On Thursday, February 22, the Princeton Public Library and Labyrinth Books hosted a conversation between Briallen Hopper *08, author of Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions (Bloomsbury, 2019), and two people she has known since she started her PhD in Princeton’s English department seventeen years ago: Bill Gleason, the Hughes-Rogers Professor of English, and Rebecca Rainof *08, associate professor of English at The Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and Research Scholar at Princeton. Hopper, who teaches creative nonfiction at Queens College, CUNY, has written essays, sermons, reviews, and other pieces for more than a dozen publications; Hard to Love is her first book. She and Rainof are currently teaching ENG 387: Writing about Family.
Hopper began by reading Princeton-themed excerpts from three of her essays. Her first reading came from an essay that grew out of her distaste for the self-reliance doctrine of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose works she encountered during her doctoral studies in nineteenth-century literature. Hopper’s second reading discussed “how [she] learned to be a spinster in Princeton” through her friendships with other single women, including the older women in her congregation at Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. Her final reading referred to “a book I had to read for my generals”: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, the inspiration for the addictive card game Dick, which resembles Cards against Humanity with one notable difference: the cards feature suggestive sperm-related quotations from Melville’s novel.
In the next segment of the event, Hopper fielded questions from Gleason, who read her application to Princeton and served on her dissertation committee, and Rainof, her first friend in graduate school. Asked about her trajectory from Princeton to her current career, Hopper recalled that she felt constrained by the conventions of academic prose and “really didn’t enjoy writing [her] dissertation.” She also recalled that Gleason helped her through a period of writer’s block by meeting her for cupcakes at the Bent Spoon every week. Hopper’s career as a scholar of nineteenth-century literature was cut short by the economic crisis of 2008 and the subsequent hiring freeze in academia. Unable to find an academic position, she entered Yale Divinity School. There she learned to write sermons, a more “intimate” genre than academic essays: “[Sermons are] written for actual people, not for someone on JSTOR in seven years.” Her enthusiasm for the sermon genre led her to begin writing and publishing creative nonfiction.
Asked about the process of choosing essay topics, Hopper explained that she sees her essays as “hermit crabs”: she often begins essays as “love letters” to her favorite literary texts, only to find that other subjects “poke out, pop out” from the literary shell. Her goal in writing about a book, television show, or photograph is generally to “invite [readers] into the love”—though, she admitted, “sometimes I just write because I’m annoyed.” Her annoyance with Emerson, for instance, developed into the first essay in her book, “Lean On: A Declaration of Dependence.”
Finally, Hopper was asked how she negotiates the dynamics of writing about friends and family members. She replied that she always lets the subjects of her essays read the drafts, and she often incorporates the ensuing conversations into the essays themselves. She noted that while “it’s important to write whatever you want,” publishing what you want is more complicated.