Kimberly Harrington, BUT YOU SEEMED SO HAPPY

Kimberly Harrington, BUT YOU SEEMED SO HAPPY

“I think women don’t prioritize the time they need just to be— just to have space, have no one in their space, time to think. It solves a lot.” Zibby is joined by memoirist, columnist, and creative director Kimberly Harrington to discuss her latest collection of essays, But You Seemed So Happy: A Marriage, in Pieces and Bits. Kimberly shares how writing these essays helped her refine her opinions on marriage as an institution, why she loved rewriting the ending of When Harry Met Sally so much, and what it was like to look back on her old journals (as well as why she included some of her entries in this book).


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kimberly. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss But You Seemed So Happy: A Marriage, in Pieces and Bits: Essays.

Kimberly Harrington: Thanks for having me. I wanted to say before we start that you know — I had a suspicion that my book was under the radar. I was telling a friend that my book felt a little bit under the radar. You know you’re under the radar when the only list that your book is on is actually under-the-radar books coming out, which was your list.

Zibby: Oh, sorry.

Kimberly: No, it was great. I was like, I’m not imagining it.

Zibby: I still feel this way. This is a fabulous book. It’s really funny and clever and all the things, but I just haven’t seen it — I don’t think it’s been appropriately covered. That’s my two cents.

Kimberly: Thank you.

Zibby: I didn’t mean to perpetuate that with the listing.

Kimberly: No, please. Thank you so much. When I saw that, I was like, okay, this is not in my head. I’m not imagining it. It’s nowhere.

Zibby: Well, I don’t know why. It’s really great, so let’s talk about it. You’ve decided to discuss not only your marriage, but really, growing up, your family, how you got to where you are. You’ve decided to leave your husband’s stuff aside — you handled that, by the way, in such a nice way — and examined marriage as an institution and made fun of it and talked about — maybe I should let you describe it now that I’ve gone on. What would you say this book is principally about? Why write it? Why expose your life? Why write it? Tell me about it.

Kimberly: That’s a good question, isn’t it? This book is several things. First of all, it’s a memoir in essays. It’s the second memoir in essays that I’ve written. It’s a biography of a marriage and a separation. I’m still not divorced. It’s really about that process. It’s a conceptual examination of marriage, like you mentioned. It does make it sound really dry. When I explain it, all three of those things, it makes it sound dry, but there’s a lot of humor in it. In terms of, why write it? I will be honest and say that I’ve had that question in my head many times. I think that when I first started, it was different in my head. It really started out as a humor book, sort of. I had just written Amateur Hour, which was about motherhood. It had this similar mix of conceptual and humor in essay. That came out mid-2018. Said I was never going to do that again. It’s too stressful to write about my life. I find a lot of meaning in it, but it’s stressful. I think memoir is really stressful. That probably doesn’t get talked about nearly enough.

Then six months later, I started this book, so I learned nothing. It was like, I don’t see anything out there about divorce that isn’t very much this women in transition sort of stuff. That is not my vibe at all. I certainly don’t see anything funny about it that isn’t a little jokey-jokey. Even then, there’s just nothing about that — I get it. Hard topics that are culturally seen as bad — these are bad things. They will always be bad things. You should never joke about them. I understand why. I actually understand it more after trying to promote the book, to be quite honest. My feeling during the process was like, well, everyone’s getting divorced now. It’s a pandemic. The market could not be bigger for this book. I was shocked at how freaked out culture is around divorce — it’s just stunning to me; this is not new; this is so common — I’m sure because it’s seen as a failure. Our culture is really freaked out by failure. It’s been really eye-opening, I have to say. It’s kind of like, in hindsight, it makes sense, but in the process, it was just like, wow, really? We’re really this freaked out by this still even though it’s so common?

Zibby: You said something in the book about why people consider it a failure if your marriage ends. You’re like, life ends. Is it a failure that I lived? It’s okay that relationships come to their natural end. Why do we judge it so much?

Kimberly: What ultimately became different about the way I approached the book — where I started was, why this marriage? which is what I think a lot of divorce books are, or memoir about divorce. Why this marriage? Whose fault is it? I ended up in a space of, why marriage? Just why in general. We kind of march through life, and we accept that this is what we should all be doing. We’re made to feel badly if we don’t ever get married, women who don’t get married, choose not to have kids. We don’t ever start at this level. We don’t go above where we are and ask why we do that anyway. I was really coming at it not from a place of bitterness. It wasn’t like, oh, my god, I’m never doing that again. That was a big mistake. It’s like, that was a great experience. It was hard. I had a great relationship with a really great guy, but I don’t know why I would ever do that again. I’ve already checked that box. I don’t understand the reason why. I mean, I get it. I understand it. It’s still really surprising to me that we don’t question it more and we don’t try to think of other ways to approach it when it doesn’t work out. To me, that’s the really surprising thing. I still feel this way. I still feel like, why aren’t we doing things the normal-person way? My god, this is absurd. I don’t see how that’s better than what we’re doing.

