Samantha Irby on her upcoming books and the election apocalypse that hasn't happened (yet!)
It's become a bit of an overused trope in the publishing world that we're all very self-conscious about discussing literature as people are, quite literally, dying. One sees themselves as Kim Kardashian desperately searching for her diamond earring among turquoise water as sister Kourtney deadpans a scold. But what's even worse than conducting interviews during a pandemic? Doing it during a pandemic the day before the most important (and nail-biting, and nauseating, and generally terrifying) election of our lifetime.
This is a fate that Samantha Irby knows all too well, seeing as she released Wow, No Thank You on March 31. In a year marked by international tragedy and way, way too many Zooms, the essayist also reached new career highs, becoming an instant New York Times bestseller and becoming even more beloved — and by more people — as a captive audience discovered her deliciously hilarious blend of sarcasm and realism. Now, she's closed a new three-book deal with Vintage Books, sealing her success for years to come. Irby graciously agreed to put aside any lingering embarrassment over facing high praise to chat with EW about her career and her plans for the next literary phase, doing her best not to let the pending doom of November 3 get in the way too much.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Is it totally crazy that we're about to talk about books the day before the election?
SAMANTHA IRBY: I was just talking to a friend and she was like, it's like waiting to find out where you have cancer. I had to get a COVID test a couple weeks ago and it's that game where you're holding your breath, trying to have a good day, but also what am I going to find out? Luckily, I didn't have COVID so maybe that bodes well for the election, too. Maybe that metaphor will work in our favor. God, what a horrible day [laughs]. Because if there's a civil war I have no skills to offer. What do I do, just barricade inside the house? Do I just walk out on the lawn and say, take moe now, don't make me suffer? Just get me out of the way.
It almost seems like we need to record two different versions of these questions: one for each potential outcome of the election.
Me too. My answer for both is, I'm just going to be watching cable news nonstop no matter what happens. I have friends that are going to tune out and do crafts to cope. I'm like, I hear you, but I don't have that kind of brain. I have to listen to everything constantly. I don't even fully understand politics, I understand maybe half the words coming out of their mouths, but I still have that sense of dread coursing through me. The best I can do is tell myself not to turn on the television at eight in the morning. If I do that I'm a goner, I'm just going to watch MSNBC all day. I try to do some things, like writing, before I turn the TV on. I'll have a goal to wait until 5 p.m. Or I could write until 3 p.m. and then turn it on. But none of my plans include not watching.
On the professional front, it sounds like you're actually getting work done right now and being productive and creative. What's your secret?
I'm finishing things that have a hard deadline that I would be embarrassed to not turn them in on time. I'm doing the next newsletter for Bookshop.org, and that's due soon, so I have that open in a document. But, I haven't written it yet [laughs]. Really though, I'm not getting any real work done because I'm just cringing while scrolling Twitter and trying to avoid the news, but also deeply reading all of the news.
Was there any point this year in which you felt like you got into any sort of a groove, or has it been just a lot of trying to get by?
There was a period at the beginning of the year where I came in hot. I was writing my newsletter regularly and feeling good about things and then COVID hit and there was a lull. I don't want anyone to think I was really feeling bad about myself — I'm self-aware enough and aware of where my problems stand in the world in general — but sometimes I get self-conscious because I think, oh who needs these frivolous jokes right now? So when COVID hit it was kind of my nightmare that people were thinking, what is this idiot still sending us? People are dying, shut up about your TV recaps! But then I got a few messages saying the comic relief was helpful, so I geared back up again and started writing my newsletter. I thought, however long it takes you to skim that email, I could at least make you laugh for that bit of time.
You also, notably, released your book Wow, No Thank You during the height of the pandemic.
When the book came out, I thought wow what a bananas time to be putting something out into the world. Everyone's losing their jobs and here I am tap-dancing on somebody's podcast. I'm like, hey guys, if you have $15 you can get this book of jokes! At first, I was so worried that people would accuse me of being crass, but no one did. And the book sold well. I think it might have been perfect timing, that people were trapped at home and needed a stupid person to laugh at — and I could offer myself up for that purpose. And I should say: It felt less icky to be selling a book when the response was, thank you, this is funny, we needed it.
