Everything Samantha Irby touches turns to laughter, and this Q&A is no exception. The humor writer and essayist talked to BookPage about moving to Kalamazoo, Michigan, working in Hollywood and writing her newest book, Wow, No Thank You.
You are an amazingly candid writer, offering essays on everything from sex to your tough childhood to body issues. What topics are off limits for you? What topics would you like to tackle but haven’t yet?
THIS IS A TRICK QUESTION. I can’t tell you my off-limit topics because then it’ll become a whole thing and your follow-up question will be, “Well why don’t you write about that?” and then I’ll end up talking about a thing I don’t write about and then we will continue in a back-and-forth loop until one of us dies. So I’ma say this: I try to only write what I know about, which is why 99% of my work is about myself, because I don’t know anything and I can’t read!
You say your stepchildren are not allowed to read your books (as part of your hilarious “detachment parenting” theory). Surely you let your wife read your work, though. What is her general reaction?
I don’t let my wife read anything in which she isn’t specifically referenced before I send it to my editor, because I can’t shake off criticism. I don’t read or listen to anything anyone who isn’t editing me has to say about a thing I’m working on because the instant I hear it, it becomes a part of my body. That “this could be tighter” or “this part is confusing” crawls inside my ear and burrows its way into my brain where it will live until I pass away, still fretting about why my sentence structure is bad. I don’t read interviews or reviews or anything about myself ever, because I don’t have that gene that allows you to take critiques in stride and keep it pushing. Anyway, it was written into our vows that she is required to say that she likes every single thing I commit to the page, so I’ll never know what she actually feels, but I believe that she’s a fan.
“Nothing is fun when it feels like your life depends on it. That sounds extremely dramatic, but it’s real.”
It was fascinating to read about your time in Hollywood working in the writers’ room for the show “Shrill.” Do you see yourself working in Hollywood again?
I just wrapped a different Hollywood job! Although, we worked in Chicago this time, and the show shoots in Chicago, so it was just like going home to chill with my friends for a few weeks, not like fancy Hollywood. I was just in the writers’ room for Showtime’s “Work in Progress,” a show I was absolutely obsessed with when it first came out, so when they asked if I would join the room for season two, I leapt at the chance. I don’t know though. I’m not 19 and optimistic, show business fucking sucks, and everyone lies to your face while telling you how much they love you, and there’s absolutely zero transparency, which I never expect under any circumstances, but it’s jarring when it happens, and making the choice to be a 40-year-old beginner in an industry like that??? No thank you! I’m too old to be subjecting myself over and over again to that shit! I’m sure publishing has its detractors, too, but at least I’m already successful at that. So I’ll work in Hollywood when cool opportunities to work with genuine people I like present themselves to me, but I will absolutely never be a rabbit chasing breathlessly after that elusive stick.
What are you most proud of in your career so far?
That I spent 14 years at the same job (working in an animal hospital in the burbs), punching the same clock, and that I was dependable and reliable and really good at it. Creative writing isn’t a career, it’s an unrelenting anxiety dream in which my money and future are tied to the whims of people I’ve never met and a market over which I have absolutely no control. However, many years from now when I’m filling out the application to be a regional manager at Target because no one reads anymore, no one is gonna give a shit that once upon a time I wrote some books. They want to know that I have exceptional customer service skills, which I absolutely do.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Wow, No Thank You.
You moved from Chicago to Kalamazoo, Michigan (which, until embarrassingly recently, I didn’t know was a real place). What was the hardest part about leaving a major city? What was a welcome surprise about the move?
