"I cannot live without books." -- Thomas Jefferson

Monday, August 7, 2017

An Interview with Author Samantha Irby

It's a funny thing: setting up a phone interview with a writer whose book proclaims clearly, on page 266, "I don't wanna talk on the phone". The first thing I said to Samantha Irby - after how much I love her work and how excited I was to speak with her - was, "do you wanna bail and do this by email?"

A couple of emails and one broken – then fixed – computer later, the hilarious and very brave author of We Are NeverMeeting in Real Life shares her thoughts on memory, honesty, and the importance of keeping your day job:

Nadine Vassallo: Where are you right now? Describe your surroundings.
Samantha Irby: I am in my bedroom in Kalamazoo, MI. In bed, with a brand new, freshly washed duvet, which is really my kind of party. My still-packed suitcase is at the foot of the bed because I just got back from a week working in LA, but I hate unpacking so it's just sitting there mocking me. On the dresser across from me there are TWO STACKS of books that every day I promise myself I'm finally going to read (Gork, the Teenage Dragon and MeddlingKids by Edgar Cantero are at the top of the list) but then night falls and I'm watching TV and I don't want to stop so I think "oh I can just read those tomorrow." Lather rinse repeat. One of the cats is walking around looking for something expensive to chew on and destroy, and I'm listening to a Beach House playlist I made on Spotify.
NV: You write for a wide variety of media: blog, comedy, essays, live storytelling, TV... Are there different things you keep in mind while writing for different audiences and formats?
SI: The only time I really think about the construction of a piece is when it's one I know I'm going to read aloud. Like, super-long sentences will ruin your life onstage. Going on for too long in general will put people off. You gotta know how and when to land the jokes. I write my blog pretty stream-of-consciousness and post it before I spend too much energy agonizing over it. I like to rehearse performance pieces, to edit them for length and clarity, but when writing something I know a person is going to read I just let it flow. TV writing is totally different because it's mostly dialogue, and I still have absolutely zero confidence that I'm doing it well. I guess that remains to be seen!
NV: Your writing is so wonderfully open and honest, and I imagine people tell you that's "brave" a lot (because it is!). Do you think of yourself as brave? Do you get tired of hearing that?
SI: No I think it's great, although I don't feel particularly brave. It's always my hope that this gross oversharing I do is useful to someone else, whether it makes them laugh or think or helps them process something. Brave feels like too much of a word to describe what I do, though. I mostly write about poop.
NV: Are there times you choose to censor yourself or not to be honest with your audience?
SI: I think that I, like most people, have certain scabs that just aren't ready to be picked. Maybe I'll evolve to the point that they feel comfortable to talk about, but for now I only talk about things that don't make me flinch when I hear them repeated back to me.
NV: One of the passages from your book that really stuck in my heart was the part where you write, "I can tell you with near certainty that I was wearing an oatmeal-colored knit turtleneck sweater, but not the ratio of heart attacks to strokes my dad had at the end of his life." (As both a wearer of turtlenecks and someone who's dealt with memory issues surrounding similar experiences, I relate.) How does your memory work? How do you use it in your writing? What's the most difficult thing about crafting art out of memory?
SI: The most difficult thing is getting the details correct. I vowed to myself that this book was going to be the last time I write about anything that happened in my childhood because I am getting older every day and that makes the memories less and less clear. And despite the fact that no one is around to refute it, I don't want to reconstruct bits of my life that I'm not totally certain about. Embarrassing things really burn themselves into my memory, though. I remember the first day of my freshman year of high school I wore an oversized mustard yellow shirt because some kid said I looked like Fat Charlie Brown and now, in 2017, that's hilarious but in 1994 with hormones and insecurities boiling through my veins I thought I was going to drop dead on the spot and now I will never forget it. Good times are often a blur but the bad ones live on forever, often in intricate detail.
NV: In another interview, you mentioned that you've found your writing "freeing." Do you feel like you've come out the other side, to where that liberation is? Or are you still getting there?
SI: I'm still getting there, I think. I'm too anxious to ever actually be 100% free. But it does make it easier to be a disgusting human garbage can in front of people when I can look at them and say, "I WARNED YOU ABOUT THIS."
NV: In some ways, your POV feels inherently political. Do you see your writing as political?
SI: Not explicitly, because I feel like you have to have a certain level of verifiable smarts to write about politics? And I definitely don't have that. I have opinions, sure, but when they're grounded in "feelings" that I can't use scientific evidence to prove I feel like I gotta shut up and let actual scholars do the heavy lifting. Like, I'm not a person who knows statistics. Or history. So I stay where I'm best acquainted. I am a queer black woman writing about my experiences in the world and I guess that's political but I don't really think about it that way.
NV: This question comes from one of our booksellers: What advice would you give to younger writers, especially someone who struggles to be more open in their own work?
SI: Okay I have two pieces of advice, and please keep in mind that I am an idiot.
1: Have a day job. Like, this is the least romantic thing I could ever say about writing but it's so real. I worked at an animal hospital for 14 years while toiling away on my blog and books at night or on my lunch breaks, and it's 100% worth it because I never had to compromise any of my work so that it would pay me. I didn't have to write clickbaity articles or anything like that because I had a steady source of income that kept my bills paid. There's so much creative freedom when you aren't dependent on your writing for a paycheck. Also it's unrealistic to think that writing alone can keep a roof over your head. Even now I only write because I have a wife who goes to work every day and has insurance. TL;DR: don't ever quit your job.
2: I feel like you can't push yourself to be open about things until you're ready; until you're ready for someone to ask you about that thing your wrote, until you're ready to defend it in front of strangers. I don't write about anything I'd be ashamed or uncomfortable hearing read back to me, and I don't owe anyone access to the things I don't. When you're ready, you'll write about it. And if you're never ready, that's okay, too.

