An Interview with samantha irby
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl
Samantha Irby, called one of the "most entertaining but poignant contemporary essayists" of our generation, is the author of the 2013 essay collection Meaty and 2017's We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, as well as the Ebook New Year, Same Trash. In 2016, FX purchased the rights to Meaty and Irby's blog, bitches gotta eat. Irby, alongside Broad City's Abbi Jacobson and Inside Amy Schumer's Jessi Klein, is developing the pilot. Her next essay collection will be released in 2020. She can be found online at her blog and on Twitter at @wordscience.
TMR: Your work often revolves around the struggles of early adulthood and becoming a "real adult," with a house, a car, etc. Years after your early essays, Megan Stielstra for the Chicago Reader laughs about sitting at your dining room table because you've never had one before. Is there a tangible definition of adulthood? Have you reached it?
SI: As soon as you said "dining room" the first thing that popped into my head was: We rent this house. If the woman who owns this place decided she didn't want me in here, she'd kick us out, and I wouldn't have a dining room or a yard.
Markers of adulthood can maybe happen for people with some generational wealth, or families that help you get to the next level, or the kind of determination. I do not have any of those things. I'm 38. I have cookware, but the cabinet it's in is not mine.
It depends on how much you buy into the traditional idea of what adulthood means, but for me at least, I don't know what I could have that would make me feel like I was there. In my work, I try to show that you may never feel like that, and that's cool.
TMR: Are there other qualifications of "adulthood" that people might take comfort in?
SI: The other week we had a plumber come because our tub was clogged, and I don't know what to do that's not Drano. He comes in and he asks, "Do you want to come upstairs so I can show you?" And I said, "For what?" At this point in life, if nobody taught me how plumbing worked when I was a kid, I don't want to learn it now. Sometimes you can live like this and still be an adult. I had the money to pay him, that makes me an adult. I am at this point trying to reconcile not being "less than."
I am at this point trying to reconcile not being "less than."
I learned how to earn money to pay for things to be fixed, and to pay for a place to put the dining room table. I don't have to know about getting equity. I don't care, and maybe this is an excuse: I had enough drama in my childhood that I have earned not learning about escrow.
The crazy thing to me is the pressure that gets put on young people. I dropped out of school, and the one year I went I had loans and scholarships, and the second year that I signed up but didn't go, I had to pay out of pocket over time because they came after me. I don't have 100,000 dollars in loans, but when you tell someone they have to go to school, which will cost them this much, and then somehow—while paying back this massive debt—they also need to own a house and have a car that is fuel-efficient, no one acknowledges how you do that from a deficit. It's not real for most people. It's not going to make you happy, and it's so hard to be happy. Getting to happy is hard enough, and when you add financial burdens on top of it, it's like, fuck that, how do you win? You just have to stack up the little shit to feel like you're doing okay.
TMR: What is the value of writing about these issues?
SI: I spent so much time feeling less-than, or like I didn't have enough, and that leaves a lasting impression on you. I grew up in the 90s, so there wasn't even social media to make me feel like shit, it was just comparing myself to people I knew. I don't know how much I beat myself up over the lives I assumed people were living. Once you get to know them and you realize that this happy marriage isn't really happy, or someone is underwater on their house—as I got older and saw that, it became really important for me to focus on making people laugh. And that still is my goal, that if you sit down with something I've written, you can laugh and recognize yourself in it.
Once people start paying attention to you it's easy for them to put shit on you that isn't real: "Your life is so great, all you do is write butt jokes and have fun." I do have a little fun on the internet but the real shit is that this is how bad I feel about this, and this is what I couldn't pay for, and this is what I had to do to make people believe I could afford this. Once you start peeling back, people can say, "Here's a person who's dealing with the same things I'm dealing with." When we're sitting around and thinking about the shit in our lives that sucks, as long as you're not telling anyone, it's easy to think that it's just you.
I have this opportunity to, at the very least, talk about heartbreak and being sick and having grown up broke. It's maybe not as bad as I've made it seem, but it's certainly not like everything is fake—just don't look in that dark corner. But when you write about the dark corners, people are going to relate to that. And if they can't relate to that, at the very least they'll fucking take it easy on me next time. They'll understand I'm depressed and I have a lot of problems, and sometimes I'll crack a joke to make those problems not seem so bad.
TMR: Can "true happiness" only be attainable from overcoming adversity?
SI: That has to be the kind that feels the best, when you've got some bullshit to look back on. I just feel like happiness is a little bit sweeter when you've had a hard thing that you've come through. I don't wish tragedy on anyone, but for those who even have a little bit—a little mental illness, sickness, family business, being fucking broke or being disappointed, getting your feelings shit on all the time—when we get a bit of happiness, it's justified that it feels better than just being "regular" happy.
