Published in Issue 2 of Eyebag Magazine (print), November 2017.
It is late and I cannot get to sleep.
I scroll through my phone and find a saved link to a novella named Riptide Baby. I buy the Kindle version, because I’m not waiting for postage, and I finish the book in one sitting sometime around 4am. At some point, I’m not sure when, I have started crying.
I still cannot get to sleep.
Shane Kang has a lot to write about.
His debut novella Riptide Baby details a writer’s spiral into meth addiction—the writer being him. It is raw, messy, dialogue-heavy, and far from a traditional literary offering in many ways.
I remembered Shane’s name back from when he used to write for a website called Your Friend’s House. It was the kind of site where writers would document their acid trips with NSFW plastered on every headline, but Shane’s stories always seemed to cut a little deeper. I was a first-year writing student who would read about drugs and sex and relationships, and pretend I knew what the hell was going on.
After speaking with Shane for hours from his Fitzroy motel room, I think I still have no clue.
I kept thinking of questions for this interview, then realising I was writing them with Cliff in mind. How close to reality was Riptide Baby?
I chose to market it specifically as fiction, because so much of the book is illegal activity. I didn’t want to incriminate myself. I’d say about ninety percent is non-fiction. But I find fiction more powerful than non-fiction anyway. I never wanted to write an autobiography. I’m an active non-fan of that genre, because they all seem to rely on being hyperbolic and grotesque.
The addiction is the horror itself.
That’s right. Things like a conversation with your father you haven’t seen in six months, or the fact that you soil your pants when you try to hang yourself. These are things I wanted to strike a chord with readers. Luckily it worked and I didn’t have to exaggerate to make the book gross or unrealistic or dishonest.
There was this infamous case of an author who wrote a book about his meth addiction and sold it as an autobiography—A Million Little Pieces. I had been through exactly what he was on about, and the book opens with him with a fucked up face from slipping off a fire escape. I instantly called bullshit because I thought, if there was any drug that would prevent you from losing grip of a ladder, it’s fucking methamphetamines. Funnily enough, months into this book becoming a New York Times best seller as this incredibly truthful, raw autobiography about meth addiction, it turned out that half those things never happened. All the bookshops moved the book from the non-fiction section to fiction section.
The thing I love most about your writing, that made me remember your name back from your YFH days, is that it’s raw. You can tell you don’t sit at your desk for hours thinking of poetic ways to describe the weather.
That’s such a compliment to me, that my writing doesn’t read like I’ve put a lot of effort into it. Because I don’t. I probably write with Grade 5 vocabulary, not just with the words themselves, but the structure. I don’t believe in confusing readers. Allen Ginsberg said ‘first thought, best thought’. When I’m struggling to write, thinking what the next line should be, I just cross that shit out.
Tell me about your writing process.
I wake up at 3am. I work best in the early hours of the morning. I have an exercise book and a pen. I don’t write the entire story in the exercise books—I write dialogue or certain paragraphs. It’s all in my head. So when I get to the MacBook, I’m just like a scribe in a courtroom.
I don’t know if I could put that much trust in my memory.
I think fiction writing is the most socially acceptable—and if you’re lucky, respected—form of psychosis. These characters exist in my head. It’s like writing about my best friend.
Tell me about your background. You’re Korean, right? In what ways does that affect your life? And your writing?
I was born in Seoul, South Korea. I grew up there until I was eight years old and I had no idea that my family was moving to Australia until the day I landed here. I knew the alphabet up to C. And I knew three words in English—cheeseburger, terminator and hello. I’m an immigrant.
My parents, their philosophy in parenting was to throw me in the deep end. They didn’t baby me. So as soon as we got here, they put me in the nearest public school without any tutoring in English. This was in the mid-90s and it was very different then, especially in the Gold Coast, because I was the only Asian kid in the whole school. I have a really vivid memory of those first weeks, of not being able to communicate, and feeling almost like a zoo animal or a monkey. I had to make animal sounds out of my throat and point at things. I remember thinking I never ever want to feel like this again.
