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New York Times best-selling author Samantha Irby may have become a household name (in certain households, anyway) following the massive success of her 2017 essay collection, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, but I fell in love with her hilariously funny and shamelessly honest work on her blog, Bitches Gotta Eat, back in 2013. Irby’s voice is unforgettable, whether she’s being blunt about chronic illness, cat ownership, 1990s nostalgia, or the near-impossibility of basic human interaction.
Irby’s follow-up essay collection, Wow, No Thank You, offers more of what I’ve come to expect—insights both hilarious and cutting on a diversity of topics—but it is also an eerily prescient collection that suits our current socially-isolated reality very well. Is Irby clairvoyant, or was some form of social collapse, pandemic-induced or otherwise, inevitable in our imminent future? Who can say for sure? I’m just glad Irby is here to talk us through it.
I spoke to Irby over Google Hangouts—as all the very highest-quality personal interactions are now conducted—about aging, friendship, filling a pool with fat people and making Hulu pay for it, and why it’s easy to socially distance when most people are awful and boring.
Lesley Kinzel: A running theme of Wow, No Thank You is that people, generally speaking, suck and are boring. I’m curious about whether extended social isolation has tempered your view on this, or strengthened it.
Samantha Irby: Well, I will say that an incredibly painful part of social isolation is watching people who were never forced to be interesting, and who were never forced to entertain themselves because they were alone, spiral online. I’ve read so many threads by people where it’s like, wait a minute, are you really saying you’ve never been alone and unloved in your apartment for days at a time before? You don’t have a single book, or you don’t have any shows that you want to watch, or any movies that you want to catch up on? I don’t know if it’s real spiraling or if it’s just for show, that’s the tough thing about the internet. But as much as I think people are boring, it is weird to have it confirmed. It’s weird to see that our peers can’t entertain themselves.
And I don’t mean people who are freaking out about the state of things, because that, of course, I understand. But the people who are like, “I’m so bored”—how much were you going outside? How much social interaction were you doing that now that you are left to your own devices, you’re completely unraveled? And I’m talking about on like, day seven.
It is bonkers to me that people can admit in front of everyone that they don’t know how to be left with their own thoughts for more than 10 minutes. So yeah, it’s confirmed for me that people are as boring and unwilling to find ways to entertain themselves as I suspected.
LK: I read a bunch of your recent interviews, and pretty much all of them at least mentioned turning 40 as a major topic in Wow, No, Thank You. And I mean, turning 40 is in there, but it’s not like the whole book is about fortyness. Culturally, though, and especially for women, we still look at 40 as if a tree is going to fall on you, and from that traumatic moment onward you’re just slogging toward the grave. So I’m curious about your opinion on why we hang on to this particular number as a source of panic.
SI: Culturally, we do hang so much on 40. When I was a kid, I always thought that—and don’t ask me where this number came from—but that 27 was the age you were supposed to have all your shit together. And then 26 came and I was like, “Oh, no, this is a joke. I’m still an unformed lump of clay that vaguely resembles a person.”
I don’t know why 40 is such a big number. For me, a theme of the book is being 40 and how much I still don’t know, and how uncertain I feel about so many things that I would have hoped to have nailed by 40. Like, I would have hoped that I could buy clothes, bring them home and feel like “Yes, this is the right thing that I want to wear all the time.” Rather than saying, “Who did I buy this for? Why did I think this would work for me?” You know, things like that where I just am like, “Why can’t I pick a hairstyle? Why can I ever feel good about any single choice that I make?”
There’s a sociologist somewhere who has data on why 40 is pivotal. Maybe because that’s when—and I know it’s different for everyone—but you know, your hair is turning gray and your egg production slows down? I never put any pressure on 40. I don’t even have an age at which I think things will be together. I don’t know that it’s possible.
Culturally though, in America, 40 feels so monumental. You keep hearing that it’s a big deal. And then you get here and you’re like, it’s not a big deal. And you wonder, am I aging wrong? Why do I still feel the exact same way?
So now I’m like, okay, maybe 50 is the age that you start like, feeling yourself? 40 definitely is not it for me.
I don’t think we really change much, at least not on the inside. Getting older is almost just like cosplaying for some of us. There’s definitely a woman who’s living a Nancy Meyers movie kind of life, with a beautiful kitchen, and she wears jeans inside with collared shirts, and that person may be confident and feeling good about her decisions and not feeling like a child. But the rest of us—on my deathbed, I’m gonna be like, “Oh, I still am so worried about this one dumb thing that I’ve been worried about since I was a kid.”
LK: In the book, you mention being a fan of iconic ‘90s alt-teen magazine, Sassy. As a person for whom Sassy was a huge personal influence, I’m always interested in hearing how it impacted other people. So I’m wondering if you remember finding it for the first time and what your reaction was.
