Interview by Lara Lillibridge
About the Book: Blissful Thinking: A Memoir of Overcoming the Wellness Revolution is the sweeping story of L.L. Kirchner’s search for nirvana that took her from university halls in the Persian Gulf to the streets of Manhattan to a sex cult in India. Between her family’s gym and the years she’d spent in substance abuse recovery, Kirchner felt grounded in physical and spiritual wellness. Then her husband demanded a divorce. Over the telephone. In a memoir that’s both rapturous and page-turning, Kirchner captures the terrors and joys of searching for radical honesty — and a second date.
About the Author: L.L. Kirchner is an award-winning screenwriter and author of the best-selling memoir American Lady Creature: (My) Change in the Middle East, named one of Bustle’s “11 Books to Battle the Blues.” A book critic, essayist, and reporter, Kirchner was once simultaneously the religion editor for an LGBTQ+ paper, dating columnist for an alt newsweekly, and bridal editor for a society rag. Her writing has appeared in Shondaland, The Rumpus, and The Washington Post among numerous others.
Her short film was accepted into sixteen festivals and took top honors in three, and she’s working on a pilot based on her second memoir, as well as a historical fiction novel. Since moving to Florida, she’s become a guest host for the Home Shopping Network, and runs the monthly storytelling show, True Stories. She still lives with her beloved dog, Hartley, as well as favorite husband. His two grown children live nearby—Miss Lorena was right.
Our interview with L.L. interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Lara Lillibridge: I am writing about spirituality, and as someone who was also suspicious of organized religion, yet on that quest for some sort of higher power that you can connect to. So I found your book to be the perfect book for me personally to read right now. I really related to it, you know, and you are so open and matter of fact, and your voice is funny, and never self-pitying. I just wondered, if you had anything to say about voice and about how that developed, and if your written voice is different from how you how you interact with people in real life.
LL Kirchner: It’s funny that you would say that, because I actually think that my written voice got much stronger when I started teaching memoir, after my first memoir came out. I had a lot of students who would come and I could tell they were bringing kind of the half-truth to the page. And that reads so falsely, it’s not engaging. But I also had the experience of having been in the program and understanding that relieving my secrets was going to actually help me resolve them.
I do work things out in writing, partly because I grew up in such a toxic family, where expressing myself was not welcome. And so by the time I would express myself, it was often in a really rageful way, which was the way of the family and I had a lot to process to get that regulated—to learn self-soothing, and those kinds of techniques, which is going way beyond what you’re asking, which is really just am I that way in real life and I can be I can be very intense and I know that and I actually have learned to sort of dial it back because not everybody wants the firehose.
LL: I’ve scared people off myself because I’m very much of a verbal dumping of whatever I’m processing kind of a person.
LLK: Yeah, I feel like I’ve definitely scared people away like, oh, are you okay?
LL: I like what you said about how teaching has changed or improved your own writing. I found that reading submissions really helped me see my own flaws as a writer. For example I would defend my use of passive voice, like, ‘that’s my style, like, I am a passive person. I speak that way in real life, this is authentic.’ But then when I read someone else’s writing, I’m like, ‘Oh, God, I see why everyone hates that.’
LLK: I was the memoirs editor for the New York Writers Group lit mag called Ducts. I saw a lot of submissions that way. And also, this was part of why I moved to New York City—so I could take classes, meet people. and do all of these things. But I also started writing memoir reviews for Kirkus. It was enormously instructive in terms of just having access to a lot of memoir, and seeing how people were structuring their books and how they were talking about things, and so I feel incredibly lucky. The other thing that really disheartened me when I was teaching a lot was when I would ask the class, ‘so what are you reading right now?’ or ‘what’s your favorite?’ And people would say, ‘well, I remember when I was in college, I read…’ and I was just like, ‘and you’re 50?’
I just think reading is the best teacher. And also, the problem is that published books are generally better, which is why teaching was so instructive, because you’re seeing things that are not at that level, and I see my own mistakes. This is why I love my writing group. Mistakes, calm when I see somebody else reading like, oh, and then when I’m writing later it comes back. Laura Davis said something really interesting—I interviewed her when her book came out, and she said that her favorite technique for getting to the truth of the matter is when she’s working with students, and as well as with herself, is when she gets to the part of the story where the next sentence in her head is ‘now this is the part I never tell anyone.’ And I love that.
