Interview by Jennifer Bostrom
Almost four years ago, Samantha Irby came to my class and we talked about vibrators. No, it wasn’t a sex ed class, Irby was visiting to enlighten prospective writers, myself included, on the pros and cons of publishing her first book, Meaty (2013), with an indie-publisher. Those familiar with the essayist and blogger’s work might think: “Yeah, totally. Why wouldn’t you talk about vibrators?” but those unfamiliar might wonder: “WTF? What do vibrators and publishing books have to do with one another?” The answer is quite simply: very little (unless maybe you’re trying to lesson the sting of editorial rejection with some Irby-approved "me time").
Bitches Gotta Eat (henceforth reffered to as BGE) is part recipe blog (not really, but with a name like "Bitches Gotta Eat" Irby does throw in the occasional recipe post), part "Dear Diary," and part self-deprecatingly candid posts about Irby’s battle with Crohn’s disease—including the “hotsex doctor” she sees for it. BGE’s popularity, as well as Irby’s candor and personality, lead her to pen Meaty. Every bit as funny, real, and grounded as the author, Meaty is a collection of essays that bring BGE's flavor for 251 pages. Currently, Irby works full time and is writing a second book, but gave me the opportunity to distract her for a bit.
Jennifer Bostrom: How did BGE get its start?
Samantha Irby: I first started a blog on Myspace (omg does anyone even still know what that is) to impress this kid I wanted to be my boyfriend. The relationship went to shit and so did that blog, but a bunch of people reached out to me asking me to continue writing. Eventually, at the urging of my friend Laura, over cheeseburgers and beers, I decided to start BGE.
JB: Your first BGE post was June 2, 2009 and it reads “welcome to the raddest spot on the interwebs.” What is the raddest thing about BGE?
SI: Every answer that comes to mind makes me feel like an asshole, so I will just say “it’s funny.”
JB: You’re approaching the seventh anniversary of BGE (congratulations); it’s not uncommon that once bloggers have been published—or if they have a full time job—for blogs to lose momentum. How do you consistently bring a fresh perspective to posts, even when you revisit topics like writing or dating?
SI: I can’t believe it’s been seven years already, omg. Wellllllllllllllllll, I’m not sure that “consistently” is a word I can confidently use, since over the last handful of months I’ve only posted a handful of times. I am forever evolving, and s--t is always happening to me in new ways. And the zeitgeist is forever changing, too. So I feel like as long as my cultural references stay au courant, then I’m all good.
JB: BGE has always been written in lowercase font, boldface, and neon colors interspersed for emphasis. How did this style develop? If you could, would you publish your books the same way?
SI: I’ve always written in lowercase, just as a personal style thing. The multicolored text serves two purposes. 1) Since I tend to write long-form prose, it helps to break it all up a little bit, and 2) it serves my massive ego to highlight lines I am particularly proud of. I have been discouraged from using lowercase in my books, and I’m cool with it. It distinguishes the books from the blog to have them formatted differently but—and this is the more important thing to me—the text won’t be a distraction to people who are unfamiliar with my writing. Since it really is my personal preference, and not some stylistic or political statement, I don’t want every review to focus on why I don’t capitalize my Is. I don’t want anything to get in the way of the work.
JB: When you write things like “Compliments are the currency of womanhood,” it makes me want to quote you (and if I had a better memory I would). How would you describe your voice?
SI: Salty and with a strong undercurrent of wit, multiple hatreds, and crushing anxiety.
JB: On BGE you’ve written about outlining your new book. What is your typical process for writing? How, if at all, has your process changed since writing Meaty? Does anything differ when you write for your books vs. blog posts?
SI: Writing my blog is a lot easier for me. Usually something dumb happens and then I’m like OH MY FUCKING GOD I GOTTA WRITE ABOUT THIS RN (RN= right now, for those not versed in social media shorthand) and then I huddle over my desk and bang it out and get the instant gratification of seeing it go live and getting reactions to it. The book is hard because I sit alone writing in a vacuum and have to wait months and months before anyone lays eyes on it, which means I have months and months to pick it apart and doubt whether or not it’s good. Having a lot of time is almost tougher than trying to write it in a few months, because I’m a master procrastinator who is terrific at making excuses. If this damn thing ever gets done, it’ll be a miracle.
