ugly choices or brutal events.

Not that this was easy. Among other things, Bewilderness is about a painful disorder––and who wouldn’t want to inject a hefty dose of order if it meant relieving some of that pain? I did my best, slipped up plenty, and at last I had a novel. No doubt I would have abandoned the manuscript in its earliest stages if either I or the characters always did the responsible thing.

WG: This book is written back and forth in time, and that back and forth seems to grow increasingly untidy as the characters edge deeper into drug use. How did you develop that structure?

KT: As with any other craft choice, I got the nonlinear structure from reading and admiring other novels with a similar back-and-forth quality––probably all fiction is fan fiction to some degree. Graham Greene’s The Quiet American had the most direct influence in that regard, at least in the early stages of drafting.

Once it became clear that Greene’s structure could only carry me so far, I tried to keep a few things in mind when deciding where to go next. Because Irene narrates this story from several years in the future, I considered where her memory might take her as she attempts to puzzle out what happened.

I also thought about the most pressing question a reader might have at the end of each section. Should I address it right away or would it give them more pleasure if I made them wait?

Patterns, too, were on my mind when making these choices. There are few things I love more than a poem or story or novel that establishes a particular drumbeat and then disrupts it by tossing its sticks in the air. And because we need to upend conventional thinking about substance use disorder, it felt vital to take an unconventional approach to this story whenever possible.

WG: How did you come to choose Bewilderness for the title? Were you ever considering other titles?

KT: Back in the first month or two of drafting this novel, Kaveh Akbar posted a Gwendolyn Brooks poem, “First Fight. Then Fiddle,” online somewhere. Among other things, the poem talks about activism and survival and how art alone isn’t enough to make necessary changes. There’s a line, “Bewitch, bewilder…” that rang hard in my head, unresolved. In what I suppose was an attempt to resolve it, my brain answered “Bewilderness.” From that point on, the title––and the poem’s advice––stuck.

I’m under no illusion that this novel will usher in any meaningful change to the opioid crisis, although I hope it gets readers to interrogate their own biases regarding substance abuse, low-income communities, effective treatments for opioid use disorder, and the relationship between painful trauma and the use of painkillers.

Some ways to actively promote survival are to support harm reduction principles, get Narcan nasal spray, and fight for evidence-based medical care, particularly in Black and brown communities

WG: Your characters come across as incredibly real. It seems that you felt desperation, love, and loss alongside them at every turn. Was this book painful to write? How did you push through it?

KT: It’s probably inevitable that writers experience at least some discomfort at some point during the writing process. My number on the pain scale always jumps when I get overly concerned about how poorly I’m doing. “You’re the worst writer ever,” is a popular interior chant.

Lately I’ve found the antidote isn’t to banish thoughts about how I’m doing––but to ask myself why I’m doing. What’s the damn point of your writing? What are you fighting for? Bearing that in mind helps me push through the difficult parts.

WG: There’s a moment, at the start of Part 2, when the voice of the book switches from the narrator, Irene, to what seems to be Teena’s voice. It’s a moment of education about how to stay alive. There’s also a scene in the story when Teena teaches Irene how to use intravenously—previously, she’d only used pills. Those moments took my breath away; I felt like we were looking right into the hardest place of addiction. Could you talk about writing those two vivid, albeit quite different, moments?

KT: Both of those sections came out somewhat quickly, in a single sitting. One in a crowded coffeeshop in Tallahassee, one at my lonesome little desk in Asheville. God I hate it when writers say stuff like that. However! Had I not agonized over the many scenes that came before those two––I’m one of those sinners who revises as they go––and had I not immersed myself in firsthand accounts of similar experiences, the relatively easy labor could never have happened.

I say this in hope of offering comfort to anyone who might be struggling with a difficult scene in their own writing. As anyone in the service industry knows, you live and die by your prep work. You could be the most brilliant waiter in the solar system, but if you don’t make adequate supplies of coffee and sweet tea before the lunch rush, your section will come to a fatal halt. I learned a lot in my 20-plus years of folding napkins and marrying ketchups, and while some of that knowledge I could do without, many of those lessons remain useful in this endeavor, too.

WG: There is a Reddit thread in this novel! I want to shout it from the rooftops! It’s amazing! How did that come to be such an important part of the novel?

KT: Whitney, thank you! That section gets mixed reactions from readers and I’m glad it works for you. It wasn’t something I planned or even had any ideas about until right before I reached that chapter––though I had been spending a fair amount of time on Reddit in my own life. I’d recently left Florida and moved back to North Carolina to finish the novel. Gone were my friends and colleagues. Gone was my in-person teaching, replaced with online comp classes. My partner was working out of the country. It was a lonely period of my life. Which I guess is why, despite its somewhat unnatural format, it felt completely natural for Irene to turn to Reddit during her own unhappy time.

And it cheered me up to write it. Even though the content is serious, I had fun coming up with the various usernames and off-topic exchanges. The break in form felt liberating. Most importantly, it gave me the opportunity to include a range of voices and perspectives. Up until that point, narrator Irene has been in charge of the story––and she often fails to get it right.

WG: When you think about the landscape of fiction and the topic of opioids and addiction, do you see gaps? Were there writers who inspired how you wrote about addiction?

KT: Short story writers and novelists taught me everything I know about structure, time, characterization, dialogue, and other craft elements. I was a reader decades before I ever thought to call myself a writer, and the list of authors who have shaped my fiction would probably double the word count of this interview. Three novels with visible influence on Bewilderness are Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce, Problems by Jade Sharma, and Marlena by Julie Buntin.

Also! Many people and communities outside the world of traditional publishing played a role in my effort to bring something novel to this novel. They include anonymous authors of old Bluelight posts and Reddit threads, stars of shadowy YouTube videos, in-person 12-step meetings, online 12-step meetings, Dopey Podcast and the Dopey Nation, friends, co-workers, family members, a string of crappy customers from restaurants past, two terrible photographers, the worst doctor at the worst VA hospital ever, and what I could observe.