The best thing about having moved is that there are a precious few people here who ever ask me for anything, and that is the best thing in the fucking world. It didn’t really dawn on me how great getting away from a city full of people with my phone number was until the first time someone hit me up like, “Hey dude, can you do my show for free next Thursday night at 11:59 p.m., I can comp you one well drink,” and I got to respond “SORRY NO I DON’T LIVE IN CHICAGO ANYMORE.” I miss my friends, and 90% of my waking hours feel like I am going to die without being in close proximity to them, but Jesus Christ, EVERYONE HAS A FRIGGIN PODCAST, and they all want you to come to their apartments after work and awkwardly try to hold a microphone while shooing away the dog, and I don’t have to make up an excuse not to do that anymore! “I can’t, I live in another state!” is the perfect way to get out of every in-person interaction I would die rather than suffer through. Technology is catching up to me, though, and people have started to pivot to “Hey, we can just Skype!” or whatever, but I just got a new phone number, so now I can avoid that shit, too. Everyone should move!
You wrote in an online book club chat: “I’m no good in New York. It’s so busy and everyone is mean.” In which cities are you at your best?
The Middle West. Chicago, especially. Detroit is a close second. Also: literally any place with more strip malls than people.
In your acknowledgements, you say you “had a weirdly hard time working on this dumb book.” Why was that?
Wow, you read that far? That’s hilarious! Hmm, well. I don’t know? I didn’t have writer’s block, per se, but I was extremely unmotivated to sit down and write for long stretches of time while working on this collection, and if I had to pin the blame on one thing, it would probably be that this time it was my actual job to be writing a book rather than a fun hobby I get to use as an emotional outlet. Nothing is fun when it feels like your life depends on it. That sounds extremely dramatic, but it’s real.
In your final chapter, you write about how you published your book and allude to the tail-between-your-legs emails asking writers you admire if they would please blurb your book. Who’s written your favorite blurb?
I love all my blurbs equally, especially since they were each so skin-crawlingly humiliating to get, but Jia Tolentino referring to my work as a “snack tray” I think really speaks to the essence of who I am and what I want my writing to be.
“I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. I like what I like, and I don’t care who doesn’t approve.”
You’re pretty active on Twitter, which is simultaneously one of the best and worst places on the internet. Do you encounter a lot of trolls? How do you handle them?
This is so funny because I don’t see myself as active on Twitter? Like, I make a pretty concerted effort to never tweet takes and only occasionally tweet jokes, because that place is a fucking toilet and I hate fighting and I’m also not smart enough to offer an educated opinion about anything that actually matters. I like to retweet things to promote other people while also trying to tweet links to my own shit at a clip that is steady but not nauseatingly so, especially since I decided a few years ago that the only way I could not feel like absolute shit on that website was to use my platform for good. I don’t need to dunk on idiots or react to articles I haven’t read all the way through. I just try to amplify people’s shit while scrolling through to get a laugh. All I want to do is laugh at shit and skim popular articles so that if anyone asks, “Hey, did you read [that thing everyone is talking about] today?” I can convincingly lie and say, “Yes!”
I’m sure I get trolled, but honestly idk about it? I mean, I have so few spicy takes that I can’t imagine what someone would want to climb up my asshole about, but I know there’s always something. Anyway, I have my settings and shit tweaked so that I don’t see anything from anyone I don’t already follow, plus I mute words and phrases I don’t want to see, which is basically the textbook definition of “self-care.” The whole “engage with trolls” thing is just not my fucking bag. The thought of arguing with a faceless stranger online has zero appeal to me? It’s not like people want to have a healthy discussion and exchange of ideas. They want to call you a fat bitch and tell you all the ways you should fucking kill yourself. I can’t dedicate any of the rapidly waning emotional energy I have left to that shit, and besides, I already have the death pills counted out! (jk jk)
I absolutely loved the chapter called “Late 1900s Time Capsule,” in which you offer up a mixtape of songs from the ’90s and divulge what they meant to you. What is your guiltiest pleasure music these days?
I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. I like what I like, and I don’t care who doesn’t approve. I’ve already lived through the years of telegraphing how cool I think I am to people who don’t give a shit, so now I just do whatever I want. That’s not the answer you’re looking for—I know you want me to embarrass myself even though I refuse to feel shame about pop music—so here you go: Every song on Katy Perry’s album “Witness” is a fucking jam, and also I absolutely cannot stop listening to the new Selena Gomez. Has your bloodlust been satisfied???
Author photo © Ted Beranis