SI: So, I have always been a magazine person, and I still am a magazine person. We still get print magazines delivered every month. So I was reading YM and Seventeen and all that stuff and not seeing myself reflected in it. And then Sassy came along. I can’t remember what my first issue was. But I just remember they were covering the kind of people that I was interested in. I was really into grunge and Juliana Hatfield, and that was the first time I had seen my tastes reflected, and I treasured every issue. I’m so sad that I didn’t save them. I had them for a long time but then you know, life gets in the way.
I also remember— didn’t they used to have like a little section where you could send in poetry?
LK: Yes! Yes! I forget what it was called.
SI: Yeah, so this girl I went to high school with, who I didn’t know very well, had a poem printed.
SI: Yes! And I remember going up to her in the locker room, which is such a fraught place for any teen girl, and I was like, I’m sorry, but did you send a poem to Sassy magazine? And she said yes. And like, hearts exploded from my eyes. She was like a celebrity to me.
I was also very into My So-Called Life, and that kind of fit right into the Sassy vein. Sassy was my shit. And I read every issue of Jane magazine too, and I bought a bunch of them off eBay to try to relive that old Jane feeling. I’m a Jane Pratt devotee.
LK: Both of these examples, Sassy and My So-Called Life, capture this point in the ‘90s where outsider girls were having a moment. The weird kids on the margins were suddenly getting this light shined on them. It was incredibly validating.
SI: It meant so much, and it truly can’t be overstated, especially when we think of our young selves, how much it means to see a part of your marginalized or outsider self reflected in a pop culture thing. It’s like, “Oh, god, yes, that gives me hope. Like my existence is valid. Yes, I am worthy of being reflected in a television show. This means a lot to me.”
LK: This is a good segue to my next question. You spend a chapter in the book talking about the summer you spent working on Shrill, the brilliant Hulu series based on Lindy West’s book. ln my own limited experience with working on a TV show, the one thing that always blows me away about the whole process is how miraculous it is that anything ever gets made. There are so many tiny little fiddly pieces that must fall together in just the right way for a show to even happen. But it does, and sometimes it results in an episode that is truly culture-changing.
The pool party episode of Shrill, which you wrote, is one of those moments that could have gone so wrong, given that it features dozens of fat people in swimsuits. And somehow it avoids every terrible possibility and comes out so right. I’ll be honest, as a person who has been doing fat politics for over 20 years, I was a wreck when I was watching it the first time, because I kept thinking, “Hollywood is gonna fuck this up. Something’s gonna go horribly wrong.” And it didn’t. It was just great.
My question is, what is it like to be the force behind an episode that was just so powerful and so important for so many people just starving for that kind of story, and that kind of representation?
SI: Well, first of all, that’s incredible of you to say and I’m still so humbled. Also, I love what you said, that putting a show together has so many little pieces, and so few of them are in your control as the writer. You write your thing, you put in all the things you want to happen, and then you just hope for the best.
I was lucky, because I knew that Lindy, as executive producer, was not going to let it get fucked up between my writing it and them shooting it. I knew nothing horrific was going to happen. But also, in the script I was like, I want this place to look like Candyland. I want to see people eating and enjoying themselves, and the people at the party need to be real fat, not TV-fat. They must be actually fat. That’s the kind of thing I can put in the script. And I can nag Lindy about it, but ultimately, she’s not the casting person and she’s not the director. It is a collaboration.
So when I got to Portland, the first two days we shot the office scene, and the scenes in the house. I kind of eased into the pool scene, which for me was the biggest thing. A friend of mine had seen the casting call for the people for the pool party, and the casting call said, you know, “fat babes.” I was like, okay, but what if the person doing the choosing is somebody who thinks a size 10 is the fattest you’re allowed to be? So I was worried those first couple of days.
And I’m also thinking about taking care of the people who show up. Everyone’s going to be in bathing suits. Will they be comfortable? Will the crew be sensitive, or is somebody gonna oink when I walk by? There are all these things to worry about. Your brain does a number on you, and I was just buzzing with fear by the time we got there.
We got to the country club and I walked out and saw the pool. No one was there, and it was truly like a dream. The water was the bluest blue, and all the floaties were perfect, and it’s clear that they had taken such care to make this look nice. They had all of the extras in a ballroom at this country club. Lindy and I snuck in the side, and I peeked around and I think the first person I saw was this woman in a wheelchair. I was like, yes. And then I saw all these fat, very fat, super fat bodies in bikinis. There was food available for everyone. They had a full wardrobe crew, like three or four people, and racks and racks of clothes, all sorts of things that people could choose from. I saw all of these people being treated like I imagine every other show treats people.
