Checking in with “Heather in Brooklyn”
Last year, she was in a post-project funk. Now her book is out! An advice column update.
Early last year, I ran an installment of my newsletter advice column featuring a question from “Heather in Brooklyn,” a writer who had recently finished the first draft of her first book. Having achieved this milestone, Heather expected to feel elated; instead, she felt “bereft.” She wrote: “I sit around for much too long, worried I’ll never make anything again, fearful that there is nothing left in my creative brain, terrified I’m a failure.”
That was February 2021. In the almost two years since then, Heather’s book draft has gradually made its way to an actual finished book. Over the summer, I checked in to see if she’d be willing to chat about the process and what happened after her moment of “post-project depression.” She was game, even though it meant giving up her advice-column anonymity. So I’m pleased to present the following interview with Heather Radke, a contributing editor and reporter at Radiolab and the author of the new book Butts: A Backstory, which is being published by Avid Reader Press tomorrow!
I read an advance copy of Butts over the summer and it’s terrific: A cultural history of the female posterior, it draws on a huge range of historical moments—from 19th-century London performance halls to 1980s aerobics videos—to unpack how our ideas about women’s butts have evolved and what it says about us. It’s genuinely fascinating and insightful, and I highly recommend picking up a copy at your local bookstore or ordering it from one of the retailers listed here.
Heather and I spoke by phone last June but decided to hold this Q&A until her book’s pubdate. The following is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
Hi, Heather! You wrote in to the advice column about finishing the draft of your first book and feeling “bereft,” and wondering how to enjoy that post-project period instead of falling into “a pit of depression.” So I guess my first question is: How did it go? Did you avoid falling into the pit of depression?
[Laughs] Honestly, I don’t know. I re-read your advice column before our call, and I’ve been thinking: Did I do those things that you recommended?
It’s a funny thing writing a book, as you know. There’s the generation of the first draft, and then there’s all of the editing. The editing is so fun because you don’t have to produce—but it can feel a little less creative maybe. So the whole year after I emailed you, I was going through drafts and doing rewrites, and I think that felt really productive even if it didn’t always feel very creative.
I also ended up doing more work for Radiolab, as I am now, and I was able to channel some creative energy there. I was re-reading the advice that readers gave, and someone said: Try doing something completely different, like take a painting class. And that’s how my Radiolab work feels sometimes. That’s the thing I’m cheating on my writing with—or the writing is the thing I’m cheating on my radio work with. And I feel like that works really well for me, to have this other thing that’s a creative outlet.
Yeah, I can relate. For me, the newsletter is the thing I’m cheating on my book-writing with. So it sounds like you ended up having so much to keep you busy that you didn’t feel totally bereft, or not for long.
Well, it’s a little more complicated because—not to get too grim or anything—I also had two miscarriages last year, and now I’m pregnant and about to have a baby like any minute here. [Editor’s note: Heather’s daughter, Nora, was born in July!] So there was also this undercurrent of actual grief that was happening, along with this pregnancy that seemed like it was going to happen. This mapping of the most primordial kind of creativity onto the creative process is something I’ve been thinking a lot about.
Certainly with the miscarriages, there was time I had to give myself to be sad about what had happened. And in a strange way it may be easier to give yourself space for that kind of grief, and expect less of yourself in those moments, than it is when you finish a project. Then it’s like: Shouldn’t I be on to the next thing already?
Totally. Part of what was interesting about your question was that you weren’t just feeling bummed after finishing your draft. You were also feeling all this pressure to seize the moment. You knew that your life was going to change completely when you became a mother, and it was like: You just finished this thing but, quick, you better do another thing before you never have this kind of time again!
I know. I still feel like that. I don’t think I ever did it. [Laughs]
But that is such an unrealistic expectation. And your book turned out so good! How did you arrive at this as your first book project?
It’s a good question, and there are two or three ways to answer it. One is: Growing up in the ‘90s, I had a big butt and I felt ashamed about it. I grew up in this pretty white suburb of Lansing, Michigan, and it was definitely not the body ideal of that time. And then over the course of the next twenty years the body ideal in America changed pretty radically, I think. All of a sudden, this part of my body that I felt was ugly, people were, like, into it sexually and aesthetically. So I was interested in this idea of how a body part could become fashionable, and tracing that history. And I knew that was a racialized and gendered history that was also a lot about demographic change in the U.S., and that there would be these deep historical threads that I could pull out. So that felt like a rich vein to mine.
