Navigating by the Right Stars: A Conversation with Briallen Hopper


The primary subject of Briallen Hopper’s first book, Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions, is relationships and love outside of marriage. In doing so Hopper writes about books like Moby-Dick and Girls on Fire, movies including The Best Years of Our Lives, and what it meant to watch Cheers while working at Yale. She also writes about her own life and relationships in unsparing depth and detail.

For those of us who are not married, our found family is as important, as powerful, and as vital—if not more so—than our biological family. These relationships take many forms, involve many different configurations and commitments, but they are rarely acknowledged, and when they are, tend to be seen as a way to spend time until we find a romantic partner. In perhaps the collection’s best work, “Coasting,” Hopper writes about how her friend Ash was diagnosed with cancer and the care team that her friends formed. It is a moving account of how family is formed and built, and what they are capable of accomplishing. It’s not about friends helping another friend; it is love, in its truest and greatest form.

Years ago after discovering her work, Hopper and I became friends on Twitter, though we’ve never met. We seem to love many of the same texts and if I am honest, her incisive analysis has inspired me to push harder and deeper in my own writing. We joked at one point about the book’s title and being hard to love, but I found her book impossible not to love. I was thrilled that we recently had the chance to talk about the essay form, what people assume about us because we’re single, and how the act of writing the book created its ending.


The Rumpus: What does the essay form mean to you?

Briallen Hopper: I trained to be a literary critic of nineteenth-century American literature and to write in academic forms, which are much more restrictive, so part of what the essay form means to me is that it’s so open. Essays run the gamut from the most poetic to the most journalistic. There’s a huge range in tone, huge range in form and voice. I often felt restricted by academic genres. I wasn’t looking forward to having to write a monograph. I was depressed by the fact that I had to write articles. Once I decided I’m not going to do academic writing anymore, the essay form became this wonderful free space where anything goes. Also I just love them as a literary genre. They’re one of my favorite genres to read.

The confessions part [of the subtitle] has both a serious religious resonance, where it’s like I’m confessing my deepest experiences and beliefs here, and this salacious quality, too, where I’m going to let it all out. That’s associated with trashy pulp magazines and women writing on the Internet. All of those different resonances of the word confessions came into play. I wanted to write a book about my deepest beliefs and spiritual experiences and also one where I shared shameful stuff.

Rumpus: As far as that religious angle, besides being an academic, you went to divinity school. How does that play into how you think about confession?

Hopper: I’m super-Protestant, so I don’t have a ritual relation to confession as I would if I were Catholic, but there is the idea that through speaking your experiences and actions to someone else there’s a possibility for you to be absolved—and also to make amends. That in the speaking of these things to another person there’s a possibility for a kind of resolution and change. That’s appealing. I also feel like writing at its best can have that power to actually change a situation just through the telling of it. My essay about my brother and my essay about the close friend I lived with when I was in divinity school—the hoarding essay—those are essays where I involved the person I was writing about in the process by sending them drafts and talking about it with them. In each case I think it was ultimately good for the relationship in ways that I didn’t expect. Through writing and being able to share that writing with the person, it allowed us to move past certain kinds of resentments that had seemed intractable.

Rumpus: The central theme of the book is about relationships outside of marriage. Or maybe you don’t think about it like that. Is that a fair way to describe the book?

Hopper: That works. For me it’s about paying attention to forms of love that often get sidelined when all of the focus is on romantic love—but that overlaps a lot with what you just said.

Rumpus: The book is about what is it that binds us together. You call it leaning.

Hopper: The first essay in the book, “Lean On,” which is up on Longreads now, is really me trying to write a manifesto for dependence. It’s an anti-independence, anti-self-reliance manifesto. I think it’s pretty countercultural, so it had to work pretty hard to make that case. A big theme of the book is that I’ve come to understand that my dependence on relationships is not a lack in me, but just the way I was designed to be. That rather than try to grow out of it I should work with it and enjoy it as much as possible. That was an important transition I made in my twenties.

Rumpus: You have this line in “Lean On,” which a lot of people have been quoting, and I think it hit me just as it hit so many people—“sometimes it seems like there are two American creeds, self-reliance and marriage, and neither of them is mine.”

Hopper: I felt the pressure of the marriage creed partly from my specific traditional evangelical upbringing where women were supposed to pair off and that was their life, but also in secular culture where there is this idea that finding a romantic partner is the most urgent task there is. Both of those things together. Some of my resistance to it is just moving out of youth and into midlife and realizing that your relationship status is obviously important, but these questions about how to love and what love looks like and how complicated and hard it is and how wonderful it is—these questions are universal. I’m not a marriage abolitionist, although I think there are a lot of legal rights—like health care or parenting—bound up in marriage that should not be limited to married people. I’m not against marriage; I’m against the idea that, as SCOTUS said in their gay marriage decision, if you aren’t allowed to get married, you’re doomed to loneliness. [Laughs] I don’t think I’m doomed to loneliness, and I’m not interested in trying to be more independent and individualistic. Self-reliance seems impractical and isolating to me. Instead I want to figure out how to stay loving and connected.

Rumpus: You managed to articulate this need for community throughout the book, and your essay “Coasting” is where I think you best expressed how a found family forms and functions and struggles and what that can mean.

Hopper: That’s about the care team that formed around my friend Ash when she got diagnosed with cancer. I write about four of us who were part of that care team and none of us had been close friends [with each other] before that happened. There’s a way that it was beautiful to see how Ash’s network of friends could become a really strong safety net when she needed it that could be as strong as any other relationship. In some ways more, just because there’s a kind of flexibility to the form. There’s a way that the needs could be distributed. Obviously it was a really awful scary time—even for those of us who weren’t dealing with being ill. It is very easy as a single person to give lip service to the idea of Oh, I have a great squad. [Laughs] To feel like friendship is something that’s just for fun. But actually, no, this is in sickness and in health. This is as real and as strong as love gets. This is not some kind of lesser love. This is the real total love. I got to witness it and so I believe it. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

Rumpus: Another theme of the book is about objects—lobby cards or baked goods or books—and how we infuse things with meaning and joy. Which is not the current pop culture moment, but I don’t think that’s completely unrelated to loving people.

Hopper: We’re in a Marie Kondo moment. I’m kind of a hoarder, I have a lot of stuff—and I like it that way. I’m sitting in my apartment right now and looking around at the double stacked bookshelves and I want them double stacked. [Laughs] I don’t want them single stacked. That’s fine. But I don’t believe anyone’s trying to take away my books. One thing I appreciate about Marie Kondo is that she is operating in this realm of magic and relationships. She is talking about joy and thinking about objects in a way that is extremely relational. As someone who has that kind of relationship to objects—even though I am likelier to keep them than give them away—I appreciate the way that she’s so unapologetic about bringing back that kind of relational and enchanted quality to our relationships with the objects around us. I think that’s really helpful. It’s something that resonates with me a lot and even though I am not her intended audience, I really appreciate what she does.

Rumpus: Related to that, I kept thinking about the way you write about baking. You quote a friend of yours, “My aim in life is never to do anything so bad that it can’t be fixed with baked goods.” Which I love, though I would need to improve as a baker before that can happen. [Laughs]

Hopper: [Laughs] We talked about the essays and confessions part of the title but we didn’t talk as much about the “hard to love” part of the title. Part of why I like that title is that it’s about being a hard to love person, but also about love being a hard thing to do. One of the reasons why I bake is that it is a very straightforward way of connecting with people. You could be having all sorts of problems in your friendship, but you can still make and share baked goods, and you can still express and receive love in that way.

I write in “Lean On” about Gwendolyn Brooks and her novel Maud Martha, which I love. There’s a chapter where she talks about what she calls “the marriage shell,” but it doesn’t have to be about marriage. The shell is about shared daily life. It’s a set of domestic rituals that provide form and meaning, and protect connection. Emotions come and go, and life goes through all of these unanticipated changes, but she talks about how nevertheless biscuits keep rising in the oven, and she’s using baking, among other things, to say that there are things you can do to maintain a structure for intimacy and connection even when love is hard. That’s been very meaningful to me and that’s been a big part of baking for me. When I was at Yale I was teaching during the student protests and I felt often overwhelmed as someone who didn’t have a lot of power within the institution. I was just a writing instructor without any institutional power and I also respected students’ leadership and had no desire to insert myself into their business. I thought, What am I able to do in this moment? I can bake for the students. I wanted them to know that they were appreciated and I wanted them to be fed. That is in my wheelhouse. I think baking is a good go-to if you need some mode of communication that’s not words, and I think it’s been that for me in a lot of different contexts.

Rumpus: This likely says more about me, but I didn’t think of the title in terms of being a person who’s hard to love. I’m not one of those love actually, love is all around people. It’s hard to find, it’s hard to do.

