Books In Conversation
CAN'T QUIT YOU, BABY
AMY LONG with Trysh Travis
Amy Long’s Codependence is the book that we need—well, that I need, anyway—right now. Since 2018, when POTUS punted on declaring the opioid epidemic a national emergency, media attention has shifted away from drug users and towards the evil pharmaceutical industry. Purdue Pharma, Allergan, Johnson & Johnson, et al have taken the scheming villain’s role that “the liquor interests” used to play in Progressive Era temperance melodramas. Those narratives have always left me cold, because, you know—moral complexity? Character development? Attention to context? Codependence has all of that in spades, so when it arrived in my mailbox, I felt lucky that I could call her up and ask “how did you do it?”
(Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2019)
Trysh Travis (Rail): So, readers of this interview should know that you and I go way back—to the Bush presidency, no less! So that folks can appreciate the insider-y vibe of this interview, do you want to bring them up to speed on our relationship?
Amy Long: Whoa. Since Bush! That sounds like so long ago. I guess it was. I met you in, I think, my second semester as an undergrad at the University of Florida when I took your Masculinity in Suburbia class, which I liked so much I took it again while I was doing my MA in women’s studies. You were my advisor then, and at some point, you hired me to do research for your book The Language of the Heart (2009), including a little on W’s alcoholism. We worked on launching the drug history blog Points after I graduated. Now, we’re friends, and we last saw each other when I came down to Gainesville to see Richard Buckner a year or two ago (you introduced me to Buckner’s music), and we talked about how students now just aren’t as smart as I was! You’re also in the book. I go to Thanksgiving at your house before I have my first panic attack, for which I blame you entirely (no, I’m kidding; your dressing is still the best I’ve ever had).
Rail: I was just at a faculty meeting this week where a graduate assistant said “no undergrads read fiction anymore; it's a waste of time trying to teach it to them.” You were an English and Women's Studies double major. Realizing that you and I met back in the days before smart phones and streaming services (!), what do you think of that statement? Did you have a life as a fiction reader as an undergraduate? You were an intellectually ambitious, curious student; do you feel your reading life was substantively different than that of the kids of that type that you teach today?
Long: Do you remember that time when you came over to my house to bring me soup, and my kitchen looked like a Netflix facility exploded? It was just, like, red envelopes everywhere. My students don’t believe me when I tell them Netflix used to send DVDs through the mail! They also don’t read for fun (or for class, and they admit that to me, which I kind of respect; they could lie, but they don’t). It’s weird. They sort of don’t do anything for fun. When I’m trying to help them come up with paper topics, I ask them what they read when they go down internet wormholes, and they look at me like, “Read? On the internet?” One student told me he watches ant-farm videos on YouTube. Like, literally just videos of ants walking around in ant farms! But, actually, I didn’t read that much unassigned fiction in college; I read constantly in high school and majored in English because I liked literature, so I had a reading life then, but most of it revolved around the classes I took. And I took classes that interested me, so I was usually into what we were reading.
I think the major difference is in how they engage with popular culture in general. In my first-year composition classes, I have them write personal narratives filtered through some pop culture object—an album, a movie, a book, whatever. I could write that essay a million times. My UF admissions essay was about how Tori Amos’s album Under the Pink made me question ideas about gender and religion that I’d internalized as a teenager, but when I tell this to my students, they say they don’t have albums that changed their lives the way albums did for me. They just add songs to their Spotify playlists and forget about them. Music and books were so important to me and you when we were discovering who we were and what we believed, and it’s weird to me that kids don’t have those sorts of relationships with art now. Maybe because there‘s no sense of scarcity in pop culture anymore, nothing feels special to them, but I don’t know what keeps them from feeling like an artist is speaking directly to them or why they don’t find parallels with their own experiences in lyrics or whatever.
At the state college where I teach now, I have a lot of students who are veterans or who’ve experienced trauma, and I do find that, when I get to teach them fiction and poetry, those students are really excited to find, like, a novel or essay that deals with something they’ve been through, and they’re able to take stories that have little to do with what they’ve experienced and find similarities that help them explain what the author is trying to communicate. They learn things about each other because they speak more openly about why they like the story or poem and what it means to them. So, I disagree that literature isn’t worth teaching to students, but there is something different in how my students and I think about art and culture, and it makes me wonder not if but how the internet, which should be a boon for niche interests and subcultures, killed young people’s interest in the world.