I try to write an outline for every piece, and I never start writing a thing until I know how I’m going to end it. Even if I know exactly what an essay is going to be about, I don’t feel comfortable unless I know how it’s going to wrap up. Sometimes I’ll write the last couple paragraphs before I start the first. It’s that serious.
JB: Where do you write—home, coffee shops? What music is in your Spotify “writing playlist” right now?
SI: I try to write at home because I hate people and noise and sunshine and looking at things—plus I don’t have to put on shoes or a bra—but writing at home is hard because there’s a TV and a bed. It’s an actual nightmare. I wrote most of the new book at other people’s houses, which is the best of both worlds: I don’t have to worry about leaving my laptop if I have to pee, but also there’s the public shame of someone catching me doing internet crossword puzzles while pretending to be writing.
I make a killer fucking playlist, and I keep adding songs to the one I made to help me get through working on this book. It’s got 100+ songs on it, and I would never bore you with all of them so here is a sampling:
“Your Love is Killing Me” - Sharon Van Etten
“Weekend” - Mac Miller feat. Miguel
“Refuse” - Kevin Garrett
“Caretaker” - D.R.A.M. feat. SZA
“2000 Seasons” Talib Kweli
“No Role Modelz” - J. Cole
“Coming Down” - Dum Dum Girls
“You Took Your Time” - Mount Kimbie
“Mad Lucas” - The Breeders
“Etc” - Francis and the Lights
“Forgive Me for Giving Up” - Hundred Waters
I’m also really into Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue album and looped recordings of thunderstorms.
JB: I know when it came to writing Meaty, you’ve said that it was an opportunity that presented itself. What opportunity lead to the decision to write another book?
SI: This is going to sound like bullshit for real, but it really was another opportunity that presented itself. I didn’t have an agent for Meaty—the publishers were friends of mine. After it came out, I got an email from my current agent asking if I had one. I told him no, we talked on the phone, then BOOM he became my rep. He told me to put a few new pieces together and I did, he sent them out, and a few months later, I signed a deal. Even though it happened to me, writing it out feels like a fever dream. Crazy.
JB: Had that initial opportunity not presented itself, do you think you would’ve still written a book?
SI: NEVER EVER FUCKING EVER. Finding an agent and pitching a book are difficult things to do even if you’re incredibly motivated—and I’m just not. I have a job, being active on Twitter stresses me out. I have no desire to do more than randomly post shit to make people laugh whenever the mood strikes me. I was perfectly happy just toiling away in my little corner of the internet, and my plan was to do that until life got boring or people stopped reading blogs—which is probably now, but I’m too old to have caught onto that yet.
JB: What has been the hardest thing about writing your latest book?
SI: Figuring out what is interesting enough to go in it.
JB: Meaty was marketed almost entirely through social media. Are you going to use the same approach with your new book?
SI: Meaty came out on a small local press [Curbside Splendor] and big budget ad campaigns were totally out of the question. This new one is coming out on Vintage, a subsidiary of Knopf, and there are editors and marketing people and digital strategists and all sorts of other big time shit. I will be in charge of nothing, and that’s totally cool.
JB: I read in your interview with Chicago Now that Meaty took four months to write, all while watching twerking videos on Youtube and Grey’s Anatomy. What are your vices with this new book?
SI: Makeup tutorials, holy shit. I could sit for hours watching Jaclyn Hill and Jeffree Star apply eyeshadows and highlighter. IT’S MESMERIZING.
JB: What are the top 3 ways you procrastinate? What are the top 3 ways you push through procrastination?
