“I Have Two Comfort Activities, and I Feel They Are Intertwined: Exercising and Cooking.”

HilaryReylHappiness interview: Hilary Reyl.

The brilliant (and gorgeous, not that it matters) Hilary Reyl has been a friend of mine since college, and I'm thrilled that her fabulous debut novel, Lessons in French, has just hit the shelves.

It's a coming-of-age story, and all such stories touch deeply on happiness. It draws somewhat on Hilary's own adventures in France - and from her love of all things French (for instance, her husband is French).

If you'd like to read what USA Today had to say, click here-also an Oprah pick as one of "7 dreamy novels set in the most romantic city in the world."

I wanted to ask Hilary some questions that focus directly on happiness.

Gretchen: What's a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?

Hilary: Reading. Every time I give myself over to a book, I wonder why I don't do it more.

What's something you know now about happiness that you didn't know when you were 18 years old?

This question is the crux of my novel, Lessons in French. At the beginning of the book my heroine, Kate, tries to find her happiness in an exaggerated empathy with people she is impressed by. She believes that by pleasing others and reflecting their ideas back to them she herself will be pleased. This gets her into all kinds of trouble in Paris! Her "coming of age," which closely parallels my own, is the process of learning to own her desires and ambitions. In short, I used to think that happiness was about being loved at all costs. Now I know that such need for approval is very disorienting, and can be downright destructive. While I still run on affection, I now strive to "be Hilary" as the lovely Gretchen Rubin would advise. [Aww, thanks Hilary!]

Is there a particular book about happiness that has stayed with you?

One book that brings me happiness is Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. And not because Clarissa Dalloway was happy. But rather, I feel akin to Clarissa Dalloway in having a consciousness that flutters all the time between the sublime and the ridiculous. And to see that kind of consciousness so beautifully and painstakingly detailed makes me unspeakably happy.

If you're feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a "comfort food," do you have a comfort activity? (mine is reading children's books).

I have two comfort activities, and I feel they are intertwined: exercising and cooking. Whenever I am stuck, one of these, or preferably a combination, will free me up. Both nourish my writing by being familiar and repetitive, yet inspiring. I love to run, swim and do ashtanga yoga. They keep me strong, supple, light on my feet and in good appetite, and they give me a sort of suspended time during which ideas can percolate or I can work through a creative problem. I also love to cook, both for others and for my own sensual pleasure. My novel is brimming with images of Parisian food, and one of the greatest compliments it receives is that of making readers hungry! Conceiving of a meal or dish, marketing, prepping, cooking, eating, sharing, are quite ritualistic but also have a quality of the unknown. I've done it a thousand times, and have confidence in my skills, but I always make something a little (sometimes even a lot!) different…

Is there some aspect of your home that makes you particularly happy?

Even though I am on a constant mission to declutter, I take a guilty pleasure in the way my ten year-old twin daughters are filling every inch of the walls beside their beds with posters and scraps that are important to them. Margaux is mostly about Harry Potter; Ella is mostly about gymnastics. One wall is Hermione, Dobby, Ron and Harry, ripped from calendars and magazines with a few brightly-colored drawings mixed in. The other sports Nadia Comaneci in a backbend on the beam and cut-out figures of the Olympic gymnastics team complete with speech bubbles. When it looks chaotic to me, I have to remind myself that this decoration is not like the thoughtless junk from birthday party gift bags that I seek to root out, but an expression of my daughters' minds seizing on what they come across in the media and organizing it in as they see fit. Their walls reflect their sense of order and their affective universe, not mine. Letting go of my own aesthetic for a few moments to appreciate theirs, "reading" them instead of "reading to" them makes me very happy.

Also ...

  • Speaking of reading -- Are you (or a friend) a "newly"?--newly married, newly divorced, newly moved, newly graduated, newly retired, new parents, new empty-nesters? If so, Happier at Home might have some useful ideas. I've heard from a lot of people in transition who say that it's particularly helpful during that time.