Little, Brown and Company

Jenny Slate is ready to reintroduce herself

With her deeply personal new book and Netflix special launching later this fall, Slate is taking control of her art. The results are thrilling.
October 15, 2019 at 12:00 PM EDT

Jenny Slate wants to be taken seriously. She’s returned to Los Angeles for her first round of press ahead of a busy fall season — her debut Netflix comedy special, Stage Fright, premieres Oct. 22, and her first solo book, Little Weirds, hits shelves just weeks later — and finds herself getting defensive about the way her work will be received. “It feels like I’m flinging myself onto our culture,” she says with an embarrassed laugh. But these memoiristic projects began as a personal endeavor. That the book opens with Slate imagining she was born as a croissant? No laughing matter. “I take myself seriously even if I am, as a person, definitely a collection of bubbles and springs and things that make dinging noises,” Slate, 37, says. “I’m a major boinker. I’m a boinky ding-dong kind of person. But I’m not juvenile. I’m living an adult life.”

Dana Trippe for EW

That croissant piece, titled “Treat,” captures both Slate’s boinky and adulting sides in a little over a page. It appears silly at first glance, a celebrity dabbling in twinkly mystical prose, but builds, bracingly, into a statement of desire that’s at once warm, heartbreaking, and erotic. “Treasure me for my layers and layers of fragility and richness,” Slate writes. “Name me after a shape that the moon makes. Have me in a hotel while you are on vacation. Look at me and say, ‘Oh, I really shouldn’t,’ just because you want to have me so very much.”

Little Weirds is hardly a pithy, dishy “comic’s book” in the vein of what Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Mindy Kaling have helped to revitalize over the past decade. The essays that follow “Treat” are unclassifiable — too abstract to be memoir, too interior to be fiction — short entries that, taken together, read like a strange, witty, sad journey into the depths of their author’s imagination.

Slate, a Saturday Night Live featured cast member for just one season before being fired in 2010 (she dropped an F-bomb during her first episode), has never embodied mainstream Hollywood. Her breakout was the 2014 film Obvious Child, an indie rom-com with a nuanced abortion story line that premiered at Sundance to great acclaim and won her the Critics’ Choice Award for best comedy actress. She’s ubiquitous in TV comedies, memorably recurring on critical darlings like Parks and Recreation and Lady Dynamite and voicing key characters on Big Mouth and Bob’s Burgers, but she has never led one of her own.

Recently, she writes, her life “fell to pieces.” She experienced heartbreak — her marriage of four years ended in 2016; her highly publicized romance with Chris Evans began thereafter, but they broke up in 2018 — and a “loss of confidence” in her work. “I was constantly saying, ‘There’s something more that can be done with my sadness than just shame and heaviness and loneliness,’ ” she says now. “But that’s a very hard point for me to prove to myself.”

Dana Trippe for EW

As she reflects on her year and a half of solitude, of “stream-of-consciousness” writing and the compiling process that followed, Slate’s distinctive voice and persona — bubbly, bright, endearingly shy — still sings. (For every painful memory recounting, it seems, there’s a “boink” utterance.) But this was an emotionally taxing process for her; you sense it as she trails off answering a question or unpacks what motivated the book in the first place. “It was very, very heavy lifting at times,” she says.

One piece, “I Died: Bronze Tree,” emerged purely out of an exercise Slate wrote for herself after her divorce, imagining her dream marriage; another, “I Want to Look Out a Window,” is composed of wishes for her future. They’re devastating in their unfiltered honesty, even optimism. “You’re sitting here, you feel unlovable, you’ve had your heart broken,” Slate says, remembering the space that she was in while writing. “What’s the version of you that makes you fall in love with yourself? Just put it down.”

Slate, based in Los Angeles, spent the bulk of her time working on Little Weirds in a beach house that her parents recently had built on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. She was alone. There was hardly any furniture. She’d wake up early, make coffee, walk outside — nature and unusual life-forms are central motifs in the book — and then put to paper whatever came to her. She couldn’t articulate her process, but told her editor, Jean Garnett, that she needed to trust it. “It was sometimes a challenge, especially in the early months, to accept the fact that the book is…sort of unclassifiable,” Garnett explains. “But it was also really exciting to embrace that and lean into it, and to trust Jenny’s process and vision.” When Garnett received Slate’s final draft, they met up at Garnett’s house in New York’s Hudson Valley for four days, sitting “in matching old armchairs by a window, looking out onto snowy trees, laptops in our laps,” Garnett says. Slate read the whole book aloud, and they edited collaboratively.

Slate calls Little Weirds “transformative” for her. “I also just really learned how to be alone,” she says — and then laughs, as if just remembering that, yes, she’s newly engaged (to writer/art curator Ben Shattuck). He’d visited her on the Vineyard, as a friend, while she was still writing (“We didn’t kiss or anything”). “Right when I left the island, I went to his house,” she says, smiling. “I learned how to be alone, and then I think that helped me to be a better partner.” It’s a nice bookend to the backstory of Little Weirds, too. She thinks back to the wishes of “I Want to Look Out a Window”: “They were real wishes. I have almost all of those things now. But when I wrote them [out], they felt very far off.”

Rest assured, this is a Jenny Slate book: Little Weirds is often very funny. (One chapter is called “I Died: The Sad Songs of My Vagina.”) Same goes for her Stage Fright special. Taken together, they reintroduce Slate as an artist, showcasing her singular poetic forms of expression. And she knows it — perhaps that’s been most healing for her in all of this. “There’s always been this sense that I’ve had that I’m begging. I’m begging for work, begging to be given an audition for an actually good film,” she says. “I don’t care to beg anymore. I feel at peace.”

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