Sex, Screenwriting, and Sobriety
Author Diana Gould shares her inspirations for Coldwater, a story about a detective show writer struggling with alcoholism who gets wrapped up in her own real-life mystery.
You may not be familiar with the name Diana Gould, but you probably know her work. She has written pilots, movies, and mini-series for network and cable. In the 1980's she was the writer and producer of Dynasty, the executive story consultant on Knots Landing and she created and produced Berrengers. She's also a friend of my father's, and of Fix favorite Lawrence Block, so when I heard she had written her debut novel called Coldwater which happens to be about a TV writer/producer of a hit detective show, struggling with addiction… well, as a Hollywood industry brat and rehab veteran myself, it was a no brainer gotta read.
Coldwater is narrated by Brett Tanager, a writer tackling her alcoholism while her life, relationship and career go skidding out of control. As she tries to get sober, she is approached by her 16-year-old former step-daughter whose classmate has gone missing after being paid to “party” with high rollers. Brett is soon embroiled in a real life mystery dealing with Hollywood, wealth, murder, lies and sex. Sound good? Oh it is, if you happen to like celebrity, addiction, money, power and sex.
Is this the first time you’ve written publicly about your addiction?
Well, first of all, I need to say that Coldwater is a novel; it is fiction; it is about Brett Tanager, not me. So it’s her addiction, not mine. Actually, I’ve written about addiction many times. I think the first time was in college; I wrote a paper about amphetamines, while using amphetamines to write it! Also, I was head writer of Knots Landing, and one of the characters was an alcoholic who got sober and went to AA. I wrote all those episodes. When I worked for television, I wrote TV movies about sex addiction, food addiction, and various other “compulsions of the week.”
I can pass on what was said to me: Anything you can do drinking and using, you can do better sober.
Still, Coldwater is different. Although it is a mystery/thriller, and I hope it stands on its own as such, it is also, at its heart, a story about getting sober. I am not so interested in the descent into alcoholism; I am very interested in the recovery process, which I think requires courage and effort, and is in its way, heroic. I wanted to write a story about someone who always used drugs and alcohol to deal with fear and self-doubt, who was then thrust into situations more frightening than any she’d lived through while drinking, facing external as well as internal demons, and needing to find resources other than alcohol and drugs to prevail. I’ve seen the damage of the disease, and the challenges of recovery at close hand. I wanted to dramatize the recovery.
How are you radically different from the main character, Brett Tanager?
Well, she’s tall and thin and straight, for one thing, and I don’t qualify for at least two of those characteristics. She’s younger than me. I like to say that Coldwater is completely autobiographical—except nothing in it ever happened to me! My life is actually pretty dreary, and would not make for a very suspenseful book. I identify very much with the emotional journey that Brett takes, and that’s what I’d wanted to write about. The journey from self-loathing to self-acceptance. Brett’s quest has a spiritual dimension, and I relate to that as well.
In the beginning of Coldwater you talk about living in fear. Can you talk about how that relates to alcoholism and how you deal with that in your sobriety?
In AA’s “Big Book” it says that fear touches every aspect of an alcoholic’s life, and does incalculable damage, setting into motion trains of circumstances that bring harm to ourselves and others. That is certainly the case with Brett Tanager in Coldwater. Acting out of self-centered fear, she sets in motion calamitous circumstances that take the whole book to reckon with.
For myself, I have developed a pretty strong spiritual connection, and it has come about as a result of my fears. I was so frightened so much of the time of so many things – for example, simply being me – that I had to resort to spiritual solutions, in ways suggested by the people who helped me. And because I was so scared so often, it resulted in a pretty frequent and ongoing communication between me and whatever it was I was turning to for help. It’s difficult to describe. But if it was small enough for me to understand it, it wouldn’t be big enough to work.
You give a brilliant description of being new in AA. I quote “the newcomer eyes… that managed to say ‘help me!’ and ‘fuck you!’ at the same time." That made me laugh out loud. Can you elaborate on that?
Alcoholism is a disease of dependency. We feel so defective that we need some substance to rectify the deficiency. (I sometimes felt that the drugs I used must contain some vital nutrient I was deficient in.) We feel far more needy than we ever want anyone to see, so we pretend we don’t need anyone or anything. The depth of our need scares us and makes us angry at ourselves and everyone else.
I am also a writer and I also loved coke. Unlike you, most of the stuff I wrote on coke was shit. Tell me about the connection between writers and cocaine….why do we love it?
I think you are again confusing me with Brett Tanager. She is a very successful TV writer and show-runner with a serious cocaine problem, as well as being an alcoholic and substance abuser. I never did any of the work I did for television on cocaine, and was actually sober for most of my professional life.
But I think the reason that drugs like cocaine and amphetamines are so seductive to writers, as well as other creative people, is that they have a way of catapulting you over the chasm of fear that opens the minute you start putting words onto the page, or doing your art. “Speed” in all its forms has a way of overriding that critical voice, and amping the “Look out, World, here I come!” voice, that allows us to spill out words uncensored. (The science of the way it does this was probably in that paper I wrote in college about amphetamines, but I’ve forgotten now.) But it does this by borrowing energy and neurotransmitters that have to be paid back. Whatever they give, they take more.
