BookPeople Q&A with Steven Martin, author of OPIUM FIEND

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.

8 thoughts on “BookPeople Q&A with Steven Martin, author of OPIUM FIEND

  1. I am sure that you must be aware that you have stirred up an absolute hornet’s nest with your reference to my great friend Roxanna’s death and I for one, am absolutely saddened by this. And would just like to quote Mort Rosenblum: “Even if opium use did contribute to the circumstances, it is a widely practiced human activity. A lot of people who end up locked away from their vital essentials are at risk. Even asthma sufferers who can’t get their Ventrolin can panic themselves into fatal seizures. When authorities jail someone, they can’t have them incommunicado in a hole like some f……. medieval dungeon keepers. The US jurisprudence does not – at least yet – condone agonizing death sentences without trial, at the hands of outsourced private companies, because of a misdemeanor meant as a pawn piece in some prosecutor’s chess game”.

    1. Dear Ms May, I read Steven Martin’s Memoir, and Roxanna’s death [I had not heard of Roxanna before reading the Memoir]- and I felt enormous empathy for Roxanna- after reading about her, I was compelled to find out more about her, and her death greatly troubled me.
      I even mentioned it to an addiction specialist who was so appalled tha she looked Roxanna up herself, as it was so unthinkable that someone so poorly was not given immediate medical attention.
      Addicts [and there are many hidden opium, morphine and heroin addicts in the UK from all classes, from poor single mothers to billionaires, and if they are ever imprisoned then nowadays methadone would be given while the addicted person was in custody.
      That a physically impaired woman, a mother, was allowed to suffer in unimaginable ways [the addiction specialist thinks there must have been an underlying physical condition, as opiate withdrawal in itself is not fatal.
      However……..if an underlying weakness were there, then the purging could easily cause some bad complications.
      A dreadful way for a gifted and spirited woman to die. With respects,
      Catherine M, UK

  2. As someone who was a daily intravenous heroin user for the better part of a decade, I find Steven Martin’s insistence that his experiences with opium are so much different from that of heroin a bit laughable. The withdrawals described in the book, which he repeatedly insists are far worse than those which accompany heroin, pale in comparison to those I’ve experienced. The explosive diarrhea, sleeplessness, jittery muscles, extreme sense of panic and despair that last for days? Try weeks!
    I found it irritating that heroin was mentioned repeatedly despite the fact that the author clearly knows so little about heroin. I understand the love of ritual that opium smokers experience. Heroin addicts find solace in that same sense of ritual when cooking their shot with the perfect amount of water and heat, drawing the cooked drug it in to a rig, searching for a vein, watching a plume of blood register, and then pushing in the plunger. Most heroin addicts that I’ve known keep their works in beautiful, decorative boxes along with a special cooker and vial for their water.
    Although I enjoyed the book and found it a very simple read (I bought it yesterday and finished it today), I found Martin’s pretentiousness and desperate need to set his “19th century drug use” apart from every other addict a little annoying. Perhaps he was not meaning to come across this way, but he definitely did. When all is said and done, he is just another addict. When I started using heroin, I poured over books, teaching myself the history of the poppy plant, opium use, Laudanum use, and finally heroin. I learned everything I could about different methods of ingestion, the physiological effect of opiates, the chemistry and half life of the drug, and anything else I could find. I learned everything I could about every aspect of the drug and drug paraphernalia Of course, I learned all of this in my early twenties, rather than waiting until I was middle aged to pick up habit.
    Also, these “modern drugs you hear about – these one-hit-and-you’re-ruined-for-life drugs” he speaks of in this interview do not exist and this statement is just a testament to how little the man knows about any drug use outside smoking opium. The way in which opium initially made Martin nauseous and then took years to get its grip on him is exactly the way heroin works. There’s no “one-hit-and-you’re-ruined-for-life” drug in existence. Replace the word “opium” with the word “heroin” and his experiences mirror that of any opiate user. All addicts seem to think that their experiences are so very different from others, that somehow they are smarter and more interesting than the average user. As someone who has gotten clean using every method described in the book and then some, I can tell Mr Martin that his life will continue to feel empty if he does not learn to let go of his superiority complex.

      1. Christina, this is seemingly unrelated to the article, but as you have recently commented (and in the event you ever visit this page again), I would like to ask the question that has been on my mind these past few days, and is ultimately why I have come to this page in the first place.

        I have never used the more intense forms of narcotics such as heroine or opium smoking, but as someone who has experimented with “lesser” pharmaceutical pain medicines, I believe I understand in some sense what you guys mean by passionate, ritualistic, and euphoric contentment. While I obviously have never been exposed to such ornate accouterments that are required for the aforementioned usages, I still believe that I have some understanding of what you mean by a “sense of ritual”.

        My question, I believe, is simple; and is why I have come here to research the personal experiences of past addicts. If money and “social stigma” (legal and otherwise) were not a question, why would you not simply increase your volume of imbibement till your eventual (i.e. natural) death?

        I wonder because if we were to have a society where addicts were able to freely use heroine in the workplace to fulfill their latent need for a fix, would we even have a problem with people needing to detox in the first place?

        In short: are these problems people face latter on with the drug intrinsic to the drug itself, or is it a consequence of circumstances that do not allow for “unlimited” and “supported” usage in the spectrum of our society (in the sense that alcohol is socially supported now)?

        I will greatly appreciate any elucidation on the matter.

      2. I can excuse your typos, but not your projections, your needless hostility fed by your insecurities, and your own verbosity and pretentiousness (again, see “projection”). Take care of your own very evident superiority complex before complaining of others’, please.

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