R. Eric Thomas is my best friend. We’ve never met, of course, but I have been regularly reading his weekly newsletter and his ELLE Magazine column for forever and have laughed to the point of hyperventilating enough times that I think that qualifies us as lifelong pals? If it doesn’t, don’t tell me; let me live with my blissful delusions.
Eric’s first book, Here for It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America, is an extremely funny memoir-in-essays and is forthcoming on February 18th from Ballantine Books. In anticipation of sharing my friend with the world, I asked him some questions about the new collection.
The Rumpus: I started writing a newsletter because your newsletter is the only bright, bright spot in the miserable depths of my inbox. What made you start writing it? Is it still fun? Will you keep writing it forever?
R. Eric Thomas: It’s funny that you say that because I started writing the newsletter because I so love your blogging. Let all readers be forewarned that this entire interview will be comprised of the two of us telling each other how great the other is. It’s the Frost/Nixon of our times. I’m just kidding; keep reading, please. I’ll starve without attention.
So, the second reason I started the newsletter is that about three years ago, right before the holidays, my husband casually mentioned that he was going to get off social media. I flew into a rage. I mean, did he not realize that social media is the only place that I exist? What about my needs? What about what I want? What about what’s best for me? (This is a direct quote from Dreamgirls but it was also applicable and so I used it.) (No, he did not get the reference.) It occurred to me that there might be people who were also growing tired of social media in 2016 and needed a break but maybe wanted to keep up with my ELLE.com columns, so I brainstormed ways of helping them to give me attention (benevolence!). My first thought was to go door-to-door like Paul Revere, but I don’t know how to ride a horse or where to find a bell. My second thought was a newsletter.
I also wondered—since the column is written in such a heightened voice—whether there was any interest in or appetite for writing that was a little closer to who I am regularly. This was before the book or anything like that, but I had an inkling that I might want to write a book of essays that weren’t about politics and were written in a slightly more grounded register, but I wasn’t sure if anybody cared about that. So, I started writing new posts at the top of every email and amazingly people did not unsubscribe en masse. In fact, the subscriber base grew, organically.
I worked in theater marketing for years, so I’m very interested in analytics and whatnot and I got very into looking at open rates for the emails (still very high!) and click-throughs and such. I don’t know enough to make use of that information, honestly, but if anyone is interested in sending me free things for an influencer campaign, please know I am a good bet.
I have gone long on the first part of your question. I am a disaster. In answer to the rest: I do still really enjoy it, although there are times (especially lately as my brain has become one large vat of pudding topped with the word “PRE-ORDER” written in sprinkles) that I don’t have any juice in me and I have to spend a while working myself up. But I guess that’s normal. I think I will do it forever. I like being in conversation with people and I’ve really become attached to it and I cannot express how deeply I require attention.
Rumpus: Your husband is a minister. Do you cuss at home or does that feel weird?
Thomas: I do! We both do. It’s wild. What I learned very quickly is that my husband is white and white church is very different. When we met, his Facebook photo was him holding a Manhattan and it truly threw me because in my church growing up no one drank, no one cursed, and no one was gay. Oh, and no one was white. I was like, “I’m going to keep you in my prayers.”
You know who I don’t curse in front of? My parents. Not once. Ever. I’m thirty-eight years old and trying to keep up the charade that I don’t know what sugar-honey-iced-tea stands for.
Rumpus: What are your writing snacks? Or are you some kind of alien who doesn’t require two pounds of red vines to complete even the smallest writing task?
Thomas: I honestly need an entire Golden Corral buffet to return the simplest email, let alone write a chapter or an article. I don’t have go-to snacks because I lack product loyalty (but that can change if any company wants to send me free things for an influencer relationship). Most consistently I drink a lot of flavored sparkling water. I hear it’s bad for you but so is living.
Rumpus: How do you keep from totally losing your shit while keeping track of current events? Sometimes I can’t even think about Twitter, lest I break out in hives at the sheer prospect of digesting the news. But you write about news and pop culture every day for ELLE.com, so you can’t just bury yourself in old episodes of Maury while pretending the outside world doesn’t exist. Is it overwhelming? What do you do to unwind?
