Carrie Fisher’s Inimitable Voice

‘I Narrate a Life I’m Reluctant to Live’

On Carrie Fisher’s world of writing.

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In the spring of 1985, Carrie Fisher unintentionally overdosed on tranquilizers while draped in diamonds and a fox fur that she wore like a bathrobe. Blacked out and barely conscious, Fisher, then 28 years old, was heaved into a car by a concerned friend and rushed to Los Angeles’s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where her stomach was pumped in a secret room to avoid having anyone leak the episode to the National Enquirer. Two years later, the actress used the incident as inspiration for her first book, Postcards From the Edge. Told through an array of letters, monologues, and third-person narratives, the semiautobiographical Postcards follows a young Hollywood actress named Suzanne Vale as she endures rehab, relationships, and her movie star mother. From its delicious first lines—“Maybe I shouldn’t have given the guy who pumped my stomach my phone number, but who cares? My life is over anyway”—Fisher’s voice has a charming way of making life’s bleakest moments a little less humiliating without diminishing their gravity.

Though Fisher had been in the public eye since birth, Postcards From the Edge gave people an introduction to the breadth of her literary brilliance—her sharp prose, her deep-seated sadness, her searing honesty. Writing for the Los Angeles Times in 1987, critic Carolyn See wondered why Fisher never seemed to “grab your mind” on-screen, like her mother, the actress Debbie Reynolds. “It occurs to you,” See wrote, that “Fisher’s heart might not have been in it. You deduce this fact because her heart appears to be in this novel and in the writing process.”

Fisher had written since she was a child, finding salvation in the escape it provided. “I was just in love with words and they saved [me] from a lot of stuff,” she told Rolling Stone in 2016. “Books were my first drug. They took me away from everything and I would just consume them.” Sheila Weller’s recent biography of Fisher, Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge, contends that writing was the means through which she found agency outside acting. The seven books she wrote—each playful and thinly veiled reflections of her life—placed her in direct conversation with her demons and forced her to confront them head-on.

From the moment she was born in 1956, Fisher was defined by the lives of others. Her parents, Reynolds and pop crooner Eddie Fisher, were hardworking entertainers who transcended their blue-collar origins and became America’s sweethearts; their daughter was the puzzle piece that completed their picture-perfect family. But shortly after the birth of their son, Todd Fisher, two years later, the family’s idyllic world collapsed when Eddie Fisher left Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor, the recent widow of producer Mike Todd. Not only was the affair a momentous Hollywood scandal, but it also irrevocably changed Carrie Fisher’s life, promising that she would always be the subject of tabloid fascination.

Externally, the adolescent Carrie Fisher seemed to want for nothing: She was popular, privileged, and charismatic. But Weller hammers home the point that, internally, Fisher was lonely, insecure, and longing for attention. With her father out of the picture and Reynolds frequently working, Fisher was largely raised by her maternal grandmother and a nanny. Fisher’s complicated relationship with her mother defined much of her childhood. “I had to share her, and I didn’t like that,” she once told NPR’s Terry Gross about her childhood frustrations with Reynolds’s celebrity. Fisher struggled to find her own identity independent of her mother’s, and she shadowed her mother on- and offstage. As early as age 12, Fisher performed alongside Reynolds at her Las Vegas nightclub shows, belting out Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” “As a child you want to fit in. And that did not enable me to fit in. I was doing nightclub work during the holidays instead of skiing,” she later said on The Arsenio Hall Show. “My mother’s world was a quarter century older than mine. So I was sort of lost between all the worlds. I was decidedly without a generation.”

In 1972, Fisher was further alienated from her peers when she dropped out of Beverly Hills High School and went to New York to join Reynolds, who was playing the titular character in a revival of the Broadway musical Irene. Fisher performed as a chorus girl seated at her mother’s knee. Two years later, after landing her first film role, as a teenage seductress in Hal Ashby’s ensemble satire Shampoo, she enrolled at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. Beyond the gaze of Hollywood and her mother for the first time, Fisher blossomed. Central’s training helped her win her breakout part, as Princess Leia in 1977’s Star Wars. Over the next few years, Fisher would occasionally put reality on pause and travel to “a galaxy far, far away”—turning a cardboard character on the page into an empowered heroine.