There are certain moments that can change your entire life. And that first day at school, as someone who could not communicate as a human being to another human being, I know that was what led me to becoming a writer. When I got home that day, I was bawling my eyes out. I was tiny, eight years old, and I was punching my dad in the legs. I was crying so much—“why did you take me to this place?”
Race hasn’t affected me negatively in my life, to be honest. I’m very thankful to have been born Asian, and to have moved here. As a race, I believe we’re going through a very positive and fascinating time. I think in 30 years time—in the same way that black culture and black people and black figures are considered cool, which they are—in 30 years, that will be the case for Asians.
If you look at all my writing in the book, I hardly ever include last names. And I hardly even do description, but when I describe an important character’s physical traits, I describe them in a way that could be of any race. For example, Steve being a good-looking guy—he could be of any race. And that’s really important for me that I don’t put this racial picture in the reader’s minds. When you see a black person, how do you know they’re black?
The colour of their skin.
So you look at this person—this person has skin that’s dark, so they’re a black person. That’s the least fucking interesting thing I could write about. The reason I avoid race in my writing is not to deny my own identity at all—you can just read my name or look at a picture of me, it’s no fucking secret—but the reason I avoid it like the plague is because I find it incredibly uninteresting. If I ever wrote about it, it would have to be justified and specifically about race relations.
Your writing revolves a lot around drugs. What have been your best and worst experiences with drugs?
I’ll tell you the worst. And this takes place during the period that Riptide takes place. I own a German Shepherd and she does the gargantuan shits. Like, I don’t know how it’s scientifically possible, but she shits more than she eats. And it doesn’t matter if you triple-bag the shit in my bin—the maggots that come out of the shit will still gnaw through all the plastic. It’s the middle of summer and my bin is crawling with maggots. I’ve just been delivered by my dealer, and I realise I don’t have any needles to inject with. So I’m freaking out, fiending, I haven’t had any for like, a day. I needed to get this shit in me. Then I remembered I put my last batch of used needles in the bin. So I went outside to my yard, opened up the lid of the big green wheelie bin, dug through all these bags of dog shit, and all these maggots were crawling up my arm. I finally got to the bag of used needles, which is disgusting in itself, and I pulled one out. It was covered in maggots and I just shook it off. Didn’t clean it. And shot up my dose of meth. And that always stuck in my mind as my lowest point.
Even as I was doing it, I never thought that I might have a problem. I was just glad that I found this bag of old needles. I was over the moon about it. And I’m very lucky that I didn’t get any diseases or anything, which is actually a fucking miracle.
Other than that, the bathtub scene in the book. Except it wasn’t in a bathtub in a New South Wales motel, it was on a balcony in a Gold Coast hotel. Usually even the seasoned addicts will inject a third of a gram at most. I injected a gram in one shot, which is absurd—almost a suicidal dose. I had a psychotic episode, which they call amphetamine psychosis. I got this delusion in my head that everything that was made of wood in my hotel room was crawling with bugs and mice. And I thought, okay, everything made out of wood has to go out the balcony. It sounds like a corny, fucking rock-star-trashing-a-hotel kind of thing, but I was actually psychotic. I began throwing desks and chairs and everything made out of wood out of this hotel room.
So the room is pretty bare at this point, and the second delusion was that everything electronic was spying on me. There was this massive LED TV mounted on the wall of the room, and because I was on so much meth and I had so much strength, I literally pulled it out of the wall and took out the entire chunk of wall with it. I threw that over the balcony as well. My room just happened to be on the 20th floor, right above the hotel’s main entrance. So all this shit that I was throwing out was landing right out the entrance where the concierge was. It was like an Olympian discus throw, my Macbook. Thank god none of this stuff killed anybody.
That’s when the police cars showed up. This female constable—they were regular cops at this point—they looked up at me on the balcony, I think I had a chair in my hand, and the constable said to me, “What the fuck are you doing?” And I was like, “Oh, I’m just throwing everything out of the room,” because it made total sense to me at the time. I was so fucked up that I didn’t even link their presence with my behaviour. I just thought they were there randomly. So I was like, “Please, come up, join me for the party,” because I thought that these guys must be here to join the party, they must have heard about it somehow. And they’re fucking police officers.
