Harrison Scott Key, HOW TO STAY MARRIED: The Most Insane Love Story Ever Told

Harrison Scott Key, HOW TO STAY MARRIED: The Most Insane Love Story Ever Told

Zibby interviews Thurber Prize-winning author Harrison Scott Key about How to Stay Married: The Most Insane Love Story Ever Told, a hilarious and heartbreaking memoir about the hellscape of marriage and the mysteries of mercy. Harrison describes the moment his marriage exploded (when his wife revealed she was in love with his friend!) and the difficult path their relationship took thereafter. He also shares his views on marriage (we all marry the wrong people!), stories from his childhood in rural Mississippi, and his path to writing and humor.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Harrison. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss How to Stay Married: The Most Insane Love Story Ever Told.

Harrison Scott Key: Thanks for having me. We had a big book launch just last night, so I’m still recovering from that.

Zibby: I have to tell you this book was so amazing. I had to stop doing the things I was supposed to do in my life so I could read this. I was like, no, no, no, I know we’re supposed to see these friends, but I need twenty minutes here. I need twenty minutes there. I could not put it down. It’s so good. I’ve never read anything like it from a male point of view about a relationship. It was so good. Congratulations. I loved it. You’re so funny.

Harrison: Thank you. You’re so sweet.

Zibby: I mean it. No one shows all those inside things about a marriage. You were so open and yet so funny. Bravo. Why don’t you tell listeners a little bit about your book, what it’s about, the love story that you reference, and how you decided to write it as a book and then even the chapter by your wife, which I thought was so interesting, that you put in the end? This whole thing was so good. Tell me the whole story.

Harrison: In 2017, my wife sat me down. She sent me an email one day at work. She said, “Can we talk when the girls go to bed tonight?” We have three daughters. At the time, we’d been married about fourteen years. She said, “When the girls go to sleep tonight, can we talk?” My wife never sends emails like that. It’s the worst kind of email you can get because it’s like, why is she emailing me? It just felt so strange. Of course, immediately, my heart sank. I was like, something is going on. I emailed her back. I’m like, “Sure. Of course, we can talk. What do you want to talk about?” It could be anything. It could be she found a job somewhere. Maybe something bad. Maybe she wanted to confess that she had a pill addiction or she was an alcoholic or that she really wanted to move or whatever. It was very heavy. That night after the girls went to sleep, she sat me down. She said, “I want a divorce.” I said, “Okay. Why?” She said, “I’m in love with someone else.” I said, “Who?” She told me. The name that she told me was a friend of mine, one of our former next-door neighbors. In that moment, everything that I had known about my life changed. It had already changed. I didn’t know that it had changed until that moment. Everything exploded.

The way I describe it to people is, it seems like a memoir about marriage or a memoir about my wife’s affair, but what it really is, it’s really a detective novel. There’s a murder at the beginning just like there is in a detective novel. What was murdered was my marriage. The entire book is me trying to figure out who killed this thing. Is it dead yet? Can it be brought back to life? The whole action of the story is me trying to learn, how did this happen? How did she fall in love with this guy? What were they keeping secret from me? What did I not see that was so obvious, just so obvious? There’s so many twists and turns, as you know. It’s like Days of Our Lives but written by Seinfeld and Larry David. So many twists and turns, this torrid love affair. The other man, who in the book I call Chad — that’s not his real name. He’s really an offstage character. There’s nothing salacious in this book. He doesn’t really figure into the action. He’s always referenced offstage almost like in Shakespeare. He’s something that happens offstage. This is really about her and me. A lot of people have asked me, why would you write this book that’s so candid about your wife’s affair? You’re still married. Saying the book is about my wife’s affair is sort of like saying the movie Jaws is about marine biology. It’s not like that at all.

