Tuesday, December 28th, 2010
“I found myself really wanting to push my boundaries and push how far I was willing to dig in order to present a scraped up vulnerable person to the imaginary reader. Without doing that, there is no point to writing your story.”
Heather Havrilesky is best-known as Salon.com’s former TV critic and pop culture enthusiast. A co-creator of the cartoon Filler on Suck.com, she also maintains her popular website, rabbit blog, documenting adventures in parenting, relationships, and grammar. Her debut book and memoir, Disaster Preparedness, covers darker terrain as Havrilesky and her two siblings endure the volatile marriage of their twentysomething parents in Durham, North Carolina.
The youngest of three, Havrilesky observes her cherry pie-baking mother as worlds away from the deeply southern gentries of the other women in her town. Her father proudly juggles multiple girlfriends who give the then 19-year-old relationship advice. Havrilesky notes the escalating tension in her household while carrying on an imaginary affair with Harrison Ford, making her high school’s cheerleading squad, and then dumping the most attentive boyfriend that she ever had.
Havrilesky spoke with SMITH magazine from her home in Los Angeles where she lives with her husband and two young daughters.
What brought you to the memoir genre?
I started writing personal essays in college and I wrote journals when I was younger. I really wanted to write music for a long time after I graduated from college–that was a big dream. Then I decided that I should probably write to make a living. Writing was supposed to be my day job and then rock star was supposed to be my dream, which is absurd and crazy but that’s the way you think when you’re in your twenties, which is good. Basically, I always felt that my childhood was a great mix of really funny and really sad. I always wanted to write it down and capture it in some way but the times that I tried to capture it in fiction, it just wanted to be the exact story that it was. There are things about my parents that are weird and specific to them and so colorful and unique and heartbreaking that if I didn’t just write about them it wouldn’t be as satisfying or provocative.
And so you began to write Disaster Preparedness with the intention of it being a memoir?
I think that at some point I took a stab at it and I wrote what became the first chapter of the book. I packed a lot into that first chapter–the rise and fall of my parents’ marriage–and it flowed really well. That chapter was probably the least revised out of anything in the book. I was pregnant during most of the time that I was writing the book–when you’re pregnant you have a burst of energy right in the middle of the pregnancy. It’s really strange.
The nesting period, you mean?
People refer to it that way and some focus their energy on painting the nursery and stuff like that. I would wake up at 4 in the morning and be full of energy and I knew that I wasn’t going to get back to sleep so I just started writing. It was fantastic. I wrote about four or five chapters and then I sold the book after that. After I had sold the book, I had to write the second half of it and then I really wanted to be pregnant again. I didn’t have the same drive without being pregnant.
Your narrative shifts a lot throughout Disaster Preparedness. You recall events as a child and as an adolescent, but then you also embody this very intimate third person narrative when focusing on other people in the book–like when your mother’s friend Joan suspects that her husband is cheating on her. Sometimes, particularly towards the end of the book, you address the reader as “you,” and then other times you utilize “you” in more reflective passages in reference to yourself. Why did you choose to have such a fluid narrative?
Because I have written professionally for so long, I have always had to translate my stories into an alternative form. At Salon, I would often start with a lead about me and then go into TV or I would try to avoid the third person by saying, “times when you’re having a hard time at work you…” There are probably people who are irritated by that kind of shifting between different voices, but I think that in my own case there are things that almost feel too precious if you keep them in the first person. By the end of the book, for sure, it’s an issue of moving from feeling isolated and alienated by your very personal emotional traumas to looking around and seeing that everyone in the world is the same frazzled mess that you are. That process of looking around and understanding that you are not the only fragile person in the world and that you don’t have to hide it–that was the growth that I experienced over the years that I document in the book.
In the chapter where I lose my virginity, I didn’t know what the hell that chapter was going to be about. I just knew that one of the chapters of the book should be me walking across the street on my lunch break from work to tell this guy that I had slept with for the first time not to tell anyone that we slept together. I didn’t know where that chapter was going to go but where it lands is what that situation did to my friendships–that I had to hide this thing that happened to me and that I was ashamed at having any emotions around doing something stupid. I was ashamed of just being a human being at that point.
The style and tone shifts a lot too. Some passages of remorse give way to almost a poetic influence.
I wanted to do justice to the depth of the emotions involved. There are places in the book where I probably indulge that in strange ways. There are times where if you don’t get fragmented and off-kilter, then you don’t really capture the essence of what you’re trying to express. It was really important to me when writing the book to not just keep it at a surface value–like a news report. Because you’re talking about things that happened 35 years ago, it’s a challenge to get inside the emotion of it and make sure that that’s the place you’re expressing from first and foremost. I really struggled to get into the space where I could trust my weird instincts. I’m sure it’s bumpy for the reader at times. I feel like you have to take a little bit of a risk and be weird and break down your educated approach to prose to get anywhere that feels raw.