It was tempting at times this year to take a social media break, but as an author trying to sell a book virtually, did you feel pressure to constantly be on and connected?
I did make a conscious effort to stop tweeting, because I kept getting trolled and I just don't have the bandwidth to go back and forth with someone. I also never even tweeted anything spicy! It was dumb jokes. I'm like man I can't be getting called out on the Internet every day for nothing. I thought, either I pivot to spicy tweets and just start going into battle with people or I scale back. But I still do talk to post and talk to people on Instagram. I hate to say something like "my platform," but it is what it is. I try to post other people's books and get conversation going.
And when the book came out and I couldn't go on tour, I also did a version of a book signing that I would normally do on tour, where I signed copies for my local bookstore and I shipped them out. I personalized them, too — people would ask for it to be dedicated to their cat, or for me to draw a turkey with boobs or whatever. I feel like I have had a connection with readers through these manners, even though I didn't get to go on tour. I do miss being hugged, but I do not miss airports — so it was a weird tradeoff. I have to find a way to virtually hug people and then I'll never have to leave the house again.
Now that you'll be working on your next books, do you think you'll write about this very odd year in a specific way?
I wrote a brief essay for a newsletter about my last normal day before quarantine, and when I read it back to myself I thought, oh I could expand on this with one of my Samantha Irby 5,000-word run-on sentences. I was working in Chicago, and the company we were working for was like hey I know we said you could stay here through the pandemic, but it's going to be a bigger deal than we thought so you have one day to pack up your things and get out. You don't ever think about the amount of stuff you're bringing to a place until you have to pack in a hurry. I was like, why are there so many shirts? I only wore one shirt this whole time. So I had a bit of a meltdown on the drive back to Michigan — the piece was about that.
I feel like the only way I could write about this time is if it's not specifically about the disease, but more about how I felt being an anxious person — I'm not smart enough to really write about COVID. And also, I don't ever want to do any research, so I have to write about things that don't require statistics.
Do you decide the broad theme of your essay collections ahead of time, or do you just start writing and let the books decide themselves later?
I never know what they're going to be. I mean, the theme in Wow, No Thank You was definitely 'I'm turning 40 and here are all of the things I don't know.' I wrote about my insecurities that aren't related to looking old, but rather: I'm 40 and I don't know how to install blinds. So I never have a plan or a theme, because I have learned that my editor will shape all that. I'll make a list of things that interest me.
Like in my current outline for the next book, and I don't know if this will make in it, but I went to a restaurant in Detroit — pre-COVID — and I thought I was dressed nicely, but they said I wasn't dressed nicely enough to get into the restaurant. But that was just so funny to me, so I added it to the outline and then eventually I'll go to my editor and say, I'm thinking about putting all these things in the book. She's never said no [laughs].
What about your book titles? They so perfectly encapsulate the vibe — do you have any in mind right now?
That part's not me [laughs]. I always have a title in mind. Like, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, I wanted to call that book Everything Is Garbage. That's what it was called in my mind and in all my Google Docs. But then I turn everything in to my editor, she reads it, tells me what's garbage or which parts she didn't get [laughs]. One of her notes for Wow, No Thank You was: Why is there no sex in it? I was like, because I'm 40 and you don't have sex! How about that. But then she goes through and picks out things that could work as a title and sends them to me and I pick the ones I like best and we narrow it down.
In the midst of all this work, is there anything you're reading or watching that's really filling you up?
I'm watching Fargo season four. I love Fargo so much, it's so good. Chris Rock as a dramatic actor, man. And right now I'm reading this book called Tiny Nightmares. It's flash fiction, so each page is four or five pages and they're all so spooky and so good. It's perfect for COVID-slash-election brain. Like I tried to read The Dutch House by Ann Patchett — which is so good, by the way — but it's a big drawn-out family drama. You have to be in a place for that. This book, it's truly four pages and the story's done and you can go on to the next one or do something else.