There’s a good chance you know Lauren Hough as your favorite rapscallion on Twitter. Or, from that viral essay on her decade working as a “cable guy” around DC. Or, from her TEDx talk on code switching as a butch lesbian. Or from her revealing essays in places like Gay Mag, Granta, and The Guardian, where she’s written about growing up in the cult formerly known as the “Children of God” (and which goes by just “The Family” these days).
You might know her from any of these places, but you’re going to know her a lot better from her outstanding essay collection, Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing, published yesterday from Vintage. Whether she’s describing her explosive, heartbreaking exit from the Air Force in the days of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell or her time spent in a jail cell, memories from her time with the Children of God weave insidious threads through her work, and her readers will understand just how difficult it is to break free.
Although she calls Texas home, Hough has moved up to Massachusetts for a stint, and we were able to meet up recently on the beach for a proper (socially distanced, masked-up) sit-down. We talked about writing about shitty jobs, the importance of country singers for essayists, and what website Hough believes is profoundly toxic.
The Rumpus: I’m always curious about the specific ordering of collections. I know that “Solitaire” was one of your first essays published, as a two-parter at The Wrath-Bearing Tree. What was the importance of having “Solitaire” open up the collection?
Lauren Hough: It seemed like a pretty easy place to open with all the material. If we started with “Solitaire,” part of it went chronologically, so we could just dip back and forth into that timeline. Or, maybe I’m lazy and thought that it would have been easier to turn in, that it wouldn’t have to be rewritten too much. Turns out it was not easier, though.
Rumpus: Between the earlier version that appeared in The Wrath-Bearing Tree and the later version that appears in the collection, what were the major revisions?
Hough: I had to leave out basically my entire past for the version that appeared in The Wrath-Bearing Tree. So, I had to splice in those details later and let the reader stumble into those parts so they’d understand the rest of the book. But having to fit those details in so that it didn’t feel like a rambling Ayn Rand speech right at the beginning of the book? It took some work. Just figuring out how to introduce everything was a bit of a challenge.
Rumpus: In the title essay, you mention reading Taylor Stevens’s first thriller and how you were weirded out by how she mentioned in her author biography that she was “raised in the Children of God.” You’ve also mentioned how you’re still in contact with some of the other kids who grew up in what’s now known as The Family. What have the conversations with them been like about the release of your book?
Hough: There haven’t been many, but they’re pretty excited about it. I had a really hard time getting placed into some kind of spokesperson category for all this because my experience with it isn’t theirs, and their experience with it isn’t mine. I think there’s a lot of pressure on any of us who publish to be the voice for everyone, and no one of us is ever going to be able to do that. I feel the weight of that, but mostly everyone is just excited about it.
Rumpus: Have you had any conversations with them where people have said, “Don’t do this”?
Hough: I mean, we all tell each other, “Don’t do it.” Anyone who’s ever come out of the closet about it warns everyone else not to ever do it. People are going to ask you the weirdest questions if you do. But overall, no one’s told me not to. My family has been surprisingly supportive about it, though.
Rumpus: What were some events in the essays for which you were particularly concerned with getting the details right?
Hough: Getting the historical details about The Family was important. I think very few kids know what year something happened in specifically, but I was working off of questions like: When were the Winter Olympics in South Korea? And: When exactly did the Berlin Wall come down? I was working off of just very random timelines of events, so I had to go and look those details up and check with people just about how The Family actually started. Also, the only history of The Family that I had ever been given was the cult’s own version of history, which doesn’t really match the facts altogether. They don’t want to remind you, for example, that they packed up and left because the Comet Kohoutek signaled the beginning of Armageddon. Nobody wants to go back and rehash just how wrong they were about different prophecies. Going into that, I was really worried about getting all of that right.
But getting the details in something like “Solitaire” was easy because I had all the court documents and all the dates. I had to get it right, but that one was easy to get right. It doesn’t really matter if the hit movie at the time wasn’t what I remember it was so long as I got the timeline right.
Rumpus: Did you have an assigned fact-checker with your publisher?
Hough: No. I mean, the copy editor went through and couldn’t find the history of the Amarillo Christian School, but there were only twenty of us there. They didn’t have a website in ‘97, you know? I do have my shitty basketball picture from there, though. Memoir is weird. You’re working from memories of memories.
