Drug Addiction and Pop Culture: An Interview with Karen Tucker

Though at the center of Karen Tucker’s first novel Bewilderness is the barreling momentum away from sobriety, the novel doesn’t read like a trainwreck. Instead, I’m reminded of Solomon Burke’s song “Fast Train”: “Ain’t nobody here on your waveband / Ain’t nobody gonna give you a helping hand / And you start breaking down / And just go into the sound / When you hear that fast train.” And I love this novel for that reason. It is a tender rendering of the consequences that balloon from total devotion to a friend and the rhythmic churn of deep addiction. I asked Karen Tucker to talk with me via email a month after her publication date of June 2021 on Catapult.

An aspect that I really loved about Bewilderness is how you portray Irene and Luce without judgement when they are in the thick of using, searching for drugs, and hitting bottom. We, the reader, get to see how disturbing the journey really is and yet they are having fun (as a tributary of the definition). Drugs are dark, dark. Addiction is forever, even when sober. And yet, when Irene and Luce’s life plummet into subterrain levels of the human condition, they do not shy from acknowledging, even basking in, the joys of scoring, using, or nodding out. How did you go about balancing the reader’s discomfort with your character’s addiction?

Thank you for saying that! If any balance exists in this novel, it’s either through luck or coincidence or what an individual reader brings to the story. I didn’t consciously think about balance during drafting or revision — unless you count the high-wire act of trying to write a novel in the first place.

But I did keep readers at the forefront of my mind throughout the process. While I’ve heard the advice to write for yourself and no one else, at least in the initial stages of drafting, that particular dictum never feels right for me. At all times, I either imagined telling this story to a stranger at a dimly lit dive bar or to a group of acquaintances at a twelve-step meeting. I did my best to read the room, which may be the writerly version of a balancing act.

It is clear from the outset that you love these two women and the relationship they’ve formed, no matter how destructive. But as a reader, I see this friendship as one-sided. Irene’s attention to Luce is obsessive and not dissimilar to her addictions. The obsession revolves around how we, as people, navigate coming of age with best friends. And though Irene narrates the story it is ultimately Luce’s life we follow. They are young, so young, Irene and Luce. I’m curious how you would describe this youthful, but damaged Irene to a stranger. Would you call her obsessive or devoted? Would you say that she is afraid to be alone or that she needs Luce to fulfill parts of herself she feels lacking?

I’d say Irene is all of those things. Obsessive and also devoted. Lonely and also determined not to let her friend feel alone or abandoned. Contradictions like that feel more human to me than consistency.

I wonder about agency. Irene exists almost entirely for Luce. Nearly every move, thought, design revolve around her friend. There is concern for Luce, of course, but Irene’s attentiveness to Luce also seemed to me like a shield that protected her from independence. Was there ever a moment in your drafting where Irene had more agency? Or were you working with the ways in which some people act as magnets while others are the metal that attracts.

You’re right that almost all of Irene’s actions are determined by what she believes is best for her friendship with Luce. Sometimes those beliefs lead her to help Luce stay sober.  Sometimes she believes that using alongside Luce is the only thing that will help them stay friends. And sometimes she decides that betraying her friend in the short term will pay off in the long — such as when she steals from Luce, when she sabotages Luce’s attempt to go cold turkey, and when she deliberately imperils Luce’s boyfriend’s sobriety.

By sticking close to Irene’s desire to preserve the friendship no matter what, I was able to show a range of actions — some of which might appear illogical and absurd above ground — but all of which stem from the same taproot, which I would say is her fear of further loss.

Bewilderness reminds me of cult classics like Drugstore Cowboy and Requiem for a Dream, but unlike portraits of addiction in these films you seem to keep the reader safe from dipping into the crimes against these vulnerable women in withdrawal or desperate need. I was curious when reading if there was ever a time in your drafting process when you thought about opening up scenes like when Irene and Luce are roofied for example. Or did you worry about rendering these dark moments in too sensational a manner?

Probably every choice a writer makes has both drawbacks and advantages. One advantage of the scene you mention is that I didn’t have to worry about sensationalizing the assault simply because anterograde amnesia is a frequent side effect of Rohypnol. Because first-person narrator Irene has little to no memory of that event, it would have been inauthentic for me to have her describe it in detail.

