Author Q&A: Samantha Irby

We Are Never Meeting In Real Life (Faber, £9.99)

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Published in the UK for the first time. the US comic writer’s memoir-cum-essay collection is an uncomfortably honest depiction of a period of her life from writing her Bachelorette application to getting married. There’s heartache, depression, chronic illness and dead end jobs, a whole lot of humour and warmth, and one blind but ultimately evil cat.

The book’s title alludes to the fact that you’ve found your voice on the internet. How has the internet changed the rules for writers?
I don’t know how it’s changed the landscape for writers as a whole, but it has given many people like me the opportunity to get our voices out to dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of people quickly and, most importantly, for free. I put out the original version of my book Meaty on an indie press in Chicago based solely on my blog and the handful of times the editors had seen me out reading my work late at night in dingy bars. They literally approached me while I was ordering a drink and asked if I had ever thought of publishing a book, which, honestly, I had not. Seemed like more work than I ever want to do, plus I am not a risk-taker and never want anyone to expect more from me than I can conceivably deliver. It’s one thing to barf my dumb jokes into the void of the internet – it’s another to put a bunch of them on paper and then charge people money to read them, and to make good on their investment.

The internet is dope for people like me who have no aspirations beyond making our friends laugh or trying to woo a crush. I guess if I was writing meaningful shit I’d have something wise to say about getting my voice out into the world but I don’t, so I won’t. I love that there’s no barrier to entry online: if you have an internet connection you can upload your words somewhere and let the wires do the rest.

Do you find the internet a largely positive platform as a writer or do you have to contend with trolls and abuse like many other women in the public eye?
I’m sure I’d have to deal with trolls if I actually went out looking to engage with them but I don’t so I don’t get trolled a whole lot. Or, I’m being trolled constantly but because I have my mentions and inbox turned off I am blissfully unaware! So tentatively: my experience is largely positive.

One thing that spares me is I don’t have a whole lot of hot takes or spicy opinions. I just don’t. There are people who are smarter and better educated than I am who should be giving their analysis of the news of the day, and I’m thrilled to let them. I’m just on the internet trying to have a laugh and I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to stir up controversy, but also I just don’t care. I don’t care enough about ANYTHING to argue with strangers on the internet about it. And there’s so much about so many things that I just don’t know so why wade into it publicly?

I’ll scroll past regular idiots like me picking fights about, ohhh, I don’t know, economic policy, with journalists and shit and I’m just like: “DUDE, WHY?” I don’t have a comment section on my blog because I refuse to host a forum for people to tell me what a dumb and wrong piece of garbage I am, and most people won’t hunt my email address down to tell me that some poop joke I made is disgusting, and I’m eternally grateful for that.

You know what I have to deal with that really cracks me up? The sophisticated concern trolls who go to the trouble of finding me to wag their disappointed fingers at my inbox whenever I write an opinion column for the New York Times. That always destroys me – when your Uncle Brian fires up his old Gateway on a Sunday afternoon to condescend at me for not having a savings account or for typing the word “like”. Also, answering this question is definitely gonna get me trolled!

You grew up in poverty and refer to a stint of homelessness in the book. Can you tell us a bit about that and what is your advice to aspiring writers in similar positions now?
All of my writing advice is 100 per cent terrible and unusable except for this: YOU SHOULD ALWAYS HAVE A REAL JOB WHILE WRITING ON THE SIDE. It’s the least sexy thing I could ever say – flip burgers or clean toilets and write a blog on your lunch breaks – but seriously, the only reason I have a book is because there was never a time I had to depend on my writing to pay my bills. And because I’m not a journalist and I don’t write think pieces about current events I’ve never had the skills to hustle enough freelance work to pay my rent or keep a phone on, so I just worked regular jobs and wrote on the side until the writing became something, which took like 10 years.

Even now that writing is my “job” it only can be because I have a partner who makes her own money and we live in a small town that is exponentially cheaper than living in a big city; the mortgage on our whole-ass house is less than the rent in my studio apartment in Chicago was. And I still have to have a regular gig. It’s just that now it’s reading books and writing about them for a magazine rather than punching a clock at a retail job, because writing never pays what you think it does.

The book opens with your Bachelorette application and ends with you living with your wife. Were these essays written over a long period of time and how have changes in your personal life changed your approach to writing?
Honestly, getting married was maybe the worst thing a miserable person who writes about being chronically single could ever do. What am I supposed to write about now that all of my problems have been solved? Oh, I’m kidding. I’m too depressed to ever be happy. I wrote these essays over the course of a year or so. The only thing that has really changed is I am a deeply self-conscious person, especially when I’m writing, and I’ve never lived with another person before and I find that it’s hard to concentrate when someone is around who might be watching what I’m doing.

I prefer to work in a dark, windowless closet, and we don’t have one that’s big enough to fit a desk in it (I tried), so I just rented an office to go to every day where I can absentmindedly stare at my computer screen waiting for my editor to yell at me about deadlines so I can start writing. It’s the pits!

You take a candid and darkly comic approach to writing about physical and mental health, bereavement and other serious issues. Is it important to be able to write in this way without worrying about causing offence?
I try to be sensitive to other people’s experiences while also being true to my own, and I think if I’m being honest about my experiences I can’t imagine why that would be offensive to another person. Someone is always going to be offended so matter what you do, so as long as I’m not intentionally writing something to harm another person or jokes that punch down I really can’t worry about it or I’d never write anything ever.

Aren’t people out there writing racist manifestos and Twilight fanfic? If you don’t like graphic sex jokes and toilet humour then my books aren’t for you, full stop. It’s not like it’s the news or whatever! No one is forcing my cat essays full of swearwords on small children in kindergarten! Sophomore year of high school I didn’t want to read Jane Eyre because it seemed like a snoozapalooza so I didn’t. I’m sure Charlotte Brontë was crushed. Oh wait, she’s dead but also who cares what I think? The world continued to turn, and I got a C+ in English that semester. If you don’t like what I do, don’t read it. It’s that easy.

What’s it been like to work with Abbi Jacobson and can you tell us what (and when) we can expect from Meaty, the TV adaptation of your first book.
I have no idea when! Or if, for that matter! TV is weird because you can work for years on a thing that maybe will never see the light of day and you don’t know what or when things are going to happen until it doesn’t. At least, that’s what my experience has been. I’m far enough down on the totem pole that I just wait for news to trickle down to me and then wait for someone to tell me what to do with it. THAT IS AN UNSATISFYING ANSWER, I KNOW. But we’re still early in the developmental stage, which means right now my “TV show” is just “a bunch of Google docs with bad ideas on them”. If we do get to make it, fingers crossed!, it’s gonna be a half hour comedy that’s about being a moron with poop problems, trying to have fun and get laid. I just want to put a few things on TV we don’t get to see a lot of: unapologetic fatness, silent chronic illness that doesn’t make the person dealing with it look tragic, black girls who listen to Radiohead. And I want it to be funny. Life is miserable – I wanna make people laugh!

Abbi is an actual dream of a human being and I know it feels like I have to say that because we’re working together but I really mean it. If I didn’t like her for real I’d be like “Oh, she’s cool” and quickly change the subject, but she is so genuine and smart and her ability to look at something and immediately know what to do to make it better is incredible. Also she has really good style, which doesn’t have anything to do with our coworking situation but is inspirational nonetheless.

Do you ever miss Helen Keller?
EVERY SINGLE DAY. I know you’re not supposed to play favourites with your children, but we got some new cats and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that they are ugly and boring and will never live up to the legacy of my evil queen. And they’re all one to three years old, which means they will keep disappointing me for the next 15 to 20 years. Why did I get myself into this.

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