The Road Toward Ruin: A Conversation with Neal Pollack




NEAL POLLACK, known to his fans as “The Greatest Living American Writer,” has had many incarnations in his literary life, from novelist to mystery writer to prolific memoirist. First, in his 2008 memoir Alternadad, Pollack reflects on his recent fatherhood and its incompatibility with his grumpy hipster persona. Next came the 2010, semi-satirical Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude, in which Pollack discovers yoga and undergoes a spiritual awakening that transforms him, leaving him “10% nicer.” Now, in Pothead: My Life as a Marijuana Addict in the Age of Legal Weed, Neal takes on the one thing he has consistently been throughout his many incarnations: a giant stoner.

I, too, am a giant stoner, and when I met Neal back in 2007 at the Miami Festival of Books (where I was hawking my momoir, and Neal was shilling for Alternadad), we got right to the part where we were stuffing a towel under my hotel room door so that we might hork a big bowl together. Blowing out before going out, as it were. I have, at best, a hazy memory of what followed that night. Mostly I remember following Neal around to various book parties as he zeroed in on fellow stoners who were holding. 

Pothead describes many such lost weekends over Pollack’s long career as a dope fiend. His pursuit of The Kind has led him to drive over state borders, commune with ganja yoginis, and even find himself a gig at The Cannabist, reporting on weed so that he might gain unfettered access to it. In ­­­­2013, Pollack became a three-time champion on Jeopardy! while pretty much zotzed from his chronic use of chronic. And yet, by any stoner standard, Neal is a high achiever: Pothead is his 11th book, and he also edits the website Book and Film Globe.

In 2017, Neal’s mother unexpectedly died. “Nothing had prepared me for this,” Pollack writes. “My glorious five-decade adolescence was over.” As a way to mitigate his devastating grief, Pollack baked himself into a hard shell of avoidance and selfish, manic behavior, abandoning his family to get high and play low-stakes poker in seedy bars. The bottom finally came in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium, where his third-party World Series ticket was rejected at the admission gate. Apoplectic with misdirected rage and schitzy with THC, he had a full-on meltdown that caused him to be escorted off the premises by security.

Now sober nearly two years, I caught up over email with Neal in Austin, where he lives with his wife and son.

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ERIKA SCHICKEL: As someone who has used weed for literary inspiration, I have to ask you, did you conceive of this book when you were high?

NEAL POLLACK: I started writing an early version of this book the summer after my mother died and I was still baked out of my mind. The initial concept was that I was going to become a great poker player and play in the World Series of Poker to overcome my grief. Instead what I had was a terrifying story of watching my mother die combined with a bunch of anecdotes about playing poker in bars. Not really the most compelling narrative. I didn’t have the perspective that I was, in fact, an addict. After the initial shock of sobriety passed I was able to put stuff into better context. So a lot of that material is still in Pothead; I’ve just framed it differently.

So sobriety gave you narrative clarity?

I don’t know that it gave me narrative clarity — it just allowed me to see myself more clearly. My sober writer’s brain is a lot less creative than my stoned writer’s brain, but it’s sharper and more analytical. My stoned writer’s brain came up with a lot of wild scenarios that involved people getting stoned. I’ve still been writing my Greatest Living American Writer humor pieces while sober. They’re maybe a bit less gonzo, but I don’t know that they’re any less weird and satirical.

As I recall, you were something of a Bogarter back in the day. I don’t think you’ve ever gotten me high.

Yeah, part of my stoner life was being an epic mooch. I rarely bought the weed. That’s addict behavior, too, of course, but keeping costs under relative control was one of the ways I justified it to myself.

This book is chock-full of hilarious stories with finely rendered details. For a stoner, you have amazing recall.

I have training as a reporter and a journalist, so I try to look at it like I’m reporting on my own life. I actually take notes on myself and what I do during the day, especially if I know a big project is coming up. It’s a tricky balance, because I can’t change my essential nature, or at least I couldn’t before I got sober. But I also need to remain objective and look at myself almost in the third person. It’s a trick I learned in yoga and meditation: I’m able to tune into a different channel, almost, and observe myself like I’m an animal in my own zoo. I know that sounds weird, but it’s an underlying principle in my own life. As a reporter, I’m often too lazy to do document work or do decent interviews, but I’m excellent at observing myself. 

This is your 11th book, and you have also been a prolific journalist. That’s a hell of a work ethic for a slacker.

I don’t really think of myself as having much of a work ethic. I work every day, or at least most days, but not too much. I’m not obsessive about work. Mostly, I work for the reasons we all work: to make money and pay the bills. I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to find and keep a profession that allows me to work while also indulging my many hobbies and enthusiasms. I don’t know how I did it during my years of heavy drug use. Sometimes you drive through a heavy fog or a snowstorm and you reach your destination anyway. I just got lucky.

