Bewitched: An Interview with Queer Writer Samantha Irby

Samantha Irby. Photo via Instagram.

The best part about reading a book by Lammy Award-winning queer humor essayist Samantha Irby, including her new one, “Quietly Hostile” (Vintage, 2023), is the way she makes you laugh out loud.

The next best part is when people who hear you laughing ask what you’re reading and get to spread the hilarious gospel of Irby. Renowned for her use of body humor (IBS and vomit in the essay “Oh, so you actually don’t wanna make a show…”) and oversharing (practically every essay, including “Body Horror”), Irby makes you laugh, even when you didn’t think it was possible. While humor is the driving force in her work, the essay “O Brother, Where Art Though?” takes a more serious turn, showing another side of the writer. Samantha was generous enough to make time for an interview in advance of the release of the new book.

Samantha Irby will be at Books & Books in Coral Cables on June 8.

Gregg Shapiro: Samantha, in prepping for this interview, I was thinking about the popularity of queer humor essayists — from Fran Lebowitz to David Sedaris to you — and how you have all struck a chord with readers from all walks of life. Can you say something about the use of humor as a device by the LGBTQ community?

Samantha Irby: I’m going to throw black people in here, too [laughs]. Not that every queer person or black person has a rough life. But I think people who grow up kind of on the margins, whatever margins in which we exist, we all have this through line of tentativeness and fear of rejection. Not knowing how people feel until you get to know them can be stressful [laughs]. For me, my approach with everything is if I don't turn it into a joke, I will die. I feel like all of my queer friends are that way. They're about to dismantle gay marriage. There are hate crimes. They’re about to do this and that. I don’t have an activism bone in my body, but what I can do is mine it for a joke. I think that for a lot of us who have had trouble getting through life, humor, at least finding the one little point, the one little part of it that's funny, can help you not to lose your mind.

GS: What’s involved in your process for selecting essays for a collection such as your new one “Quietly Hostile”?

SI: At this point in my career, I'm with the same publisher, so I don't have to tell them what I'm doing. My agent pitches them a book: “Sam’s gonna do the same shit she always does. Is that cool?” [Laughs] They’re like, “Oh, yeah, funny.” I never know when it's pitched what's gonna be in it. Then I ignore it for months. I'm like, “Oh, I have plenty of time to write this book. I'm not going to think about it and stress myself out.” I should think about it and stress myself out because I always turn my books in late. The galleys that went out are missing an essay about QVC, about how I feel like the hosts are my friends [laughs] because I spend so much time with them. My process is generally like I can see the deadlines on the horizon. I'm like, “Oh, here she comes. It's getting close enough to see it. Then I sit down and think about what's interesting to me. What I have a lot of things to say about and any big things that have happened to me. For this one, I was like, “Oh, I went into anaphylactic shock [laughs]. I’m going to write about that. I don't really have bladder control anymore; I'm gonna write about that.” The piece about the nun — I have to put a sex thing in there. My current sex is very boring — old lesbian sex — but I can write about this porn I watch all the time. Once I have kind of an idea, if it’s enough stuff, I feel good. If not, my editor will say, “So, it's been a minute since you’ve talked about step-parenting or whatever. She will fill in the gaps and I'll think of a way to approach it that’s not your standard, “Hey, I married a lady, and she had some kids.” It’s kind of a mishmash of what I can come up with is desperation, big things have happened that people might be interested in. I worked on the “Sex and the City” reboot (“And Just Like That”), and I wrote about it, but not in the way that people would think I was gonna write about it.

Stuff like that. I kind of know what people want to know and then I fill them in on the happenings in my life, and then maybe a cultural or a TV thing or a love letter to Dave Matthews.

GS: The book’s title comes from the essay “My Firstborn Dog.” Why was it chosen?

SI: Let me tell you. This is like the least sexy answer in history. I learned the hard way with my first book from Random House. You don't really get to pick your book title. I wanted to call “We Are Never Meeting in Real Life” (from 2019) “Everything is Garbage,” but my editor at the time — she’s not my current editor — was like, “I don’t know that people are going to buy that.” Sales and marketing weren’t sure about having a book with the word garbage on the cover. What she did was go through the manuscript and pull out two or three-word phrases, although “We Are Never Meeting in Real Life” was longer, and she presented them to me. I picked what I liked, my agent and everybody in sales and stuff weighs in. This time, I had no title in mind. I threw everything at Maria, my editor. She read it and sent me a list of options. I hated them all except for “Quietly Hostile” [laughs]. Luckily everyone signed off on it.

