"Empathy is a muscle – the more you exercise it, the easier it is to conjure," Heather Havrilesky explained over breakfast at the Black Cow Cafe in Montrose, a neighborhood just outside of Los Angeles. Havrilesky was describing the process with which she writes her popular advice column, "Ask Polly," but she could’ve just as easily been quoting her own work.
Since 2012 and the column’s original home at The Awl, Havrilesky has been offering advice on universal-ish topics like “I’m Turning 30 and Anxiety is Ruining Me” and “Should I Live Alone So I Can Act Weird and Not Feel Ashamed?” as well as offering her response to readers who suffered more particular plights, such as sexual abuse. Through a combination of insightful empathy (in conversation, it’s like she’s either reading your mind or communicating directly with your id) and no-bullshit advice, Havrilesky amassed a passionate following. In 2014, New York Magazine took notice and lured Havrilesky to their site.
This week, Doubleday is publishing Havrilesky’s second book, How to Be a Person in the World, a collection of mostly new "Ask Polly" columns. On the eve of her book tour, she joined me for a heavy breakfast and conversation to match.
Before I started recording, Havrilesky ordered an English Breakfast Tea, with honey and cream, but explained to me another favorite beverage from the restaurant:
Heather Havrilesky: They have this shaky kind of thing called a Combo Crazy Freeze. It’s vanilla and chocolate powder, but I always get it less sweet. It’s frothy, sugary. I don’t drink as much caffeine anymore, but sometimes I forget to say I want a half shot of espresso and then I’m a crazy person all day long and I have a crash in the afternoon. When I was younger, I used to drink a triple latte every morning. I was really funny and brilliant for three hours, and then I cried into my hands in the afternoon.
Have you had a chance to look at this glorious menu? Everything here is super heavy, just so you know. For the Southern Big Skillet, do you know what corn pudding is?
Extra Crispy: No, I don’t.
It’s almost like a mushy corn muffin. It’s dense, it’s tamale-ish, it’s a little sweet, and it has a cheese sauce on top of it.
That sounds delicious, I think I am going to try that. Is that what you order?
I sometimes get it when I’m really in the mood. I like it with sausage. The Corned Beef Skillet is actually really good too. The Breakfast Quesadilla is awesome. I also get the Cow Benedict, which is a croissant with an egg on it. Also, I like the Country Biscuits Breakfast. It comes with eggs and sausage or bacon. Those are the things I get. Everything is triple cheese, triple butter.
We place our order with the waiter. I ask for the Southern Baked Skillet, the one with the corn pudding, and Heather orders the Breakfast Quesadilla. While we’re waiting for our food, we discuss Heather’s impending book tour, and the potential of her appearing on television to promote the book.
HH: What if this goes crazy and I have to clean myself up, buy a pair of shoes to wear on a morning show? I have that panic feeling, like, “You don’t look appropriate for this.” I dress like a college student still, so, okay, I’m going to get my hair highlighted.
I’m in this mindset because I was a TV critic for a long time. I write well about TV but I don’t want to talk about TV. [TV Anchor voice] “Well, let me tell you about the five hot shows”—no! I’m not an anchor.
The waiter delivers our big plates of food: triple cheese, triple butter, jalapeno biscuits on the side.
Do you eat a heavy, big breakfast usually?
No. I drink a smoothie for breakfast every day and that’s it. I make it for myself, my husband, and our two kids. My husband makes them too, but he doesn’t make them as well, somehow. Same ingredients, but his alchemy is slightly off.
What do you put in the smoothie?
Green juice from Trader Joe’s, just a little bit. Because it’s the summer, I try to use a lot of fresh fruit—mostly peaches, strawberries, bananas. I like green bananas too, not mushy bananas. I made one this morning with brown bananas, that was kind of a bummer. I don’t like them to be that sweet. Green bananas have a bright, grassier taste. I like that. Sometimes I use frozen raspberries. We always have all kinds of Trader Joe’s frozen fruit to throw in. Chia seeds. Plain, non-fat yogurt. Because there’s so much other stuff in there, I put in water until it moves. I used to put flax seed oil in.
