Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg comes clean about cleaning up his act.
Neil Steinberg’s new memoir begins with him in jail.
In September 2005, Steinberg was arrested and charged with domestic battery and interfering with the reporting of domestic battery. He’d come home to Northbrook from his job as a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, but had taken a long liquid lunch, which turned into a liquid afternoon and a liquid early evening. A heated argument ensued with his wife, Edie. She tried to call the cops. Steinberg slapped her. He ended up in jail and all over the headlines.
Now nearly three years later, Steinberg has dried out. A court-mandated stint in rehab and an on-again off-again relationship with Alcoholics Anonymous, not to mention some butt-kicking from Edie, has led Steinberg to a year without a drink in hand. His new book, Drunkard, is his first since 2005’s hat-industry paean, Hatless Jack. It tells of his struggles with putting down the bottle and setting things straight.
Time Out Chicago: Your column can be fairly personal. But this book gets really personal.
Neil Steinberg: Well, it seemed to me that to tell the story was the thing. I didn’t write this because I’m a fan of recovery memoirs or a devotee of AA; I wrote it because I thought it was a gripping story. I’m a Dante fan. And lesson number one of being a Dante fan is that if one finds oneself in hell, take notes.
TOC: Rehab is hell?
Neil Steinberg: It was awful for me. I wasn’t working; I wasn’t writing. I was forced to go to rehab with people I didn’t particularly like. And I was forced to give up this thing that I love the most. People were always sympathizing with the publicity, but I’m used to being publicly embarrassed in my column. The hard part was giving up the drinking.
TOC: These books are always referred to as either addiction or recovery memoirs. Which do you think it is?
Neil Steinberg: To me, recovery memoir is a genre like romance novel. I thought of it as a horror story, a thriller, to tell the truth. I tried to write it like Carrie. As I was writing it, I didn’t know what was going to happen.
TOC: So you were writing this as you were in rehab?
Neil Steinberg: I was taking notes. To me, writing is what gives life significance. It’s all I do. Writing is really happiness. I took some notes, sent them to my agent and she said, “This could be a book.” And that was my lifeline.
TOC: Writing it was your rehab.
Neil Steinberg: Yeah, and part of it had me feeling that there must be something awful about what we do. Because when you write about something like this, it almost feels like you’re capitalizing on it. There’s something skeezy about it. And to be honest, I’m a much lousier person in my first draft. My editors wanted me to be likable.
TOC: Was it a challenge to make yourself likable?
Neil Steinberg: No, I like to think I’m likable. It’s just what you emphasize. I was more honest and stark in the original book. You see me as this vain, middle-aged guy clinging to whatever shred of dignity he has left.
TOC: When your agent told you to work on the book, did you ever think, The world doesn’t need another addiction memoir?
Neil Steinberg: The world didn’t need a book about the hat industry, either. I was concerned that some people would say, “Why would we read another one?” My original title was Yet Another Recovery Memoir. But that was the writer in me talking. The person who was in rehab didn’t think, Oh, I’m another person in rehab. If you get your hand mangled by a machine, you don’t think, Oh, I’m another amputee.
TOC: What’s different about your book is that you clearly haven’t lost your reverence for drinking.
Neil Steinberg: Not at all. A lot of times people talk about bottoming out, and I sometimes wonder whether I’ve done that yet, if this is as bad as it gets or if I need to go out and find some crappier bottom.
TOC: Some of your descriptions of booze actually made me want a drink.
Neil Steinberg: This isn’t a polemic. I hope that it helps people. I’m a drinker who doesn’t drink. I don’t drink because then I want to drink more, and then it slides to hell very quickly. But drinking is a wonderful thing. I wish I could do it.
Drunkard is out now.