NV: What are you reading right now?
SI: I just, literally just, started reading The Grip of It by Jac Jemc. And I also got Samantha Hunt's new collection of short stories called The Dark Dark. I love creepy shit, especially when women write it. I'm stoked for these two.
NV: Thank you! This has been fantastic. (Also I am obsessed with Samantha Hunt and if you haven't read Mr. Splitfoot, you gotta!)

Nadine Vassallo is the General Manager of Book Soup.

New People by Danzy Senna

Recommended by Afton.

A quick read, but one you'll think about for a long time after you finish it. On the surface, New People is a simple story - a woman in the process of writing her dissertation and getting ready for her wedding becomes infatuated with a poet she barely knows. Under the surface though, this book explores the many layers and nuances of being mixed race 20 years ago.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Our August (Book) Soup of the Month is We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby!

Transparency is rare.
Embarrassment is real.
We are more alike than you think.

These are some of the conclusions I made after reading Samantha Irby’s We Are Never Meeting in Real Life.

Families are messy.
Your body may someday betray you.
Just because he's cute doesn't mean he's a catch.

I needed to read this book in order to have these mini-revelations. Irby’s words evoke honesty and introspection in a way only she can: with a massive amount of expletives and definitely too much information (but low key - not so low key - that's why I kept reading). It's extremely refreshing to read a voice that resembles the one in your head. You know what I mean, the one that jumps to conclusions, passes judgments, gets really caught up in the Real Housewives of Atlanta, that voice. Irby shows us exactly who she is, the good, the bad, the extremely uncomfortable.

Parents are human, flawed, and sometimes a burden.
I can be really good at a job I don't like.

This collection of essays was my first introduction to Irby’s personality and style. Her humor is dark and slightly offensive. You will, however, find yourself nodding when she goes on rants about friends who become parents and treat their children like fragile experiments. And being fat and dating the guy from Best Buy. One of my favorite essays “you don't have to be grateful for sex” recounts some of her past hook ups with men who deemed themselves “out of her league" but still did not hesitate to get all up in her pants. Somehow, these so called “attractive guys” believed their mediocre presence was a gift sent from above. As a plus size black girl, not only did I think “same”, but I also thought “please let them know we out here pulling D’Angelo circa How does it feel? type men in these streets! Sure it might be just for a night or a few nights but dammit, we out here!” She lets us into personal moments when she tells us about her relationships with her parents and how she never knows where to place them, even after death. We meet her cat and arch nemesis Helen Keller, the spawn of Satan and destroyer of favorite things. And we follow her as she experiences relationships that inevitably lead her to her wife, the person she chooses to compromise for. 

