Of course Elizabeth Wurtzel doesn’t read the reviews. They’d make anyone depressed, let alone the author who suffers from a malaise that fed the memoir Prozac Nation. The Washington Post calls her latest confessional, More, Now, Again: A Memoir of Addiction, a ”literary fiasco” while Esquire prays it’s the ”final belch from a glutted decade.” The Salon.com reviewer goes so far as to spit, ”Sorry, Elizabeth. Wake up dead next time and you might have a book on your hands.” Which is why it’s so unfortunate that guests at Seattle’s Alexis Hotel, where she is staying while in town on her nine-city American book tour, get copies of USA Today dropped on their doorsteps each morning. — ”Wurtzel revisits misery,” the headline yawns. The writer, taking issue with her trademark I’m-damaged-come-hither cover photo, calls the 34-year-old author ”the closest thing to Britney Spears that Harvard College has ever produced.” She takes the unwelcome critique in surprising stride. ”If the worst thing that can be said about me is that I’m the Britney Spears of the literary world…” she laughs dismissively. ”And really, who else is going to fill that slot?”
She doesn’t understand why the literary world gives her such a hard time for writing another autobiography. ”Joni Mitchell has 20 albums about her emotional problems,” she points out, ”and nobody says, ‘Oh my God…can’t she do anything else?”’ So she’s grateful to be away from the club of New York journalists back home who hold her in such low regard. She doesn’t mind the daily scramble from market to market. Or the hotels that hassle her by refusing to open the kitchen to send her up an after-midnight cheese plate. Or that this cross-country publicity trek forces her to retrace the wobbly steps of her 1997 tour for Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, when she had FedExed packages of cocaine waiting for her at hotel check-ins.
Wurtzel made it onto best-seller charts in 1994 with Prozac Nation, her firsthand account of being ”young and depressed in America.” ”I think I thought that when it came out I was going to suddenly be a different person, that the air around me was going to tingle,” she remembers. ”I couldn’t believe I was still me…. It’s not like I sat around and said, ‘Oh, I know what I can do, I can become a drug addict,’ but that’s kind of what ended up happening.” Her highly anticipated follow-up, Bitch, which Doubleday bought for $500,000, was written in a Ritalin- and coke-induced flurry in a Fort Lauderdale apartment. More, Now, Again, which Simon & Schuster bought for half of her last advance, rehashes those addict years, cementing the critical view that she’s a narcissist in the first degree.
Wurtzel has been clean for more than three years and can’t imagine anything ever driving her back to drugs. But she admits to missing the lifestyle. ”One of the things I liked about [being an addict] is that it’s such a constant activity,” says Wurtzel. ”You don’t have time to think about anything else. I found that such a relief because thinking about other things is so tiring. It’s not unlike being on a book tour where all you have to worry about is the next interview.”
Local media escorts — who greet authors in each city in Volvos with baskets of water, breath mints, and Shout Wipes in the backseats — further simplify her life. They help her find her wallet. They don’t snap back when she insists she needs half-and-half, dammit! in her endless cups of coffee. They murmur ”mm-mmhh” and ”you should write about that” when she yammers on about how to resolve the crisis in the Middle East. And they replenish the cigarettes she’s constantly sucking back before each interview.
Today, Wurtzel’s a guest on Northwest Afternoon, a Seattle talk show that devotes its first 15 minutes to a wrap-up of all the soaps, for a segment called ”Ruined by Ritalin.” A bulk of the in-studio audience consists of the locally based Golden Rappers and their fans. The white female quartet, who rap about how great it is to be senior citizens in the USA, are there to tape a public service announcement. ”She’s certainly full of energy,” says Popsie, speaking for the group. After the show, the escort drops her back at the hotel for a phone interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. ”I’ll pick you up at 7:15 for the reading,” the escort calls from the car as Wurtzel beelines not for her ringing phone in her room but for the hotel perfumery.
”I think she has a problem being on time,” declares the escort at 7:45. But the 90-plus crowd at the Elliott Bay Book Company accepts Wurtzel’s dazed apologies, listening attentively as she cracks jokes about Mariah Carey and describes her ongoing struggle against hopelessness. ”A lot of reviewers compare you to Sylvia Plath,” says one earnest fan. ”I thought I’d ask how you felt about that.” ”God, I can’t think of anything nicer,” Wurtzel responds. ”I have to say I’ve always been comforted when I’ve looked at reviews of The Bell Jar when it came out and a lot of them were just absolutely horrible…. On the other hand, by the time Sylvia Plath was my age she was dead, and I’m trying very hard to be on the side of life.”