But even though I was freed from one responsibility, I found myself saddled with another, in that I had to rely on Irene’s behavior post-trauma to show readers how it affected her. Quite reasonably, she responds to her increased emotional pain by increasing the quantity of painkilling substances she consumes. This led to the one detailed part of the novel that did give me pause: when Teena teaches Irene how to shoot up. While someone might say this scene is gratuitous, I decided to keep it for two reasons. First, I didn’t want readers with opioid use disorder to feel as though that very real medical experience is dirty or shameful. And second, because that scene revolves around harm reduction principles — a primary interest of mine.

I often think about the prevalence of rape and domestic violence in film and how these images are ingrained in the American psyche more than most horrors. When, do you think, writers should illustrate terrifying happenings, to women especially, and when should a writer refrain? Also, a secondary question: can a writer portray with authenticity and compassion scenes of overdose and violence and rape that resonates beyond the overtly prevalent images created by film and/or can we rely on this prevalence to fill in the imagistic gaps?

No doubt the fem-jep genre has been and continues to be hugely profitable, and until the big bucks cease to roll in, that particular violence will continue to be portrayed over and over. Same goes for violence against BIPOC characters, queer characters, and other bodies that aren’t white, het, cis, abled, and male. Authors should be aware of this prevalence when they make their choices. All art is political.

To be clear though, policing writers not only holds zero interest for me, it’s something I’m actively repelled by. So I guess my answer to your first question is that it’s up to the writer to decide. As far as your second question goes, I say sure! Given enough time, a writer can pull off just about anything. But will the resulting manuscript be judged a worthwhile investment? That’s the question the actual decision-makers, aka publishers, will ask.

In an off-interview moment I had to ask what fem-jep meant (female in jeopardy) and it made me think about all the other colloquial language in your novel: the shorthand references to pills, the inside-jokes shared by Irene and Luce. At times, when reading, I wondered about research, but now I want to know if the attraction or knowledge surrounding this mode of speech isn’t a youthful tic the narrator carries.

You might be right there — certainly Irene’s language could be read as a young person’s attempt to keep intruders out of the bubble she’s created with Luce — a rhetorical strategy that resembles what some academics do in their scholarly writing, haha. 

The way I understand it is that most people in any given community possess distinct ways of communicating among themselves — from siblings who invent their own private language, to MDs, to the military, to food servers, and the list continues. In communities where certain behaviors are criminalized, the need for privacy is heightened. If you text someone in language that’s legible to law enforcement, you put yourself at considerable risk.

Since these coded words already exist among people who use illicit substances, it felt necessary to include them, even though they might initially exclude some readers. The challenge was to deploy the slang in such a way that people who are less familiar with this community come to learn its particular language before abandoning the book in frustration. Context played a larger role than usual in supporting the text.

Keeping on the subject of pop culture, are you a fan of black metal and heavy metal? If so, what are your favorite bands and did you listen to, say, Metallica while writing Bewilderness?

I listened to quite a bit of metal when I was drafting and revising, including every song mentioned in the story, and plenty that didn’t make the final cut. I also re-watched the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster, which I highly recommend! There’s one scene where Lars’s dad Torben Ulrich coolly strokes his beard and tells his son to delete a particular track, and depending on your mood it’s either hilarious or painful. An early draft of the novel included a nod to this moment — but now that too has been deleted and exists solely in my hard drive, along with thirty thousand other lonesome words that in the end didn’t fit.

That is one of the most uncomfortable documentaries I have ever seen. Rarely do I watch a film about musicians I’ve loved throughout my life and felt absolutely no empathy, but when Lars’ dad appears, it all changed for me. I can’t imagine living up to the standards of that metal wizard. I love the moments writers must delete, the ones you call lonesome, because it is a way to get at telling the story before fully knowing what the story is and what better way to work toward an understanding than playing around with favorite moments from film, books, ads, or whatever else. As a farewell, do you mind sharing another scene that was hard to let go of in your final draft?

Oooh, I love this question so much. You’re right! Writers often find their way into the story by pursuing paths that fizzle out and lead nowhere, and while those paths end up doomed to a dead-end file, the story that lingers is in debt to them.

The only deleted scene I still think about on occasion is one where Gayle Crystal follows Irene home after their initial Walmart encounter and surreptitiously noses around Luce’s bedroom. It was fun coming up with the personal items Luce keeps on her nightstand — Wilky’s old guitar capo, for example — and how they further reveal Luce’s character. Certainly I learned more about her through drafting those pages than I knew before. In the end though, the scene slowed the pace in a section where I wanted things to feel speedy, and it got the delete-key treatment: a worthwhile improvement, despite the sacrificed details. If only the delete key existed in our so-called real life!

By Karen Tucker
Published June 1, 2021