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Catching Up With Kristen Johnston

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Catching Up With Kristen Johnston

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White jeans, espadrilles and bare legs are popping up all over the northeast, which means spring is right around the corner — if not here already! With sunshine comes beach-time, and nothing beats an engrossing page-turner to keep you company as you soak up the sun (with sunscreen, preferably). Now, some people prefer what I call 'pink' books — frilly, generic love stories of boy meets girl — but sometimes, you just need something a little grittier. Cue Kristen Johnston’s debut release, Guts: the Endless Follies and Tiny Triumphs of a Giant Disaster, a brutally honest memoir about her addiction and downward spiral to rehab told in a series of essays. The name Kristen Johnston might not ring a bell, but you know her best as the Emmy-winning actress from Third Rock from the Sun or Anne Hathaway's painfully annoying maid of honor in Bride Wars. You can catch her soon in L!fe Happens, a comedy starring Kate Bosworth, Rachel Bilson and Krysten Ritter.

We caught up with Kristen last week — while she was in the middle of feeding her dog — for a laugh-out-loud interview (sprinkled with many an F-Bomb) where she filled us in on her inspiration for writing, what keeps her going now, and what we can expect to read next.

You tackle some very serious issues in the book, so what made you want to write something so revealing?
It was sort of a process of starting to realize that I needed to do something else other than acting, which I'd started to do in sobriety by starting to teach at NYU. But I knew I didn't want to get a facelift and be depressed and go on documentaries and be like, "Women get no roles!" So I thought, what else could I possibly do? So I thought, maybe I should try to write a book. I mean, if Snooki's doing it, why not?

So what was your process?
I sent my editor some emails and one of them actually ended up becoming a chapter in the book. It was this email I sent to my friend who, at the time, was a couple days sober, and I was five months sober. It ended up being a very revealing email telling the truth about becoming who I am. And my editor read it and said, "You’re writing this book." And I thought, "You've got to be kidding me, there's literally no way I would ever write about my addiction." But ten minutes later, I started writing and I could not stop for the next year-and-a-half.

Was it difficult to embrace a touchy subject?
Oh my God, it's so embarrassing and so difficult, but I thought, if I'm going to tell it, I have to tell it. I could pussy-foot around, but who wants to read that book? If I'm going to tell it, I'm going to be brave and tell the embarrassing shit, the shit like I took my dog’s pills once. It's really hard-core, bad, embarrassing stuff, but that's what drug addiction is. So if I'm going to write a pretty book, then I should write about what it was like to go to drawing classes when I was eight.

Why did you decide to use such a funny, satirical tone with heavy material?
I knew I had to. I had David Rakoff and a couple writers that I love read it in different incarnations. And they said, it sounds like you talk, which is I guess a very difficult thing to accomplish. I just knew, starting out, I was like, look — I'm an actress. People think I have fur coats and get fed grapes. I am not that person. I'm just a good person who likes to make people laugh — big fucking deal. So I knew I had to reach people, and just sort of talk and be, this is who I am. And also, I knew that the best way to reach people was humor. There's nothing better than a fucking Augusten Burroughs book and he's barking because he's drunk, but he makes you laugh at his tragedy.

You’ve been compared to Burroughs and David Sedaris. Do you find yourself similar?
Here's one thing I think it's similar to: certainly to David Sedaris and a little bit Augusten Burroughs, in that they're both writers I love. And what I love so much, especially Sedaris, is that he can write a linear story, but you can take each chapter and it can live on its own as a short story. And that's what I tried to do with Guts, you can just jump around and read any chapter whenever you want. Obviously, it's better to read it linearly, but you can read the epilogue first. It doesn't really matter, they all kind of stand on their own hopefully.

Did you show the revealing chapters to anyone during the writing process?
I did send it to a bunch of people, maybe ten different people in different incarnations. I'd be like, "do you want another chapter? Here it is." And it was such a great experience. It was so encouraging, the generosity of my friends. I might tear up a little bit, I'm not kidding you. I don't want to say what they said without sounding like a fucking egotistical asshole. They were just so excited for me and supportive, and these are people that have known me through the good times and bad. A playwright friend of mine had just gotten sober and read it, just the first half of it, and they kept emailing me, "give me the next chapter, give me the next chapter." So I'd send the next chapter to them and it wasn't until a year later maybe, that I got this email — your book helped keep me sober.

Is that what you want readers to take away from the book?
I guess if there's any goal that I have — I think recovering addicts will really want to read it, no matter what. Most recovering addicts are dying for something to relate to, something to go, yes! It's helpful. It's a war that you fight every fucking day. So any little ounce of sustenance you can get from anything is so welcome.

Each chapter has a ridiculous name, like "Ye Old Elvis Catnap," and is introduced with some wild photo of you. How did you choose them?
They were all photos I have from the years. And I didn't want to do one of those "in the middle of the book, here are all these pictures!" I just didn't want to do that, it's so tired. And then I thought, well wouldn't it be great to have each photograph really represent the exact time I'm talking about. The one in "Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come" (of Kristen dressed as Santa), that's real. That was me literally at Natasha Richardson's — she used to be a friend of mine — and she made me be Santa one year for her kids. Like, I had to run across her backyard with a sack and a costume so I was like, listen bitch, you better get me some booze first. So that looks so posed, but it is not. That was literally Santa eating a cookie and drinking red wine.

What can we expect from you next?
Well, I'm not giving up on writing. I can't reveal the title because it's the best, but it's another funny one and it's geared toward younger girls.

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