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Annie Lord author
Annie LordPhotography Issey Gladston

Annie Lord: ‘Writing about love is a complicated thing to be good at’

As her debut book Notes on Heartbreak is released, the writer talks to Shon Faye about the experience of offering up something as devastating as heartbreak for public consumption

Annie Lord speaks before she thinks. That’s not a dig, by the way: it’s an observation she makes of herself in her debut book Notes on Heartbreak, a memoir about the disintegration of a five-year relationship, and it’s something she helpfully demonstrates within seconds of us meeting at her home in south London. “I was on a night out recently and I saw a guy who works out at my gym. I pointed at him and said, ‘you go to my gym!’ Obviously now I see him all the time when I’m there and it’s embarrassing – like why did I say that?” she says, shaking her head as she makes me a cup of tea.

While some confessional writers limit their candour to the written word, Lord’s writing – which has gained a cult following around her fortnightly dating column at – is a refinement of her impulsive and self-deprecating approach to conversation. Our interview is littered with sentences that open with “you know when you… ” which have the gradual effect of creating identification. I find myself merging my own experience into Lord’s particular take on something; it’s as if you try her perspectives on for size, regardless of whether you think they’ll actually fit you. The creation of a shared experience is evidently key to her success in gaining a readership who see their own anxieties, triumphs and losses in love reflected in Lord’s words. At other points in the conversation, she offhandedly delivers witheringly honest statements about herself (“I think I idealise men and put them on pedestals”) that I find myself asking her to explain further as they’re perhaps not the things women are supposed to say out loud in an age of pastel Instagram infographic feminism.

Notes on Heartbreak is her most exposing work yet and I am keen to learn about how a young writer, who has effectively turned her love life into her career, found the experience of offering up something as confusing, devastating and unedifying as heartbreak for public consumption.

In flashback scenes in the book, you’re still in a long-term relationship and you’re a young, freelance journalist trying to break into the industry. You couldn’t have known then that the end of that relationship would drive you into writing about relationships and dating, from the perspective of a single woman. Do you ever find the turn your career has taken surprising?

Annie Lord: It’s really weird because when I was at uni, I had a column in the uni paper about sex and relationships, which I haven’t re-read because I think they’d be mortifying to read now. I’d rattle on about the Kama Sutra in the student paper. Then when I got into journalism I was told not to use ‘I’ and go out and talk to people and find interesting angles so it’s funny it’s gone back to writing about myself. It feels like something I haven’t actively chosen. But then I think, with writing, you can’t pick what you’re good at writing about. When I have written about myself and love, it seems to resonate with people. It’s a complicated thing to be good at, though.

The idea for the book and the Vogue column both came from a viral essay you wrote about your breakup in the immediate aftermath. Why did you decide to write that at the time?

Annie Lord: I think, at that point, all I could think about was the breakup. I write in the book about how distraction from a breakup doesn’t help at all. You just end up feeling like you’re thinking about it even more. So I could only write about the breakup, basically. Writing about it really helped because it felt like I was still sitting in bed crying all day, but now it was also work. It wasn’t something I consciously thought about like, ‘I will be open about this and help people.’ But I was really surprised when loads of people were enjoying it. Because I guess when you’re in a breakup, you always think whatever you’re going through is so unique and romantic and special and different. It was nice because everyone was saying, ‘oh my god, I felt exactly the same!’ but it was also frustrating: I was thinking, ‘did you [feel the same]? Because I think I was feeling it more!’

In the book you quote Joan Didion’s famous line, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ Though people often forget that in the essay it comes from she adds, ‘at least we do for a while.’ I think breakups are often about repeated attempts to draft and redraft a satisfactory narrative of why a relationship played out the way it did until, ultimately, you just stop caring. Your book dramatises this and plays with literary form: for example, you intersperse the narrative with passages written in the second person, addressed directly to your ex. How did that come about?

Annie Lord: I genuinely make sense of things by writing them down. When it [the breakup] happened, I did that really classic thing of writing a love letter. It was about 3,000 words and it was just a stream of consciousness of memories, a crazy mind map of what had happened so that I could make sense of it. I never sent my ex the letter but I feel like those parts of the book evolved out of that. The person I’m speaking to directly [in those sections] is a really idealised version of someone and as time passes my view of them becomes a bit more realistic as I was able to handle the truth of it and see the situation as a three-dimensional thing. The stories I would tell myself at the start to stop it hurting, like  ‘oh, I was just too much for him. He wants someone easier,’ or ‘oh, he’s just going through a personal crisis and he’s taking it out on me because I’m the easiest thing to let go of.’ I’d almost repeat those stories to myself as affirmations. But by the time it comes to the end of the book, I instead have a real conversation with him as he actually is rather than a version that’s all romantic and sepia-toned.

