My Genes, My Self

How far does our genetic blueprint reach?

Q&A With Novelist Dan Barden

Author draws on struggles with addiction, recovery, and being a good man

Dan Barden draws on his personal struggles with alcohol and recovery in his sharp, quirky mystery, The Next Right Thing. Here’s more from Dan:

Jennifer Haupt: I love how you wove in the themes of recovery in your novel. How did you go about your research?

Dan Barden: I am an alcoholic who doesn’t drink. I’m an alcoholic in recovery. I hate the way that sounds, but there’s no better way to describe it. I drank way too much and now I don’t drink anymore. One day at a time, I don’t drink or take drugs, either. There’s a piece of that experience in all the characters in this book. Beyond that, I have always loved alcoholics and addicts—recovering and otherwise. They’re my people. And they’re really the best people—except when they’re not. I was born to love them, and I doubt that will ever change.

JH: Where did you start this novel with a character, a scene, a plot line? And how much did the plot change over the course of completing the story?

 DB: I had this experience of losing a close friend to a heroin overdose, and I realized one morning—while reading the New York Times—that my relationship to his death was a lot like a crime novel. In the months after his death, I became obsessed with finding out what had happened. Who was he with? Where did he get the drugs? What exactly had happened in that week before he died? I wanted to know because I was angry. I wanted to blame someone. What I realized that morning reading the paper was that I had imagined myself as some kind of hard-boiled detective. I was going to figure it out and kick some ass. Which is ridiculous, if you know me. What I realized that morning is that I could create a character, a guy nothing like me except for his grief over his friend, who could stir up some trouble. So, yes, the whole thing started with this character, who was a projection of what I might do if I were a different person.

The essential plot never really changed. Randy was always a well-meaning bull in a china shop. Over the years of hard work, though, the story got refined. We got down to the bones of the thing. A few twists and characters emerged over time, but mostly the story just got more precise, more concentrated.

JH: Do you have themes that you explore in all of your work? And/Or is this novel a departure?

DB: I think I always end up writing about what it means to be a good man. Maybe even how to be a good man. My characters are often tortured by this question. They know that, in some sense, they are both beasts and angels. I also want to know what it means to be an American. We can be so crazy and ruthless. And yet I am in love with this culture, particularly the West coast version of it, and I find more possibility here than anywhere else on earth.

JH: What books are on your bedside table now?

DB: Both Ways is The Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy. An amazing book of short stories by one of our greatest novelists. I feel guilty for liking her stories so much because I’m afraid her novels—which I adore with all my heart—will be jealous. Living Zen by Robert Linssen. This was the first book I read about Zen Buddhism over 20 years ago. It’s a vexing, disorganized book, but I love it because I can open it to a random page and find something that I have apparently never read before.

JH: What’s something that might surprise your readers about your writing life?

DB: That I never write for more than an hour at a time. That I write in sprints. About the time my 8-year-old son was born, my ability to sit down for a whole day of work disappeared. Maybe it will return some day, but I doubt it. So I taught myself to work in bursts. I have a day job as a college professor, too. So, a good day of writing is three or four bursts, in between all the other things I do with my time. Every burst is precisely 48 minutes. Doesn’t that sound weird?

JH: How entwined are your writing life and your personal life?

DB: Completely. I can’t have one without the other. If I’m not a good father and husband, I’m too distracted to write. And if I don’t do my work, I’m a cranky father and husband. I also can’t be a writer apart from my friends. It was my friends—other recovering alcoholics, particularly—who encouraged me to become a writer. My friends are also the subject of this book. I wanted to write about the people who saved my life.

JH: What’s the one true thing you learned from Randy, the ex-cop who’s front and center in The Next Right Thing?

DB: That loving other people, for all their wonder and awfulness, is the hardest work there is.

Dan Barden is also the author of John Wayne: A Novel. A native of Southern California, he teaches at Butler University, and lives in Indiana with his wife, Elizabeth Houghton Barden, owner of Indianapolis's Big Hat Books & Arts.

My Genes, My Self