I found myself really wanting to push my boundaries and push how far I was willing to dig in order to present a scraped up vulnerable person to the imaginary reader. Without doing that, there is no point to writing your story. The worst thing in the world to me is when I read a memoir and the ego is all that’s there–you’re never allowed in. There are lots of writers that write in the first person that can get away with all kinds of things. But for me, I don’t want to feel like the writer is selling me on how great they are. I want to know how weak they are at their weakest moment. That’s part of what I was really trying to give with this book.
Quite a few times, when you’re describing your upbringing and your relationship with your parents, you utilize animal metaphors or animal images such as “being raised by wolves.” At one point, you also compare your parents to cats and you and your siblings to mice. Did you intentionally stick with these images to convey your upbringing?
No, not consciously. I do see them in that way though because all of the fun and all of the unpredictability of animals is a good way of boiling down the bare essence of what it was like to live with them. There wasn’t a lot of calm, thoughtful explanation of what was happening in my family. There wasn’t a shared narrative around what we were doing to get each other through things or what was really happening. Things would just happen and then there was a reaction and we were just in it. On the scale of dysfunction, my family wasn’t really that bad with regards to how bad it can get. There wasn’t a lot of violence and people weren’t getting fall down drunk all the time. There was no incest, no physical abuse. But I think that there is a certain level of dysfunction in a family where, as a kid, you don’t know what the fuck is going on and no one will explain it to you. It feels like everyone is just reacting to the moment all the time. Sometimes it feels incredibly fun and great but if nobody understands what is happening, then there is a lot of fear there too.
My parents were also very young. I’m the youngest and my mom was 28 when she had me. She was 24 when she had my brother. You take two pretty volatile people who are really young and all of a sudden they have three kids and it’s the ’70s–so, yeah. Animals.
You spend a good deal of the latter part of the book reflecting on horrendous dating experiences and relationships. Yet, your husband is omitted from the book and from a craft standpoint, I’m wondering why that is.
My focus was not on the present while writing Disaster Preparedness. In the chapter about dating and wanting to marry one bad boyfriend after another, the main point is not about outlining all the ways in which my husband is perfect and superior to these other men. I arrived at a place where I was more comfortable with myself and suddenly didn’t feel it necessary to justify myself or market myself as a great wife. That chapter is really about that internal process of “why don’t you want to marry me?” and blaming other people for not thinking that I’m a princess or special to then moving to a place where I see that I’m not perfect. I am high maintenance and I don’t blame you for running in the other direction. It’s going to take a special kind of person to put up with my shit. I got really lucky finding my husband because he is a great person and is very accepting of me as I am. But I also think that some important growth happened right before I met him where I accepted myself and wasn’t trying to sell myself as anything but a kind of flawed human being. So I think that if I gave readers all kinds of details about my marriage, it makes it sound like a fairytale and that’s beside the point.
I was struck by the consistent contemplation of female roles. As a child you observe your mother’s friends complaining about being demoted to “supporting roles” within their respective marriages. In the end of the book, you reflect on not being “the manicured career mom,” or “the effusive cheerleader,” or “a diligent GAP employee,” and “the virginal good girl.” Was this meditation on stock representations of women something that you wanted to occupy the forefront of the memoir?
It wasn’t intentional but I do think that women in general have a tendency to compare themselves to some ideal and then outline the way that they’re falling flat every day. That’s something that we are taught to do and internalize and carry along with us. The fact that if you just turn on the television set and see how many people look like normal human beings that are women–it’s just like TV is this world, this fantasy universe where the men all look like real men: ugly, fat, little, short, tall, old, all kinds of varieties of men exist on television and women are all beautiful and mostly young. You never see women of all shapes, sizes, and colors on your TV screen. They just don’t exist. And that’s just one little slice of our culture. Women walk around thinking that they are fucking disgusting because everything around us is pure beauty and youth. That’s all we’re allowed to see. Everything else is hidden. So women internalize that as a whole and we struggle and expect ourselves to be fantastically good in many ways. There are all these idealized versions of things that get put on women.
Finally, Heather Havrilesky, what’s your Six-Word Memoir?
Sluts’ dreams really do come true.
BUY Disaster Preparedness.
FOLLOW Havrilesky on Twitter.
READ Havrilesky’s blog.