The fallacy about reading a (great) collection of personal essays is that you think you actually know the person who wrote them in an intimate way. In reality, what you have is a sense of someone, a few good stories and a narrative the writer is choosing to present. Even still, when I met Samantha Irby, author of the New York Times best-selling We Are Never Meeting In Real Life (Vintage), a few weeks ago in Chicago, I did somehow feel like I knew her. Maybe that’s because her second essay collection is filled with stories both embarrassing and sweet: anecdotes about dating men who treated her like shit, her father’s physical abuse, and perhaps her best work, pooping her pants inside some dude’s car while in college.
But even if you don’t know Irby from her books, you might know her from her popular blog bitches gotta eat, where she writes in lowercase only, “if the hotdog-scented thigh meat wafting up from the sun-dappled sidewalks of my fair city are any indication, SUMMERTIME IS FINALLY UPON US.” And in addition to two books, a prolific blog, and the only good Facebook page known to man, FX is developing her first book Meaty into a half-hour series with Jessi Klein and Abbi Jacobson.
She’s busy, but she did, somehow, find time to let me bother her with some questions.
Scaachi Koul: SAM. HI. It’s me, Scaachi. Do you remember me?
Samantha Irby: Kind of…? I mean, I think so? You’re the one with the glasses, right?
Sufficient memory. The last time I saw you, I bought a copy of your first book, Meaty, and you told me not to because you said—and I think I am recalling this correctly—it is garbage. It sounds like you don’t feel too hot about your first book. Why?
I always hate everything I write as soon as it’s finished, especially once it’s published and there’s no chance to go back and fix it, make it better. I am also very uncomfortable looking back at older versions of myself. Everything embarrasses me, all the time. And there’s never a moment that I can look at something I’ve written without thinking, “That could be funnier. You could have used this word instead of that one. How could anyone have ever published this.”
I have an amazing opportunity, though: Vintage just bought Meaty and they’re gonna let me make a few changes to it and rerelease it in the spring. I’m sure the minute it’s published I’ll be like, “UGH STILL TRASH WTF,” but for now I’m feeling hopeful about it. I’ll send you a copy with a note that says “less garbage-y than before.”
Okay, thank you, that would be an honour to receive. Your second book, We Are Never Meeting In Real Life, hit the New York Times Best Seller list! I remember reading an interview with a bunch of stand-ups who talked about going on late night television, thinking it would change their lives, but the next day they just went back to normal. Has getting on the list changed your life in any tangible—or intangible—ways? Do you feel very powerful now?
It hasn’t changed my life in the least bit. Wait, let me rewind—my agents and editors are really happy? And among a very small group of artists and writers, I’ve achieved some kind of brag-worthy accomplishment? But, like, the barista at the coffee shop isn’t screaming, “CLEAR A PATH FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES BEST-SELLING AUTHOR” when I walk in. As a matter of fact, that dude is like, “Yo, is your card actually gonna go through today?” Because the realest deal is that this isn’t the kind of distinction that comes with a cheque. As a matter of fact, I’m gonna make a T-shirt that says, “New York Times Best Seller ordering off the Dollar Menu.” Or, “New York Times Best Seller and just negotiated for a cheaper cable TV package.”
As for my newfound power? Let’s talk after we see what sort of ridiculous shit I can insert into my next book contract. I don’t even give a shit about the money. Let’s see if I can work “Do a tour of my friend’s houses” in there.
Okay, this is the most important question of this entire interview: why do you like writing about poop so much?
I wish I didn’t have to. But having IBD [Inflammatory Bowel Disease], for me, is like carrying an obnoxious toddler around with me all day, every day. “Is it too hot for little IBD? Is IBD gonna give me a problem sitting through this three-hour movie? What can I do to settle IBD down during this flight? Don’t eat that near IBD, she’s allergic!!” It’s exhausting to spend so much time thinking about my guts, trying to anticipate what’s going to set it off and ruin my life for an afternoon. I’m always thinking about what the bathroom is gonna be like, or how many hours the road trip is gonna take, or what new food might have a previously unknown trigger. But I always want my writing to be useful, and if I didn’t get emails from women with Crohn’s thanking me for my candor or women showing up to my readings crying because they can read about someone else’s struggle with not being able to just, like, spontaneously dine, I wouldn’t do it. Even though there are now commercials for diarrhea medicine on during the evening news there’s still a huge stigma around the #2, it’s still awkward to announce to someone you want to have sex with later that you’ve gotta take a shit in the middle of a date, and if my talking about it helps free some women even a little bit from the shame surrounded a perfectly natural function, then I’m gonna keep doing it.
What’s the worst question you keep getting on your book tour? Is it this one?
No, this is the best one, duh. The worst are probably questions about my wife’s kids, because I have to keep giving the same non-answer that says “I’M NOT GONNA TALK ABOUT THIS” without being quite so blunt. I never want to make anyone feel bad and I understand the fascination with my life, so I always jokingly dance around it, but yeah—if no one would ever refer to me as a “parent” ever again that would be great.
Well, forgive me, but speaking of your life, how long have you been in Kalamazoo? Do you like it? I know you used to live in Chicago so I am having trouble imagining you doing stuff in Kalamazoo. I feel like there’s a lot of fruit picking involved.
My wife picks a lot of fruit but that shit feels too much like slavery to me so no thank you! So I’m from Evanston, a suburb of Chicago where John Cusack is also from, and Kalamazoo and Evanston are super similar: lots of natural food stores and well-meaning whites. So I don’t really feel like a fish out of water because I already knew what teff was before I moved here a year ago.