At midnight, Wurtzel decides her 6 a.m. flight to Portland, Ore., is too unbearable and opts for the three-hour drive. She spills out of the car, eyes bleary and hair mussed, at 8:10 a.m., 20 minutes late for the morning’s first interview. A Cub Scout troop fills up the KATU-TV studio, fidgeting in their folding chairs in anticipation of the free Cokes that the cohost promises them, while Wurtzel discusses her experience in rehab. All the interviews plug her signing that evening at Powell’s City of Books, but she’s so resigned herself to an empty room that she still arrives 20 minutes late.
Comrades-in-angst have come out in droves. Kyle, 25, wearing a chain around his neck and the Clash on the back of his black hoodie, can’t afford her new book but asks her to sign his Zoloft prescription. One gentleman, a recovering addict himself, applauds Wurtzel for ”laying yourself out there like a bearskin rug.” He hovers aggressively enough around her while she signs stock that the store manager eventually escorts her down the back stairs.
She makes her 7:45 a.m. flight to Los Angeles the next morning, despite traveling with a passport that incorrectly identifies her as ”Elizabeth Murtzel.” At the USC campus bookstore, her most ardent fans await. Alana, 21, gives Wurtzel a Tiffany bag with a present and a note inside thanking her for her strength. ”To understand that someone else went through the same stuff you went through and is doing okay now,” says Liz, 19, ”that’s like an excellent thing to see.” And Daniel, a 22-year-old senior, encourages her to ”write about your feelings for 100 books as far as I care. If it’s helping you and it’s interesting to read, that’s pretty much the only two things you can offer.”
And her book is helpful, she promises. Way more than other memoirs about addiction like Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story. ”This woman thinks the worst thing she did was fall over with a kid in her arms?” she exclaims at Dutton’s, another Los Angeles bookstore. ”I mean, she hasn’t drunk enough. She needs to start doing some serious drugs and feel what it’s like to be really f — -ed up. I felt nauseated reading this book that was taken seriously about being an addict or a drunk.”
At every appearance, she’s asked about the movie adaptation of Prozac Nation that hits theaters in May. Christina Ricci plays Elizabeth, and Anne Heche, who just published her own memoir, Call Me Crazy, stars as her psychiatrist. ”I think it’s a very good movie,” she says, ”but it’s very, very depressing. It has no humor in it…. It’s directed by a guy who’s Danish, it was written by an Irish screenwriter, all the people at the helm were men, and no one involved in it was Jewish. That’s so weird to me because I’m so Jewish.” In private she’ll curse the ”f — -ing Irish hack screenwriter who thinks he can write like me. There are better writers than me but there’s nobody who writes like me better than me.”
And that’s what really irks her. She thinks More, Now, Again is a really well-written book, despite what the critics say. ”If people have a problem with it, it’s about something else,” she says later, during a coffee break. ”I’ve had enough. I’m moving to England or I’m quitting. They win. After seeing what Dave Eggers gets away with, I just feel like this is sexism…. I spent all my time when I was writing about music for The New Yorker listening to people say I got my job for reasons other than why I got my job. There’s just an element of this that isn’t fair…. I feel all of this ends up being vindicated by readers and, you know, there’s just elements of — gosh, if we want to get to Fred Segal, we really have to go.”
”I’m sorry i’m late,” she tells the crowd at the Santa Monica Barnes & Noble that evening, ”but I got stuck at Fred Segal.” Murmurs of understanding ripple through the well-heeled crowd. She thinks she’ll read from the chapter about her shoplifting arrest, in honor of her two new (purchased) necklaces and the recent travails of her favorite whipping girl, Winona Ryder, who faces embarrassing charges for allegedly slipping $4,760 worth of merchandise into her bag. ”If she asked me,” she says, preening, ”I would tell her she should just say she needs to get help, she’s had a hard time making the transition from teen star to 30-year-old adult, and everyone should leave her alone…. I sort of feel sorry for her, as sorry as I could possibly feel for someone I find really annoying…. I could really go on about all the things about her that annoy me, but that’s just bad, bad manners.”
More book news at http://www.ew.com (AOL Keyword: EW)