By: Dein Sofley
Samantha Irby unwittingly began her writing career to impress a dude. This was 2009, when MySpace was the thing. Her little posts entertained him. They dated, and when that thing came to an end, with the encouragement of friends, she launched her blog about the “dumb stuff that was happening to me every day,” Bitches Gotta Eat.
The blog’s popularity fueled essays that were her first book, Meaty, about the life of a caustic, at times awkward, frequently depressed black woman with Crohn’s and degenerative arthritis. Her acerbic, raw honesty on the page unflinchingly recounts experiences, such as the humiliating intrusion of explosive diarrhea on a date.
The collection captured the attention of Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson. Now, Jacobson, Irby, and Inside Amy Schumer writer Jessi Klein are in a development deal with FX to adapt the stories for television.
Turning the serio-comic essay into an art form, Irby’s second essay collection, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, serves as a sequel to the writer’s life, four years later. Now, Irby’s in a transitional space having recently relocated from Chicago to Kalamazoo, Michigan to be with her wife, Kirsten Jennings (Mavis in all of Irby’s essays.) But whether Irby’s explaining why she should be the new Bachelorette, detailing a disastrous pilgrimage-slash-romantic vacation to Nashville to scatter her estranged father’s ashes, or sharing awkward sexual encounters, her self-effacing levity eases into still moments between punch lines, capturing powerful emotional truths that will move readers to laugh and cry.
THE COACHELLA REVIEW: A decade ago, you started a MySpace page of poetry to impress a dude. It evolved into your popular blog Bitches Gotta Eat. But, in it’s becoming, you wrote a taco poem. Could you please share it with me?
SAMANTHA IRBY: OMG, I can’t remember what I was wearing yesterday so I for sure don’t remember that poem, but what if I make up a new one on the spot?
I really want to go on a date with your dad
His crisp pleated khakis and bowtie make me swoon
But I’m terribly afraid it’s not going to work out
Because I hate eating dinner at four in the afternoon.
TCR: Your first collection of essays emerged from your blog. Early on, you also founded “Chicago’s boldest, most bad-ass storytelling event,” Guts & Glory, with Keith Ecker, and engaged in live readings around the city. Do you think that spoken word and having your own “space” to express yourself in these no-holds barred ways were essential to the development of your voice and craft? Maybe better than a college education?
SAM: Before Keith and I started our show, I would read at other people’s shows and just make them deal with it. Live Lit is safer than stand-up; picture people in ironical band T-shirts with meticulously crafted mustaches, sipping craft beers politely, applauding even the worst stories you’ve ever heard. It wasn’t like I was gonna get booed offstage while old dudes threw half-empty bottles of Coors at my head, so it felt pretty low stakes. Once I put myself out there in front of an audience, it got easier and easier, and I definitely learned how to pace things and how writing for performance is way different than writing for the page or screen. I’m a bad person to ask about college, because I dropped out and never regretted it and have thrived despite not having a degree, and I don’t have any crushing student loan debt. So, I’m totally like “WHO CARES ABOUT COLLEGE.” But I spent many years shoveling literal dog shit while writing a free blog on the internet for ten years before it actually started to pay off, and even now waiting for freelance checks is stressful and doing your own taxes sucks. Honestly, I can’t decide which is worse. I wish I wasn’t too old to be adopted by wealthy people. That’s gotta be the only way to truly enjoy your life.
TCR: You’ve collaborated with and befriended an array of writers along the way. How essential is a writing posse?
SAM: Writing with other people and having writer friends is absolutely terrifying. There’s nothing worse for my low self-esteem than sitting around with people smarter than I am, listening to them articulate things in a way that I definitely can’t. I need to write alone in a quiet room while staring at the wall. But it’s invaluable to have people going through the same process I am at the same time; if I couldn’t text Lindy West about the agony of touring or joke feedback or the near-constant embarrassment of the editing process, I don’t know what I would have done. I have so many talented writer friends, and I am both ecstatic for all of their success and insanely jealous of them.
TCR: Your essay collections include “Skin Rashes and Arthritis,” “You Don’t Have to be Grateful for Sex,” and “Fuck It, Bitch. Stay Fat.” When did you first claim your shame? And has owning your embarrassment on the page emboldened you in real life?
SAM: I think once I started performing my work in front of people, like actually letting them see my real body and face, being brutally honest was a natural progression. In the beginning, I think I was a little shy, and I’m still very protective of my most sensitive parts, but it’s hard to look at someone in the eye and pretend your life is something it isn’t. It’s a relief to stand up in front of a crowd, or send a piece out into the world, and just lay it all bare.
TCR: Way before you were diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, you had a lot of emotional and physical upheaval in your family. You wrote, that writing for you “is an emotional exorcism.” Now that your stories are gaining notoriety—a collection of your essays has become a New York Times best seller and your writing is being adapted for television—does that still hold true? Do you ever worry that your appetite for writing might become jaded?
SAM: Not yet. Because the me who experienced all that old shit is still inside bristling against all the new stuff that’s happening. My inner voice is mean and terrible and hilarious and is still narrating everything like it’s happening to someone else, because none of this is real; I mean, come on, so even when good things are happening, that well of misery I’ve got deep inside is churning out what still sucks or what could potentially fail, and that’s the place I write from. So as long as things remain less than perfect, I’m still going to write about them.
TCR: You’ve been co-writing an adaptation of Meaty for television with Jessi Klein. How has co-writing and adapting your stories for television influenced the original work and your writing process?