This sounds so stupid and I keep saying it, but the biggest adjustment is not having things available to me at all hours of the day. I mean, if you were hungry at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday in Chicago, I could tell you where to get food from. Good food, too, not just some lukewarm trash from a gas station. That’s just not a thing here. If you want something, you have to get in your car and go get it, during business hours, and probably not on a Sunday.
A few months before I left Chicago, my beloved television shorted out and because I can’t spend even a minute without a television in my home, I Amazon Primed a new one that was delivered within two hours. This is exactly what the fuck technology is for! I’m not scared of the future if it means on-demand electronics delivery! But that is not my life now, now my life is figuring out which farmer has the best carrots for this pickling project I’d like to start. And I don’t hate it as much as I expected to, at least not until I go to a city where bike messengers will deliver doughnuts in the middle of the night and there’s an Apple store. My tombstone is gonna say, “Here Lies a Bitch Who Loved Convenience.”
I am very, very impressed that you’ve maintained your blog, Bitches Gotta Eat, while writing your book(s), and while doing a book tour. Is there something about blogging in particular that keeps you coming back to it? I feel like I’ve bailed on so many of my blogs but yours has this amazing velocity to it that you don’t see often, and certainly not while creating other work at the same time.
You know what’s hilarious? If I don’t blog for a long time, which I feel like I haven’t because I’m busy saving my best material for interviews like this one, people will tweet or email me like, “What’s up bruh, are you ever gonna blog again?” And my kneejerk reaction is, “WHAT THE HELL DO YOU WANT I JUST WROTE A DAMN BOOK.” I don’t even have ads on my blog! Like, it’s a free thing that’s actually free that makes me zero money! There are eight years’ worth of archives! Reread that old shit!!
But I don’t take anyone’s support or interest for granted. I’m also the kind of person who immediately feels ashamed and like the biggest letdown human, so then I scrounge up something to write about while apologizing profusely and vowing to do better in the future. I feel like the last person on the planet with a blog, me and The Bloggess, but I don’t know when I can end it. Especially since, and tell me if you feel the same way, I know that I have a product to sell? And even though it’s gross and I don’t really do it a lot, I need to at least maintain this outlet to peddle my wares? How do people who write books sell books now? I’m not doing videos or Snapchatting or whatever, so I guess until I’m done writing books I gotta dredge up shit for this blog? But not the super good shit, because I need to save that for a book?! The real answer is that I hope I just drop dead in the next couple years so I don’t have to ever hear the words “branding” or “sales” ever again.
At least we have your tombstone sorted out. When we last saw each other, we talked about our shared affection for makeup artists on YouTube. How did you get into beauty vloggers? Who do you think is the best and the worst? (Manny MUA is the worst, by the way.)
MANNY MUA IS MY FAVORITE, SHUT YOUR IMMACULATELY LIPSTICKED MOUTH.
I had no idea they were even a thing until a couple years ago when my friend Stephanie, who is the kind of beautiful creature who does a razor sharp winged eyeliner just to go to the grocery store, casually asked, “Have you ever heard of Jaclyn Hill?” And I hadn’t, but I’m very, very into activities you can participate in alone in the dark in the comfort of your own home, so I watched some cut crease eyeshadow tutorial later that day and I was hooked. I watched almost every one of her videos, then I started watching Manny (shut up) and Jackie Aina and Nicole Guerrero and Jordan Hanz and Patrick Starrr, and basically these people are a regular part of my life now.
I’m not sure I can really articulate their appeal to me, but I think it’s equal parts straight up awe at the skill and artistry, the soothing effect of listening to funny, beautiful people with nice voices talking about camouflaging undereye circles, and the belief that I too could look this amazing if I just applied myself. Oh and also had the patience to properly blend a cream cheek contour. I love makeup but I’ve never figured out my right shades or whatever, and let’s be honest, where do I even go that would require a brow bone highlight!? Beauty vloggers are my house flippers. There is no worst one, especially not Manny how even dare you, but my absolute favorite is Patrick. He looks like an exquisite painting.
Something I really loved about your book that I haven’t seen done this successfully is that each essay feels like a brief, wonderful chat with someone you really like spending time with. I feel like that kind of writing requires a tremendous amount of restraint. Was it intentional that you wanted to keep the essays short? Did you aim to have them feel almost conversational?
Okay, so, here we go again, but my approach is always to make my essays poop length. For a couple reasons: one, it’s just practical. I understand that between Instagramming cute dinners and bleeding the planet’s resources dry, people don’t have a lot of time to devote to sitting down with whatever musings I have about my butthole, but everybody poops and most people like to keep a book handy for the toilet, and six or seven pages is just enough time to be entertained while getting your business done without worrying about your butt falling asleep. Same goes for a subway commute or keeping it on your bedside table—I know I’ve got a handful of pages in me before I pass out on top of the book, creasing it into oblivion, and I assume other people are like that, too?
But, two, I sometimes feel like I am not smart enough to not lose my way when my pieces get too long. I’m good at rambling and taking a circuitous route to get to the point, and the more words there are, the more meandering I do. That’s no good.
Let’s end this with my favourite question to ask other writers: what’s your least favourite book?
I really hate saying this because I read in an article that Barack Obama loved it and it was his favorite book of whatever year it came out but, goddamn, Fates and Furies really baffled me. I’m pretty sure it won a National Book Award—I could Google but I refuse11Editor’s note: It was a finalist. Also, it was very good.—and I wanted to love it because so many smart and interesting people said they loved it but the entire time I was reading it I was like, WHY. I’m sure it’s brilliant and that I’m actually too stupid to understand why but as soon as I finished it, I displayed it prominently on my shelf (I need to feel like people are impressed by my choices) and vowed to never touch it ever again.