If there's any justice in this godforsaken world, then once a person who's overcome adversity experiences happiness, it has to feel better than just, "I'm happy because my life is good and no one's gonna say anything negative to me and my family is entirely supportive of all of my choices." I want my "Today I had a cheeseburger and no one called me a fat bitch online," day to feel better than that person's regular day. There has to be some reward for surviving all of this. It's the sweet alchemy of happiness and relief equals true joy.
TMR: Have you had any particular obstacles to overcome when it comes to your writing career?
SI: I'm going to say this in a way that's hopefully not asshole-ish, which is that I've always aimed pretty low. Most of the things that have happened in my career have been a matter of the right person reading my thing at the right time and then asking me if I want to do something for them.
I never had any goals, even for my blog. I started my blog to convince this dude to date me, and then it happened—because I'm so witty and smart—and then that ended, and I was done with the blog. But people said they'd been reading it, so I kept doing it. I was going to until it was done, or until I got bored, or until people said blogs are over.
I never had any goals, even for my blog.
When Curbside Splendor came along, I let them pursue me for a little while not because I was playing hard to get, or because I had any other aspirations, but because I was lazy. I just thought, "Ugh, writing a book sounds like a hassle, and then I have a book in the world forever that people will keep coming back to to point to the dumb shit I said however many years ago." Finally, because they kept asking, I said okay. I wrote it in a couple of months, and they put it out, and then I was done with that. I'm not the type of person to ride the bus with boxes of my books to try to sell them at places. If you like my blog and you find the book and you read it, cool. If not, I'll keep writing for free on the internet.
People will ask "What do you wanna do with the writing?" And I'll answer, "Be done with it." It's a lot of pressure; knowing things is hard, caring about how many copies you've sold is hard, it's all stressful. When can I be done with this? If people stopped paying attention, I'd be like, "Oh, nobody's interested? Cool, I'll be over here watching TV." Years later, someone'll ask, "Are you still alive? Are you still mad about stuff? Do you wanna write an old lady mad thing?"
TMR: You spent fourteen years working at an animal hospital, and now you write full-time. How did you get to this point?
SI: To write full-time, I had to move to Southwest Michigan to live with my wife, who works full-time, and whose insurance I could also be on. Otherwise this is not a realistic dream. It's worth noting, at least in my case, that I'm never passionate enough, and I don't believe that anyone else should be either, to compromise safety, housing, food, medicine, that kind of thing. I understand the romantic, living-in-a-van shit because you really believe in it, but I spent so long working because I needed to have an apartment. Whatever's important to you, right?
In the same vein, as much as my passion for writing never lead me to compromise my creature comforts, I also never wanted to compromise my writing to get paid. I know a lot of people hustling and taking every writing job that they hate, writing about things that they don't want to write about, writing for places they're not proud of writing for, just to cobble together enough money from to live on. That has no appeal for me.
Even now I am ready to go ring up groceries if that's what we need because the writing isn't working out. I would never want to stress my wife out and ask her to work 80 hours a week while I stare at the computer for my next brilliant idea that may or may not pay us. If she said, "Listen, you gotta bring more money in," then I would be checking out candy at Walgreens, and I would be just fine doing it because it's more important to me that we have all the cable channels I want.
I've had a job since the beginning of high school. I'm no stranger to working. I still every day feel a little weird, like it's my job to be home. Is this a job? I'm home looking at the computer, reading a lot of articles rather than writing. This feels too luxurious to be what I'm allowed to do. It's a constant weird push and pull of emotions.
TMR: Why is writing an important part of your life?
SI: I need to be doing things that feel useful. The minute that nobody's benefiting from these things I'm writing, I'm not doing it. If I get to a point where my writing is not funny or revelatory, then I would be like, "Okay, I had a good run." Hopefully I'll figure that out before I put work in the world that anybody says that about.
The minute that nobody's benefiting from these things I'm writing, I'm not doing it.
I do this because it feels good, and it helps other people feel good, or think, or whatever it does. And then the good things that happen because of it, that's the whipped cream on top. I write a lot of "Look at me, laugh at me" stuff. There's a benefit in that. Can I make a woman's day better? Talking about break-ups, that sort of thing is happening all the time that people pretend isn't. I'm going to talk about it so that for five minutes, somebody can think, "Phew, I'm not the only idiot that happened to."
I was talking to Emily Gordon, who wrote The Big Sick, about being sick people who write: Being young and everybody's like, "You should be involved and do crazy shit and go places," and you're the person who's like, "No, I need to take pills so I don't poop on myself." It's different from feeling young and carefree, and she really could relate to that.
However freeing my stuff is for me, I know there's someone out there trying to figure out how to take a diaper off at their new boyfriend's house. At least one other person has had the same situation. Maybe I can laugh at it. Some of the things that I write about, people will listen to me talk about and act like it's just me. But there are people out there who are like, "Yes, me too, thank you." That much is worth it.