Zibby: How would you redo it?

Kimberly: I made this point in the book. When you do something the way everyone else you know isn’t doing it, you feel like a weirdo, which I don’t mind. That’s not unusual to me, but it does wear on you.

Zibby: If you were to scratch the whole thing clean, erase the whole construct of marriage as it exists now.

Kimberly: Oh, I see what you’re saying.

Zibby: I know you have a unique way of handling your divorce and that you’re still living together. At the time of writing, you were still sharing your bed. You put it in your holiday card. I thought it was great. As someone who has gotten a divorce, I really appreciated a lot of the sections, particularly the one — I’ll come back to that. If you were to use a contract like the model you put in here where the contract kind of changes when you have kids and now there are new terms and everything like that, would we all get married at all? Do you believe that we should partner up in a legal way? You don’t have to answer this. Maybe you don’t have a view on it. I don’t know. Do you think it’s even the right thing for today’s day and age at all? Is there a model where you re-up every couple years? What have you thought about?

Kimberly: I think the issue is it’s so bound up in actual legal rights. There’s a layer to it that you can’t really get away from. Again, I am not expert in any degree on almost anything. Far be it for me to get into a legal argument about it. There’s the way our society works, that you have to have all of this legal stuff in place, especially if you have kids. If I set that aside, I feel like the ideal situation is probably where a lot of us started out in our twenties. You didn’t live with someone immediately. You kind of had your own space. Then you’re able to really enjoy being together. You didn’t have to deal with the grind of someone’s chewing or disgusting bathroom habits or whatever. That, to me, is the stuff that starts to grind you down. I so value having my own space again. I’m so used to it now. It’s funny to me how many women who, because of the pandemic, whether they were on quarantine or had COVID or their partner had COVID, were like, it was really nice to have my own room again. It was nice to just sleep.

This is what I’m saying. It is really nice to have your own space. It’s crazy. That’s another thing. Who decided to share a bed for the rest of your life? It’s impossible to sleep at a certain point. It’s these kind of things that got in my head, these really basic things that were like, okay, we’re just going to do that and not ask any questions about it whatsoever. That’s the stuff that started making me crazy. I kind of feel like the ideal situation is some sort of separation physically. Legally, whatever. I don’t know. Just being able to have your own space, your own time away not feeling like you constantly have to be together, do everything together, see each other all the time, I think it’s necessary. I think women especially don’t prioritize the time they need just to be, just to have space, have no one in their space, time to think. It solves a lot. It really solves a lot of problems, actually. We don’t prioritize it.

Zibby: I agree. Time to think. I did more thinking post-divorce than I did my entire marriage, I think. I’m sort of joking but sort of not.

Kimberly: Exactly. Don’t you find that frustrating, that there’s so much that you process? It’s like, I wish I had this framework or these questions in the beginning or even in the middle. We kind of just go. We just go, go, go.

Zibby: It’s true. I know. Well, you don’t know until you do it.

Kimberly: You don’t know until you know.

Zibby: You have this chapter that I loved, and I just want to read the beginning if you don’t mind, called Thank you, Acquaintance, for the Very Good Advice on How to Save My Marriage. You go, “This is amazing. What are the odds? Here I was struggling for years navigating the disintegration of one of the most foundational and, dare I say, private relationships of my life, a relationship, in fact, that has lasted almost the entirety of my adulthood, which is an interesting contrast to my relationship with you, a person whom I have spoken with twice. How I had never thought to consult you, peripheral nobody, for advice is beyond me. Thank goodness you are such a warrior for the sanctity of marriage that you stepped boldly over the line of polite discourse to insert yourself into this intimate, intimate area of my life. You are certainly brave, and a person who is not reading my social ques right now. Again, I am overcome with gratitude. Thanks.” I loved that part. The whole subsequent chapter was hilarious. That was one thing I found also, just the volume of unsolicited advice after decisions had already been made. I don’t need to rethink it now. I’m telling you the end. I don’t need the feedback now.

