Lee Stringer was surreptitiously living in the office of the street newspaper he edited when he was offered his first publishing contract. He had been homeless and addicted to crack for the past 12 years. His first book, Grand Central Winter, a memoir of life on the streets, transformed him into a literary sensation - but more importantly, it provided the final impetus for him to break his drug addiction.
Stringer visited the Sydney Writer’s Festival in May to talk about his second memoir Sleepaway School, the tale of his boyhood sojourn at ‘a kind of a reform school’. He stopped by Readings Hawthorn along the way to talk about his work with Martin Hughes, editor of The Big Issue.
Martin: You spoke about writing becoming an addiction in a similar way to crack. Did writing replace the crack?
Lee: I think that writing, for me, filled that hole that people who are victims of addiction to any substance are trying to find a way to fill.
Martin: One of the most arresting things about your book is how you describe that [ending up on the street] almost took you by surprise, following your brother’s death. Can you talk a bit about that downward spiral, so that people can get an idea of how easily it can happen?
Lee: There was something that existed before I got into the situation that the effects of the death of my brother triggered. What existed was this incredible emptiness. My brother’s death made me think ‘I could go tomorrow, and what would I have done? What would my time here have amounted to?’ I think that event, coming on the heels of my father dying, and my business partner dropping dead, kick-started my underlying feeling of emptiness and longing , and made that first high of cocaine a very attractive thing.
Martin: You also described a sense of freedom when you did end up on the streets, and it might sound a bit silly, but do you ever miss that sense of freedom?
Lee: I don’t think it’s about being inside or outside. My sense of freedom was connected to living what I considered was a false life. It was the eighties, and there was a time when it was all about having stuff. It was all about the designer labels you wore, the street you lived on, the schools you went to, and the people you knew. It was a collection of things that you would present to the world as being you. And it just never worked. I think my twelve years on the street was sort of a trial by fire to discover who I really was. One of my lessons was that you can pick the way you walk the earth, and live with the benefits and the consequences. It’s very freeing for me.
Martin: How big a part did the New York paper Street News play in guiding you to where you are now?
Lee: Street News really played a big role. I’d come off this corporate job as a marketing guy, and my day revolved around the props - you know, the office you had, your title, Armani suits. If I walked into a meeting with somebody and I had on an $800 suit and they had on a $3000 suit, I was totally intimidated. When I was on the street, it was amazing to discover that - even in the eighties - there was a place for you if you had something to say that had genuine value and resonance. I discovered this through selling Street News on the subway. I found that people paid attention and listened to what you said, even if you didn’t have an Armani suit. But the responses I got through writing for Street News really put a stake in the ground and said to me, “it’s ok to be whoever you are and go with that.” Forget the props, forget your salary level and all that other crap. If you only get to walk through life once, you might as well go with what’s inside you, not what the outside asks of you.
Martin talks about his conflict between the desire to give people the chance to be published in The Big Issue and the need to ensure that the magazine is the best it can be.
Lee: I completely agree. When I was editing Street News, I thought that you don’t do any service to anybody by publishing a person because he’s homeless. Nothing will disinterest the public [on the topic of homelessness] quicker than bad poetry and laborious articles and things that just don’t do the job. It doesn’t serve anyone’s purposes. A street paper is in a position to either exploit or empower the vendor. The way to exploit him is to make the assumption that people will buy the thing based on the fact that the street person selling it is needy. To empower someone is to give them something that someone already wants. One thing I like about The Big Issue is that it endeavours to be a stand-alone piece of reading material that the homeless are empowered to sell.
Martin: Did you ever experience a low following your success as a writer and your success in breaking your addiction?
Lee: I remember being flown out to do a TV show, in the midst of this period where I couldn’t walk down the street of a major city without someone recognising me. I got into the hotel room, and I suddenly felt this awesome depression. I think my expectation was that I’d write a book and it would somehow fill me up, resolve my life. And I think that what I felt was maybe the let-down of those expectations. It was like “I’m not getting the bang for the buck”. I’d venture to say that having money and being known is every bit as dangerous to the human soul as abject poverty, in its own way. They can both easily be a vexation on the soul.
Martin: Did any of the experiences you picked up on the street that helped you cope with your new situation of being a successful international author?
Lee: My life right now is not really, apart from this moment, that of a successful international author. I moved out of the city into a small town, where people know I write books, but I spend a lot of it climbing of the pedestal that they try to put me on. I try not to say “I’m a writer”. I say that I write books. It’s a small distinction, but I’m never caught in that: ‘Now that I’m a writer, what should I do? Is this a writer shirt?’ If I’m a person who writes books, it lets me off all that.