Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Jessica Warner

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Ten Questions with Jessica Warner

Jessica Warner is a research scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto and teaches in the graduate faculty of the department of history at the University of Toronto. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason. Her latest book, The Day George Bush Stopped Drinking: Why Abstinence Matters to the Religious Right, was published this fall by McClelland & Stewart.

OB:

Tell us about your book, The Day George Bush Stopped Drinking.

JW:

Where to start? I will go out on a limb and say that my book is really about American evangelicalism and why it casts the world in black-and-white terms. Abstinence, with its all or nothing mentality, is the most obvious example of this logic, and the task I set myself was to see where this thinking comes from, and why it has put down deeper roots in America than anywhere else in the Western world. The really fascinating — and unexpected — part of the story is that abstinence started as a liberal ideal, the handmaiden of feminists and abolitionists and utopian visionaries. The key task for me as an historian was to explain how abstinence has traveled from the left to the right, from Susan B. Anthony in the nineteenth century to Jerry Falwell in the twentieth. I was also interested in seeing how other Western countries have avoided the pitfalls of perfectionism, and that is why the book includes a chapter on how Britain managed to say no to abstinence.

OB:

How did you research your book?

JW:

Mostly by reading as much as I could of the vast proscriptive literature churned out by America’s evangelicals. This provided the raw materials for making abstinence a chapter in the history of ideas, but to give the phenomenon a human face, I then turned to the memoirs written by the key players in America's many abstinence movements. The secondary literature was a mixed bag. A great deal has been written about temperance, sexual purity, and the various wars on drugs, but when it comes to the ideal of abstinence, there was next to nothing. That was my opening — and the reason why I wrote the book.

OB:

Can abstinence itself be a form of pleasure?

JW:

Absolutely. One of the points I make in the introduction is that it's misleading to think of abstinence as a sacrifice and nothing more. I believe that most choices people make are rational, and that this is also true of abstinence. Usually when people give up a vice, they are trading up, exchanging a vice for a virtue. What the abstainer is doing is to create a space for something new and better in his or her life, and that definitely qualifies as a form of pleasure.

OB:

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote The Day George Bush Stopped Drinking?

JW:

I wanted to reach the same audience I had in my first two books — academics as well as the general public. This can be a tricky balancing act, but it’s absolutely essential, since most serious non-fiction ends up being reviewed by academics. The one thing I refuse to do is to use the usual weasel words of academic writing — discourse, narrative, masculinities, and so on and so on. With this particular book, I was particularly keen on reaching out to people who are not familiar with evangelicalism. That was the boat I was in when I started researching the book, and I’m guessing that this is also true of liberals in general.

OB:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

JW:

I'd say a quiet and orderly place where I'm in complete control of the environment. The real issue for me is my physical state, which is to say that I do my best work (such as it is) when I’m both rested and caffeinated.

OB:

What was your first publication?

JW:

Cartoons, first in college newspapers, then in underground comics. My real ambition was to become a professional cartoonist, but that obviously didn't happen. My first published writings were in academic journals, and I’m too embarrassed to mention them by name.

OB:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

JW:

Well, I certainly wouldn’t recommend anything contemporary, and that, I’m afraid, pretty much excludes anything Canadian. There’s simply nothing out there that can hold a candle to the great novels of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. My absolute top pick is Anna Karenina in the new translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky. This, for my money, is the best novel ever written, the literary equivalent of Beethoven’s Ninth. For sheer style, I’d go with Hugh Trevor-Roper's Renaissance Essays. I’m also a huge fan of poetry, starting with Marvel’s “To his Coy Mistress” and Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.”

OB:

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?

JW:

First, I’m not sure if I am a writer. The label has come to be too precious, too Romantic with a capital R. The best advice I’ve got about writing came from an old prof who said that my sentences were simply awful. I was mortified, but when I calmed down I realized he was right. What he did was to make me self-conscious about my writing and about keeping the reader uppermost in mind.

OB:

Describe the most memorable response you've received from a reader.

JW:

Actually, it came from the same professor who had taken me down a peg. Years later, I sent him copies of my first two books, and he said certain nice things about my prose I won't bother to repeat here. Coming from him, that meant the world to me.

OB:

What is your next project?

JW:

Actually, I’m taking on two projects (or trying to): a scholarly book for my day job at CAMH, and then a novel set in eighteenth-century Portsmouth. The working title of the novel is The Journal of a Harried Man; or, Cuckoldry Exposed and Vindicated. The hero is a local magistrate, Pindar Huish, and the episodes are based on actual incidents in the town's sessions papers. The novel is meant to be crisp and funny, but it also has a larger intellectual purpose, and that is to explore the boundaries between fiction and historiography.



Read more about The Day George Bush Stopped Drinking: Why Abstinence Matters to the Religious Right at the McClelland & Stewart website.

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