LL: I remember when I was workshopping during my MFA, and I would tell someone some story, and they’d say, ‘oh, you have to write that down.’ And I would say, ‘Oh, God, no, I could never tell anyone else that.’ And then I would wind up later like, ‘okay, fine, I’ll put it in the book.’ And it made it much better—not just the individual story, but the commitment to that level of honesty—that commitment to tell those really uncomfortable stories is I think, so essential.
Now, this is not your first book. You have written screenplays and books, and you have a novel coming out, too. Is that right?
LLK: Yes. I wrote a novel during the pandemic—I had kind of given up on this book. I had a vision for this book that was just me at the 10 day silent meditation, and I had a lot of interest from editors and agents, but nobody ever snapped it up. I mean, I actually had agents that I worked with, actually a couple of different agents. So I had one agent and she was great, but I don’t know what happened. And she just was not responding. I think if you go nine months without hearing, it’s time to move on.
LLK: And so I had moved on to this other guy and he started strong. And his and his partner, I can’t recall if she died or they got a divorce, I think that she passed away. But again, I only heard that secondhand—he just sort of dropped off, and that was in 2016. At that point, I thought, well, these are terrific agents who had represented the book. And I thought the problem was probably a story. When I went back to look at it, that’s when I recognized that I was not telling the true story. Because the true story was not how meditation saved me. In fact, it was how meditation broke me, and that striving and that wanting to have that commodified version of self-care. I just felt like everybody around me was able to access that, and why not me?
LL: I know exactly what you mean. And so when I was reading your book, I highlighted in yellow, like, all sorts of things. But then in pink, I had to highlight this quote,
“What if, instead of foraging for my character defects, I started actively noticing my character assets?”
And right before that,
“What a comfort to know. I don’t need to change anything about myself, my thoughts or my feelings.”
And I thought, that was this revolutionary truth in your book. I feel that there is pressure to be striving, to be balanced, and on a quest for self-improvement—when we talk about mindfulness and being present, self-acceptance is so often missing in that conversation.
LLK: Have you heard of Pooja Lakshmin and his book, Real Self-care? It came out in March of this year. I read it because of the subtitle (Crystals, Cleanses, and Bubble Baths Not Included), which is funny. It’s a nonfiction book, but I felt like she was writing in a clinical way. My story supports her whole book. To read, it was a surreal experience. My favorite thing that she talks about is that self-care shouldn’t be looked at as a noun, it should be looked at as a verb. And that’s a big part of the problem, because we, we see it as something that we add on, but it is actually action that we should do. Should is the wrong word. You know, that always slips in.
See, that’s the thing. It’s always there—that striving, that like wanting to be on a quest for self-improvement. I heard this in a meeting—this woman said, this is not a self-improvement program. She was telling me about the 12 step program that we were both in at the time. And I was like, ‘what are you talking about?’ And I was just like, I can twist things, just the littlest bit. And that little change makes my perception support a kind of negative self-view really quickly.
LL: One thing that I liked and that I think that other writers in recovery might be interested in, is when you wrote about the idea of writing about recovery as a non-anonymous person, and you heard someone in a meeting giving someone else some flak over that. And you’re sitting there going, ‘oh, man, I’m doing that right now.’
Can you speak a little bit about your feelings about writing and recovery and anonymity?
LLK: If people who are recovering from whatever their disorder is aren’t the ones that are talking about that experience and actively putting it into the cultural zeitgeist, then who is?
There was a romanticized story in The New York Times, in March of 2022, called “Where Have All the Artist-Addicts Gone?” And it was bemoaning the loss of our culture’s beautiful, crazy drug addicts, like, ‘where are they? I missed them.’ And it did give a little bit of service to well, they did die horrifically. It did have that in there. But then it sort of ended by bringing it back to ‘oh, but I missed those days.’
My thing has long been that we need characters in film, media, whatever, that show what it’s like to be a sober person, a recovering person. Recently, I saw a couple of examples of this that I thought were so great and so wildly different—one was Nan Goldin’s documentary, on taking down the Sackler family, All The Beauty and The Bloodshed.
