Devil’s Lake


Interview with Zachary Siegel

It should be noted, before diving into this, that you and I are good friends. It should also be noted that we're both addicts. To change things up, I asked you (as a journalist, nonfiction and occasional fiction writer) if you'd be willing to do an interview for Devil's Lake. That being said, let's begin.

Q: Do you find journalism or non-fiction writing about alcoholism and addiction by those who don’t suffer from it to be problematic?

I really like to read about space, outer space, and all of the crazy shit that happens in space, like space explosions. I assume the people who write about space haven't been up there, and they do a pretty good job. So does one need to experience an addiction to capture it journalistically or narratively? Probably not. That being said, human sewage like addiction is a subject that's more emotionally charged than say, black holes (though I am terrified of them), so I think it is safe say those who are writing about it that have not experienced it firsthand, or has seen someone close to them, might miss out on some of the icky nuance.

Q: You and I are both straight, white, upper middle class men. You often write (Great White Fright—The Addiction Devastation of the Middle Class) that you're only clean and alive because your parents could afford to pay for treatment. I know that to be true for myself. Do you believe that your writing is political? That it has the potential to change the fact that the well-off and white often get much better treatment than everyone else?

I don't think I got away clean because I am lucky or special or clever. I think it's because I'm not a walking target.

I see the world as unjust. I don’t think we're all being tested, that things happen for a reason, that by virtue of being human we naturally skew toward some kind of Platonic good. As a collective, human beings are a fucked up species.

That being said, the view I hold is a motivator to call out injustice wherever I see it. So the stories I choose to write about are often political. Health disparities—seen in class, race, and gender—come with the territory of reporting on drugs and policy.

The disparity is clear in my own experiences, too. For instance, I was never arrested and I broke the law everyday for almost a decade. I don't think I got away clean because I am lucky or special or clever. I think it's because I'm not a walking target. And when it finally came time to face my actions, I was told I had an illness, that I was sick and needed help. Others don't get this treatment, they're put in jail and told they're criminals.

As for changing things, journalists can spread information to a shit load of people. I recently started commenting in comment sections under my own stories. Someone called me an “activist journalist” and I thought, since when am I an activist? I lie in bed and write shit.

Q: You are a freelance writer. Can you explain your entire process from start to finish on a piece?

I do academic-type research from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Not going to lie, I'm always scanning my news aggregators while I'm at work. But as soon as I get home, I'm writing the story I pitched to one of my editors while I was at work.

Once I've locked in on a target, I pitch one of my editors a story that usually goes, look what this asshole said or did, and I try to right the wrong.

To do this most effectively I'm always in touch with experts, academics, other reporters and writers. I have a sizeable network of go-to smart people willing to give me quotes, who are not afraid to put someone on blast. It also helps I do research as my day job, which gives me access to all of the academic databases, the peer-reviewed stuff. I do my best to ground my stories with what it is we see as empirically true.

I put all this together—data, quotes from experts, background research—into a unified argument, one that I hope is grounded in freaking reality. Takes dozens of iterations. The whole session is one gigantic rewrite. I try to write at least one of these stories a day. Anyone looking in would say it's tedious and obsessive, probably because it is. But I'm obsessive, so it all works.

Q: One common theme in your writing that strikes me is not making yourself the hero of your own story. Regardless of the medium it seems that when people do openly discuss addiction, which is incredibly rare, it is always in a completely polarized way. It's either ‘the junkie shooting up in the alley,’ or “The pro athlete who faced his disease and is now making a triumphant return.’ You wrote:

“We need to derail these heroic success stories with a strong person at the center. Because I think in America, in this hyper-individualistic, hyper-real, post-postmodern techno-world we find ourselves in, we're all de-centered subjects. Heroes don't exist anymore and good riddance.”
(The Fix, “How I Didn't Kick Heroin”)

Q: So, what’s the alternative? What stories do people need to be hearing? How can we tell those stories?

It's hard to say what people need to hear. I think, though, because of my background in reporting news and doing research, I'm bound to and seek out truth. I think it's phony and abstract when people say they overcame such and such because of some innate, secret power they hold. The world doesn't work like that. The subjective world, at least as I experience it, is incoherent, just barely intelligible. I also don't trust my intelligence.

I think we all string together narratives about what we experience, so to squeeze at least a modicum of meaning out of it. But when I read a story that relies on a simplistic, cleanly wrapped narrative where everything ends OK, it falls dead on me. No point to read it.

As for how to tell stories that are truly true, I think it does take a journalistic eye. David Carr's Night of the Gun did this well, and he was trained as a reporter. Burroughs, too, I think he wrote like an ethnographer, cataloging the underworld with this cold, quasi-medical language. Mary Karr, I think, is so good at writing about herself because she's not afraid of herself. The fact that she can take this unyielding eye toward her family, herself, and not flinch, is a feat. She has probably dug deeper into the abyss more than anyone I've ever read, and she pulls it off in a super literary way. So those are some better than good ways of doing it.

Q: People romanticize addiction and writing. I hadn't written a single poem before I got sober. When did you start writing in relation to your use?

And I wrote while I was strung out, only I'd piece together very boring stories. So freaking boring. My life was less interesting than a plant's.

So I'd read these action-packed, drug frenzied stories, like in the drug memoirs. And I wrote while I was strung out, only I'd piece together very boring stories. So freaking boring. My life was less interesting than a plant's. So monotonous. I'd take the train to grab heroin, high tail it back to the North Side before anything bad happened while I was outside. I'd fix it up and chain-smoke to The Food Network. I wasn't into food or anything, I was eating the simulation. I ate a lot of sour skittles for some reason.

But this always makes think of this line from “Igby Goes Down,” with Kieran Culkin. He's talking about these insane New York bozos and says he knows this dancer who doesn't dance, a painter who doesn't paint, a singer who doesn't sing etc. etc. That's basically what I was until I cleaned up.

During the summer of 2012 I got out of rehab and I lived in St. Paul, Minn., for over a year. I worked in a little Jewish deli, from 9 to 3, kinda like the research job I have now. Then I'd go write until I passed out. Kinda still do that now.

ZACHARY SIEGEL is a researcher, journalist, and writer living in Chicago. His articles have appeared in The Fix, The Daily Beast, Alternet, and The RedEye.