Truthfully she is all of us. She came from a messy dysfunctional family (same). She has had failed relationships and desperate hook ups (same). She is overweight and deals with health issues that sometimes make sitting down and binging trash TV sound one million times better than anything outdoors (almost same, but same). She has allowed love and relationships to change her routine, but fundamentally not change her (to be determined). And even though we've never met in real life, I feel like I know her.

Review by Tameka Blackshir, Book Soup Bookseller

Monday, July 10, 2017

Michelle Latiolais: Interview with Molly Ash

Molly Ash: Hi Michelle! It is such a pleasure to finally meet you. Your home is simply gorgeous, thank you so much for having me! Let's dive right in.

I was absolutely blown away by She and so thrilled we have chosen it as our (Book) Soup of the Month this month. One of the things that struck me most was the unique form. It's not a novel but it's not quite a short story collection either . . . Somewhere in between the two, if that's possible. At times, it almost feels like poetry to me. Was this ever your intention when you began to write it, or did it just sort of happen that way?

Michelle Latiolais: I love your sentence “somewhere in between [being a novel or a short story collection] if that’s possible. It is possible, as anything is possible in language. Language is absolutely amazing in its ability to construct just about anything you want to construct. Written well, or even just well enough, writing can make you think and feel just about anything. But what it’s called, its genre—in answer to your question—well I am rarely very interested or much concerned by that. I loved that my editor John Glusman at Norton said, “we’re going to call it fiction on the cover.” I thought that was perfect, almost a challenge. I love poetry, or I love reading lines that sing, that conjure powerfully, that constellate in my senses. And if I can make sentences do that, a paragraph, even just a little, I stand the chance of feeling okay that day. It’s the quality of the experience of the language that I’m concerned with. And poets set the standard for that, and it’s way up there. The standard, I mean.

And sure, I had a reason for embedding stories in an ongoing narrative, one in which a young girl, almost fifteen years old, makes her way through a huge metropolis.  She is surrounded by stories, by people with stories, some of whom she may encounter, and many, many more whom she won’t, but which make up the energy of a city, its depth, its layers. “Hospital,” I think, questions where one finds family, nurture, and the woman is not in Los Angeles in that story.  So, it’s contrapuntal, and, I hope, suggestive, and hugely so.

MA: One of the things I loved most about the book is that it really does a great job of capturing Los Angeles -- not just as a city but as a state of mind. Do you have a love/hate relationship with LA? What's your favorite thing about it? Least favorite?

ML: Oh Molly, you’re going to get me in trouble, because yes, you’re right, I don’t like Los Angeles all that much. I always say I’ve made peace with Los Angeles, but it’s the coldest city I’ve ever lived in. I miss the civic exchanges one is always having in New York or Chicago or San Francisco. In those cities, there’s that feeling that you’re all part of something, and that you’re in this together, or would be if you had to be, you know, if there were a situation in which everyone had to pull together, the “sure, we’re Chicagoans, we’ll get through this.”  Los Angeles is every man for himself! So, I  miss talking to people in a non-indexical way. LA, people look you up, look you down, walk away. Fine, I’m self-entertaining, but that is boring.
   That said, there is so much in Los Angeles. I love the botanical collections.  For all intents and purposes, there’s a twelve-month growing season here, and the orchid and camellia cultivators are incredible. There’s architecture here that is astounding, when they’re not tearing it down! And of course, after being here over 25 years, there are people here I love, and love very deeply and who make my life happy. But you know, one of the things that makes me sad about Los Angeles is that the generations are so divided here. You rarely see older people sitting with young children, or all the generations mixed up. I don’t love that, and I think there is a great loss in that. Contrary to a Los Angeles ethos, I’m not much afraid of growing old. My face looks like shit, but okay, whatever, both roads well traveled and right across my face, but I think I’m not against how much I’ve now read, and how much wiser I can be about people, about situations. It’s easier for me to live within this sack of bones. And because of that, maybe I’m better for the younger people I’m around. I don’t resent their energy and beauty; I really love it . . . but it is really hard being young, and I don’t forget that. Los Angeles may be a bit of a mind fuck that way. I hope I’m not being oblique.