She had staged all these protests to encourage museums to take the Sackler name off of museum wings, and it was a documentary that she did about her experiences as someone who is recovering from substance use disorders at their hands—she became an opioid addict after she had been sober—she now takes suboxone in order to maintain her sobriety. I’m not even sure what you should call that exactly. But I’m like, that’s fantastic—if that’s working for you, that’s great. And for some people, the whole ‘California sober’ thing works for them. Sadly, none of that works for me. That’s probably the problem. My joke is always well, if I wasn’t an alcoholic, I’d be drunk right now.
So I’ve heard that many times in meetings about anonymity, and people really get upset about it. And for years, I stayed very quiet about it. And I think a that was a huge part of why relapsed because nobody knew that I shouldn’t be drinking and doing drugs. They’re like, that’s what you want to do, you’re a grown ass woman—fine.
And then the other thing is that whole representation in the culture. The other representation of a sober person that I saw recently, that I just got so sucked into was the SmartLess documentary. Have you ever heard that podcast? It’s Will Arnett, Jason Bateman, and Sean Hayes from Will and Grace, and also Arrested Development. HBO they took their podcast on a road show and they managed to score on HBO special out of that, which, you know, they’re living a rarefied life. But Will and Jason, they don’t use drugs or drink.
LL: People can not drink for myriad different reasons, and still feel very ostracized, even if it was never something that they had an issue with. They just don’t for religious reasons or whatever.
LLK: He definitely talked a lot about his recovery. And the thing that I like so much about this portrayal of these people—you’re always seeing addicts either at the depths of despair, or they just got sober and they’re completely fucked up, you know? You never see just like long term sober.
LL: That was exactly what I was going to say in terms of representation. So I’m a queer person. And I read a lot of queer books. And it’s like, yes, there’s a place for the coming out story, or the rock bottom story. Absolutely, people need that. But you also just need like, good books with people in them that belong to whatever subculture you belong to, you know, that shows how people are coping with their life.
It’s not that I’m against that sort of coming out or getting sober story, but it to me really refreshing to also see coping with life down the road. I can’t think really of another book that does that besides yours, although, I’m sure there must be at least one. So I definitely think that your book is needed, you know?
LLK: Yeah, I think that too. One of the short films that I wrote, “My Dinner with Steve,” when I thought in 2016, okay, this agent is gone. And I’m going to have to do something else with these books. And then I ended up moving to Florida, and my mom died. And then I got married and all of these things. Actually, my mom had died before then. But lots of changes. I was rewriting the book, I got a new agent. Another story, but I didn’t want the book to just die on the shelf, so I started pulling pieces. And I was writing little stories and other things, and this movie came out of that.
Actually the film, “My Dinner with Steve” is based on the chapter, “My Dinner with Keith.” I fictionalized it for the film, ultimately, I just had to make her a newcomer. Even though that is exactly what happened to me, I went on a date with this fellow and I completely information dumped all of my worst things in my intense way. Although I wouldn’t recommend against that, really for getting to know someone, but that’s a difference. Like if you want to be intimate with the person.I wouldn’t hold back.
LL: Yeah, like why pretend to be someone who you’re not. Right.
LLK: Yeah. But you don’t need to put it out there on a job interview. But anyway, so dinner, I’m thinking he’s going to accept all these things about me. He didn’t at all, there were probably a million other red flags. But it just didn’t really make sense to thematically if I didn’t make this person a newcomer. Or let me put it this way, I was able to heighten the humor. So I did the same thing that I’m complaining about.
LL: That makes the book more important—it’s our material with creative nonfiction. So you know, you do something one way, you do something fictional over here, you do something nonfiction over there. I mean, I think that makes sense.
So, you mentioned that when you teach, you ask your students what they are reading or what their favorite book is. So I’m going to ask you what is on your nightstand to be read or what are you currently reading?
