How I Wrote It

Why Mandy Len Catron wrote a book that tries to understand modern love

Mandy Len Catron's New York Times article "To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This" went viral in 2015. Now, it is the basis of her new book.
Mandy Len Catron's New York Times article "To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This" went viral. It is the basis of her new book. (Simon & Schuster)

In 2015, Mandy Len Catron's New York Times article "To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This" went viral. The article was about her experience using a scientific study that helps to create romantic love between strangers on an actual date. With this experiment as the starting point, Catron's essay collection How to Fall in Love with Anyone investigates what it means to love and challenges our conventional understanding of how love works. 

In her own words, Catron explains how her memoir in essays came to be.

The end of her parents' marriage was the beginning of the book

"When I was 26, my parents told me they were divorcing. I was shocked and I struggled to come to terms with that. I began thinking about love and what I knew about love. I began to feel that if my parents — who have done everything right in love — aren't able to make this work, then what does this mean? I started thinking maybe I actually don't know very much about love. It felt like such a big subject that it would be easy to turn into a book. I wanted to understand love differently, beyond the narratives in popular culture or the conventional wisdom about how it's supposed to work. Once I hit on that, I thought this will be a book."

Finding the right form

"I spent years and years doing research, collecting data and I started a blog. I was trying to figure out what this book about love would look like. I knew it would be nonfiction and I knew it would be personal, but I also wanted it to contain research, reflection and family narratives. I had no idea how to organize it and I struggled with this for years. After I wrote the Modern Love column on the 36 questions, I got several emails from agents. Once I finally found an agent, he said, 'Do you want to write this as an essay collection?' I love essays. I read essays all the time. They are just my favourite thing, but I had thought no one would publish an essay collection from an unknown writer. Once I knew I could write it as an essay collection, I had all the material already sorted out. Then I took a year off work and wrote every day. It was the most pleasurable writing experience I've ever had — converting it from a mess of notes and anecdotes into essays was a fun challenging problem to solve." 

Let's talk about love

"With an essay, I need to figure out what question the essay is trying to answer and how I want to answer it. In an essay, you're trying to grapple with something in a sophisticated way, you're trying to see something from all sides. That is really hard to do alone. So thinking through ideas with other people makes it that much easier. I talked to friends about it all the time because love is one of those things people love to talk about. I did a bunch of interviews. I felt like there was this great generative process because people would want to talk to me about their own experiences or assumptions and that helped me think through the ideas in my writing." 

Why writing essays is like being in love

"What I love about the essay is that it comes from a sense of curiosity. It's an in-depth inquiry into a subject. Essays can contain so much because the form is so flexible. You can have personal experience, reflection, research, family history. I feel like love is such a complex topic. In many ways, the essay is about trying, and loving someone is about trying, and both are about approaching with curiosity and generosity." 

Mandy Len Catron's comments have been edited and condensed.

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