The Millions

Please Read This Interview Carefully: Karen Havelin on Writing Pain

I began reading Karen Havelin’s debut novel Please Read This Leaflet Carefully with the intention of reviewing it. Havelin’s protagonist Laura, a Norwegian expat who has settled in New York, lives with endometriosis and the chronic pain it causes. I was determined to be a good literary citizen and review as many books as I could before the September release of my debut essay collection, Codependence, which centers in part on my intractable headaches. A novel centered on another woman’s chronic pain seemed a good place to start. But as I got further into the book and learned that Laura’s health issues have their roots in Havelin’s own experience, I became less interested in writing a straightforward review and more curious about what we could learn from putting our books and bodies in conversation.

Havelin was diagnosed with endometriosis at age 29, though her symptoms went undiagnosed for 10 years. Endometriosis affects over 170 million women worldwide, and according to the CDC, women are more than twice as likely as men to suffer from headache disorders; although more women report chronic pain than men, studies show that doctors and researchers often dismiss or overlook women’s pain. Havelin and I arranged a video chat—no easy task when one of you is in Norway—and discussed her novel and its aims, how pain affects our writing lives, inequities in pain treatment, and more.

 In telling people about your book, I’ve called it “a novel about a woman with endometriosis,” and it is that, but I also know that description is reductive. How do you describe the

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