Going Off-Script: A Conversation with Mandy Len Catron


Every summer, for as long as I can remember, I’ve seen newspaper articles promising “tips to beat the heat.” The tips are always the same: sit in the shade, go somewhere air-conditioned, have a swim. In other words, the same things you already know—the same things that anyone who has ever been alive during summer has already figured out.

Books about love and relationships play an even crueler game. Every year there’s a new crop, each promising the key to love, and every year they offer the same sit-in-the-shade advice.

Mandy Len Catron’s new collection, How to Fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in Essays, is not one of those books. It is decidedly not an advice book. “Love advice is inherently destabilizing,” she writes. Catron reports feeling buffeted by advice when her own love life, and her very conception of what love meant, imploded around her.

Rather, this book is a story of searching. Several years ago, following the break-up of a decade-long relationship that had seemed good but somehow wasn’t, Catron started reading and thinking and writing about love. She started taking apart what she knew about the subject and trying to put it back together again in a way that made sense of her life. When she began sharing these thoughts online, the response overwhelmed her. “Most of us are just waiting for a chance to have an honest conversation about love,” Catron surmised.

Mandy and I conducted this interview via email, corresponding every day for two weeks—she from her home in Vancouver, British Columbia, and I from a patch of shade in Austin, Texas, where I am still trying to beat the heat.


The Rumpus: You write, “[M]ost of us are just waiting for a chance to have an honest conversation about love.” The word honest really struck me there. What do you think is constraining us? If we’re all waiting, whom are we waiting for?

Mandy Len Catron: I think when we talk about love, we tend to follow familiar scripts. There are things we’re allowed to talk about. We’re allowed to get excited when we meet someone new. We’re allowed to speculate about someone’s interest in us (within reason). We’re allowed to seek consolation at the end of a relationship. These conversations have clear parameters. They’re familiar. But there are other things we don’t talk about as much—more nuanced feelings that don’t align quite as well with our scripts about how love should feel and how it should go. We don’t have conversations like, “I love spending my days with him but the thought of marrying him fills me with anxiety.” Or “I love him but when he criticizes me I feel increasingly incompetent.” Or “I’m deeply committed to her but I have romantic curiosity about someone else.” The question (or one of them) that inspired me to write the book was what to do when you’re in a long, committed relationship with someone you love, but might not want to spend your life with. There’s so much validation when you’re on-script—when your experience of love aligns closely with the ideal. And I think these moments of being off-script come with all the awful feelings—doubt, anxiety, shame. I think we’re waiting for permission to talk about these things, for a sense that they’re normal. Maybe it sounds idealistic, but I like imagining that love stories—thoughtful, sophisticated ones—might offer us that permission.

Rumpus: What are the essential ingredients of a thoughtful love story? Can we come up with a Bechdel Test for what constitutes a thoughtful, sophisticated love story?

Catron: For me, an ideal love story is any narrative that widens our sense of what’s possible in love. The most normative stories imply that the kind of love that counts is heterosexual, monogamous, long-term commitment. Increasingly we are making space for queer stories—but the queer stories in the mainstream are typically monogamous and committed. The beautiful thing about the Bechdel Test is its simplicity, so I think the simplest version of Catron Test might look like this: (1) Is this story about two straight people? and (2) Does it imply that love is the solution to a character’s most significant problem? If the answer to both of these questions is yes, you’re probably not going to learn anything new about love. Lately my favorite stories aren’t exclusively about romantic love. They tend to ask what romantic love brings to bear on all the other complicated aspects of a person’s life.

Rumpus: Yes, I love that second point especially. The example that immediately springs to my mind is Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which really dismantles the distinction between romantic love and platonic love. I recognized forms of love in that book that I’ve felt in my own life, but never seen on the page.

Catron: I haven’t read Yanagihara, but the book that did that so beautifully for me was Patti Smith’s Just Kids. What begins as a romantic relationship between Smith and the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe becomes so many other things over the course of their lives—roommates, close friends, muses, caretakers. Smith depicts this deep intimacy that extends beyond the conventional boundaries we assign to our relationships, and it always feels valid and important.

One reason I was so excited to do this interview with you was that I was really moved by how deftly your novel, Next Year, For Sure, explores the various forms that love, sex, and intimacy can take. I love that there’s a romantic relationship that isn’t sexual, for example—which is something that happens in real life but not something we often see in love stories. Again, there’s this idea that a certain kind of love is more meaningful or more profound or more legitimate. And your novel calls those assumptions into question in this really subtle, graceful way.

