I first made contact with Jamie Brickhouse when I contacted his agency for details about how to book his client Lee Gutkind for a writing conference. Then, one day, at Barnes & Noble, I saw a newly released memoir on the shelf with a name I had recognized… Having a soft spot of childhood/coming-of-age memoirs, I scooped up a copy of Dangerous When Wet: A Memoir of Booze, Sex, and My Mother (St. Martin’s Press, 2015).
Jamie, a native of Beaumont, Texas, spent nearly two decades working on the other side of the business—as a book publicist for major houses and now as a speaker’s agent—before becoming an author himself. His book is celebrating its paperback launch this month—he kicked things off with a booze-themed storytelling event at a famous Village cabaret, and he’s about to embark on a nationwide tour (including a stop at HippoCamp 2016).
In March, during a visit to New York City, I was able to spend some time with Jamie at his Manhattan apartment—the sleek and modern décor has a fun touch of Texas. Items from his memoir were scattered about his home—and it was a pleasure to not just put a face with a name, but also see objects from the book come alive.
We talked about his childhood, his memoir, his writing process, his time in publishing, and what’s next. Our discussion was lively and quite fruitful: we went off on many tangents talking about our lives, so you can imagine the transcript is rather lengthy, so what follows is a slightly abbreviated version of our conversation. And, as with most of my recorded interviews, you’ll notice I leave in those natural pauses and segues so what you have is an authentic snapshot of a moment in time.
Writing a memoir is a discovery process. As we research and write about our own lives, we learn so much about ourselves… things we hadn’t known or realized. So I always enjoy speaking with those who have went through the process. I hope you enjoy this interview with Jamie, as it covers so much of that territory of growing as a writer while growing as a person.
DONNA: I’ll start with the first line of the book: “I had no business being a child.” I thought that was a great way to start it because so many people who write childhood memoirs… they definitely were older than their peers – you know, that sense of independence at a young age. Can you talk a little about that statement?
JAMIE: Sure. I had no business being a child because I wanted to skip childhood and go right into adulthood. I was a precocious child and very verbal from an early age… So much of the book is about how tight I am with my mother, Mama Jean. She treated me like her precious little baby, her Jamie Doll, but she also treated me like an adult. I was in her confidence. She would tell me things about her friends as if I were an adult companion. So that dynamic was set very early. I was more interested in what the adults were doing and in adult conversations, and I felt like I could hold my own. I didn’t feel like I fit in with the children. I certainly was a kid and played games with kids and all that, but, at the same time, I felt like I was biding my time… I wanted vastly get to adulthood.
When you set out to write this book – you state early on you had a relationship with both your parents – so when you set out to write this book, did you intend to write about your mother, or did you plan to write about your childhood and then it kind of steered in that direction? How did it come to be?
I was two years sober when I started writing this in earnest, in a writing workshop, and Mama Jean was a year dead … the two things that I was compelled to write about, burning to write, were my alcoholism and her. When I started this workshop I was still feeling my way as a writer and needed to A) start writing and B) gain my confidence. The first pieces I wrote were about her and my alcoholism. After that first semester in the workshop I felt, OK, I can write. I think I can. And I want to write a book, a memoir. I thought, “Well I have to choose: either it’s a memoir about my mother because she cast this long shadow on my life when she was alive, or I write a book about my alcoholism. Then I realized that everything I wrote was ostensibly about her even if there was an undercurrent of booze in there. If it was a piece about alcoholism, she was still present. And I realized that I was writing about my two most important relationships. I was coming to terms with both of them – mourning both of them. And in a way my relationship with her was addictive and in some ways destructive, and, ultimately, one really destroyed me and one saved me.
…I realized that I was writing about my two most important relationships. I was coming to terms with both of them – mourning both of them.
I’m glad that two married together because it makes sense; you can’t write one without the other. And you said—when I read a book I always underline things, and one of the things I underlined was: “No one turned me into a hydrophobic, liquor-swilling, sometime-cocaine-snorting, homosexual Democrat but me.” That stuck with me because, at that moment, I realized that OK, he had all these influences around him but ultimately you…
… we have to take responsibility for ourselves…
Yeah. Exactly. Can you tell me a little more about that line?
