City Paper, An interview with novelist Sarah Shotland

Debut novel Junkette depicts addiction in New Orleans

By Bill O'Driscoll

Sarah Shotland's striking debut novel, Junkette (White Gorilla Press), is an alternately lyrical and matter-of-fact account of a few months in the life of college-graduate junkie Claire, a twentysomething bartender in pre-Katrina New Orleans. In chapter 1, Claire says she's splitting for Boulder, Colo. But she can't bring herself to leave, and over 168 pages of episodic first-person narration, she deals with scoring, her job, her boyfriend and various characters in her neighborhood's heroin demimonde.

Shotland, a Dallas native, is a widely produced playwright who's also taught English in China. She now teaches in Chatham University's graduate writing program and at Pittsburgh's High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. She is co-founder and director of Words Without Walls, a local nonprofit that holds creative-writing classes for some 350 students in prisons, jails and rehab centers. "The possibilities of who you can teach writing to are pretty endless," she says.

Shotland lives in Friendship. She recently spoke with CP.

How does your writing relate to your Words Without Walls work?

I'm definitely as a writer and as a person interested in disaster, and how people deal with disaster in different ways, especially the disasters that happen on the weather of your insides. Definitely the content of Junkette ... would be similar to what a lot of my students at Sojourner House especially — because it's all women addicts — are writing about. And that was really interesting working in that environment while I was editing the book. Because it kind of made me realize how universal the experience is of being isolated, of feeling out of control. And also of feeling that you really love the people that you're around when you're in an addiction. Sort of like clinging to them.

Claire inhabits a very circumscribed world.

She loses the ability to see new things. She loses the ability to travel. That's really her lack of freedom. She can't leave this two-block radius. Even though through the whole book, she's saying, "I want to go to Colorado."

Why does the book's layout leave horizontal gaps between every paragraph?

On one hand, I think the sort of fractured paragraphing is just the way that addicts think. And maybe more than just addicts! We're all always thinking of a couple different things at the same time.

What about how the book toggles between procedural passages — the how-tos of getting a fix —and lyrical ones?

I think I intentionally do that. I think for better, for worse as a woman writer, I sort of carry the fear that people will criticize my work for being somehow too lyrical, or hiding behind lyricism. And one of the things that was a big challenge for me in revisions of this book was cutting through that, and really saying it straight. Saying it to the point. And a lot of the things that a lot of these characters are dealing with are striking enough on their own, just to say them. the entire interview with the City Paper here.