Lauren Hough on Leaving Cults, the Military, and Bad Jobs

Posted by Cybil on April 1, 2021
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“I'm in a weird place because the book is about to come out. So I'm basically just walking around like a raw nerve and I'm not sure that I should be around human beings right now,” said a self-deprecating Lauren Hough in a phone interview last month.

“I just got word I'm going to be on Fresh Air,” she explained. “I don't know that I can pretend any longer that nobody's going to read this thing.”

Her book, Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing, debuts this month, which is why Hough is feeling vulnerable. In personal essays that often manage to be both devastating and funny, Hough recalls her experiences as a lesbian airman in the U.S. Air Force during the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell era, her time in jail, and her childhood in an abusive cult.
Hough has had some experience with strangers reading her words. In 2018, her HuffPost essay “I Was a Cable Guy. I Saw the Worst of America” went viral. Shortly thereafter, fans started showing up at the bar where she worked. She landed a book deal.
Still, she’s getting used to the exposure. Her book has buzz from big-name writers, including Roxane Gay. Heather Havrilesky called Hough a “cross between David Sedaris and Mary Karr.”
“It's so bizarre to see my name next to another writer's name who I consider a real writer,” said Hough. “I hope it's not too insulting to them.”
Goodreads contributor Kerry Shaw caught up with Hough in March while she was passing through Nashville. Below are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Goodreads: What’s it like to be on the verge of having a book come out?

Lauren Hough: I don't have great words for it. I just feel very raw. I'm excited, but I'm fucking terrified and I'm not sure what I'm terrified of. It's just that I have no idea what the world is going to look like for me now or how people are going to look at me. I’m feeling a real world of uncertainty.

GR: That makes sense. Your book is very personal.

LH: Yeah, that probably doesn't help. [Laughs.] I just put a whole lot of me out there. It's strange now when I talk to people, because I'm learning their name, and they're wanting to ask about my abortion or Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It’s something I’m learning to deal with, this parasocial relationship. I’m actually a very private person, which is a strange thing to say when you just put out a book of very personal essays.

GR: Have you been able to talk to writers who've been in similar positions?

LH: I'm lucky. Twitter helped me connect to writers who took me seriously when I didn't have a piece out, much less a book: Elizabeth McCracken, Sandra Newman. It’s useful when you have a book coming out to have an advice columnist on call, and Heather Havrilesky's been that for me. I just said I was a writer and they believed me, which is wild. They've been here, they know what's about to happen. Obviously everyone reacts differently to it, but it's been absolutely invaluable, talking me off ledges. That happens biweekly at this point.

GR: Can you share what you’ve learned from them?

LH: I'm getting better at saying no. You know, you have a book coming out and you want to be amenable. I'm also pulling back from Twitter, not sharing so much personal information on there. I think a whole lot of us got a little too comfortable on Twitter during a pandemic because we were fucking lonely. But a lot of it’s not real. Also, I'm not paid for it. It's free labor, so I use it to work out essays sometimes, and I use it to blow off steam so that I can write, but...we're all in therapy trying to learn the difference between walls and boundaries, and I'm trying to keep my boundaries as I knock down a few walls.

GR: Speaking of Twitter, is that how you connected with Roxane Gay?

LH: Yes, it's the craziest fucking thing. These idols, these people I read forever, and they talk to me. I still have a really hard time playing it cool and not fangirling all over. You squeal when you get a DM from Roxane Gay, and you try to respond with, "Hey! Cool!" All right, too many exclamation points. I look insane.

GR: Do you ever read your reviews?

LH: I swore I wouldn't, but I think we all knew I was going to. Yeah, I read all of the reviews. They've been really good. But God forbid I not find the backhanded compliment in one.

GR: I was going to say that they are so positive, particularly on Goodreads. Not only do readers love your writing, but many of them also want to be your friend or have a beer with you.

LH: Therein lies the problem. I'm really glad they like me. The reviews are positive, and that’s awesome. I love reading them, and, at the same time, I hope they don't show up on my doorstep to have that beer.

GR: That actually happened to you after your essay about being a cable guy went viral.

