VISIBLE: Women Writers of Color: Samantha Irby

By

An interview with Samantha Irby isn’t so much an interview as it is catching up with a friend—a friend who is as forthright and self-deprecating in conversation as she is in her writing, and who, at the end of it all, leaves you with a laughter-induced headache. Our call is long and winding, and when it’s over, we both could still go on talking for hours. (Big ups to my transcriptionist who is taking so much to the grave.) My conversation with Samantha ranges from yawn-inducing sex scenes (written by other writers, not us) to our deceased parents to the latest and greatest YA books by women of color to why not everything that happens to you needs to become a book (see the aforementioned lousy sex scenes).

But in all of that talking, it was like pulling teeth to get Samantha to call herself a writer.

Even with a popular blog (bitchesgottaeat: a recent post offers “summer beauty tips for the exhausted and situationally impoverished”); two personal essay collections, Meaty and the current New York Times bestseller We are Never Meeting in Real Life (a recent Rumpus Book Club pick); a Vintage Short, New Year, Same Trash: Resolutions I Absolutely Did Not Keep; a contribution to the forthcoming anthology Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America; and a TV pilot in development for FX? Not a writer?

I didn’t understand.

In this interview, Samantha discusses this reluctance to call herself a writer, the process of editing her second book, and writing for the “cream jeans” crowd.

***

The Rumpus: In your new book, We are Never Meeting in Real Life, we’ve got family stories, love stories, failed love stories, diarrhea emergencies, lesbian porn, and tales of how “ living is a mistake.” So I think it’s safe to say that you write whatever the fuck you want to write, and I love that about you.

Samantha Irby: Thank you.

Rumpus: But I am curious if you have an agent or editor or some other person who tries to get you to write things differently.

Irby: I didn’t have an agent for the first book. I was with a small publisher, I knew them, and they knew my work. They knew me from performing [as a comedian] around Chicago, and it was basically like, “Hey, you wanna do a book?” And after a while I said, “Okay, sure.” That book didn’t even have an editor.

Rumpus: Wow!

Irby: Yeah. That is weird. After having been through the process with an editor on this one—and I loved my editor—I can’t decide which [process] I like better. Working with an editor makes the end product, to me, feel like a collaboration. My blog is just me, right? That’s just me vomiting words. But when you give it to someone… some of the pieces in the collection got moved around and restructured and had some big changes. Or they say, “You should edit this part.” That, to me, doesn’t feel like one hundred percent my work. And that’s not a bad thing. I wrote it, but I feel like all the pieces that had big edits were labors of love that we did together.

And my editor never said anything about style. I think the only thing we ever even talked about—and this wasn’t even to change it—was how I use a lot of Internet-speak. [Laughs] She definitely made a note of it. But she never told me that I had to change anything. She’s never been like, “Hey, why don’t you try writing this in a way that sounds more thoughtful” or less off-the-cuff, or less confessional. Never, throughout the whole process, and I kept waiting like, “She’s going to send this back and be like, ‘Listen, this isn’t your Internet diary, bitch. This is the Random House publishing list. Get it together!'” But she never did.

There was a never a problem with the style, but sometimes I did I try to get adventurous with the structuring—which, to me, means jumping around, and I always feel like people can follow my jumps. That was not always the case! [Laughs] So things like that, she definitely changed but she never suggested a different sort of writing style. Which I’m grateful for because the minute somebody says, “This ain’t right. Do something else instead,” is when I just clam up.

So the editing process wasn’t so bad, but it does make me think about Meaty. I could just do whatever I wanted, and they put everything in. [With the second book], we cut a lot of stuff I’d written early on. She just slashed big swaths of the book. Which, on the one hand—are you kidding? I’m a genius. What are you doing cutting these 200,000 words? But on the other hand, it was interesting to step outside of myself and watch as we crafted a new direction together.

So in the end, this wasn’t the book I pitched. When we pitched the book, I only had four essays written and an outline for a bunch of things I thought I wanted to write about and ended up not writing about. I’d ask [the editor], “Is it okay if I keep going down this road instead?” And she was like, “Yeah, yeah.” But for other stuff I’d written, she’d say, “No, this bit doesn’t work.” And that’s hard. You know, I’m an artist. I’m sensitive about my shit.

If you had presented to me back then what the book ended up being, I would’ve said, “Oh no, I don’t want to write about depression. I don’t want to write about my weight.”

This is probably the first time I thought about the process.

Rumpus: I appreciate your thinking out loud about it. It’s evident that you write what you want, and there’s such an authenticity to what you write.

