Monday, January 20, 2014

Modern Love's Daniel Jones talks about Love Illuminated, what he's learned about love, how living online changes our relationships, and so much more

Oh, yes. Every writer knows the name Daniel Jones, because we all are desperate to be published in his extraordinary Sunday column in the New York Times, Modern Love. (It took me six tries to get in.) But he's so much more. The author of After Lucy, a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, and he has  published in the New York Times, Elle, Parade, Real Simple, Harper's Bazaar and more. He currently lives with his wife, the brilliant writer Cathi Hanauer, and their two children in Northampton, Massachusetts.

In Love Illuminated, Daniel uses his unique perspective to explore how love saves us, destroys us, gives us hope and makes us hopeless. It's such a great book (and could the timing be any better now that Valentine's Day is upon us soon?)  I'm delighted to host Daniel, here!


At the beginning of the book you have a quiz about love, which touches on some of the thorniest issues of the heart.  Why is something so important so difficult? By the way, I love your saying it’s the question that counts, because as we all know, the answers are always very different.

I couldn't figure out how to write or organize this book until I wrote that line: "Let's start with a quiz." So many books about relationships start with quizzes, but those tend to have actual answers that give you a score - a kind ridiculous idea, at least to me. All I hear about day after day are people struggling with unanswerable questions, or with questions that don't have easy answers. How do I find someone? How can I trust them? How can we stay in love? These were the kind of complicated questions I wanted to tackle. 

Do you think it’s sad that people are more calculated  about finding a mate (i.e. online dating and making finding a mate a job) rather than giving in to the mystery and magic of tumbling into love?

On one level online dating is just a way to find someone - or to find a lot of people! - and there's nothing sad about having new ways to search for love, especially for those who have trouble getting out and meeting someone otherwise. On another level, though, online dating can change the way we approach the search by pushing us to figure out, in advance, whom we might be most compatible with and then drawing a circle around that group of people and excluding everyone else. But time and again I see stories of the unlikeliest couples making the best match. I think we overestimate our ability to decide about love in advance. 

What really interests me, and what I explore in the book, is how technology promises to empower us, promises to make things easier. And in many ways it does. But in love and partnership and compatibility, we should be skeptical of our ability to "streamline" love or to somehow make the process easier and more efficient.  

What struck me so much about the book is how different love is now than it was in our parents’ age, and how probably even more different it might be in the future. Care to make a guess what love will be like in 2040? And even though it will be different, don’t you think the fundamentals still will apply--the need for companionship, for sexual sparks, for emotional contact?

As I ask at one point in the book: What do we know about love now that Shakespeare didn't know 500 years ago? Anything? What have we gotten better at? I think we've gotten more open-minded and accepting about relationships than we used to be, but the basic difficulties and mysteries of love and partnership remain refreshingly the same. We doubt ourselves, we cheat, we suffer, we are generous in ways we'd never believe and can be bafflingly mean to those we love most. I doubt we'll make a whole lot more progress over the next 25 years. I hope not, anyway. Love is more interesting when it's hard to figure out, not when it's scientifically explained. 

There’s been a recent spate of books about how men might be outmoded, but unless all those women love other women, do you think this is just wrong reasoning?

Those books are using provocative titles to get attention, but what they're really exploring are subtle shifts in power. I don't think men are going anywhere, but women are getting more powerful in relationships and in politics and at work, and this comes at the expense of men's power. 

Have you ever been offended by any pieces sent in to Modern Love? 

I don't get offended very easily - at least not by the style or subject matter of an essay. Reading the stories of people's lives fills me with a sense of compassion more than anything. 

I loved your novel After Lucy. Are you writing another one, and do you ever feel that editing Modern Love is giving you material or education that you could not have gotten elsewhere?

Thank you! Writing After Lucy was my proudest accomplishment. I often think about writing another novel, but to be honest I'm more drawn - both in reading and writing - to nonfiction these days. I've always been a news junkie, and working for the Times has even made me more of one, so I don't think in fictional terms all that often. 

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I'm obsessed, like a lot of people, with what all this time on screens - large and small - is doing to us, how it's changing us. I see people having their most satisfying relationships online. But these aren't physical relationships, and the person we are in them is just a slice of who we really are. It's easy to moan about this and act nostalgic about the way things used to be, but none of this is going away. Does this mean our relationships in the future will be more emotional and less physical, simply because the way we spend so much of our time together will be through the ether? Who knows. I know there's no stopping it.

What question didn’t I ask you that I should have?

Why did I write the book? My answer, two years ago, would have been to put down what I knew, what I'd learned about love and relationships from having spent so many year in this editor's chair. But after finishing the book I realized that I wrote it to find out what I knew, to solve the puzzle of what all this immersion has meant to me and taught me. I couldn't make sense of all those stories until I really focus.

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