LH: It did. And every one of them was something of a hostage situation—because I was at work! You can't leave work! So I'm sitting at a barstool in front of a bar, and, yes, I'm a bouncer. But you are supposed to be polite to people. So I tried to check IDs and someone's pouring out their life story and crying in front of me, and I'm like, "Hey! Uh, sorry. That leather daddy over there! I need his ID!" There were a lot of aggressive huggers.

It was just a wild experience. My poor manager, God bless him. He let me sit there and write a book and then he let me sit there and deal're apparently a thing I have now? [Laughs.] I told them to buy a drink and tip. It's the best I could do for the bar.

GR: Why do you think that essay struck such a chord with so many people?

LH: I wish I knew. I think we don't often read books by people who live normal lives that we can identify with. Eh…who fucking knows what's a normal life? I have no idea.

I went through this thing, and I think we all do. It starts when you're around 25 and you realize life is mostly just going to work and waiting in line and waiting in doctor's offices and being bored on Monday night and then hoping for a weekend. And then 20 years go by. The work-life imbalance in this country isn't really conducive to mental health. God, I hate to use the term, but I kind of dropped out and decided to be a writer and that essay came out.

GR: I think your book really shows the link between money and health in our country.

LH: It's something I think about a lot.  Everybody I knew was always trying to think of a hustle to get a tiny bit ahead. Just so that the next vet bill didn't destroy their lives. They'd come up with ideas like, “What if we just made man candles that smelled like meatloaf or firewood?” But nobody knew how to make a fucking candle, so that's not a great idea.

But I had this one thing where I thought I could maybe write, so that might be the way out. In the U.S, we don't have a safety net. We don't have a month-long vacation like Europeans do. We don't have health care. So I know a lot of us feel trapped. And I think that's probably what people identified with in the cable guy story: just that overwhelming feeling of, “God this is actually going to be my life." It's not pleasant. We don't really have time for something to fulfill us outside of work. If you're not doing something you love, you're kind of fucked.
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GR: Given how you describe your unusual childhood, my guess is that you didn't have someone sit you down and say, “Hey, you could be a writer.” Can you talk about how you started to realize that you could do this?

LH: Well, I'll probably give 20 different answers because it's not one thing. Anytime you tell a strange story, people will start telling you that you should write a book. But that’s actually a terrible reason to write a book. My email is full of guys who were told they should write a book and now they want to send it to me.

GR: It's only going to get worse when your book comes out.

LH: God bless the confidence of white boys named Greg! I tried fiction, and I'm terrible at it. I wanted to be a lesbian Townes Van Zandt and write country songs, but I can't play guitar very well and I can't sing. And considering my shortest essay is like 5,000 words, I don't know that songs are going to work out real well for me. Reading Anthony Bourdain's essay about working in a kitchen was probably the first time I read somebody who talked like me, who was experiencing something like me.

GR: His essay “Don't Eat Before Reading This” in The New Yorker?

LH: Yeah, that one. Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist was the same thing. When you start to write, you start to read differently. You realize these people are not just listing things that happened to them, but talking about what it means. It changed the way I write because I do have an opinion on things and I don't necessarily have to be right, it just has to be true and people will identify with it.

GR: I heard you say on a podcast that how you talk about your childhood tells other people how to respond because they don't know what to say.

LH: It's definitely not an opening line: "By the way, I grew up in a cult." You have to tell people what to do with it. You have to tell people you're OK—or you're not. You have to tell them what you need from them. And that applies to a lot of things. Writing the book, I realized pretty early on that I needed to tell people whether it's OK to laugh at this.

GR: What you say about the military is pretty heartbreaking. You describe it as a career path for people who don't have other options because of where they were born.

LH: It's kind of a college program in this country. If you don't get a scholarship, or you don't get enough of a scholarship to go to college, you either get a job or you're stuck in your hometown. I guess plenty of people pack all their shit in the car and move to New York, but I was too much of a chickenshit to do that, so I joined the Air Force.

GR: Wait, what scared you about New York?

LH: Oh, listen. [Laughs.] Yeah, that was too risky. You can't just move to New York without a job and a high school diploma and a couple hopes and dreams! That happens all right in movies,’ve got to know someone or something!

GR: It's not exactly a city known for affordable housing.