Rail: In your master thesis, you looked at representations of gendered drug worlds in a range of popular culture texts. I say "drug worlds" because you were interested—correctly so—in the interrelationships between trafficking and using. Can you talk a little bit about how the connectivity between those two came to interest you as a subject for analysis?
Long: I think I was looking for a way to analyze from an academic viewpoint things I’d seen or experienced. I don’t think I knew that then; I just thought the idea was interesting, and I got to write about TV shows I liked! But I’d just gotten out of a relationship with a guy who was addicted to opiates (David in the book), and I saw up close how power works in drug worlds, and I guess I wanted to see what depictions of those dynamics—even if they were wildly different from what I saw in my own life—said about the world I’d been in for the past few years.
My thesis looked at what happened when drug narratives, which are often formulaic, moved from books and movies into serialized television, and my main texts were The Great Gatsby, The Wire, and Weeds. I saw Weeds as the more revolutionary text because drugs empower Nancy whereas, in almost every other representation of drug worlds, drugs bring women down in some way—like, Daisy is just an idea that Gatsby loves, and he deals in illicit substances (or, as you posit, maybe sex workers) to “win” her as if she’s an object and not a person. The drug spaces I’d seen marginalized women in similar ways; we were the ones who had the money and kept everything running smoothly for the men in our lives, but our pleasure was less important than theirs. Like, we didn’t always get the first line of cocaine even if we were the ones who bought it. Women were treated as hangers on or prizes or nags rather than as people who might also like drugs, including by the people who took our money and gave us drugs and the ones who did them with us, and I was attracted to this depiction of a woman who gains power as she moves through the drug world in part because I’d never seen it before, and I wanted to put that in conversation with the male-dominated drug narratives we’re more used to seeing.
Rail: Then you worked in the policy world doing research and public relations—what was it like to shift between thinking about representations and cultural politics to thinking about statistics and press briefings?
Long: It was kind of exhilarating. Things actually happened! This case overturned that law, or that law got passed and would do some good for someone. And it was a lot easier! I wasn’t married to the work the way you are when you do research and write all the time. Like, I didn’t wake up and jot down ideas in the middle of the night. I left work at work. And, since I knew how much power representations have, I was maybe better at articulating what was happening or at coming up with a frame for an issue that might engage people and make them see the issue differently. But I never got that far up in the ranks. I was always an assistant or a “coordinator,” and I missed the ability to work on my own ideas. So, it was exciting and boring and a little constricting. I liked doing it, but I never felt like I got to use the skills I’d developed in grad school in my work or, like, bring myself into it.
Rail: And it was during this time that you started to live some of the issues that you'd been researching?
Long: Yes. I’ve had headaches since I was three, but they really became debilitating when I was working for the ACLU and then for free speech groups in New York. It’s a wholly different kind of distribution. Instead of waiting in some dealer’s driveway for my boyfriend to come back with drugs, I had to convince a doctor to write them and get a pharmacist to fill the prescription, which has only gotten harder in recent years with new prescribing guidelines and all that. I was in some ways using what I’d learned watching my ex “shop” doctors to make myself look legitimate—and I was and am legitimately in pain, but it’s an invisible woman problem, so it’s hard to get doctors to take it seriously, and the climate around opioids, which are the only drugs that have ever really relieved the pain, has gotten so strict that a few tricks are necessary!—and I still deal with a dynamic that’s similar to the one I mentioned earlier: a patriarchal medical establishment that often dismisses women’s pain.
Rail: So, we've established how your work is grounded in your varied intellectual, personal, and political experiences. Now let's talk about craft. Codependence is not exactly what I'd call a typical drug or recovery memoir. (And I love you for that, just btw.) Can you talk a little bit about that genre—what it is, how it works, how you've encountered it as a casual and as a professional reader, and what you think about it? The answer to that last can be an analytical response, or one based more on aesthetic judgement. Or both!
