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Hard to Love: An Interview with Author Briallen Hopper

Briallen Hopper’s beautiful new book Hard To Love is a collection of essays about the relationships we often overlook as we focus on romantic love. She writes about the connections that aren’t always legally recognized (or even our first choice) like friends and roommates, siblings and caregivers. Through it all, she weaves interactions with popular culture: movies, TV shows, and books. The essays are undergirded with joy and with openness to love, whatever form it might take. You can read along with our conversation about Hard To Love below.

Tell me about your book?

My book is about love and friendship. One of the reviewers described it as a bunch of love songs, which I loved. When I was writing it, I was thinking about it as love letters. I really wanted to write about forms of love and connection that don’t get as much attention as romantic love and romantic partnership. It focuses on friendships, roommate relationships, relationships between siblings, different kinds of family formations. It’s a range of different essays— some of them are straight personal essays, some of them are more humorous, some of them are more serious, some of them are about a book or a TV show or a movie—but all exploring a different kind of loving or familial relationship.

One of the themes you write about is the idea of dependence on other people. For single people, perhaps single women especially, the ideal always seems to be independence, however unrealistic that might be. Would you talk a bit about the tension between those extremes?

The first essay in the book is called “Lean On: A Declaration of Dependence,” and it’s basically a celebration of leaning on others. This is something that I came to initially out of necessity and later came to actually embrace and celebrate about my life. I spent a lot of my twenties in two long-term relationships back to back. When I became single in my late twenties, my first time being single as an adult, I realized that I am not someone who is designed to live in a self-sufficient way, and, really when you think about it, nobody is. Out of necessity I learned to depend on my friends for many things that I previously thought were just the province of romantic relationships—whether it’s just sort of daily company, shared meals, checking in with each other on a daily basis, celebrating holidays, spending down time together, but also showing up for friends in difficult situations or having them show up for me—just trying to trust in this network of people that I could depend on, and call, and really take our relationships as seriously as I had taken my relationships with my boyfriends. I feel like everyone needs this, everyone needs company and support in their life. I think that there is a kind of shame, if you’re a single person, about sometimes not being able to do it on your own. It’s like The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song: “how will you make it on your own?” and this idea that [making it on your own] is what you’re supposed to do. It was a kind of relief to me, over time, to realize actually my dependence on my friends is not some kind of flaw that I need to move past in order to be mature, but it is actually what life looks like for me. Resting and trusting in that has been really sustaining.

Friendships and the concept of chosen family are very important in your book. How have you cultivated those relationships and what are their specific challenges and delights?

There’s so much I could say but I think a couple of the kinds of challenging and delightful relationships that I explore in the book are two kinds of relationships that are really profound but don’t get as much attention as they should. One is the experience of being roommates, and another is being in a caregiving relationship with a friend.

I’ve had roommates pretty much my entire adult life. I talk about the different versions of those relationships in the book. I’ve had sustaining, positive roommate relationships which I talk in the leaning essay, about just kind of the joy of what I call “small daily leans”— like with my roommate at the time, he would ask me what the weather was, and I would Google it for him, and he would make me tea. We could have done those things for ourselves, but being able to do them for each other just made us both feel like we were cared for and caring. I think that there’s something very profound about what it means to share a life with someone even if it’s not an official legal relationship.

The longest chapter in my book is called “Hoarding,” and it’s about a very intense roommate situation where I moved in with someone—we’d been very close friends for seven years—and living together really kind of pushed our friendship to the brink. I think this is probably a familiar experience for some people. You know, what it means to live with someone you love and then have that kind of really challenge your relationship in totally unanticipated ways. I describe that experience as a kind of crucible. We lived together for a year, learned a lot about each other and ourselves, really resented each other, and were totally incompatible. I moved out and even though we stayed close friends, we never talked about that year for years. One of the things I wanted to do in the book was to revisit that really intense, dramatic year—I describe it as “gothicomic”—it was a little bit like a horror movie where you’re like: I thought I knew this person and they’re just totally different than what I expected. I think it ultimately made our friendship stronger, but it was it was pretty intense while it lasted.

In terms of care giving, there’s a sequence of three essays in the book that are about my friend Ash, one of them was co-written with her, that were written during and after the time that she was in cancer treatment for stage four esophageal cancer. I wrote these essays as a way to try to understand her experience more, and feel more connected to her in that experience as we were reading and writing together. Also to pay tribute to this care team of four women that coordinated to provide her with different kinds of care during her treatment. That experience taught me so much about friendship and the way that it can serve the purposes of family in a very deep life and death way.