MA: Not at all! And your face definitely does not look like shit, for the record. I hate to ask anything about the writer's process because to me that is such a mundane and clichéd interview question, but where's your favorite place to write? Do you have a certain series of rituals or anything like that which you need to do before you can sit down and really start typing? 

ML: I have so little time to actually write, that when I DO get time, I write. I’m not precious about it, have no insistences or stipulations, because the minute you have those, WHAM, they get taken away. So, I just need time. I do have an office at home that I refer to as the wilderness, or concomitantly as the room where a bomb went off. I don’t like the mess, but it’s just reflective of all the things afoot in my life.  If you look at my desktop, though, you’ll see it surrounded by dictionaries, the grammar handbook, the box of Kleenex, ear plugs, all the things I need when I’m working. I never open anything on top of my writing in the computer, you know, online dictionaries, that sort of thing, or web research. That to me is like being mesmerized by watching a fire burn, and then having someone walk in front of the fireplace, and turn around and start talking at you about taxes.
So, I surround my computer with the reference books I need, and whatever else will keep me open to the world I’m writing, and closed down to the world beyond that.


MA: I hope you know you're going to have to show me this room where a bomb went off. Do you keep a journal? If you do, is it as big of a mess as mine?

ML: God, no. I can barely brush my hair every day, let alone write in a journal. I like that your journal is a mess. That sounds right to me, that a journal be a mess, a place where all the jumble gets put down, and it’s completely okay.


MA: Hair-brushing is overrated anyway. There are so many different steps and obstacles in getting published. I'm curious to know what you think the most difficult part of writing a book is?

ML: So, you want just one “most difficult thing?” It’s such a war zone it would be hard to find the arch villain of this conflict!
But . . . I suppose self doubt is the most difficult aspect for me. That’s probably why I can’t or won’t keep a journal. Self address is a little unpleasant for me.
The writer MacDonald Harris said he thought that even writing a bad book was hard work. I don’t know. I do try to keep in perspective how friggin easy my life is, ass down in a chair in a comfortable house with food a few yards away and only my dominatrix of a mind to singe the edges of my little idyll. I ain’t saving the world. So, even though I’ve done the unseemly and aggrandizing by using a metaphor of war above, writing is not usually an activity of extremity or hardship. It takes a certain amount of distance and perhaps even comfort, or at least the creatural requisites in place, to finally write. When you’re running for your life, you’re not thinking about your attacker’s childhood and whether or not he was ever hugged, you’re not jotting down ideas, writing paragraphs, you know.  
But what I’d say is that we have a tremendous responsibility because of this work that we do and must do in relative comfort. We have a responsibility to create the finest and most complex experiences again, so they may be looked at, experienced in thought, in language, which is thought. We have this three and a half pounds we carry up top, and it needs to understand experience. That’s a serious responsibility, it seems to me, to aid that understanding.


MA: Woah, I love that. So She is fiction, but most writers do pull from real life experiences. Do you find this to be true with your work? Are any of the characters based off of real people? Are any of them based off of yourself? 

ML: It’s interesting that you ask this question, because I’ve been thinking a lot about why people seem to respond to writing in which they feel they’re finding out something about you, the writer. I’m not sure I read that way all that much.  Maybe because I know so many writers and they’re so different from their work. I do always say in workshop that I want to read the emanation of an individual mind, not some product of committee consensus. The writing is a performance in language, and that has a striking individuality, which I also think must be protected, fought for. It’s not “real life,” but it is real and individual thought.
I haven’t answered either your question, or my recent interest or query. So, absolutely, almost everything and anything in my life is useful for the making of the page. I’m kind of none of what’s on the page and all of it at the same time.
I say this last honestly: I can’t ever fathom why anyone would care to know the actual details of my life. Really?  You want to know that I became inordinately happy upon finding cheese leaves again after being completely out for months?!


MA: I don't know Michelle, I'm pretty into cheese. Especially in our current political climate, I appreciate that you have so many strong female characters in your writing. I think that's really important. Tell me a little about the strongest woman in your own life. In what ways has she influenced and inspired you? 

