7 Books About Addiction That Helped Me Write “What’s Not Mine”

Six years ago, as I wrote the first lines of my novel What’s Not Mine, fentanyl was just starting to hit the news. I never set out to write about addiction, though the toll taken by drugs and alcohol had been in my family for a long time. It shook me that the existing nightmare of the opioid overdose crisis could be getting worse, but as I learned more about fentanyl it was clear that’s what was happening. Like many things that trouble me, it began to find its way into my writing. But how to write about the very real, wide-ranging trauma of addiction in a novel? These seven books get it right, and helped inspire different aspects of my narrator Bria’s slide into addiction the Summer she turned sixteen.

Jesus’ Son
by Denis Johnson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Published May 15th, 2018

This slim book of interconnected short stories about a drug addicted narrator is a classic I have loved for a long time. I first encountered Jesus’ Son in an undergrad creative writing class and was instantly worshipful of Johnson’s singular voice. I carried a printed off PDF of the story “Work” in my purse for a full semester, pulling it out on the subway ride to school to reread lines that are still revealing themselves to me twenty years later, as I teach the stories to students of my own. This book contains some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read, and the junkie status of the narrator is both beside the point and part of it. Johnson’s work taught me that every man’s life is holy to him, and that barroom glory stories are some of the best kind. 

While there’s not really a lack of women in this book, they are more talismanic than they are “fully fleshed out” characters. They’re victims or helpers or angel muses. In some ways my protagonist Bria is my homage to Johnson’s F*ckhead alter-ego: self-deprecating and aggrandizing in equal measure, but told through the lens of girlhood, which is its own craven glory story, indeed.

Hey, Good Luck Out There
by Georgia Toews
Random House
Published May 31, 2022

In her 2022 debut novel, Georgia Toews writes about the terrifyingly vulnerable early stages of recovery from alcohol addiction. On the first page of the book her narrator Bobbi is dropped off at rehab by her mother and from there the text is split roughly in two, chronicling Bobbi’s time in treatment and then the immediate period afterwards. Toews gives Bobbi’s voice unfiltered free reign of the page, as she experiences all the uncomfortable ugliness of an addict’s first days of sobriety. In treatment, Bobbi feels like a newbie outsider, watching as repeat rehab customers rail against the sometimes-stupid rules that aim to save them, but as much as she wants to run, she stays. 

Toews writes the knife’s edge of Bobbi’s fledgling commitment to sobriety with admirable wit and compassion. Sometimes Bobbi’s mind bumps up against a thought too painful to think, and in those moments Toews gives us a glimpse of what Bobbi is trying to blur with her drinking, while leaving much of it a mystery just out of reach for the reader. I aspired to bring that quality of an addict’s mental evasiveness to Bria.

Lady Sings the Blues
by Billie Holiday with William Dufty
Published July 25, 2006

Close your eyes and call to mind Billie Holiday’s legendary voice. Now, imagine a voice just as unforgettable, as hauntingly elegant and raw, but on the page. That’s the voice of this memoir, written by Holiday herself, along with William Dufty, and first published in 1956. It’s said that Dufty pulled the book together quickly based on a series of conversations with Holiday, and you can feel the intimacy and urgency of this format in a wonderful way while reading it. 

Holiday’s struggle with heroin addiction is discussed, as are her cycles of rehab and relapse, and the abusive relationships that helped fuel that cycle, but of special note is the impact drug laws had on Holiday’s career. After being the target of raids by NYC police, Holiday is arrested for possession of narcotics in 1947, goes through withdrawals in prison, and finds her ability to work crippled upon her release, because her New York City Cabaret Card has been revoked. That doesn’t stop Holiday, but reading about the uphill battle to re-establish her reputation and livelihood all while trying to stay sober drives home the lack of support available, then and now.

The Basketball Diaries
by Jim Carroll
Published July 7, 1987

In 1978 poet Jim Carroll first published this version of his teenaged journals, in which he recorded the basketball games of his youth, days spent skipping school to roam the streets of 1960s New York City, and ultimately how he became hooked on heroin. 

The book opens in 1963, and you can feel future-poet Carroll flexing his literary muscles as he captures the rhythms of his New York City days with artful immediacy. Readers embarking upon the book will know that Carroll lives to tell the tale—he goes on to become a renowned poet and musician—but were it not for that fact the book would end in a bleakly open-ended fashion. With What’s Not Mine being fiction and written in the present tense, there was none of that promise of a future embedded in the book for Bria, so I was conscious of writing some hope into the story too (you don’t need much, hope can be small).

My Year of Rest and Relaxation
by Ottessa Moshfegh
Published June 25, 2019

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Ottessa Moshfegh’s work is beloved for the seeming delight she takes in creating perverse characters. Here, a highly privileged, unnamed female narrator commits to a regime of abusing prescription drugs; lots and lots of drugs. The narrator’s very specific experience of the world—Upper East Side, recently dead parents, abundance of wealth and conventional attractiveness–matters of course, and hers is a particularly luxurious life of drug addiction, it’s true. Still, all the standard trappings of addiction are here as the narrator’s world narrows and her connections fall away until the pills are all she has left. Abundance can be dangerous too, and I drew on that with Bria, who at one point in What’s Not Mine is, like Moshfegh’s narrator, in the unique position of having almost unlimited access to the thing she’s dependent on. My Year of Rest and Relaxation demonstrates how it can be a relief, for a time, to shrink your world and numb out the rest. Moshfegh shows that impulse beautifully, through to its destructive end. 

Xanax Cowboy
by Hannah Green
House of Anansi
Published April 4, 2023

In this 2023 collection of poetry by Hannah Green, the author creates an alter-ego named Xanax Cowboy to alternately hide behind and dismantle as she examines her struggles with addiction. Poems circle versions of the self-amid-addiction like hawks, offering many different angles on the issue, some hilarious, some heartbreaking, and many both. The collection won the Governor General’s Award for poetry in 2023, one of Canada’s most prestigious literary prizes. Dare I say a book of poetry about addiction could be classified as fun? I do think it’s fun though, especially when Green turns her focus to satirizing the cultural figure of the cowboy. Green is from my hometown of Winnipeg, and the Wild West references are fitting here—she captures the 21st century fallen frontier town vibe of this place with humorous accuracy. As funny as these poems can be (and as heartrending, too), this is also a wickedly smart rumination on addiction in the modern world, where the same doctors who prescribe the pills to fix us in the first place then wash their hands of us when those pills don’t work, or worse, we start to abuse them.

The Tip Line
by Vanessa Cuti
Crooked Lane Books
Published April 18, 2023

Vanessa Cuti’s debut novel is a genre bending psychological thriller narrated by Virginia, who is trying to remedy her various failures-to-launch as she approaches thirty. Her solution to both her singleness and her jobless status? A new job working the tip line at the local police station. There, Virginia becomes embroiled in the lives of her callers and her coworkers both, with dark and ominous consequences.

While booze-soaked bad decisions fuel Virginia’s trajectory, the real addiction here is to a person, or to the idea of what another person can change for you. Once Virginia has set her sights on a future, she will not alter her path, no matter how doomed and desperate it becomes. Cuti blends her story with elements of the recently solved Long Island serial killer case here to creepy effect, but it is the way she captures the processes of Virginia’s mind that truly unsettles and captivates. I love a tricky first-person narrator, and Cuti’s use of point-of-view is fascinating.

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