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Erin Khar: “I want people to have an intimate understanding of the experience of addiction”

For readers who may be struggling with addiction, I want them to know they’re not alone. I want them to know that their lives matter, that it is possible to rebuild your life after addiction.For readers who haven’t personally struggled with addiction, I want them to have an intimate understanding of the experience of addiction. […]

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For readers who may be struggling with addiction, I want them to know they’re not alone. I want them to know that their lives matter, that it is possible to rebuild your life after addiction.

For readers who haven’t personally struggled with addiction, I want them to have an intimate understanding of the experience of addiction. Because that is what it is — a human experience.

I want people to see that addiction is not a moral failing; it’s a public health issue. Those in the throes of addiction are human beings, struggling with a human condition.

More than anything, I want the book to give people hope.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Erin Khar. Her debut memoir, STRUNG OUT: One Last Hit and Other Lies that Nearly Killed Me (Park Row Books, 2/25/20), has appeared on most anticipated lists from The Rumpus, SELF, Apple Books, Goodreads, Bitch Media, Alma, and others. The New York Times writes: Khar’s buoyant writing doesn’t get mired in her dark subject matter. There is an honesty here that can only come from, to put it in the language of 12-step programs, a “searching and fearless moral inventory.” This is a story she needed to tell; and the rest of the country needs to listen.

Her weekly advice column, Ask Erin, is published on Ravishly. Her personal essays have appeared in SELF, Marie Claire, Salon, HuffPost, Esquire, Cosmopolitan, and others. She lives in New York City.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

My career hasn’t taken a straight path. My adolescence and 20s were messy. I didn’t finish college, and I was on and off drugs until I was 28. Before becoming a professional writer, and then author, I worked in a few different fields. I worked in the film industry as a wardrobe stylist and later as a production coordinator. I worked for a nonprofit organization as a case manager for transition-age youth (ages 14–24) — many of them runaways — who were experiencing homelessness. I also founded and ran a clothing line.

In 2008, as the economy crashed and our largest account went bankrupt, leaving us in the lurch, I thought about whether or not I was willing to invest more into it, in terms of money and time. I realized that I wasn’t passionate about what I was doing, so I closed down the business.

I spent the next several months freelancing, working once again in the film industry. I was in my mid-30s and felt like I might not figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up.

In the summer of 2009, I was still living in Los Angeles, and I had a serendipitous weekend in New York. One of my dearest friends and I drove out to Storm King — the spectacular outdoor sculpture garden about an hour from the city.

We lay in the grass, staring up at a giant red Calder sculpture; I turned to him and said, “I feel so lost. I feel like I could just float away, and it would be like I was never here at all.”

He turned his head and looked at me, narrowing his eyes. “You just need to find the thing that makes you want to get up in the morning, the thing that makes you feel alive. Not a person, but a calling.”

“Oh, is that all,” I said and we both laughed.

The next day, I had brunch with another dear friend and the man she was dating. He was a writer. We spent a long day together, walking around the city and talking about what we wanted for our lives. Toward the end of the day, this man, practically a stranger, said to me, “You should write. The way you tell stories and talk about life… They would make great essays.”

Later, when I was alone, those words echoed in my head. I made a decision. I was going to go back to school, and I was going to pursue writing, something I had always done, in journals and long letters, but never imagined I could do it professionally.

Once I made that decision, things fell in place for me like they never had before. I finished my degree and began freelancing — writing articles and personal essays for a wide variety of outlets. I started writing an advice column, which grew and grew from its beginning on my old blog, now reaching an audience of 500,000 readers a month on ravishly.com.

My career continued to expand. I signed with my agents and sold my first book, STRUNG OUT: One Last Hit and Other Lies that Nearly Killed Me — a memoir about my years of addiction and how I made it out.

I am so grateful for the career I have today; it’s more than I’d ever imagined possible for me.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

Outside of how I started — taking the suggestion of a stranger to head in an entirely new direction — there have been several stand-out moments for me in the course of my career.

When my book first came out, the coronavirus was just hitting the United States. Four days into my book tour, it was clear that many, if not all, of my remaining events, would be canceled. Now certainly we reach a larger audience online than during in-person events. But what amazed me at each event I did do was how much the audience opened up during the Q&A portion. People shared their own stories of addiction or about someone they lost to addiction.

I feel so fortunate to have reminders, like those events, to remember what I love about writing — creating a connection with other human beings, one that makes us feel less alone.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

The biggest challenge I faced was starting the journey. I had a passion for writing and books for as far back as I can remember. I was an early reader, starting at age three. By the time I was in second grade, I was taking books off of my parents’ bookshelves. I loved writing, communicating through words, and crafting narratives, but I didn’t think I was qualified to be a writer.

Many of us have felt imposter syndrome at one time or another in our given careers. Just before my book sold at auction, I had a week filled with article rejections. It’s par for the course for writers. We deal with A LOT of rejection. I felt down about it for a moment and then reminded myself of what I have learned as an editor, who reviews pitches and submissions: rejection isn’t personal. There are so many factors that go into what gets published and what doesn’t — budget, timing, being too similar to recently run or son to run essays or articles, just not being the right fit for a specific publication.