It’s really an investigation into how our marriage died. Who killed it? Who’s responsible? Is it her? Is it me? Is it both of us? It’s answering all of those questions. Of course, there’s a happy ending. There’s more than just one revelation in the book, as you know. I won’t give it away for listeners. There’s a happy ending in the sense of, there’s reconciliation. I like to tell people it’s sort of like Europe in World War I and World War II. I really thought I was England, and my wife was Germany. She had done this terrible thing. She deserved punishment. That’s how it feels when you find out that you’ve been betrayed. There was a fragile piece, sort of like at the end of the first world war. Then some terrible things happened again. There was a whole other world war. That also is described in the book. I realize that it wasn’t that I was England, and my wife was Germany. It’s more that I was England, and my ego was Germany. My ego was the real enemy here. Maybe my wife was France. She was a player in this, but this is not a book about her villainy. I really needed help. To extend this really weird metaphor, our friends and family and community, our church all were like America coming in to help when I needed it most. That’s the story of the book.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. At the end of the book, you give — I’m not giving anything away, but almost like an essay — you could tear it out and stuff it in your back pocket — of what to take away for your own marriage. What should we remember here? Which was useful because, of course, after you do this deep dive into something that is — every relationship is a living, breathing thing. What it comes down to the most is what we come into our relationships with. It’s a miracle any relationship ever works, to be honest, right? Isn’t it?

Harrison: I’m not the first person to say this, but I really believe that you marry the wrong person. Everybody marries the wrong person, even if you’re soulmates at the beginning. Most people feel that way. That’s why they get married. You feel like you’ve found your soulmate. As a wiser man once said, my wife has been married to five people, and they’re all me. You change so much. I liken it to, when you get married, it’s a little bit like buying a car. It’s a new car. It’s so beautiful. Nothing ever will go wrong with it, but it’s a lemon. It’s always a lemon because there are things under the hood, and not only for them, but for you. You’re their car. You’re their brand-new car. There’s things under your hood that are so F’d up. Nobody knows. You can’t even find out what they are until you’re married. It’s like the marriage is how you discover what’s really inside you. The trauma, the biases, the way that your brain is messed up, the expectations you have that aren’t right, all the really weird habits you bring into marriage because of how you saw your parents be married. All that stuff, it only comes out when you’re married. It comes out over time. You change. You evolve. Everybody says it’s crazy that fifty percent of marriages end in divorce. I’m shocked that fifty percent of marriages don’t. That’s the real shock to me when you really think about it.

Zibby: I was really interested in your whole childhood and how your parents — you also look into and debate if they’re well-suited and how their relationship came to be. They seem so different. You were this bookish kid with all these lofty literary goals like a fish out of water where you had grown up. You say this in a much more funny, articulate way, of course, which I really enjoyed reading. How you take even how you grew up and the training you have and how you feel about your interests — how do you think you got yourself onto the writing path? At times reading your story, it feels very unlikely that this is where it would end up.

Harrison: When you say, “this is where it would end up,” what do you mean?

Zibby: With you becoming a really successful author.

Harrison: That’s really the whole story of my second book, which came out about five years ago. It’s called Congratulations, Who Are You Again? It’s about the American dream. How do you find out what you’re good at and who you are and what your calling is? The short answer is I was always a writer even when I didn’t think that I was. I was writing and telling stories from a very young age. I’m from the South. I’m from Mississippi. Storytelling and sitting on the front porch and sitting at the dinner table and telling hunting stories and fishing stories and stories about this person and that person is just such a part of that culture, and so I grew up with that. I also grew up reading. We had nothing to do out in the country. Nothing. We had no cable. We had three channels. We lived fifteen miles from the nearest grocery store. We were out in the middle of nowhere. Books, for me, that was the original mobile technology. That was the thing that you could have and take anywhere, sort of like a portal to any dimension, any place and time. I just fell in love with stories. I started writing from a young age. I wrote letters. I would fall in love with fifteen different girls at summer camp. I would write letters to all of them. I would continue writing letters after summer camp every year.

This is really odd. My older brother was a football player, a big hunter. My dad was a big sportsman. He was a football coach. I played sports. I did all that stuff, but I was so drawn to literature and to reading. I wrote letters to my grandmother. She lived about three hours away. I wrote letters to her. She wrote letters to me. I didn’t think anything about it. It was just how I expressed myself. I loved spending time that way. When I got to college, it was very strange, I did not major in English. You would assume that I would. In my experience, English majors were all girls who liked Jane Austen. That was it. That just wasn’t my vibe. Philosophy is like English majors for boys. That’s what philosophy is. I was like, I’ll major in philosophy. You’re doing the same thing. You’re reading lots of old stuff, and you’re talking about it and writing about it. I studied philosophy. I thought I was an actor. I went to grad school for that. I did stand-up for a little while. The way I got back into writing was — this was before the internet where you could find all the monologues you wanted for auditions up and down all day long. Back then, you had to write your own monologues or find them in books. I started writing my own audition monologues. I found that that was so much fun. It just felt so natural to write and perform my own stuff. In a sense, I’m still doing that now because I’m writing. I’m writing stuff. Then I go on tour, and I perform it. It’s really strange how that all worked out.

