Why is it that some of the greatest works of literature have been produced by writers in the grip of alcoholism, an addiction that cost them happiness and caused harm to those who loved them?
Olivia Laing examines the link between creativity and alcohol through the work and lives of six extraordinary men: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever and Raymond Carver.
As she travels from Cheever’s New York to Williams’ New Orleans, from Hemingway’s Key West to Carver’s Port Angeles, she pieces together a topographical map of alcoholism, from the horrors of addiction to the miraculous possibilities of recovery.
Beautiful, captivating and original, The Trip to Echo Spring strips away the myth of the alcoholic writer to reveal the terrible price creativity can exert.
Book of the year: New York Times, Time Magazine, Observer, Metro, Times, Economist, New Statesman and Times Literary Supplement
From the reviews...
‘Olivia Laing’s writing is beautifully modulated, her tone knowledgeable yet intimate. She can evoke a state of mind as gracefully as she evokes a landscape. The Trip to Echo Spring is a book for all writers or would-be writers. It's one of the best books I’ve read about the creative uses of adversity: frightening but perversely inspiring.’ Hilary Mantel
‘I loved The Trip to Echo Spring. It's a beautiful book that has stayed with me in a profound way.’ Nick Cave.
‘This book is a triumphant exercise in creative reading in which diary entries, letters, poems, stories and plays are woven together to explore deep, interconnected themes of dependence, denial and self-destructiveness. It is a testimony to this book’s compelling power that having finished it, I immediately wanted to read it again.’ Scotland on Sunday
‘The Trip to Echo Spring is original, brave and very moving.’ Peter Conrad, Observer
‘[A] charming and gusto-driven look at the alcoholic insanity of six famous writers… There is much to learn from Laing’s supple scholarship—and much to enjoy, too, in her obvious passion and engagement.’ Lawrence Osborne, New York Times
‘The book achieves its greatest force through Laing’s mix of intellect and intuition, which often recalls the New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm.’ Talitha Stevenson, New Statesman
‘Laing writes about alcoholism so eloquently, so sympathetically and so chillingly, that you can imagine this book saving somebody's life.’ The Australian
‘A good, sad book.’ Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker
‘The Trip to Echo Spring is beautifully written, haunting, tragic, and instructive in the best sense. It’s a book for writers, and for readers, a book to read more than once.’ Jane Ciabattari, NPR
‘Laing writes a fluid, fertile nonfiction... a wondrously rewarding book.’ Laura Miller, Salon
‘Hugely enjoyable... Laing’s analysis of the complex addiction is consistently shrewd. But what makes The Trip to Echo Spring truly worthwhile is that she, like those she writes about, is a terrific writer. Cheers, Olivia.’ John Sutherland, The Times
'Laing writes so well, so seductively in fact, that this deconstructed way of pursuing a story works brilliantly.' David Sexton, Evening Standard
"The Trip to Echo Spring is nuanced and heartbreaking... It’s deliciously evocative, Laing’s melancholic and lyrical style conjuring the location, before effortlessly segueing into medical facts about alcoholism, the effects on the lives of each writer, and well-chosen passages from their work. This a highly accomplished book, and highly recommended.” Ever Dundas, The List
“[A] beautiful, fascinating meditation on the relationship between drinking and great writing.” Judith Newman, People
“Laing leads us on an extraordinary journey to all the places that figured prominently in the writers’ lives, while attempting to reckon with her own family’s history with alcoholism. Unlike other bios that treat these authors’ drinking as a gossipy anecdote, there is nothing glamorous here. Instead, Laing shows how booze kept the demons of self-doubt off their heels, fired their creativity, but couldn’t drown the ghosts of their pasts. Laing’s blend of reportage, analysis, and self-discovery is to be savored.”—Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair
“I was moved by, and learned much from, Laing’s engagement with each of these authors—dazzled by the fine, deft way in which she weaves together their individual biographies and creative output, and the way in which she shows how each subject interacts (in real life or thematically) with each other.” Slate
“Illuminating… Laing is a superb literary critic. She brings fresh excitement to the arc of Williams’ plays, to the pre-and post-recovery work of Cheever and Carver, to Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald's stories and novels (and their notorious rivalry)…. The Trip to Echo Spring is beautifully written, haunting, tragic, and instructive in the best sense. It’s a book for writers, and for readers, a book to read more than once.” Jane Ciabattari, NPR
"Laing has the ability to penetrate the barriers of denial and sheer fraudulence that all alcoholics, and writers in particular, throw up against others, and especially against themselves. At times she achieves a certain level of soul travel or metempsychosis in taking us into the dark and twisted interior spaces where psychic trauma and creative inspiration struggle for mastery." Gerald Howard, Bookforum
"The beauty of Laing's book lies not just in the poetry of her prose, the rich array of images, and literary allusions to her chosen subjects evoked during her transcontinental ghost-hunt, but intriguing links she makes to a wider literary landscape." Gordon Bowker, The Independent
