By Toni Nealie
Essayist Samantha Irby writes, “I am boring and terrible. My funny runs out, my cute runs out, my smart sometimes hiccups, my sexy wakes up with uncontrollable diarrhea.” Following her popular debut collection “Meaty” and her popular blog “Bitches Gotta Eat,” Irby’s new collection needs a may-induce-whiplash warning. “We Are Never Meeting in Real Life” is designed to make readers throw their heads back laughing, sob loudly into tissues, roar with laughter again and repeat. Irby tells of scattering her father’s ashes in a Tennessee river, witnessing a Civil War reenactment, having panic attacks, suffering from Crohn’s disease and being a person with “a sharp edge!”
Last time I interviewed you, you characterized your work as “butt stuff for idiots.” You seem to have broadened your themes—how would you describe it now?
BUTT STUFF FOR MIDDLE-AGED IDIOTS.
Your style has changed. Is that because your process is different, or because you are being pushed by an editor, or a progression, or …?
I think I’m just getting older and, dare I say, maturing a little bit? It also has become important to me to distinguish my blogging voice from my book-writing voice, if that makes sense. I don’t want people to dismiss my books just because I also write jokes on the internet.
Where did you write this collection? I know you live in Michigan now. Does place influence your writing? Domestic bliss?
I wrote seventy-five percent of it in Chicago before I moved. So, a lot of it is still very much me sitting at my desk in the corner scowling at all the city noise and smells outside my window. Where I write doesn’t matter since I can never get out of my own head long enough to really appreciate anything happening around me. And LOL WHAT BLISS.
In the essay about going to college, getting diarrhea in the snow, I’m struck by the kindness of the bros helping you. Your persona is “bah, humbug” but you have these little moments of recognizing the good in (some) everyday people. Have you got softer? Is this an age thing or are you in a different head space?
If you meet me on the street I’m the nicest person alive. I’m never rude, and my self-consciousness typically translates into a deference a lot of people don’t deserve. I am uncomfortable in the world, but I would never ruin your day with it. My writing helps me process those feelings. I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of kindness in my life; I have received a lot of help from people who weren’t required to help me and I feel like I’ve been gracious to those people. In general, though, moving around the world? A lot of people are inconsiderate trash. And I write comedy, and “This really nice young man carried my cat litter to the car” doesn’t make for good material. I don’t think I’m softer, I mean, I said those dudes were boring meatheads who couldn’t finish college. Maybe you’re the one who’s softening up?
I read the essay about the strap-on which I’d previously heard you read at Women and Children First—it’s a different experience reading it than hearing it. Do you write or revise differently for the page than for live delivery?
When I’m reading something I always feed off the audience. If people laugh really hard at a particular part I’ll stop and acknowledge it, or I’ll ad lib and add anecdotes from other parts of my life. I use a lot of long, winding, run-on sentences when I write, so before I read something new I definitely have to rehearse it and make notes about where to breathe or how to stress a sentence while reading it aloud. I also try to cut the slow parts out, because even people who love me don’t want to hear me droning on and on for ten minutes.
When I read the book, I was on the plane to AWP in D.C., alternating crying and laughing, snorting my coffee next to a very serious AWP-bound writer. The bit about not remembering your parents’ voices or what they put on their chicken was painful—because we all get there (unless we die first). I was bawling in readiness for my mother’s death and howling with horrified laughter over “gritty Sam Irby penis and entrails” lining your nostrils—all while getting the side-eye from serious writer in the next seat. Do you view the world as absurd when you are in the moment, or does that come when writing?
Oh, no I think everything is uncomfortable and terrible all the time, especially as it is happening. I am embarrassed and horrified one-hundred percent of the time. This is going to sound ridiculous coming from me, but I’m a pretty good-natured person; meaning: I can laugh about most anything given a little time and perspective. Sometimes a bad thing will happen and even through the initial horror and/or rage I can find the joke in it. Other times it might take a while, but I always circle back around to whatever humor I can mine from the situation.
It seems that an upper middle-class upbringing and education (Iowa) is the prerequisite for entry into the essay world. Can you give me your perspective on writing essays in a class-context? Race also—Ta-Nehisi Coates occupies the main spot for black essayists—there can only be one at a time?
I feel like if I was a Serious Writer tackling Big Ideas I might have a hard time being taken seriously by a certain type of person? Fortunately for me that’s not my audience. I’m a storyteller more than I’m an essayist; my narratives are always first person and rarely about ideas over personal experience. Ta-Nehisi Coates and I are never going to be in the same conversation, because he is a brilliant black intellectual who writes thoughtfully about our current sociopolitical landscape. I dropped out of college and worked a desk job for forever and write a blog about wearing diapers. I’m not a cultural critic, at least not in any traditional sense. I’m not even sure I’m smart enough to understand this question.
