Interview With Rosie Schaap

Fortune teller. Deadhead. Minister. Teacher. These are a few of the lives that New York Times columnist and This American Life contributor Rosie Schaap has led. But rather than relegating those memories to the past, she has woven those moments together in her recent book, Drinking with Men (Riverhead, 2013). Schaap’s memoir, set against the backdrop of neighborhood bars, explores her experiences as a daughter, a friend, a wife, and, of course, a drinker. Drinking with Men is, at its root, a story about finding community–a beloved space in which to grow, to love, to mourn, and to rejoice.

I spoke with Schaap via email to discuss life as a part of an “alternative” community, memoir writing, and the paths we take.

Street: Drinking With Men is a really interesting take on the memoir, looking at your life through the lens of bar life. Each chapter sits well alone while contributing to the larger story of your life. It’s also structured in a very non-linear way (location, rather than time as the flow). Was there a conscious decision to structure the book in this way, or did this come about after it was written?

Schaap: Thank you. I’ve never considered structure one of my strengths as a writer, so I was relieved that the structure of the book fell into place as it did, and glad that it makes sense to readers.  In its earliest stages, I thought of Drinking With Men as a collection of essays, not as a memoir. Each chapter revolves around a single bar that was vital to me at a certain time in my life; in a way, the bars are characters in the narrative. But it all added up to a memoir in a way I just couldn’t fight. I’m glad that the chapters can stand alone, but I couldn’t see how they all connected, and told a larger story when taken together.

Initially, I was resistant to claiming the right to write a memoir; I thought of the form as something that somehow must be harder earned, must come later in life, after more experience, perhaps with more time to reflect. But what I’ve come to accept, and to value, is that a memoir isn’t a comprehensive life story. This is the story of my life in bars, not my whole life, and I felt ready to tell that particular story.

Street: Drinking stories featuring women are usually tragic or cautionary tales. You acknowledge that in the book. Were there any roadblocks to publication because of that? Any pushback?

Schaap: The opposite might have been true. Because many drinking memoirs, by men and by women, are recovery stories, I think early readers of my proposal and first chapters (including Megan Lynch at Riverhead, who would become my editor) found it refreshing and surprising to be presented with an unapologetic and frankly feminist celebration of bar culture by a woman. At the same time, the question I was asked most often on my book tour, and in many of the interviews I did when the book came out, was some variation on: “Come on, you can be honest with me. Are you an alcoholic?” And no matter how firmly I stand by my “no” answer, some people just won’t believe it. Still, I hope it’s clear to any reader that the book is much more about community than about alcohol consumption.

Street: The author I thought about while reading the introduction to your book was Jane Jacobs. In her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she talks about the way neighborhoods and streets create communities in unplanned ways. I was most reminded of that when you wrote about how being a regular in your neighborhood bar means you have a place to keep your extra set of keys and have your packages delivered. Jacobs had this too, but with a local hardware store. Do you think that people underestimate the types of communities that are formed in non-traditional spaces? It’s not a new idea, but there does seem to be an undercurrent of resistance that runs through your book to the idea that a space like a bar, or a hardware store, or a bookstore could be the source of a rich and important community.

Schaap: I’m really excited that the introduction brought Jane Jacobs, whom I ardently admire, to your mind. So much of what she wrote remains so true and so important. People simultaneously underestimate the community that can be created in nontraditional spaces—and yearn for it. The idea of the “third place,” a space that is neither the workplace nor the home, comes up frequently when I speak about bar culture. We want places where we can release pressure, let off steam, relax, without bearing the same sense of responsibility we feel among our families and our coworkers. Most of us need that; for some it’s a neighborhood coffeehouse, for some it’s the gym. For me it has always been the bar. And that’s not just because I like to drink, but also because I cherish the range of people I encounter and get to know at bars. It’s an unusual affinity group: all that brings us together is our shared sense of comfort and belonging at a certain bar. It makes for a mix of occupations and interests and backgrounds and ages that’s hard to find anywhere else.