SAM: Seeing my work through the prism of another person is totally weird. I basically have to remind myself that we’re not making a documentary, this is a person who has my same name and has frighteningly similar experiences to mine, but this is not me me. It’s the only way to relinquish control and mitigate my ego. I can’t be sitting in these Hollywood meetings, getting sensitive about making fun of myself, and the character of “Sam” is just different enough to keep me from getting hella defensive. Writing for TV is a totally different animal than writing essays or working on something for my blog; I work on my own stuff alone in a dark room, but with television there are whiteboards and projectors and people yelling out ideas. And then when you’ve got an outline, you split up the work and everyone retreats to their own corner to get it done. I’ve had to learn a whole new style of writing when we started working on the screenplay for the pilot, but it’s so different from what I do with my own stuff that it doesn’t interfere at all.
TCR: Has the role of Samantha Irby been cast? Who do you want to play it?
SAM: No! Not yet! We aren’t far enough along to have any casting choices made. I hope we find some undiscovered person who doesn’t mind shaving her head and can convincingly mimic my gross nasal mid-western valley girl twang. Unless Forest Whitaker is available.
TCR: In your heartbreaking essay, “Black Girls Don’t Get Depressed” that confronts the trauma of racism, you wrote, “No one in my house was talking about depression. That’s something that happened to white people on television, not a thing that could take down a Strong Black Woman.” You also wrote about your aspirations to “…Put a Fat Bitch on Network Television,” in an essay. Do you think television has made any progress in the past two decades in producing shows that have a main character who is fat or “a regular black person”? Might the first black woman to star on The Bachelorette or the show you adapted from Meaty reflect a cultural shift?
SAM: There are some fat women on TV, but very few of them don’t have some sort of weight loss arc woven into their storylines. And that’s fine I guess, but I just wanna see a fat character who is one, actually fat, and two, whose weight never comes up. Or—gasp!—is actually celebrated. Or even ignored! This sounds played out, but I am so happy to see shows like Atlanta and Insecure with these massive audiences because they’re shows that feature people who look and sound like people I actually know, who are grappling with things that feel familiar to me. If Meaty makes it to television, I’m not going to front like we’re revolutionizing the art form, but it will 100% be a show about a fat bitch living a regular-ass life. Who knows, maybe between now and then, a bunch of shows featuring anxious fatties with IBD will make it to air and I’ll look like an asshole. I would love that. But I’m still working on mine just in case.
TCR: You’ve written about swooping up a stack of ten-year-old issues of Jane on eBay, obsessively watching Lauren Conrad cry on The Hills during breaks from writing Meaty, introduced yourself in your latest collection in the first essay titled, “My Bachelorette Application,” and now you’re writing the advice column, Ask Aunt Agony, on Shondaland. In ways, your interest in pop culture has served as a catalyst for your career. Do you think engaging in mass media helps a writer stay relevant? How much is too much?
SAM: I desperately want to feel like I am at least a little bit current on the cultural zeitgeist (did I use that word correctly), because as a kid I was definitely listening to and watching things ten years after other people had already forgotten about them. Also, I do want the things I write to be relevant, at least now, and it helps to know what shows everyone is watching and what memes are still popular. I don’t know that you’ll ever get me on record saying that there is a “too much” when it comes to pop culture and entertainment. I mean maybe if I were working on a doctoral thesis, I should chill on the steady stream of Black-ish episodes I start my day with, but since I’m not, I don’t have to!
TCR: When did you quit your day job working in an animal hospital? Do you miss it? Has writing full time changed your habits or degree of engagement with the work? Now do you feel like a legit writer? Or did that validation come sooner?
SAM: I quit working at the animal hospital in July 2016. I miss my coworkers. I spent five to six days a week for fourteen years with some of those people; I know those jerks better than I know my actual family. I also miss having a place to go every day, a reason not to wear the same shirt for three days in a row. I definitely don’t miss getting yelled at by people who take dogs super seriously? But waking up to sit at a desk and write doesn’t exactly feel like “work.” I’m trying to get used to it. When I was working all the time, my writing felt like an escape, like I was cheating on all the filing I was supposed to be doing by writing jokes on the internet. Now it’s a little harder to get motivated especially since my inspiration usually comes in the form of infuriating human interactions. I don’t think I’ll ever feel like a writer. I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. This is always gonna feel like a hiatus between mop jobs.
TCR: How are you adapting to domestic life in Kalamazoo after living as a single lady in Chicago? Has the change of lifestyle affected your writing?
SAM: It’s boring. Although I would be lying if I said I was anything other than aggressively antisocial when I was in Chicago. But I do miss having the opportunity to turn invitations down and blissfully ignore the many cultural happenings in a major metropolitan city. Since the foundation of my writing is anxiety and complaining, I don’t feel like moving or getting married has affected my work very much, but it definitely has changed what I write about. Less whining about dudes not texting me back, more whining about not knowing the etiquette around Christmas gifts for the dude we pay to take care of our garden.
TCR: Since you posted the link on your blog, I’m totally creeping on you via Spotify. How important is music in your writing process?
SAM: Music is super important to me as a person. I am the person who walks around the house with noise-canceling earbuds jammed into my ears, internally weeping to all the same sad music I listened to in high school. Lots of Radiohead and Tori Amos. It’s harder to listen to music when I write, because I like to hear the words in my head as I’m getting them out of my body and onto the screen. I find myself being influenced by the lyrics, which doesn’t necessarily help when I’m moping to Fiona Apple while trying to write jokes about my butt.