Post & Q&A by Stephanya
As a confessed Antiquarian and Orientalist, I have long harbored a fascination with opium. But outside of a few hurried paragraphs in hundred-year-old books or shadowy scenes in noir films, I have never found much to feed my fascination with the poppy. So when one of our publisher reps came in brandishing an advance copy of Steven Martin’s memoir Opium Fiend, I verily leapt at the chance to read it. Martin deftly mixes scholarly history of opium with his own experience as not only one of the world’s foremost experts on opium and its accoutrements but as a thirty-pipe-a-day addict. This is not only one of the best drug books I’ve read (my apologies to the esteemed Messrs H.S. Thompson and W.S. Burroughs) but one of the finest memoirs I’ve ever read. Mr. Martin graciously agreed to submit to a Q&A for us.
BOOKPEOPLE: One of the things I liked best about your book is how it transcended all the other drug/addiction books I have read in the past. It was honest without descending into moralistic lectures or lurid, psychedelic flights of fancy. The book is as much about one’s compulsion to collect as one’s compulsion to consume the drug of one’s choice. What made you decide to share the story of your twin compulsions, the collecting of opium paraphernalia and the smoking of opium itself?
STEVEN MARTIN: Well, first of all I think it’s important for readers to understand that my interest in collecting antique opium-smoking paraphernalia came first. Yes, I had tried smoking opium a few times before I began collecting, but anyone who has spent time backpacking in certain parts of Southeast Asia would understand that. Opium smoking was a part of the landscape, especially back then. Highland tribal villages where one could sample the local poppy crop were tourist attractions. I’ve been a collector of things all my life – things catch my interest and I collect. It’s a compulsion I’ve had since I was a little kid. I had been traveling in Southeast Asia for over twenty years when it struck me that opium pipes would be an interesting thing to collect, and from that time on I began experimenting with opium with a purpose – to better understand its paraphernalia. I thought of it as research, and I was doing it infrequently enough that I could rationalize my opium use. The odd thing about opium is that it’s the exact opposite of these modern drugs you hear about – these one-hit-and-you’re-ruined-for-life drugs. It takes months, or in my case, years, to become addicted, but once opium puts its hooks into you it’s really hell to shake loose. The withdrawal from long-term opium addiction can kill.
But to answer your question, I decided to write about my experiences after a very close friend of mine died from opium withdrawal.
BP: You mention in your book how you have been a natural-born collector since you were a child. You have collected everything from sea-shells to statistics to Southeast Asian textiles but you found your real passion in opium accouterments. What was it that made you fall in love with the mystique of opium?
SM: I had what I call a “collector’s epiphany” after buying a souvenir while helping to report a story for Time magazine about the remnants of opium smoking in Laos. That souvenir was a Chinese opium pipe. I had seen them before but I’d never thought to collect them. Then suddenly I found myself obsessed with finding more pipes and learning more about them. A part of me was drawn to the outlaw aspect of it, but I was also intrigued by what I felt was a vanishing piece of the old Orient – and by that time I’d been traveling around Southeast Asia for twenty years and had noticed how fast things were changing, how the old ways were quickly disappearing. I also realized, once I began to look into it, that there were no books about antique opium-smoking paraphernalia, so it wouldn’t be a matter of simply buying a book and reading up on it. Acquiring and learning about this collectible would be a great challenge.
BP: Your honesty in this book is truly extraordinary. While your eventual addiction to opium caused very real problems in your life, you never shy away from sharing with the reader how much pleasure your time with the pipe gave you. I feel like most authors who write books about drugs and addiction are discouraged from sharing such feelings. While writing this book, did you find it difficult to choose what to share and what to leave out?
SM: You might be interested to know that I’ve never read any of the other addiction memoirs. A couple of friends gave me books to read once word got out about what I was working on, but I chose not to read them because I didn’t want anyone else’s experiences to color my own. Of course I’d read old opium-related stuff like Thomas de Quincey and Jean Cocteau, but I’ve never read a modern addiction memoir. But now that you ask, I am surprised to think that modern authors wouldn’t be honest about the pleasure they found in their respective addictions. I mean, I assume any kind of addict gets pleasure out of the experience. Even a crack addict must get some kind of excruciatingly intense euphoria from the drug, otherwise they wouldn’t sink to such miserable lows trying to get more of it.
My experiences with opium followed something of an arc. In the beginning it wasn’t so remarkable. My first tries involved a lot of vomiting. Opium isn’t all that receptive to amateurs – as I said, it’s the exact opposite of modern drugs. But after my mind and body had acquired a taste for it, I went through a period when opium was divine. I can honestly say that some of the best moments of my life were spent riding the magic carpet, as Cocteau called opium. Of course that didn’t last. After a while opium turned the tables on me and things got crazy.
BP: During your time in Southeast Asia, you wrote for guide-books and magazines. Was your former experience as a free-lance writer an asset or a challenge for you in writing your memoir?
SM: It was definitely an asset. Except for a high school creative writing class, I’ve never studied writing. Later I dropped out of a community college after a single semester in order to travel. So the freelance writing that I did for guidebooks, magazines and newspapers was great practice. I probably wouldn’t have even thought I could write a memoir had I not had things published previously.
BP: And since we are writing this Q&A for the BookPeople blog, I simply must ask: what are you reading now? What books that you’ve read have inspired you the most? And what books would you recommend to our readers who are interested in opium or collecting in general?
SM: I love old memoirs. I’ll take an old memoir over a historical novel any day. A favorite of mine is You Can’t Win by Jack Black – not the comedian, but the author whose 1926 memoir tells of life in the North American underworld around the turn of the last century. I also really like old travelogues. I highly recommend A Beachcomber in the Orient by Harry L. Foster, which was also published in the 1920s. Both books have been reprinted recently and are easy to find. Beachcomber barely touches on opium smoking, but You Can’t Win has some relevant passages because Jack Black, like many criminals in his day, was an opium addict. As for collecting, I wrote an illustrated primer about antique opium-smoking paraphernalia that was published in 2007 called The Art of Opium Antiques. It’s sort of a mini coffee table book and features photos of my collection.