This Must Be The Place, the new memoir by Sean H. Doyle—published May 1—features the most gratuitous drug use of any book I’ve ever read, and it’s packed with violence, grief, and generally horrible things. In fact, if you were to take out the drugs and the violence and the sadness, you’d really have nothing. But none of it reads in a way that’s designed to offend the reader. Instead, Doyle seems intent on making himself face his ugliest moments, his lowest points. A dog rubbing his own nose in the many messes he’s made on so many carpets.
It would be tempting to label this book a “confessional.” But a confession is almost always just an admission with the purpose of asking for forgiveness or leniency or understanding. There’s none of that here. Doyle just wants you to know that these things happened. He reports them with something more than just clarity, but a raging sense of honesty and brutality. There is not a single moment when the narrator justifies, rationalizes, or qualifies an action, an event, or even a thought. There are moments where you will forgive him, will qualify his actions, will, perhaps, understand how and why he felt the way he did. But those are things you give to the page, not things the page gives to you. And then it’s on to the next bleak, or occasionally hilarious, episode: this one in a cult, or on a Navy ship, or at his family’s dinner table, or in a hospital.
Doyle has done more than just make himself vulnerable here. Sentences like “Ward gets in my face in the tub—where I am naked and crying and everyone is gawking and laughing at me—and calls me a greedy junkie piggy” cannot have been easy to write. And the book is filled with agonizing moments such as these. Doyle dwells on the mistakes, the pain, and the shame. But because of this emphasis on the negative, the moments of hope, or humor, and even joy stand out in stark relief. As Doyle displays fragments of his life in no particular order, a delicate but powerful narrative emerges about family—the love of a mother, the bond of siblings, and, at least, the mutual respect between father and son. And the conversational voice he employs throughout does more than just serve as a way of being blunt as he discusses the lowest of his lows, but it showcases the author’s subtle wit.
But where there’s humor, there’s doom. And where there are stark reports of things that happened, there are just as many mysterious gaps in already confusing half of a life worth of experiences. Some writers get playful in how they tell a story, switching narrators or jumping forward and back in time. But Doyle’s not playing, and his approach is extreme. It’s as if he’s taken his complete picture, painted it on glass, shattered it with a hammer, then thrown out some of the bigger pieces and mixed up the rest into one very sharp, very chaotic collection.
Far more than stretch himself as a writer, Doyle has sliced himself into bloody ribbons.
Given the attention the book has gotten, how are you feeling?
Today, I am feeling pretty good about things. It teeters between feeling good and me feeling terrified, which is a feeling I sometimes like more than I like feeling good.
Is the fear or anxiety you are feeling more about you wanting the book to “do” well—either critically or commercially—or is it more like, “holy shit, I had no idea so many people were going to read about me masturbating in front of some random dude just so he’d give me a little coke”?
It might be a little bit of both, along with some other trepidations that lurk in my blood about being seen or known. The reality I’m living in right now is that I am 44 years old and I wrote a book about things that have happened in my life that some people might find disturbing or terrible or funny or sad or any number of things. There is no way I could have written a book like this at 25, or even at 35. This book came out of me when I was ready and able to write about these things that happened. Not to get all woo-woo about it, but I feel like all of the things that have happened to me in my life have kind of led to me this place where I am now.
Let’s talk about the book. You are unrelentingly hard on yourself throughout it, offering up what I must imagine to be some of your lowest moments without any excuses, without asking for any sympathy. And yet, I think for most people, even when they’re bearing it all, there’s a natural inclination to try to offer some kind of justification, to offer some modicum of “in my defense.” Did you find yourself doing that as you initially wrote the book? Or did that come later; did you find you had to go back and edit out qualifications and rationalizations?
I don’t know how other people work things out for themselves, but for me, being hard on myself is how I stay accountable and aware and present. I’ve done a lot of really dumb shit in my life. Like, if I had a scale for dumb shit vs. good shit, the dumb shit part would be seven stories underground. I spent far too many years of my life not being accountable for things and not being responsible for my actions and the ways in which I hurt people or hurt myself. It took me a long time to get here, but I don’t think there are any excuses, not anymore. What I’ve done is what I’ve done. All I can do now is try every day to be a better person than I was yesterday.
Writing the book was a very visceral and intense experience for me. Opening up all of these locked doors inside of myself and really looking inside of them to see what happened, and how my actions—or at times, lack of action—rippled out around me and caused things to get weirder or scarier or even more lovely, that fucked with me a bit. But I also knew going into the project that I wanted it to be spare and I wanted the things that happened to be free from where and who I am now, no omniscient play-by-play or inside baseball kind of stuff. As I wrote these memories out I did everything I possibly could to stay conscious of my current interior self and left that guy out of the mix. Otherwise, the book would not have been anything close to what it turned out to be.
There’s a preface at the beginning that states, “These are my memories of the ghosts of myself. Be they real or not, they have made me, put me here, kept me alive and continue to do so.” So there’s some hedging that, at the very least, some of these things may not be entirely accurate because memory is not always reliable. So talk to me about truth in the book, false memory, and the reliability of the narrator.