Thomas: It is a mess. You know how sometimes you go out with a bunch of friends and everyone is in a bad mood and sniping at each other and finally you’re like “Okay, well, y’all are tripping. I’m going home”? That’s me and Twitter sometimes. There are days when everyone is up in arms about something (well that’s every day but some days it’s just too much) and I just close the browser and try to make my brain work to come up with other column ideas. I say this a lot but I really miss the days when we could be talking about the same, non-life-threatening, trivial thing for months. Remember in 1997 when every issue of Entertainment Weekly was about Titanic? For a whole year? We talked about that boat and that door and Kathy Bates and the two guys in the crow’s nest and the one dude who hit the propellor on the way down for months. I watched a whole documentary about James Cameron taking a submarine in the dark. For no reason! Now, everything happens all at once and even if it is something fun and trivial, like the atrocity that is Cats, the speed of social media makes it so that even that is stressful. And then to add governmental politics on top of that? And the environment? Suffice it to say, I am constantly wracked with anxiety. My therapist keeps introducing this thing called “mindfulness” but I don’t have the time. I bought a book on it. Maybe I’ll read it on a plane. Who can say?
Oddly enough, though, the act of writing the column does help me to keep from losing my shit a little. To be able to step away from the maelstrom for an hour or two to make jokes about a thirty-second trailer or a two-minute Maxine Waters speech is, I guess, a kind of mindfulness. To rewind and replay the same footage over and over again, looking for little details I missed, transcribing lines I can’t believe are being said on the floor of the Capitol, it makes it more digestible and also blows it up to ridiculous levels. So, not to sound like literally every member of my family going back for generations, but the thing I do to relax is to go to work.
Rumpus: I am obsessed with your Project Runway recaps. Who is your favorite contestant?
Thomas: Christian is my favorite contestant ever and I’m so glad that he is the new mentor, as much as I loved Tim Gunn. This season, I need an immediate spinoff about the life, wisdom, and malapropisms of Victoria. But my favorite in terms of aesthetic and energy is Nancy, the oldest contestant ever on the show and someone who worked a whole other career and then took up fashion design three years ago. She’s incredible! Side note: any time someone in their sixties talks about picking up a second (or third) career I get inspired and then immediately exhausted. You’re telling me I have to do all this work to be a writer for the next twenty years and then after that I’m going to open an ostrich farm or something? I have to learn more skills? Still?!
Rumpus: Tell me about deciding to write a book. I decided to write a book because my first publisher told me that while they couldn’t pay me an advance, they would let me write whatever I wanted and publish it no matter what. It felt irresponsible to say no! So, did you always want to write a book? Was that always the end goal? And, once you decided to do it, how was the process?
Thomas: I have always wanted to write a book, like since I was a little kid, but for most of adulthood that dream seemed ridiculous and out of reach for me. I thought about self-publishing for a little bit but I’m very glad that I was too lazy to go through with it because I am someone who benefits greatly from judicious editing, editorial guidance, and copy editing. So, thanks to everyone at Ballantine Books who saved me from being out here in these streets looking like an idiot who can’t spell.
My agent, Anna Sproul-Latimer, sought me out after discovering my columns and she asked me if I had a book in me. She asked me at a lunch that she paid for and I was like, Well, she rode the train all the way to Philadelphia and bought this delicious Reuben that I’m shoving in my face, it would be rude to say “actually, I don’t want to write a book. I’m just hungry.” I think because I’d been working in first person narrative for so long—I’ve written a couple of one-person shows and I host The Moth in DC and Philly—personals essays seemed like the logical next step. Honestly, it was a wonderful process. I mean, let’s be honest, it was also the hardest shit I’ve ever done. (Until I wrote the second book, which is not personal essays and was somehow harder. Do books get easier? Should I look into ostrich farming?)
Rumpus: Why are you most excited for the book to be out in the world? What makes you the most nervous?
Thomas: At the risk of sounding earnest, I wrote this book because I was searching for hope and the world can be bleak. So I’m excited for that hope—and all my pages and pages of jokes—to run amok in the world. I work from home and I don’t have the pleasure of talking to people face-to-face very much (my local baristas are very nice but they are also very over me), so in the best-case scenario this book can be an invitation to conversation and community in real life. I get so excited about this other life that this book might have in libraries and in living rooms, in bookstores and playing in people’s ears as they go to work. It gets to be a part of the world and so I get to be, also, in some small way. I just want to have a good time and live and feel like the future is bright and the only way I know how to do that through books and the connections that books make possible.
What makes me most nervous? Literally everything. What if one person doesn’t like it? What if they email me to tell me that? What if I agree with their critique and we form a friendly relationship despite our differences? Oh! What if I die? Or, what if I live? And what am I going to do with all these ostriches?
Photograph of R. Eric Thomas by Katie Simbala.