Conversations With Writers Braver Than Me #8: Heather Havrilesky

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A lot of writers were upset by Neil Genzlinger’s anti-memoir screed in The New York Times Book Review a few weeks ago. Me, I became perfectly apoplectic, mouthing off about it wherever I could (and in all honesty, hitting “send” before I’d thought my argument through). I was fired up – which is ironic considering I am at my most creative when it comes to finding ways and reasons to avoid writing my memoir. But haters like Genzlinger are part of the problem for me. Nothing aggravates my anxiety and insecurity about expressing myself more than some big bully standing up and telling me to just shut up.

In his essay, Genzlinger reviewed four memoirs, and only one of them – An Exclusive Love by Johanna Adorjan – favorably. He was brutal in his criticism of the others, making arguments against them that frankly made no sense to me. They were too much about the authors and not enough about the others in their stories; they were too painful and sad; the authors hadn’t earned “the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience.”

He started off by asserting that former Salon television critic Heather Havrilesky’s memoir in essays, Disaster Preparedness, treaded on subjects too mundane: “cheerleader tryouts, crummy teenage jobs and, that favorite of oversharers everywhere, the loss of virginity.”

But his description of Havrilesky’s book – in addition to my familiarity with her clever, witty writing – actually piqued my interest in it. Not only do I sit squarely in Havrilesky’s demographic, I also happen to enjoy collections of essays with an arc, the kind where the author hasn’t necessarily survived some remarkably terrible or even wonderful experience, but is instead just really adept at interpreting common experiences in a way that gives you new perspective on your own.

I wasn’t surprised to find that I enjoyed Havrilesky’s book and really related to it. There is so much overlap in our stories, I should probably hate her for beating me to the finish line by miles – thousands of them. But instead, I’ve decided to believe that, contrary to Genzlinger’s argument, there’s room for yet another perspective on your parents’ clumsy divorce in the 70s, your consuming control drama with a boyfriend in your twenties, and other fairly common misadventures. Besides, Havrilesky was super cool – funny, genuine, encouraging – when I reached her at home in LA by phone, so hating was out of the question.

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The Rumpus: I’ve read other interviews in which you’ve sort of said that karmically speaking, you had Genzlinger’s take-down coming, because you are “an asshole by profession.” Meaning, you work as a critic. I know you focus mostly on television and film, but do you also review books?

Heather Havrilesky: I have, for Book Forum, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and I just recently reviewed Freedom for Salon.  I love to review books, although it’s hard to weave that in when you have to watch forty hours of television a week and see movies and all that stuff.

Rumpus: I have been wondering whether Neil Genzlinger’s review has had any impact on how you feel about criticism, or if it might change the way you review books?

Havrilesky: The piece that he wrote is a very recognizable piece to me because I’ve written a lot of stuff like it for different places. Salon was always interested strong statements, finding some way to weave together this and that, or asking “Is this a new trend? And if so, does it deserve to be blown out of the water?” Memoirs certainly aren’t a new trend, but if you read a few bad ones, the category becomes a pretty easy sitting duck, easy to blow out of the water.

Rumpus: I think memoirs – and the typically sensitive memoirists who write them – are easy targets, especially for people who are uncomfortable with the kind of raw emotional material and personal revelations they often contain.

Havrilesky: Yeah, maybe. I read people’s comments about that piece, and I’m reminded of the comments about a lot of pieces that I’ve written. People tend to think that you’re crossing a line if you seem like you’re not being fair. The thing you always want to avoid is giving the impression that you went into an experience of some genre, whether it’s movies, television, books or anything, with a preconceived notion of what you were going to find there.  But it’s really hard to avoid, too. I have a lot of sympathy for that. When you’re reading something through the lens of “most memoirs are worthless,” it’s pretty hard to enjoy a memoir. There are memoirs that he could have read that may have overcome that for him. But mostly I’m sympathetic to that assignment. I mean, I’ve written it a million times, so I don’t really have a big beef with him or the style he used to trash the stuff he trashed. It would totally be hypocritical of me to criticize that, because I absolutely write the same kind of thing, and people have often called me harsh on a lot of different fronts. I’m the last person in the world to call someone harsh, because that’s a reviewer.