While your life hasn’t stopped because you’re single, it also seems that you haven’t given up on romantic love. What does it look like living with and acting on that hope and what advice would you give to those who are in a similar situation?

I think a big change for me happened sometime between my 20s and my 30s. I stopped thinking about pairing off with someone as the thing that I had to do in order for my life to start, and I started thinking about pairing off with someone as something that might or might not happen—that would happen, if it happened, on its own time, and that was part of my life rather than the main story of my life.

I have an essay on spinsters and about three women who mentored me when I was in my twenties in grad school who all gave me a sense of what different kinds of single lives could look like, lives that are very beautiful and full and open to different kinds of love and connection. Something that’s interesting about those three women is that now they’re all in romantic relationships—two of them are married— but the way that happened for them was not at all a classic narrative where you meet someone in your 20s or 30s, and then you pair off, and then your life begins. For all of them, they’re with people that they met in midlife and in each case when they really weren’t expecting it. I’ve been interested in seeing the way love and romance have played out in their lives. There are some things that you miss out on if you don’t form this connection with someone when you’re young, they don’t get to see the freshest version of you. But also, there’s a particular kind of joy, and wisdom, and solidity that you can have in relationships that are formed when you already know who you are. You already have a strong sense of yourself and you’ve figured out some of the career stuff, you’ve figured out some of the friendship stuff, and so you’re coming to this relationship with clear eyes. In terms of my own relationship to romance, I feel like regardless of what does or doesn’t happen, my life is pretty full of love. I’m just trying to stay open to being surprised by love.

The second essay in the book is kind of like a humorous how-to, it’s sort of like a what-to-do/what-not-to do essay about online dating, which is partly about my experiences with online dating when I wasn’t actually ready. I think that the advice mode feels kind of weird for me because I feel like I’m still figuring this out, but I definitely feel like the main advice that I would give myself is: just allow things to happen on their own time and don’t push yourself into doing things just because you think that’s what you should be doing. I feel like, for me, sometimes dating felt like this duty that I had. So I would feel like I was doing what I was supposed to do, so my friends would feel like I was like trying in ways I was supposed to be trying, and letting go of that pressure has been really helpful for me.

You write a bit about your experience attempting to get pregnant as a single woman. Will you tell me a little bit about that?

I always knew that I wanted to have kids and at a certain point I realized that if this is something that I wanted to do I should get moving on it. So I have this essay in the book, which is sort of based humorously on Moby Dick, which is about looking for a sperm donor—a whole drama. I definitely had friends helping me out with that.

I did the first part of the process last year. I went through two cycles of IVF and froze eight embryos. The plan is to try to actually get pregnant this coming year, once my book tour is over. That’s my plan for this summer once I’m in one place and can actually head to the fertility center for blood work and ultrasounds and stuff like that. To pick up on threads from this conversation, I think that the whole experience of trying to get pregnant “on my own” has made me realize how I’m not actually on my own. There’s no way that I could do this on my own. There’s no way that any single parent, or even any partnered parent, could do it without help. I had help throughout the process—friends helped me pick a donor, friends went with me to fertility appointments, they picked me up from my egg retrievals and take care of me afterwards, they did little rituals with me before my first artificial insemination and took care of me during my pregnancy loss. I felt very supported all the way through. This gives me courage to proceed, just knowing that I have a lot of people in my life who are going to be raising any child I might have, with me.

What are your hopes for your book as you send it out into the world?

I’ve been getting a lot of messages from people who have been reading it on Twitter or on Facebook, and a lot of what they have to say is that they are feeling a sense of reassurance that their lives matter and their relationships matter, even though they might not be partnered. That’s something that I’ve heard as I published some of the essays in the book over the years, a sort of feeling like friendships are deep and real and actually count as love—and readers appreciate feeling seen. I think that that’s a lot of what I want my book to do, to help people to revel and bask in the value of their friendships and how important they are, and also feel like time spent cultivating those kinds of relationships and taking care of the people in their lives is actually the most important thing that they can be doing.

Cara Strickland writes about food and drink, mental health, faith and being single from her home in the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys hot tea, good wine, and deep conversations. She will always want to play with your dog. Connect with her on Twitter @anxiouscook.