Writing About Real People: An Interview with Briallen Hopper

In this interview, Charlee Dyroff talks to Briallen Hopper about her new essay collection, Hard to Love, out February 5, 2019. Hard to Love was named one of the most anticipated books of 2019 by both Lit Hub and The Millions.

Before we dig into your new book, Hard to Love, I wanted to learn a little bit about your route as a writer. Where did you start and how did you end up here?

My story is a really non-linear one. I’m actually a very compulsive writer. I forget what it’s called where you just like handwriting, but I know there’s a name for it and I’ve always just needed to write things down in order to think about them or understand them. So writing is something I do kind of compulsively anyway, but it wasn’t clear to me growing up in a working class town in the Northwest, that writing professionally was something I could pursue. I just associated that kind of writing with a world that I wasn’t a part off; a world that existed really far away. So I knew I wanted to do it but I wasn’t sure how to get from A to B.

I ended up getting a PhD in 19th Century American Literature and while in that program I read a lot of writing by people who I really admired and learned a lot from. And even though it wasn’t in the context of pursuing creative writing, reading so many intelligent people was still very useful to me. When I graduated there weren’t many jobs in academia available so I found that there was no real point in trying to publish academic writing. It just didn’t seem useful at the time so I thought to myself, what would I write if I could just write anything? And that turned out to be essays. I didn’t realize that publishing essays would turn into any kind of opportunity at the time. I just really enjoyed it and it felt purposeful  and meaningful.

Love is such a large topic and I think you do a really good job at finding interesting and unique ways to write about it. I was wondering if you started writing essays with the idea of creating a book about relationships and intimacy or if you just wrote essays and then found the theme for a book later? Or I guess a simpler way to ask this question is how did the book emerge?

Most of the book is new but there are several essays that were previously published dating back to 2011-12. When I was writing them I was definitely thinking of them as separate one-off things. The book that I thought I was writing and that I still want to write is a book of memoir and reported pieces about religion, but I happened to write an essay about Spinsters which went viral and then I heard from a few editors who liked the piece but I didn’t have an agent and I didn’t want to write a book just about spinsters so I wasn’t sure how to move forward. It was an interesting moment in my life because I didn’t want to turn down an amazing opportunity to write a book, but I wasn’t sure how to go about it. It just felt like this very chicken-and-egg moment.

So I looked at things I’d already written and tried to see if there was common theme. I saw that I’d written a lot about friendship and family and relationships. And then I had an agent contact me on Facebook and once we met and talked it seemed like destiny. He’s one of my favorite people and readers now. So it started to come together! But I sort of feel like I did everything backwards.

So it seems like most of your essays combine memoir with cultural criticism or personal anecdotes with reported ideas. I’m curious when you’re writing something, do you start with a personal memory you’d like to dig into or do you find something in the culture you’d like to respond to? How do you approach this sort of blended writing?

It’s rare for me to write essays that don’t have some kind of text or event or something to structure it. I love the form of the review essay, it’s one of my favorite forms to read and write… For some of the pieces in the book I knew for a long time, like months or years, that I had an essay in me but I was just waiting for the right text to come along that I could latch onto and use as a kind of structure. For example, for my essay on sisters I saw the announcement for the Tina Fey and Amy Poehler movie, Sisters, and I was like ‘okay I feel like I could use this to write something I want to write but I don’t really know how yet’. I knew that it would be some kind of blending of other sister movies, this movie and conversations with my actual sisters but I wanted to include voices from all four of my sisters in it and they all had veto power over the final draft which was a little bit of a nightmare when you’re going up against deadlines but it was important to me.

I love that. I’m picturing you having multiple pots on a stove cooking up ideas from things you’ve read and watched and listened to, but really that’s all just happening in your brain. I’m glad you brought up your essay about your sisters because I’m curious how you approach writing about family or people you have relationships with. I have two little sisters and I always find it difficult to write about anyone I’m close to. Do you have thoughts or advice for anyone reading our interview about how to approach this kind of essay or story?

It’s really… it’s really one of the most interesting and challenging things to think about as a writer. I actually teach a class on writing about family and we start out by talking about the interpersonal complexity and the ethical complexity on writing about real people who exist in your life. The thing is everything one does it differently.

For me, I wrote about so many of my most important relationships in the book. In two essays, I wrote about very, very difficult love: my relationship with my brother which has been very combative and fraught, and in a different one I wrote about lowest point in a friendship I’ve had for seventeen years. With both of those essays I zeroed in on the most painful aspect of a love to try and work through it for myself. And in both of those essays I needed to involve the people I was writing about in the process which was really hard to do.

And how did you involve them in the process…?

So with my friend Kathy, we had tearful conversations about the year which ended up being helpful in understanding each other a lot better and we were able to let a few things go. I talked about the essay with her, she read drafts of it, there were a few things that she had me take out or rephrase and she also wrote a response e-mail to me that I then included in the essay as well to give room to her voice.

… And was that the same process with your brother or different?

I think with my brother we had not had a conversation for years, things had just gotten, it became so difficult to talk about things so we just kept everything on the surface. But I did send it to him when I was done and asked for his thoughts before I published it. And he wrote back and said ‘it’s your essay and I don’t agree with everything in it but it’s your story and you should tell it the way you want to’ which was really moving and then we ended up talking on the phone for hours in a real connecting conversation. So it was like this essay about our dysfunction actually created this moment of connection which I wasn’t expecting but I considered it a gift.

So for students that are writing about family members or friends do you suggest to handle it on a case by case basis or what are your general rules of thumb for this kind of thing?

I want them to think about it but everyone has to come up with their own approach that has to do with their situation. I think there’s a big difference between writing and publishing. I feel like a lot of the ethical considerations are amplified when you’re publishing. And one thing that I do tell students is that what you write about people that you love, it inevitably becomes part of the relationship whether for good or ill. It’s like, you change the relationship by writing about it. And I think that’s something important to reflect on. The effects of writing and publishing about your family are not necessarily predictable either.

I saw in your acknowledgements that you wrote “really this entire book is just acknowledgements in essay form” and I really liked that line. Can you expand on what you mean?

I think it’s hard to be related to or friends with a writer. So for all of the people who let me write about them I think it was an act of tremendous generosity and I’m in awe of it still. To trust someone enough to let them write an essay about you, a narrative about you, is something that I consider a very big deal. I don’t take it lightly.

I’m curious about the title. How did you land on it and what does it mean to you?

The working title for the proposal as I was writing it was ‘Difficult Women’ which was the name of a group biography of some diva writers a few decades ago and then it was the title of this Emily Nussbaum essay on Sex and the City that I really love and when I was thinking about the book I saw a bunch of profiles of friendships and it just seemed fitting. But right when I was about the submit the proposal, I saw on Twitter that Roxane Gay had just sold a book titled the same thing.

This also happened to be right around the time when Lemonade came out and there are these poems in between the songs that I really liked. One of them was called ‘Women who are Difficult to Love’ and that just sort of connected in my brain. I played around with the words for a while and told my agent that I wanted to call it ‘Difficult to Love’ and he suggested ‘Hard to Love’ which sounds much better. So it was a disappointment that turned into a gift because I like that the title means a few things. Hard to love can mean that love is difficult to do, but it can also mean being a person that’s hard to love.

About the author

Charlee Dyroff is a writer from Colorado pursuing an MFA in nonfiction at Columbia.

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