I had a very circuitous route to writing a book. It took me ten years to write my first book in the sense of learning — I have a PhD in playwriting, and I knew jack squat about writing after I finished that degree because it’s theoretical. It’s just about argument and reading. It hadn’t sunk in. I got married when I was twenty-seven. I left academia. I left teaching. I was like, you know what, I want to write a novel, a memoir. I want to write something. It took me five years to learn how to write as funny as I was in real life. I’m a naturally funny person. No matter where I am, what I’m doing, I’m going to make jokes. I’m going to find a funny thing to say. Getting that onto the page and making it feel like me, that took forever. That took five years of getting up every day at five AM and writing for three hours before work. Then once I figured out how to do it, then I had to have something to say. What am I writing about? Am I writing silly short stories? Am I writing the great American novel? It took five more years to realize that I needed to write about that fish-out-of-water experience of my childhood and write about my dad. Once I got that, once I had the comedy voice and once I had a topic and a subject — I think those two things form what you call the writer’s voice. What are you talking about? How are you saying it? Once I had those two things, my career really took off from there.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, amazing. I obviously have to go back now and read that book. I’m now a lifelong fan. Has this book been optioned, by the way? I think it would be a good movie.

Harrison: It has not been optioned yet. I’ve had conversations with three or four producers. There’s a challenge. Is it a TV show? Is it a film? I think it’s a TV show just because it feels so episodic. It feels like maybe it’s three seasons because the story has three distinct parts, an act one and a two and a three. I’m playing with that. Because of my background in scriptwriting, I did write a screenplay for my first memoir. I’ve thought about doing that, but I really want to write a novel. I’m really torn right now. Do I work with one of these producers to adapt that into a show, or do I just write the next book? I’m a working dad. I’ve got a full-time job at a university. I don’t have time to just do both. I know writers who, that’s all they do. They can do both, but I can’t. I have to choose very wisely.

Zibby: You could also have someone else adapt it.

Harrison: I think once the book — obviously, it comes out this month in June. Technically, we’re recording this on a Monday. The book comes out tomorrow on a Tuesday. I’m expecting option offers over the next month or two. If it does get optioned, I would like to be a part of the writing team just because I obviously love to write and not at all afraid of that medium.

Zibby: Amazing. My husband has a production company. I was like, “You have to option this. I’ll try to figure out if it’s optioned.” Not that it’s hard to figure out. Can I read a couple things I thought were so funny?

Harrison: Sure.

Zibby: I have all these dogeared. I’ll just randomly pick a few passages. I’ll just read a couple things. I don’t know if these are what I even thought was funny to begin with, but I’ll read them anyway. “At its best, comedy provides a check on power and pride, keeps you realistic about how good you don’t look in those jeans, and I do believe that our shared love of laughter kept us both humble, but man, funny people sure can make a marriage lonesome. I began to worry that my wife and I were just ordinary assholes doing twenty-five to life for crimes of the heart. I avoided her in the house. Little eye contact. Zero touching. So obvious was her disgust while she chose to share news of her aneurysms with others, anybody who’d listen and not always mock. Chad, for example. He was out there, a text away. I think most divorces are merely a failure of imagination. You lose the capacity to conceive of a happy future. The two of you are like a wet pair of matches, hardly able to get the fire back. Why keep trying? The world is full of dry matches. All you need is a new one.” Tell me about that passage, what you were thinking, writing, how you feel about it.

