Eva Hagberg Fisher, HOW TO BE LOVED

Eva Hagberg Fisher, HOW TO BE LOVED

I’m super excited to be here today with Eva Hagberg Fisher who is the New York-based author of How to be Loved: A Memoir of Lifesaving Friendship. She’s also written/cowritten for other books about architecture. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Wired, Dwell, Guernica, and other publications. She has degrees in architecture from Princeton University and UC Berkeley and received a PhD in Visual and Narrative Culture from UC Berkeley. Welcome to Eva.

Eva Hagberg Fisher: Hi.

Zibby: Thanks for coming.

Eva: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Can you start by telling listeners what How to be Loved is about, please?

Eva: My pinned tweet says that it’s actually a critique of capitalism dressed up as a narrative about friendship with a little bit of chronic illness and non-chronic illness to move the plot along. That’s one answer. Another answer is that it is a memoir about how three friends in particular saved my life when I needed it to be saved in various and extremely different ways. There’s a friend Leila, who I meet when I’m in my late teens, early twenties. She saved my life in a specific way. Then my friend Allison who, when I was very, very, very sick and really convinced that I was going to die, showed me how to live through that, and then my friend Lauren who went on this pretty epic desert adventure with me.

Zibby: That’s so funny. When I read it, I thought that the lifesaving friendship was just Allison’s. I didn’t realize you were referring to all the different ones at the different times.

Eva: Yes. I was referring to the different ones. Also, my book editor said that I shouldn’t name that many people, but there are a lot of off-stage unnamed friends who also saved my life. There’s a section in the book where I talk about going to see RoboCopbefore heart surgery because I might have ended up with a pacemaker and I wanted to celebrate it. What is that actor’s name, the guy who played RoboCop? There’s a group of people. There’s this idea that a group can be inexhaustible in the way that individual people cannot be, by definition. I wanted it to be more generally about friendship, about the ways in which my friends have been my truest love stories, for sure, and also a little bit of critique.

The anti-capitalist, anti-progress part is in trying to articulate ways in which we can find comfort without looking to the future. When I got sick, a lot of people were like, “This will end. This will get better. You will improve. You’ll get back to where you were.” I kept being like, “That actually might not happen for me. I might just get worse.” Can I find comfort without looking at progress and improvement? That was the main argumentative thread throughout the book. Can I find comfort in the present moment even if things will never get better? The answer, eventually, was yes, I can.

Zibby: When did you decide to write this book, at what stage?

Eva: I’d always wanted to write a book since I was four. This book started coming to life when I was in the desert. I was living in a tent for various reasons that I go into. I was like, “I need something to do. I need some sort of project. Maybe I’ll write a book proposal about this.” I open up my computer in the tent. I just wrote the phrase “How to be loved.” I didn’t know that would be the actual title, but I knew that it would be the driving theme of the book. I wrote a sample chapter. Then an agent emailed me because somebody had recommended that she get — it was this very perfect kismet moment. I was working on this. An agent approached me. I ended up signing with her. We did six proposals. Then I sold the sixth.

Zibby: Wow, so cool. Let’s just go right into all of your —

Eva: Great.

Zibby: — biggest issues in your whole life now that we’re two minutes into this interview. When you went to boarding school, you talked about when you first had your first drink. You joined the Literary Society “because I thought I could finally find my tribe of book-obsessed readers. I went for the books but I became hooked by the alcohol. Once I started drinking, I was able to access some different Eva, some other Eva. One Archers peach schnapps and lemonade in, and suddenly I was funny and the world made sense to me. I knew I had arrived.” Tell me about that first moment and then after that.

Eva: I went to boarding school in the UK, which was very culturally different from Central Canada where I’d been living. That boarding school was the second school that I went to. I accidentally ended up at a reform school for my first three months and definitely got into all sorts of “bad behavior.” I started smoking. I started smoking pot. I was this very rebellious thirteen, fourteen-year-old. Then my parents were like, “We need to get you to a better school.” I go to this better school. I came in halfway through the first year. There were a lot of rumors around my arrival. One of the rumors was that I had been impregnated by a teacher at the other school, which had no basis in fact all. I arrived under this weird cloud. Also, I had an American accent. I got made fun of. I was getting low-key ignored/bullied. I was truly pathologically shy, so shy I could not introduce myself to anybody. I would just stand there and stare at people until they talked to me, which they often would not because it was weird that I was standing there and staring at them. This was my vibe.

