“In the end when all is said and done and it comes time for me to depart, I want my children to remember me and say, ‘Hey, Dad had some problems, but he changed. He became a good father.'” James Brown talks with Zibby about how his latest book, Apology to the Young Addict, completes his trilogy of memoirs about his addiction, his family, and now his sobriety. The two talk about how addiction can impact kids growing up as well as the possibilities that opened up for James when he began to make a change.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jim. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Apology to the Young Addict, your memoir which was so, so good. I’m just so excited to be talking to you about it.

James Brown: Thank you. Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it.

Zibby: I know this is not your first book. Now I have to go back and read all the other ones which I haven’t read yet. Tell me a little bit about what made you write this book right now. How is this book different from the other books which I haven’t read? What did this book do for you?

Jim: Good question. I’ll try to keep my answers short. The Los Angeles Diaries was my first book. It’s this memoir in this trilogy. It dealt a lot with my family. My brother and sister both sadly committed suicide. All of us had drinking and drug problems. Mother was a career criminal, ended up doing some time for arson and homicide. I could go into great detail about that book, but it really was about my struggles with alcohol and drugs. My second book dealt not so much with my brother and sister and that part of my family, but my immediate family, my three sons and my ex-wife now who sadly passed away a while back. Then this one here is the result of the close to fourteen years sobriety. God willing that I maintain until next August, I’ll have fourteen years. It has a lot to do with what it’s like to be sober, what it’s like to help others with their sobriety, sponsorship. It also had to do with my family. It has to do with having survived and having dug myself out of that hole, what my life has become.

Zibby: Good job.

Jim: Thank you. Thanks.

Zibby: What I liked about this book is how you jumped both from points of view to who you were addressing. Some of the sections were written in the second person when you say, you feel like this, you feel like that. You take us through all the physical moments and experiences of going through detox immediately, that night, the next night, months down the road, years down the road. You have some of that. Then you have these vignettes, almost, like your next-door neighbors who become opioid addicts. You have to watch their self-destruction and get sort of pulled into that. Then you have moments that were edge-of-your-seat reading when you were in Las Vegas for the horrific shooting, mass killing, that went on there and then tender moments with your family and skipping rocks on the water as somebody’s dad overdoses. It was just this wonderful 360 view of all the sides of how addiction can permeate someone’s life.

You’re a really good writer too. I’m sure you know this because this is your third book. I just really appreciated your actual writing. I was going to try to read a passage or something that I loved. Let me just read this passage if you don’t mind. This is when you’re talking to audiences. You say, “I open it up to questions. Hands rise. This is the part they usually like best, and in the process of answering, I end up telling them how I used to love alcohol, the smell, the taste, how it made me feel, how, had I been able to stop after three or four or even ten drinks, I’d still be at it. At some point, though, it quit being about how it made me feel and started being about how I felt when I didn’t drink or use.” I thought that was such an interesting distinction. Tell me a little bit about that and how you even got into speaking to groups about your experience.

Jim: Fortunately, The Los Angeles Diaries did well. That book was picked up by many colleges, universities, even some high schools across the country. I was fortunate enough to be asked to come out and speak at Red Ribbon Week and also fortunate to be asked to come out and read my work and talk about addiction as well as writing. That was one of those events where I actually had the good fortunate to go speak and share the message about sobriety. Once you become addicted, whether it’s to alcohol or other substances, a lot of it isn’t about the pleasure that you initially got when you started drinking and using, but once you become addicted, as I said before, now at that point there, it’s about maintaining. It’s about avoiding sinking into depression when you don’t have that substance in your system. That’s a whole different thing. It’s no longer about pleasure. Now it’s about maintenance, sadly.

Zibby: As I read your book, I was like, wow, this guy is lucky to still be alive after all you’ve gone through, all the ways you’ve cheated death. Then I got to the passage when you almost drove your car off the cliff when it was so foggy and you were driving drunk. You felt like you heard a voice saying that you were going to be okay. Then for the first time after being a lifelong atheist, you finally were like, well, maybe there is somebody watching over me. How do you feel about that now? Where do you fall on that belief spectrum?

