Lauren Hough: Oh God. I think it’s kind of the story of being an outsider and living on the margins
that felt like for me.
MH: Awesome. Thank you. So to get into some specifics from the book, you write about experiencing homelessness and living in poverty at various points as an adult. I’m curious: Do you think some programs—like Medicare for All or universal basic income, if they had existed at the time—do you think they would have had a significant impact on your life or no?
LH: Yeah, they would’ve had a huge impact. The only reason I’m able to do this now, the only reason I was able to write a book and have time to write a book, is I got a disability from the Veterans Administration. A lot of writing is just staring at the wall and thinking and trying to recharge; yeah, I wouldn’t be able to do that if I didn’t have disability. So, it’s sort of a writing grant really. Thanks.
MH: I was curious, in the time you’ve been writing the book, do you also teach or ghostwrite, or is it a full-time project for you?
LH: No, I’ve done a couple of visiting writer things. I’d like it to be full-time writing, where right now, it’s just full-time interviews and answering a whole lot of questions about myself.
For most of it, I was working at a bar as a bouncer and writing a book, and trying to go to community college. And when the cable guy essay blew up, then I got the book deal and was able to at least quit the bar job and had enough money to get by and just write. Honestly, I don’t know how anyone with kids finishes a book. I could barely finish one with a dog.
MH: Would you like to share some of what it’s been like debuting during the pandemic?
LH: Sure. It’s been surreal and terrifying. It all feels a little disconnected because I’m just looking at pictures on my phone or on my computer. It didn’t feel so real. I’m vaccinated so I thought it might be fun to drive around and I went and saw my book in bookstores and got to sign a lot of copies. And actually random people were meeting me outside the bookstore, which was strange and very cool. But it just feels very disconnected and still, I’m walking around like a raw nerve. To fit in my skin, it’s strange. I don’t really have words for it yet. Ask me again in a couple of years, maybe.
MH: That makes sense. I’m curious, did you face any legal issues or barriers given what you were writing about? Or any possibility of being sued? Were you concerned about anything like that in writing nonfiction or not really?
LH: Not really. Thankfully the cult I came out of isn’t as litigious as some others. I don’t know that anyone in mine would know how to find a courthouse. They’re just hiding out in Mexico. And yeah, the cult’s still around, but they’re just phoning it in. They’ll send you a couple of emails or a newsletter if you tithe enough. So yeah, I don’t have that worry that I think a lot of people have coming out of other cults where they face real actual harm.
MH: What would you say the most surprising response or reaction to your work has been?
LH: All of it. It’s wild. You write these stories and tell your secrets to a piece of paper and try to make it sound as good as you can. I’m only showing it to my editor and my agent and tossing it back and forth. And then people from all over the country kept sending me pictures of my book and saying how much it meant to them. I expected it to resonate with queer people, but it’s been everyone. I don’t know a demographic that I haven’t seen. It’s been pretty f–king cool.
MH: What’s one thing you would want people who have never experienced homelessness themselves to know about the reality unhoused people face?
LH: I think we’ve all heard the bootstraps American dream stories of how you just get a job and you just do this or you just do that. But while you’re in it, it’s like sliding down a cliff. And yeah, you may be able to catch a branch, but one wrong move and that branch comes loose. It is nearly impossible in this country to dig yourself out of it because it’s not just one thing. It’s everything. It’s you can’t keep clean, and you can’t get a haircut, and you don’t have a phone number to put on your job application, you don’t have an address to put on your job application. It is nearly impossible to climb out of it once you’re there. And we just don’t have much social safety in this country to help.
MH: Do you think that you still would have enlisted in the Air Force if things like Free State or Community College for All existed at the time?
LH: Probably not. The unfortunate thing about this country is the military is about our only free college program and it doesn’t work out for a lot of people. The problem is, they make about the GI Bill and free classes, yeah, you might get to do that … Or you might not survive.
MH: Was your family supportive of your choice in joining the military at 18?
LH: Yeah, they were fine with it. My mom would’ve much rather I’d gone to college, but we didn’t really see how. So, that was the option I had. I think they were just glad it was the Air Force and that seems less likely to see battle or anything.
MH: As you wrote about in the book, you served during Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. A lot of people have assumptions or have already read or heard about what that experience was like for a lot of queer people. But are there any misconceptions you’d like to correct or perhaps surprising points you’d like to share about your specific experience?
LH: I think when I talked about it afterward, the common misconception was that gay people were allowed to serve in the military. As long as they didn’t walk into the commander’s office and say, “I’m gay,” then they were allowed to be gay. But acts of homosexuality were still a criminal act … So yeah, I don’t think a lot of people understood the absolute terror of the lived experience that gay people had served in the military at the time where, yes, you could exist sort of, as long as you existed completely in the closet. And the closet itself is just a very damaging experience.
MH: One of the sections that stood out to me personally the most in the book is when you write about your time spent in jail and the voices, not knowing if what you were hearing was real or in your own head or not. And so in the bigger picture, I’m curious if your experience in jail and in the system, if it had any impact on your perspective on movements like abolishing prisons or defunding the police, things like that, or no?
LH: I’m just glad to see greater society finally paying attention to the absolute torture that is our prison system. We don’t have a justice system in this country. We have a punitive system and a whole lot of it is just based on money. The powers that be getting money from us and the people who can’t afford it being in prison for it. We have actual debtors prisons in this country. Yeah, I think that’s been really the bigger thing is just I’m glad people are finally f–king paying attention.
MH: Did you feel like being a white person affected the way you were treated or that there was any degree of privilege, even in the unfair things?
LH: There’s absolutely a level of privilege that I experienced that others don’t because I’m white. Because I’m white, I’m not still living in my car. I’m not still in jail. I had someone I could call for bail money. I was arrested by the police, not shot by the police. I know white people, I think, don’t like to look at the privilege they do have. Well, I’ve had bad things happen to me. We all have, but not because of the color of our skin. And I was able to climb out of it honestly because of the f–king color of my skin.
MH: I know you have moved a lot, obviously living abroad as well as different places in the country. So, I’m curious, at least as an adult, have state or local politics ever affected your decision on where to live?
LH: I think I decide mostly based on where I feel safe walking into a bathroom. I know I don’t feel safe in the suburbs. I know I don’t feel safe away from a city. So yeah, I want to go back to Texas and I will, but I have a very complicated relationship with Texas because I will just say that I love its people and I hate the goddamn government. But I think some of us have to live there to vote to try to change things. But yeah, I’ll be staying in Austin where it’s safe to go to the bathroom.
MH: What books have you been reading lately that you would like to share or recommend?
LH: I actually went back and started reading Olivia Laing’s Lonely City. A friend of mine sent that to me and it’s like her voice is so calming and soothing. I have a nice little therapeutic thing before bed. And Ashley C. Ford sent me an ARC [advanced reading copy] of her memoir. That’s the cool part of this job is sometimes you get books before everybody else does and they’re just free books. And yeah, she wrote a memoir about her childhood and her dad being in prison. And it’s mind-blowing, it’s great. So yeah, those are the two I’m working on right now.