Zibby: Sounds great.

Eva: Yeah, it was amazing.

Zibby: Really selling yourself here.

Eva: I know. I totally peaked. I was weird. The first thing that I said in class was how much I loved Shakespeare, which is not a thing you should say when you’re fourteen at your new school. That’s the scene. This is who I am. My classmates, I follow them out. The school had this weird thing where you could go out every Saturday night for two hours to go to a restaurant, but they all knew that we would go to bars because you could drink at sixteen in the UK. I went to this bar. Somebody gives me a drink. I drink the drink. The coolest kid in school sits next to me and is like, “Hi. I don’t think that we’ve met.” I said, “I’m Eva.” He was like, “You’re not Eva.”

That moment solidified my alcoholism. He was like, “You are not the person that I thought you were. You are not the person that I’ve been socially rejecting.” In my brain, I was like, when I’m drunk, I don’t have to be Eva who is awkward, loves Shakespeare, stares at people, is pathologically shy, all these things. I just wanted that feeling of belonging and security and Hugo Tischler being like, “You’re not Eva. You’re somebody cool.” The implied second part of the sentence was “You’re cool, so you can’t be Eva.” I’ve sought, for the rest of my life in various ways, to continue to be not Eva. That’s one of things that Allison really — I keep trying to remember what she would say right now. She kept being like, “You are Eva. You’re definitely not for everyone. You’re very good at being Eva. Just keep being Eva.” I’m like, “But maybe I could recapture that fifteen-year-old magic moment, and I don’t have to be Eva right now.”

Zibby: One might argue that there are other people in that situation who’ve felt equally liberated by drinking who maybe don’t end up becoming alcoholic type. No?

Eva: I don’t know. I can’t imagine.

Eva: I talk to people who haven’t decided to be sober. “You could drink all the time if you wanted to, but you just don’t want to?” They’re like, “Yeah. We just don’t feel like being drunk all the time.” That doesn’t make any sense to me. A friend of mine said once, he’s like, “If I weren’t an alcoholic, I’d be drunk all the time.” I think that’s the best description of alcoholic logic.

Zibby: Because of that though, you end up meeting Allison, who becomes one of the most important people in your life.

Eva: Everything good in my life has ultimately stemmed from the fact that I have a lot of help not drinking.

Zibby: I thought you were going to say for drinking. I was like, “Oh, my gosh. I got to tell my daughter, don’t listen to this episode.” I’m already traumatized by the fact that you’re smoking pot and all this stuff at thirteen. Now that I have almost twelve-year-olds, I’m quaking in my boots. Now, definitely turn it off.

Eva: It was terrible and difficult and painful. I experienced a lot of wreckage. It got so dark that I had to ask for so much help. I had to be willing to accept it. Now, my life is so wildly different. I’m grateful for that. There are definitely times where I wish that I could just — actually, no. I don’t wish that I could just have a glass of wine with dinner. I wish that I could low-key do a lot of drugs for a week and then have no consequences.

Zibby: Have you read this book Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp?

Eva: Yes. I read it.

Zibby: It’s one of my favorites, so good. It made me think of that. In addition to taking the wreckage and making it into this fantastic book, also in the book, you go through all this illness physically, which is insane. I emailed you after. I literally got to certain chapters and was like, “Not again. No! I can’t believe it.” I couldn’t believe it, all the stuff that happened to you, insane. I didn’t see it coming, which was good. In the end, there was some sort of resolution to some part of it.

How did it feel even writing the whole thing and then getting to a place at the end where you could see through the clouds? Did it feel like everything was tied up in a bow? Did it feel like not at all?

Eva: That was one of the huge challenges of structuring the book. I initially did not want to have any sort of result ending. The first draft ended with me walking around one of the rocks in Sedona and being like, “Well, who knows what’s going to happen.” It’s such a great argument to leave the reader totally hanging. Thankfully, I have a really good editor who was like, “This is not an ending.”