Jim: My belief spectrum is openminded. What works for me may not work for another person struggling with addiction. Spirituality is a big part of many recovery programs including AA. For me, I always felt that quitting drinking and using was a matter of willpower. Unfortunately, I never had enough willpower to do that. My sponsor kept saying, “Brown, you’re not going to be able to do this by yourself.” I said, “What do you mean?” Basically, he said, “You need to embrace a power greater than yourself so that you have someone to talk with and you have someone to ask for strength.” That was the beginning. I had to crack that door open a little bit because of my past with agnosticism and atheism. For me to accept that there was something out there that could be helpful to me that I couldn’t see, feel, or touch was hard to accept. However, once I started doing what he asked me to do, which was just to open my mind a little bit to the notion that there might be something out there bigger than myself and that something might be able to help me, when I opened that door to just a little bit of a faith to believing in the possibility, eventually when I began to see results, I began to believe that there just might be something bigger than me out there. I do believe now that there is something bigger than me out there.

Zibby: Tell me also about parenting through addiction. You referenced several times in the book how you did things when you were a dad when your boys were younger that you weren’t proud of and that they have since forgiven you for because you’ve proven now with fourteen years sober, less so when you wrote the book, that you can maintain it. They’ve forgiven you and you’ve moved on. You said that growing up, there were things you really regret you did in your parenting. Then of course, you spotlight other parent-child relationships and the effect of them when addiction is a part of the family, essentially. I was wondering how you feel about the impact of kids when there’s addiction like this in the family. Then also, for your own kids, how is it for them with all these books and with your story so public? How do they feel about it?

Jim: There’s a few questions there.

Zibby: Yeah, sorry.

Jim: That’s okay. My memory’s not the sharpest memory.

Zibby: I won’t even remember I asked them.

Jim: Children are probably the greatest causalities of addiction even if they’re not the addict. If they live with an alcoholic or an addict, the behavior of Mom and Dad is not what it should be. The alcoholic/addict is usually irresponsible. Children need for the parents to be responsible. Children need you there when they need you. If you’re not there when they need you, you’re falling short in your duties to your children. I wasn’t always there for them because my first call was to reach for that drink. I tried to be a good father, but the compulsion to drink and use took me away from those responsibilities. The title piece, Apology to the Young Addict, has something to do with that and the people we harm. We’re not just harming ourselves. We’re harming all of those that love us. We can’t necessarily see it at the time. Again, I keep using the word sadly, but it is sad. It’s not even personal to the children or to the spouse. It’s that the drugs and the alcohol must come first. You and I both know that when your priorities are towards drugs and alcohol first, that puts your children second or third and your wife second or third. That simply is not right to do. It’s not a good way, a decent way, the right way to live a life. I have responsibilities. I have to live up to those responsibilities. In the end when all is said and done and it comes time for me to depart, I want my children to remember me and say, hey, Dad had some problems, but he changed. He became a good father. I would prefer to remember the good things about my father than I would, say, the darker things. In the end, I want to go a decent man leaving people with good memories of me.

Zibby: Well, I don’t even know you, and I have good memories of you, so that’s good.

Jim: Thank you.

Zibby: Is it your son Logan who’s in law enforcement?

Jim: Yes.

Zibby: When you wrote about him, you wrote about your concern that perhaps he was getting too aggressive at times even if he hadn’t had that much to drink. You kind of sniffed out some signs that you were worried about and that you saw as reflections of what you had been through. You wrote about that very openly. I’m thinking to myself, where is Logan now? How does he feel about your writing about that? Was this the beginning of something? How does he feel? Not that you know, necessarily, but from what you’ve gathered, how do your children feel about their dad’s life being so on display in this way and, by consequence, their own?