And everybody just seemed happy. They were walking around, and I think they were all just as surprised. Because there’s that part where you wonder, “Am I going to be the only size 32 in a swimsuit?” You could feel the energy of all these fat people looking at each other. At that moment I knew, “Oh my god, they’re gonna let us do this.” I met the director, Shaka King, and I just knew that he was gonna do it right.
Not to overstate it, but it feels like a miracle that it worked. I am still in disbelief.
We shot with a Portland crew, and these guys were all so sweet and nice. As I was leaving the second day, this crew member came up to me—a young white guy, dressed all in black. And he was like, “Hey, are you Sam?” And I thought, oh my god, what, did I clog the Porta Potty? I’m always like, what’s the worst possible thing I could have done?
But he’s like, “Are you Sam Irby?” And he says, “I just wanted to say thank you for writing this episode.” It’s one thing to resonate with your target audience, right? If it had been like a fat girl in a cherry printed dress, I’d be like, well, of course. Of course you’re glad. But a young white dude who doesn’t have to care about fat liberation to come up and say, “Hey, working on this is incredible. Thank you for doing this,” that’s the moment.
You know, I want to preach to the choir. You hear all the time people being like, “Oh, why do you want an echo chamber? Why preach to the choir?” And it’s like, well, because I want a good response. Duh. But that was the moment when I thought, maybe some people who are outside of the intended audience are gonna see this and be changed by it.
SI: Even if it’s just that one guy, saying “I worked on Shrill so I’m a zealot about fat liberation now.” Then it’s worth it. But I know that more people saw it and were changed by it. You never know, when you’re making a thing, what the impact is gonna be. You just grit your teeth and hope your intent is clear.
LK: You have a wildly relatable and funny chapter about the difficulty of making friends as an adult. A few years ago I moved to a whole new city. The first new friend that I made, I had met for coffee to talk about a volunteering gig. But then we hung out for two hours. And towards the end of it, she actually said to me, very thoughtfully, “I feel like you and I could be really good friends if you’re interested in that.” And I was like, oh, how civilized! I feel like one reason we struggled to make friends in adulthood as we lose the knack of just making observations like that out loud because it feels so scary and vulnerable. How can we make that kind of blunt friendship overture like a normal adult social thing?
SI: I feel like—I don’t know how to cure people of the fear of rejection.
SI: Right? You can’t. I guess the way to do it would be to normalize the asking for friendship, and being honest. First of all, people in general need to start giving more compliments, and telling people that they like them more. So I think we start by normalizing that, by being like, Hey, you look cool. You seem cool. Your car is cool? I mean, whatever it is that drew you to the person that made you think you could be friends. And then once we normalize that, we need to normalize the next step: Would you like to talk to me? It feels so much like dating, and dating is so loaded and fraught. If we could get the feels-like-dating element out of it, it would be so much easier.
We’re so conditioned to not tell the truth and not be complimentary because you don’t want to look like a creep, but I really think it’ll feel less creepy the more we do it. You just got to start walking up to people—maybe it sounds a little formulaic—and saying, “You look like a cool person. I’ve seen enough of you to think that a friendship could work. Would you want to have a low stakes coffee with me?” Or drink or whatever. We just have to start like asking each other out on dates that aren’t dates. And then see if a friendship naturally blossoms out of that.
And it’s hard. I mean, the thing is, it takes work. But I think we also are aided by our pocket computers, and by the fact that we have access to people’s social media, because that can tell you a lot, between the coffee and following people’s Instagram. You just have to get over it. Pursuing someone feels awkward. You don’t want to be annoying. You don’t want them to get the wrong idea. But if you’re just straight up like, “Listen, I think you’re dope. Let’s let’s try to cram 40 years of history into a coffee date, and see if a friendship sprouts from that.” It’ll connect and the roots will burrow and the flower will sprout. I don’t know why I’m doing this flower analogy. If it’s meant to work out, it’ll work. And if it doesn’t, then it’s like, it’s truly a low stakes thing. Maybe they’re too busy. Just try it with the next interesting person you meet.
LK: Another interesting thing that I’ve noticed during this pandemic is, I’m having some really deep and meaningful conversations over text. I think many people are letting go of worries about rejection and reaching out more. Some of my friends who are not normally emotionally effusive people are now saying “I love you!” all the time.
I’m hoping one of the lasting impacts of this experience, when we get on the other side of it, is that we learn to treat friendships with the same value that we do dating or romantic relationships. The friendships in my life are every bit as important and nourishing as romantic relationships. And we need to prioritize those just as much as we do any other relationship.
SI: Yeah, and I also hope that it confirms for more of us that the relationships and the bonds that you are forming through your computer, or your phone, or whatever, are as valid as the ones that you’re forming with people in real life. I feel like I know more about people I only know on the internet than I do about people who are my neighbors, and those relationships are just as real and valid as the in person ones.