In 1976, Jeanne Darst’s glamorous parents uprooted her and her three sisters from their comfortable existence in St. Louis and moved to Amagansett, Long Island, so their brilliant father could write the Great American Novel. The novel was a failure, the father basically refused to undertake regular employment and the mother descended into alcoholism and depression.
Despite that gloomy description, Darst’s memoir, “Fiction Ruined My Family” (Riverhead, $25.95, 336 pp.), is a wonderful, darkly comic story of her coming of age — and her own evolution into a writer and alcoholic. Darst rejects despair to write archly humorous portraits of her mother, father and sisters. From riding topless in the New York City subways to her perpetual fist-to-mouth existence as an artist, Darst chronicles the offbeat costs of the creative life. When all seems lost, Darst finds her path as an actress and performer, battles the booze and discovers great joys in her accidental motherhood. Darst sticks a gleeful thumb in the eye of memoir stereotypes.
Darst, 42, spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from her home in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Q. Your father uprooted your family to write his novel. What happened?
A. We moved to East Hampton so he could write his book. At the end of the year, the manuscript was rejected by several publishers. We moved to Bronxville, N.Y. He got a job as a speechwriter at CBS. My maternal grandfather’s money had been supporting my father’s dream. My mother really wanted a normal life. My father tried to make a go of it, but it wasn’t really him. A second novel also didn’t sell. At some point, it all became a fantasy. He basically stopped writing and became obsessed with reading and researching about F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Q. What was it like growing up with your father?
A. He was always around and up for a game of catch. He was extremely funny and charismatic, and was a very talented writer. He was intimidating in every way. I knew my dad was special and more interesting than other dads. My mom was very unhappy. In a way, it was my calling to bring this story to the world. There was something very interesting going on between the two of them.
Q. In your 20s, you realize that you are both a writer like your father and an alcoholic like your mother. How did deal with this in the book?
A. I was always a writer. I always knew I was funny. From the first time I drank, I knew I was an alcoholic — that it wasn’t normal to black out. The whole idea of the book is that, in my mind, creativity can be as destructive as something like alcoholism. It’s not an original idea, certainly, but that was how I chose to look at family, through the lens of writing. I was able to lick alcoholism. I’ve been sober 12 years, but I haven’t been able to lick writing. There are days when I think writing is just as destructive as if I were drunk, in terms of the instability.
Q. How much can we make our children pay for the pursuit of our artistic dreams?
A. Moving to Amagansett changed my life. My life is a lot more interesting because of the risks my father took. My sisters and I all believe, though, that the experience didn’t have to be this hard. I want to take risks, but the needs for stability for my son have to be met.
Q. Was it rough going through the family story?
A. No, I don’t go around feeling glum about this material, though the stuff about my mom’s death was more difficult. Toward the end of the writing, I was a little sick of myself. It’s exhausting. You are faced with hanging out with your 14-year-old self again.