Zibby: I’m laughing because I would’ve been like, “What?!”

Eva: One of the things that Brad Listi talked about was this idea of having good manners as writer, which I loved.

Zibby: What’s included in that?

Eva: Being generous and gentle with the reader. When I was first writing the book — I sold it in May 2016. I was still taking forty-five pills a day to try and regulate my nervous system. I was still pretty angry about what had happened. My approach to the reader was — I did not have good manners. I wanted the reader to feel the displacement and confusion that I felt, which is why I didn’t want there to be an ending. I was like, “Listen, I don’t get an ending in real life. Real life doesn’t have endings. You don’t get an ending as a reader.” I’m so glad that time exists. I got to have more time to process all of that while I was writing earlier chapters. Then by the time I came to rewrite the last section, I was okay giving some kind of ending, some sort of resolution.

It was also true, which is that I had gotten a lot better. I had stopped taking all my medication. Now, I still feel not great some days. I feel great other days. I don’t really know why. I still do stuff. I’m not as obsessed with my health as I used to be. I wanted to end not on a note necessarily of “Now, we have a diagnosis. Everything makes sense.” I wanted to end on an emotionally hopeful note, which is, “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I trust that friendship will be part of it.” That’s been true. A couple months before the book came out, I went to see a surgeon here. I had to get another surgery for endometriosis. I called my editor. I was like, “I am mortified because the book has a slightly triumphant ending and I’m like, I don’t have to go to — but now, I have to do this thing.” She was like, “I have a really good book to recommend to you for feeling shame and needing friendship. It’s called How to be Loved. You wrote it.” Great. The book keeps teaching me how to resolve my life in a way.

Zibby: That’s so great. It’s like you created your own tool.

Eva: I wrote the book that I wanted to write when I was sick. I was so starving to read something.

Zibby: You wrote the book you wanted to read when you were sick?

Eva: Yeah.

Zibby: When you were asking about the complications of brain surgery — this was early in the book — you said, “What other complications could I have asked about? That I would finally, through the way in which I was loved for the next four years, the next lifetime even, find and build the self I had been so desperately searching for? That it would be this, this sickness, that would break me open? That it would take something so dramatic, so completely against my will to shake me out of the insecurity and crushing self-judgment I’d lived with for decades?”

Would you consider this some sort of an upside, if you could say that there’s any upside to any of it?

Eva: I need to reread that section because I am full of crushing insecurity and self-doubt at the moment. I haven’t read my book in a while. I need to reread it.

Zibby: You need to reread it.

Eva: I do need to reread it. That is definitely an upside. It’s funny because my friend Lauren and I talk a lot about silver linings or the idea that things were worth it in a way. I feel like it’s trick of my brain to be like, “Everything ended up okay, so it was great.” I’m still really ambivalent on that. I have an extraordinary well of grief about what happened that I access very, very, very occasionally and that I accessed recently. I used to go to this Quaker meeting house when I lived here ten years ago. I went for a different reason. I walked into this space. I remembered everything that had happened in the ten years since I had last been there, particularly how sick I’d been and how scared I’d been and how much physical pain I’d experienced. I just started sobbing. That was so hard.

I’m a fast mover but a slow processor. The stuff happened and I was just like, “Great. Metabolize it.Metabolize it. Metabolize it. Therapy. EMDR. Yoga. Write a book. Go on book tour. Do all this stuff.” All of that was happening. Then my emotional body is like, “Wait, what happened? Oh, my. That was terrible.” That well of grief, I can access it occasionally in safe containers. Then I’ll come back to being like, “I don’t know. Everything is great.” It’s definitely a mental trick that I do to find an upside. Also objectively, I am a different person now. I think that I’m a kinder person. I have healthier relationships. A lot of things changed as a result of getting sick. I also feel total resentment towards people that have never — I’m like, “You don’t even know how good you have it.” That’s a weird vibe, Eva. Don’t do that. It’s enormous. It’s an enormous grief. I think in five years, I’ll feel differently, and in ten years and twenty, assuming I live that long.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Don’t say that. I’m going to pummel this desk. We’re going to take some sledgehammers.

