Secrets and Lies
Yabroff, Jennie, Newsweek
Byline: Jennie Yabroff
Many first-time memoirists are motivated by self-serving desires: to make the world notice them or to make the world like them. Neither can be said of Bill Clegg or Darin Strauss. Both were already successful--Clegg as a literary agent, Strauss as a novelist--when they decided to write memoirs. Rather than polishing their images, their books explore the darkest moments of the writers' lives. Strauss was a high-school senior when he accidentally killed a classmate named Celine with his car. The aftermath of that tragedy is the basis for Half a Life, which will be published in September. Clegg struggled with his own secret--the crack addiction that cost him his life savings, his boyfriend, and his business. Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, his memoir of the weeks leading up to his final crack binge, came out in May. The authors, who are also friends, spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jennie Yabroff about what they've learned from the experience of literary confession. Excerpts from the conversation:
What made you feel that this was the time to tell your stories?
Bill Clegg: I kind of came through the cat door of writing it. When I was in rehab, I wrote down memories. The period that preceded my being in rehab was this intense two-month period of being in hotel rooms doing drugs 24 hours a day. When I surfaced from that, it was like surfacing from a dream, or a nightmare. I felt this urgency to write down what I could remember. At a certain point the shape of a book suggested itself. The writing happened first, and the thinking about it happened afterward.
Darin Strauss: For me it's the opposite. I thought I would never write about this. I had written three books of fiction before this and I thought, I'm not going to be one of those people who profits from his misery. But I turned 36 and realized that [the accident] happened half my life ago, and my wife [NEWSWEEK writer Susannah Meadows] and I were having kids. These things seemed like big moments to stop and reflect on. I said, I'm a writer, so I should just write about it. I won't necessarily publish it. Then a friend of mine who does stuff for This American Life said, "Why don't you show me what you've got?" They ran it, and I got a lot of e-mails from people saying it was helpful for them. Usually as a fiction writer you get e-mails saying, "I liked your book" or "I didn't like it." You don't get something saying, "I'm really glad this is in the world." And I realized, had I had something like this when I had gone through it, it would have been helpful for me to read.
Did you ever wake up in the middle of the night saying, "What have I gotten myself into?"
Clegg: I had a lot of worries. First and foremost was: Did it have value? Did it have literary merit? Did it have worth in the world beyond my own experience of expressing it?
Strauss: This is a story of a girl who died, and so I felt very strongly that I didn't want to seem like I was being exploitative. When the piece aired on This American Life, I had another book out and somebody did a story on me for The Village Voice, and someone wrote in saying, "This guy is a murderer and a sociopath." That was kind of painful.
Have Celine's parents read it?
Strauss: I haven't been in touch with them. They said to me at the funeral, "We know you're not to blame, and whatever you do in your life you have to do it twice as well because you're doing it for two people." And then six months or so after that, they sued me for millions of dollars. That was pretty painful and surprising. I'm hoping to send them a letter before the book comes out.
And you dedicate the book to them, as well as to your own parents.
Strauss: Part of the reason I started writing about it was the fact that I was becoming a father when it started, and I realized that I don't know how I would deal with it from the other side, so I have a new appreciation of the intense grief that they must have felt. …