An interview with White Out: The secret life of Heroin author, Michael W. Clune, Ph.D

By Bernie Langs


I did not know what to expect when I procured a copy of Michael W. Clune’s memoir, White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin, after reading a blog review about the book in the New Yorker. I very quickly became engrossed in White Out, consumed by its tale of the author’s life of addiction. The book presents with a cast of colorful characters appearing throughout and the exciting tale of Dr. Clune’s highs and lows: his deceits, his run-ins with the law, and finally, his recovery. I found great humor throughout the memoir, and became attached to the author’s ability to weave complex sentences that delight the reader in a strange and unique fashion. I found Dr. Clune online in the Department of English at Case Western Reserve University, where he is an Associate Professor specializing in American literature, literature and science, and poetry. I also came across several academic papers by Dr. Clune. Here are his enthusiastic responses to my questions.

BL:  Having read some of the essays you’ve produced as an academic, after reading White Out, I was struck by how different the “voice” is between the memoir and the professional writing.  In fact, there are no traces, in my opinion, that the author of the White Out could write in such a detailed, let us say, complex academic way. Did you make a conscious effort to distinguish the tone of White Out from what you produce in the humanities?

MC: My academic writing is quite different in tone and syntax from my creative writing. I would say that in the former, I strive for clarity. I want to communicate my ideas and my findings as clearly as possible. Clarity is not always the same as accessibility. Clarity sometimes involves carefully distinguishing my views from various arguments made by others. I always try to avoid jargon, but sometimes the work requires the judicious use of terms of art. I begin to write my academic books and essays after a long process of research and thought. The writing involves communicating what I’ve discovered as cleanly and economically as possible. In my creative work, the situation is different. Here, the writing itself is the discovery process. Since my preferred mode of writing is memoir, I don’t need to work out the plot in advance. I simply sit down to write, and try to understand my memory and experience through the process of creating images and phrases that seem to fit. The language has to be very flexible; I have to work with a greater range of tone and meaning. In particular, humor is a crucial resource for my creative work. I’m constantly asking myself—how do I make this funny? What angle reveals the humor in this situation? Humor for me is a path to objectivity. When I can laugh at a memory or an experience, I become distanced from it. Laughter enables me to see myself from the outside, and grants me a different level of understanding. In my creative work, humor functions for me as a kind of strange analogue to the scientific method.

BL:  I loved some of the sentence structure in White Out. Some phrasing had a unique, abstract quality that I found myself looking forward to and anticipating. Did you strive for that oddly convoluted style, or did it just come naturally to you? Is it supposed to represent on some level, a reflection, of the high of heroin?

MC: I like your use of the word “abstract” to describe some of the phrasing in that book. I think that’s the right term. I’m trying to create an abstraction of a particular experience or sensation; I’m trying to fashion a category into which the experience will fit neatly. For example, I use the following phrase to describe lying on a roof in NYC the first time I took heroin and looking up at a white cloud in the sky: “My eye was a glass box, and inside it there was no time. I kept the cloud inside it. I wish I could show it to you.” I want to move these experiences from inside my memory, and put them on the page, where others can find them. The poet and critic Aaron Kunin says that literary form is a device for moving materials from one place and time to another. In my writing, I need a vehicle for moving certain experience from inside to out. Literary abstraction is like a little mobile container that allows an essentially wordless experience to appear here in the world where we speak, read, and listen.

BL:  Some of your academic writing, such as “The Quest for Permanent Novelty” in the Chronicle of Higher Education actually notes the needs of drug addicts, and reflects the idea of the repeated, never-aging first experience with a drug that is a theme in White Out. What can you say about the parallels of the theme of the new in relation to your addiction and your often choosing it as a subject for your work in academia?

MC: There’s a pretty direct relation, actually. Writing White Out was a discovery process for understanding addiction. I believe that novelty—the unfading novelty of the drug cue for the addict—plays a special role in addiction. I think I was able to see this so clearly because I’m a writer and scholar of literature, and therefore obsessed with images, and in particular with the problem of making images that stay fresh. The drug cue—a cigarette, a syringe—is the perfect artistic image in this regard. So after writing White Out, I began researching the ideas it had given me. I wanted to know if I could find a connection between addiction, novelty, and art in other writers. And then I wanted to understand how philosophers, writers, and composers had wrestled with the impossible dream of creating an artistic image that never gets old. The fact that White Out actually came out a few months after Writing Against Time—and years after elements of the latter project appeared in scientific and literary journals—might obscure the relation between the two books. But I took what I’d learned from writing White Out into my study of the texts I explore in Writing Against Time.