That said, I really try hard to challenge myself to keep an open mind to the things that I’m reviewing and appreciate them for what they are. I just reviewed “Just Go With It.”  It’s a Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler vehicle and it wasn’t the greatest movie in the world, but it wasn’t a huge disappointment either. Jennifer Aniston plays Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler plays Adam Sandler ­– there are no surprises as far as that goes. But if I didn’t mention that someone gives a sheep the Heimlich maneuver and it’s kind of funny, I would feel a little guilty. If you appreciate something, you have to find a way to weave that in. And if you’re writing a piece that doesn’t have any room for that, but still calls itself a review, then that’s really messed up.  But I don’t think that that piece was necessarily a review of those books. It was sort of packaged like that, but I think it was more of an essay.

Rumpus: One of my problems with it is a fear that it will fuel an anti-memoir backlash, and at a time when I just might be ready to finally write my own. Actually, a couple of weeks ago, I met with an agent about a potential ghostwriting project, and she said something to the effect of, “Well, you can’t make it too memoir-y. You did see that piece in the New York Times Book Review, didn’t you?” And I wanted to pull all of my hair out, right there in front of her. Although, at least one person has told me that agents and editors aren’t taking the piece too seriously.

Havrilesky: I don’t know. I would be surprised if people are really taking that essay incredibly seriously and they’re going to guide their ships by it. That would seem a little ludicrous to me. But I think it’s a perfectly good piece of criticism, or not a piece of criticism, but a perfectly good essay.

Rumpus: Really?? I mean, I saw you put this really gracious comment on the piece online, but…really?

Havrilesky: Yes. And the thing is, if I’m telling you it’s not that big of a deal to me – and he was like fucking cutting my throat out on the page – then that should be really encouraging, right?

Rumpus: Well, I want it to be… By the way, it occurred to me that Genzlinger was not the audience for your book, or that type of book, whereas I am. I feel like he would have given a similar review to Traveling Mercies, or The Boys of My Youth, or My Misspent Youth, or Beg, Borrow, Steal, which are all books of essays that I’ve loved.

Havrilesky: I feel like The Boys of My Youth is such a gender-neutral book. It’s strange because you sort of aspire to achieve that. Like, I’m gonna write the most literary gender-neutral thing in the universe and it’s gonna be really respected. But then you read things that are really feminine. Like Anne Lamott is such a feminine writer. She has almost a liberated Adrienne Rich view of what she’s creating.  She’s creating in her most authentic voice exactly what she would enjoy reading.  I’ve thought a lot about that and decided that just because cheerleading is a gendered subject doesn’t mean that it’s not the most hilarious fucking topic in the universe.  I read a lot of Anne Lamott while I was writing my book and it really inspired me to just find my very specific voice and just fuck the critics, fuck the anticipated scoffing that would come from that, because if you can’t get into your connection to your story, you’re gonna tell a shitty story. You have to connect to it.  The way that she connects the reader to her experience is just fantastic.

Rumpus: You know, I really wrestle with that. First of all, I’ll say that any time I write an essay about something I deeply connect to, I have no problem selling it, and once I do, I hear from lots of people about it, mostly women. If I try to write an essay based on what I think is a relevant topic, it’s almost always a fail. But I’ve gotten some really nice, encouraging responses over the years, and they make me feel like, Yeah, I can and should do this. But I alternately chide myself, in a very Genzlinger-esque voice, saying, Really, don’t trouble yourself to do this, because no one is dying to know what it’s like to be a perpetually ambivalent, spiritually confused, childless, 45-year-old daughter of a clergyman who left New York City for the boondocks. The world will go on just fine without your perspective.

Havrilesky: But you know that’s bullshit. Because, yeah, sure it’ll go on. But it sounds like, based on your past experience, you will find a way to write your thing in a unique way that people can connect to you, and that makes it worth doing.

Rumpus: Well, first I have to get over the fear of upsetting other people, like my parents, my father in particular.

Havrilesky: Can you kill him?

Rumpus: Believe me, you are not the first person to ask that. I recently heard Terry Gross interview singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell on Fresh Air, and he said part of what made writing his memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks, easy, was that his parents are dead. Your father is deceased, but your mother – how has she handled the book?

Havrilesky: I had my mom read the book over and over again because a lot of the stuff is about her and her crappy marriage. I have obviously had some complaints about her – the mistakes that she made.  I realize this is every mother’s worst nightmare, so I totally have compassion for her.  I have said to her, “You know people are going to come out and say to you, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you moved out on your kids when you got divorced.’” She’s gotten these random phone calls about it, and she’s now got to answer to this kind of thing. She’s been really kind to me about it even though it’s not the easiest thing for her.  It’s not that she’s so private or that she doesn’t tell people all kinds of stories openly. She’s a very good storyteller and has been completely open about the things that she’s been through. But there are times when I felt really guilty for having put her through that.

Rumpus: Did you give her the opportunity to nix it?

Havrilesky: Not to nix the whole thing. I mean I don’t think that she ever even would have dreamt of nixing the whole thing.  She really liked it. I sent her the first chapter about her and my dad fighting, and she was comfortable with it. And then I sent her the next chapter and the next. I asked her – especially in writing the chapter about her and her friends – a lot of questions about, “Can I say this? Can I say that?”  And the lawyer has you change details about people so that no one can trace who they are.

Rumpus: So, she’s largely on board with how it came out?

Havrilesky: Oh, yeah. But you know, in hindsight, if I wrote the whole book again, I think I just would have written about some of that stuff a little differently.  Like when I was writing about her moving out of the house when my parents got divorced – although that chapter actually is from the perspective of me then mostly, so that really wouldn’t change. I mean the thing is I was crawling into how I felt about it then, and how I felt about it was the world was ending. So I didn’t want to back away from that.  It’s not an exercise of self-pity. The point of that chapter is to explore what that felt like to a kid. The lesson of that chapter is not that my mom did the wrong thing, or that parents should never get divorced. My parents needed to get divorced. And she really did a smart and courageous thing in divorcing him. She didn’t have any kind of career. It was hard for everyone and it was really fucking hard for her, too. She got some advice from a priest who told her she should move out for the summer. She thought that that would be the best transition, even though for me it was terrible.  But it was the 70s and she was young and confused and dealing. She was staring down the barrel of having a minimum wage job and supporting three kids on minimal child support. She was under severe fucking duress!

Rumpus: I related to so much of what you wrote about your parents. Your portrayal of them as they were divorcing brought me right back to my dorky parents suddenly morphing into these disco ducks with permed hair in Sassoons and satin jackets.

Havrilesky: My dad did that.

Rumpus: Speaking of your dad, how do you think he’d feel about the way you portrayed him – this sort of irresponsible, womanizing charmer?

Havrilesky: You know, I left out details about my dad. There were details that if I put them in, they would have been too prejudicial, and people couldn’t experience him as a rational human being. I mean, he doesn’t seem that rational anyway.

Rumpus: I had compassion for him. I saw him as just this flawed human being. Do you think you’d write about him the same way if he were alive?

Havrilesky: That would have been challenging. I’m not sure how I would write about my dad if he were alive. It would be interesting to know how he’d handle it. I kind of think he’d sort of enjoy it.  He would probably make corrections to certain things or say, “You can’t say this or that.” But he never really shied away from the spotlight, so I don’t think he would find that much he didn’t like. With my mom, for sure it was a struggle. You just have to be really up front about the fact that you’re not trying to write to hurt someone. I was writing about them from a child’s perspective. I think the more you access that, the more you realize how unrealistic we are about parents. My father was a fucking human being in my life.  He did a lot of great things for me as a parent, but he also did a lot of disappointing things because he was a fucking human being, and that’s what human beings do. In hindsight, I was really fortunate to have the dad I did, because he made such a great character. He was such a rich source of material. I am very thankful to him for that.


Sari Botton is a writer living in upstate New York. She is the editor of Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Village Voice and more retrograde women’s magazines than she’d care to recall or admit to. She tweets at @saribotton. More from this author →