The smoothie thing started because my kids didn’t eat a single green thing. It was insurance. If they ate pasta the rest of the day, I’d be able to say they had a tablespoon of spinach in the smoothie this morning. We’re just tricking ourselves, fooling ourselves. So, I have my smoothie, then I drink two teas, English Breakfast. I used to drink Tazo Awake Tea. I thought it was really good because it was a smooth blend and kind of fancy, but it’s expensive. Then, I compared it to Trader Joe's Irish Breakfast—way better. Irish Breakfast tea has less of an empty bite than English Breakfast. It’s fuller and more rounded.
I don’t really like English Breakfast tea because of that—the “empty bite” is such a great way to describe it.
I’m romantic about the triple lattes I used to drink. When I was 23, I lived in San Francisco and didn’t drink coffee, amazingly. I went to this coffee place with a friend and said, “Why do you spend $2.50, that kind of money, every day, just on coffee?” We were all struggling. She said, “Because it’s just a pure pleasure every day. It’s the highlight of my whole morning. The second I start drinking I feel better.”
The next day we went to a café and I drank the usual insane latte that they give you at these places in San Francisco, probably triple latte level. I remember looking around that place and thinking, “This is heavenly. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. Everything is so wonderful.” And then like two hours later I was crying face down on my bed.
Since I had you here today, I wanted to do a quick round of "Ask Polly"—you helping me with my problems. But if you don’t want to be in that place today, that’s fine.
I just had a lot of tea, I can try.
It feels basic as hell to want to be skinnier. I know that won’t make me more fuckable, but sometimes I do think if I was skinnier I’d be more fuckable. Why do I want to be more fuckable?
Every single dimension of our culture tells you that the most important thing for a woman to be is fuckable. No matter what your demographic is. Including “Mom’s I’d like to fuck.” You never escape it. If you go into situations where people have power, in Hollywood, in New York, publishing circles, it is extremely powerful and helpful to be fuckable.
I’m adored by my husband, I have great friends, my kids are going to love me whether I’m a sea monster or a wildebeest, but simply having this book come out and go to bookstores and stand and speak…
Heather gestures and shakes her head to indicate how much the situation is affecting her perception of her own fuckability.
I love performing, but it’s the shoes that get me down, it’s my ass. I was just this morning thinking, it’s going to be so inconvenient if I’m standing up there and I’m this weight instead of my “ideal weight” that have to struggle to be. Which is horseshit, obviously, it’s absurd. When you dare to be as bold as you really are, privately or among friends, that radiates out and you think of yourself as a powerful beautiful, naturally fuckable person. Real fuckability is about feeling like someone who deserves to be adored. Not adored like obeyed, but like treasured.
“I deserve to adore myself. I deserve to take up space. I know that I’m radiating,” if you think that way, the particulars don’t matter.
What advice do you have for people like me who are addicted to their own suffering, and that’s why they can’t get to a happier place? I feel like my suffering is me, and if I get rid of it I’ll lose myself.
You’re not going to change the whole picture at once. I’d try noticing the things you really love doing—that aren’t social. Notice the times you are alone and you’re happily savoring the moment. Take that feeling and start to let it invade some of the times when you might naturally revert to feeling lonely. Let the good hours soak into the bad hours. If you know what time of day you start to cry and feel terrible, turn that into a religious time where instead you celebrate your extremes.
I would look at the things you’re most afraid of becoming and carry that shit around and be that. Let yourself disappoint people and be super unfuckable too, not special, not different from anyone else, very average, very regular. Not better. Not a unique snowflake at all. Just another human, alive. Very rejectable. Notice when you feel like you’re not getting enough and listen to that.
[Through all of this work,] realize you’re going to get enough, even if you don’t ask for a lot – you’re someone who is going to get a lot.
At this point in the conversation, I want to start crying with relief, with the pleasure of hearing her say this, but I don’t because I’m embarrassed.
You’re going to get a lot of attention and a lot of love, that’s just who you are. You don’t need to worry and ask where is it going to come from.
She cries. I cry. We hug before we leave.