Irby: Two things. One, I couldn’t have done all the stuff I’ve done up until now if I didn’t have a day job. I’ve been able to write whatever I wanted because I never had to worry about it making me money. I never had to worry about [having a certain] image, or I have to write these stories because these are what pay and this is how you pay your bills. That was the first freedom. And then my boss never said, “Listen, these stories that you put on the Internet… they clash with this phone-answering job.” [Laughs] So there was never any pressure from the outside to not be completely honest.

But then also, there’s [this view of], “Well, that’s just your hobby because it doesn’t make you money, and you don’t live off of it.” So I still don’t call myself a writer because I don’t feel like I’ve earned it. [Laughs] Because it hasn’t paid a lot of bills? I don’t know why, but I never think of myself as a writer. Like, if someone said, “What is your profession?” I’d just be like, unemployed. [Laughs]

Rumpus: Meanwhile, two books later!

Irby: Yeah, but if I was writing all the time for an outlet —

Rumpus: [Laughs] But you have two books!

Irby: I moved from Chicago to Kalamazoo [last] July. So right up until July I had the same job for fourteen years, which is crazy. I wrote my blog and the books on my lunch break, on Sundays when I was off, and early in the morning before I went to work. So it felt like a hobby, and I think because a lot of people saw my main identity as working at the animal hospital, they thought, “Well, yeah, you have a book, but you work there. The book’s just your side thing.” And the first book, for sure, I was carrying them around, selling them to people at shows constantly. Definitely felt like just a side thing that I do.

With this second book, because this is my focus now, I still don’t call myself a writer but I do feel like it’s a more serious thing, not just a hobby. Still, it doesn’t feel like work to me. And I don’t mean that like, “I just love it so much writing never feels like work.” I just mean I don’t have a dedicated office where my writing takes place, I can do this little job anywhere. I can sit at the desk, or I could sit in bed. I think too many years of punching the clock has forever altered my seeing [writing] as a job. Which is so sad! [Laughs]

Rumpus: That totally makes sense. It shows the diversity of our experiences as writers, because on the flip side, lots of us are sitting at our dining room table or writing in the bed or writing in a café, wanting somebody to recognize that this work! Take me seriously! I am a writer!

Irby: But you know what’s crazy? It’s really specific to me. If you said, “This is my dining room table where I write.” I say, “Oh, that’s work, that’s your job, that’s what you do.” But if you said, “Well, it’s your job, too.” I’d say not really because I can get up and go eat a pizza if I wanted to! [Laughs] It’s just too many years [where] I would work 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. I started that job when I was twenty-two, right? I’m thirty-seven. So that’s just a long time of feeling like that’s what work is. Before that I had multiple jobs at a time. I was working in a bakery for a few years where again, you have to get up early. You’re doing shit while you’re tired. And now, I get up at eight, and that feels like a crazy luxury to me. It feels like a dream. It’s not to glamorize or put it down, it’s just—check in with me in a year, and maybe I’ll feel comfortable saying, yes, this feels like work.

I imagine saying to my dad, “For my job, I just tweedledee on this keyboard.” I really would have to be doing the writing at a super-high level for him to say that’s a real thing. So I feel incredibly lucky and also a little anxious.

Rumpus: You mentioned your dad. You and I have talked before about the whole Dead Parent Club, each of us losing both our parents. Do you ever feel like they’re standing over your shoulder when you’re writing?

Irby: No. Only when I write about them. I don’t know how old you were when your parents died, but both of mine died when I was eighteen. So, at that point we hadn’t yet flipped that switch to where you could talk to your parent like a person rather than a mom. So I feel like I know very little about their real personalities. I know the way they tried to parent me, but I don’t know simple things like if my mom was funny. I wrote this blog about blocking people online and I said that if my mom were alive, I’m pretty sure I’d have her blocked. And I was putting together what I thought her Facebook posts would be like.

My dad definitely wouldn’t give a shit about what I was putting on the Internet, except to say that it wasn’t real work and that I’d better not say anything about him. I feel like those would be his two opinions. That it’s a waste of time because it doesn’t earn money. This will tell you everything you need to know about him:

I lived with him briefly my junior year of high school, and [one time] I was watching the [Chicago] Bulls. He came in and asked what I was watching. I said, “Do you want to watch the game with me?” And he said, “Well, it doesn’t make me any money,” and then he just sort of stared at me. And my sixteen-year-old brain thought, “Why do we even have a TV then, if you don’t want to enjoy anything?”