Hopper: For me I feel like it’s both. [Laughs] I chose two epigraphs for the book. One of which is from interview. “The times I didn’t write, maybe I was in love. Or beloved. Somebody was making me the object of love. It’s not bad. It’s short, but not bad.” I love that she’s so dismissive of love and being the object of love. “Eh. It’s not bad.” [Laughs] I just love that quote so much and I paired it with the total-opposite quote: “Overbrim and overflow, / If your own heart you would know; / For the spirit born to bless / Lives but in its own excess.” That is much more of a love is all around type of vibe. Love is overflowing, affectionate and abundant. I think that there’s something about those two things—that love is hard to find and hard to maintain, but also that it’s overflowing and everywhere. Both of those things are true to my experience. Sometimes at the same time. Or even in the same relationship.

Rumpus: I did love the Toni Morrison quotation. And in the interest of full disclosure, I’m sure that others would say I’m hard to love. [Laughs]

Hopper: [Laughs] Right. This is also very contextual. Some people find me impossible to love and some people find me impossible not to love. And a lot of people are in the middle.

Rumpus: You ask the question, “What if locating yourself by yourself is like trying to use a compass without the North Pole and what if the expectations of others are constellations to navigate by?,” and I keep coming back to that question because I similarly don’t think that I am my truest self when I’m alone. And I think that’s true for most people.

Hopper: If you’re thinking about your social world as constellations it’s important that you’re navigating by the right stars. It’s not just any expectations, but knowing the right ones to navigate by. As I write in “Lean On,” I feel like my sense of what’s important and what’s true and what’s meaningful and what’s purposeful comes through other people. Especially in this crazy time of Trump and global warming, I feel like it’s important to be able to have other people that you trust to supply these senses of meaning and purpose. I rely on it every day. If I were trying to be my own North Star, I would just be endlessly lost.

Rumpus: It was announced in January that you’re the new co-Editor-in-Chief of Killing the Buddha, and you’ve written for them over the years, but what is the magazine, for people who don’t know, and what are you hoping to do there?

Hopper: My co-editor Emily Ruth Mace and I are taking over from Brook Wilensky-Lanford, who is a wonderful, wonderful editor and writer. The site is almost twenty years old, which is about as old as things on the Internet get. [Laughs] It was founded by writers, many of them from interfaith families or backgrounds, who felt this profound connection to and curiosity about religion and spirituality, but also felt like they didn’t have an easy or simple or obvious relationship to it. People who felt like outsiders, or people who felt religion or spirituality would always be a question that they kept coming back to, but not something that they would ever satisfyingly solve. Within that general framing, the magazine has published all sorts of different genres—personal essays, reported pieces, criticism, poetry, interviews, reviews. It’s incredibly capacious. Basically the common thread is some kind of connection to religion and spirituality—and good writing. If you are too peaceful, happy, gung-ho, and orthodox about your beliefs, you should probably find another venue. [Laughs] It really is a place for people who are made anxious by religion or who write about it in their more agnostic moments. I’m really really excited about it. I just edited my first piece for the site as an editor by my colleague Scott Cheshire about leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s very powerful piece. I’m excited to keep KtB going in this next era of its life.

Rumpus: Your book doesn’t end with a marriage or a relationship, but it does end with you moving to New York and getting a tenure-track position.

Hopper: When I got my book contract I didn’t really know there would be some kind of narrative arc to it. I thought it would be this plotless thing where I’d be grading thirty papers a week forever. [Laughs] But as it happens, around the time that I was finishing the book I got a great job in New York City and moved to New York. I feel unbelievably lucky. I’m really enjoying getting to know my students at Queens College. It’s been really meaningful during this era in American history to teach at a school where most of the students are immigrants or children of immigrants. These are the people that this institution was designed for. It’s a real privilege to be able to be in that environment. The MFA program at Queens College, which has been around for about ten years, is starting a new creative nonfiction track, so I’m involved with that, which is really exciting. There’s a lot of professional adventure happening right now and I feel really grateful. I love my Yale students and colleagues and I am happy to be able to stay in touch with students and colleagues from my past life, but it’s fun to get to start to a new chapter.

Rumpus: There’s not a narrative arc to the book, though it does have an ending.

Hopper: A surprise ending. Spoiler alert!


Photograph of Briallen Hopper © Johanna Hopper.

Alex Dueben's work has appeared in The Paris Review, The Believer, The Poetry Foundation, The Comics Journal and many other publications. He is working on his first novel. More from this author →