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.

Most Recent Posts from One True Thing

"Original Voices": New Book Gives Homeless Women Their Say

Collection of poems, essays and wonderings written by homeless women.

23 Everyday Ways You Can Say 'I Love You'

From secret notes, to "kissing school," to keeping the bed warm.

Seven Rules You Should Break to Get Ahead

Advice we received as kids isn’t always based on truth.