Harrison: Marriage, it’s so hard. It’s like what we were saying. What makes a marriage a marriage is the promise to stay married, the vow that you take at the altar or under the beautiful oak tree in the outdoor wedding, wherever you do it. You take a vow. If marriage was about feelings and if marriage was easy, you wouldn’t have to vow. You don’t have to take vows if something’s easy. You don’t have to vow to eat all the popcorn at the movie theater. You don’t have to take a vow to eat the chocolate that you got for Halloween. You take vows because whatever you’re promising to do is going to be hard. You make a promise in front of your people. You’re like, I know this is going to be hard. I promise all of you people. That’s why you have to have, even if you’re getting married by a justice of the peace, you’ve got to have a witness, somebody who’s like, all right, I’m hearing you. The witness is usually somebody that you know and love and care about. You take vows because things are hard. We know this in theory. When you get married, you don’t always like your spouse. Your spouse becomes your greatest enemy because you know everything terrible about them. You see them at their worst. You see them metaphorically and literally naked. You see all their faults, metaphorically and literally. Then all these other beautiful people walking around, you haven’t seen their faults. They look beautiful. They look nice. They look perfect. Whereas you look at your spouse, and you’ve seen everything.

It’s the difference between — to use the car analogy, you’ve been driving this crappy car now for ten or fifteen or twenty years. You know that it’s a terrible car. You know all its weird sounds and what it doesn’t do right. Then every other car that passes you on the street just looks so nice. You’re like, man, if I had that car, my life would be so much better. That passage that you read, that whole idea of, we were two wet matches, all you need to light a wet match is a dry one. All these other people out there — my wife had this affair in part because she worked from home, and this man worked from home. She was a stay-at-home mom. He had a business where he worked from home most of the time. Our houses were right next door to one another. In a sense, he was like her work husband. If you work in an office, you’ve got your work spouse, your work wife. You flirt. You talk. It’s so electrifying because you don’t have any negative history with that person. You haven’t had to pack for vacations with that person. You’ve not had to grocery shop with that person. They’re so likeable because you don’t know jack squat about them. That’s what this man was for my wife at some point.

When things got bad for us — every marriage has its ebbs and flows. You have good years and bad years. You have really bad years and really great years. During the really bad years, here was this man who she was friends with. They got along. They laughed together. Again, her work husband in a sense. He looked like happiness. He looked like joy. She can get the fire with him because he’s a new guy. She couldn’t get it with me. It takes work to do it with your spouse, to get that fire back, to fall in love again. Man, it takes so much work. It’s continual, whether it’s therapy or just intimacy, time spent together, going on a walk, trying to learn their love languages. It’s exhausting. It was hard. It feels impossible. What I said, it’s a failure of imagination. I say in the book, you have to imagine wanting to divorce your spouse. Do it now. Imagine hating something about them, and then imagine trying to stay married anyway. Imagine trying to find what you love about them. For me, the secret to fall in love again with my wife, and I think for her to fall in love with me, was to look in the mirror and see how broken and awful I was. It’s so easy to point the finger when you get betrayed. I’ve done a lot of bad things, but I have never done that. I felt so self-righteous when I found out about the betrayal. That self-righteousness was poison because it made me hate my wife. It made me elevate myself to this morally superior status.

One of my good buddies said in cases — he’s a therapist. He said in cases like this, if a marriage is ever going to reconcile, then both spouses have to own their part in it. He wasn’t saying I caused the affair. He was saying it might be useful to look in the mirror and just see what it might be like to be married to me. Think about what it’s like to be married to you, Harrison. I thought about it. I made a long, long list, as you saw in the book. There’s a whole chapter about it. It was not pleasant. There was some humor in it. I say it’s like looking in not just one of those nice mirrors at the luxury boutique, but it was more like looking in one of those mirrors at Walmart that don’t lie about what you look like, the terrible lighting. You really have to look at yourself and decide, wow, I am kind of a jackass. I believe every human being on earth is a jackass of one form or another. Once you realize your fault and how hard it is to be married to you, it’s much easier to forgive. It was so much easier to look at my wife and be like, damn, I see why our marriage might be something she would want to escape. I didn’t abuse my wife, emotionally, physically. I wasn’t an addict. I’m not an alcoholic. I have so many frailties and so many cracks and imperfections. I contributed to making our marriage a burning building that somebody might want to get out of.

Zibby: Even the ability to take stock the way that you did in the book — the book is sort of a taking stock, deep dive analysis. So many people are not capable of doing that. Especially for any narcissists out there, you are physically — not physically, but emotionally incapable of seeing any wrong in yourself. It can be so damaging to your sense of self to dive as deep as you did into who you are, how you contributed. Yet look at the outcome. I feel like this is such an advertisement for just laying it all out there, the good, bad, and the ugly. You interwove all of your faith in here. You had such a brilliant chapter where you write as if you’re writing the Bible. “And the Lord…,” whatever. Oh, my god, so funny. It wasn’t just that. It’s that you founded a church and played the drums and include faith really in every story. It’s a critical part of the book, which I would love to hear your thoughts on. This is another way I feel like the book is unique in that there isn’t often another storyline which follows which always interweaves the faith. I’m sorry, I cannot make a sentence this morning. I think you know what I’m talking about.