I recently watched Dirty Dancing in the movie theater with some friends who’d never seen it before. I’ve seen the movie so many times, but I was surprised to find that seeing it in a theater helped me see some parts of it differently. It definitely feels like the kind of movie that shouldn’t pass the Catron Test (you’ve created a monster—I’m going to make this a thing now) but I think it actually does. Yes, it’s a straight couple and yes it’s full of conventional rom-com tropes. But it’s also kind of radical in some ways. It’s fairly sex positive and feminist, especially considering it’s set in the 1960s. It’s very pro-choice. Most importantly, love doesn’t make the two protagonists’ lives easier or better. In fact, their relationship forces them to reckon with some of the harsher realities of that world— the limits of class mobility, the social prejudices of the people they love, sexual coercion. The movie never imagines that love will solve these problems, or that Baby and Johnny are going to make a life together. I love that about it. Thirty years later it still holds up.

Rumpus: I want to go back to Just Kids. I wonder if memoir is sometimes freer to explore uncharted territories of love than fiction is.

Catron: Hmm. This is a really interesting question—and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. In theory, fiction should be free to imagine any kind of relationship, but in practice I suppose it’s limited by the problem of believability. Maybe we want characters’ relationships to feel at least a little bit familiar. But a memoirist is essentially saying, “Here’s what love feels like/looks like to me”—and that’s harder for a reader to outright reject. It doesn’t have to look familiar.

Rumpus: Exactly. No one’s going to tell Patti Smith that her own life doesn’t seem plausible.

Catron: So maybe there’s something to this—maybe true stories of love have more capacity to broaden our sense of love’s possibilities.

Rumpus: I notice your book is billed as a “memoir in essays.” Did you originally conceive it that way, or did that concept come later?

Catron: Honestly, my original conception was pretty hazy. I had this idea that I wanted to write a book about the dangers of love stories. I knew it would be personal, and I knew it needed to contain research. I’d always thought of myself as an essayist more than a memoirist—because I was more interested in ideas than narrative. This makes me laugh a little looking back because as the genre of creative nonfiction evolves, the various sub-genres continue to overlap and collapse. But when I came out of grad school in 2006, most of the book-length literary nonfiction I read was classified as memoir. I spent a few years really hung up on the question of what the book would look like in terms of form. When I found my agent, I sent him a very messy manuscript that attempted to wield all these related but disparate parts. Luckily for me he said, “This doesn’t work. But if you want to write a collection of essays, I’d like to represent you.” I think I just needed someone to give me permission to write essays, because as soon as he said that, I could see the whole book. From that point, putting an outline together was simple. Right before we published it, my editor suggested changing it from “essays” to “a memoir in essays.” So we did. And Amazon has classified it as “self-help” anyway, so I’m realizing that generic distinctions only go so far.

Rumpus: Calling it a “memoir in essays” does feel right, because there is a clear narrative arc that connects and orders the essays. It’s hard to imagine reading these essays out of order without losing some of the deeper meaning. I’m wondering, though, how you feel about that self-help label?

Catron: I think if you imagine yourself to be a literary writer, which I do (eye roll), then the “self-help” label has a stigma to it. My idea of self-help is that it’s necessarily simplistic or preachy or smug. Of course that isn’t always true—though I did read a handful of dating advice books as part of the research process and I found many of them to be really off-putting in their (often gendered) ideas about daters. But when I think about some of the memoirs and personal essays I’ve loved the most, I’ve loved them because they offered me some new way to understand and inhabit the world. They helped me see political issues through a personal lens (I am thinking, for example, of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me), or to temporarily inhabit a sensibility—or a body—that’s distinct from mine (Roxane Gay’s Hunger), or to stretch my capacity for empathy (Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams), or to celebrate intimacy (Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty). Isn’t memoir, almost by default, a kind of consolation for the burden of being human? And isn’t that the most fundamental kind of self-help? So I guess what I’m doing here is talking myself into liking the label, as much as it sometimes feels like it doesn’t fit.

Rumpus: Yeah, I think what I find off-putting about a lot of self-help books is the prescriptiveness: Here’s what you should do. Here’s what works. But your book—like a lot of the books you mentioned—doesn’t do that at all. Instead, it says here’s something I’ve been working on figuring out. Here’s what I’ve got so far. But all literature does that. Anna Karenina is basically eight-hundred pages of “here’s what I’ve figured out so far.”

Catron: You know I’ve never thought about Anna Karenina that way but of course any kind of literature can be a useful way to explore a complex idea. Nonfiction probably does this more explicitly. I like what Phillip Lopate has said about this: “In an essay, the track of a person’s thoughts struggling to achieve some understanding of a problem is the plot.” I love the idea that essays have a kind of internal plot. And I think these kinds of essays/memoirs—where someone is trying to come to terms with a complicated problem and we readers get to watch—are the kinds I love reading the most. I like seeing someone else’s mind at work on the page. I just have an internal resistance to any text that aims for easy answers, which a lot of conventional self-help does. I want to read something that looks for answers while also saying, hey, being a person in the world is hard. This is what the best literary nonfiction can offer that more straight self-help (I am thinking here of someone like Tim Ferriss) might not.

Rumpus: You said earlier that you were inspired to write the book because of a question you were struggling with. Did writing the book lead you to a satisfying answer?

Catron: I think I started the book wondering what to do about my relationship at the time—which was with someone I loved deeply but couldn’t imagine a future with. And the research was a good way to think that through—to realize that, in many ways, love is ordinary and predictable. Which meant I’d be okay outside of that relationship. There was a bigger question buried in that very personal question which was about whether it’s possible to guarantee happiness in love. And I think the (perhaps unsatisfying) answer is no. But the other answer I found, which I didn’t really know I was looking for, was that love can take lots of shapes in our lives. And that I could have a good, meaningful life without long-term monogamous commitment.

Rumpus: And having found those answers, did the book spit you out on the other side with a new question, or set of questions?

Catron: You know the big question I’ve been considering lately is the question of marriage. Because I’ve written very publicly about my relationship, people (friends and strangers) seem to be invested in its status. They often ask if we’re planning to get married. But the more I’ve researched and written about love, the more I see love and marriage as two separate things that we often conflate. I keep wondering what marriage would offer me and my partner that we don’t already have—but maybe there’s a good answer to that question and I just need to think it through a little more. It’s also an interesting time for marriage, as people are marrying later and there are more single adults than any other time in recent history. And yet the legalization of same-sex marriage in the US has reinforced the institution. Increasingly I’m doubtful that the institution is serving us all that well—but again, maybe I’m wrong.

Rumpus: I appreciate that honest uncertainty. That seems like the mark of an essayist, that searching and uncertainty. I know you’ve recently started writing an advice column for The Rumpus called Mixed Feelings. Given your ambivalence about love advice, what do you see as your mission statement for that column?

Catron: When my first TEDx talk went up online, I found that all kinds of people were sending me questions about their experiences with love. I’m not sure what it was about that talk but something about it made people feel like they should send me these deeply personal emails, often asking for advice. And, occasionally, I felt like I had uncovered some bit of information in all the research I’d done that would be useful to them. Other times I felt like they’d be much better off talking to a professional. But the experience inspired me to pitch an evidence-based advice column. I don’t want to tell people what to do. I don’t think my intuition is all that great and I’ve made plenty of terrible choices when it comes to love. But I’ve benefitted a lot from the research I’ve done. So I thought maybe I could write an advice column that said, “Here’s some information that might help you think through your problem in a more informed way.”

Rumpus: But you’re very much taking a position, which is gratifying. In one of your first columns the advice you offer one letter-writer is to “tear down the wallpaper; dismantle the patriarchy.”

Catron: I think most of us have this idea of romantic love as apolitical. But the more I study and write about it, the more clearly I understand how misguided that idea is. Love is a biological experience, but our practice of love is very much determined by the place and time where we live. So many of our love stories (and our romantic advice) work to uphold or reinforce the dominant culture. Often in ways that are nearly invisible. But if you look closely you start to notice that our ideas about how love should feel and how it should be practiced are very much connected to ideas about gender, sex, sexuality, family, race, class. And so I want to use the column as a place to make those ideas more visible. And to challenge them. I want to make more space for practices of love that might not match up with the love-marriage-baby carriage trajectory. I don’t want to sound too idealistic about it, but I really think we’d all benefit from more possible practices of love.

Zoey Leigh Peterson was born in England, grew up all over the United States, and has spent most of her adulthood in Canada. Her fiction has appeared in The Walrus, The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, and has been anthologized in The Journey Prize Stories and Best Canadian Stories. Her first novel, Next Year, For Sure, was published by Doubleday in Canada and Scribner in the US." More from this author →