After the first Star Wars film, Fisher moved back to New York, where the insecurities of her childhood bubbled up once more, only this time much more darkly. Although her new famous friends, like Saturday Night Live’s John Belushi and boyfriend (and later husband) Paul Simon, were enamored with her magnetism and wit, she professed that she felt deeply inadequate. Around this time, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after overdosing on the set of the 1981 box office flop Under the Rainbow. She later wrote in The Guardian that she was “unable to accept” the diagnosis, and she attempted to self-medicate with opioids. Over time, these addictions escalated until they led to the pivotal overdose that inspired her first novel.

With Postcards, Fisher emerged possessing the type of self-assured voice that neither education nor experience can guarantee, although her proximity to Hollywood tinsel undoubtedly colored her imagination. After a 1985 interview in Esquire showed off her ability to quip brilliantly about her unconventional upbringing and famous acquaintances, she was commissioned to write a book of Beverly Hills–centric humor essays titled Money, Dearest, which she likened to “[Fran] Lebowitz West.” That concept dissolved when Fisher reread Dorothy Parker’s booze-soaked story “Just a Little One,” whose pinballing narration must have hit close to home. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times after the release of Postcards, she gave the impression that her mind moved not unlike the minds of Parker’s narrators, saying, “I get a feeling like my mind’s been having a party all night long and I’m the last person to arrive and now I have to clean up the mess.” Radiating a flair for both ingenious snark and doleful cynicism, Postcards certainly evokes Parker. But instead of using wit as a protective wall, Fisher offered it as a momentary invitation to peek inside her brain: “My life is like a lone, forgotten Q-Tip in the second-to-last drawer.”

Fisher had the rare gift of being able to deliver unmediated and self-deprecating thought—without crossing into self-pity. In Postcards, across chapters that shift the structure from first-person perspective via letters and diary entries to third-person narration, she paints a rich, compassionate portrait of Suzanne and consequently of herself. For an actress, it’s almost the ultimate character study: How would you portray yourself honestly? “I narrate a life I’m reluctant to live,” Suzanne recalls a younger version of herself thinking; it seems not much has changed. The pacing is breezy and observational, with the occasional one-liner effortlessly thrown in for color. Little actually happens in Postcards (Suzanne goes to rehab, endures confusing dates, works at an ungratifying job, and attends a party full of painful people), and the driving force of the narrative is reflection rather than action. Most of the book finds her alone with her mind, a situation many of us frequently want to avoid at all costs.

Pointedly, Postcards From the Edge does not portray Fisher’s surrogate in the depths of her addiction. Instead, the ugly grip of chemical dependence is shown in the book’s first section through the character Alex, a self-righteous, coke-fueled addict who resentfully goes to rehab and becomes determined to write a script about the place. His story races toward his fall from grace—or the closest thing a pretentious asshole can have to it. Suzanne’s tale begins just after she has hit rock bottom. In rehab she begins to experience the loneliness and fear she has so diligently numbed with drugs, the feelings that “tell you you’re something on the bottom of someone’s shoe, and not even someone interesting.” She gloomily notes in her journal, “Everything hurts now, and nothing makes sense.” She phones her movie star mother, expecting to be received with anger and disappointment. Instead, Suzanne is met with something closer to blithe incomprehension. “I told her I was miserable here, and she said, ‘Well, you were happy as a child. I can prove it. I have films.’” (Further blurring the line between fact and fiction, Fisher frequently repeated the same bits of talk across her work, a writer constantly in conversation with herself. She pointedly rehashes this interaction while recalling her childhood in Bright Lights, HBO’s documentary about her relationship with Reynolds.) Instead of seeming gossipy, nods to Fisher’s upbringing were reminders that the surreal world she occupied was painfully real.

After rehab, Suzanne struggles to find a new normal, finding life to be better spent holed up in bed with Diet Coke. “She wanted to be tranquil, to be someone who took walks in the late-afternoon sun, listening to the birds and crickets and feeling the whole world breathe,” Fisher writes. “Instead, she lived in her head like a madwoman locked in a tower, hearing the wind howling through her hair and waiting for someone to come and rescue her from feeling things so deeply that her bones burned.” The dramatic imagery and affecting despair in passages like these are what made Fisher’s prose so striking. They revealed that with her writing came real stakes. She was writing to survive.

After the success of Postcards, Fisher began a new chapter in her life. Weller notes that Fisher began thinking of herself less as an actor who writes and more like a writer who acts. Though she continued appearing in film and on television, most famously as the smart-aleck best friend of the young woman played by Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally (1989), in the ’90s Fisher also became an accomplished script editor, adding her offbeat and empathetic voice to Hook, Sister Act, and The Wedding Singer. Over the next two decades, she mined her life with inventive, sardonic candor, sprawled out in bed with a notepad.