It means a few things. One was that if she didn’t like something about me she wanted to blame external forces, certainly not her. She’d never blame herself for turning me into an alcoholic or any of those other things she didn’t like. People have asked me “did you drink because of your mother” or “did your mother drive you to drink?” I said no, absolutely not. I’ve certainly drank at her when I was angry with her, just like I’ve drank at other people or situations. But I also drank because I loved to drink. I drank because I’m an alcoholic is what that means. It’s just who I am, and whether you call it a disease or genetically predisposed, or all of the above, I think it’s just how I’m wired. So no one made me that way except maybe a combination of her and my father’s genes that they gave me when they created me. And, in the end, it’s also about accepting who you are and taking responsibility—of the good parts and the bad parts.
“My writing teacher kept saying, ‘You need to write about this – you keep glossing over it.’”
With this book you were just so honest – and I think that something that memoirists have to be is vulnerable, to be OK showing those vulnerabilities. You told us a lot of things. Were you going to say everything, did you hold back? How did you make you decisions?
I went through hurdles…. I was so excited that I just dove in. Then there was a moment that I was like, ooh, after I had to read it aloud… and wondering if I really want to share all this. And there was the “Am I betraying my mother? Am I showing her in an unflattering light in parts of the book?” But, ultimately, it’s a love letter to her, I think. The suicide attempt, I never didn’t consider using it, but writing about the actual attempt was one of the last meaty parts of the book. My writing teacher kept saying, “You need to write about this – you keep glossing over it.” But I had to work up to it. I accept it and I own it and I understand why I did it; I don’t beat myself up for it, but I still have shame around it.
And the last hurdle I had to get over was revealing that I am HIV positive. The book is my coming out in many ways. It’s been coming out about being an alcoholic, although most people knew that about me, most of my friends and even co-workers knew that about me. And everyone knew I was gay; I was always out about that. But I was pretty much in the closet about being HIV-positive. Only my partner, ‘Michahaze’, and a handful of friends knew that. My mother went to her grave not knowing; as I talk about in the book, that was one of her biggest fears. And my father didn’t know. I thought I could tell this story without revealing it. … It wasn’t in the proposal… What this was about was the shame and stigma around HIV and my fear that others are going to judge me because of it, and I thought, I don’t want to know everyone in the industry to know this, especially if the book doesn’t sell.
But before it went out I met with Mary Karr; she had graciously agreed to read the proposal and give her feedback. And (the HIV) wasn’t in there, and she didn’t know that about me. She gave me great feedback and a lot of encouragement and she was very generous about that. And then I said, “I am also HIV-positive,” and she said, “You gotta put that in there.” And I agreed. Yes, I can tell the story without revealing it, but it really is important to the story. I became HIV-positive because of the alcoholism, because of my drinking when I was unsafe.
You’re right. It adds another layer and having read it I can’t imagine the book without it. It’s so much stronger because of that other layer.
It’s been liberating to have that out there. And now I am very open about being HIV positive and I don’t care who knows. And I hope that more people who are positive will come out so it not only removes the shame and stigma, but removes the fear—because when you tell people, especially non-gay people, there’s still a gasp factor to it, even though we’ve known for a long time that it’s not a death sentence. There’s still the idea that it’s still the worst thing you can get.
Now that the book is out and you’ve been talking about it; has anyone who is HIV-positive reached out to you to let them know they’re opening up about it now?
I haven’t heard that. I have heard people who have said, “I am HIV-positive and I am glad you shared the story, and it helped me.” More than that though, I’ve heard from women, a lot of sisters of men who are HIV-positive or, in some cases who have died of AIDS a long time ago, and a few mothers who were really touched and appreciated the story.
People ask if I set out to write this book to help people, and no. I didn’t. It’s not a self-help book. If anything, it’s a self-hurt book. [laughter from both] But I didn’t set out a book with the primary purpose to help people; it was because I wanted to express myself artistically. It’s a story that I have to tell, and a byproduct of that is that, I think, it is helping people. A woman reached out to me – a blogger – she really loved the book and lives in town. We’ve been in contact online, back and forth. And then she reached out to me and said she had a problem with drinking, and I offered to take her to a meeting. That makes me very happy that I was able to help someone.
While we’re talking about helping people – the Lewy Body Dementia – that was something I hadn’t heard of until I read your book, so you made me aware of it. It’s something that’s lesser known. Have you had any feedback about that?