LH: No. Kindness and welcoming of strangers and affordable housing…not so much. The internet would have helped, but we didn’t really have Google. We look at the military as “out-there” experiences, people who joined to defend our freedoms, but most of them are just trying to find a way to go to college. And yes, if you make it through four years, five years, six years, whatever your enlistment is—awesome, you might get to go. And if you don't, you could end up with traumatic brain injuries. I got lucky it was peacetime.

We were all sold by those commercials saying "this is going to set you up for life. You'll go to a job interview and tell them you're in the military and get hired immediately because they’ll definitely respect that.” And they do. They thank you for your service and they'll call you back and tell you they have a lot of candidates to interview...I didn't learn any job skills. None whatsoever.

GR: As someone who is around your age, your essay about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" reminded me of how homophobic the ’90s were. I'm sorry you had to experience that.

LH: Ahh, thank you. It was weird going back reading that. And it's kind of nice looking back at it because I feel like we have changed a lot. There's still a lot of progress we need to make. But it was unthinkable then that gay people could get married or that you could be openly gay or that you could walk down the street holding hands with your girlfriend and not be utterly terrified. But the next generation will have had enough of our shit. It feels like they have.

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GR: Do you ever think about what's happening now that in 20 years we'll look back on and say how wrong we were?  

LH: I mean, we can only hope that trans kids will be able to play whatever sport they want without the special genital inspectors wanting a part in it. I hope someday that our handling of the pandemic without a national health care system looks as ridiculous as it is. I have a lot of hope, but I don't know.

GR: Did you say you have a lot of hope? Just making sure.

LH: I do. We've come so fucking far it would be a fucking shame to give up now. Also, goddamn it, I finally started to believe in a world that wasn't going to end with the Antichrist and the mark of the beast. I'd really like that to not be true. So if everyone could get their shit together, I'd appreciate it.

GR: Switching gears, what are you excited to read?

LH: Ashley Ford’s Somebody’s Daughter. I’m stoked to read Kristen Arnett’s With Teeth, and she’d better send me a copy. Elon Green’s Last Call. It's going to be a fun year for books. At least it is according to my Twitter feed, because everybody I'm in a class with is awesome.

GR: Do you have any advice for readers who’d like to be writers someday?

LH: I'm not great at writers' advice...just fucking write? Don't worry about everything and fucking write. It's fine.

I worried forever about what the marketplace would be. "You can't sell a book of essays!" I told my agent that when she told me to write a book of essays. I eat a lot of crow around her. She's been right on everything I pushed back on. And it turns out I should just listen to Jamie because she knows all.

GR: That is funny that you thought the book wouldn’t sell.

LH: Why would essays sell? Essays don't sell! That is generally accepted wisdom. Everybody knows that essays don't sell. So I wrote a book of essays.

Lauren Hough's Leaving Isn't the Hardest Thing will be available in the U.S. on April 13. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-9 of 9 (9 new)

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message 1: by Danny (new)

Danny This is the best interview!

message 2: by Sasha (new)

Sasha Ambroz I adore Lauren and can't wait for her book.

Woman Who Weaves I would so show up at her bar. But I would say something short like, "good book, thank you." and then sit in the corner and drink my beer and leave. Cant wait to read it!

☘Misericordia☘ ⚡ϟ⚡⛈⚡☁ ❇️❤❣ A great interview. Can't wait for the book to be out!

message 5: by F (new)

F what a great interview. I want this book, now!

message 6: by Raymond (new)

Raymond Crane It's alright these times to write and publish your opinions but that's not the way it was when I was younger and it's not part of an older person's traditions so -
being a writer I have have to accept a lot of personal conditioning to be able to present something with what I see as integrity. What younger people write about seems mainly to be concerned with younger people's experience which seems pretty anarchistic to my inherited views although I do like to write for and about
N/A's it's not the same perspective so perhaps that's why l'm bound to be unread. Still, each of us tries in our own way. Blessings to you all -
Raymond Crane

message 7: by Angie Leonie (new)

Angie Leonie A really good interview, cant wait to read her account.

message 8: by TMR (new)

TMR Interesting interview.

Marc *Dark Reader of the Woods* The reviews are positive, and that’s awesome. I love reading them, and, at the same time, I hope they don't show up on my doorstep to have that beer.

This is less of a concern today than yesterday.

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