Long: Thank you! I appreciate being atypical. The addiction/recovery (and also illness) memoir generally goes something like “I had a problem. I overcame it. Here is what I learned.” And I just really hate that. It’s so boring. I mean, there are definitely books that fit into the genre that I love. Like, Rob Roberge’s memoir Liar should fit into that category, but it starts at the end of the story when the narrator is at a low point despite having been sober (I don’t want to spoil it for people who haven’t read it), so its structure acknowledges that addiction is never really over. I’m also not addicted at any point in the book. I never got addicted when I did drugs for fun, and I’m dependent on opioids for medical reasons; I don’t feel the kind of cravings that friends who are addicted have described to me (but, if I lost my pain doctor, I’d have—and I have had—the same withdrawal symptoms as anyone else who uses opioids). So, it was always going to be different.
But I wanted to subvert that typical “And then I got better” structure largely because I’m not going to get better. I see myself depending on opioids for the rest of my life, barring some kind of miracle cure for which I don’t think it’s realistic to hope after twelve years of searching. I didn’t want to tell a linear story that would in any way suggest that there’s an “out” for me. But I also learned a lot about myself through drug use; I didn’t want to paint that as the terrible thing I did in my past. The person I started doing them with is terrible, but drugs were really freeing for me, and I think it’s important to have literature that not only depicts a medicinal opioid use but also depicts drugs as more complicated than the “I was looking to fill the hole inside me with the wrong thing, and now I know better” way that drug memoirs typically do.
Rail: Following on that, I'm curious about two things: first, how did you know you wanted to write about your life as a drug user? Then, how did you figure out how you wanted to write about your life as a drug user?
Long: I guess it was instinctual. I entered my MFA program planning to write this story as a novel. I was off opioids then, and I joke that I got back on them so I couldn’t write the kind of recovery story we’re talking about above! But I couldn’t really get into it until I took a creative nonfiction workshop with Matthew Vollmer, who had us make 3D objects that dealt with an “obsession” we’d picked at the beginning of the semester. I knew my obsession would be drugs the second Matthew said “obsession,” and I narrated my drug history in a medicine cabinet. It was really cool. I made fake crack out of soap and coke out of baking soda and got the library design staff to help me make these insanely detailed prescription labels that were the inspiration for the second essay, and I stuck short essays in the bottles or bags or whatever. I even folded on into one of my own Suboxone packets! I’d been struggling with the novel idea, and when I started writing it like I was actually just writing about myself instead of myself as a fictional character, it came a lot faster and a lot easier and was so much more interesting (I also think it’s too specific to be a novel; like, I can write a story about anything I want, and I make it about...headaches? That seems weird! And the stakes seem lower if you don’t know a real person experiences it), so I decided to write it that way. I don’t know why I thought the two threads went together except that I felt like it would be dishonest and kind of boring if I didn’t admit that I’d had a pretty prolific drug career and wasn’t a naive opioid patient. But I think something happens when the two stories get read together. I’ll leave it to critics to tell me what that is. I really don’t know. But it’s a fertile juxtaposition, and I knew I had to use it.
Rail: Reflecting, as it does, all these insights into the overlaps among drug cultures, drug policy, and drug memoir aesthetics, it’s not surprising that Codependence won Cleveland State University Press’s 2018 Essay Collection Competition. What’s next for you as a writer? As a drug user?
Long: It’s hard to say. I think, as a drug user, that I need to move to another country! I need to get my pain management in order before I can totally concentrate on writing again. I know I want the next book (I think in books) to focus on loneliness and relationships and how they’re affected by my pain, but I kind of want the pain and the drugs to take a backseat next time. I‘ve written a tiny bit, but I can’t quite get anything to feel small enough to work as a starting point. I’m thinking that, since Codependence’s outline was a medicine cabinet, I’ll make a dollhouse diorama full of bedrooms to plan out book two!
Rail: And finally, like I said, you and I go back to the Bush era. We’ve supported each other through shitty breakups and dealing with our conservative fathers; we’ve gotten drunk together more than once; we read each other’s work. Would you say we’re codependent?
Long: Entirely. No question. I don’t know how I’d survive without you! You taught me how to think critically and revise, and you wrote me 21 MFA recommendation letters, which I’m told were “beautiful,” so it’s possible that none of this would have happened without you! I think you’re overestimating what I bring to the relationship, though!
Rail: Your life as a writer makes it possible for me to experience the joy of this interview. That can’t be overestimated.