Allison and your friendship, to touch on, you have this beautiful relationship. She’s really sick in the beginning. You both take care of each other in lots of ways. I’m so sorry for this loss. I could feel it on the page. You already referenced her today, like, “What would Allison say?” What are some of the most Allison-y things that you carry around with you daily?

Eva: Just that my constant self-excoriation is so not necessary. I’m separated from my husband and moving towards a divorce. I feel like I’m handling it so badly. I’m so sad. Then I’m getting myself into situations and texting people. My first thought is, “Eva, you’re doing this wrong. This is bad. You should be low-key ashamed of yourself.” Then I feel Allison being like, “Oh, yeah. You’ve never done this before. You don’t know how to do it. You’re doing great. You’re doing a great job.” I hear that. I hear her laughing at the intensity with which I try to change my personality all the time.

Zibby: I don’t know why, not that you need this from me. We just met.

Eva: I’ll take it.

Zibby: I love your personality.

Eva: Thank you. That’s so nice.

Zibby: I’m serious. I could sit here and talk to you all day. You sound like you’re trying to hide some sort of a monster. You’re a smart, funny, great person.

Eva: Thank you. This is the core wound. This is what my therapist says. The fundamental core wound is I am probably bad. Everybody will find out imminently. Allison was somebody who was like, “You’re not perfect because literally nobody is.” I remember when I first met my husband, I said to her, “He’s perfect. He’s literally perfect. There’s nothing wrong with him.” She was like, “I really resist using that kind of language. He’s not perfect because nobody is.” My family’s extraordinarily accomplished and really smart. I do hold myself to an extraordinarily high standard of behavior and thought.

When I think about Allison now, I remember that moment. I write about this in the book where I’ve just had brain surgery. I’m like, “I should get on Tinder. That seems like a great thing to do right now, but I should definitely chill out a little bit.” We all know that. She pulls the car over. She’s like, “Listen, you are not good at being different, but you’re so good at being yourself,” which I’ve said already. I remember that moment so, so, so profoundly. She was very, very, very compassionate. She laughed a lot at what people were doing in the most compassionate way. Also, she was not an abstracted saint. She definitely had her own moments of humanity.

Zibby: You also said — I was trying to find the quote. I can’t find it. I’ll just use my terrible memory to quote it. You were worried. Everybody was being so helpful to you, friends. You couldn’t really reciprocate. Allison was the one who told you there’s no parody in friendship. Sometimes people can just love you and that’s okay, which I thought was so nice and so great. Sometimes if someone sends me a gift that’s so nice and thoughtful, I feel bad because I have not sent them as nice and thoughtful a gift. Now, I have to be extra nice and thoughtful. I can’t even think of — do you know what I mean?

Eva: Totally.

Zibby: My intentions are all so positive. Then I feel the pressure of what they gave me. I couldn’t possibly give it back. Then I remember — I’ll stop talking about it — often, you give things because you derive joy from giving. The same people who gave to you, that’s good for them. It’s not your job to give it back.

Eva: Exactly. It’s just my job to absorb it.

Zibby: And thank them.

Eva: Yeah. If people give me presents, I get so stressed out. I prefer never to receive presents, ever, because otherwise it’s that feeling of crushing debt. That’s such a good reminder that it’s not about that at all.

Zibby: You wrote this article in The New York Times Magazine.

Eva: Just The New York Times Style section.

Zibby: New York Times Style section?

Eva: Yeah, not the magazine. I have not yet cracked The New York Time Magazine. That is my hope. Any editors that are listening, please call me.

Zibby: Because The New York Times is not good enough for Eva. That was slumming it, and so she’s trying to get into the magazine.

Zibby: You have this article called “How I Learned to Look Believable.” It was really interesting. Especially online, it kept flashing little pictures up. It’s about what outfits you chose as you’re going through this sexual harassment suit. You have accused your former grad school — if that’s even the right language — former grad school advisor of sexual harassment. Then you’ve gone through eight zillion meetings and lawyer situations. Part of it is resolved. Part of it is not resolved. Is that what happened?

Eva: It’s all resolved now.