For years, the signature on my outgoing emails was this quote from Philip Roth— “Obviously the facts are never just coming at you, but are incorporated by an imagination that is formed by your previous experience. Memories of the past are not memories of facts but memories of your imaginings of the facts.” I cannot even begin to count how many hours I have spent trying to find “truth” in everything. I don’t think those hours are wasted, but I also don’t think there is a truth. False memories are an amazing thing when we uncover them. There were quite a few I found when I was mining for this book. I made plenty of late night phone calls to people I hadn’t spoken to in 20 years, asking them if they remembered things in the same kind of haze that I had, and most of them did. It’s like being in a band and you jam for a few hours on one riff and that riff starts to shift and take on another shape through the repetition and the personalities of the players and the gear they’re using and the overtones that get created.
The only reliable narrators in this world are dogs.
There are very conspicuous gaps in the story. Are these things that were intentionally edited out of the narrative for the sake of the text, the flow, the reading experience? Or are these things that you aren’t prepared to write about yet? Or is it something entirely different?
When I was writing this book, I consciously wrote out memories as they came to me. I had no plan and no map. The only idea in my head was that these memories were going to get explored, dissected, and left wide open on the page. Our memories don’t come back to us in a linear fashion. They come back as snapshots of ghosts and olfactory dreams and aural flashbacks. Nothing is concise or clear, they just show up randomly and without reason. I wrote probably four times as many memories than the ones that ended up in the book. As I constructed the final manuscript, I paid attention to musicality and the underhum of the chunklets and memories that stung me the most, and then I culled the ones that didn’t have the same melody or the same tonal properties. I read every sentence out loud over and over again, listening to the acoustics of the words and listening to the waveform they’re creating.
There absolutely are things I am not ready to write about, yes. That doesn’t mean I won’t, though. Most of the stuff in the book was stuff that scared me as I wrote it.
This book has gotten a lot of attention in different circles, but certainly a lot in the music world. You are a musician. Your publisher describes you as a “punk rock sailor shaiman.” The name of the book is also the title of a Talking Heads’ song. And yet, there’s actually very little mention of music in the book.
Maddening, isn’t it? I think the reason music isn’t mentioned often—if at all—is because it’s implied in a way. The way the book is structured is musical, at least for me. Melodic callbacks and tiny little lines or words that appear and reappear are like little riffs that signify a sea change or a shift about to come. I was never a “successful” musician. None of my bands ever got signed and none of my bands ever went anywhere. Sure, our friends loved and supported us, but as you know, it always takes a combination of so many other factors for a band to move beyond their local sphere of action. I’m friends with a lot of musicians who have had success. I’m also friends with a lot of musicians like myself, folks who gave up on the idea of making records and sleeping in vans while the drummer drives and mouth drums to old Metallica albums. I’m a bedroom musician now, making music that’s stuck in my head on my own gear in my own way and on my own time.
Like I said earlier, a lot of material written for the book didn’t make it into the book. Plenty of it was about music and bands and struggle and heartache over it all. Hopefully, if this all goes right, there will be more books and more room for me to explore that stuff.
The book itself is both chaotic but rigidly structured: comprised of scraps of scenes from all times and places in your life, all out of order, though it never deviates from that format. Talk about how this push and pull of control/out-of-control, chaos/order has played into your writing.
I think I have a few things I look for in books. I am always looking for work that is unwavering, work that sets a tone and maintains that tonality throughout. The same kind of relentlessness I have in trying to be a better person is inside of the sentences and the choices I make as a writer. Interior voice drives me insane because it’s totally unreliable and way too easy to inject rightfuckingnow ideas and ideals into something that happened a long time ago when that kind of knowledge or understanding wasn’t at my disposal or even in my head yet. I’ve always felt very strongly that if I am writing something and it doesn’t hurt me or doesn’t make me feel a little sick, I am not writing like myself. As far as chaos goes, it’s the nature of the universe I live within. For me, and the way I live, there is always a push/pull dynamic. Being a kid who grew up in a home with some serious turmoil and being a kid who was bullied and being a kid who was too emotional for reason led me to start looking inward for answers or even compassion. I could go all woo-woo on you again and start to unspool a bunch of spiritual/philosophical stuff that would lay it all out, but that would be revealing way too much about how much time I have spent inside of my own head.
You posted a picture on Instagram some weeks back of a stack of your books with the caption, “Just started crying.” When I first saw it, I really just thought it was a special moment. After reading the book, I immediately thought about it again because crying is a recurring theme in the book. Tell me about crying and how, or why, it holds such power for you.
Crying is screaming. I used to get barked on a lot as a kid for crying too much, but crying is probably the most beautiful release of all the pent up stuff inside of us. I cry all the time and I’m not ashamed about it at all. I cried when I opened up the box of books with my name on them because this is something I have wanted since I first learned to read, to have a book. I spent thousands of hours in books and with words. Now I have a book with my work in it, that someone else believed in enough to get behind and put into the world.