LLK: I haven’t read Yellow Face yet—I have a long TBR. I’m reading a book called The German Wife and I’m really enjoying it. it’s a World War II story and it’s about these two women, but you know, I can’t help but be reading memoirs. I just read Lori Gottlieb’s, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, which is another book sort of like the Pooja Lakshmin—they’re both doctors. And they’re both sort of using these case studies I love. Another book that I want to read is actually David Stebenne’s Promised Land: How the Rise of the Middle Class Transformed America, 1929-1968. I have lots of different books going and I read them at different times.
I like podcasts, but I definitely love written books. If I listen to an audiobook, it doesn’t stick with me in the same in the same way. And for craft purposes, I feel that I always need to be the best works that are out there. And my tastes can be really quirky.
One of my favorite memoirs that I read before the pandemic and I just I can’t forget is called Piece of Cake. It’s by Cupcake Brown. She was in foster care, lived on the streets, and she was living this really crazy life. And she somehow managed to get herself a job at a law firm out of desperation for a job, but then she was like, ‘wait, I think I want to be like these people instead.’ And she kind of slowly pulled herself into that. And she ended up getting a law degree.
LL: Wow, that is very cool.
LLK: I really liked that book, but then I also like those quiet books, like Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. When we went to Italy, I read Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait. And then I also want to read Portrait of a Marriage.
LL: I do think that reading, not just the official literary darlings, but reading anything is good.I mean, personally, historical fiction is my g- to when I’m kind sick of reading important books, and I just want to read something that I’m not trying to take apart for craft. I read a ton of memoir and essay collections, but I’m always reading them actively, and sometimes you just want to read something and not think about the writer’s motivation.
When I went back to school and started being serious about being a writer, I was embarrassed to say that I liked you know, the John Grisham or whatever at the end of the grocery store check-out line.
LLK: I felt the same way, and I went to the state school. So I felt like, I should not admit this to anybody.
LL: Right. And the thing is, you can learn from any book, and even a terrible book can be a wonderful example. But these books that, you know, the mass market paperbacks, I mean, they’re popular for a reason. There are a lot of elements in them that can that can make them worth reading. I don’t think anyone should ever be embarrassed about what they read.
LLK: Well, I also worked in an independent music store, and I was the buyer for the import independent label records. The store was called Magnolia Thunder Pussy. And this was in the late 80s and early 90s. So I felt like I had to pretend to be a lot cooler than I was.
LL: I feel like everyone feels like that, right? Like, as you go through life, I think everyone is trying to come across as cooler or more together or healthier than they are.
LLK: The 20s are the worst.
LL: Yeah, yeah. So let me wrap up here by asking you two questions: What has been your experience in the publishing process with this book? And what are your hopes with the book coming out either for yourself or for the audience or however you choose to answer that?
LLK: I’m publishing with Motina Books which has actually been a dream. I designed the cover. And they have just been super responsive, be willing to brainstorm, to think of ideas, and very generous with all of that. And I’m really looking forward to see seeing how it goes.
And so as far as my hope with the book, the reason that I never quite gave up on the book is because I know so many people through being in recovery, that gets stuck in the hamster wheel. Like, I gotta fix myself, I gotta fix myself. And it, it’s such a complicated notion to attack. Personally, I have always learned more from stories, and honestly, I wish I had this book, in order to kind of give myself permission to not be constantly holding myself accountable for everything. And the beautiful piece of that is what I really recognized was when I was able to let myself off the hook, it really meant letting everybody else off, too. I didn’t realize that everybody else was on the hook, so to speak. Because I would have been one of those people who would say, ‘I’m harder on myself than anyone else.’ But I’ve come to realize that’s not actually laudable. I used to think that that was a good thing. I should be really hard on myself, but that’s not a good thing. And it doesn’t work and the sooner I can laugh at myself, the sooner I’m not taking everything seriously.
You know, nothing is a disaster, unless it is truly a disaster. And honestly, the guy that I ended up marrying—one of my favorite things that he says all the time is ‘if that’s the worst thing that happens all day, we’re fine.’ It’s solvable problem. It’s not terminal.
Blissful Thinking: A Memoir of Overcoming the Wellness Revolution comes into the world September 26, 2023, with Motina Books. Learn more at www.LLKirchner.com. Or for the less committed, on socials everywhere @llkirchner_.