Deborah Copaken: “Every Book…Ushered in Some Change in Me, Whether Minor or Profound”

Portrait of Deborah Copaken

Deborah Copaken is the New York Times bestselling author of Shutterbabe (Amazon, Bookshop), The Red Book (Amazon, Bookshop), and Between Here and April (Amazon, Bookshop), among others. She’s also been a war photographer, TV producer, screenwriter, and performer.

Her New York Times Modern Love column, “When Cupid is a Prying Journalist,” was adapted for the Modern Love streaming series.

Her new memoir, Ladyparts (Amazon, Bookshop), “a frank, witty, and dazzlingly written memoir of one woman trying to keep it together while her body falls apart,” will be published in August. You can pre-order Ladyparts here and watch the book trailer here.

I’ve known Deb for years—now I don’t even remember what mutual friend introduced us—and couldn’t wait to talk to her about habits, happiness, and health.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Deborah: It really depends on when you ask me that question. In the past, I would have said my morning walk, which still is an important and happy-producing part of my day. Right now? Mid-summer? I moved to Red Hook, Brooklyn, in March—a forced move, when our landlord wanted his apartment back mid-pandemic—and what felt like the end of the world, losing our home, turned out to be the happiest setback of all.

Our new place has a roof, which we tricked out with some Ikea decking and several raised garden beds I built out of wood. I’ve never had outdoor space before, and I was determined to grow a garden for the first time in my life, using Youtube as my teacher. Why? Who knows? I think it was my reaction to the PTSD of COVID, which I caught in March of 2020 and am still dealing with the long-haul remnants. In any case, every morning I wake up, make my coffee, haul a watering can up and down the stairs three times, and as I drink my coffee, I also water and sit with my plants, checking out the new growth that happened overnight, pulling off brown leaves, deadheading my roses, harvesting fruits and vegetables that are ready to be picked. The tiny joys of gardening have been such a blessing, and now the science says so, too: small moments of joy every day create long-lasting feelings of well-being.

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

That it cannot be forced. It must be cultivated through actions and deeds, through loving and being loved, through seeking and finding what makes you, individually, happy. Moreover, it is, by design, fleeting: tiny bursts of awe or joy or transformation or whatever you want to call it.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

New Year’s Eve, 2009 into 2010, I vowed to start doing yoga every day. Had I ever done yoga before? No. Did I have the money to go to classes in a yoga studio? No. But I had a videotape of Rodney Yee doing an hour long series of yoga poses, and I bought a mat, and I decided it was either a daily at-home yoga or my sanity. But really? There was no choice. My marriage was crumbling, I had a book I was contracted to write, I was still mourning the death of my father, and I’d stopped taking the anti-depressants which kept me un-sad but never made me happy either. I wanted to find joy. Balance. Strength. Flexibility. It was my GP who suggested yoga to fulfill all of these, and at first I said no, I’m not a yoga person, but then he wrote a prescription with the word yoga on it, and I agreed to try. My doctor was right! Yoga provided all of those happiness-inducing things and then some. Unusually, except when I was undergoing my various surgeries, I kept my promise of yoga every day for seven years, until knee surgery really put the kibosh on any kind of movement for an extended period of time. I still do yoga, but now I mix it up with morning walks and the occasional pilates class and a seven-minute Zoom workout I’ve been doing with a bunch of friends since the beginning of the pandemic.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

Well, I took your quiz, and it says I’m a Rebel, and I can’t say this surprised me, but it did make me realize why I’m poorly suited for corporate jobs.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness?

Yes: my health. I’ve had, well, a ton of bad luck with my health over the past decade, and when you live in the United States, where we don’t value health insurance, women, or health…let’s just say it’s been extremely challenging just to survive some days, let alone thrive.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

Yes. I dropped acid in college and realized that my plan to go to law school was all about pleasing my parents, not about doing what I wanted to do or was called to do. I also stared at my made-up face in the mirror and thought, “Why do you do this to yourself? Put paint on your face every morning?” From that moment on, I vowed to stop wearing make-up and to work in a creative field. I’ve kept those vows for for the past 35 years. (Well, except when I go on TV, and they make me put on make-up, or when I have to get my author photo taken.)

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?

When my dad died young, of pancreatic cancer, a friend sent me a letter that Proust wrote to a young man who’d just lost his mother, and a phrase from that letter has stayed with me ever since. “Let yourself be inert.” This sentiment is particularly important in the grieving process, but it can be equally important during other moments of trauma, like those I detail in Ladyparts. So often, we try to put a salve on hurt by keeping ourselves busy. Allowing ourselves to be inert is what allows us to feel hard feelings and move through them, instead of pushing them aside. On the lighter side of things, that same beloved father once told me, “Never turn down an opportunity to go to the bathroom, even if you think you don’t have to.” That, too, has served me well.

Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?

I think the better question would be: Has any book not changed your life, and the answer would be no. Each book I read changes me, whether a tiny bit or profoundly. Reading Little House on the Prairie (Amazon, Bookshop) made me yearn to be a writer. Reading On the Road (Amazon, Bookshop) made me want to head out on my own adventures. Reading Angela’s Ashes (Amazon, Bookshop) lead directly to writing my first book, Shutterbabe. Reading To the Lighthouse (Amazon, Bookshop) helped me manage that first summer at the shore with the family, without our father. In fact, I could literally point out something about every book that ushered in some change in me, whether minor or profound.

In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?

As a frequent patient who’s often been misdiagnosed or disbelieved—a former doctor once stood over my body, after I’d just passed out from pain in his waiting room, and said, “Come on, it’s just gas! It can’t be that bad…” three hours before my appendix burst—what I want to say to women is to please advocate for yourselves. Science shows us that women’s pain is not believed, that we are not studied, that the data they have for us is often wrong, and that we are often told terrible information and advice about our own health. Make it your job, when given a diagnosis or when dealing with a new health wrinkle, to learn everything you can from the scholarly articles available online. Become an expert in your disease. Get a second opinion. If a doctor isn’t listening to you, change your doctor.



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