I’m glad you brought up Lewy Body Dementia. I feel very passionate about that, and you said it right there: that you hadn’t heard about it and I made you aware of it. That’s the number one problem Lewy Body Dementia faces: awareness, both in the lay community and in the medical profession. There’s not much you can do to treat it or arrest it, but you can also exasperate it by treating it – by misdiagnosing it and giving the patient the wrong drugs. I have heard from people whose loved ones had Lewy Body Dementia and I’m getting active with LBD groups…
I like how you handle it in the book. It was almost a sense of – well, sharing funny things your mom did, and you think, oh, she’s aging… and then it hits you. I like how you did this craft-wise… well-done.
Thank you. It’s probably true with any dementia or a disease where a person starts declining that where it’s most obvious and sad is in the areas where they were the most expert. She was a great driver—and she drove through a wall. She liked to maintain her appearance and get her hair done every week—and that started to go.
I read in another interview with you about an ‘I Remember’ exercise and I was hoping you could share a little bit about that. I mean, your mother is such a colorful character in the book, so I was going to ask what helped you bring her to life. As a kid, watching her in the mirror, putting on make-up. What sort of things took you back to those childhood moments where you were just in awe of her?
When I started the workshop in 2010, [in] one of the first classes, my teacher Phyllis gave us a writing prompt: a stream of conscious ‘I remember’ … That prompt was so important to me, and it just unlocked the door to tapping all these memories. Some of which I knew I had and were already present in my brain, some I didn’t know I had, some I thought I had forgotten; [the prompt] conjured it – it was almost like magic. The first one was ‘I remember’ about anything… that’s where the memory of my mother pulling me from my crib came from… while she was fleeing the house—from my father—and that memory was always there, but it was farther in the recesses, and I had never articulated it or even discussed it with my brothers. I tell it early on in the book in a dreamlike way – I fill in the blanks later in the book because I was able to talk to my brothers about it… What’s beautiful about that [prompt] is that you’re not just bringing in facts, but you’re bringing in feelings of those memories. Oh we were living in that house, not that house… Or I hadn’t eaten all day so I was hungry… And I talk about my first drink, which was my father’s, a whiskey and soda. That memory came back to me. Did I just take it? Did I ask for it? But the point is that I have this crystal moment, like a photograph.
I still use that exercise when I am having a hard time—I am writing my next book, about my father; he died a year ago and I’m writing about my relationship with him. If I’m having a hard time getting into it, I use the ‘I remembers’ as a foundation. Then I do a whole series of memories around an event or a person, and that opens it up for me, and then I can turn that into prose.
That prompt was so important to me, and it just unlocked the door to tapping all these memories.
Yeah – so you have raw material now. Love it. I was going to ask what you were going to work on next, but you already answered that: a book about your father. So… how did you fall into book publishing, and the second part of the question is now that you’re an author with a book out working on your second what do you wish you knew—or what have you learned that maybe you wish you knew when you were working as a publicist and vice versa—what did you learn when you were working as a publicist that when you became an author you were like, “I’m never gonna do this to my publicist…” [laughter from both.] What did you take from that experience now that you’re on the other side?
It was extremely beneficial. My earned advantage of working in publishing for about 20 years before I became a writer was an understanding of the industry and how it works, but also more than that it was the contacts. I was able to find an agent fairly quickly, and when she shopped the book around it got the attention of editors and publishers—it didn’t mean they were going to do it just because they knew who I was because I got plenty of rejections—but all it takes is one to fall in love with it. And I got that. And also having been a book publicist, I still had a fair amount of relationships within the industry to get some nice attention for the book or at least get a chance.
I certainly never wanted to become “that” author who tortures the publicist. What I always said was to be a partner with your publisher, and I think I was certainly that because I knocked myself out to augment their efforts. I used to tell this to all my authors: don’t be shy about using all of your contacts and asking them to do what they can for you. I mean, ask graciously and also be prepared to return the favor. A lot of times you’ve just got one chance.
Oh – going back to the ‘I Remembers,’ I should have brought up some details that I love when I asked that question, like the Virginia Slims, the bronchial chuckle, just those little details. And I love the line “the inside of an orange…the color of a taxi cab when a taxi cab isn’t yellow.” I was like, “I know that color…” How did you…
Oh thank you! [clap] Thank you so much! I love it. I spent a lot of time with describing colors… and that was one that I labored over, and I was happy with that but was still worried people wouldn’t understand it. And the color of my mother’s wedding dress, which was a cocktail dress. I spent a lot of time coming up with descriptions… the color of an olive submerged in a martini… But I had a few bad ones before I got to there. Oh, I’m sorry… what was your question?