Every writer, even the ones who appear the most successful, still deal with rejection. It’s okay. Just keep writing, learning, adapting. The main requirement to make it as a writer is to keep writing.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Oh gosh, mine was a common mistake. I had a timely article I was pitching to multiple outlets simultaneously. So I was pasting the same pitch into every email. I had the wrong intro sent to TWO different editors. I realized it after the fact and was mortified. I immediately emailed both of the editors and apologized. They were both very nice about it.

As an editor, I have had this happen to me many times. It doesn’t bother me at all; I get it. But there are some editors out there who do mind. I learned to check my emails (at least twice) for easy to miss mistakes like this, before hitting send.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I am at my best when I am working on multiple projects. There is something about creativity that multiplies when you spread it around; that’s what happens for me.

At the moment, I am working on my second book, another work of nonfiction. I have two tv/film projects in different stages, which I have been working on with a writing partner. And I am in the early stages of writing a novel, which is so exciting!

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

Hmm, it’s challenging to pinpoint the most interesting story in my book, because I think that varies from reader to reader. But one of them is the conversation I had with my oldest son, Atticus, about my years of addiction.

The book opens with Atticus asking me a question: “Mom, did you ever do drugs?” I didn’t know what to say; I froze. Some months later, shortly before his 13th birthday, I had a conversation with him, and it went better than I could have imagined.

It’s an integral part of my story because I think many parents feel confused or conflicted about having these tough conversations with their children. But it’s imperative. It’s the only way to break patterns.

We can and should speak with our kids, from an early age, about whatever we may have struggled with as children and adolescents. Part of parenting is modeling behavior, and I can’t think of a more important lesson than modeling how you move forward and heal after making huge mistakes.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

For readers who may be struggling with addiction, I want them to know they’re not alone. I want them to know that their lives matter, that it is possible to rebuild your life after addiction.

For readers who haven’t personally struggled with addiction, I want them to have an intimate understanding of the experience of addiction. Because that is what it is — a human experience.

I want people to see that addiction is not a moral failing; it’s a public health issue. Those in the throes of addiction are human beings, struggling with a human condition.

More than anything, I want the book to give people hope.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. To become a great author, you have to be a student of life. Whenever I have felt stuck, I have put myself back into the role of student — taking a class, researching a subject, learning a new pastime. I believe everything we choose to take in, informs our work, and the more you are willing to learn and expand, the richer your writing becomes.
  2. Your voice matters. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, your voice is present. And it matters. There is no one else better equipped to tell the story you want to tell, need to tell. Forget about trying to prove or disprove this. When I set out to write an addiction memoir, I had to answer a question: Why do we need this story? Answering that question, seeing the need in the very crowded addiction market for my story — a young, female heroin addict who hid her addiction for a decade — gave me the push to make my story matter.
  3. Become the best literary citizen you can be. I am of the mind that we are all in this together. What I didn’t know when I first started and came to learn, is how vital a writing community is for my life — both personally and professionally. Lift up your peers. Share their work. Support their books. Share your resources. When you make a habit of championing others, without expectation of anything in return, you build a community around you. And you will need that community to make it through the publishing process with any sanity left!
  4. Be willing to try editorial suggestions. I love collaboration, so this one came pretty easily for me. I have known many writers who become stuck on the draft they first turn in, unwilling to look at their work through the editor’s perspective. My attitude with edits is to try every suggestion. If it works, great. If it doesn’t work, you don’t have to implement it. Remember that your editor wants your book to be as good as possible, too! Ultimately, you are driving the car, but be open to taking some direction. I am proud of the book I wrote, and it wouldn’t be what it is, were it not for my brilliant editor — Laura Brown at Park Row Books.
  5. Define your purpose. People come to writing, or any art form, for different reasons. My driving purpose is to connect with others. Art resonates with us — whether it’s a book or a film or a song or a painting or a sculpture — when the experience of being human is reflected back at us. That’s why art is essential to feeling connected. It’s why we feel less alone when we read a good book.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or an example?

A habit I started as a kid and kept up my entire life was documenting my days and the world around me. This can mean journaling, taking random notes on your phone, voice recordings, letters or emails, even photographs. What I’ve taken in and processed and recorded in various ways has absolutely informed my writing. I am so grateful that I developed that habit at such an early age. It gave me the gift of having primary sources to draw from when I wrote STRUNG OUT, but it informs my fiction writing as well.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

There are so many books that have inspired me. A few of the books that impacted me the most are John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire and The World According to Garp, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation, Joan Didion’s Play it as It Lays and Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body and The Passion, Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water, Armistead Maupin’s Maybe the Moon, and the poetry and short stories of Dorothy Parker.

Some new releases that have excited me: Kate Milliken’s Kept Animals, Chelsea Bieker’s Godshot, Nina Renata Aron’s Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls, and Alia Volz’s Home Baked, to name but a handful.

I am also so inspired by the essays I read online. Every Monday, I post a long reading thread on Twitter of what I read the past week and loved. It’s such a fun way to support other writers and connect with people.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I will always write and speak about drug addiction to destigmatize the topic and change the perception people have of addicts. We have to continue to advocate for harm reduction services — because we can’t help people recover if we can’t keep them alive — and funding for mental health services to treat the underlying issues at the core of addiction.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’m on Twitter and Instagram @ErinKhar and on Facebook.

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