"What gives her book its brilliance and originality... is the quality of its writing." John Carey, Sunday Times
"Olivia Laing [is] a rising English critic who matches smart textual analysis of 20th-century greats with down-and-dirty ferreting around the places where they lived and worked... This is a superb idea, exceptionally well executed." Metro
"Laing’s descriptions of the American landscape... are a joy to read. In [her] hands these famously complicated men become fragile, and terribly human." Economist
"Here is a book which closely examines the working lives and destructive drinking habits of, among others, John Berryman, John Cheever and Raymond Carver. It’s fascinating, at times profound, and breaks new ground in its portraits of these writers." Patrick McGrath, New York Post
"Laing’s prose is lucid and exuberant. She rejects the opportunities for humour, although some of the stories are very funny indeed; and traces rather than interrogates her subjects. She knows them intimately and the result is a thoughtful study, part literary biography, part travel memoir. And if the question of why writers drink sometimes slips into the background, it hardly matters: the journey is more interesting than arriving at the source." Financial Times
In pages of great lyric beauty, Laing travels in the footsteps of Cheever and company across America from New York to New Orleans...The book, a hybrid of travel and literary criticism, is always engaging to read, as it casts a humane eye on the accidents, illness, social impairment and other damage caused by drink." Spectator
“Sharp and engaging... Laing is a sharp and sympathetic reader, offering succinct praise of the best of these writers’ work... She proves herself to be an estimable stylist in her own right…. Laing’s stern refusal to sentimentalize drinking makes us marvel all the more at the great work that these authors were able to share with the world, despite, rather than because of, their crippling addictions.” Boston Globe
"Why read it? For its intoxicating prose and maverick spirit." Tatler
"Enthralling... Laing makes us care about these writers' sufferings, the self-wreaked ravages on vital organs, the inexorable blackings-out of genius. But she makes us cherish even more what they left behind: literature soaked with "the power to map the more difficult regions of human experience"." Sunday Independent
"An eccentric, impassioned, belle-lettristic, graceful and haunted book." Henry Allen, Wall Street Journal
"The Trip To Echo Spring - the obscure phrase comes from a Williams play and means a replenishing visit to the liquor cabinet - is like a night out with an academically-inclined Elizabeth Taylor or Ava Gardner. Sodden, surprising, riotous, and crazily up and down. Welsh puritan that I am, I loved it." Roger Lewis, Daily Mail
"An elegant rumination on what it is that leads writers to take up the bottle" Andrew O'Hagan, London Review of Books
“Laing is a beautiful prose stylist.” The Big Issue
"When moving from clinical data to the fictional texts, Laing is often perceptive. She has a flair for elegant, cursive summaries of these various bodies of work and the shaping pressures of drink upon them." Times Literary Supplement
“It’s hard to overstate just how off our tits we are with admiration for this brilliant book. Olivia Laing’s glorious second outing is part travelogue, part multiple biography and part investigation into the causes and terrible upshots of alcoholism... We propose a toast to this wince-inducing, heartbreaking, sobering tour-de-force. Cheers (hic)!” Dazed and Confused
"A fine study of a human frailty through the eyes of its most perceptive victims." Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Olivia Laing’s book is an exploration of alcoholism in six 20th-century American writers...that dazzles in both the scope of its ambition and the depths it reaches in analyzing its subjects...While there may be more uplifting books about writing and writers, few present the reader with such sobering realities about the downside to all those romantic, drunken nights in Paris or Key West.” Interview
“It’s beautifully written, a deep dive into the underwater world of creative genius, where everything is dark and lovely and nothing is as it seems.” Jeff Baker, The Oregonian
“Laing’s prose displays sensitivity toward alcohol’s corrosion of character and its bifurcating effects on the ego, that elevates the book from a work of biography to one of wrenching humanity." Miami Herald
“There is no romanticizing in The Trip to Echo Spring… There is also no demonizing, even when demonizing might be warranted. Taking the form of a travelogue and incorporating Laing’s own family history, The Trip to Echo Spring takes aim at the evasions and delusions of these men (and they are all men), but does so in a way that somehow increases our understanding of and admiration for their work.” The Awl
“I've read many words about the alcoholism of literary writers, and many more words about the 12 Step model of addiction and recovery. But until "Echo Spring," I'd never read a writer who bridged both worlds with such intelligence, grace and thoughtfulness.” – Jim Higgins, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“At its most insightful, Laing’s approach reveals her writers’ alcoholism as an affliction worthy of Greek tragedy.” – Eric Benson, The Oxford American (Editor’s Pick)
This project is supported by the MacDowell Colony, the Authors' Foundation and Arts Council England.
Shortlisted for the 2013 Costa Biography Award and the Gordon Burn Prize
A New York Times Notable Book of 2014