Harrison: I grew up in the church. I’m a Christian. I’m terrible at it. I’m terrible at every kind of Christianity. I’m terrible at the really sweet, gentle, Jesus as a kitten that you hold in the palm of your hand. He loves you, and you love him. I’m terrible at that kind of Christianity. I’m terrible at the righteous right-wing Christianity where Jesus carries a flamethrower. I don’t fit anywhere. I’m terrible at it. I’ve grown up with it. I grew up in a very conservative Southern church and have bounced around. I’ve studied some theology in college. I actually was enrolled in seminary for about a week before I decided to study playwriting. Theology and religion, it’s one more form of human curiosity. Why are we here? Did something make us? If so, why did they make us? What are we supposed to be like? What is a good life? Those are all the questions that anybody’s asking in a TED Talk and anybody’s asking in a sermon, in every spiritual/religious book from the Tao Te Ching to the Old and New Testament. They’re all asking those same questions. Life is F’d up. What are you going to do about it? Why is it F’d up? What are you going to do? When anything blows up in your life, you’re going to ask big questions. What am I to do now? You’re going to look around for wisdom everywhere. You’re going to google. You’re going to look for wisdom on the internet. You’re going to look for wisdom in Instagram. You’re going to look for wisdom when you talk to your friends. You’re going to desperately need wisdom.

For me, this experience compelled me to be like, okay — it was like, imagine religion — some churches have this thing called Bible Bowl. It’s Bible trivia, like Jeopardy for Christian nerd kids. I did all that. I have a trophy. I have a Bible Bowl trophy from sixth grade. I love to read. That was the coolest thing about church. We were reading Middle English poetry in the King James Bible and talking about — it was like English class. We were talking about what these interesting stories meant. What do you think is going on here? That’s all you do in English class. You’re reading really old poetry and talking about it. Most of it’s weird and confusing. That’s exactly what Sunday school was. I was fascinated by that as a boy. I liken faith to a shed in your backyard where you’ve got all these interesting, weird tools. You’re not quite sure what they’re for, but they’re really old and interesting and cool. I’d studied all these religious ideas all my life in church, in school, in college, books that I read. When my life blew up and I was looking for wisdom, I was like, let’s see what the fucking Bible has to say about this shit. I was at the end of my rope. I was like, you know what? I want the King James Bible. I want the good stuff. I don’t want any of these modern translations. I went straight to it.

Rereading the Bible from cover to cover in the midst of the explosion of my marriage was very insightful. I read it with completely different eyes, not the eyes of a dogmatist. When somebody’s preaching from the Bible, they have a lot at stake. They’re trying to prove something. There was nothing left for me to prove or be proven to. I was just reading and trying to decide, why does this book exist? It’s existed for so long. It’s got to have some wisdom in it. My house is falling apart. I wandered into my backyard, and I find this shed full of tools. I was like, wait, tools do something. I can do something with these tools. Grace, forgiveness, love, wisdom. Do I hurt this man? I felt such an urge to vengeance. Do I do that? Do I love him? It says love your enemies. Do I have to love this guy? How do I do that? It seems insane. I was like, you know what? I’ll give it a shot. I read. As you saw in the book, I make a lot of fun of what you find in the Bible and yet try to divine wisdom from the story, not specific, do this, don’t do that, but more of a forty-thousand-foot transcendent wisdom of, what is anyone’s duty in this life? What is your duty? That was really helpful to me.

Zibby: Amazing. Thank you so much. I had a million other passages that were so funny that I want to post on my bulletin board or something. Thank you for the conversation. Good luck with your launch tomorrow. I’ll be cheering for you. This book is so good. I want to shout it from the rooftops. Congratulations.

Harrison: Zibby, you are so sweet. Thank you so much for having me on.

Zibby: My pleasure. Take care. Buh-bye.

Harrison: See you.

HOW TO STAY MARRIED: The Most Insane Love Story Ever Told by Harrison Scott Key

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