Oh, it was just a note I had written to myself about some of these details. But I think it goes back to the ‘I remember’ exercise. But also it has to do with a lot of the craft. Talk a little about your revisions process… I mean the visuals are so important and I think sometimes when we write, we’re like “this happened” and “that happened” and we forget about the colors and the smells and the textures…
Right. So to bring the reader into the story you have to conjure the sensory. How did it look, smell, feel? You don’t have to have all those senses all the time, but you have to have them in there to immerse the reader in the story. So describing colors of important things—clothing was important to me as well as the sounds. Earlier, before the interview, we were talking about storytelling, and I’ve always been an oral storyteller even before I was writing and so those details were important to me. I’m also a visual person in terms of how I find my way around places; if I’ve been there before, it’s the visuals that really get me there rather than the facts of a map. So they stick with me. You’re right – it’s back to the ‘I remembers’ – I remember my mother’s green wedding dress. I hadn’t had that description yet, but I remembered that it was a blurry green…
And then once you have that memory, then you can go back and finesse the language that you used to describe it; that’s great. So many of my questions have been answered as we were talking… How about outside of the writing and the Red Brick Agency, where can we find Jamie when he’s out and about? What do you do?
I’m doing a lot of storytelling. I’m performing at spoken word events as much as possible. I’ve been doing The Moth a lot, and I’ve won two story slams. So I’m on my way to the grand slam… In New York there are a lot of storytelling venues … I love old movies, so I go to Film Forum—it’s an art house and repertoire theater so I see a lot of things there. And I love museums.
Yeah, museums, movies, theater, travel.
Where was your last trip?
Rio. Rio de Janeiro… We went there for Christmas and New Year’s. It was my first orphan Christmas so I wasn’t going to go back to Beaumont. I wanted to do something totally different. I didn’t want to be in this country. I just wanted to be somewhere totally different, somewhere hot and sunny. It was great.
I’m glad you were able to make something special out of it. This was actually kind of my first orphan Christmas too; I lost my [adoptive] father late last year… it’s tough when you get older and start losing people, your friends start losing people. I’m the same way around the holidays. [we talked a little about family here] Is there anything else I didn’t ask that our readers might want to know? About the book? About you? About your writing process?
I think this would make other writers like me feel good about themselves: I’m not an every-day writer. I was an every-day drinker, and when I stopped drinking I thought I would become an every-day writer, and that still hasn’t happened. And that’s OK. I’m still a writer. I’m still in that same writing workshop—usually two semesters a year, fall and early spring. I still need the structure of that; even though I’ve written a book, I still need the deadlines and feedback. I can’t work too long in a vacuum without getting some feedback because then I start to seriously doubt myself…
I’m the same way. When I was in the MFA program—that’s one of the reasons I did it—I couldn’t graduate unless I finished something. I was done in 2010, and I’m still working on the same project. With a magazine article, I can turn that around because I have a deadline. When you’re writing for yourself, you don’t have one—at least not an external one. So that’s good advice. To find a workshop, to find something, somewhere with that structure and other people who can hold you accountable.
Yeah. And if you can’t, figure out a way to set up deadlines for yourself that you’ll actually adhere to. Say you have a vacation—you have to finish these chapters before you go…That’s the beauty of a workshop; it forces you to finish something. Even if it’s not really finished because you have to rewrite and revise…. You’ve got to push on through so that you have a finished piece instead of something that’s always lingering.
[we talked a little about some time management stuff and family again…]
I really appreciate your time.
I’m thrilled to do this in person…
And I truly was thrilled to do it in person. Because, after the interview, Jamie showed me around his apartment, and I got to see some of the trinkets he mentioned in the book—and I got to see his parents’ wedding photo. Characters of his book—including inanimate ones—came alive. I accidentally left the recorder on, so you can hear the excitement in my voice (and his) as we walk and talk about the meaning of objects and memory.
But there’s a lot of books out there—generations full of memoirs—so we usually can’t visit the settings, past and present, of stories. The next best thing is a tale well told in which writers bring even the smallest of details to life vividly. And Jamie found a way to do that.[boxer set=”talarico”]