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Author Talk: April 2008

April 2008

Nic Sheff is a recovering drug addict and alcoholic who recently opened up about his experiences in the raw and confessional memoir TWEAK.

In this interview, Sheff explains how he was able to garner the courage to write about his harrowing ordeals so honestly and reveals which part of the process was most challenging for him. He also discusses BEAUTIFUL BOY --- a parallel account written by his father, David Sheff --- what he hopes teens may take away from his story, and details about two upcoming projects.

Question: What inspired you to write TWEAK?

Nic Sheff: Well, I guess it was sort of therapy for me or something. And I think it was also a way of trying to make my experiences meaningful. I mean, I think that all we can hope to do in life is take all the random accidents and stuff that happen to us and try our best to deal with it all and ultimately create something useful and meaningful from the chaos.

Q: You've been writing your whole life. Was this experience cathartic in any way or did you gain new insight into your experiences? Did it take a lot of courage to tell your story?

NS: I always felt pretty isolated growing up, but reading certain authors' books really did help me to realize that I wasn't completely crazy or deranged or whatever. Writers like Donald Goines, Dennis Cooper, Iceberg Slim, Ryu Murakami, Georges Bataille, Charles Bukowski, and Pauline Reage were all so inspiring to me because they were absolutely fearless about sharing their inner worlds. They made me feel like my fantasies and fears and insecurities and fascinations didn't mean that I was sick or bad. It was like I finally could see that there were other people out there as messed up as me. So really, it was those authors' courage that allowed me to tell my own story and reveal so much about myself. And I think that the more each one of us opens up and shares who we are, the more we allow other people to do the same thing --- which is totally a gift. To be able to let go of my secrets and my constant need to try to be something I wasn't, well, that was like the most liberating thing ever. And, yeah, that was definitely cathartic. But, I mean, I'm not perfect at it --- not even close. It's pretty much a daily struggle.

Q: This book deals with some very traumatic events in your past. What was the hardest thing to write about?

NS: When I was reading over the manuscript, more than anything else I was just embarrassed about how naive and stupid I'd been. I was so young and confused, but I always thought I knew exactly what I was doing. Honestly, that was harder to write about than any of the trauma stuff.

Q: Is there anything that is off-limits for a memoir writer?

NS: I don't know about in general, but for me, I tried my best to protect my family and friends from being too exposed or whatever. I mean, I didn't wanna take anyone down with me. But, well, I'm sure I wasn't perfect at that either.

Q: What was your process in writing this book? Were you ever tempted to exaggerate or stretch the truth?

NS: Basically I just tried to put everything down, sort of regurgitating it all. It was only later that I went through and edited it to try to make something coherent out of the whole thing. So, it really was more about the act of getting everything out of me and the process of writing, rather than the end result.

Q: Your father's book, BEAUTIFUL BOY, is coming out at the same time as your own. Did you know he was writing his side of the story? How involved --- or not --- was he in your process? And how involved were you in his? 

NS: Uhmmm, we weren't involved in each other's books at all, really. We both read each other's works to make sure neither one would be overly hurtful or whatever. Basically, I really feel terrible about what I put my dad and his family through, so I try to be supportive of anything he has to do to help himself heal and understand everything that happened. I think writing BEAUTIFUL BOY was a way for him to do that, just like writing TWEAK was for me. So, in that way, it seems pretty cool that we both got to have this opportunity. And, weirdly enough, I think it has helped us to become closer again and to have the beginnings of some sort of closure.

Q: How have you changed since you began writing this book?

NS: Well, I actually relapsed about halfway through writing TWEAK, so I obviously was still struggling with a lot of issues. But then I got sober and went through this really intense treatment and rode a Greyhound bus across the country and did all this crazy stuff, all the while writing the whole time, and, yeah, things have really changed a lot for me. It's funny because I'm still totally broke, so I recently got a job being a model at the art school here in Savannah. It was so scary having to take off all my clothes and let this room full of people just stare at my naked body --- especially now that I'm sober. I mean, in ways it was scarier than even some of the stuff I did on the street, cause it was so intimate and everything. But there seems to be a total parallel between doing the modeling and writing a memoir like TWEAK. I've had to learn to just strip down and say something like, "Here I am, faults and all. This is me and I'm okay with that." Writing TWEAK has definitely helped me to do that more --- to embrace my imperfect self and not try to pretend I'm someone else or hide who I really am.

Q: What do you hope for teens to learn as a result of reading TWEAK?

NS: I don't know. Being a teenager sucked for me. I was constantly insecure and terrified and thinking there was something wrong with me. Doing drugs was the only thing that could relieve me of that constant stream of self loathing circulating through my mind. So, well, I wish I could spare everyone from having to go through that hell. But reading TWEAK isn't gonna do that. Still, maybe it's just cool to know that things are hard and mixed up and that it's normal and okay. Working to get to a place where we can accept and love ourselves, that's the challenge. And the path is different for everyone. There is no formula, no perfect system. I tried so many different things before anything started to work for me. So I guess I would encourage people not to be afraid of that process.

Q: What are you working on now?

NS: I just finished a novel that sort of plays off Rear Window orBody Double or one of those movies. It's called PEEPING HENRY, and I've been describing it as a pulp, drug addict redemption tale, or something like that. I've also just started writing another novel, FERAL BOY, FERAL GIRL, about these runaway street kids in San Francisco who get mixed up trying to stop a serial killer who's preying on their male hustler friends. So I guess I'm moving into the mystery genre, sort of.

© Copyright 2008, Atheneum, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.