SI: 1) HBO
2) Disappointed emails from my agent
3) Daydreaming about all the dumb shit I can waste money on when the book starts selling
JB: Like you, I attended Nichols Middle School and Evanston Township High School, take my pets to Bramer Animal Hospital (where Irby maintains a full-time job), and eat at Lady Gregory’s and the Cozy Noodle on Davis—basically, I think I may be geographically stalking you (sorry!)—but you and I have very different writing style. What would you attribute your style to?
SI: Omg, I am now wracked with anxiety that I might have been inexplicably rude to you at my job. (Just FYI, reader, Sam has never been rude to me at her job.) People always tell me that my voice is very distinctive, but I don’t know what to attribute it to. It’s just the voice I hear in my head, stream of consciousness rambling run-on sentences, sprayed on paper. I really do just write things to make myself laugh, and when it makes other people laugh, too, that’s butter on the toast.
JB: I remember when you came to my class you championed LELOs (ahem, vibrators). You’re candid with every topic you write and talk about. As a writer, I often stray from uncomfortable topics, whether it’s from a place of my own self-censorship or an external factor. Do you struggle with any censorship? How do you think you grew to be so comfortable with candor?
SI: I suppose it’s been easy because I’ve had very few negative consequences? Lately, I have been trying not to swear so bleeping much, but other than that I don’t really censor myself. There are topics I avoid—politics, religion, etcetra—because 1) they aren’t that funny and 2) I don’t feel learned enough to write about them and sound like I know what I’m talking about, and others I shy away from because no one should ever be totally transparent. (Also: Go get a LELO if you haven’t yet—they’re magical.)
JB: In Meaty, we learn that your parents died when you were very young. My condolences. Did that loss contribute to introspection and lead to becoming a writer?
SI: I’m not sure that I ever wanted to become a writer. In high school, I wrote a lot of fiction based on fantasies of the lives I would’ve created for myself if life was something I could be in charge of rather than a game of cosmic roulette. Those stories were an escape from the horrors of my real life. I don’t know that writing is something I would’ve pursued if I had people around telling me how disappointed they were in my decision to put my life out in public. I never got to know my parents well enough to know how they’d respond to my work. I hope this doesn’t sound callous, it’s definitely an advantage to not have them around.
JB: How much of your free time is dedicated to writing?
SI: I usually write my blog on my lunch breaks at work. I have never wanted it to feel like a chore, so I don’t write it on the weekends or my days off. When I have book stuff to work on, I try to write whenever I’m not working, but that usually ends up being 70% Hulu and 30% staring at my Macbook waiting for the words to present themselves to my fingers. But I don’t really like writing in a vacuum, so even on the days I dedicate to writing, I try to break it up a little bit: stretch my legs, watch some trashy TV, whatever I can do to give my brain a little breather.
JB: The first paragraph of Meaty has the line “I have a ‘job’ and not a ‘career.’” Has a job working in an animal hospital hindered or helped you as a writer? Would you consider writing your career?
SI: I’m not sure if anything other than the flexibility and lack of any sort of punitive moral code of conduct has helped my writing, but I guess those are pretty important things. It’s pretty amazing not to have to worry about being fired for something I’ve written on the internet. I’m not really sure I want writing to be my career, because what if the ideas stop? What if I stop being as interesting, or as funny? I’m not sure I would enjoy writing as much if my livelihood depended on it.
JB: Lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring essayists?
SI: Get a job. It doesn’t have to be a career, but you definitely need a regular paycheck for things like food and cocktails and lightning fast internet or whatever. Not having the pressure of hustling for money, or writing shit I don’t care about just to collect a check for it, has been incredibly freeing. I’m free to write about my butthole and falling asleep in nightclubs because, even if no one wants to pay to read about it, because walking dogs or selling doughnuts has already covered my rent.
To read more of Irby's words, go to Bitches Gotta Eat or find Meaty online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Jennifer Bostrom is a BA Honors Fiction Graduate from Columbia College Chicago, Academic Excellence scholarship recipient (2013-2016), Production Editor of CCC’s award-winning Hair Trigger anthology, and intern for HYPERtext Magazine. Jennifer's fiction can be found at The Copperfield Review and Habitat Magazine or on her website jcbostrom.com.