Alone Together: An Interview with Kristen Radtke, Author of ‘Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness’
As we are released from our homes and can start to have dinner with our friends again, it doesn’t mean that the problem of American loneliness is gone or has even really changed.
Seek You: A Journey Through American LonelinessSeek You
Seek YouPublishers WeeklyKirkus BooklistImagine Wanting Only ThisForbesEntertainment WeeklyBooklist
Eliza Harris: In , you’re able to use loneliness as a thread to weave together subjects as disparate as the advent of the laugh track, the controversial experiments of psychologist Harry Harlow, and the emergence of the cuddle industry. What was the process of connecting and organizing these narrative threads?
EH: How do you define , if you choose to?
EH: What is your process of bringing word and image together? What comes first?
EH: You’ve spoken in past interviews about being relatively new to comics before your memoir . Is there anything you learned about making sequential art in your first book that you wanted to apply to ?
EH: recounts the way that we tend to reach out to strangers as a reprieve from loneliness even when we don’t expect a response, from calling in song dedications on the radio to posting on social media. I’m curious if you find writing to come from a similar impulse.
EH: In that vein, did you have a specific person or audience in mind when writing this book?
KR: I imagined an audience of people who live in the States or who have experience with America, just because I’m engaging with ideologies of American life. I think I assumed that most people who read it would have had some experience with feeling lonely. Past that, I don’t think I pictured a specific audience. It was more like when you’re a kid and you’re writing in a journal for an audience that doesn’t exist. Similar to keeping a diary, writing can feel like revealing secrets. You are disclosing feelings, and it is somehow scarier and also safer to do that in the confines of a book than interpersonally.
I’ve never been one of those people who’s like, “I write for myself.” If I was just doing this for myself, I would watch television instead, because that’s much more pleasurable than writing.
EH: On the subject of social media and loneliness, you write, “I fear that through the act of posting about my life, I’m also fooling myself into believing it reflects what it’s like to live inside it.” Do you ever experience the same worry when writing a personal narrative based on your memories—that you will lose something of your past when you start to retell it?
KR: I don’t know that I worry about it, but it definitely happens. When I write about an experience, I might gloss over a detail because it’s distracting, or play with time a little bit. Everybody has different rules about what they believe in terms of truth and nonfiction, which I think is an arduous, boring conversation. But, for instance, in my first book there was a detail I changed, and it had become completely rewritten in my mind until my dad reminded me. So I don’t think I’m worried about it as much as I am resigned to it. By the act of writing about your life, you do really change your memories. Writing is just storytelling. It’s the same sort of thing when your grandmother tells the joke about how you were an embarrassing baby at Christmas one year, and she tells that every year and eventually it’s like you remember it.
EH: It’s now hard to talk about the epidemic of loneliness in the country without talking about our current Covid-19 pandemic. How does the timeline of making this book align with the pandemic, and did the pandemic give you a different perspective on loneliness than you had when writing Seek You?
KR: A lot of people are saying, “What serendipitous timing. You wrote a book about loneliness, and then everyone is horribly lonely and your book is coming out.” I do feel like the loneliness of the pandemic was a very specific kind of loneliness and it’s not the same as the loneliness that I was writing about in this book. As we are released from our homes and can start to have dinner with our friends again, it doesn’t mean that the problem of American loneliness is gone or has even really changed. Maybe the pandemic has helped us remember how interconnected we are, that we need to spend more time with one another and support each other through things like mutual aid. But I think the imposed isolation of the pandemic is different than the problems of chronic loneliness. It’s not the inability to make a friend or reach out when you want to feel a connection. Covid-19 has accentuated and reminded us of the problem, but I don’t think it is congruent with the primary problem.
EH: In Seek You, you write about American loneliness as built out of specific cultural ideologies. Can you talk a bit about the connection you draw between American individualism and loneliness?
KR: The American outsider, the sort of underdog hero, is so foundational to how we tell stories in America. I write a lot about America’s obsession with cowboys, which is totally ridiculous. Cowboys basically didn’t exist. Certainly not the way that they’re portrayed in film. That led me to write aboutantihero male TV protagonists, who are really just the cowboys of today. The Don Draper types. It’s the same trope over and over and over again. We glorify these people who are self-isolated out of some confused superiority.
In America we’re trained not to bother each other, not to ask for help, not to extend help; this conservative ideology of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps is absurd. It’s easy for us to think that self-sufficiency is possible, but that’s a total fallacy. It goes beyond the fact that we need each other to acquire food and shelter. We also need each other to reinforce our humanity. We need someone there who’s checking us if we start to spiral, or get depressed, or have a stupid idea, or a dangerous idea. We need someone to say, “That sounds like a dangerous idea. Why don’t we talk about that and what’s really going on.” The pandemic is another example: the debates about mask-wearing and other precautions when many Americans were saying, “I’m only responsible for myself.” That’s just inaccurate.
Americans tend to live alone more often. Statistically, America isn’t the loneliest country in the world, but it’s up there. England and Japan also have really high loneliness rates. Basically, the wealthier the country, the lonelier they are, with some exceptions. Loneliness also correlates to a country’s politics and whether they care about the collective. In totalitarian regimes, the rates of loneliness skyrocket because you can’t trust anyone. Someone could turn you in if you disagree with the government. Obviously, we saw a huge level of mistrust spike here around 2016 and continue through today. If we don’t trust each other, that’s the most isolating thing that can happen. In America, we don’t tend to trust each other and we don’t tend to assume the best in strangers, which is a real shame.
EH: The connection you draw between wealth and loneliness in Seek You was eye-opening, particularly how “the American dream” of a white picket fence and nuclear family unit ends up creating a culture where we’re separated from our communities.
KR: Yes, the idea that our immediate family unit is the primary unit and not one that’s a part of a neighborhood, community, and an extended group of family and friends is really damaging.
EH: Is there another subject captivating you right now that you’d like to write about next?
KR: I have a book due, overdue, to my publisher called Terrible Men. That project has changed more than any project I’ve ever worked on, and it’s difficult for me to even know where it’s going. I had the initial idea for Terrible Men before I started writing Seek You, but the process of writing Seek You definitely influenced it. For Seek You I interviewed people about their loneliest experiences and found it so fascinating to put those stories together and see what a collective voice looks like. Similarly, with Terrible Men, I’ve become interested in the way we talk to each other through storytelling.
I’m also investigating how we talk about men in this post–Me Too era. In the past, when people spoke out about being abused or mistreated, it was sort of revelatory, and now it feels almost culturally passé. I feel like we’re in this transitionary space now, and I’m interested in how we will talk about these kinds of topics in the future.
Eliza Harris is an editorial assistant for Catapult, Social Media Manager + Assistant Poetry Editor forDIAGRAM, and Director of Communications for The Speakeasy Project. She grew up in Durham, North Carolina, and is now based in Seattle, Washington. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @elizaeharris.