So [writing] would have to be a secret thing that I wrote in a bunker. Just pretend it didn’t exist and hope my dad never Googled me because I wouldn’t want to suffer that interrogation.

And I think I’m done. I covered my mom in the first book. I covered my dad pretty extensively in this one. I feel like that’s enough of them. And I think if they were alive—this is going to sound terrible, but it’s true—if they were alive, they would be interested in this career only to the point of me taking care of them or not taking care of them. If my dad needed to borrow money to gamble or pay off a gambling debt, [he’d say], “You wrote books, you have to have money.” And I’d have to explain to him how publishing really works. That unless my shit is Eat, Pray, Love, I don’t have as much money as he thinks.

Rumpus: So you talked a little bit about how your latest book is different from Meaty. What made you want to write a second book?

Irby: Well, with this one, I actually had the opportunity to get paid, so that was a big motivator! [Laughs] Also, my agent, who reached out and offered representation after he read Meaty, suggested doing another book. I thought it would be cool. I immediately start thinking of all the ways I would do it differently. I can’t even read my stuff when it’s done. I have not read Meaty cover-to-cover. I get super embarrassed about my work. I’m about to record the audio book for this new book, and it will be the first time I will have read it. I get super embarrassed by my stuff.

Rumpus: And yet you write about explosive diarrhea. I’m sorry. I just need you to explain that to me. [Laughs]

Irby: [Laughs] Okay. So when I write about that kind of stuff, I’ve usually processed it, and it doesn’t embarrass me anymore. I stopped being embarrassed about poop emergencies a long time ago because I have them so frequently. In the beginning, I though, Oh, I should hide this. But that was only hurting me, and it’s better for me to be up front with people. Because I need you to know that if you’re driving and we’re going out to dinner and I have something at dinner that I didn’t expect to trigger me but triggered an explosion, I need you to know that you’re going to have to race to the Walgreens. So, trying to hide that, especially while dating, was impossible. It just made things so much worse for me and so uncomfortable. It was easier and felt better to just be funny and honest about it. I found that people’s reception was, “Okay. Yeah, alright. That’s fine. Good to know. I still want to be your friend. I still want to have dinner with you, and I’ll rush you home if you have a soft cheese.”

So it’s not the subject matter that’s embarrassing to me. It’s the craft. I’ll write something, and then I’ll read it again and think, Oh, this could be funnier. I want to change it. But if it’s a book, you can’t change it. And then I think about all the people who are seeing this thing that’s imperfectly done, and then my insides start to incinerate because I have this imperfect thing out in the world, and it could be better. So it’s never the subject matter, unless—and I haven’t done this in a long time—unless I rant about something that made me angry. Sometimes I get embarrassed if I show too much crazy, rage emotions.

Rumpus: Like, Oh, I wish I could have dialed that back.

Irby: Yes. Because now that dude knows how much he hurt my feelings and so does the whole world. But even that I’ll leave out there because I feel like all of this stuff helps somebody. And I may not talk to them, or know, but I’ve gotten enough fan mail to know that this stuff is reaching people and making them feel less alone. Or like somebody else shit their pants, too. And that’s a good feeling, if you think you’re the only one with, as one of my friends called it, “cream jeans.” Which is really terrible. [Laughs] If you know you’re not the only cream jeans, then that feels good.

But the embarrassment is the one thing I was super-happy to have an editor for, At least if I put this thing in the world, I wrote it, then I read it, then my editor read it. I made the changes she said, then a copy editor read it. So this is okay to go out in the world. But with Meaty I didn’t have that. And with the blog, you know, it’s just me sort of pecking away in the middle of the night and then pressing “publish.” Letting the chips fall where they may. But yeah, it’s never the subject. It’s Is this too long? Is this too short? It’s all that stuff that I obsess about.

Rumpus: That worry that things aren’t just right. Is that perfectionism or something else?

Irby: I’m not a perfectionist in my day-to-day life. I’m pretty messy. But I do want to make sure that if I’ve written something. when you get it, it’s as good as I can make it. But once I publish it, I’ve just got to leave it. Otherwise, I will never stop tinkering. But that’s only with my writing. Everything else—if you looked at my desk right now you would be like, ha ha.

Rumpus: What are you reading right now?

Irby: I always am reading a lot of things. But I’m halfway through The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I have a galley copy of Jenny Zhang’s new book Sour Heart. Oh! you know what I read? I’m sure you read it. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love.

Rumpus: Not yet, but it’s on my list.

Irby: So what else? I read a lot of YA. Oh! [There’s] a YA murder mystery, written by a black woman. Allegedly, and the writer’s name is Tiffany Jackson.