Jim: Logan is my middle boy. Then I’ve got a younger one named Nate. Then I have the older one, Andy. My son Andy is a reader. He’s read all of my books. Andy has an MFA in art from UC Irvine where I attended school and got my MFA. His is in studio art. Mine was in creative writing. Andy is actually the one that’s read me back to back and knows all the material well. The other boys, believe it or not, one is a computer — he’s in cybersecurity. He was raised on this darn thing that you and I are communicating on. He hardly reads. His fiancé has read my books. She read a couple of my books. She really likes them and says nice things about the writing, as you were mentioning earlier. The other boys, Logan prefers not to — it’s odd because I could’ve been a better father. I should’ve been a better father.

Logan, for some reason, when I had to make my amends — I had to make my amends to my children. I had to tell them, “I could’ve been a better father to you. The things I did, I’m sure you remember, were wrong.” My middle boy, Logan, he said, “Dad, you were a great father.” I said, “There’s parts of me that were not great. You shouldn’t think of me that way because I don’t want you repeating this kind of behavior. It’s not acceptable.” He said, “But you forgot all the times you got me up and took me to wrestling and all the times you spent training me, all the times you spent doing this and this.” It’s very interesting how Logan in particular ending up focusing on the better parts of his father and for some reason — I don’t know, there must be a psychological reason for it — compartmentalized and pushed out the other side because he wanted to love me. All my boys love me. I’m very, very fortunate that they’ve forgiven me and that they’re fully in my life now.

Zibby: Wait, go back to when you were talking about your MFA in creative writing. Tell me about when you knew you loved to write. The way you describe your childhood, it was less than perfect to say the least given how early you started drinking and doing meth and all sorts of stuff. How did you end up in an MFA program for creative writing? How did that even happen?

Jim: It’s interesting. There’s things called functioning alcoholics. I was a functioning alcoholic, and so I was able to get most of my work done and then partake. I was able to keep that balance for quite a few years before it finally caught up to me. I made my first attempt earnestly to get sober when I was forty. However, I realized I had problems in my mid-thirties. Up until that point, I’d worked. I’d gone to college. My desire to be a writer, that veers off into a slightly different terrain. The terrain is that although I was in and out of trouble at a young age, although I was already using and abusing — I had a brother, Barry Brown, the actor, starred in Daisy Miller and another movie, Bad Company, with Jeff Bridges. He saw what was happening to me. Ironically, he was an alcoholic himself, but I was getting into criminal behavior.

My brother was the one who first encouraged me to read a short story by Ernest Hemingway called A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. I read that. For some reason, at an early age, I really took to that story and empathized with the old man in that story. Out of the blue, I wrote a little short story about an old man. I gave it to my brother. I don’t know if it was very good, but he really liked it. I loved him. I wanted to please him. That set me on the course of — eventually, I had to leave Los Angeles and get out of dodge because trouble, move in with my father. I began to correspond with my brother. I would send him stories. He would write me back and say they were terrific, etc. I got early encouragement from my brother. Then I got this little notion in my head that I was good at something other than crime and I could write. Then I started showing my teachers. A few of my high school teachers encouraged me. I think they saw the same thing. They saw a troubled kid, but who took pride in these attempts to write. They too encouraged me. I got a lot of encouragement from other people. I began to think that I was good at something. That’s how it started. Then I just kept on doing it.

Zibby: Wow. What’s your writing process like?

Jim: Laborious. You might have noticed how short my sentences are and how I try to strip my sentences of adjective and adverbs. A lot of times, I don’t have the idea of the characters or everything clearly in focus when I write, but I still feel obliged to put in my time. I have come to believe that I discover what it is I want to say in my writing through the process of attempting to write or to say it. Then the revision process occurs. I go back and I’ll revise, I’ll revise. It’s a long process. I certainly toss more work than I keep.

Zibby: Interesting. How often do you write? Are you someone who writes every day a little bit? Do you only write when you’re focusing on the next book? How does it fit into your regular life?

