Laughing through Life: A Conversation with Samantha Irby

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I have a crystal-clear memory of reading Samantha Irby’s second essay collection, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, cracking up over a cup of hot coffee at a beloved spot in Boston. Whenever I think of Irby’s words it is with such a deep, resolute pleasure for writers that make this (too often scary) life easier. Reading a book by Samantha Irby is taking a deep breath and letting it out in a fit of giggles. I read her first collection, Meaty, not too long ago and had a similar laugh-out-loud experience.

Her newest book of essays, Wow, No Thank You, had me reaching for my box of tissues and texting my friends to preorder IMMEDIATELY. Discovering a favorite author, I believe, is one of the greatest gifts a voracious reader gets; Irby is one of mine.

Recently, I spoke with Samantha Irby by email about her new collection, X, and Y.

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The Rumpus: So, I have to start off by saying that I had your book out at a Starbucks and two women came up to me gushing about you. I met two of your fangirls in Boston. Is it weird to be recognized?

Samantha Irby: I don’t feel like I really get recognized! Out of context, I just look like a regular old garden variety asshole.

Rumpus: I found so much comfort in your book—so many moments of recognition. What does it feel like to have your stories be relatable?

Irby: It feels incredibly affirming because writing is such a solitary process—well, at least the way I do it is (at 2 a.m., in a ratty sweatshirt, listening to dad rock), and it can feel like I’m shouting into a void. Or maybe not even that, maybe it’s more like, “Who cares about this?” So it’s a good feeling when someone I’ve never met tells me that they’ve read something I wrote and recognize themselves in it. Everyone likes to pretend that they’re special, that despite this large planet we are coexisting on they are somehow having a singular experience, but I think we are all working through a lot of the same universal shit and it’s nice to make that connection.

Rumpus: Does it ever feel exhausting to share?

Irby: I think if I were ever sharing something truly traumatic that I hadn’t really processed yet, it might? But I don’t put anything out into the world while it still feels painful to me, especially when you are expected to re-process things over and over again. Also I think what I try to do, for the most part, is write things with the express intention of making people laugh. And I never get tired of cackling with people.

Rumpus: I always admire when someone writes fluidly about their same-sex partner. I am a gay writer and so many times find myself hesitating when I write about “my lady.” When does it stop feeling like a big deal?

Irby: It has never felt like a big deal for me, probably because I have always been so open that once I got with my wife it just flowed naturally. I can’t speak for anyone else’s experience; I don’t have the burden of family disapproval or a hostile work environment, so I’m lucky that I can write about my life without many consequences. I don’t know if it’ll ever stop feeling like a big deal, but maybe there’s a way to flip that?

Rumpus: What would you tell ten-year-old Samantha, if you could go back in time?

Irby: Stop nurturing all those pointless unrequited crushes. (I would also tell that to forty-year-old Samantha, but that is beside the point.)

Rumpus: If you had a secret snack stash, what would it consist of?

Irby: OH, DO I HAVE A STASH. Miniature York Peppermint Patties, almond and/or pecan Nut-Thins, Tate’s Gluten Free Chocolate Chip Cookies and, if I had access to refrigeration, countless tubs of Zingerman’s Pimento Cheese.

Rumpus: The episode of Shrill you wrote made me cry/laugh/snort/put my polka-dot bikini on and not care about my belly. Did you have any idea what an impact that episode would have on viewers?

Irby: I am never going to be the kind of writer who ever pats myself on the back like, “Yo, people are gonna looooove this.” That’s so dangerous! My self-esteem isn’t built like that. When working on my own stuff I just try to make myself laugh, but working on a TV show is weird because it’s kind of yours, but it’s also collaborative and ultimately a lowly staff writer gets absolutely zero say on what actually makes it to the screen. I wrote what I wanted to see and tried to make a good thing that achieved the goals we were trying to reach and I hoped that whatever made the final cut would honor the people I wrote it for.

Rumpus: How do you receive criticism of your work?

Irby: I don’t! Which is to say that I am sure it exists—I have many flaws both as a writer and a person, but I don’t seek it out. I literally have never read a review of anything I have written, professional or otherwise. I don’t google myself, I don’t clip magazine reviews, and I don’t scroll through Goodreads torturing myself with why Diane in Indiana decided to give my book she didn’t bother finishing one star. I don’t read positive reviews, either.

I think as a creative person you have to be honest with yourself about whose opinion matters to you and also whether or not you are emotionally equipped to have strangers’ criticisms of your work rattling around in your brain for the rest of your fucking life. People can say what they want, that’s fine who cares, but I don’t believe it’s my responsibility to carry careless hot takes around with me until I die? I don’t have the kind of calluses that shield me from the damage that a scathing (and anonymous!) review can inflict on your soul, and I’m not a masochist so I don’t punish myself by reading them, especially if it’s a review of a published work I can’t change. Who does that help? The reader, I guess? So let them read it.

Rumpus: If you weren’t a writer what would you be, and why?

Irby: Ugh, I’m gonna give an answer that I hope doesn’t sound shitty but, if it does, please know that it’s real: if I wasn’t a writer and I had the same level of education and work experience that I have currently, I would either get my old job back at the animal hospital where I used to work, or if that isn’t available and Jim doesn’t want to fire whoever he hired to replace me, I’d try to find a job at a different animal hospital. I did that work from age twenty-two to age thirty-six; I can speak convincingly about canine rabies protocol and feline vector-borne diseases in my sleep. I guess if both those options failed I could try to work in a bookstore? But for real I’d probably be washing cars or bagging groceries, and that would be fine!

