by Daren Wang
When you’re traveling on your own, a cozy bar is often the best place to have dinner, watch a game, and chat with the next person over. It makes the road a friendlier place.
But when you’re home, the local bar is something else altogether. It’s where you meet your friends, make plans, scheme schemes, tell stories.
For years, Leon’s Full Service in Decatur, Georgia, has been my bar. My friends refer to Leon’s as “the satellite office.” It’s a short walk from my home, from my office, and it has one of the best cocktail programs in the South. But I’ve been on the road and haven’t stopped in for a long, long time, so I fear my privileges might be revoked if I don’t make an appearance while I’m home. I invite Thomas Mullen, most recently author of “Lightning Men,” to come out for a happy hour drink.
I get there a few minutes early, and the bartender greets me by name. Leon’s is closed for lunch on Monday, so much of the staff is just arriving for the dinner shift. Friends telling stories about their weekends, goofing on each other, showing off a new tattoo.
I love this bar. I’ve come here to celebrate triumphs and drink away sorrows. Ryan and Mike Gallagher, brothers and co-owners, threw a party on my publication day, and served two sublime signature cocktails that night — the Hidden Light and the Northern Fire. I was sitting in a booth here when Natasha Trethewey sat down and told me she had just been named Poet Laureate of the United States.
Before the place even opened, I asked Mike if I could auction off the right to buy the first beer as a fundraiser, and he said yes. Before “going viral” was a thing, it went viral, and we sold a Terrapin Rye Ale pint for $2,650.
It’d be easy to say Leon’s is a kind of home, but I already have a home, and right now I want to be somewhere else. Leon’s is my bar. It’s the place I go when I want to be out.
Tom arrives, and we order Leaf Blowers.
We talk shop. He’s turned in the manuscript of his third book in the Darktown series, and he talks about how many books there might be in the series. I’m thinking about paying gigs that allow for the writing of another novel. Tom asks how my book tour is going. We compare notes on venues for readings and book events.
The Leaf Blowers arrive. Bourbon, spiced pumpkin, maple, ginger, lemon, decanter bitters. It is a bright drink, the ginger and lemon dominating. The bartender told me it is autumn in a glass, but the strong citrus tastes like summer to me. The pumpkin is a subtle note, mostly lost. The drink goes down easy. We order another.
It’s easy to see how drinking can get to be a problem in the writing life. A lot of careers have been lost or shortened by the bottle. It’s easy to speculate how many more great books would a sober Faulkner have written.
Some might attribute the affinity for drink to the nature of creativity and the cost of peering into the worst corners of human nature. That sounds like bunk to me. It’s because staring at a blank page for hours, trying to imagine something good to say, is exhausting, and one way to wrestle through that is to go to your bar and order a drink.
Being on a book tour doesn’t help. I have 60 events scheduled in a three-month stretch, and as word about this bourbon-soaked tour has gotten out, many have invited me to come out and have a bourbon or two. Or three. More often than not, these are people who have helped me, people I want to know better. But that’s a lot of drinking in a short stretch. Sometimes, I beg off.
“I only drink when I’m working,” I say.
The dinner crowd is arriving, the place starts to get noisy.
I talk about my idea for my next novel, a crazy, lost piece of history. Tom talks about how to keep a series fresh and believable into the fifth, sixth, or seventh novel with the same characters.
The great Richard Bausch once wrote that he didn’t know any writers concerned with money, except that it got them more time to write. I think, for too many, it’s the drinking as much as the money that kept them from the page.
Tom’s has to get home and get dinner ready for his family, and I need to get home and start cooking before my wife gets home. It’s 6 o’clock, and we get the check. We both have to get up in the morning. There’s work to do. The blank page calls.