Kimberly: I have to say, I didn’t get too much of that because of that email that I put in the book. We just blasted people with the news. My naturally hostile personality — anyone who knows me is like, I’m not going to have this conversation with you. I’m telling you. This is not a negotiation. You don’t need to chime in. You can talk behind my back like normal people do. We don’t need to work this out. If I put myself in other people’s shoes — we’ve all been there when we’ve heard other people’s news. It’s fresh to you as the person who’s receiving the news, so you feel like — it’s kind of like crisis management. Like you said, it’s like, no, no, no, I’m telling you how the story ends. I’m not inviting you to rewrite some chapters with me. This is a conclusion. You can accept this news. Then you can move on with life because it affects you in no way. Feel free to progress through your life as you were. It’s hard because people, they’re hearing — I had to realize that they’re hearing it through their own lens. They’re hearing it through whether they feel like it’s contagious, whether they feel like, what does that say about their relationship? They’re coming to you with all of their stuff. It has almost nothing to do with you. That’s true of everything. I sort of feel like it doesn’t matter what you’re announcing, whether it’s something that’s perceived as bad or good, like an engagement, a divorce, a pregnancy, a miscarriage, a book deal. People are bringing their stuff to their reaction. You’re just the container for it. It helps kind of distance — someone’s always going to disappoint you. People are always going to pleasantly surprise you, and people are always going to disappoint you in those situations. I found the more I could just disengage and be like, that’s you, that’s not me, we’re not workshopping this, you can work through your reaction to it on your own without me…

Zibby: Going there.

Kimberly: You know.

Zibby: Yeah, I get it. What about the section where you rewrite the ending to When Harry Met Sally?

Kimberly: I loved writing that piece. I didn’t know if it was going to work, to be honest. It’s a little bit of an anomaly in the book. It gave me the excuse to watch that movie like ten times, even though I’ve seen it a bunch, to sort out the dynamic and the voice of those characters. I think what’s really satisfying about it is I’ve had people who read the manuscript throughout — they saw the really horrible first draft that had all kinds of issues. That was a much later piece. Hearing people were pretty skeptical of it when they started reading, like, yeah, I don’t know, and ended up really loving it or feeling even emotional reading, it was — that’s how I felt. I felt like, I know, format-wise, maybe this doesn’t quite fit. It feels a little out of left field, but I’ve loved it. I love that piece. Originally, I had a lot of pieces that more overtly traced popular culture like the movies I grew up with and how that’s such a big — I don’t want to be all, blame media for everything, but when you’re fed a narrative arc, especially when you’re a teenager, and over and over and over again and the only satisfying conclusion is that you get married or you’re a part of a couple, it matters. It has an impact. That was a bigger thread in an earlier manuscript. It kind of went away. I was right on the edge of, this piece made more sense when I was talking about movies more, but I’m glad it stayed in. I love that piece.

Zibby: I thought it was great. It’s just so clever. The whole book, the way you did all of it was so creative. It’s such a creative approach to the whole thing, even how you interwove all your — is that even the right word, interwove? — all of your own diary entries. Were those real?

Kimberly: Those are real. That was a huge breakthrough in working on the book, I have to say. When I started writing it, I was really starting from where I was. There was a ton of pieces about divorce and a ton of pieces about the end of my marriage. They were much more defensive and angry and old man yelling at cloud sort of vibe to a lot of those. Kind of in parallel, I had a big box of journals and diaries that I was going to sort through because I had some time off of work. Before, I would dip in and out of them and be like, god, this is so cringe-inducing. This is just painful, but I want to read them. I was going to destroy them. I was going to rip them up and just get them out of my life forever. Instead, I blasted through them. When I did that, it’s like, oh, this story I’ve been telling myself about how I was when I was a teenager and when I was in my twenties isn’t accurate, actually. I’ve been telling myself this story the whole time. As I was reading, I was transcribing some of those entries. That started to ground it and make the book go further back. Instead of it just being about the end, it’s like, well, I ended up here for a reason. You can’t game out your life and, oh, this is exactly what happened, but I did start off with certain ideas. I was a certain type of person. I wasn’t stupid. You know, teenagers, you’re so dumb. You don’t know anything. I wasn’t that dumb. I’m still pretty much that person, just older. I think that that really helped be more forgiving and actually having a more forgiving approach and forgiving tone to the book overall. Yeah, those are real. Some of them really blew my mind because I haven’t read them since I probably wrote them when I was seventeen or whatever.

Zibby: That’s on my to-do list. I do have a bunch of my journals saved. I keep being like, I have to go read them because I bet I’ll have some book idea. I could use them for this. I’m saving them for a rainy day type of thing.