Rumpus: Before you published them as a full essay online, the episodes from “Cable Guy” popped up as a series of viral tweets back in 2018. Why do you think people responded so energetically to those dispatches from your stint working as a cable technician?
Hough: If you could tell me, I would love to know. I have no idea; I guess it was a timing thing. Maybe nothing was going on in the news. I don’t know why that essay got so big, either. I’m glad it did, but I have no idea why.
Rumpus: One of the reasons it stood out to me was because, having worked lots of shitty jobs before, I love reading about others’ shitty jobs. In fiction, in essays. I don’t know what this says about me, but maybe I enjoy the voyeurism aspect of it?
Hough: Maybe it is! Maybe we have some sort of voyeuristic relationship to write these types of essays; I think we do. That would explain it. If you look back at Anthony Bourdain’s essay for the New Yorker, that blew him up. We hate having shitty jobs, but we love reading about them.
Rumpus: Speaking of those viral tweets, as of this morning, it looks like you’re clocking in over 62,000 followers on Twitter. What would you say your relationship is with that website these days?
Hough: In a word? Toxic. Profoundly toxic. My nephews and nieces think it’s great, though, since I can sell those Girl Scout cookies. My brother thinks it’s great because he can complain about bedbugs at a hotel and someone will actually pay attention. But I’m trying to pull back from it a bit. I’ve developed a deep understanding of the parasocial relationship from it. It gets really intrusive and, really, it just wastes a lot of time.
Rumpus: I don’t know how you keep up with the constant invasion.
Hough: One thing that helps is that I don’t really look at replies much. The one fun thing about blowing up is that it completely destroys that dopamine hit you’d get from social media notifications. I have none. What’s the opposite of a dopamine hit? Because that’s what I get from the experience. So, I have all of that shut off, which means I actually have to do the work if I want to and go in and search the replies. I’m still learning how to navigate this. It’s a lot of effort that I’m not paid for, and I’m trying to pull back.
Hough: Yeah! And it’s been great for me. This is the argument my addiction to the site gives me, too. Any addiction has its upside. Smoking cigarettes is a great way to meet people, and so is Twitter. Yeah, I met McCracken off there, and Roxane Gay, and Sandy Newman. I had the wrong agent when I met McCracken, I was writing the wrong book, I was miserable, and she took me out for drinks in Austin and told me to get a new agent and start writing a different book, and that was that. But yeah, the opportunities on Twitter have been great. The “Cable Guy” essay blew up because of it, but there’s also the downside, you know, where my dog is dying and dozens of people are telling me he’ll get better if I just feed him pumpkin. It’s not always the healthiest place for me to be.
Rumpus: I’m so sorry about Teddy, by the way. He was a beautiful boy. I’m glad he was able to come up and visit the beach.
Hough: Yup, he was a cool dude. The beach was great for him. There are no steps, no people. He could just walk around, pee on things, sniff things. It was the perfect place for him to come at the end. Plus, it was cold.
Rumpus: Have you been able to read books this horrible year? Like, at all? And if so, how are you doing it?
Hough: Weirdly, these past few weeks, I’ve been reading lots of Lydia Davis. It might be because I have absolutely no attention span. You know, I tried thrillers for a while. Went back through my Agatha Christies. They’re great. But I have no attention span whatsoever. It’s terrible.
Rumpus: One of the main reasons I love Agatha Christie is because you can sit down to read one of her novels and finish it before you have to get up to pee.
Hough: They’re so great. Do audiobooks count?
Rumpus: Hell, yes, they do!
Hough: Because if you ever have to drive to Texas in thirty hours—
Rumpus: They will save your ass.
Hough: Lara Prescott’s The Secrets We Kept is a really, really good audiobook. I mean, I’m certain it’s a good book to read, too, but it’s a really good audiobook. Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk, too. She put out a book of essays recently, Vesper Flights, that’s been really useful. Apparently, or at least on drives down to Austin, I only have the attention span for really short things. I tried to do podcasts on the way down, but they just weren’t working at all for me.
Audiobooks are where it’s at, and god bless the Austin public library for loaning them out to me. I’m a huge fan of public libraries. They’re basically where I got my education. I always get happy when the librarian starts to recognize me. I think, I’m in! I’m cool now!