Come clean with me here: Was the “Eastman” school based on Westlake? Because I went there and I recognized all the industry stuff, the money, the nose jobs, the skirts…..
That’s funny. I actually had another school in mind, at least visually, but perhaps the private schools that cater to the children of the affluent in Los Angeles are not that different from one another.
I very much related to this line: “I was as immature and ill-prepared for life as Julia, without her excuse of actually being a child.” Don’t you think this is a very common thing for addicts?
Yes. I’ve heard it said we stop growing emotionally when we start using drugs and alcohol as a solution. This makes most of us adolescents at best. Sober, Brett has to face and feel the consequences of the things she’s done while she was using; things that she never had to face previously, because she took something to alleviate the pain of her behavior. Now she has to face it, and it’s painful. But it is also the way she grows up.
The first time she has sex sober, Brett realizes it’s the first time she’s ever had sex sober in her life. I think also that many addicts and alcoholics are trying to look and be perceived a certain way that they feel is required of them. Trying to “pass.” Most addicts and alcoholics have very different feelings about themselves inside than those they present. Drugs and alcohol are part of the mask. That’s why I think recovery is so heroic. Facing the world without that mask takes a lot of courage.
You write “With sobriety came awareness. That’s why I hated it." That really resounded with me, wanting a respite from reality through anything and everything. When, if ever, did that abate for you?
I don’t think I could have written about the process of getting sober in the way I did in Coldwater, if I hadn’t experienced it myself. But I also couldn’t have written it if I was still going through it. Coldwater came from my desire to dramatize the process of getting clean and sober. It is challenging in a way I doubt that people who aren’t alcoholics can fully appreciate. Getting sober was so awful, it keeps me sober now. I never want to have to go through that again. Yes. It does abate. It is possible to live comfortably within one’s own skin. It just takes a while. And a lot of work.
You write “I wasn’t sure if what I’d felt wasn’t simply longing for escape. Sobriety was relentless……I couldn’t drink. At least I could have sex. It promised momentary relief, annihilation at last of the endless, nattering self.” Sex addiction is something I am struggling with in this new sobriety. How did you manage that? What other addictions if any did you pick up when you got sober?
As I said before addiction is a disease of dependency, and when we remove the substance, we find other things to depend on – people, credit cards and the things we buy with them, food, sex, energy drinks – and they are all substitutes for what we really crave – a sense of well-being that is unconditional, that can exist even in the midst of difficulty. Being okay and complete, just the way we are, in life just the way it is. Most of us try many things outside of ourselves to fill this hole, but it is something that can only be found within. It is, as TS Eliot says, “A condition of complete simplicity, (Costing not less than everything).”
I think we all muddle through it as best we can; there is no way of avoiding difficulty; we make mistakes, we screw up, we hurt ourselves and others, and so long as we don’t drink or use no matter what, and do our best to clean up our own mess, we can learn from our experience.
You've also worked as a spiritual care volunteer with Vitas Hospice. Tell me about this.
I was extremely fortunate that by the time my parents died, I had been sober for many years, and had reconciled whatever differences, and there were many, that we’d had when I was younger. I was able to participate fully in their deaths, and felt that I helped them leave this life, as they had helped me enter it. It felt like the most profound amends I ever made. I also found that I had a real curiosity about the veil between life and death; it doesn’t frighten me; it fascinates me.
Also, the people who helped me get sober taught me the value of service. Self-centeredness is very painful. Being of service brings happiness.
Coldwater did not get published easily. It was turned down by many publishers over a several years journey towards publication. During that period I began training as a chaplain and volunteering with hospice. I found it so rewarding that, even when I did another draft of the book and eventually found a publisher for it, I did not want to give up the volunteer job. I find it extremely rewarding, and a real privilege to enter people’s lives at such a critical juncture.
You also teach at InsightLA, a mindfulness meditation center in Los Angeles. Tell me about the importance of meditation for recovering addicts.
I’ve been a meditator for many years. It’s taught me how to be a better friend to myself. It’s allowed me to see what goes on in my mind without running and hiding from it. Simply to be with it, with interest rather than judgment or condemnation; to be aware of what’s actually happening, and to distinguish that from my fears of the future or regrets about the past. It’s also opened me up to a perception of the interconnectivity of life, and is the antidote to the sense of isolation, separateness and being different and wrong that is so characteristic of alcoholism/addiction, if not the human condition.
It is not easy to learn alone; I’ve had excellent teachers, and have put a lot of energy into going to classes, workshops, retreats, and reading, writing and speaking with teachers. Now I have become a teacher, which really keeps me on my toes! I can’t urge people to have a daily practice unless I’m doing it myself.
As for its importance to recovering addicts and alcoholics – so much of our suffering comes from conditioned, habitual patterns of reactivity. We get triggered, and a whole slew of reactions ensue, based on habits we formed in the past. Some of these are survival mechanisms that served us well at one time, but are very damaging to us now. Meditation teaches you to discern the difference between the stimulus – what actually happened – and the reaction – your interpretation of what happened. It enables you to pay attention your thoughts and emotions without necessarily acting on them. But it is hard to learn to do on your own. I have had many excellent teachers.
Any advice to young writer-users?
I can pass on what was said to me: Anything you can do drinking and using, you can do better sober.