Reading and writing

Heather Haverlisky’s ‘Foreverland’ is an honest and hilarious take on marital bliss

Heather Havrilesky reading | Endleaf Books, Chapel Hill | Thursday February 17 | Signing begins at 5:30 p.m.; limited seating

eternal country | Eco; Tuesday February 8

“Can I make myself smaller?” Heather Havrilesky asks, squinting and playing with her zoom settings. This may be the only time you will hear him make a request like this.

Havrilesky is the author of popular advice column “Ask Polly”, which, since she began writing it in 2012, has taken the genre to new heights with sprawling existential answers that are, in turn, nurturing, tender, brutally honest and laced with profanity. As Polly, Havrilesky encourages readers to embrace life’s mess and be honest about the limits of perfectionism. However, she never asks them to take up less space.

Amid the pandemic, Havrilesky, long based in Los Angeles, moved to Bull City, where she grew up. This is where she zooms in with me now, having adjusted her camera settings to her satisfaction and has just started interviews for her new book Foreverland: On the Divine Boredom of Marriage. The book, a reflection on her marriage, was released this week.

“Even though I visited a lot, I forgot about the insects,” Havrilesky says with a laugh about his return to the South. “I forgot the weeds. But I knew I’d like to be surrounded by smart, interesting people in a place that’s hugely community-based and creative.

Havrilesky grew up in Durham in the 1970s and 80s, her father an economics professor 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, long as a TV reviewer for Salon .com, birth of “Ask Polly” at The puncha move to New York magazine, and now, a new era at Substack. Also on the way: Marriage to Bill, to whom you’ll end up feeling quite close, in eternal country-and the children. Last year the family moved to Durham.

“I was surprised at how un-haunted I felt growing up here,” says Havrilesky. “All the things that I feared would be difficult about this move turned out to be easy. Being with my family is amazing – there’s something about being in the same city with your family where you are. understand better.

eternal country Part of it is about family and mutual understanding, but it’s also very much about marriage flaws and warts. This is the “divine boredom” part: the phlegmatic partner and the suburban team at Little League games, the marital doubt and the self-doubt.

“I knew I wanted to talk about the kind of delights and perils of commitment, boredom and repetitiveness, but also the inherent gifts of companionship,” says Havrilesky, married for 15 years. “As I delved deeper into the book, I was increasingly confronted with the arbitrary, strange, and moralistic aspects of attaching oneself to someone for the rest of their life.”

I came to eternal country as a long-time reader of Havrilesky’s work. In my early twenties and swimming in confusing feelings, I used to trade his columns on Gchat with my friend Molly like baseball cards. Polly’s emotional swagger was ambitious, and regardless of the question posed, her answers landed in a pleasantly disruptive way. (“YOU ARE PRAYING ON THE ALTAR OF THE MOST BORING RELIGION IN THE UNIVERSE RIGHT NOW,” she wrote in a column to a woman embittered by rejection from men.)

As my twenties fell behind, I continued to read his writings, realizing that Havrilesky’s advice would continue to resonate because life, ultimately, continued to have its own complications. This is one of the fundamental aspects of “Ask Polly”: a recognition that life is a bit of an open wound and that the trick is to try to get through it with love and vulnerability, anyway, to try to to be kind to yourself and other people. Also: an acknowledgment that there really is no trick.

Early January, The New York Times published an excerpt from eternal country. The title of the play was tongue-in-cheek – “Marriage Requires Amnesia” – with a catchy subtitle: “Do I Hate My Husband? Oh sure, yes, definitely.

Maybe the essay landed on a slow internet day, or maybe just at the perfect point of Omicron’s fatigue, but it sparked a day of outrage online, even leading 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 Time chose this chapter,” says Havrilesky. “I was surprised they chose it, but also kind of open to it – it comes two-thirds through the book.”

Thanks to Time piece, however, opinions on the book rolled around a few weeks before its release: Marriage should be sacred, private. If you don’t like your partner, leave them. One person, says Havrilesky, said the book failed to ‘read the room’: that is, during a pandemic, people don’t want to think about the dark, dusty corners of a relationship. . Havrilesky does not buy this idea.

“It’s not my job as a writer to read the play,” says Havrilesky. “I understand there’s a culture of influencers and that kind of stuff where you’re 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 it, I feel like it’s a matter of human connection But when you create an artifact that you want to sing about that feels alive, you can’t argue whether or not it puts readers comfortable and safe. The point of art isn’t to make you feel comfortable in whatever you already feel. That’s a politician’s job.

Nevertheless, readers of eternal country will find themselves loved by Bill, who comes across as smart, good-natured, and caring. The book begins with the story of how they met – Bill, a college professor and fan of her writings, sent her a cold email when he found out she was single – and fell in love, before traversing a tundra of pregnancy, suburbia, aging, extramarital crushes, haywire vacations and health issues.

It’s an engaging, self-effacing read that, despite all the rhetoric surrounding it – a recent dismissive New York Times the book review was titled “Heather Havrilesky compares her husband to a pile of laundry” stimulating a slew of angry male commentators – it’s really not even that dark. (Who isn’t a pile of laundry sometimes?) Craving marital obscurity? Try Norman Mailer.

Although Havrilesky is perhaps more honest than most about how annoying she sometimes finds her partner, the book shines with affection and it’s clear she doesn’t hate him. Exaggeration is part of his coping toolkit; some readers will appreciate it. Others don’t.

As we chat, Bill enters the frame, back from a walk with the dog, who is vigorously shaking off the rain. Hearing an interview unfold, Bill affably ducks out the door. “Hi, baby,” Havrilesky calls, before turning back to the camera.

“I decided to write this book, partly because I didn’t like any of the marriage books,” she says. “I just hated the way people wrote about their marriage. I felt like it was always a bit of a jerk or sugar coated or just miserably negative because they had already divorced. I didn’t want to write, like, a tragedy or a light, heartwarming comedy. I wanted to write something that had elements of both because that’s how life feels.

We are sold so many ideas about sex, love and marriage. Writing, here, from the perspective of a single Southerner, the selling of surround sound seems to be that marriage is the ultimate act of self-realization, that it will complete you and work out all the loose ends; that your parents and your tax accountants will finally accept you. I mention this to say that I was wondering how I would feel reading eternal country: What version of marriage was he going to try to sell?

Thankfully, I found the book to be much more nuanced than a sales pitch and a refreshing counterpoint to the pervasive idea that marriage is a secret institution that you have no right to complicate your life about. This is the thing that Havrilesky often comes back to, in his writings: the idea that we should make room for our feelings, no matter how tender or ugly, because that’s the only way to get through them. – and perhaps the only way to be truly 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 honest and real with another person, there will be times when it’s not going to be easy because you’re not mirroring each other.”

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Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson