Bad breakups invite some cringe-worthy clichés, but how about this refreshing line?
“It’s not YOU…it’s history.”
Jennifer Wright’s new book offers an entertaining and comforting collection of evidence that, in the throes of heartbreak, there are people who’ve acted much more inappropriately than you. It Ended Badly: 13 of the Worst Breakups in History is Wright’s hybrid of scholarly documentarian crossed with a delightfully droll advice columnist, taking a reader (ideally one with a freshly cleaved relationship) on a lithe journey through 2,000 years of well-known figures—think Kings, Queens, Caesars and philosophers—showing you that there’s just no smooth, subtle or even sane way for humans to sail past the experience of being dumped. Your Ex could write a novel about you, or go to great lengths to convince the rest of high society that you are, in fact, a ghost!
Momentary madness often ensues after breakups, and, as Wright proves, often with entertaining results—at least in hindsight. And it is all about hindsight, as Wright, a co-founder of TheGloss.com and contributor to the New York Post and New York Observer, is hoping that those opening her first book will remember that she isn’t here to make fun of the unlucky-in-love-types, she’s here to empathize. Quite often, she’ll also make you laugh.
Paste: It Ended Badly is very educational. It packs in the facts, but it’s also very conversational, it’s droll, it’s even quip-py. Parts of it felt, fleetingly, like a history textbook, and then the very next line I’m laughing out loud. Tell me a little bit about the tone you took with the book.
Wright: I’m happy to hear that and to hear that other people are enjoying it. It did take a tone that’s different than a lot of other history books. I feel like working on TheGloss.com for three years was really good experience in terms of coming to appreciate that people are smart, they want to read about subjects that are fascinating and interesting, but you have to figure out how to make them somehow entertaining or people won’t get through them.
Paste: If this book illuminated anything for me, beyond getting me to consider my own post-breakup foibles, is that some of history’s most famous people are a lot crazier than I’d initially perceived.
Wright: So crazy! It’s before TV, so I don’t think anybody had a clear perspective on exactly what normal looked like, which could be terrible but also could be great.
Paste: Did you know many of these factoids before you started writing the book?
?Wright: Some of them I had known before. I’ve used the story of Edith Wharton sending 300 letters to her Ex more than once to friends of mine who panicked about texting their Ex 20 times. I always tell friends that it’s normal to feel like they behave like a crazy person during breakups, but if they look at Oskar Kokoschka, who had a giant doll made to look like his Ex…he went on to have a really happy marriage. No matter how bad you’re feeling, you can go on and it can get better.
Paste: What were your hopes for this book?
?Wright: The book had three purposes. The first one was to make a book that people can take to bed with them on the first night after a really bad breakup and read it, laugh a bit and feel like they’re not alone and that there are so many other people who feel all the terrible emotions they’re feeling right at that moment. I think that’s one of the best things that books can do is make you feel less alone.
My second goal was to maybe make people who don’t really think of themselves as big readers of books about history or biographies to read a bit about it and say: Hey, I wanna go out and read another biography or maybe learn more about Eleanor of Aquitaine. And, my third goal was to learn more about Timothy Dexter.
Listen: Jennifer Wright on writing It Ended Badly
Paste: With Timothy Dexter, I don’t know if “eccentric” goes far enough considering the statues at his estate, or the books he wrote or that he was on a campaign to convince everyone that his Ex was a ghost.
Wright: He certainly seemed like he had a wonderful self-confidence that I will never achieve in my own life. I felt terrified that he may actually have been an urban legend. I kept a photograph of his house on my laptop to remind me that he was a real person who did these things after a breakup.??
Paste: It seems that there’s an inherent healing that you need to do with your writing here. Can you tell me more about your role as sort of an advice-columnist, at least here in this book?
Wright: People who love history books probably have more scholarly research than this to read. Nobody should take this as a definitive account of these people’s full lives. I don’t have a PhD, I’ll get this humility stuff out right now. But if you’re someone who has had a bad breakup and didn’t really know much about history, then I wanted to give you as many footholds as possible, so that you could easily relate to these people or find the most amount of similar things that you’re already familiar with…like Rihanna posting on Instagram.
I did imagine it like an advice column. How would I want a friend to talk to me on that night after a breakup? I would want them to be funny, and I wouldn’t want them to necessarily share stories about their own breakups; I’d want them to talk about other people. I do hope that no one going through a breakup reads [It Ended Badly] and feels like they’re being made fun of…I hope they’re able to laugh, too, at some of the funnier things in history without feeling like it’s not respectful of the fact that breakups are actually very, very painful.
Paste: This might be the columnist in you, but I think when you say you “took a different tone” than most history books, it’s connecting dots from the past to the present. Whereas I can’t imagine myself in Lord Byron’s world, you’re providing perspective.
Wright: I went to a liberal arts college that focused on the great books. You memorize the greats during your freshman year and read lots of ancient Greek texts. One thing I remember is that, when talking about texts in class, you were never really supposed to tie it to what was happening today, you were really just supposed to teach the text. I always felt that was kinda silly. I always think that it’s a lot more interesting if you can tie it to stuff that you already know about and that you’re already experiencing. What good is knowing what year Washington was born if you don’t know what kind of life he lived and whether or not he was someone you’d like to emulate?
Paste: If there’s anyone you’d like to emulate, we’d guess it was Eleanor of Aquitaine…
Wright: Yes! The Lion In Winter is my favorite movie! She is endlessly amazing. If you go to Renaissance Fairs, Eleanor of Aquitaine is the one who popularized a lot of the customs that we now associate with everything that’s fun about those fairs. She had young men writing poetry and promoting the idea of chivalry and chivalric love. It’s fascinating to read about her, here. She imported a lot from Spain, setting up a little court here and setting up poets to talk about love and having these interesting debates. I think of it as the way some of us imagine starting a costume shop!
Paste: What’s the biggest takeaway not just for you, the author, but for the reader?
Wright: I learned that if you want to get your message across, it’s much better to be funny and to figure out how to make people laugh than to stand on a soapbox and scream out what you think.
Paste: That’s good advice.
Wright: Thank you. Every time someone says “I don’t normally like history books, but this makes me want to go out and read more history books,” I’m thrilled to hear that. There are lots of wonderful biographies on women, but throughout most of history, men have had more power. I wanted this history to be more relatable to women. And I especially wanted to make sure that this was a book that focused a lot on what women were doing throughout history.