GS: In the “My Firstborn Dog” essay, you write about getting what you called “a pandemic dog,” which was a common occurrence when people were stuck at home during the COVID lockdown. How are things with Abe now?

SI: He’s the worst dog I've ever met in my life. We got this fancy trainer who came to the house. We spent $500 on this woman, and he immediately latched onto her jeans. She's used to it and she was cool with it. He learned nothing. He’s so dumb and bad. I take him three times a week to this place called Camp Fido where he runs around all day and gets very tired. They love him. He's good with other dogs; he loves playing, he loves wrestling. But the minute you walk into the house, he becomes a land shark. If I could do it over again, I would have just gotten another cat. But I do love him. He’s oddly compelling. He pulls on the heartstrings. He’s on the couch in the other room right now. He has taken a $100 blanket, that we were given as a gift, and made it into a dog nest.

GS: Well, at least he's got good taste.

SI: He’s living the dream.

GS: In the essays “Superfan!” and “Oh, so you actually don’t wanna make a show…,” you touch on the laughable and unrealistic portrayals of author events and writers in movies and on TV. Do you think that has the potential to ever change?

SI: I'm going to say, and this is based on nothing, there's probably a tier of writers that I cannot touch, who get fancy parties [laughs]. I imagine there's someone out there who writes literature and wears a tweed coat, who gets a beautiful party in a chandelier-lit room with people sipping wine. I feel like that has to exist to have given people this idea that that’s how it is. But it's only for Salman Rushdie [laughs]. People who have won book awards. I'm sure they get wine and cheese.

GS: You mentioned Dave Matthews, do you know if he knows about the “David Matthews’ Greatest Romantic Hits” essay?

SI: He doesn’t right now, but … this is like the biggest news of my life. You’re hearing it first. He will hear about it tomorrow. My friend Alex writes celebrity profiles. He hit me up and said he's profiling Dave Matthews. I about fell over. He said he wanted to interview me. I said, “OK, in my upcoming book if have a whole essay about him!” My publisher sent Alex the book. He read it and interviewed me. We sent an extra copy for him to take to Dave, which he said he’ll do.

GS: That’s fantastic! As a former Chicagoan, I loved the Chicago references—Schuba’s and the corner of Touhy and Western where there used to be a Bakers Square.

SI: I have had many slices of blueberry pie in that location.

GS: Good! Me, too. How important is place to you and your writing?

SI: Because I write about myself, it's always going to have a personal focus. Me in Los Angeles, me in New York. I don't know if this sounds corny, but I am such a product of Evanston, Illinois. It is in me. I feel like a suburban Chicagoan all the time. My town heavily imprinted on me. I lived there for so long. You know what’s the most important thing regarding place? As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized I’m deeply Midwestern, and how that affects moving through the world. I hate going to New York because everybody’s mean. I hate going to L.A. because nobody eats real food. I just want to be where it’s flat and people are eating casseroles or know pot roast or whatever.

GS: And drinking pop, not soda.

SI: Correct! Every time I hear someone say “soda” I shudder. That’s pop you're drinking [laughs].

GS: Do you think that your own sense of humor derives from being a queer woman of color, or that one aspect of your identity takes prominence over the others?

SI: I will tell you what it is. It comes from being fat and homely [laughs]. I don’t think my humor comes from a racial place. I didn’t grow up in abject racism. Racism is all around us, but it’s not like I grew up somewhere that someone was going to call me the N-word.

GS: Certainly not in Evanston.

SI: No! When I was a chunky kid with buck teeth and was poor and dressing in Salvation Army clothes, if you don't have a Teflon response to being mocked and ridiculed, how can you make it? Early on, l learned that if I start laughing first, it takes the teeth out of whatever teasing or mocking I might be experiencing. My humor comes from that place. I’ve got to be the first to make the joke, so it doesn't hurt.

Gregg Shapiro is the author of eight books including the poetry chapbook Fear of Muses (Souvenir Spoon Books, 2022). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBTQ+ and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.


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