Interview with Marya Hornbacher: Author of the Pulitzer-Nominated Memoir, “Wasted” (Part 2)
April 11, 2010
No more babbling, I’m getting right to the good stuff. Here’s part of my interview with author Marya Hornbacher from this past Wednesday.
How do you define memoir?
Literary truth telling. Memoir is not autobiography. It’s about a specific period or thing in someone’s life. My life is not terribly interesting, but a couple of interesting things have happened to me.
Why did you write “Wasted?”
I wanted to write the real story of what eating disorders are: the unglamorous, the ugly, the honest side of a fatal addiction. It’s not a glamour girl’s disease. I wanted to write a good book, I wanted to tell a good story, but I also wanted to tell the truth.
What has the public feedback for “Wasted” been like?
The overwhelming response was in letters. I got a huge amount of mail–I still get a huge amount of mail–about “Wasted.” I was 23, I was unprepared for how personal an experience people were going to have reading it. I didn’t realize I hit the nail on the head to the extent that I had. People writing me over and over again saying, “This is my story;” you can’t hope for a better response than that. My story in isolation is just a story, but my story when it reflects the story of the people is a piece of communication. So I wasn’t prepared, when I was 23, to the extent to which I communicated to people on a personal level. I was a little taken aback, I kind of went into hiding for a couple of years. I didn’t produce another book for almost seven years. It kind of threw me for a loop.
What was your reaction when you found out “Wasted” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize?
I had a drink. It was back when I still drank and I literally went to the cupboard and had a drink. I was really alarmed.
What sets “Wasted” apart from other eating disorder memoirs?
I think it’s very frank; it doesn’t pull punches. I think people appreciate the extent to which I get inside their heads, or rather the book gets inside their heads, by telling my own story and telling it with extreme honesty. It got to people at a deeper level than I think other eating disorder books do. I think people hear it as their own voice, and that’s important to me, that many millions of people who don’t have a voice read the book and feel that someone has spoken for them. My hope is that they have the encouragement to tell their own story in some way.
Why did you write a second memoir, “Madness?”
Because there was more story to tell. There are very few memoirs out there about mental illness, almost none that are at all accessible in the mainstream. Most of the ones that are out there are about depression. In the same vein that I wanted to tell the good, the bad, the ugly in “Wasted,” I wanted to do that with “Madness” too. I wanted people to feel like there was no shame in it: they can have their history, they can have their life and not feel shame about it. There’s so much stigma surrounding mental illness that putting any story out there about it is a means of breaking that stigma. Telling a story really does allow people to tell their own story. I get more and more letters from people saying that now they’re currently talking to their family, when they didn’t feel they could do that before. They didn’t feel like their story had any worth. What I wanted “Madness” to do was educate, but also to give people a very interior sense of the experience of mental illness. “Wasted” is a much more socially oriented book.
Have you thought about writing another memoir?
Not until I’m terribly old.
Was writing your memoir part of a recovery or healing process for you?
No, it was awful. There’s a huge stigma around eating disorders and there’s an even bigger stigma surrounding bipolar disorder. Coming out with a history like mine and saying, “this is my history,” and this is also, I’m willing to bet, the history of a whole lot of people out there, it’s very hard to be the first person who steps up and spits it out. This is the truth, this is my truth and I think it’s the truth for a lot of people. That’s very painful. Going back through those memories and interviewing the people I interviewed and going through the records–uncomfortable to say the least. My psychologist was very relieved when I finished “Madness.”
Do you worry that your books could hurt or trigger people?
Yes, I think “Wasted” in particular can be triggering and I’m very aware of that, and I was aware of it going into writing it. You have to balance, when you write any book on eating disorders, telling the truth with knowing that sometimes some of those facts are going to be triggering. You’re trying to help as many people as you can and hurt as few as possible. Besides that, a person with an eating disorder, and I certainly know this first hand, will use virtually anything to trigger themselves. “Wasted” comes at the idea of recovery in a way that most books don’t. It really challenges the reader to think about why they’re doing what they’re doing. It doesn’t make any promises, but it says, if you make a choice to recover, it can be done. I know it can be triggering, which is why when people write and say, “should I have my 13-year-old daughter read this?” I often say no. I say you read it, then you’ll know what you’re looking for. It’s very important to me that it’s been a useful book to doctors and therapists and clinicians, that’s what’s important to me as much as people with eating disorders have found it useful.
Do you like to read memoirs?
Yes, I do like to read memoirs. There are some excellent ones out there and I think there are some very terrible ones out there as well. It’s an oddly difficult form; it’s a strange genre, it really straddles the line between creative non-fiction and journalism. The memoirs that are pure feeling I have a hard time getting into. Those that are intellectually engaging and literarily worthwhile I find very wonderful to read. Mary Karr’s memoirs are fantastic. Andy Solomon’s “The Noonday Demon” is fantastic. Kathryn Harrison’s memoir “The Kiss” is amazing. The really beautifully written, but also very carefully thought through ones, I find absolutely wonderful.