Q&A: Briallen Hopper Talks About the Many Kinds of Love, Romantic and Otherwise

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Briallen Hopper’s first book, Hard to Love (Bloomsbury), is a collection of essays exploring the many incarnations of love and the many ways that we depend on each other, especially outside of traditional romantic partnerships. The essays, ultimately a celebration of friendship and family, are funny, wry, and unflinchingly honest. Hopper is willing to lay bare her most fraught relationships, which often happen to be the most loving ones. She writes about her siblings, her friends, her exes, and even her sperm donors with a deep appreciation for what they have given her and who they have allowed her to be.

Although the essays deal with intimate subjects, they also take a broader view. Hopper offers trenchant and original takes on cultural products as wide-ranging as Joan Didion’s essays, a photograph of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, the film The Best Years of Our Lives, a dirty card game based on the novel Moby-Dick, and many others. These texts and films and images serve as touchstones for Hopper as she explores—both in her writing and her life—what it means to be a single woman moving through a largely coupled world.

Hopper has published essays and reviews in magazines including the Los Angeles Review of Books, New York Magazine/The Cut, the New Republic, and the New Inquiry. She has also been a passionate teacher for many years, first at Princeton, where she got a PhD in American Literature, then at Yale, where she attended the Divinity School and spent seven years teaching writing. She is currently an assistant professor of creative nonfiction at Queens College, CUNY. Hopper and National Book Review’s Pamela Newton used to be colleagues in the English department at Yale, and they had this conversation while catching up at a café in Manhattan.

Q: The personal essay as a form seems to be in ascendance right now. I’m curious whether you agree, and, if so, why do you think this is? What does this form allow you to do as a writer, and what do you think readers get out of it?

A: I hear really conflicting things about the personal essay! Yes, it’s having a moment, but there have also been pieces that have come out in the last couple of years saying it’s over or it’s dead. I think the form is associated closely with women and with the Internet, and for that reason it has both really exploded and been really dismissed. But obviously, the personal essay has been around for centuries; it’s not a new form.

As a writer, I love how well the personal essay combines with other genres. Something you may have noticed in the book is that there are few very straight-up personal essays. The short essay “Acquainted with Grief,” about remembering my friend’s sister who died in New Haven, and the last essay, “Girls of a Golden Age,” about imagining the future and moving into the unknown—those are maybe the only two essays in the book that are strictly personal essays. The vast majority of the pieces are personal essays that are also review essays or cultural criticism. They’re at least as much about another text as they are about me. There are essays about the TV show Cheers, Moby-Dick, Bette Davis, YA novels…

I think of my form as personal cultural criticism. I was trained as a literary critic, as an academic, and in grad school I was reading all these books and having so many thoughts and feelings about them, and connecting these books with my experience in so many ways, and then feeling like I had to cut so much of that out of my writing to fit the genre that I was writing in at the time. So, for me, moving into the personal essay form was feeling liberated to write cultural criticism that included my relationships and desires and history and memories and personal needs.

Q: You mentioned that the personal essay is particularly associated with the Internet. Is there a connection between the personal essay and social media? Do you feel that your essays are on a continuum with your Facebook posts?

A: Absolutely. People talk about how Facebook is ruining the world, and there’s a way in which that’s true. But my own writing life has always been very social, and that includes social media. The first pieces I ever published started out as Facebook notes and comment threads, with me working out my ideas in that kind of written conversation. From the time I first started publishing, maybe around 10 years ago, my published essays very much came out of things that I was writing about or chatting about on social media. Ever since then I’ve found it to be a really great way to work out ideas and crowd-source and converse.

A lot of the essays in this book are collaborative or multi-vocal. For the Cheers essay, for example, I had lots of friends and acquaintances who watched Cheers, so I incorporated direct messages from them, and I started a Cheers comment thread to pull from. I feel like Facebook and Twitter are part of the process of trying to create a space that feels social and feels like a conversation.