Like Postcards, Fisher’s early novels can be considered works of autofiction, though she often flip-flopped on how deliberately she used her experiences as narrative. “Carrie doesn’t draw on her life any more than Flaubert did,” director Mike Nichols told Entertainment Weekly after working with her on the film adaptation of Postcards. “It’s just that his life wasn’t so well known.” But the line between invention and autobiography in her work is paper-thin at best because she seemed to sprinkle details of her life throughout these texts. For example, 1990’s Surrender the Pink explores a young script doctor’s codependent relationship with a playwright who bears an uncanny resemblance to Paul Simon; the plot of 1993’s Delusions of Grandma mirrors Fisher’s relationship with Hollywood agent Bryan Lourd, with whom she had a daughter, Billie Lourd; and the 2004 sequel to Postcards, The Best Awful, follows Suzanne’s breakup with the closeted father of her child and her struggles with mental illness.

Perhaps Fisher needed a degree of abstraction to be able to confront herself at her worst. Or maybe her decision to fictionalize wasn’t a complicated choice at all. In 2004 she told The New York Times that she meant to structure The Best Awful as a memoir before abandoning that idea. “The truth is a very stern taskmistress, and I can’t adhere to it,” she said. “I have a very bad memory.”

In her 50s, Fisher dropped all pretenses and began writing explicitly about her life with full transparency, a decision she said was partly prompted by electroshock therapy she received for depression—a treatment that she admitted was whittling away her memory. In 2008’s Wishful Drinking, a memoir adapted from a one-woman show of the same name, she unpacked her “all too eventful and by necessity amusing” life. With what was by then signature self-deprecation, Fisher described her imperfect journey toward sobriety and noted a lineage of “accomplished” individuals who shared her dual diagnoses of drug addiction and mental illness. “There are a couple of reasons why I take comfort in being able to put all this in my own vernacular and present it to you,” she wrote. “For one thing, because then I’m not completely alone with it. And for another, it gives me a sense of being in control of the craziness…. It’s sort of like: I have problems but problems don’t have me.”

Though she had spoken and written extensively about the severity of her battles with addiction and mental illness, Wishful Drinking marked the true beginning of Fisher’s late-career role as a mental health advocate. In 2016 she wrote a regular column for The Guardian called “Advice From the Dark Side” that destigmatized and demystified life with the diseases she fought. In the series’ final entry, published a month before her death, she addressed a young reader overwhelmed by bipolar symptoms and reassured the person that making peace with mental illness is possible. “We have been given a challenging illness, and there is no other option than to meet those challenges,” she wrote. It is “an opportunity to be a good example to others who might share our disorder.”

It’s curious that during the last decade’s personal essay explosion, Fisher did not experience a literary renaissance in the same way, for example, that Eve Babitz did. Weller emphasizes her subject’s importance as a role model to other “difficult women” but does not consider Fisher’s rightful place among confessional, troubled female writers. An heir to Sylvia Plath’s melancholy, Fisher sits smartly between Babitz and Elizabeth Wurtzel—a glorious triumvirate of messy self-awareness. But crucially, Fisher never fell into the trap of thinking “that the exposed life is the same thing as an examined one,” as book critic Michiko Kakutani aptly wrote in a 1997 New York Times piece about the era’s confessional memoir craze. Fisher was under no such delusion. Her life was exposed from the start, and she was determined to crack it open, bit by bit, for our enjoyment.

Fisher’s books are evidence of a hard-fought journey toward something resembling self-acceptance. In December 2016, at the age of 60, she went into cardiac arrest aboard a flight from London to Los Angeles while promoting what was to be her final book, The Princess Diarist. Though the cause of death was initially given as cardiac arrest due in part to her chronic sleep apnea, traces of cocaine, heroin, and other opiates were found in her system. Her ashes were laid to rest in an urn in the shape of a Prozac pill. “I felt it was where she would want to be,” explained Todd Fisher.

Shortly before the release of A Life on the Edge, Fisher’s ex-partner Bryan Lourd issued a statement disavowing Weller’s book. “The only books about Carrie Fisher worth reading are the ones Carrie wrote herself,” he said. “She perfectly told us everything we needed to know.” While Weller’s book comes off as exhaustive, empathetic, and laboriously researched, his point rings true: There is no substitute for Fisher’s own voice.

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