If anyone knows how to drink, it’s Lower East Side-bred writer, Royal Young. Author of the gritty, fantastic memoir, Fame Shark, Young is currently hunkered down in Panama sipping Balboa beer, taking lengthy beach breaks, and hard at work on his second novel.
When we spoke, there were a few misconceptions about writers and alcohol that we needed to address, and Royal gave us his first-hand perspective on all things writing and drinking. From recalling his first drinking experience on a roof when he was 11 years old, to describing his love for good ‘ol Colt 45, Royal took us down a hedonist’s journey through imbibing and the writing process.
Writers and alcohol. The two seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly. Why do you think that is?
I think both are ways of distancing yourself from life. When I write and when I drink, I am sort of putting up a protective wall, a way of putting reality on hold. Also writers seem to be obsessed with dark nights of the soul, and what better way to plummet to those depths than bottles of booze? Alcohol is also a lubricant for stories, and I think it always has been. “En vino veritas” (in wine there is truth). When people drink they talk; they spill their secrets, adventure ensues. Opening a bottle most often leads to a story, even if sometimes it’s a sad one.
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Do you think that we as a culture romanticize drinking and writing? Is it more glamorous or less glamorous than it seems?
Yes. I’m surprised by how much we glamorize drinking and writing, and how widely accepted drinking to excess is. It’s like as a culture we have all agreed that it’s necessary to take these vacations from reality. When I was drinking to excess in my early 20s I was always sort of shocked by how people in my life — close friends and family — ignored my drinking. Of course, I would have been furious and completely in denial had anyone said anything. But yes, there is nothing glamorous about hurting yourself or putting yourself in dangerous situations. Perhaps self destruction is interesting, and personally I find it more intriguing and complex than being a health freak, but I think it’s important to remember too, the horribly depressing sides of it.
You’re in Panama right now, writing, but what are you mainly drinking?
Yes, I’m working on my second book in Panama right now and they have a beer here called Balboa — which is named after the conquistador who first discovered Panama was an isthmus. Everything is named for the conquerors, ironically, but I love it. I’ve been drinking a lot of rum too: Ron Abuelo. They sell alcohol in the bodegas here, which I think is great. There’s a national alcohol called Herrerano, which is clear and tastes great with pineapple and guava juice, but it really fucks you up. I don’t really like drinking that hard anymore, but if you want to feel completely wild and run through the palm trees in the country under millions of stars singing songs about shipwrecks, a big bottle of Herrerana is the way to go. You just have to watch out for scorpions underfoot.
Do you remember your first drinking experience? What was it like?
Every drinker remembers their first time! I was maybe ten or eleven and my neighbors on the Lower East Side, where I grew up, got married. I lived in a renovated tenement building with my neuropsychologist mom and artist-turned-social worker dad, and everyone else in the building was eccentric and fun. The wedding party was on the roof and they let me drink some Champagne, so my first drinking experience was bubbly. I remember feeling wild and free on the roof looking at the downtown New York skyline before condos polluted the horizon and when the World Trade Center was still there. There were paper lanterns, and I remember popping the cork from the Champagne bottle and being delighted and surprised by how far it flew. I sang some Alanis Morrisette song real loud and didn’t care — a feat for a usually shy kid. I still love drinking on rooftops.
What if you were to throw a party like that now, what would your essentials be? Booze, music, etc.
A swimming pool in the country, good friends, Doritos and ceviche, as much beer as possible, and margaritas, too. An old radio blasting a mix of classic rock, Motown, Talib Kweli and a few bad ’90s dance songs that make everyone feel nostalgic. And joints to smoke when the sun sets.
When you’re home, what’s your go-to drink and your go-to NYC bar?
I’m more of an armchair drinker. I don’t really get people who need to be in a bar drinking around random strangers. I’d rather share a bottle with good friends in a secluded place. I love beer. Cheap plentiful beer. And tequila.
What about your hangover remedy brunch spot?
I totally despise brunch.
Haha, ok, next question: what’s your favorite beer?
I used to drink a lot of Colt 45 forties back in the day. Then I graduated to tall cans of Busch. What can I say, I am a sucker for cheap shitty beer. All my favorites right now are Panamanian, Balboa, Soberana or, when in the States for summer, any light beer you can mix a little grapefruit juice into and call it a “beermosa.”
We’ve talked a lot about writing and drinking. How do you get up and write when you’re hungover? Isn’t your mind cloudy? What do you do to get going?
I don’t. As Hemingway said, “write drunk, edit sober.” Hangovers are terrible for getting work done and I’d rather spend my day watching Empire on my computer in that state. If I’m on deadline for a piece I stay sober or worst case scenario, chug coffee and diet coke intermittently and just embrace the pain, let it speak on the page.
Jillian Scheinfeld is a writer and interviewer living in Brooklyn. By day she’s a publicist for a nonprofit and by night you can catch her at a concert or practicing yoga. See past work here and follow her tweets @jillianschein