But also, aesthetically, I’m just interested in things that feel very ordinary and almost beyond comment. The thing about writing a book about butts is that I’ve said the word “butts” a lot to a lot of people, and I’ve written a lot of emails that are like “Subject: Butts Book.” [Laughs] And it creates a very powerful reaction. I think there’s something about how it’s not able to be taken seriously—then to take it seriously is actually a profound gesture, artistically.
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A lot of the people who read this newsletter are writers trying to figure out their own book projects. Could you say something about how you managed to turn this idea into an actual book?
Sure. I’ve had sort of an odd career trajectory. I graduated from college in 2005 and then I went to the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Back then, it was one of the only places where, if you wanted to make documentary-style radio stuff, you could go for a semester and train to do that. So I did that, but then the economy crashed and I couldn’t find a job as a radio producer. I mean, this was before podcasts, so there were probably like five jobs in the whole industry at the time anyway.
At that point, I moved to Chicago and started working in public-history settings. I worked at the Newberry Library and then I got a job as a curator at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, and that was a very vibrant creative place for me. But I had always known that I wanted to be a writer or a maker of authored nonfiction–type stuff, like radio shows. So I decided to apply for MFA programs. Maybe it’s just my personality, but I felt like I needed a sanctioned, degree-based period of time where I could say to myself: “I’m going to take X amount of years to try to do this thing, and if it doesn’t work I can try something else.”
So I moved to New York and went to Columbia’s MFA program, and I came up with the book idea there, in a kind of famous book proposal class at the J-School. Everyone in the class writes a book proposal, and then I sold the book about a year after that, in the summer of 2019.
I’ve said the word “butts” a lot to a lot of people…and it creates a very powerful reaction. I think there’s something about how it’s not able to be taken seriously—then to take it seriously is actually a profound gesture, artistically.
And then you actually had to write it! How did that go?
People say: “Oh, it’s such a hard thing to write a book.” But it was hard in a way I didn’t expect it to be. It’s psychologically very hard. Obviously, it’s also difficult to do in a practical sense. But, like, it’s lonely. You don’t get any sense of satisfaction, really, until the end. And even then, it’s such a big project, it’s hard to have the fun feeling of, “Oh, I published something and people are excited about it.” You just don’t get that for a really long time.
There’s an Iris Murdoch line that goes: “Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea.” That’s another part of it. Like, you know what this book could be, or what you wanted it to be. And I don’t think anyone can quite meet that shining ideal they have in their head. So you’re also just constantly butting up against your own inadequacy.
Yeah, and I think that’s part of the grief at the end of any project. I actually think this is for real a reason people don’t do creative work. You know, there are all these people who really want to do creative work and then they don’t, and it’s the horror of seeing it, of it being done. It’s not, “What am I going to do?” It’s, “What did I do?” And you have to kind of face—not to make it too grand, but it’s almost like facing the reality of a life. It is a little about your mortality or something. I can’t quite explain why, but there’s just something about living in the reality instead of the fantasy that’s so intense and can be quite disappointing.
People say: “Oh, it’s such a hard thing to write a book.” But it was hard in a way I didn’t expect it to be. It’s psychologically very hard.
Another part of your advice-column question that really resonated with me is when you said you’re always on the hunt for the ultimate daily routine, one that would “allow for the perfect combination of artistic magic and no-nonsense productivity.” You did manage to write this book—did you ever find that routine?
No. [Laughs] But, well, here are some things I ended up doing: I got pretty into the Pomodoro technique. That was a big help, when someone explained that to me. In general, I’m really into treat-based writing techniques, like a dog. You work for 45 minutes, you get a piece of cake, that sort of thing. It’s not very Romantic, though. I think that’s one of the problems, right, that you want a Romantic answer to that question? But the answer is always, like, try not to drink too much and give yourself a bunch of treats. Though I still have this idea that if I could just have the perfect day, it would somehow . . . Well, what would happen if you had had it?
You would be disappointed. [Laughs] Heather, thank you so much for talking to me about your writing process and your wonderful book, which I will strongly encourage my newsletter readers to order!
I haven’t done an advice column in a while because, to be honest, they were taking me forever to write and I can’t really spare the time with my book deadline looming. But I hope to revive the column in early 2023, and in the meantime you can always read my past advice columns here. These are three of my favorites:
If you have your own gnawing creative dilemma and you’re willing to wait at least a few months for an answer, feel free to email me and I’ll consider it for a future column.
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