BL:  I especially enjoyed your articles “Bernhard’s Way,” about one of my favorite writers, Thomas Bernhard, and “Orwell and the Obvious,” which focused on George Orwell and 1984. I have personally written about the ending of Bernhard’s book, Woodcutters where the protagonist has to run home to put down in writing what he’s just experienced. You cite this ending in your essay and I was wondering if you yourself have had such moments of inspiration with your work?

MC: That’s such a great moment at the end of Woodcutters. I’m sorry to report no similarly dramatic “I must write now!” moments in my own life. Well, that’s not quite true. At one point I used to feel the impulse to write immediately fairly frequently, and to indulge it almost as often. But the writing such moments produced generally wasn’t very good. These days, I’ll pick a certain block of time to write, and then just do it, regardless of whether I feel inspired or not. Inspiration generally follows within 15 to 20 minutes of starting to write, in my experience. My process is the result of applying a central principle in recovery from addiction to my life as a writer. You don’t wait until you feel like doing something; you do it, and the feeling follows the action. Not very romantic, perhaps, but it’s been working for me.

BL:  I found your review in The Los Angeles Review of Books, “Pop Disappears,” to be a very stimulating, yet, on a personal level, frightening read. I found myself thinking that you reflect a new school of intellectual that can write cerebrally on a book that features, of all things, a zombie. As a child of the 60s I felt a little left behind, like my father’s generation must have felt when certain intellectuals could find poetry in The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” Do you feel as if you are part of a new movement in the humanities?

MC: It’s funny, there’s definitely a kind of movement of intellectuals trying to say smart things about pop cultural crap. Call it “cultural studies.” I’ve always hated that kind of thing. And yet, I have written about two kinds of pop culture: rap music, and computer games. I don’t value these particular artifacts any differently than high art. I just think that the best examples of those particular forms are just as good as some of the novels, poems, and plays I admire, even if they operate quite differently. The vast majority of pop culture seems to me to be dreary and soul-crushing, and I have a lot of sympathy for Adorno’s general take on what he called “the culture industry” half a century ago. My essay “Pop Disappears” is about experimental writers who work with pop cultural images. Bennett Sims’ wonderful zombie novel, A Questionable Shape, is at least as influenced by Proust as it is by George Romero. Furthermore, the way writers like Sims are dealing with pop culture is subtly subversive. Sims and the poet, Dana Ward, draw zombies or pop songs out of their public, familiar worlds, and turn them into avatars of a new sensibility. And this sensibility presents itself as antagonistic to the consumerist ethos of our popular culture. I think of these writers as the opposite of Andy Warhol.

BL:  Your 2013 book, Writing Against Time, is, according to your Case Western page, about “the effort to create an image immune to the erosive effects of neurobiological time.” Can you sum up the gist of this idea? Are you working with any neurobiological labs?

MC: The first time we see an image, it’s intense, fresh. We expend a lot of cognitive energy when we encounter an unfamiliar thing, and we can feel this energy in the unusual vivacity of an image seen for the first time. Once we’ve seen it a number of times, however, that intensity will typically fade. It becomes hard to really see it. We say, “stop and smell the flowers,” but when we’ve walked past the same flowers many times, it becomes really hard to notice them. Critics from Walter Pater to Viktor Shklovsky have understood the goal of art to be to make things new. Artists and writers want to present a familiar thing—a love affair, the sky, a city—in an unfamiliar way, so that we notice it again, so that it shines with something of the energy and intensity of the first time. I’m interested in the really hard problem—tackled by certain writers from Keats to Proust—to create an image that never gets old. These writers, in their search for a habit-resistant image, illuminate the capacities of the brain such an image might engage. I worked with several neuroscientists and cognitive scientists to see what science might learn from art in this respect. Some of the findings came out in neuroscience and humanities journals, and I lay out the full argument in Writing Against Time. No one has yet created a time-resistant image. But they’re still trying, and we can learn surprising things from their efforts. A few days ago I got an email from the New York composer Christopher Trappani, who read Writing Against Time and is working on a piece of music employing some of the strategies I lay out. I’m excited to hear what he comes up with.