AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The connection between art and alcohol is legendary. In Jeanne Darst's memoir, "Fiction Ruined My Family," she writes about what happens when that world collides with family life. Jeanne Darst joined me in our New York studio. Her story begins with her family picking up and moving east in order to fulfill her father's writing ambitions.
JEANNE DARST: We were moving from St. Louis to Amagansett, to a place called Stony Hill Farm, so that my dad could get his novel together. He had started it, but he had really wanted to take a year to write this novel in a place where, you know, he could just focus on that. He wasn't going to have a job. Also, he wanted to be in a more literary community, around more writers, and write in peace and quiet.
CORNISH: Did that end up happening?
DARST: You know, he never passed up going to the beach. They did a lot of cocktail parties and socializing. And he did get the novel together, and he did finish it and get it out to publishers. It was not bought. And then at that point, my mom sort of said, all right, this adventure is over. You need to get a job. For her, it was sort of like, you know, let's get back to being fancy. Let's move to a very expensive town in Westchester - Bronxville, New York - and buy a five-bedroom house that we can barely afford. And you're going to get a job, and I'm going to go back to using the good silverware. And...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DARST: ...you know, because we were, you know, when we moved to Amagansett, we were living on Stony Hill Farm in a reconverted barn. It was very romantic. The house next door was called the Hill House. It was where Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller spent their summer of 1957. There were lots of writers around. But my mom was sort of ready for that to be over and to resume her life, which was one of great privilege.
CORNISH: I found that very interesting, that - I mean, your parents, you describe both of them, their background - like you said, having some degree of wealth.
DARST: They were not Rockefellers, they were not Hearsts. But for me, when I watched what happened to our family, it just became this question in my mind, and that was the question that I was setting out to discover, writing this book. How does this happen to people like this? How do people lose their way? How do people lose their will to live, in my mother's case, and their bearings?
CORNISH: Your mother had an alcohol problem - and I guess your dad did, too, technically. It was sort of hard to tell in the book how you felt about it. And I couldn't tell when you realized that they had a problem, and that it wasn't just them being glamorous social butterflies.
DARST: People say like, when did you realize the drinking was a problem? And I think the answer to that is around midnight, you know. Because when they started off and my mom was making these insane, four-course meals - she was just a really great cook - and it was a lot of fun. There was, you know, La Traviata on the hi-fi and they were dancing, and everything was great. And of course, it was 10 o'clock by the time we actually had dinner. So we already had two or three bowls of cereal just to sort of just last until dinner. You know, when you're in sixth grade, you know. But then, you know, I would see the dark side of that, which was then, you know, wine bottles being thrown and accusations. And so I always knew - maybe unlike other kids - that drinking had a few sides to it.
CORNISH: Over the course of the book, you also talk about you being on a similar path, in terms of beginning to do really abusive drinking. And when did you kind of realize that, as you described, the genome was on the wall?
DARST: The genome was on the wall. I mean, the first time I drank - and my mom was drinking a lot at that point - I didn't know like, oh, I'm an alcoholic.
CORNISH: And how old were you at this point?
DARST: Oh, I'm like 14. And I blacked out. And you know, I knew like, oh, I have that thing, too. And so the question is, how do I get away with it? How do I get away with it? I could always see what was down the road, and in that way my mom's alcoholism was - I'm not going to say it was a blessing or anything, but it was something that helped me because unlike other people who maybe didn't know about alcoholism, I knew about alcoholism, you know. So I think that I was able to see where it was going for me.
CORNISH: And yet you headed down that path for a bunch of years.
DARST: Yeah, yeah. And I sort of say in the book that for a long time, I was worried about becoming my mother, and then I was worried about becoming my father, and then I was worried about becoming myself. And what that means is that I was both of them. Everybody looks at their parents and says, how do I do it better, how do I do it differently, right? But if you want to do something differently, you usually make completely different choices. So I said, how am I going to be like my parents by doing the exact, same thing they did - becoming a writer, you know, becoming an alcoholic.
CORNISH: In the end, do you think that you were able to untangle the idea that struggling artists have painful lives and abuse alcohol? And it seemed like those lifestyles were linked, to you, for a very long time.
DARST: Yes. And I still do think - I still do link them in ways that - you know, I sort of think like, oh, here I am in my comfortable chair. You know, you can't write anything in a comfortable chair. You have to be sitting on a rock, starving. So -
CORNISH: And being productive sober.
DARST: Yeah. You know, I got sober in Brooklyn and I realized like, half these people in Brooklyn here, putting out these books, are sober. And so something new emerged from me, some new concept - saw other people who were not going downhill, who were creating things. And I just sort of forged this new idea for myself of what a writer could do and be.
CORNISH: Jeanne Darst is the author of the new memoir, "Fiction Ruined My Family." Thank you so much for sharing your story.
DARST: Thanks for having me, Audie.
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