I think we don’t take the grief of heartbreak particularly seriously as a society, relative to how devastating it actually is. I noticed a lot of the literary references you cite in the book to express your feelings were originally written about grief as we traditionally understand it – linked to bereavement. Perhaps some will think that’s overdramatic. Do you think grief is the right framing for how a breakup feels?

Annie Lord: I am someone that really likes to sit in a feeling and so after my breakup I really only wanted to read or watch things about breakups and every book I read was either a self-help book, like ‘let’s get you back on the horse,’ or began so long after the fact – maybe because the pain is so hard to describe. Otherwise, it ends with them getting back together – which makes you feel so shit if you’re not able to. Whereas I would resonate more with books about grief. I’m not saying they’re comparable but people tend to sit in the exact feelings of grief more. For example, I really liked a bit in CS Lewis’ book about grief [A Grief Observed] where he says that grief is like suspense because you’re constantly looking around to see or hear them. I remember thinking, ‘that’s what I’m going through.’ Unlike grief, though, heartbreak feels awful but it goes. You only grow around the grief that comes from death, it doesn’t get any smaller. Whereas it’s mad how terrible heartbreak is and you feel you’re never going to get through it but you do.

Heterosexual women often have a cultural script to follow about breakups – one your book perhaps contributes to – where it’s like men instigate them either directly or by bad behaviour and then women process them – often with other women – and gradually recover a sense of lost agency. Do you think it’s easier, in some ways, for women to deal with breakups than men? Because there is almost like an archetype for what we’re supposed to think and feel and the process that we’re supposed to go through?

Annie Lord: Definitely. Even thinking about my male friends… I was actually listening to an episode of The Receipts podcast where Tolly says something like, ‘A relationship’s only over when the woman’s done with it.’  I feel like that’s quite true. Because men never do that processing of it. They never get any closure. So for them, the door never shuts. I think eventually women just hit this point where they’re sick of it.

I definitely think being a woman and being on the ‘dumped’ end of a breakup means you can get so much sympathy and support. Even when I said, ‘I don’t think I was very sympathetic to things he was going through,’ people would be like, ‘no, he’s a bellend,’ or whatever. And I don’t think that’s helpful sometimes because if you are just a victim and you’ve done absolutely nothing wrong, it does remove any agency because then you can’t do anything to make it right. It’s quite nice knowing that you were part of it ending. I was conscious of that when writing the book. I didn’t want to write a revenge story. I think it’s more interesting that way. I did try to really confront ways in which I fucked things up: like not setting boundaries or cutting myself off from friends or being needy. I wanted to confront those things.

“I think, with writing, you can’t pick what you’re good at writing about. When I have written about myself and love, it seems to resonate with people. It’s a complicated thing to be good at, though” – Annie Lord

Confronting yourself in that way raises the question of whether you think there’s a risk in writing about relationships and dating when it necessarily involves interpreting men’s behaviour!

Annie Lord: It’s weird actually, a couple of times I’ve spoken to male friends for the column and quoted them [about why men might behave a certain way in dating]. And when they say stuff, I’m never satisfied with what they’re saying. Sometimes I feel I’m like, ‘no, I get you more than you get you,’ or ‘yeah, that’s not it.’ It just feels like the explanation a lot of men use for stuff feels very simple. Maybe they are simple but it feels like it can’t be that. But sometimes you are making yourself feel better via a very complex explanation for [men’s] actions that make out that you’re still hot and desirable, and they still want to have sex with you, and go out with you. It's just these external factors [preventing it].

Finally, you’ve managed to make a success of writing about the highs and lows of love using your own life. Do you feel like you’ve chosen to avoid serious relationships for the sake of this writing? Do you foresee a point where you might stop? 

Annie Lord: There is a weird thing that happens where something bad [in dating] happens and you’re already thinking about how you might write about them and your life feels like a story. It feels like not being in your life but seeing it as a spectator and recording it. I don’t feel embarrassed when I’m writing about myself because I’m a massive oversharer even in person, but it does affect how other people see me which is crap. I don’t want people to think I’m writing about them all the time. If men read the column they know what I think about so many things. It’s not very sexy because I can’t be mysterious. If you’re seeing a guy you want him to think you have loads of options, but that doesn’t work if he can read that you don’t. I think in the future I would still like to write about myself because I enjoy it but maybe it might be less dating-focused. That said, I’m obsessed with relationships and love. I think if I met the right person and they weren’t comfortable being written about I would give up the column, though that would be difficult because they’d probably say they were uncomfortable on about date three and I still wouldn’t know if I was going to fall for them enough to give it up? In your teens and early twenties, it feels like the career is the thing you should never give up on and nothing comes before that. Now I’m more established I think I could make something else happen if I didn’t have the column. Men are the disappearing, impossible thing now rather than work.

Notes on Heartbreak by Annie Lord is published by Orion Books and is out on June 23, 2022.