Why Iris Smyles Is the Perfect Summer Read
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Iris Smyles' debut novel offers the opportunity to know her in all her shameful glory. Iris Has Free Time is metafiction: a semi-autobiographical work in which the protagonist says at one point that she feels like "the heroine of a great book." On her odyssey, Iris finds and loses a variety of jobs and men, goes to graduate school, navigates friendships and drinks heavily. Her drinking becomes a core component of her life—she drinks on the job as an intern at the New Yorker, drunkenly confuses a boyfriend's lap with a toilet on a cruise ship in Greece, and increasingly wonders, "When did all these games stop being fun?"
The narrative runs from Iris's time as an undergrad at NYU to her 30th birthday, with the point of view shifting around at particular ages and places. "Alcoholics are time travelers," she writes. "You wake up 19, but it's your 29th birthday."
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Before this debut novel, Smyles wrote for Bomb, Nerve and the New York Press. Now, no longer an aspiring writer in her 20s, Smyles meets me in the West Village—the setting for much of her book. She has plenty to tell me about what it means to be an “alcoholist,” the joys and pains of growing up, and how to write seriously about fun.
How much of Iris's experience with alcohol is real?
That's all real. There's a lot more iceberg underneath that in real life, though. But yes, I used to drink a lot.
There are a lot of reasons I stopped drinking, but the biggest was that I wanted to write.
And how did you stop, in real life?
There were lots of moments when I knew I had to stop, but I wasn't ready or capable of stopping. And then, one day, a very unremarkable day, I just woke up and said, "I'm not going to drink anymore." That's not to say it was easy. I think I was so frightened that the only way I could stop was to kind of slip out the back door, to not really acknowledge what was happening, because it was scary. It's hard to talk about, because I don't want to complain or over-dramatize, but then I remember that it really was dramatic. What's not in the book—or only alluded to—is a series of escalating benders, and shaking, physical pain and sickness, from drinking and then from trying not to drink. I don't know if you can really know what that's like unless you've been there.
There are a lot of reasons I stopped drinking, but the biggest was that I wanted to write. Because I was very self-destructive, when it was about my own welfare I couldn't stop because I didn't care that much. But I did and do care about writing; that’s sort of my higher power. So instead of quitting something, drinking, I saw it as starting something. I changed my life completely and not drinking anymore was just one part of that.
So you never went to AA or anything like that?
A friend of mine took me with her to one of her NA meetings back in college, but I went as a tourist. Besides that I’ve never been. I don’t identify with groups; I like to do things on my own—maybe it’s a point of pride. I’ve read about AA though, and I feel like I’ve gone through many of the steps in my own way. I think everyone with or without a substance abuse problem could benefit from the steps. I do have a strong affinity for the organization for that reason. Also, I like knowing that AA is out there and I’m just not using it yet. I like knowing that if things ever go really bad, I have a safety net.
The book is so much about youth, and how that goes along with drinking. Do you think you matured out of drinking?
I'm frankly a little skeptical about that idea. I don't see it as something I've aged out of, but as something innate in me. Although—perhaps this is just semantics—I don't call myself an "alcoholic.” Because I don't want my not drinking to mean my carrying around this disease label my whole life. I think of myself more as an "alcoholist," a retired one. Like if you're a doctor, even if you're not practicing, you're always still a doctor.
While drinking was bad for me, it was also a way of being creative. And, it may seem odd, but I was and am still proud of that. That's what I did for 10 years—I was a great, devoted, passionate drunk! This book is a way of preserving my alcoholist self, but also moving on from it, because it was killing me, because I knew it would come to an end one way or another.
Also, with regard to maturing out or whether alcoholism is something innate, my own drinking is less about alcohol than about my general intensity. And I don’t like to think of my alcoholist aspect as a weakness but indicative of potential power. It’s like, "Wow, I could drink so much more and for so much longer than everyone else!" If I could take that intensity and redirect it toward something positive, something creative, maybe I could really do something amazing. I think of alcoholics and addicts that way—it's a misdirected power.
So you don’t drink now?
No. I am retired, for about five and a half years. Sometimes people ask me, "Are you done drinking for the rest of your life?" and that makes me feel uncomfortable. I think it’s dangerous to make proclamations about the rest of your life. But generally my idea is that I dropped drinking in order to write. And I feel like that's my blood on the altar, in a certain way. That's my sacrifice, although, what was I really sacrificing?
Was it hard to stop playing that life-of-the-party role?
It would have been hard if I wanted to keep living that lifestyle but just without drinking. But I didn't want to be a party girl anymore. It was hard because I was very lonely. I was very isolated for about four years. But it also felt really exciting because I felt like I had a mission and a purpose. And in a certain way it felt more authentic than all the performing. I didn't want to be social. I felt like I had spent so much time acting a certain way, I wanted to figure out who I would be if I wasn’t compelled to perform.
In the book, Iris takes a class called "Madness and Genius." What do you think about that connection?
One of the things Iris and I both fell into is this myth of the writer. Like, you're drinking all the time so you think you're 90% there—now you just gotta get that short story collection together. When I was living the “writer’s life,” I wasn't doing any writing. But since then, I live a much more strict, disciplined life and all of my creativity is going into the work. I guess there must be some link between melancholy and creativity, because if you were perfectly comfortable in every situation you wouldn't you wouldn't feel the need to do anything other than be.
In the book a certain ambivalence about drinking does come across. Towards the end you see more of the negative results of it, but, in many parts you can see why giving it up might be a sacrifice.
Yes, that's another reason why I named the character after myself. For years I was playing this role, and people enjoyed it; I enjoyed it. This book is important to me because it’s a way of not giving that girl up, but being able to leave her behind. Iris, and her antics, and all of that wild behavior good and bad, still exists in the book, so I don't have to keep doing it anymore. If you're a writer, you can create different stories, you don't have to live all of them. My relationship to drinking is not either/or. That's why the book is called Iris Has Free Time rather than "Iris had free time."
Do you feel like the book fits in with the genre of recovery memoirs?
I wasn't thinking of it as a recovery narrative, although that is a major strain in it—though it's almost more like a recovery from youth. In college, I always wanted to read great books about drinking, about how awesome it was. Once in college I found this book called Drinking: A Love Story, and I picked it up really excited, thinking, "Finally, a love story about drinking!" But it was about all of the misery, and I was like, where's the fun? It might have been a great book, but it wasn't what I wanted to read, because I was looking for a celebration. In my novel, I wanted to write meaningfully about fun. People tend to separate these things—something is funny and fun, or it’s serious and poignant. I wanted to ask: What is the meaning of all this fun? I wanted to write my own love story about that.
So, your name is Iris and the book is called Iris Has Free Time, but it’s a novel. How do you think of the relationship between you, the author, and Iris, the protagonist?
The book is somewhat autobiographical. One of the reasons I wanted her to be called Iris is that one of the themes of the book is self-deception, identity, and adopting different roles. As the book goes on, you see the author pull away from the present tense. I think it's unconventional to change the voice throughout the book. But that was important here, because I wanted Iris to evolve through voice rather than events, because I think that's really how growing up happens.
Sarah Beller is a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about a New York needle exchange.