A Book in My Head: Mike Doughty on The Book of Drugs

As leader of the band Soul Coughing, Mike Doughty scored a major hit in 1998 with “Circles.” Yet for all of his apparent success, Doughty’s life was falling apart — a fact he acknowledges freely throughout his forthcoming memoir, The Book of Drugs. A compelling read, The Book of Drugs chronicles Doughty’s life as an artist, his struggles with addiction, and the last fleeting hours of the music industry’s glory days. Curious as always to chat about craft with writers from all genres, I dropped Mike a line, and picked his brain about his process and the challenges inherent in writing memoir.

What inspired you to branch out from music and into memoir?
Basically, I just had a book in my head. It wasn’t so much wanting to write a book as realizing I had a book to write.

I’m curious about the title. Drugs are definitely one subject you tackle, but the book offers commentary on a wide range of topics—your childhood, the music industry, and psychology, to name just a few. Why did you decide to call your memoir The Book of Drugs?
Drugs are the near-constant companion in the book — as in my life. Either doing them, or conspicuously not doing them. Though, honestly, I really just liked the title, and the way it frames addiction as a relationship.

As I was reading the book, it occurred to me that the drugs you’re discussing might also be metaphorical—that as human beings, we’re always looking for something to take away our pain or distract us from everyday life. So music, in its own way, can be a drug, and so can things like self-pity, for example. Is this valid, or am I reading too much into things?
I definitely was drawn to music as a means of medicating myself, to ease pain. My album from 2005, Haughty Melodic, has songs that are often in one verse about an ex, and in the next, a drug, but they mesh together seamlessly as songs about women.

You do a good job of not mentioning your former band mates by name. What was behind this decision?
I didn’t want to throw mud on their names. Really, not that many people would make the effort to search online.

As you were writing, did you ever find yourself using their names, or were they easy to avoid?
Very easy to avoid. Easier than typing their names, perhaps.

You’re brutally honest throughout the memoir. Were there any topics you were reluctant to discuss?
It was difficult writing about my family, but everything else wasn’t. I have a lot of fear about losing people because they don’t like who they are in the book, but I think people who really know me realize that I’m pretty fervent in my loyalty to the work, the art, as opposed to my interests.

Along similar lines, did you ever run into any difficulties in terms of technique—not so much what to say about difficult topics, but how to say it?
I was pretty in-shape as a writer when I got into it. There were two great boons for me. Firstly, Twitter. You learn to write briefly, to excise the unnecessary. And I studied German for a few years, just took an interest in it long after I’d left school. German is so convoluted grammatically, that I really learned an incredible about of stuff about sentence structure, and simplicity.

How did you find time to fit writing a memoir into your schedule?
I had to put the writing first — to clear time to devote to it. I’m more surprised that I was able to fit a schedule into my memoir.

I’m also curious about editing. Did you work with an editor at Da Capo Press? What was the dialogue like between you and the editor? How did it shape the book?
Yeah, and, funnily, my editor used to play bass in my oldest friend’s band. He was very easygoing about deadlines, so I more or less consciously resolved not to do a thing until he started poking at me, reminded me that I’d been given money. Deadlines help, a lot. Something funny is that I couldn’t figure out how to divvy it up with a chapter structure, so I sent it in as it was, and expected to get suggestions. He called and said, “Hey, the decision not to have chapter breaks was really interesting.”

Were you surprised by anything as you worked on your memoir? Did you learn anything about yourself?
I was surprised that I was able to do it. It’s a hefty gig. Also, I tend to minimize how painful things were, in my head, and sometimes, when I’d see it on paper, I’d realize how sad or hurtful things could be. I rarely give myself permission to have real feelings, but when I read the book back, I got this very thorough sense of what I’d gone through, and how it affected me.

10 thoughts on “A Book in My Head: Mike Doughty on The Book of Drugs

  1. Good interview questions. Was especially interested in the response to the question on metaphorical drugs. The title is a great hook and demonstrates that it can be just as important as an opening line.

      • Yes, that was intriguing. We weren’t taught grammar at school in a dedicated sense, so I can see how learning another language must teach you about the structure of your own.

  2. Wow… fascinating interview. Sounds like a good book and an intriguing guy. I especially liked your third question and his reply. That was the one that popped up in my head right away, the one that I wanted to “ask,” too.

    • Thanks, Simon! I’m adding War of Words to my reading queue and hope to be able to read it sometime soon. Would you be open to an interview? Similarly thoughtful questions guaranteed!

  3. I particularly enjoyed the candour in your questions – but I tend to enjoy bass more than lead. You certainly helped him to riff off on some good ones.
    Imaginative reach out, too, to different voices beyond your own.
    I’m not keen on this new look – sorry. The Palatino is too spindly, and the word-spacing (without discretionary hyphenation) is gappy.

  4. So strange/synchronicitous– I just transferred my CDs to my computer (I know, technology catches on slowly over here) and had my hands on my Soul Coughing CD– Irresistible Bliss. Great album.
    It seemed like you were doing the thinking for him re: the title of his book, but I really liked what he said about the effect of writing on understanding, how writing this book took him outside himself: “when I read the book back, I got this very thorough sense of what I’d gone through, and how it affected me.” I feel like that is true about autobiography, something I’m learning now.

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