When I was at an AWP conference in Los Angeles, I took a pic of a guy wearing a “Meaty” t-shirt. Do you have fans all over or are they mainly in the Midwest?
I feel like I have fans everywhere, but maybe that’s just an illusion the internet helps to perpetuate? I’m doing a little tour this summer and I am fully prepared to have my bubble burst.
What do your readers respond to most? Is there a downside with critics?
I think there are a lot of people who don’t necessarily take to my frankness, but I always maintain that those aren’t people whom my writing is for. I don’t listen to criticism from anyone other than my agent and my editor. I really don’t care what a regular person on the street hates about my work. I don’t have a comment section online because I refuse to host a forum in which people can throw dirt on my shit, and I am one-hundred percent uninterested in ever reading a review of my work. Even the positive ones. I am happy just to know in my heart that the people I write for enjoy it, I don’t need to wade through a swamp of misspelled one-star Amazon reviews to find the occasional ego boost. That shit stays with you, and I have enough of my own self-hatred and negative thinking banging around my brain, I don’t need to add the opinions of people who don’t even know me to the din.
What authors do you like to read? Who are you reading currently? What is a book that makes you want to shout to everyone to pick it up now?
I mostly read fiction; I read a lot of literature, I guess?, but I also read a lot of horror, suspense and YA. Right now I am reading advance review copies of both “Hunger” by Roxane Gay and “Sour Heart” by Jenny Zhang. I just finished “Startup” by Doree Shafrir, and “Sympathy” by Olivia Sudjic is on the nightstand for me to start next. I have an online bookclub on my blog and this month’s selection was “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, which I read in a day and loved. But the book I’d tell everyone to read is “The Mothers” by Brit Bennett. I read it last fall and I still think about it all the time.
How did you go from small independent publisher to Random House?
I didn’t have an agent for “Meaty.” I was lucky enough to have met a bunch of people in the Chicago indie publishing scene because I was doing so much live lit and kind of fell into putting out a book because Lauryn Allison is irresistible and insisted I do it. “Meaty” did pretty well and got itself in front of a few fancy eyeballs. One day I got an email from my now-agent asking if I had representation. We had one phone conversation and I loved him immediately. He asked what goals I had for my writing and I told him that I honestly had none, and he suggested pitching another collection. I didn’t want to waste his time after all the contracts and conversation, so I said we should. I wrote an outline and four of the essays in this collection for the pitch, there was a bidding war that of course I had no part of because I don’t know anything, then we went with Vintage because I had connected so well with Andrea Robinson, the editor who acquired the collection there.
What is the experience of working with a bigger publisher like?
It’s surreal. I have a whole team of people who are actively invested in this work. Which is weird because writing is such a solitary thing and my writing in particular is super personal. It felt bananas at first to take someone else’s thoughts about what I am working on into consideration while I’m still working on it. I’d never worked with an editor before. But once I got used to it being a collaborative effort, it was amazing. My editor is so funny and smart and I’m super grateful to have someone in my corner, who isn’t as emotionally connected to my stuff as I am, stand back and say, “What are you trying to say with this?” or “Wouldn’t this be structured better if you moved this here?” Writing in a vacuum can be dangerous, because of course I’m a genius and everything makes sense and I don’t repeat the same joke too many times. Having both an editor and a copyeditor this time around was a godsend. My writing is stronger for it.
What is happening with the TV show?
Abbi Jacobson, Jessi Klein and I came up with the story. Jessi and I just edited and finished the pilot and sent it off to FX. And now we wait.
Can we still claim you as part of Chicago or are you done with us?
Oh no, I could never claim all this fresh air and these fruit trees as my home. Plus, I could never willfully claim to be part of a place that doesn’t know what goes on a hot dog.
What’s next or anything you want to add?
“Meaty” the book is getting a tummy tuck and a facelift, i.e. the big publishing house treatment. I’m writing some new things to make it all shiny and new. And “Meaty” the television show will hopefully be coming to a borrowed cable log-in near you sometime in the future. Also, I just got a new gig as the book reviewer for Marie Claire magazine, so starting with the September issue I will be in your mailbox or on your newsstand every single month. Life is so wild.
“We Are Never Meeting In Real Life”
By Samantha Irby
Vintage, 288 pages, $15.95
Samantha Irby’s book launch features conversation, a reading, Q & A and book signing on June 8, 7pm at Wilson Abby, 935 West Wilson, $20 including book. She appears at the Printers Row Lit Fest, June 10-11.
Toni Nealie is the Literary Editor of Newcity and the author of the essay collection “The Miles Between Me.” A Pushcart Prize nominee, her essays have appeared in Guernica Magazine, Rust Belt: Chicago, The Rumpus, The Offing, Essay Daily, Chicago Quarterly Review, Hobart, Entropy and elsewhere. She worked in magazine journalism, politics and PR in her native New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Singapore and now edits, writes and teaches in Chicago. Find her at toninealie.com and on Twitter @tnealie. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.