A friend of mine, also a former colleague, once described the difference between meeting women in Manhattan and Seattle this way: “In New York, it’s a normal thing to strike up a conversation on the street. Here, it’s treated like a form of sexual harassment.” In her winning new memoir, The Year of Yes (Hyperion, $22.95), first-time author Maria Dahvana Headley essentially proves his point, over and over. Saleswise, to say nothing of a likely movie deal, her premise is genius: Unhappy with her love life while a college student in mid-’90s New York, she resolves to say “yes” when asked out by anybody who’s clearly not insane or dangerous. Date them, not sleep with them. And shocking as it may seem to the average Seattle man or woman, by breaking the wall of urban indifference, she has a great time, goes out on 150 wacky first dates (few men earn a second opportunity), learns a little something about herself, and meets her future husband—playwright Robert Schenkkan, Pulitzer Prize winner for The Kentucky Cycle—in the process.
Some 10 years later, still possessed of a smile most men would find inviting and irresistible, Seattle resident Headley has turned her dating marathon into a surefire best seller. Yet she doesn’t present herself as a sociologist. She was trained in dramatic writing at NYU, and she casts herself in Yes as an ingenuous, not fully formed young heroine—not some dating guru or rigid Rules girl. She writes, “It wasn’t that I was lowering my standards. Just the opposite. I was expanding my faith in humanity.” We sat down recently to discuss that theme of openness.
Seattle Weekly: When you had your big “yes” epiphany, did you originally envision the subsequent experiences going into a stage piece or one-woman show?
Maria Headley: A little bit. I was always taking notes. I used these stories . . . [as] my cocktail party conversations, so they were all sort of monologue-ish. All of this was getting into my correspondence as well as my daily writing. I didn’t really think I would ever write a book; it wasn’t really what I was doing at the time. And in the last few years, I moved toward writing prose.
There aren’t many pop-culture references in your book, no sign that you were reading other memoirs at the time or since.
I wasn’t consciously out seeking memoir. There’s this whole genre of chick-lit books that have all the shoe references, but that wasn’t me at all. I guess I was also sort of a big snob.
How did your experiences then finally come together into a book project?
It was this great fairy-tale, how-to-sell-a-book experience. I was at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in the summer of 2004, and I was working on fiction. They assigned me a meeting with an editor who was a nonfiction-only editor. I thought, “I can’t waste this, so I’ll just talk.” I started talking about these stories with the editor, who said, “That’s commercial, I’ll buy that.” I’ve certainly been through rejections, but this one was sort of a slam dunk, which to me was shocking. I sold [the book] Thanksgiving of 2004. I started writing in January of 2005. I turned it in in May. It was a sprint.
Did you consciously try to avoid the James Frey–style “woe is me” type memoir of overcoming hardship and adversity?
This story is what it is. It doesn’t need my tragic childhood in order to make it understandable. I read a lot of David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell at the time [of writing], people who are comedic memoirists, which I love. Both of them have had experiences that are problematic, traumatic, and stressful. No self-pity at all, no whining.
You’ve been in Seattle five years now. What advice do you have for singles who find it difficult—unlike your experience in New York—to meet people here?
New York is a pedestrian culture—you’re chronically up against people all the time. There’s no choice. All I did was walk down the street smiling at people. And I still am like that, and I meet people all the time. Seattle people are more reserved, certainly. I do find it to be a less friendly city on the deep level; it’s friendly on the surface. I do think that some of [my] same tactics work here, you just need to work harder. You have to be willing to just go for the jugular right away. So I tell my friends, if you see someone who’s interesting, go up and make them talk to you, make them converse with you. So my feeling is, always skip the small talk.
That kind of face-to-face street vernacular has kind of been displaced by online dating. Do you think all the categories on Match.com or JDate.com, for instance, make it easier to reject potential dates without ever meeting them?
I really do. I’m not against online dating. But I think it makes it so that you meet the same person over and over . . . because your criteria are so tight that you can only allow in this very specific thing. You know: The person you’re looking for has this very arcane liberal-arts-college degree, who has all of these things that are so specific and have no real grounding in the real world.
And it’s easier to reject someone with the push of a button, rather than in person?
The thing that I’ve found after talking to women about this book is that women all say, “Well the reason I never say ‘yes’ to a first date is because I don’t know how to say ‘no’ after that. I don’t know how to put someone out of my life after I let them in.” So I think this Internet dating stuff keeps your fears at bay, because it saves you from having to say the initial ‘yes’ without the [exclusionary] criteria that you’ve already figured out. So you feel somehow more comfortable. A lot of people who are fine with that are very upset about this [book]. Most women do not want to be mean. We do not want to be mean to anyone’s face. We’re much better at being mean in print, telephone messages. We feel mean if we’re going to say “no.”
Those are the sort of interpersonal social skills, however, that are declining as we lead such overscheduled and isolated car- and cubicle-bound lives. It’s the Bowling Alone dilemma.
We find it very frightening to put ourselves out there for many reasons. Judgment—we’re afraid that we’ll be rejected and that people won’t like us, or we won’t like them. On some level, I wonder: How do you normally meet people? Are they people you’ve known since you were 5?
So women have got to feel more socially comfortable with the first “no” as well as the first “yes”?
It’s the reason He’s Just Not That Into You was such a huge, enormous, massive hit. We’re just not that straightforward with one another. We don’t want to say that we don’t like somebody, we don’t want to say that we do like somebody, we just don’t want to be straightforward about it. We give strange, subtextual signals and then deny them. I think we often don’t want to take responsibility for our actions, and that is problematic. Nobody wants an awkward situation. And sometimes you just have an awkward situation. I think if you are radically straightforward from the get-go, and you say, “OK, let’s sit down, and let’s get to know each other for an hour. And if not, we’ll both walk away, no pain, and thanks for an hour.” That’s it. Bye. Don’t give out your number.
So, finally, your book has such great movie potential to it. Who should play you if that happens?
People have been having a parlor game of casting it. My own favorite, and also other people have suggested this, too: Maggie Gyllenhaal.