ML: It makes me happy, Molly, that you read the characters as strong, because I hear that a lot of people feel they’re just strange, or that they’re weird. I don’t know that I purposefully set out to write strong women. I think I am interested in how people actually navigate in the world, and I am fairly intensely bored by depictions of women as superheros or as having supernatural powers, which is its own kind of chest beating “I Am Woman,” kind of stuff.  I know I’m supposed to love that, but that’s a little like getting me to like people’s cats. Not going to happen anytime soon. The complexity of a mind, and sure a specific woman’s mind, that compels me, and sure, that can be intensely powerful. That said, some of the strongest female minds I know, or rather minds in female bodies, don’t necessarily use that mind for their own ends, or their own advancement. That choice that I see so much of in women is always interesting to me, and there’s a lot of strength in that choice. I think?  I think there is? I don’t know. I’ve been working up to writing a young mother, a kind of  power she derives from self-erasure, or maybe it’s the power of working from behind the scenes. Power is of course something quite distinct from strength, but I’m not sure the culture makes a very clear distinction, and therein lies just one of the problems of how women are perceived who are strong. By which I mean, they are threatening to a lot of people, but that is often strange to me because they have psychological resources, but they don’t have power.

MA: Power certainly is quite distinct from strength. Thank you for that. Moving right along: you teach English at UC Irvine, is that right? Have any of your students read She? Or would you rather not know? ;)

ML:  Poor things, they’ve all read it. My wonderful colleague Ron Carlson bought all the graduate students copies last spring when it was released, and then I think the newbies were given copies, too, upon arrival. They are all pretty amazing writers, and so it’s always interesting to hear their thoughts about why certain choices were made. Last spring I read at Irvine, and because it was our crew primarily, I read the two things I worried the most over, whether because of struggling to write it or because I was unsure of how it would come off. They’re working writers, and a tough audience, and they listen more carefully than any group I know, and so I read them the two things that had caused me the most anguish. I didn’t do that to see if the passages now worked; I did it to say writing is taking up the challenge of the writing, and these are passages that were black boots to my neck for years.


MA: I adore the fact that you respect your students that way. We need more professors like you. Alright, no pressure, name your top five favorite authors off the top of your head. Go. 

ML: Henry James, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Colette. I could go on and on, because I don’t really have favorites. I really tend to love whatever I’m reading at the time, whether it’s good or something I’m trying to figure out why it’s perhaps not so stellar, but Faulkner’s in my blood, and James gave me license, and Cather’s smaller books, like My Mortal Enemy, seemed deeply, anguishingly true.


MA: Great taste! Not that I'm surprised. What are you reading right now? 

ML: I just finished re-reading James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain.  Amazing, painful, so brilliantly written.  He has a sentence about the son’s death, something like “the knife kicking in his throat.”  That verb!  Holy shit.  I read The End of Eddy, and I’m about to begin two collections of short stories by Charlotte Holmes, Gifts and The Grass Labyrinth.  I just finished re-reading Elizabeth Tallent’s new short story in The Threepenny Review, “Rawness.”  I am always in awe.  Lighting Field by Dana Spiotta, I just finished, and I’ve been treating myself to a story every few days from The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris.  I read Women Without Men by Shahrnush Parsipur, which I found fascinating.
May I add a question, because it’s the question I always ask my students: What books would you like to read soon?
I have a little over a thousand pages in manuscripts right now in my office waiting to be read, and that’s fine, but I have the following books staring me down, asking to be read.  The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing, Eveningland by Michael Knight, The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer, Death in Spring by Mercé Rodoreda, Epitaph of a Small Winner by Machado de Assis.  The wonderful writer Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi just gave me these titles to read, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, Cosmos by Witold Gombrowicz and Faces in the Crowd and The Story of my Teeth by Valeria Luiselli.


MA: The End Of Eddy destroyed me. We'll have to chat about that later. To wrap this up here, what's your favorite bookstore in Los Angeles?

ML: You know, there’s this little store on Sunset, very unassuming, very welcoming, and they hire young people, which makes me really happy, too, and they link books and food in their name, and when food is made with books, I’m really happy. They’re always my store of choice. It’s called something like Book Gumbo, or Book Broth, or maybe it’s Book Cassoulet—oh no, wait, it’s called Book Soup! I love that store.

MA: Thanks Michelle! We certainly love you too. And thank you so much for sitting down with me today. You are a gem and I am officially a fangirl.