When Mandy Len Catron’s Modern Love essay hit The New York Times’s website in 2015, it exploded. The headline: “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This.” In it Catron explained how she successfully used a list of 36 questions created by psychologist Arthur Aron that (combined with prolonged eye contact) are supposed to bring two people together in a lasting love bond. The questions are probing: “What is your most treasured memory?,” “When did you last cry in front of another person?,” and “Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?”
The Times doesn’t share online audience numbers. But Modern Love editor Daniel Jones says that Catron’s was one of the most popular essays in the relationship column’s history because her story made intuitive sense. “The quiz itself had real integrity,” he said. “It works to equalize the vulnerability.”
It was no surprise, then, that Catron — who’d long written about love on her site The Love Story Project — got a book deal. Simon and Schuster released “How to Fall in Love With Anyone” Tuesday. It goes into greater depth about Catron’s dating history and takes a sociological look at how — and why — we fall in love. In an interview last week, Catron talked about the essay’s success and whether she believes the method would work for anyone, anytime.
Q. Tell me about the origin of the essay.
A. When I first did the experiment, I thought, “Oh, I’m gonna write about this. I’m gonna blog.” Then I was telling my friends about it the next day at a cookout and thought, “You know, this is a good story. I should see if someone will actually pay me to write it.” So I wrote about 3,000 words and sent it out. One place seemed interested but never got back to me. About a month later, I cut it in half and sent it to Modern Love, and they ran it.
Q. Were you bombarded with feedback?
A. I think it went up online on a Friday late afternoon [in Victoria, British Columbia, where Catron lives]. I think it was evening on the East Coast. Within a couple hours my sister was texting me and saying, “People I know who don’t even know you are sharing this on Facebook.” Then the next day I had a phone call from the “Today” show, and it was just so beyond what I had prepared for. For months, I got e-mails from strangers, telling me about their love lives, telling me about their experiences. I was shocked by how intimate people were, in the details of their lives. It’s something I’m glad I got the chance to experience, but I would not want to go through it again.
Q. On your Love Project site, you’ve always written personal things. Did this column change the way you wrote about your own love life?
A. Because I write about my family a lot, I had initially decided to use a pen name. I had published with just my first name and my middle name, Mandy Len. That was just a way to preserve a little privacy for my family. But The New York Times does not publish pseudonyms, so I had no choice but to use my full name. I really had to think about what I was writing about my family. Luckily, they have been really wonderfully supportive and great.
Q. People seem to want a simple answer to finding love. That’s what the success of the column said to me — that people wanted a formula or a quick solution. Is that what you’ve really given them?
A. I think everyone wants intimacy, right? They want to feel known, and they want to feel a real sense of connection with another person, and it’s terrifying to say to someone, “Let me tell you the deepest secrets of my life.” I think it really gives people a mechanism to feel known and to feel close to someone. I also think part of why it was popular was the correlation with the extreme popularity of online dating. Especially with something like Tinder, where you have this huge breadth of potential mates, but the interactions tend to be really shallow. So I think this is the opposite of that, right? It’s this really in-depth connection with one person, as opposed to lots of brief conversations with many people.
Q. So you ask the 36 questions on a first date. They’re deep. Does that mean the second date is super awkward because everything is on the table?
A. My experience was that I did feel [awkward] immediately after. I remember walking home [with him] and having no idea what to talk about. . . . It felt like this abrupt switch back to small talk. I think the second date we just had to have this conversation that was like, “What’s the nature of this relationship now?” It took a while to figure that out, which was OK.
Q. I was thinking that if someone asked me to do this experiment on a first or second date, I’d say no. Maybe someone’s interest in doing the experiment says more about their life priorities than the experiment itself.
‘I think . . . you can count on the experiment (asking a date 36 probing questions created by psychologist Arthur Aron) to feel close to someone, right? I don’t think it guarantees love, but I don’t think anything guarantees love.’
A. I do think someone’s willingness to try it says something about their willingness to have a relationship at all.
Q. Since the essay, you’ve done TED talks. You’ve led discussions. Do you feel like an expert on falling in love?
A. People do expect me — or ask me — to speak from a position of authority. It’s a slightly uneasy position for me because I feel like I have a lot of knowledge, and I’m good at doing research. But on the other hand, I think there’s something at odds with being an essayist like myself — as opposed to an expert.
Q. In the book, you tell us what happened in your relationship — how it worked out after the experiment. I won’t give anything away, but when people asked whether the science worked, what do you say?
A. I think the answer is that you can count on the experiment to feel close to someone, right? I don’t think it guarantees love, but I don’t think anything guarantees love. I think love is a tricky, confusing, scary business. But I do think it does make people feel close quickly.Interview was edited and condensed. Meredith Goldstein, the Globe’s advice columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.