The Tweet Heard 'Round the Library: A Chat with Author Heather Havrilesky

Author and advice columnist Heather Havrilesky learned a great deal about libraries when she inadvertently sparked the ire of Library Twitter.

On October 17, author and advice columnist Heather Havrilesky wrote a Twitter thread offering advice and tips for fellow authors. It was an “expectations vs. reality” kind of perspective on the anxieties that go along with publishing a brand new book. Among her tweets was this: “While I’m here, never tell a writer you can’t wait to get their book at the library.”

 

 

And then…Library Twitter flooded her mentions to present a different viewpoint and perhaps correct a few assumptions, sometimes with a healthy dose of anger and snark. (Full disclosure, this editor/librarian was among the hordes of library advocates to chime in and comment on the marketing and buying power of libraries.)

As of this writing, Havrilesky's received hundreds of responses to that single tweet.

LJ caught up with the author to see if and how her perspective on libraries has changed since her tweet went viral.

So, first: How are you doing? Do you feel like you’ve been Dewey decimated? Can you ever wear a cardigan again without shuddering?

I’m thoroughly shaken. But the doctors say I’ll stop sweating and shivering in a few days, and I should be able to chew solid food and speak in full sentences by sometime next week.

I have a feeling you didn’t expect that one tweet to blow up the way it did. Since withstanding the full fire and fury of Library Twitter, what have you learned? Are there things about libraries/librarians that you know now that you didn’t before?

I’ve learned a lot about libraries that I should’ve learned long ago, honestly. Even though my larger thread was a joke-filled rant on the internal state that authors enter around their publication date—how little things like who shows up for readings and what they say to you affect your overall state of anxiety—my specific mention of friends who never buy your books did spring out of my fundamental ignorance about how much libraries do to support authors. Libraries buy a ton of books. They do an enormous amount of thankless work to promote new books. They spread the word about your book quickly and efficiently, to countless new readers. Obviously I knew that libraries are a giant force of good in the world, bringing books to people who can’t afford to buy them, among many other things. But I should’ve also known that libraries are not only incredible boosters for authors, but they’re also underfunded, generally, and under siege by the current administration. But that stands to reason, since the current administration is also a stated enemy of poor people, peaceful protests, national parks, science, and saving the planet. And any stated enemy of the current administration is a friend of mine.

Now that you know so much more about libraries, what are some myths or misconceptions about authors that you think librarians should know?

I think I’m living proof that most authors are just as melodramatic and self-involved as they’re made out to be. I would just want to paint a clearer picture of how book sales numbers sometimes feel, to an author, like a grade you get for something that’s almost entirely out of your control. If you’re lucky enough to have a publisher who supports your book like I do, you spend a full year talking to a team of smart people about how to ensure that your book will sell. So sales numbers can take on a distorted weight in an author’s life. They’re the tea leaves you read to determine whether or not you’ll be able to do what you love in the same way moving forward. Should you be focusing on that stuff? Of course not! But if you’re obsessive and neurotic enough to write a book in the first place, you’re obsessive and neurotic enough to latch onto any available external measure of your value. (What’s my grade? Give me a grade! Make it up, I don’t care!)

And having a publicist and a team who work hard for you is the best-case scenario. I have broke friends who’ve won big book prizes and they’re going into debt to hire publicists and buy flights to sell three copies at bookstores in other cities. They’ve been writing for 25 years and they know by now they’ll never get rich. They’re just trying to have a career, period. Writing for a living is a luxury, of course. But it feels a lot less like a luxury when you drive an hour to a book group event at a McMansion where a room full of demonstrably rich human beings want to tell you what’s wrong with your book, but then there aren’t any books to sign because no one actually bought one. But that’s all the more reason to do author events at libraries, where some of the most enthusiastic and evangelistic readers and book advocates are hiding out. The fact that I didn’t see that clearly before now is a testament to my own idiotic high-capitalist confusion. And it’s ironic, since I write in my new book about the dearth of public spaces where you can mingle with your community without buying stuff.

So I’ve legitimately shifted my entire way of thinking about people who read my books at the library, as embarrassing as that is to admit. My beatdown by librarians was painful, and I still have issues with how abusive people get in disagreements online. But most of all, I really love the idea of this massive group of smart people who serve the public good, springing into action whenever anyone threatens libraries. I’m a new fan and a new ally, full stop.

You write an advice column, Ask Polly, for The Cut. Many librarians who work the reference desk can appreciate a tough or head-scratching question. What are some of the most interesting or bizarre questions you’ve gotten for the column?

One of the most bizarre letters I’ve ever received (and which is included in my second book, How to Be a Person in the World) was from a guy who challenged me to tell him why he shouldn’t cheat on his wife. He felt like his argument was airtight: he and his wife would be much happier if he lied to her and screwed other women while she stayed at home watching their young children. His whole way of thinking was so wrong-headed: it’s the lying that hurts the most, dummy! That’s why they call it cheating in the first place! But even when someone is deluded, you have to access your compassion for them as much as you can. That’s a big challenge for all of us, at this particular moment. And there are limits! But most people are open to learning from their mistakes, even if they get defensive at first.

Your new book of essays, What If This Were Enough? (Doubleday, Oct. 2018), talks about the ways in which our hyper-connected, swift-moving, and often fractured modern world exacerbates the disconnection and isolation felt by so many of us. Twitter and social media, in general, are important pieces of this. Having a nuanced and thoughtful discourse in soundbites can be challenging, if not impossible. What advice do you have for those of us balancing the awesome power of instant communication with the desire for a deeper, more human exploration of important issues?

I’m incredibly conflicted about social media, honestly. I often feel like I reveal too much of myself online, but I’m also allergic to the smooth, flawless self-promotion of lifestyle gurus on Instagram and Twitter and Facebook. My belief is that presenting a larger than life, Jesus-like version of yourself to the world does a severe disservice to your audience, who may slowly start to experience themselves as ugly and broken and incomplete because you’re using filters and pretending you never feel grumpy or experience huge waves of self-doubt. I get that there’s a “Look at my cellulite!” trend out there, but mostly what you see are these bulletproof brands. We all begin to feel like the only way to make it is by being gorgeous and shiny and simple and consistent.

Part of the reason I sometimes screw up in a big way—and this isn’t the first time—is that I’m a clumsy, conflicted human being online and in my advice column and in my books. It’s a rough ride and I have regrets at times. But I want to admit that I’m extremely conflicted and I contradict myself every few minutes. I also want to stand for something, and I want to make jokes, and I want to be a whiny little worm sometimes. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this as a marketing strategy, or as a way make friends and influence people. But it’s the only way I know to do what I do and feel good about it. If I’m not connecting with new people and learning new things about myself, even when it’s hugely embarrassing, why bother?

This world is filled with flawed, anxious, insecure weirdos. We live in a world that plays on our insecurities, in order to motivate us to buy more stuff. We have to find ways to reach each other in spite of all of that. We have to find ways to connect with each other and with our own humanity. The stakes feel pretty high right now. Even if this is a sloppy, garbage way of existing on some level, it’s the only way I know to make real connections, and that’s what I want. That’s what being a writer is all about.

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