Monday, July 27, 2009

Read this Book: Love is a Four-Letter Word

What's more fun to read about than bad breakup stories? Love is a Four-Letter Word: True Stories of Breakups, Bad Relationships, and Broken Hearts, edited by Michael Taeckens is a knockout collection of tales of the busted heart from Linda Barry, Junot Diaz and 21 others. I loved this collection with a passion. What really got me about the book was that here are all these people writing about these horrible relationships, and yet it is all done in such an engaging way that you realize these are the people you would want to have a relationship with, no matter what they did—people who are honest about their lives, funny, open and a little outrageous, too. It actually made me feel really hopeful, right down to the cartoon on the website where the poor blobby cartoon character is nursing quite a broken heart.

What I adored so much was the willingness of the writers to be the bad guys in their essays. A lot of what goes on in these essays is horrifyingly funny and revealing, but each writer seemed cheerfully happy to reveal it all, right down to the scars and messy stains. What was the process of choosing writers for this anthology like? Did anyone stop and say, this is too personal, too horrible, I’ve changed my mind, I don’t want anyone to know?

The process was easy at first—I turned to several of my good friends, all of whom said yes and who wrote excellent pieces before I even had a publishing deal. Because of them, I was able to submit a strong proposal to my agent. From there I started going after writers I admire, and I also asked the writers already on board for recommendations. It was a lengthy, somewhat exhausting process, but I’m ecstatic that I’ve found so many talented writers—including many who I think will be big stars in the future.

There were a few writers who had started the process who had to slam on the brakes midway, although I think it was more for professional reasons (e.g., teaching jobs) than anything else. I had assumed ahead of time that this might happen with some people—it is rather scary revisiting these difficult times and revealing intimate aspects. You have to be willing to be vulnerable and strong enough to poke fun at yourself, or strong enough to know that your past behavior doesn’t represent who you are today.

In your hilarious essay, you mention “love turns you into something else.” And that something else is often confusing, unpretty and crazy. Given all that, do you still believe love is possible for long periods of time? If romance is possible, but it is also doomed, why should we go ahead and enter into the fray anyway?

Yes, absolutely. I am still an unapologetic romantic, but perhaps one who is a lot warier these days. I suppose I think of love as a field with some landmines in it—just avoid the landmines and you’ll be fine. Easy, right? I’ve seen enough friends and family members who are in long-term, fulfilling relationships to know that true love is, indeed, possible.

Why is heartbreak after the fact so much fun to read about and really so much more telling about the nature of love than a story about a lovely relationship that lasted 50 years?

I think because we already know how a lovely, long-term relationship works. That’s not to say that a love story can’t be interesting or written about in a compelling way, I just think there’s a certain uniformity to love stories. Whereas with breakups, everyone has a different story to tell—so many things can go wrong for so many various reasons. And often, the results (at least in hindsight) are hilarious. That was really the impetus for the book. Why is it so cathartic to talk about past horrible relationships, and why is it often the case that talking about them incites laughter? At the time, the experience is dreadful; in hindsight, you realize how foolish you were and are relieved to have moved on.

You’re the highly esteemed, adored publicity director of Algonquin (and no, I am not kissing up—I hear this over and over again from the people in publishing I know or work with) but with this book, you are under a different publisher with a different publicity department. What’s it like for you working with a publicity director who is not you? Is being on the writer’s side of the table giving you any new perspectives on the whole process—and which side of the table has the best seats?

Thank you for the compliment! I love working with the publicity department at Plume. They’re smart, engaged, and attentive. I feel lucky and grateful.

Being on the writer’s side has definitely made me empathize more with the hard work and anxiety that writers deal with on a daily basis. The anxiety of waiting for that Publishers Weekly review to arrive, for instance. I now appreciate that on a deeper level. As for which has the best seats—I suppose it depends on what day it is! I’m a natural promoter, so I love working from the publicity side, especially when I have the good fortune of representing books I love.

Do you think of this collection as a prescription—i.e. when we know what love isn’t, then maybe we can begin to figure out what it is?

That’s an interesting angle, I hadn’t thought of it that way before. I do think that might be a bonus payoff of the collection, but I really thought of it more as an opportunity for people to revel in this mostly universal experience. I don’t find the collection depressing or dour at all—it’s really fun, funny, and uplifting in many ways. I think, if anything, I just wanted people to have a good laugh, read some excellent stories, and maybe even be inspired to write their own story

What’s up next for a writing project? And what’s your writing process like?

I used to write every day for many, many years—back in my late teens and twenties. I wrote mostly in the evenings, and I was a chronic reviser—always striving for perfection. In my thirties I moved away from writing, but this project has brought me back to it. My job, which I love, keeps me pretty busy, and I have a lot of hobbies on top of that, so I find I don’t have as much time to write. But I’m thinking about ways to reincorporate it into my daily schedule.

What question didn’t I ask that I should be ashamed of myself for not asking?

Hmmm, perhaps “Are you in a relationship now”? I’m happily single—happier than I’ve ever been before. But let me know if you know of anyone funny, smart, and talented that you can set me up with!


Jeff Lyons said...


What a great interview! I imagine he had to promise these writers a lot of coffee and chocolate to participate.

Nothing more fun than reading about other writers in misery. Reminds us we're not alone!

But, seriously, this sounds like a fun (kinda) book and bravo to him for being the kind of guy his subjects felt safe enough opening up to. That says a lot about the writer!!!


Titus said...

Fun interview, intriguing topic. Listening & telling horrible relationships are such a great way to lift ourselves from ashes and to use those ashes as fertilizer for living. I knew immediately which crappy foolish event I would have chosen from my compost heap.
Just added this to my reading list, preferably to be enjoyed in the lush garden.

Jessica Keener said...

Another great interview!


ABOUT ME said...

The theme of this book sounds right up my bowling alley. I'm buying it. Best, Rochelle