Q: Your essays are themselves very social. One of them is co-written with your friend, Ashley Makar, and, as you mentioned, many of them include other voices—friends, family. Why did you decide to approach the book this way, and how did it shape what the book ended up becoming?

A: I think of this as a book about love and friendship. For that reason, it makes sense that I didn’t write it alone, and that it was written with people I loved. In an embodied way, I was often writing while sitting in a room with people I loved; I have writing meets-ups with friends regularly. But I also just wanted to involve other people in the process. I find that often the first draft of an essay is just my own experience, but I know that’s not adequate. Through sharing my first draft with other people and incorporating their thoughts into it, questioning or adjusting my take to what they’ve said, it becomes something much better.

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There are different ways that my friends and family are in the essays. With my essay “On Sisters,” I wanted to have all of my sisters’ voices in the essay, so I transcribed conversations or included text messages. All four of them are in there. When I wrote about my friend Cathy in “Hoarding,” we had very different experiences of our year as roommates. She wrote me an email about her experience, and I ended up including the email because I felt like it provided an important perspective.

With the essay “Coasting,” about the care team that formed when my friend Ash (who, as you said, co-wrote one of the other essays) was going through cancer treatment, my original version was a kind of happy-ending essay, where I was writing about the way Ash’s illness had responded to treatment, and how she was now living a normal life. That essay was formed out of interviews with Ash and the three other people that I had connected with in the care team. Ritu, one of the other people in the care team, really pushed back against my happy-ending narrative. She said that part of what you experience with crisis is that you can’t ever go back to a time before crisis. You have a new kind of intimacy with crisis and loss that doesn’t go away. She was basically saying, “Your narrative is not my narrative,” and then I was forced to recognize that my narrative wasn’t even my narrative. My desire to impose a happy ending was failing to account for the complexity of this story.

Q: Even though the essays are collaborative, they’re also deeply personal. I’m thinking about your descriptions of your efforts to get pregnant on your own, your falling-out with your brother, your difficult friendships. I was impressed by your honesty and your willingness to make yourself vulnerable on the page. Was anything particularly hard to write about? Was there anything you struggled with whether to reveal or not?

A: Well, it’s a truism that you write and read to know that you’re not alone. Especially because I wasn’t trying to get pregnant as part of a couple, where I could process all of that in one intimate relationship, I feel like there’s a way that writing about it allowed me to work through things and connect with people and form a community beyond myself. It allowed me to be expressive and not experience it as just something that I was going through on my own or in a vacuum.

There are also a lot of potentially embarrassing things that I just don’t actually feel shame about. One of the things I wrote about in the essay “Moby Dick,” which is all about trying to find a sperm donor, is an awkward insemination experience that I had. I was inseminated two days in a row, and the first time, the male fertility center fellow was really confused and struggling to find my cervix. Someone I was telling this to said, “That must have been really awkward and embarrassing for you!” And I was like, “No, it’s not embarrassing for me. It’s embarrassing for him! He’s supposed to know where this stuff is!” Some of these things were just too funny not to share.

Similarly, with the essay about hoarding, I don’t really have shame about being on the hoarding spectrum. Part of the point of the essay is to say that hoarding is a particular mode of sensory and emotional experience, a particular way of being in the world, of being relational and processing memory. Part of why I’m interested in talking about myself as a hoarder is that I feel like it’s very unusual to get a story about hoarders from a hoarder’s perspective. I know how it works emotionally, and I can see how it works in literature, and I feel happy to be able to share that with people.

Q: Speaking of honesty and vulnerability, I wanted to ask you about the title, Hard to Love. To me, it seems to have three different meanings, but maybe it has infinite meanings. One is that it’s hard to find romantic love. Two is that loving is hard work; it’s hard to do love. And three is that maybe you have some sinking suspicion that you might be hard to love…? I’m wondering what your intentions were with the title and how it sheds light on how we’re meant to read the essays.