Zibby: It’s all resolved now?

Eva: Yeah.

Zibby: In the article — which was such a unique take on sexual harassment, it’s like Me Too with a scarf — about what outfits are right for different settings, tell me a little about that. How did that experience go down, briefly?

Eva: I filed my complaint in March 2016. Then I sold my book in May. The entire time I was writing the book, I was also doing this case. People have been like, “Literally, how did you do both?” The answer is I could not have done one without the other because I couldn’t talk about the case at all. I felt this extraordinary, weird secret pressure. Then I would be able to relieve that pressure by going and writing the book, which had nothing to do with harassment. It was so intellectually absorbing that it was the only thing that could take my mind off of this incredibly complicated quasi-legal — I’m not a lawyer — math that I kept doing. I was like, “If I do this, then this will happen.” I was very clear in my motives. I was very clear on my intent. That was really, really useful. I went through the Title IX complaint and this investigation, which upheld my allegations. The school didn’t really do anything. Then I hired a lawyer. We threatened to sue based on indifference, which is specific legal term. We went back and forth with the school a lot. The school actually tried to get him dismissed. Then I had to testify in this weird show trial where his defense attorney asked me about my sex life, which was obviously not relevant.

What I wanted to do with that piece was — it was such a high-wire act because I was wanting to communicate things that I wasn’t supposed to communicate. There’s so much adjacency. It’s funny because I feel like ninety-nine percent of readers got the piece. Every so often, I’d see a Facebook comment from somebody who was like, “This poor woman. I don’t understand why she didn’t wear a simple suit and put her hair up.” Oh, no. This is a rhetorical — I’m doing a thing with this by talking about my clothes. Also, it was true. I did think every single day about how I looked. The heartbreaking line of having to be plausibly harassable versus completely innocent, what’s happening?

He was suspended for three years. He ended up resigning. I just went to a professional conference. Everybody said that the department is totally different now. The students that are coming have no idea that it was ever a toxic hell hole. That’s why I did it, so that students now don’t even know. They will never know my name. They will never hear about me. They get to have a different experience. They get to have the experience that I and all my colleagues deserved. Totally worth it.

Zibby: Wow. That’s amazing. I know we’re almost out of time. Do you have any advice to aspiring writers?

Eva: Practice writing. It doesn’t have to be every day. I don’t write every day. Ask for help with writing and practice. Know that it takes a really long time. This is my debut memoir, but I’ve been a professional writer for fifteen years. It took me that long to be able to write this book. Know what your motivations are. I talk to a lot of people who only see publication. They want to publish a book and be famous. I can tell you that, having published a book, that’s actually not the high for me. The high for me is the writing. If you don’t like writing, then writing a book is a weird idea. A lot of people just want to have a book out, whereas if you want to write to process your feelings, that’s a very different — knowing what you want out of writing is really, really important.

I wrote this book because of sheer literary ambition and wanting to write another book and wanting to have a career as a writer. I had no compulsion to share my story or process my emotions. I do that in therapy. I would be very, very clear. Take whatever classes are available. I know that there’s a lot of different economic barriers to access for taking classes. If you look online, there’s a lot of short, online workshops. There’s a range of things. I became such a better writer by taking five creative writing workshops while I was at UC Berkeley, without which I would’ve had no understanding of dialogue or scene or how to get the plot to go from A to B. Writing is a lot of work. If you enjoy the work, it is amazing. If you don’t enjoy the work, you’ll probably quickly discover that.

Zibby: Are you working on anything else now? Do you have another book in you?

Eva: I just met with my agent. I was like, “I’ve achieved literally my life goal, which was to publish a book. Now, I see nothing before me but a wasteland.” She was like, “Okay, cool. I think you will write another book.” I’m thinking about some things. A lot of them are pretty whiplash-y with this book. I was like, “I’m going to do a reported book about zoning codes and not even appear on the page once.” My therapist was like, “This might be a reaction to the intense vulnerability of this book. Maybe wait until the pendulum settles down.” Short answer, no. Long answer, I will.

Zibby: Excellent. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Eva: Thank you so much.

Eva Hagberg Fisher, HOW TO BE LOVED