In An Impressive Literary Debut, Carrie Fisher Sends Sardonic Postcards from the Edge
As Fisher recalls, "I couldn't stop, or stay stopped. It was never my fantasy to have a drug problem. I'd say, 'Oh, f—- it, I haven't done anything for a couple of months, why not? Let's celebrate not doing them by doing them.' I got into trouble each time. I hated myself. I just beat myself up. It was very painful."
In the spring of 1985, after finishing her role as Dianne Wiest's business associate in Hannah and Her Sisters and going on a three-month trek through India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, Fisher nearly overdosed. She put herself through a 30-day detox program in Century City and continued outpatient and group sessions. Four months later Carrie, armed with an irrepressible wit and a gift for storytelling, decided to use the experience as the basis for a novel. Why, after all, merely endure such an ordeal in obscurity when you can fictionalize it and then option it to the movies?
Postcards from the Edge (Simon and Schuster, $15.95) is Fisher's wickedly shrewd, black-humor riff on the horrors of rehab and the hollows of Hollywood life. It is a thinly veiled roman à clef—seen through actress/addict Suzanne Vale's slowly clearing eyes and told in a voice that is often pure Carrie—spanning drug madness to film biz mindlessness. "Having it all," Suzanne/Carrie muses, "is the American Dream, and when that dream became my reality I looked for surreality wherever I could."
The book's greatest virtue may be Fisher's tone of sly, uninhibited self-laceration. "Maybe I shouldn't have given the guy who pumped my stomach my phone number," Suzanne's rehab diary begins, "but who cares?...I wasn't feeling my most attractive. I had thrown up scallops and Percodan on him the night before in the emergency room." Says Fisher: "That part's true. The guy sent me flowers."
Fisher's conversational gift for absurdist satire inhabits every paragraph. On her main character's eating habits: "Because her dieting skills were so minimal, she ended up with muscles submerged in fat like islands under water." On taking drugs: "I was into pain reduction and mind expansion, but what I've ended up with is pain expansion and mind reduction." And on sex: "Wanda told me she likes to be tied up and have her clothes torn off before sex...I don't know what makes me happy, but that doesn't ring a bell."
Postcards also reveals Fisher's more solemn and nakedly poignant quest for a well-anchored sense of self in a life of celebrity that began as the firstborn child of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher 30 years ago. "A lot of the book is mine," she says. "It was real. And a lot of the drug/hospital stuff is real. Yeah, it's true as an aspect of my personality. I do have an obsessive nature—or rather it has me. But it's fiction, not a pamphlet. I was writing a book about obsession. Romantic obsession. Drug obsession. Self-obsession. Career obsession. Self-obsession. Self-obsession." Self-righteous preaching was ruled out. "I didn't write an autobiography," says Carrie. "I didn't go to Betty Ford. I am not the Message Gal. I find that stuff offensive—like people clapping when the no smoking message comes on the screen in a movie theater."
Long before 50,000 first-print copies reached bookstore racks, Postcards had brought first-novelist Fisher a literary kind of surreality. The book earned her a big advance, and the auction for paperback rights will begin at $150,000. Mike Nichols has optioned the film rights for $100,000, and for a little less than that Fisher has signed on as screenwriter. Her involvement will stop short of playing Suzanne. "I did that one already," she says.
Postcards has drawn practically universal praise from reviewers. The Washington Post called it "a brash and biting...laugh-out-loud book...the most startling literary debut since Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City." Editor Susan Kamil, formerly of Simon and Schuster, thinks of Carrie as a literary find. "She has a tremendous amount of promise," says Kamil. "This is an extraordinarily mature first novel. It shows authority, command of language, humor and real exuberance, as well as capturing the pathos of what goes on in Los Angeles in and around the film business. She's got a natural narrative talent—she sees the world through stories. And she is an absolutely natural comedienne."
The darker undercurrents in Postcards reflect the fact that drugs were symptomatic of deeper problems for Fisher. She has been in therapy ever since she was 15, two years before she made her film debut in Shampoo. "The emptiness in the book is not just about stardom," says Fisher. "I feel an emptiness at breakfast. But stardom is perfect because it is the American Dream. Well, for me, it wasn't great. This is what I call my scream of consciousness. Two and a half years ago I had this nice house, good job—when I had a job—nice friends, nice family. But I couldn't feel my life. I was always trapped inside my head with the wind howling around my hair—cancer of the perspective."
Fisher's choice of highs only intensified her "witness state, which is good for writing because I tend to describe things as I experience them. But I have a tendency to live my life as something watched. I derive my sense of self from others." Even her fame as Leia trapped her. "My best line out of rehab," she says, "was when this guy said to me, 'Hey, I was in San Quentin,' and I said, 'Yeah, I was in Star Wars.' He and I had done the same things with what we had been given."
Fisher says drugs interfered with her acting to the extent that "I did miss some work and I would get sick. But I don't think I had that reputation. It affects, more than anything, your attitude because you're self-medicating and hung-over, low-energy. It's very taxing. I don't recommend it."
On the other hand she admits, most reluctantly, that drugs did have a definite impact on her marriage to Paul Simon. "You can't imagine it enhanced it," she says wryly. "Drugs was one of the hands—one of the baby hands—that pulled us down into the mess." Try to get Fisher to elaborate further on her seven years with Simon, and she searches the room with her wide-open eyes and freeze-frame smile as she hunts for a zinger to finesse her way around the subject. "We went through a lot to be together," she finally says. "We didn't make it." And that's it: "I really stayed out of the subject in the book. I respect our privacy. I'd rather stay in rehab than tell a Paul story."
Fisher spends a lot of time alone these days. Her retreat is a cozy, guilty, creaky Hollywood home with wide-plank floors, a wraparound deck and a backyard pool. There's a broken Buddha from a Melrose Avenue junk shop and a large freckled Howdy Doody head in her bedroom. "Howdy is a great tonic; he makes me spiritual—Howdy Buddha."
Fisher spent the summer filming Appointment with Death in Israel, scribbling parts of a second novel, which she laughingly refers to as Disappointment at the Salad Bar, between takes. At home she writes in longhand on legal pads while sitting on her antique bed or in an armchair under a skylight in her bedroom. "I spend a lot of time alone now and enjoy it," says Fisher, who has no current love interest. Solo movie outings are okay; solitary restaurant meals not so cool. "Can't have too many meals by yourself," she says succinctly. "Looks too desperate and sad. Like borderline Uh Oh. That's when I'm going to start talking to myself: 'You like your food today? How's that applesauce? Want some more?' "
Does the 1985 India trek or the backyard Buddha imply a turn toward the spiritual? Fisher can free-associate on the topic until she's carried away. "I am attracted to things that are spiritual. I have been known to go on retreats for weeks and play a violin on a rock in the middle of a flowing desert of fire and still come out and go, 'Yo, some tacos!' I check most of that stuff out. I'm looking for somewhere to light, like a nutty butterfly with a bad flight pattern.
"Why, do I seem spiritual? As soon as I can figure out what to wear, maybe, but I don't think I have the proper outfit right now."