Kimberly: It’s worth it. I really would recommend plowing through them. It is painful. It’s so physically painful at times that you just have to walk away from them because you’re like, oh, my god. This is embarrassing. It’s cringe-inducing. You just want it to stop. If someone was punching you, you would want them to stop. To me, that’s how it feels reading journals from when you’re an adolescent. Muscling through really gave me insights that I would not have had if I just kept, every few months, dipping in and out of them. It was really eye-opening, really surprising.

Zibby: Okay, I’m putting it higher up on my list of things that I might do with some free time. You said at the beginning that writing a memoir is really stressful. Is it the actual writing, or is it the sharing of the information? Which piece of it is stressful?

Kimberly: I think they’re stressful in different ways. I think the writing is more satisfying. It can be hard and it can be emotional, but there’s something satisfying about it because you’re trying to sort things out. Even when it’s painful or you can’t really remember stuff — even that’s just hard in general. I had to write a list of schoolyears and how old I was to remember when things were happening. There are things that are just frustrating. I think the writing can be really satisfying. It’s sharing it that is nauseating. The fact that I did it twice is absurd. Do I not remember how nauseous I felt all the time? It’s one thing to write it and process it and have that satisfaction. It’s another thing to put it out there and really question, why did I do that? I think women especially work in memoir because it feels easy. It’s like, well, I’m writing about my life, I know how everything ends. I know the details. It is not easy. That would be one thing I would tell writers who are thinking about that. It’s hard. It’s stressful in a way that is hard to articulate. Anyone else I know who does it is like, oh, yeah.

Zibby: You’re really selling the art of memoir here, let me tell you.

Kimberly: I know. Don’t do it, is what I’m saying. Do not do it.

Zibby: What other advice would you give for aspiring authors aside from staying far away from what you ?

Kimberly: Instead of not doing whatever it is you’re doing. I think it would be to really think about what your definition of success is. I think that doesn’t get talked about enough, to be quite honest. People will see me as having two books out with a big publisher, and they think I’m successful, that’s all I do now, which is very far from the truth. I’ve had to really examine this year, what is success? So few authors are successful, if we talk about making a living from it. Almost no one does. The price you pay for putting, for example, your life in a book and putting it out there — maybe you get attention for a week or two weeks, and then it’s gone. Years of your work are gone. I’ve had to really think through, what is success? I think a lot of people are like, I want to write the article that goes viral. Why do you want it to go viral? Because I want to get a book deal. What do you think’s going to happen when you get a book deal? You’re going to write the book. I think that we just plow through and don’t stop and ask, is that what I really want? It’s a lot of work, so what are you going to sacrifice to write that book? I sacrificed a lot of time with my kids, a lot of focus with my kids. Is that success to me? I don’t know. That’s something I’m thinking about. I wish I had clear-cut craft advice, but that’s not where my head is at. It’s a lot about the machine of pushing you forward to want the book deal, to keep going forward at all costs. First of all, writing and publishing are two different things. I get a lot of satisfaction from writing. That’s kind of where I’m back now. Publishing is a totally different animal. I think more writers might be happier if they really think about what success is to them.

Zibby: Interesting. What are you writing now?

Kimberly: Right now, I am stepping way back from ever working on a book. Maybe I will down the road. Now I’m returning to just shorter pieces when I have time, really spending time working on more contained things, working on my newsletter, writing what I want to write, basically, not pitching anything. That’s really been satisfying to me. It’s only been a month of that. I took a very long break after the book came out. I’m only returning to it now. It’s like, oh, yeah, this is where I started. This is what I started doing. I felt really happy and proud when I worked on something that I really loved. That was the whole experience. It was self-contained. I wrote a thing. I put a thing out. That thing was done. It didn’t need to go anywhere else. It’s like, oh, yeah, I’m going to try that again. That’s been nice, but our culture doesn’t work that way. You need to always want something bigger for yourself. What are you ever doing if you don’t want something bigger? Right now, I don’t want anything bigger.

Zibby: That’s okay. I’m giving you permission. Works for me. This was really fun. I really enjoyed your book, even the title, A Marriage, in Pieces and Bits. It’s all so clever and well-done and smart and thought-provoking and creative. I thought it was great. I really enjoyed it.

Kimberly: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that.

Zibby: Hopefully, not as under the radar. Take care. I’ll talk to you soon. Buh-bye.

Kimberly: Bye.

Kimberly Harrington, BUT YOU SEEMED SO HAPPY

BUT YOU SEEMED SO HAPPY by Kimberly Harrington

Purchase your copy on Amazon and Bookshop!

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts