[Continued from Part 1]
Someone wrote in a couple weeks ago asking whether Bill Clegg is “for real.” “Is he sober?” they asked. They were thinking of ordering his book 90 Days for their adult child, who is a recovering crack and heroin addict.
Interesting question. Are we the judges of some kind of reality show?—Detoxing With The Stars.
Well anyway, if we’re given a “daily reprieve,” he seemed like he hadn’t drunk or used the day we met up. Bill Clegg walked into the restaurant clear-eyed. He ordered a chicken salad and wolfed it down. He often eats at this particular place in the West Village. They knew his name. He was wearing a button-down shirt with a blue V-neck sweater and brown corduroys. Altogether he looked to me like a Northeastern preppy college student chowing down between classes. In other words, he was healthy.
All the press around Bill Clegg talks about how “handsome” he is, and, in fact, he is—the Cosmos loaned him a finely hewn bone structure, a high forehead and straight teeth and cleft chin, clear skin and a mellow voice, and good for him. But also, he’s ordinary. He’s got a Gucci suit and god knows what other awesome clothes hanging in his closet and he goes to black-tie parties in midtown, but he’s not exempt from smearing mayo on his lips when he eats his chicken salad, and I could imagine him trying to hide the scorch-marks on his fingers from the crack stems. I could imagine him freaking out when the Bic lighter exploded. He’s a plain old for-real sweet guy but if he managed to fall for crack he has some kind of dark side, and he writes about it in 90 Days.
He’s also “a real program guy,” in the words of one of my editors at The Fix. Clegg showed up late for lunch because he takes time out of his weekdays to go to meetings and take care of his sobriety, and part of going to meetings is arriving early and staying late to talk to your posse afterward. We talked about the people he’s come to know over the past seven years who have helped him stay sober—such as Polly, a woman who makes her living walking dogs and who relapsed over and over. We talked about how, when he got offered his job as a literary agent at William Morris Endeavor, he told his boss that he’d do the work, but he’d have to have time during workdays to take care of his sobriety.
We talked about a lot of stuff that never made it into his books. He describes the moment in early sobriety when he discovered the work he was put here to do. The story makes me realize (once again) that not all we accomplish while we’re in active addiction is for naught. I spent 10 years raising a kid while in active addiction—and he’s a good kid.
Also, I enjoyed Clegg’s insights about self-acceptance. My ultimate long-term project.
Guinevere: How did they know it was crack, for chrissake?
Bill Clegg: I was missing for two months. It’s a very small community, the publishing community. This friend of mine at the time said it was like the Space Shuttle had blown up—like everybody saw, and there was nothing left.
G: Tell me how you started representing people again.
BC: So I said I’d read these manuscripts that these three writers I used to represent had sent me, and at one point, I had a manuscript in my lap, I forget which one it was, and I was typing up notes on my computer, on this little table in my kitchen in my studio at 15th and Seventh. And I was typing up the notes and I had this really powerful feeling. It was like, This is what you do. It was the first time in like eight months I had been sitting with double-spaced typed-up pages, which—I’m ALWAYS sitting with double-spaced typed pages in my lap and taking notes. And suddenly there I was, doing what I always did. And I had, literally, this physical, spiritual acceptance of, This is what you do. This is it. And it didn’t matter if I did it out of a garage upstate, or if I did it at a big shiny agency. It didn’t matter.
Six or eight weeks passed after that. I told the people closest to me after a few days, and I had decided I was going to start my own agency. Somebody I knew was going to offer me office space, and I would owe the rent until the money came in. That was a great gift. I was absolutely going to give it my best shot, but I didn’t know if it would work.
And I then got an email from Jennifer Rudolph Walsh at the William Morris Agency, which is now WME, and she invited me to lunch. I had met her once, many years before. A lot of people in and out of publishing had reached out to me. I thought she was approaching me because some sibling or child or colleague had a problem with addiction and needed some advice. A lot of people had reached out to me like that. And so I went to lunch and she said, “I think you should work with us.” And I was absolutely flabbergasted. At first I said, “I don’t think so.” I didn’t think that was for me. Because—the William Morris Agency? Midtown? I just felt like that was a sort of metaphor for a kind of life that was not sustainable, not healthy for me. Super-competitive; I had never worked for a big company so I had no idea what that agency was like. She said, “I understand why you would think that. Let me introduce you to some people in the department, and don’t make a decision right away.”
So I just took the next right action, and I met with people, and I really had a strong feeling from her that she somehow understood recovery.
G: She said in one press report that she believes everyone deserves a second chance.
BC: I think she does. And she certainly believed that of me. She gave me a job. But I didn’t want to start right away—I took three or four months.
G: I thought it was interesting that you made it a condition of your coming to work being given the leeway to go to a meeting in the middle of every day. If alcoholism and addiction are illnesses, shouldn’t we be able to use time during the workday to take care of ourselves?
BC: Absolutely. My boss didn’t blink. She was like, “You do whatever you have to do to stay sober.”
G: So getting sober wasn’t about money, it wasn’t about saving your reputation—
BC: —No. There was no way to save that reputation. It was destroyed. There was no way to clean it up because there was nothing to scrub.
G: New York is almost a character in itself in both your books. Some of your opening pages in 90 Days reminded me of Didion’s essay, “Goodbye to All That,” where she talks about the culture, the landscape, the feeling of New York. Was part of your recovery an effort to prove that you’re Really A New Yorker?
G: I don’t know if you still live in this section of town—
BC: —I do.
G: Then you live in “Old New York”—the New York of Edith Wharton.
BC: The church she went to is just a few blocks from here.
G: Grace Church.
BC: Yeah. I think my recovery is concerned with proving to myself that I’m not reconciling myself with a place, but rather reconciling myself with myself in any place. And so much of my problem before was looking to circumstance—whether that be professional or financial or geographic—and measuring myself against the outsides of whatever those circumstances were, and feeling like I came up short. And now I feel like I need to accept myself, whether I’m in a small town in the middle of nowhere, or at a black-tie party in the middle of Manhattan. And the exteriors of those, while they may be shiny and bright, or difficult and sorrowful, or whatever—they can’t be the thing that’s defining how I feel about myself.
It’s a daily struggle. I don’t think any of it is achievable in any kind of complete way. I think that our sober-tank empties every night, and when we wake up in the morning we have to do the same amount of things to keep ourselves sober—returning the phone calls of people who have reached out to me, showing up for the people in my life, staying healthy in all manner of ways: physically, emotionally, spiritually. I have to do the exact same things I did in early sobriety to stay sober now, and to stay sane. Because if I don’t, then I’m left to my own devices and I will go back to the place that leaves me vulnerable to picking up. And then all of it is out the window.
G: So your sobriety doesn’t depend on having a job at a high-powered agency or living in an upscale apartment, or even living in this city.
BC: Not at all. I had to come to the acceptance when I was getting sober that I may not live in New York, that I may live in Maine with my sister—that I may live anywhere. But I had a strong instinct that if I didn’t go back to New York right after rehab, that I never would.
G: Why did you want to?
BC: Because all the people who supported my recovery were here. Frankly, Jack, my first sponsor, was here, and he was my tether to sobriety and hope. And I felt like if I went to Maine, I didn’t have any support except my family. The only people I could get sober and healthy with were the other alcoholics and addicts, and Jack at that time was the only one that I knew. So I clung to him, like I clung to Asa, like I clung to everybody else. Anyone who was nearby, they had claw-marks on their shoulders because I was clinging so fucking hard.
G: Is 90 Days written for New Yorkers? The narrative is so deeply a New York narrative—you’re constantly mentioning street names and your sponsor draws a “Trigger Zone” circle around One Fifth Avenue [his old apartment] where you’re not allowed to go to avoid using, and nobody apart from New Yorkers is likely to understand those location names.
BC: It’s primarily written for people who are trying to get sober. I hope [the references to New York locations] don’t get in the way of people relating to what was unfolding for me.
G: By the way, how far away are we from the Trigger Zone?
BC: [laughs] Two blocks north. I know it as much as I know anything in my life. Like when I go to the Angelica Theater in New York, which was like a total no-no, because it’s on Houston between Sixth and Varick, and because I used to get high at Sixth and Houston.
G: So you had to avoid these places because they were triggers. I know some people who say, “I don’t believe in triggers, triggers are bullshit, I drank and used over everything in my life and you can’t avoid life.”
BC: Look, I went to sell my mother’s silver to get rent money, but I went into a trigger zone without telling Jack, and I relapsed. Like, I TOTALLY believe in triggers.
I think at a certain point, once the obsession is lifted, and once somebody’s connected—that’s the answer. Our whole problem is trying to solve this on our own. And I think sobriety is somehow making that journey from the first-person singular to the first-person plural. And that’s a very hard journey, it was the hardest journey for me to make. I didn’t tell anybody about what was really going on in my life for all my life, until I got sober. Nobody knew what was going on, even Noah [his ex-boyfriend].
To dismantle a whole lifetime of trying to figure things out on your own, hiding the problems because they’re shameful, because nobody will understand them you think—to suddenly go from that way of life to one where, something goes wrong, and you don’t see a solution, and you’re admitting you don’t have a solution. You’re telling the people closest to you, especially in sobriety, that you need help. And that becomes a way of life.
G: Are you able to sponsor people like Polly and Annie?
BC: In my sober community, nobody cares that I’m a literary agent. You know, like, Polly’s still a dog-walker. And Polly’s my first phone call, usually, when things are going to hell.
G: Does she still call you “crackhead”? And Annie, calling you “lamb chop.”
BC: Every day. I mean, every day. I got an email from Annie today calling me “lamby.” These are the people who saved my life.