A: I was originally going to call this book Difficult Women, but then Roxane Gay wrote a book called Difficult Women! I was searching for a new title around the time that Beyoncé’s album Lemonade came out, and there was a poem that was part of the album, in between some of the songs, called “For Women Who are Difficult to Love” by Warsan Shire. That poem resonated with me. So that was the origin of the title. 

As far as the first meaning you mentioned, if I could have afforded the lyrics, I was going to have the Supremes’ “You can’t hurry love … love don’t come easy” as an epigraph. But sadly it was way out of my price range! The fact that “love don’t come easy” is part of that idea that love is hard to find. But I was thinking even more about the other two meanings that you talked about—that love is really hard to do, and that—well, not only that I personally am hard to love—but that everyone is hard to love. Or at least most people I know are hard to love in different ways, and that’s interesting and is something we should think about. And also just to get rid of the idea that easiness is what you should be looking for.

Q: I think your book is saying something important, something that needs to be said and heard. You talked earlier about reclaiming hoarding as a valid mode. In a way, the whole book is reclaiming singleness, making it valid and even celebratory. The book is saying in this public way that romantic partnership doesn’t have to be at the center of adult life. Did you feel like you wanted to be a voice for that message? And do you have a vision of a society that would legitimize that lifestyle more?

A: One of the things that I write about in the essay “On Spinsters” is that there have actually been lots of people lately who have championed singleness and defended it as a valid choice, but rarely is it defended as a mode of connection and intimacy and community. Usually it’s defended as a mode of independence. I’m not the first person to defend it as a mode of connection and love (in fact, part of what I look at in that essay are 19th-century models of spinster community), but what I see as useful about the book is that’s it’s defending singleness not as a lone adventure but as a mode of living that opens you up to really meaningful forms of connection. Saying that it’s not synonymous with loneliness or isolation or detachment, but that it can be a form of attachment. 

I definitely feel that society in all sorts of ways, whether it’s tax laws, or the way that apartment buildings and houses are built, or custody laws, or immigration laws, or the way benefits are structured—everything is conspiring against single people. There are a lot of reasons why it might make sense to try to cohabitate or raise a child with someone you’re not romantically partnered with, but everything is making it difficult to do that. So I definitely feel like it would be better if laws were changed.

I write a lot about care-giving in the book, and this is another area where, for people who are legally related or married, it is so much simpler. I feel like it would be better if society were structured to accommodate or foster many kinds of relationships of care, so unmarried or unpartnered people could more easily take care of children or sick people or each other in the context of domestic day-to-day lives. But it is currently very marriage-centric.

 Q: Where are you at now, post-book, in terms of your life as a single woman? Do you think of yourself as looking for love or looking for a partner, or have you totally detached from that narrative? And are you still trying to get pregnant?

A: I had to take a break from trying to get pregnant because of a cancer scare and subsequent surgery, but I’ve been given the go-ahead to start trying again, so as soon as my book tour is over, I’m going back into it. I have eight embryos on ice in New Haven. So we’ll see what happens with that. I think of my life as a series of Plan Bs through Plan Zs, so if pregnancy doesn’t work out, I’ll figure something else out.

In terms of dating, I haven’t done it for a while and don’t feel any kind of urgent impetus to do it. Every once in a while I check in with myself to see if I still feel the same way, and so far I do. At the same time, I’m trying to remain open to whatever forms love will take in the future.

I can imagine being in a romantic or domestic relationship with a straight man again, but I can’t imagine having a life that was dominated by marriage. It is still the dominant cultural narrative: the love plot is most often the marriage plot. When people say, “How’s your love life?” they mean your romantic life. They don’t mean, “Tell me about your cat or your friend.” But I always want to talk about other forms of love, and I don’t see that changing. As far as the forms love will take in my future, I’ve been surprised before, and I’m open to being surprised again. I’m not particularly expecting to get married or be in a romantic pair, but I’m not ruling it out.

Pamela Newton has written about books, theater, politics, and personal history for publications including American Theatre, The New York Times Magazine, Time Out New York, O the Oprah Magazine, and the Huffington Post. She teaches writing at Yale University and Cooper Union.