When they came up, I realised they weren’t here to party. I was quite upset by that. I could tell that they weren’t asking me to get off the balcony to have a chat—they were asking me to get off the balcony so they could taser me. So I said, “I’m not getting off the balcony and I’d like you to leave, because there’s a bomb under my bed.” This was precisely a week after the Lindt Café siege in Sydney. After I said that, the situation escalated to a whole other level. The cops called in a special team of negotiators and they were all in black and they looked like SWAT. All they wanted to do was just get me off the balcony so that they could restrain me. Because the rule is that they can’t go on the balcony themselves, particularly when I’m on meth, because I might just throw them over. It was a back and forth for around eight hours.
At some point, I forgot what they were there for, and just went into the room to have a chat, and that’s when the three policemen just fucked me up so bad. They handcuffed me and shot me up with tranquilisers, but I was on so much meth that no matter how much they put in me, I wouldn’t stop. It took them five minutes to get me on the ground, and these were three dudes that looked like navy seals. After that whole shitstorm at the hotel room, I was hospitalised for the first time, and that’s when I tried to hang myself and failed.
My best experience on drugs is simple—it would be the first time I injected meth. It says in the book, it’s three times more pleasurable than an orgasm, and when you inject meth, it’s a whole other thing to smoking or snorting or eating. Two things—the first thought was ‘what the fuck’, just from the level of pleasure, and the second thought straight after that was ‘I’m never gonna stop’.
You’ve been sober for a while now, right?
I’ve been sober for two years, but I had a major lapse a few months ago, when I injected meth in a hotel room for about a week. There are two things—a relapse and a lapse. A relapse is when you go back completely, and lapse is when you go back for an episode and then come back to your senses again. So in total I’ve been sober for two years but had three lapses along the way.
Do you think it’ll get easier?
It does get easier, actually. For the first year, I fantasised about it constantly, like every second of my waking day. Say like a long distance relationship or an ex that you’re still in love with. It was like that, but on a different level. It took a full year to not crave it every single day.
I’ve talked to some recovering addicts, who say that recovery has changed them for the better, and others who hate themselves for getting themselves there in the first place. How has addiction changed you?
It’s made me realise how quickly your life can spiral. That it’s not a fucking joke. The reason that Brett the Snake was such an important character for me was because, when I was hospitalised after the hotel incident, nearly everyone there was there because of meth. Most of them had crossed the line of no return. I had amphetamine psychosis for a while because I shot up too much, but these people I met in hospital—who were only 18, 19, 20—they had permanent psychosis to the point where they thought they were a fucking snake. Brett the Snake went from being an intelligent, normal young man with his entire life ahead of him, to thinking he was an animal, within one year.
I have so much more empathy. And empathy isn’t even enough, because meth is neurotoxic, so it causes brain damage. Their brain is gone. So not even empathy, just fucking sadness. These young people will never be able to lead a normal life, either being institutionalised for their entire life, in a mental ward or a prison, or just committing suicide because of the chaos in their mind. Everybody makes mistakes, and most people redeem themselves or are forgiven by the world or by nature. But these mistakes are like nothing else.
I think one of my favourite passages in Riptide was the description of those beautiful lights you see from afar at the top of the high-rises in Surfers Paradise, and how so many of them are actually occupied by pimps and their prostitutes that are paid in meth. I thought about that for a long time.
That was from a conversation about how the illegal drug prostitution rings work. I didn’t know it worked like that, but it makes perfect sense. It’s still affects me a lot to think about Zoey and the things she’s been through, because she was so young, and God knows what these fucking perverted pedophiliac cunts have done to her during the years that she was trapped in that world of prostitution. She got paid in meth because that’s how you get people trapped into a job they hate.
Yeah. It makes sense in the worst possible way.