In your first year of sobriety you wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times called “I’m Just a Middle-Aged House Dad Addicted to Pot.” Some of it ended up in Pothead. Did you get a big response to that piece?

I never believe it when people say they’re “overwhelmed” with responses to something they’ve written. That’s usually just self-promotional nonsense. But when I wrote that piece about weed addiction for the Times, I did hear from quite a few people, both via email and on Facebook, and have spoken with some of them. Present company excepted, they weren’t formerly hip Gen-X writers trying to find their smile. They were just ordinary people trying to slice their way out of the weed thicket. I would like to be a resource for those people. 

The world is flooded with recovery memoirs, and yet I don’t think cannabis has gotten much treatment in a literary sense — at least, not the kind that covers the dark side of pot addiction. Do you have any influences in this area?

I don’t like self-help books, but I did read some more literary takes on recovery from drugs and alcoholism while I was working on Pothead. I admired David Carr’s The Night of The Gun, though I wonder if it would have gotten the same enthusiastic response today, given his admissions of repeatedly beating up women. Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight is an all-time classic, and Cat Marnell’s How to Murder Your Life is weird and hilarious. Then you have, on the alcoholism side, Mary Karr, Nick Flynn, and Caroline Knapp, among others. Everyone also raved about Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering, and it was certainly honest, but I found it a little snotty.

Where do you hope this book will stand within that oeuvre?

Hopefully somewhere on the shelf. I look at it as the third in my memoir trilogy: Alternadad, Stretch, and now this. Watch the addict disappear up his own butt!

Now that legal weed is almost ubiquitous, and more people are normalizing habitual pot use, do you think it’s going to get harder or easier to tell the truth about the dark side of compulsive pot use?

I don’t think the pro-marijuana forces are going to like it much, even though I make it very clear that I’m not against legalization. I’m not going to align myself with Jeff Sessions and other paid lackeys of the private-prison industry who profit off prohibition. I just hope to be a resource or an example for other people who are struggling with compulsive THC consumption. Just like with drinking, a lot of people are able to do it in moderation, or just occasionally overindulge, and it won’t take over their life. But also like with drinking, it can steamroll them if they’re genetically predisposed to addictive behaviors or have other problems from which they’re trying to hide. In those cases, it’s not a health food, and it’s not a party. It’s the road toward ruin.

Pothead describes your struggle with compulsive gambling as well. Were you able to mitigate the gambling itch?

I never quit playing poker, but I also didn’t lose anything to the poker maelstrom, other than time. I improved my game and managed to become a break-even player. I invested $20 and am still playing on that money three years later. After the lockdown started, I played online obsessively for about three days, but then I got bored and started reading books instead, much to my benefit.

Do you miss weed?

Of course I still want to get high. Several times during the most intense lockdown period, I found myself thinking, “Man, it would be nice to get stoned right now.” Maybe I’m lucky I live in Texas, where weed is harder to come by than in Colorado or California. Regardless, I observed the desire and it passed. And I’m glad it did. There’s enough paranoia and panic in the air right now, going down a stoned mental rabbit hole would not be helpful. Being sober has allowed me to be a better husband, father, friend, and brother throughout this crisis period.

Now I have a day job of sorts, editing Book and Film Globe, an online culture magazine. Dealing with other writers and a budget and some technology gives me an anchor that I didn’t have before. I might have been able to do the writing when I was stoned, but I certainly wouldn’t have been able to manage other people and their concerns.

I wouldn’t say I’m the king of empathy now, but at least I’m not getting into petty disputes or falling into weird online digressions. It’s the first salaried job I’ve held since I was a newspaper reporter in Chicago 20 years ago, and it wouldn’t be possible without sobriety. 

I love the mix of hubris and humility that you bring to this material, that sense that even at your most driven and cocky, you are still hip to your own sad jive. 

I’ve done stuff that I’m not proud of at all, and I’ve done other stuff, like winning on Jeopardy!, that I’ll take with me to the crematorium. Recovery teaches you that shame is one of the main reasons people keep relapsing into harmful behavior. Sometimes thoughts of shame come up, but I try to shunt them aside. Compassion is a much better and more helpful feeling. And, you know, I may have been a shit at various times throughout my life, but it’s rarely been boring. At least I have some decent stories to tell.

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Erika Schickel is the author of You’re Not the Boss of Me: Adventures of a Modern Mom and The Big Hurt, coming from Hachette Books in 2021.

 

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