Rumpus: You’ve mentioned that you wrote most of “Cable Guy” on breaks while working at a club. What was your writing process and station like back in Austin? Does it look much different now that you’re up here in Massachusetts?
Hough: I wish I had a writing process right now, actually. When I do write, I normally write in the kitchen. I’d set up an office originally, but Teddy claimed it. Writing in the kitchen usually works for me, but it hasn’t as of late. At all. You know this, too: we feel better when we’re writing, and I hate that our brains won’t let us write during this. I’m jealous of anyone who can write right now.
Rumpus: There are so many great themes of traveling in the collection, and of being a visitor. How’s your wanderlust these days?
Hough: It’s a problem. I want to buy a farm and live and work on a farm, with another person, and I want to have goats, and I want that to be mine. And then the second I have it, I’ll want to go to Berlin. I don’t know how that’s ever going to work out for me. While I want to keep moving, though, I definitely think Austin is home.
I like it there. I fit in there, and I’m going to go back. I make friends there really easily. I mean, Austin is a weird place, and it’s kind of like Berlin in that sense. It’s the spot where nobody else in Texas would fit in. So, the kid who doesn’t fit into any particular town in Texas winds up going to Austin, and that’s how you wind up with that blend of people living right alongside the tech douchebags. They’re invading. But I do like it there, and I want to get one more year out of it before it gets too hot.
I like moving. I hate the process of moving, but I actually like the act of moving. I wish I could go back to the years of living out of one suitcase, to living like a complete nomad. And I’ve got to say: I think a lot of novels have lied to us about how many rich friends we’d have who would loan out use of their houses. I truly did believe that was a thing. That I’d be a writer and I would have rich friends, and they’d want me to use their summer houses while they were away. I swear, those Lost Generation dudes had it made.
Rumpus: In terms of how to write these essays and short memoir pieces, which authors have been most influential on you? I know you’ve mentioned Mary Karr and Jeanette Walls before.
Hough: Honestly, I may have learned more from listening to Jason Isbell or Townes Van Zandt than I have from reading. I listened to a lot more music than I read while writing the essays. I think that someone will need to remind me every so often how to write, or I’ll just have to drive down to Texas every so often so I’ll have that quiet time to remember how to do it. If you drive long enough and listen to enough music, sometimes a Patty Griffin song will hit just right, or sometimes a Gillian Welch song will come on and you’ll think, Damn, that’s what I need to do!
I think some songs just grab me at the sentence level. Look at Emmylou Harris’s “Red Dirt Girl.” If you listen to it, what she says in each line and what she leaves out is so important. What she can say in three words requires a page from the rest of us. “He was fixing up a ‘49 Indian.” Right there, you have that kid’s entire character. You know that guy intimately.
Rumpus: You might not have grown up with him, but you know what he’s like.
Hough: Right. Every part of that. “She was only twenty-seven and she had five kids”? You knew that girl, too. That use of the exact word or the exact phrase is so helpful, especially in character building. Or Van Zandt’s “Tecumseh Valley.” They’re all such perfect, sad songs. They’re so good, though. I think I wanted to grow up and become a country singer, but I was never good at the guitar playing. (Or the singing, or the songwriting.)
I got some of this from my parents. My mom was always singing Willie or Jim Croce or Emmylou. And then my dad was really into soul and R&B. I have very few memories of him from when I was a little kid, but I can always remember who was driving at the time from what was playing.
But I did read so, so much prior to writing the essays. It sounds goofy since we’re all naming the same three people, but it’s true. Reading Roxane Gay or Elizabeth McCracken or Sandra Newman has been huge. I think I had to get my copy off of eBay, but Sandy wrote a memoir called Changeling, and it’s perfect. She is on a plane above us all, and the rest of us have no idea what we’re doing. She sent me a novel recently, and I swear to you that I lost hair while reading it. That’s how good it is, and I have no idea how she does it.
Rumpus: But you’re doing it, too. You have done it. Your book is excellent.
Hough: I know. It’s kind of wild. I still feel like I’ve snuck in the back door and that someone’s going to send me off to bed at some point.
Photograph of Lauren Hough by Karl Poss IV.