The Delight and the Horror: A Conversation with Heather Havrilesky

February 26, 2022   •   By Suzanne Van Atten

Author photo by Willy Somma.

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SPEAKING WITH HEATHER Havrilesky about her new book, Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage, offers a rare glimpse into the inner workings of an incisive writer’s mind.

When asked a question, she launches into a response that promises to be simple and straightforward. Before long, though, it careens to one side and then the other, taking on qualifiers, asides, and addendums until it trails off mid-air without ever landing. So intent is she on capturing all the complexities of her thoughts in a single, incomplete sentence, she appears to leave no nuance unsaid, no clarification unpacked.

Perhaps I just caught Havrilesky in a mood, or maybe this is how she always talks. Either way, it seems indicative of why her writing is so profound, even when she’s dealing with subjects that might appear to be lightweight, like TV shows. Her brain analyzes everything to the nth degree and, like that whistle only dogs can hear, she perceives facets of a topic mere mortals can’t imagine. That’s why, in a career that has encompassed TV reviews for Salon, culture pieces for New York Times Magazine, the Ask Polly and Ask Molly columns on Substack, and multiple books including the memoir Disaster Preparedness, she has cultivated a legion of devoted fans that is sure to surge in number with the release of Foreverland, a shrewd, comical scrutiny of her 15-year marriage to her husband, Bill.

The publishing world is well stocked with books about falling into and out of love. The highs of a new romance and the lows of a broken one provide plenty of dramatic fodder. But books about a happy marriage couldn’t fill a shelf, perhaps because success is measured in small, often mundane moments that accrue over a lifetime. Depicting that in a way that is honest and also interesting to the reader is a challenge.

“I had read a few books about marriage, and I would either find myself rolling my eyes at the fact that the marriage was made to sound happier than it seemed, or I felt like I was being pulled into someone’s divorce. There was never anything in between,” Havrilesky says, speaking by phone from her home in North Carolina, where she recently relocated from Southern California with her husband and two teenage daughters.

“My very arrogant idea when I set out to write the book was, I have this amazing marriage that is completely bulletproof and great, and so I’m the perfect person to write an aggressively harsh book about how ridiculous and tedious and impossible it is to be married.”

Composed of 19 linked essays, the book traces the couple’s relationship from the beginning, which started with an exchange of emails between a writer and a fan. In between are accounts of Havrilesky’s unease at meeting her future stepson, one of the most fraught engagement stories you’ll ever hear, and her sweaty desert nuptials that were supposed to defy the trappings of a traditional wedding, but, at the last minute, frantically embraced them. Later chapters chronicle pregnancy, motherhood, a conflicted move to the suburbs, an unexpected attraction to a peer, the pandemic, a breast cancer diagnosis, and her recovery.

Much of the writing is uproariously funny, but just when you think you’re reading some edgy version of an essay by a domestic columnist like Erma Bombeck, you’re gobsmacked by a passage that shimmers with dark honesty and self-lacerating insight. For example, from the chapter “You Will Be Deeply Loved”:

I’m not romantic about building your little delusional house on the prairie. I’m romantic about trying desperately to repair the walls of your house by the banks of Plum Creek, as they start to crumble unexpectedly. I want to see you figure out how to play hearts with your spouse without throwing your drink in his face. I want to see you hand over the baby and then resist the urge to immediately tell him that he’s doing it wrong. […] I want to see you seethe for a solid hour, and then figure out that you’re the one who messed up the most, you’re the one with the out-of-control temper, you’re the one who needs to calm the fuck down.


Describing both herself and her husband as “high-strung, emotional, weirdly perfectionistic, intense people,” Havrilesky didn’t consider how writing Foreverland might impact their bond. In retrospect, she said, it was “incredibly taxing,” partly because, just when she put her marriage under a microscope, life delivered a series of blows.

“The pandemic set in, we were trapped in the house together, I thought someone hit on me, and I developed a crush around that. All of those things had to be confronted and accommodated and discussed,” she says. “There were many times where I said to myself and to Bill, ‘Why? Why did I decide this is the book I should write? This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.’ Just looking at your marriage, day after day, and trying to write a story about it and trying to be honest about it, you end up questioning the entire institution along the way.”

One of the book’s cringiest chapters is “Wedlocked,” which details Havrilesky’s bad behavior surrounding her engagement and wedding. Readers sympathize with Bill when it comes to the proposal. His bride-to-be had delivered so many directives about how the big moment should go down, he was guaranteed to get it wrong. When he finally did the deed — on Christmas Day, surrounded by her family, as he was clearly instructed not to — Havrilesky writes: “I have never loved Bill less than I did in that moment.”

The wedding was just as anxiety-riddled, but in different ways. Raised in a family in which romantic ideals and public displays of affection were shunned, Havrilesky is racked with embarrassment on the big day, and she questions every choice she made for the occasion. It’s not until she lets loose at the reception that she finally feels joy.

“It was fun to write this chapter because there was no way to please me. I was just impossible. I needed too much,” she says. “I think that’s one of the fascinating things about setting out into a marriage together is the way that these deep needs and these vanities and these fixations and these delusions all whip around inside you, and suddenly you’re just acting like a deranged animal because you want to have control over things you don’t have control over.”

Because Havrilesky doesn’t flinch when it comes to exposing her and her husband’s shortcomings, their flawed but loving union feels authentically hard-earned in the end, giving Foreverland resonance and gravitas that belie its humor.

“Part of the delight and horror of this book for me has been realizing there was no way to write honestly and well about marriage without exploring how marriage just brings out the absolute worst in all of us,” she says. “It’s truly harrowing to understand … how disappointing you must be to another human being. Marriages survive when people forgive themselves and each other for being broken. And they fail and fall apart when two people…”

Havrilesky stops as her voice chokes with emotion. Then she chuckles softly. 

“It’s funny,” she says, “when I’m not rambling on incoherently, I’m crying because I’m really saying something that matters here, not to be grandiose. But this book was such an emotional experience, and talking about it is an emotional experience because it’s hard work. It’s really hard work to accept yourself and accept another person and to forgive yourself and to forgive another person. That is the bread and butter of marriage.”

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Suzanne Van Atten is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has been published by Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Time Out, WebMD, Los Angeles Magazine, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.