"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.

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