Jamie Brickhouse’s hilarious and poignant new book, Dangerous When Wet, is three memoirs in one… a coming out story, a boozalogue, and a portrait of the author’s larger-than-life mother. A Texas tall tale told with drag-show humor, Dangerous When Wet is “glamorously tragic and howlingly funny” (Entertainment Weekly) and just plain “raucous” (The Washington Post.)
This Wednesday night Jamie Brickhouse will read at the Ivy, hosted by his Baltimore pal and Bohemian Rhapsody Columnist, Marion Winik. Here’s a recent chat they had about the book.
Q. After so many years as a publicist for the big New York publishing houses — and those halcyon days are featured in Dangerous When Wet — talk about your decision to “switch sides” and write. This was Mama Jean’s dream for you, right?
A. Mama Jean pushed me into publishing in the hopes that I’d become a writer. However, working with writers everyday as I did for two decades won’t make you a writer any more than drinking everyday with hookers will make you a hooker. However, the dream of writing wasn’t all Mama Jean’s. The dream of expressing myself artistically was always important to me. I did some freelance writing sporadically over the years, but once the drinking became my second job, all I had time for was work and booze. The writing came back a year after I got sober and a friend (Mr. Parker in the book) asked me to write a couple of pieces for a travel magazine. The work I did was well received and gave me the confidence that I still had something. A year after Mama Jean died and two years sober, I was burning to tell the story of my two most influential relationships: Mama Jean and booze. I joined a writing workshop to see if I had the chops and to show up each week with something on the page. Mama Jean was right. I am a writer. It was her dream for me, but at some point since I joined that workshop, it became my dream for me.
Q. You are unsparing in recounting your escapades and mistakes. What is the episode in the book that was hardest for you to include? (Was it… Paterson? the fur coat?)
A. Because I was still in the closet about being HIV-positive, that was the last big reveal I decided to include in the book. I could have told the story without including it, but that would have been cheating. It was Mama Jean’s biggest fear from the time I came out, and once I became positive, it was my biggest fear that she’d find out. However, writing about it wasn’t too difficult. Even though from day one I was going to reveal my suicide attempt, writing the chapter about the actual act of trying to kill myself was the hardest part of the book to write. I had so much shame that I had actually done that. I kept writing around it because I hadn’t yet accepted it.
Q. What do feel about people who scream TMI when they hear things like that?
A. Can we retire the that term? When writing honestly there is no such thing as TMI, unless you’re reciting your grocery list or relaying a blow-by-blow description of a traffic delay. That’s TMI. I wrote a warts-and-all (in one place actual warts appear) memoir, but no detail or story included in the book is gratuitous, sensational, or merely entertaining. If it was important to the story, it stayed. If not, onto the cutting room floor it went. If a person goes through the hell of alcoholism, lives to tell the story, and that story can help another person, then there is no such thing as TMI.
Q. Your partner Michahaze, short for Michael Hayes, seems to be a saint. His unconditional love for you is one of the most amazing aspects of the story. How can we get one like that?
A. I’m already getting sick of hearing what a saint and hero Michahaze is. He’s even receiving fan mail, and he’s not letting me forget it. I’ve created a monster! I was — and still am — amazed and very grateful for his unconditional love for me. If I could tell the world how to find their own Michahaze, I’d write a self-help book and make millions. I can tell you that relationships are hard work. Most people can’t seem to get past the sexual part of a relationship and often throw away relationships when that part isn’t ideal. I think that any long-lasting relationship — gay, straight, polygamous — is a complex mix of myriad components that takes discipline and stamina to work through. By the way, while I made some bad decisions during my drinking days, I never once left Michahaze. I stuck too.
Q. Tell us about the night you drunk-dialed Peggy Lee?
A. The Peggy Lee story is becoming like Carol Burnette’s Tarzan yell — my most requested “bit.” From the time I was five I was obsessed with Peggy Lee and her version of “Is That All There Is?” one giant existential shrug to the meaning of life question. One drunken 4:00 A.M. night my friend Mr. Parker and I were listening to the song over and over and over. Mr. Parker happened to have her phone number. With liquor courage, I grabbed the phone number and dialed her. She took my call. What she said to me haunts me to this day. When I told her that she couldn’t know how many drunken nights she’d gotten me through with that song, she replied in her breathy voice, “Well, I guess my life was worth living.” It was the perfect existential coda to the song.
Q. You’re from Mary Karr country, right? Was The Liars Club an influence on your own writing at all?
A. Yes, I’m from the same red-neck of the woods as she, in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Texas. Rusty Troika is more like it. The Liars’ Club is one of the best memoirs of all time, and Mary Karr is one of my all-time favorite writers. Her book was certainly an influence. At one point I hoped to capture the child’s voice and perspective as superbly as she does in LC. Since DWW progresses from my childhood into adulthood, I hoped to have my voice mature from a child’s to an adult’s. I quickly found that I couldn’t pull it off, and I didn’t need to do. I was lucky enough that I already had my own voice. Mary was the one who told me that. She is a client of mine and generously offered to read some of my early work. She told me to keep writing because I have the voice and 90 percent of writing is voice. I threw away any notions of imitating her or any other writer. I listened to her instead and trusted my voice.
Jamie Brickhouse is at the Ivy this Wednesday night, 6/17 at 7pm.