Heather Havrilesky reading | Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill | Thursday, Feb. 17 | Signing begins at 5:30 p.m.; limited seating
Foreverland | Ecco; Tuesday, Feb. 8
“Can I make myself smaller?” Heather Havrilesky asks, squinting and fiddling with her Zoom settings. This might be the only time you’ll hear her make a request like this.
Havrilesky is the author of the popular advice column “Ask Polly,” which has, since she began writing it in 2012, taken the genre to new heights with sprawling existential answers that are, in turn, nourishing, tender, brutally honest, and laced with profanity. As Polly, Havrilesky encourages readers to embrace life’s messiness and be honest about the limitations of perfectionism. She does not, however, ever ask them to take up less space.
Mid-pandemic, Havrilesky, long based in Los Angeles, moved to the Bull City, where she grew up. This is where she is Zooming with me now, having adjusted her camera settings to satisfaction and having just begun interviews for her new book Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage. The book, a reflection on her marriage, came out this week.
“Even though I visited a lot, I forgot about bugs,” Havrilesky says, laughing, of her move back to the South. “I forgot about weeds. But I knew that I would enjoy being around smart, interesting people in an extremely community-oriented, creative place.”
Havrilesky grew up in Durham in the 1970s and ’80s, her father a professor of economics at Duke University, where Havrilesky later studied. After college came the move to California and jobs that resemble the CliffsNotes version of a certain foundational era of internet writing: work at Suck.com, a long run as Salon.com’s television critic, the birth of “Ask Polly” at The Awl, a move to New York Magazine, and now, a new era at Substack. Also along the way: marriage to Bill—whom you will come to feel quite close to, in Foreverland—and children. Last year, the family moved to Durham.
“I’ve been surprised by how little I found myself haunted by having grown up here,” Havrilesky says. “All the things that I was worried would be hard about this move have turned out easy. Being around my family is amazing—there’s something about being in the same town with your family where you just understand each other better.”
Foreverland is, in part, about family and understanding each other, but it is also very much about the flaws and warts of marriage. That’s the “divine tedium” part: the phlegmy partner and suburban tag-teaming at Little League games, the marital doubt and self-doubt.
“I knew I wanted to talk about the sort of delights and perils of commitment and boredom and repetitiveness, but also the inherent gifts of companionship,” says Havrilesky, who has been married 15 years. “As I got deeper into the book, I was confronted more and more with the arbitrary, strange, moralistic aspects of tying yourself to someone for the rest of your life.”
I came to Foreverland as a longtime reader of Havrilesky’s work. In my early twenties and swimming in confusing feelings, I used to swap her columns over Gchat with my friend Molly like baseball cards. The emotional swagger of Polly felt aspirational and, no matter the question asked, her answers landed in a pleasantly disruptive way. (“YOU ARE CURRENTLY PRAYING AT THE ALTAR OF THE MOST TEDIOUS RELIGION IN THE UNIVERSE” she write-shouts in one column to a woman made bitter by the rejections of men.)
As my twenties fell behind, I kept reading her writing, realizing that Havrilesky’s advice would continue to resonate because life, as it turned out, continued to have its own complications. This is one of the foundational aspects of “Ask Polly”: an acknowledgment that life is a bit of an open wound and that the trick is to try and move through it with love and vulnerability, anyways, to try and be good to yourself and other people. Also: an acknowledgment that there really is no one trick.
In early January, The New York Times published an excerpt from Foreverland. The title of the piece was tongue-in-cheek—“Marriage Requires Amnesia”—with a grabby subhead: “Do I hate my husband? Oh for sure, yes, definitely.”
Maybe the essay landed on a slow day on the internet, or maybe just at the perfect point of Omicron fatigue, but it sparked a day of online outrage, leading even Mindy Kaling to weigh in: “Wait this is crazy,” Kaling tweeted. “Does her husband not care that she says she hates him in the New York Times?”
“The Times chose that chapter,” Havrilesky says. “I was surprised that they chose it, but also sort of open to it—it comes two-thirds of the way through the book.”
Thanks to the Times piece, though, opinions on the book rolled in weeks ahead of publication: Marriage should be sacred, private. If you don’t like your partner, leave them. One person, Havrilesky says, commented that the book failed to “read the room”: i.e., during a pandemic, people don’t want to think about the dark, dusty corners of a relationship. Havrilesky doesn’t buy this idea.
“It’s not my job as a writer to read the room,” Havrilesky says. “I understand there’s influencer culture and this sort of thing where you become part of the culture—like, ‘I give you things and you’re my buddy, and you can talk to me in the comments.’ I’m not against this, I feel like it’s about human connection. But when you’re creating an artifact that you want to sing and that feels alive, you can’t think about whether or not it makes readers feel comfy and safe. The goal of art is not to make you feel more comfortable in everything you already feel. That’s a politician’s job.”
Nevertheless, readers of Foreverland will find themselves endeared to Bill, who comes across as smart, good-humored, and caring. The book begins with the story of how they met—Bill, a college professor and fan of her writing, sent her a cold email when he heard she was single—and fell in love, before tromping through a tundra of pregnancy, suburbia, aging, extramarital crushes, haywire vacations, and health problems.
It’s an engaging and self-deprecating read that, despite all the discourse drummed up around it—a recent dismissive New York Times review of the book bore the headline “Heather Havrilesky Compares Her Husband to a Heap of Laundry,” spurring a slew of angry male commenters—really isn’t even all that dark. (Who isn’t a heap of laundry, sometimes?) Want marital darkness? Try Norman Mailer.
While Havrilesky might be more honest than most people about how annoying she sometimes finds her partner, the book shines with affection and it’s clear that she doesn’t hate him. Exaggeration is part of her coping toolbox; some readers will appreciate this. Others won’t.
As we chat, Bill comes into the frame, back from a walk with the dog, who vigorously shakes off rain. Hearing an interview going on, Bill affably ducks out the doorway. “Hi, babe,” Havrilesky calls after him, before turning back to the camera.
“I set out to write the book, partially because I didn’t like any of the books about marriage,” she says. “I just hated the way people wrote about their marriages. I felt like it was always a little bit bullshitty or sugarcoated or just wretchedly negative because they’d already been divorced. I didn’t want to write, like, a tragedy or a lighthearted feel-good comedy. I wanted to write something that had elements of both because that’s how life feels.”
We are sold so very many ideas about sex, love, and marriage. Writing, here, from the perspective of an unmarried person in the South, the surround-sound sell seems to be that marriage is the ultimate act of self-actualization, that it will complete you and tie up every loose end; that your parents and tax accountants will finally accept you. I mention this to say that I wondered how I would feel, reading Foreverland: What version of marriage was it going to try and sell?
Thankfully, I found the book much more nuanced than a sales pitch, and a refreshing counterpoint to the pervasive idea that marriage is a hush-hush institution you’re not allowed to feel complicated about. This is the thing Havrilesky comes back to often, in her writing: the idea that we should make space for our feelings, no matter how tender or ugly, because that’s the only way to move through them—and maybe the only way to be really known and loved.
“There’s an idea that relationships should be easy for us or they should end, and I think that’s bad for us,” she says. “If you’re really showing up and being truthful and real with another person, there are going to be times when it’s not going to be easy because you’re not mirrors of each other.”
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