Street: Riggio program at the New School is mostly populated by “non-traditional” students, people with starts and stops in education. Your educational life has taken a winding path as well. How has your relationship with traditional and non-traditional education shaped your writing?

Schaap: It’s not the right choice for everyone, but I don’t regret dropping out of high school. What I learned on the Grateful Dead tour, and from working odd jobs, and traveling the country, turned out to be a pretty amazing education. It also meant that when I finally did get a GED and go to college, I felt I had something to prove. Emotionally, that was a bit of a burden, but it made me work really hard in college, and get as much from the experience as I could. Sometimes a chip on one’s shoulder can be a highly effective motivator. As far as traditional education goes, I was surprised to discover in college how madly I would love the English canon, which I had thought of as stodgy and against everything I stood for at the time. What captivated me most of all was the Romantic tradition. No writer will ever be more radical than William Blake. I still read him almost every day.

One thing I’m pretty sure of: Had I entered college right out of high school, I wouldn’t have lasted a semester. I needed to grow up a little first.

Your question reminds me of something I once read in an interview with A.R. Ammons, one of my favorite poets. Before he was a successful poet and a professor at Cornell, he spent time in the navy and managed a glass factory. At Cornell, he encouraged the students he considered “genuine poets” to get out into the world. Reading about that advice has always stuck with me. If I hadn’t gotten out into the world and done things other than writing—trying many different kinds of jobs, failing at some, doing okay at others—I’d have little to write about.

Street: You talk a bit about the city before, the space it created for artists, social workers, etc. Can you expand on that? You’re a New York writer in every way one can be, but there is a sense of an outside perspective to the book. You’re a traveler, even at home, somehow.

Schaap: Without falling into a festering pit of nostalgia, or resentment, or anger, or all three, it’s true that the New York City I grew up in was different from the city I live in now. Artists and social workers and teachers could afford to live in places like the West Village. The city didn’t feel owned and overrun by the very rich. And I can’t help believing that the greater economic diversity in Manhattan made it a more interesting place than it is now.

But New York is still New York. And for all its frustrations and expense and mishegoss, it will always attract fantastically interesting and creative people from everywhere. It’s just gotten so much harder to thrive here, when even just getting by can be out of reach.

I think some sense of outsiderhood in my writing comes mainly from two sources. The first is my nature; I’ve rarely felt like I’ve fit in perfectly anywhere. And the second is that I had to leave New York for a good part of my life to get a clearer, sharper perspective on it. Growing up here, I took the city for granted. It was just home. Just where I was. Returning as an adult, after college, I learned how to make use of the city. I forced myself to see and do more.

Street: One thing that struck me about the structure of the book is that not only does it list name of the bar as chapter titles, but the location, which adds a layer of richness to the narrative. How much does listening to the rhythm of a place contribute to the story? (I’m thinking very specifically about your time in Ireland, and the music of the conversations there, but it’s just the first one that came to mind.)

Schaap: The rhythm of a place contributes in a big way. It’s part of what I love about bars: each place has its own music, its own rhythms and cadences. The hum of my favorite pub in Dublin does seem to exist at a slightly higher pitch, and maybe in a more sing-song kind of rhythm, than the lower, slower hum of my favorite New York bar.

Street: Your life went through a lot of changes in the course of the book. There’s a lovely and sad scene in your book where you meet up with an old friend at a wedding, and you see each other as adults for the first time. You express some regret at the idea that you may have failed your art and your politics somehow. When their lives grow and change, how can artists incorporate these changes into their work? Or how can we incorporate art into our changing lives?

Schaap: How can we not? Often when I feel like everything is falling apart, my anchor is art—mostly in the forms of painting and poetry. When I am feeling especially low, I make an effort to drag my sorry self to a museum. Looking at something beautiful probably won’t fix whatever it is that’s bothering me, but it creates a meaningful shift. It reorients my focus. And reading poetry is something I have to do every day. It’s the closest thing I’ve got to a consistent religious practice.

When I think about the scene in the book to which you refer, I think what I often try to remind myself of is this: Regret can sting, but it’s natural. What’s important to me—and I strive for this all the time—is not to let regret turn into cynicism.