Rumpus: Have you read Nicola Yoon’s books?

Irby: So when I first started my little Internet book club, I picked Everything, Everything. And I just got The Sun Is Also A Star.

Rumpus: Did you read The Mothers by Brit Bennett?

Irby: Can we talk about that? So, I kind of went a little crazy over that book. I loved it so much, I read it twice. So good. So good.

Rumpus: It’s been a heyday of sorts, this last year or so, for black women writers. Like Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn

Irby: Man, I’m so proud and so excited. I look forward to the day when it seems normal rather than an amazing anomaly, but there are so many amazing books by black women. For the book club that I do on my blog, I try to focus on YA books. I picked Girls Like Me by Lola StVil who is another young black woman writing. It was written in poetry style. And she also writes a couple of fantasy series.

Rumpus: Do you think about who’s reading your work?

Irby: People ask me who I write things for. I write things for women, and if men laugh too, great. That’s amazing. But if a woman can read my shit and see herself represented, or it brings a laugh to her day, or whatever it does, great. Especially after the first book, people were approaching me, asking, “Is this just for black people?” Well, yes. But no. I’m black, so of course my stuff is for black women. But it’s not exclusive either. The question then becomes: Who’s going to take this journey with me? Who’s going to read this and keep reading this and recommend it and feel represented or feel some sort of connection to this? I can’t write about history, and I don’t want to write a new slave story. I just want to write about the shit that’s happening right now and all the things are happening to me are black because I’m black. But it’s not an exclusive kind of blackness that others can’t read or understand. And not every black person is going to pick up my stuff and say, “Mmmhmm, yes. I see myself in this suburban, nasal, Valley girl, kind of surfer twang, Chicago burbs slang. Yeah, I totally see myself in these essays.” It’s tough.

Rumpus: You just write though.

Irby: Right. I don’t think about it when I’m writing. It’s just when it’s out. And I’m going to do a little tour with this new book. I did not have the budget to do one before. So, the first book was just faceless internet people who purchased my book. But going out and seeing people? Okay, this is my audience.

Rumpus: And congratulations on the book landing on the New York Times bestseller list! Where were you when you got the news?

Irby: Thank you. I was on an Amtrak train from Kalamazoo to Chicago, and my agent called a hundred and thirty-seven times to tell me the news, all of which I definitely missed because my phone is always on Do Not Disturb. I called him from the back of a cab headed to my hotel, and we basically freaked out at each other the entire ride. The cabbie remained unimpressed.

Rumpus: Ha! Okay, circling back. So you don’t think of yourself as a writer. But what if some ogre came—let’s call him “Donald Trump”—and he said you couldn’t write any more. What would you say?

Irby: Oh. [Long pause] Oh, man. The first answer that comes to my mind is, “Okay, but can I keep my TV?” [Laughs] If the ogres are taking computers away, maybe someone who’s doing life-changing resistance writing should be the one to keep working. [Laughs]

Rumpus: Right. If we have limited access to writing, only the most essential writing is needed.

Irby: Yes! People need to laugh and stuff, but when the ogre comes knocking on doors to take computers away, and he sees that I’m watching a makeup tutorial that I would never use on my actual face—I just find them very soothing to watch—he’s going to think—

Rumpus: She’s no threat.

Irby: Yes. I wrote an essay to go in an anthology called Nasty Women. When they first approached me, I said, “No!” And the editor said, “What? Are you serious?” Yeah, I do not write vital, restorative, galvanizing, political shit. I could riff on grab ‘em by the pussy or whatever. But come on. You don’t want me in this important-ass book. They came back and said, “Okay cool. So we’ve locked down people like Katha Pollitt and Cheryl Strayed.” So I thought, I’m really not doing it now. I don’t want to have the Oh, bless her heart essay of this collection. But they needed some comedy pieces with all the serious ones. So finally, I said, “Okay, I guess. If you need me to make fun of myself so that people can dry their tears from reading about how we’re all going to die, then I can provide.” I can provide that. [Laughs]

***

Author photograph © Kirsten Jennings.

***

Want more VISIBLE: Women Writers of Color? Visit the archives here.


Deesha Philyaw is the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Deesha's writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Brevity; Stepmom, Essence, and Bitch magazines; and various anthologies. She's a Fellow at the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction and a recent Pushcart Prize nominee for essay writing in Full Grown People. Deesha is a two-time recipient of an Advancing the Black Arts in Pittsburgh grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments. More from this author →