Jim: It’s odd. When I don’t sit down to write, I feel guilty because I’m so used to doing it. Then sometimes I sit down and I don’t have anything to say, darn it. Usually, I may go quite a few years between books. With Los Angeles Diaries, I went nine years because there was a gap in my functioning life where I wasn’t able to write. For the most part, I do when I have a book project. That’s when I sit down and focus. It always seems that I have a book project going.

Zibby: What’s your next project?

Jim: I’m working on a book now with another writer, a fellow named Patrick O’Neil who wrote a book called Gun, Needle, Spoon, a memoir about his drug and alcohol addiction. He was facing twenty-five years to life and since got a pardon from Governor Brown, full exoneration, former Governor Brown. He’s been clean and sober for over twenty years. He has an MFA as well. He and I have put together — he’s an admirer of my work. That’s how we came together. That’s how we found each other. He had a written a couple reviews. I contacted him to thank him. In any event, to get around to your question — I’ll get there in a second.

Zibby: Take your time.

Jim: I just wanted to introduce him and how he came into my life because he’s coauthor of the book we’re working on. This one has to do with issues involving recovery and putting them into creative writing exercises. You have a series of ten, twelve writing exercises dealing with relapse, dealing with God or spirituality. The culmination of these various exercises is a short story. Our belief is that creative writing can be used as an effective tool in recovery, not just journaling. Across the country, you’re going to find journaling is a very, very big and popular and important methodology to learning the recovery process. He and I got to thinking that maybe creative writing could also be used. That’s the book we’re working on now. We’re almost finished. Give us another month. I think we’ll tie it up.

Zibby: That’s great. That’s very exciting. What advice do you have for aspiring authors? Don’t tell them not to write. You’re not allowed to say that. Say something else.

Jim: No, I have encouragement, discipline and encouragement. The encouragement is that — you probably know. You’ve probably heard it by other writers. By the way, thank you again for having me on because I noticed you’ve had some very successful writers on. I’m glad to be a part of your podcast and a part of this interview. I’m very appreciative. Two things, perseverance and then discipline. The discipline means that you need to write, and write regularly, and learn to hone your craft. That involves the actual act of writing. I think we learn most about writing through the process of writing. Doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from instructors who have gone the distance themselves and be helpful. As you well know, you’re a writer yourself, in the end, it’s just you and what it is that you’re looking at on the computer, or we’re looking at the page if you’re writing longhand. In the end, it’s just you and the pen. The next thing is when you take that deep breath, you think you have something to show and you believe you have something to show, it’s very scary at this point. Now you’re going to try to put it out there to the world. You’re asking for acceptance. You want to be liked. You want your work to be read. Then the rejections come in. It’s heartbreaking. I’ve seen a lot of writers, good ones, some of the most talented writers I’ve seen have received rejections one after another, after another. Some of them will give up at that point. They’re going to say, I must not be any good because no one’s taking my work. That could be the furthest thing from the truth. It just means you may not have found the right person yet. My advice to the aspiring writer and professional writer too is the discipline, writing regularly, and two, the perseverance, continuing in the face of what we’re bound to get, which is rejection.

Zibby: Very encouraging. Thank you for that.

Jim: You’re welcome.

Zibby: I should’ve said earlier on, I meant to say in the beginning just how sorry I am for the loss of your brother and sister in such awful, traumatic, terrible ways. Your having to go through your whole life with that loss is just really unthinkable and awful. Anyway, I just wanted to express how sorry I am that you had to go through that and for those losses in your life.

Jim: Thank you. I appreciate that.

Zibby: So that’s it.

Jim: Is that it? Okay.

Zibby: We survived. Thank you for coming on my show. Thank you for this beautiful book. I know you mentioned I have lots of well-known authors, as you are as well by the way, but this is really the top of the pile. This is a really beautiful book. You belong on the show.

Jim: Thank you. I, again, appreciate it very much.

Zibby: No problem. Take care. Buh-bye.

Jim: Bye-bye.


Apology To The Young Addict by James Brown

Purchase your copy on Amazon or Bookshop

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts