Who doesn’t feel that their quirky childhood would make a great book? But actually producing such a book takes the kind of wit and talent that Durham native and Duke graduate Heather Havrilesky has manifested into a writing career.
In the introduction to her new memoir, Disaster Preparedness, Havrilesky writes: “Growing up in the ’70s, it was tough to avoid the specter of disaster. On every movie screen, airplanes plummeted to the ground, earthquakes toppled huge cities and monster sharks ripped teenagers to bloody bits. But more disturbing than the catastrophes themselves was the utter lack of foresight demonstrated by the adults in each harrowing scene. As meteors hurtled toward Earth and gigantic dinosaurs crushed cars under their feet, grown adults either ran screaming or stood in confused clusters… Why wasn’t there a plan? I always wondered.”
I cannot say if it was Havrilesky’s No. 1 plan to embark upon a journey as a writer, defending against mass-produced media meteors by hurling her own fine-tuned bits of sarcasm and “grumpy” insights into the mix, but there’s no denying she’s been successful. From her start in the mid-’90s as the co-creator of the popular weekly cartoon Filler for Suck.com to her seven years as a TV critic and essayist for Salon.com (and commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered) to recently snagging a column with Rupert Murdoch’s to-be-unveiled-Jan. 17 iPad-only newspaper, The Daily, Havrilesky has developed a reputation and a following in the always churning journalism industry.
Havrilesky is a quirky writer who’s been given what she called “an alarming amount of creative freedom” by her editors, resulting in such entertaining diversions as reviews of televised whoring sea donkeys, the creation of TV-themed puppet shows and two Deadwood-speak columns that make generous use of the word “cocksucker.”
Yet witticisms and profanity aside, Havrilesky has a singular talent that runs like an undercurrent beneath her varied assignments. Whether boiling down the essence of a complex situation to a pithy cartoon punch line or elaborating upon an idle memory from childhood for her memoir, her words have a knack for mirroring what is absurd or touching—or likely both—about the intersection between the human condition and the American lifestyle. In Disaster Preparedness, Havrilesky’s unique voice explores her own bumpy childhood for clues about what makes or breaks a family, how to survive “transformative traumas” and what lessons may be harbored therein.
On Wednesday, Jan. 5, Havrilesky will celebrate the publication of her book with a reading and reception at The Regulator Bookshop. We spoke with her recently by telephone.
Independent: In Disaster Preparedness, you write: “The real goal in life should be, first, to move out of your parents house, then, to find some very practical way to avoid real work at all costs.” If you measure yourself by your own standards, how do you think you’ve fared so far?
Heather Havrilesky: If it were my choice, I’d probably work a little bit less. Or a lot less. I have a dream of living a life of total leisure that never quite stops haunting me. Ideally, I think people should work a lot less than they do. But then, I say that, and then I go on vacation for a week and wind up chomping at the bit to go back to work.
A writer on Yahoo’s The Cutline called you a “brand-name journalist” after your seven years writing as a TV critic for Salon.com. What does that label mean to you?
Oh, nothing. I was shocked to see that—I don’t think I’ve created any kind of verifiable brand. My career’s been all over the map.
I cannot believe that I just now encountered your cartoons [for the first time], because the ones I read leading up to this interview I loved.
Yeah, that was a great job. It was a lot of fun. That was really my first real job—I was 25 when Suck hired me. It was just a huge breakthrough for me; really fun. I would love to do something like that again.
You’ve got a new job just around the corner, as a movie/ TV critic for Murdoch’s The Daily, the first newspaper produced exclusively for the iPad.
I really just have my corner of the world that I’m working on, since I’m in L.A. and everyone else is in New York. I’m just churning out my stuff the way I always have, and I’m lucky to have an editor who really likes the stuff that I write.
As an iPad app, The Daily is expected to involve plenty of video and interactive components. Do you know if or how these will be used to complement your column?
I do know that a lot of clips and trailers are going to run with my reviews. When I first heard about it, I thought, “Who cares?” because [we all have] a desktop or laptop … what’s the difference? But the application is really more beautiful [than I’d expected], much more like a magazine. It’s a kind of thing you just have to see to experience.
I’m sure iPad owners are looking forward to it.
I’m not one to tout any revolution, [but] back in ’96 when Suck was in the Hotwire offices, everyone was running around talking about “The Internet is changing everything! It’s going to be a d-revolution; a digital revolution!” I was skeptical, but all that stuff has pretty much come to pass, finally, you know? Facebook, Twitter. The way we interact with each other now is completely different than it was 15 years ago.
I hear so many people theorize that their past would make an entertaining read if only they’d sit down and write, but most never do. Was there a particular moment or realization that gave you the energy and determination to tackle a memoir?
I think it took me being settled in my life and having a lot of things working well in my life for me to have the peace of mind to write this stuff. I guess I was 38, which most would consider a little bit premature to be writing a memoir. But really the book covers my childhood and early adulthood, and not much past that.
If you had to do it all over again, which part would you rather skip over?
It was really difficult to write the last chapter, because I wanted the book to feel like some kind of a journey that leads somewhere but I took pains not to give the impression that you land somewhere fantastic and then your struggles are all behind you.
What do you hope readers will like best about it?
I don’t really hope anything. I think it’s a sort of ornery, grumpy tale in some ways. That’s my sort of thing, personally. I like stories that are about people admitting their weaknesses. So, I think that’s what I would like about it—the many admissions of failure. [laughs]