by Jerry Waxler
This is the third and final part of my interview with Tim Elhajj, author of the memoir Dopefiend. In the first part of the interview, we discuss shame, self-acceptance, and anonymity. In the third part, we will talk about writing and publishing. In Part Two, we take a fresh look at writing about the Twelve Steps. In this part of the interview, Elhajj talks about writing the book and publishing it.
Jerry Waxler: You published the book through a publisher. These days, the whole writing community is buzzing about the potential for self-publishing. Help me understand your decision. Why did you choose to go with a publisher? How long and hard was the journey to find an agent or editor?
Tim Elhajj: I wasn’t sure I wanted to self-publish my first book. I created a proposal that included a chapter-by-chapter synopsis and the first three chapters and then sent it around to a short list of publishers and agents. I targeted publishers and agents that had worked with stories similar to mine within the previous year. I’m glad I did it the way I did, but I wouldn’t be so averse to self-publishing for my next project. It’s really not that hard, especially if you have a background as a writer and are comfortable with the technical requirements of pulling the manuscript together.
Jerry Waxler: Over my years of researching the publishing industry, I have developed various fantasies and fears. In one fantasy, a team of expert editors would transform my raw manuscript into a world class work of literature. In a second version of this fantasy, the publisher doesn’t edit it at all, leaving all my mistakes exposed to the world. In a third scenario, the editor seizes control over voice and pacing and completely distorts my message. So how does your actual experience fit these extreme examples?
Tim Elhajj: The publishing industry has some odd conventions. I had to learn to stand up for myself with what I wanted for the story. I had to do the job I imagine a good agent would do for a writer. Really had to advocate for myself, for what I wanted from my story. I feel like I did a pretty good job for a first time author with no agent. I got 99% of what I wanted. But I’ll tell you this-I wouldn’t work with a publisher again without an agent. I’d rather write, then deal with that end of the business. It’s exhausting work.
Jerry Waxler: You did a great job of telling an excellent story. How did you prepare for this task? I note that you are a technical writer and that you went to a liberal arts college, Hunter. With this diverse writing background, what was your learning curve like when you attempted to turn your life into a story? Was it hard to learn the memoir writing voice?
Tim Elhajj: My blog was a huge help finding a voice that I am comfortable with. I have a very modest readership, but it’s not about the hits or raw numbers. It’s about finding a way to get comfortable with the work, a way to put it out there.
Jerry Waxler: I love the sparseness of your writing style. With simple anecdotes and scenes, you are able to develop a complex, complete story. Out of all the twists and turns of your life, how did you manage to select just the scenes that worked?
Tim Elhajj: Most of the anecdotes in the book were ones that I tell in AA meetings or around the dinner table to entertain my kids. Telling a story doesn’t always work the same way as writing a story. You have to make certain adjustments for the page. The audience is potentially different and some things may need more explanation, or transitions to get it to all make sense, but it all came out of that one big insight that I discussed earlier, about my relationship to my son and the program. That was the key to the rest of the book.
Jerry Waxler: You introduce a walk-on character who is not really there. He is like an apparition, or hallucination of one of your old drug buddies, and serves as a grim reminder of the life you could have been stuck in. The technique added dramatic power. However, it created a slight disturbance in my reading mind. I murmured to myself, not in a bad way, “Wait, what is that? Is it a literary device? A hallucination?”
Using this visionary element opens the door to the memoir author’s fantasy world, which I think could provide additional rich material for a memoir. (William Manchester uses a similar device in his memoir “Goodbye Darkness” in which he is haunted by the demons of his past.) What can you tell about your decision to use that particular character in the story?
Tim Elhajj: You’re speaking of Chopper Cassidy. I changed the name, but this character is modeled from the first young man I knew who had died of a drug overdose. I must have been about fifteen or sixteen at the time.
I wanted to give the reader a sense for the weight of my past indiscretions and poor choices. Most writers of recovery memoirs can just show what their active addiction was like, but I had a very specific structure in mind for the book, so I needed to do something different. I wanted something tangible and big. I had read and admired Shalom Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament and he does something similar to give the reader a sense for the weight of his religious upbringing by Orthodox Jewish parents.
This is one of the parts of the book that I had to fight with the publisher to keep. I am so glad you liked it, and that you understood what I was trying to achieve. It is a little disconcerting to see something like this in memoir, but I feel like it’s okay to push boundaries. Take risks. Experiment.
Jerry Waxler: I first met you in an online critique group. You were submitting pieces of the memoir to the group. Apparently it helped you polish your work. Please tell us more about the value of the critiquing process in your development as a writer, and in the development of this particular book.
Tim Elhajj: I’ve really fallen into a comfortable groove with my writing group. What’s most beneficial to me is that act of looking at others work. I have to learned to quickly identify the one or two things that I think will most improve the work, so that I can respond to the group and keep my membership active. This has allowed me to develop a finer sense for evaluating and revising my own work. And, of course, I also benefit from the feedback I get from the others. I have the good fortune to have many fine writers-like yourself, Jerry!-looking and commenting on my work.
Jerry Waxler: One problem with critique groups is that they generally only give feedback about short sections at a time. It’s harder to find readers who will review the whole book. How did you overcome that challenge? Did you have many readers? Were you part of a group? Anything else you can share about reviewing the book while you were writing it?
Tim Elhajj: I have my wife who reads my longer manuscripts and offers incredibly helpful reviews. Sometimes you really do need someone to look at the work in the context its meant to have as a final manuscript. But it’s also helpful to get buy in on scenes, synopsis, and big ideas. When a book goes from idea to actual chapters-when the writing takes off and starts to move to its own cadence-then I like to narrow my feedback to one or two people who have a sense for what I’m trying to achieve.
Jerry Waxler: When I write or edit my memoir, my creative attention forces me to integrate forgotten or discarded parts, and so on. Over time, this introspective work has made me more confident about my life. How would you describe the impact that memoir writing has had on you? [an anecdote would be awesome]
Tim Elhajj: I would say my writing keeps me in my office until all hours of the night. It’s hard work, but I love it. Wouldn’t have it any other way. I am sort of a loner anyhow. If I weren’t writing, I might just be staring out the window, thinking. Much better to write it all down. Try to make an entertaining story. My writing helps me to connect with people-readers. It’s an important outlet that I wouldn’t have without the writing. I’d like to think I’d still be a thoughtful person, but my life would be a little poorer without the potential for readers.
For brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.