Thursday, May 28, 2015

Q&A with Ellen McCarthy

Ellen McCarthy, photo by Marvin Joseph
Ellen McCarthy is the author of the new book The Real Thing: Lessons on Love and Life from a Wedding Reporter's Notebook. She is a feature writer for The Washington Post who has covered many weddings over the years, and she lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book based on your experiences as a wedding reporter, and what does the book’s title signify for you?

A: I went through a breakup on the same day I was hired to become The Post's wedding reporter -- and of course I was 30 at the time.

During my four years on the beat I went through all the stages of romance -- heartbreak, healing, dating, commitment and finally marriage. Through it all, the people I was interviewing -- more than 200 couples and scores of experts -- were profoundly shaping my approach to relationships.

By the end I had gathered this amazing collection of insights from actual couples and from the scientific community about what makes love works. It had a huge impact on my own life and I felt a real sense of obligation to pass along the gift I'd been given. 

To me, The Real Thing has a double meaning. We're all looking for "the real thing," the person with whom we want to build a life. But this book is also meant to talk about the real thing when it comes to relationships -- not just the fairy tales we find in movies. 

Q: You mix in your own personal experiences with those of other people. How did you decide on the right blend of the personal and the journalistic?

A: I had real reservations about writing about myself. But I needed readers to know that I was a reliable, honest guide through this territory.

Relationship books often fall into two categories -- those that promise some quick solution to all your problems and those that are too wonky and dry to get through.

I wanted this book to contain all the pieces of information that I found valuable and to convey them in a way that was entertaining and fun. That's why the lessons are told through the stories of couples I met, with my own experiences thrown in for good measure. 

Q: You write, “My husband always laughs when people refer to me as a relationship expert.” Would you consider yourself one, and what are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned from wedding reporting?

A: I'm a journalist. And for four years I intently studied relationships for a living. So I suppose that makes me an expert in the same way a science writer or war correspondent would be considered an expert on their particular area of coverage. 

I think the single most important lesson I took away was that we can learn to be good at love. And that maybe we have to learn in order to be good at love and to increase our chances of having a successful relationship.

That's a big departure from our current cultural perspective on love -- that it comes in a lightning strike and that, as long as we've found the right person, everything else magically falls into place. We hate to think this stuff isn't intuitive, or that we might need a helping hand along the way. But I think that stance is doing all of us a real disservice. 

Q: Among the many couples you interviewed, have there been some particular favorites?

A: You can't make me choose! You know I love them all the same. I met so many amazing pairs -- couples who'd been together for 60 years or more, couples who'd only met a few times before getting engaged.

I covered a pagan wedding on Halloween and the vows of spiritual healers who claimed to have reached full enlightenment. I wrote about a soldier who lost both his legs in Iraq and then fell in love with a pretty hospital volunteer. Another couple married even as one of them grew weak with stage four lung cancer. The list is long. 

It always felt like a great privilege to be trusted with these stories -- stories that were among the most intimate and important of any person's life. And that I knew would be passed down and absorbed into family histories.

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I'm a feature writer for the Style section of The Post and write a recurring column called "This Life," which is about "the extraordinary lives of ordinary people."

It's an opportunity for us to stop and really hear the tales of the people we sit next to on the bus or hurry past in the grocery story. The idea is that we all have something to teach each other -- we just have to pause long enough to listen.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The great Kelly Corrigan described The Real Thing as a field guide to relationships. I really like that. It's a light book that can be picked up and put down, but I think it has something to offer people at any stage. The lessons I collected deeply shaped my own life and I'm just grateful for the chance to share them with readers. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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