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“Everything” everywhere all at once: An interview with Freda Love Smith

By Gregg Shapiro

For many people, the name Freda Love Smith conjures the sound of music. Drumming, in particular. Before she retired, Evanston resident Smith was a drummer in several bands, including Blake Babies, The Mysteries of Life, Antenna, Some Girls, and Sunshine Boys to mention a few. Smith wrote about that part of her life in her marvelous 2015 memoir “Red Velvet Underground.” The subject of music also features prominently in her equally awesome new book, “I Quit Everything” (Agate, 2023). Subtitled, “How One Woman’s Addiction to Quitting Helped Her Confront Bad Habits and Embrace Midlife,” the book includes sections on alcohol, sugar, cannabis, caffeine, and social media, and is equal parts confessional and self-help guide. Smith’s honest and open voice guides readers through her experiences while generously providing hard-won wisdom. Freda was kind enough to make time for an interview shortly before the book’s release. [Freda Love Smith reads from her new book on October 22 at Space, 1245 Chicago Avenue in Evanston.]


Gregg Shapiro: Your new book “I Quit Everything” is your second after 2015’s “Red Velvet Underground.” Did you know after the first book that you had another in you?

Freda Love Smith: I knew I wanted to write more books, and even before “Red Velvet Underground” came out I was experimenting with another food-related project. That fizzled, and then a surprising thing happened, which was the resurrection of my drumming career with Chicago band Sunshine

Boys – suddenly I had a whole other, all-consuming artistic outlet. I kept writing during that time, but I wrote slower and less. The narrative of “I Quit Everything” ends with my retirement from drumming, but the process of writing the book actually began with that retirement. At one of my final musical performances, I read an early draft of the social media chapter, marking my transition from one type of creative work to another.


GS: In the book you write about completing your MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Did any part of this book begin while you were working on your MFA?

FLS: Writing this book interrupted the project I’d been working on for my MFA! My thesis was a biography of Angela DeAngelis, a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army and an instrumental player in the kidnapping and indoctrination of Patty Hearst. Angela went to college in my hometown, Bloomington, Indiana. I have a contract for that book, and I still absolutely intend to write it, although it seems to be morphing into a novel. The idea to write “I Quit Everything” popped into my head, and it wouldn’t leave me alone until I wrote it. It’s a very short book, and it didn’t take long; it just came pouring out of me. I’d already lived through all the quitting that the book documents, and had kept a detailed journal throughout, so it was just a matter of finding points of connection, doing some research, and assembling a loose structure.


GS: “I Quit Everything” is separated into seven sections, five of which have addictive-substance-titles, with each one containing brief essays. Did the essays or the section themes come first in your creative process?

FLS: I mostly started with the themes. One advantage I had in figuring out the structure was that the book documents an experiment that spanned about eight months, so there was an intrinsic chronology I could rely on: first I quit this, then that, then that. Within this framework I certainly take liberties, but at least there is a basic timeline to contain the chaos!


GS: “I Quit Everything” is a book full of books with quotes from and references to “Sugar Blues,” “The Doors of Perception,” and “The Botany of Desire,” to name a few. Do you feel, as a writer, that you have a responsibility to recommend books to your readers?

FLS: I am grateful when writers recommend books to me and I love when one piece of writing points me to another, so it’s natural to want to pay it forward! “I Quit Everything” does end up being partly about books – I write about how books saved me during Covid, and about how a bookstore job helped me escape the academic job I was eager to quit. And although the bookis a deeply personal memoir, documenting my struggles with addiction and withdrawal and midlife, I wanted it to be more than just my story; I wanted to fold in the stories and observations and research of others to give the book more texture and substance.


GS: In addition to quoting writers, you also quote musicians, including Jonathan Richman on pages 82 and 104. Would it be fair to say you consider Richman as an influence?

FLS: Yes, for sure! Jonathan Richman has been a force in my life since I first heard his solo albums in the ‘80s, which inspired me to seek out his earlier work with the Modern Lovers, one of my favorite bands of all time. Few songwriters are as singular he steers clear of cliché, irony, and cultural pressure to conform to any current trends. He makes sincerity seem like the most punk thing ever.


GS: Would you agree that the looseness you write about in the “I’m Loose” essay seems to have been replaced by a kind of cultural tightness? If so, do you see that as a positive or negative?

FLS: This is amazing timing! I was just talking about “looseness” today with a former student of mine. She’s in her twenties, and at a recent family event her aunt (a Gen-X’er like me, in her fifties) went on a rant about how kids these days are too uptight, how we all used to drive drunk, and it was fine! I don’t advocate a return to rampant drunk driving, but believe me, I understand the sentiment, absolutely.


GS: I love the way you write about actors and films. For people familiar with you as a musician in bands including Blake Babies, Mysteries of Life, and Some Girls, to name a few, do you think they’ll be surprised to learn about movie star dreams?

FLS: I think they’ll be surprised, yes. I always felt most comfortable hiding back behind the drum set and became very shy when I had a microphone in front of my face.




GS: Did being a musician and playing for audiences fulfill that longing for you?

FLS: It absolutely did and gave me a more comfortable way to be an artist and performer; one better suited to my disposition!


GS: I loved the Sugar section, as that is also my addiction. I totally related to Cap’n Crunch’s violent mouth shredding, which is why I preferred the now defunct Quisp – same manufacturer, same taste, but gentler on the gums. Are you concerned about a backlash from Big Cereal?

FLS: First of all, I’d like a time machine so I can go back and pour myself a big bowl of Quisp – how did I never know about Quisp! I feel cheated. I have often felt the same way about quaaludes. Totally missed out, born just a little too late. Anyway, it’s unlikely Big Cereal will find me much of a threat; I think their power is even greater than it was when I was a kid. I recently read that they continue to reformulate those cereals to make them more appealing and – to borrow a cute adjective from the British – “moreish.”


GS: On a more serious note, the Social Media section of the book becomes a eulogy for your friend Faith Kleppinger. Did you know when writing that section that that’s what it would be or was it something that developed organically?

FLS: That came straight out of the journal that I was keeping at the time, writing about my quitting process and about the major events of my life. I loved her so much, and that loss permeated everything at the time.


GS: What would it mean to you if “I Quit Everything” became recommended reading for people in the recovery community?

FLS: I feel big love for the recovery community and have been thrilled to glimpse the ways in which that world is opening up, diversifying, allowing in myriad voices and approaches. I appreciate the nuance in language like “soberish,” “sober curious,” and “California sober.” It feels to me like there is more space for people to decide what they want their sobriety to look like; not everyone fits every program. It would mean the world to me if “I Quit Everything” were to help anyone to break a destructive habit, to take a good honest look within and decide what they can and can’t afford to mess with, and to trust themselves to make the right choices.


GS: You grew up not far from Bloomington, Indiana, which is known as a college town. You also lived in Boston; a city well-known for its colleges. You currently live in Evanston, which is home to Northwestern University. Would you say that that was a conscious decision on your part to live in these types of places?

FLS: I can even add one to the list – for four years I lived in Nottingham in the UK, home to two major universities! I do love college towns and feel very comfortable in the milieu of academia. My mom worked at Indiana University as the editor of their alumni magazine, and I’ve worked on and off in a variety of teaching and administrative jobs at universities since my young adulthood. My partner Jake is a professor at Northwestern. I’ll probably die in a college town

(Mellencamp reference!)


 

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