Heather Havrilesky on ‘Disaster Preparedness’


At Work

Photograph by Whitney Pastorek.

Heather Havrilesky’s uniquely endearing voice—always witty, often self-deprecating—has been delighting and enlightening online readers since 1995, when she cocreated the weekly Filler column for At Salon, where she was a television critic for seven years before recently making the jump to new iPad newspaper The Daily, her incisive columns reflected on the ways in which television mirrors its audience—and she managed to be funny. In the recently published essay collection, Disaster Preparedness, Havrilesky takes her own life as the subject, examining scenes of trauma—losing her virginity, her parents’ divorce, her father’s death—with brutal honesty, a sense of humor, and a willingness to forgive. She spoke to me recently from her home in Los Angeles.

The book is called Disaster Preparedness, and each of the chapters deals with some kind of problem or disaster. How did you decide to organize the book around this particular theme?

I had written an essay for All Things Considered about planning with my sister some way of dealing with catastrophes, probably as a result of seeing too many disaster movies. And I started looking at that essay (which is now my introduction) and saying, What does it mean that we had all this preemptive defensive stance toward the unknown?

I also have an appetite for the most humiliating, sad—to some people depressing—dark stories from my own childhood. Maybe it’s because I’m screwed up, but those are the stories that I love the most, that I think are the most sort of delightful to read in anyone else’s memoir or book of essays. Those were the stories I remembered the best, too. And I had a lot of fun with that kind of dark stuff. Certainly there were times when I leaned into the emotional core of it. I mean, I didn’t want it to be a cavalier take on the past. I really wanted it to be an honest attempt to look at the things that happened to me and how they affected me and how my perspective now is different from what it was when these things happened. I learned a lot through that process.

In the book certainly, but also in your TV columns for Salon, you present yourself as something of a cynical, unwashed mess. What’s the origin of this self-hating persona?

I think of myself as being kind of a wreck no matter what I’m doing. If I didn’t acknowledge how clueless or lost or unstylish and unsophisticated I was straight off the bat, I always felt like I was not being completely honest and clear with the reader. When I meet someone, especially if I’m showered and wearing something decent, I want to say, Don’t get the impression that I know what I’m doing here because I don’t know what the fuck is going on. That’s the first thing I want anyone to understand.

We’re all taught to be incredibly self-protective and incredibly defensive and incredibly sophisticated. I’m constantly angered by that. For me, there’s no way of life where I’m not completely showing my ass. The artifice of everyone walking around pretending like we know exactly what is going on—there are times when I just can’t take it. I just want the world to be softer and more vulnerable.

You talk about the importance of female friendships in the book, which I found very refreshing.

I was terrible at maintaining good friendships with women for years. About halfway through high school I decided that it was too risky to be friends with women. We’re all competing for the same limited resources. And that really messed up my view of myself. If you spend all your time with men in your formative years, you start to think that the ways that you’re different from them are liabilities; you think that everything about yourself that is female is unacceptable, including your emotions.

But at some point in my life—probably age thirty-two—men stopped interesting me. I was dating men, but I just started really putting a lot of energy into my female friendships and since then, God, I’ve been a hell of a lot happier. I’ve done most of my growing as a person through my friendships with women. Female friendships are at the center of my life now.

You also write really affectingly about the lure of heartbreak. At what point do we grow out of that impulse to be with the person who doesn’t want to be with us?

Well, I think that it gets more and more painful, because it gets repeated. You go through the experience of being rejected and instead of asking yourself why you would choose someone that actively rejects you, you ask yourself, What is it about me that makes me rejectable? I think that it comes from having a particular family dynamic; we didn’t have an open, honest dialogue with each other. That was seen as silly or too earnest. So I would encounter really healthy, honest, happy men as somehow emasculated. Obviously, that’s messed up, but that’s the way they seemed to me because I wasn’t used to that kind of person.

The other side of it is that you don’t want to be seen, you want to stay hidden. You want to sell someone on how cool you are, instead of finding someone who can appreciate what a mess you are. You’re marketing yourself and you’re saying, I’m on top on the world and I’m sexy and special and I know exactly what I’m doing all the time. And then something bad happens—you cry, you’re a human being—and the person rejects you because you sold them a bill of goods that you couldn’t live up to. And the dysfunctional person at that point says to herself, I suck because I cried. I’m a needy, pathetic, psycho, crying, sniveling, vulnerable woman. No one will ever love me, because I’m a human. I think men would simplify it as “women who like assholes.” But I don’t think it’s that simple. I didn’t go out with assholes. I went out with great guys. They just weren’t totally sold on me, and that’s part of what I liked about them.

It seems you grew out of that: You found a wonderful husband, and you have two children. How do you manage to balance work and family life?

I think full-time day care is a great thing, though it definitely feels crazy. I used to drop Claire off at day care when she was one year old, and I would drive home and I would watch five hours of Big Brother [as part of her job as a TV reviewer at Salon]. I felt like, What kind of crazy, messed-up life am I living? My job was inherently trivial and my kids were the most important thing in the world, yet I was dropping them off and going and doing this crazy, trivial job. But in order for me to write the amount that makes me feel like a writer, my kids need to be in daycare full time. I am a much, much more available, friendly, sweet, talkative, energetic mother when my kids spend a lot of time with other kids and great teachers instead of spending all their time with me.

You worked at—one of the first Web sites that was ad-supported and frequently updated—and now you’re moving over to The Daily, which is a newspaper created exclusively for the iPad.

When I came across Suck in ’95, I immediately recognized that they were doing something that was right for the Internet. A lot of sites had all these tiny words and competing graphics and nightmarish design. Suck was just a column of words that scrolled down the page, and every day all you had to read was one thing. That’s also what I like about The Daily; each day you get another issue, and when you’re done reading the issue, you’re done. It’s not just an endless black hole of possibility, which I think is a difficult thing about Internet content. I want something that’s beautiful and relaxing to navigate. And hopefully that’s what this publication will be.

You maintain a Web site called the Rabbit Blog, where you write about your own life and also dispense advice. How did that get started?

In the very beginning I wrote a few fake advice letters to get the ball rolling. But then almost immediately people started to send me letters, and they were great—really smart and strange—and I couldn’t resist throwing myself into coming up with the best solution for each person. Eventually, I became the person you write to if you’re thinking about breaking up with a guy who’s not paying enough attention to you. And it slowly evolved into this thing where I got very personal. I’ve been doing this blog for nine years, and those were pretty crucial nine years—from thirty-one to forty—and as I’ve gotten older and happier and more secure it’s become possible to be more honest.

I think that if you’re still looking for your soul mate, it’s really difficult to write completely honestly; it feels risky. And I’d say I started to take that risk, and then things went well for me. And if you’re not risking enough, you’re just being self-protective. That’s definitely the overarching theme of the book. It’s too bad that it all boils down to something so simple.

How do you see yourself as a writer? Are you a humorist, a critic, a personal essayist?

I think the thing that I find the most full of possibility has been throwing a lot of different elements into whatever I do. Ultimately, you just hope that you can keep writing. I think that if you’re really brutally honest about what’s going on within you, that’s inherently unique because everybody is so different. If you’re trying to hit some mark, trying to make it like something heavy and good and literary—that fails a lot. So having really fluid boundaries in terms of genre has helped my writing a huge amount. I just started writing a novel about three months ago, and it’s been fantastic because I’m writing what I’m writing. I’m not trying to write the world’s greatest novel, and I’m not trying to write a best seller, I’m just writing what comes out.