Rumpus: Humor can heal a lot. When did you first realize that humor could be a way to get through things that felt inexplicable in life?

Irby: I honestly don’t know. I had a terrible childhood and early adulthood but didn’t have money for therapy so I tried to laugh about things rather than crying over them. I’m sure there’s a therapist out there who’d probably say that my making jokes as a coping mechanism rather than unpacking my myriad issues with a licensed and trained professional is a terrible approach to life and is probably part of the reason I remain deeply depressed. But I’ve been good at it so far and now I’m afraid to stop! Don’t follow this tragic example!

Rumpus: Why do we hate our bodies so much?

Irby: I don’t know why you hate yours, but mine is unpredictable and unmanageable and everyone else on Instagram appears to be having a much better and beautifully filtered time in theirs than I am?!

Rumpus: What is one thing that is true about you today that wasn’t ten years ago?

Irby: I willfully put spinach and a banana in a blender every morning and drink it.

Rumpus: We all think about the times we almost didn’t do something, about the what-ifs. What’s one thing you’re glad you went through, even if it wasn’t the best decision at the time?

Irby: In hindsight I feel like ninety-seven percent of all of the romantic interactions and/or relationships I have ever had have been colossal mistakes, but I am grateful for every single one of them.

Rumpus: It seems like your books reveal a lot about you. When I finished Wow, No Thank You, I wanted to text you. What are your boundaries surrounding what you will and won’t write about in your work?

Irby: My boundaries are pretty firm: I don’t write about anyone who doesn’t want me to include them in my work and I don’t write about anything I wouldn’t be comfortable discussing ad nauseam with whatever strangers show up to my tour stops asking me questions about things I willingly put into a published book. It would be torture to spend a month on the road being like, “Sorry, I can’t talk about that,” and also it isn’t fair to the audience. Who wants to hear that shit? So if it isn’t about me, I don’t write about it, and if I don’t wanna talk about it that means I don’t wanna write about it.

Rumpus: The biggest thing I have struggled with as a writer is consistency. Any tips?

Irby: God, I truly do not know anything. A lot of people say to write every day, but that’s kind of vague and empty because what are you supposed to do if you can’t come up with anything to write about? So I guess my advice would be to find something that you want to write about all the time, and then do that? Like, I have this newsletter that I try to send out every day in which I recap one of the day’s cases on Judge Mathis, and it’s easy for me to be consistent because I like the show, it comes on every day, and it provides material for me to riff on. I don’t ever push myself to do something I’m not good at or interested in, because I’d never actually do it. So write the thing you like to write!

Rumpus: How do you keep going when you want to quit?

Irby: I am a bad person to ask about quitting because when I want to quit doing something, I just quit it. Life is so hard, and I don’t believe in doing anything I don’t want to do unless it’s mandatory, i.e. unless I need to keep doing it to live.

Rumpus: I feel like your books need to be a required reading for every human. You make me laugh and remind me that it is all okay—especially when it isn’t. Who makes you laugh?

Irby: If I answer this all of the funny people I adore but will absolutely forget to name will get mad at me and I will never be published or hired again, so my answer is this: I only cry.

Rumpus: Do you think nonfiction writing has become more truthful in the last few years?

Irby: Okay, at the risk of sounding like a total asshole, I’m gonna have to admit that I don’t read as much nonfiction as I want to, especially when I am writing, because it just serves as a reminder of my inferiority and makes me want to slam my laptop shut and never write again!

But, I hope so? I mean, what does any of us have to lose by not being as transparent as we can be? Fine, maybe a lot for some people, but I feel like if you can be open about yourself it only ever serves to make you more relatable and make people feel less alone. So I encourage it. Everyone peel off their onion layers so we can all see what’s going on underneath!

Rumpus: What does taking care of your mental health look like?

Irby: Ativan and the mute button. I take pills to keep my anxiety in check and I try to curate my news and social media feeds as much as I can so that I’m not bombarded all day by shit that makes me feel bad. I don’t want to hear about the news all the fucking time; I want to look at filtered pictures of someone’s skincare products and watch YouTube videos of her meal prepping for the week. Eventually, somehow and some way, the jarring and upsetting state of the world will find its way into my headspace. I don’t need to help it along by clicking on every single Twitter trend. I don’t know if that qualifies as actually taking care of anything but, alas, I am not currently in therapy so this is gonna have to suffice.

Rumpus: Your writing is extremely personable. Is that a skill you feel like you have had to hone or something that feels like it came naturally when you started to write?

Irby: I’m a likable fucking person! I’ve been that way since I was a kid, always too precocious and charming. I’m like a dog, always trying to get a pat on the head. My entire life wasted just trying to get people to love me! It’s natural, and it’s gross.

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Photograph of Samantha Irby by Ted Beranis.


Haley Sherif lives in Boston, MA with her wife and dog. Her writing has been previously published with The Rumpus, GRAVEL, Hobart Pulp, and Visual Voices. Her reading goal for 2020 is 270 books. Friends think she is nuts. More from this author →