New York Times-bestselling author Samantha Irby isn’t your average memoirist. The foul-mouthed, sharp-witted writer came up from incredibly difficult circumstances that have helped give her writing a hard-edge surrounded by a deep sweetness and vulnerability not found anywhere else.
Irby’s most recent work, We Are Never Meeting In Real Life, is a continued conversation from her first book, Meaty, and her popular blog Bitches Gotta Eat. She tells Powell’s that it is “basically a collection of strung-together swear words that turned out pretty funny. It chronicles the last several years of my life, with bits from the past and a little nod to the future.” Stories involving depression, falling in love with her wife, and living with chronic illnesses in the form of Crohn’s disease and degenerative arthritis don’t necessarily sound like things to laugh at, but Irby turns them into hilariously relatable essays.
When approaching life with a “laugh now, cry later” attitude, what isn’t funny about explosive diarrhea on a date and an adult learning how to have sex with a woman for the first time? We’re not the only ones who love the author’s work. Irby has teamed up with Abbi Jacobsen (Broad City) and Jessi Klein (Inside Amy Schumer) to create an adaptation of Meaty for FX.
With two incredibly successful books and a television show on the horizon, it seemed like the perfect time to talk to Samantha Irby. The two of us play Fuck/Marry/Kill and talk about being fat in industries obsessed with image — and Sam makes us a killer playlist.
How did you settle on “Bitches Gotta Eat" for your blog name? Did you perhaps consider alternative titles such as “Bitches Gotta Shit,” considering your personal experience with Crohn’s disease and extensive poo-related parables?
It’s so funny when talking about all this stuff to think about how little thought went into any of it. I mean, I could have just as easily called it "Butts and Guts" or some other dumb thing, but I landed on "Bitches Gotta Eat" because I had just watched Boyz in the Hood for the 137th time and that’s what popped into my brain as I was first trying to navigate my way around Blogger.
When I started the blog I had no idea the direction I was going to take other than wanting to basically have a thing I could point to when trying to impress someone I wanted to have sex with and say, “Look! I made this thing!!” I’m fat and my teeth are fucked up and I didn’t have any marketable skills I could do with my hands, so my blog is pretty much my way of screaming I AM WORTHY OF YOUR ATTENTION into the void. I spent a lot of time in my 20s hanging out with poets and DJs and visual artists, people whose elevator pitches were clear and succinct, then I’m in the corner like, “oh, um, ahhh, I’m funny? and I write sometimes? but I don’t have a way to prove it to you…?” So then once I started blogging, I could point people to my blog and stand back while waiting for them to fall in love with me.
I think one of the ways my writing has been the most useful is that I am comfortable being honest in a way that some people aren’t, but in reading my stories people feel a kinship that maybe, even for a moment, makes them feel a little bit less alone.
I didn’t have any intention at the outset of writing about my health stuff. I think that came as a natural evolution; I was being so open about everything else that it felt weird not to disclose this giant thing I was dealing with. On some level it was definitely therapeutic to be talking about the hurdles as I was trying to get over them. It also helped, and I know this is going to sound counterintuitive, to navigate the dating (cess)pool, too. Like, here’s all this stuff and I’m not going to hide it and if you think I’m funny that’s great but can you also handle that I might wear a diaper to the movies? My blog does a lot of heavy lifting for me, and getting the trash to take itself out is one of the greatest benefits.
On a more serious note, how has your own experience with chronic illnesses like Crohn’s and degenerative arthritis shaped your writing?
I think one of the ways my writing has been the most useful is that I am comfortable being honest in a way that some people aren’t, but in reading my stories people feel a kinship that maybe, even for a moment, makes them feel a little bit less alone. Once I started to build a readership and people began reaching out to me to tell me what they appreciated about my openness, it dawned on me that, humiliating though it may be to tell a thousand people on the internet that I shit my pants during a date, it was also hella liberating. Moving in secret can feel so exhausting, and I recognize that I’m lucky that I’ve never had to. And hearing my struggles and concerns mirrored back to me by people dealing with the same shit who were relieved that I am out here laughing about it made it that much easier to be public about it.
I mean talking about it does nothing to ease the physical symptoms or lessen the stigma surrounding bowel disease but it has definitely felt freeing in a way I’m not sure I’d otherwise feel. The act of writing itself can sometimes pose a physical challenge, as there are some days when it just doesn’t feel good to be sitting in a chair for extended periods of time, or if my Crohn’s is active and I’m limping back and forth to the bathroom all day that isn’t conducive to getting 10,000 words on the page. But again I think all that stuff only benefits from my being open about it. I did a reading in New York a few years ago and I was late because I had diarrhea and rather than sheepishly slinking into the room making sad apology eyes I walked in and was like, “I’m sorry I am late but I’ve been on the toilet for the last twenty minutes.” And it was all good.
What was different about your process for writing Meaty versus how We Are Never Meeting In Real Life ended up on the page?
Meaty was first released by an indie publisher and the whole process for putting it together was super chill. They gave me a deadline and basically let me do whatever I wanted, which on one hand is cool because I could just let my brain run wild, but on the other I’d never written a book before and had no idea how to put a cohesive collection together or how to professionally edit my work.
Putting together We Are Never Meeting In Real Life was a ride. I had an entire team of people working on the book: my editor, who was totally amazing and teased things out of me that I wouldn’t have dug up otherwise; a crew of copy editors; salespeople; publicists — it was totally a collaborative thing. And while you might think that that would feel stifling? It wasn’t at all. And it was super reassuring to know that so many eyes had gone over the book before it was exposed to criticism. I mean, you gotta watch what you say out here, and I’m not trying to step on toes or alienate anyone cool, so it’s good to know that a handful of people signed off on this thing I’m putting out into the world. I’d much rather be checked on my shit than to put something out that people are like, “Yo, did you even proofread this!?”
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Fuck, Marry, Kill: Forest Whitaker, Idris Elba, and Jon Hamm. Who’s it gonna be?
OMG so FUCK Jon Hamm duhhhh because he’s so hot and gorgeously whiskered and he has that monster penis.
And MARRY Forest because I love him so truly and deeply and I really would totally devote myself to being a decent wife to him despite my aversion to humanitarian work and high-quality cinema.
So then I guess I gotta KILL Idris even though I feel weird about it but I paid real money to see that movie Obsessed in the theater so maybe he actually deserves it?
“Meaty” the television series: when’s that going to happen? How did you connect with Abbi Jacobson and Jessi Klein?
The thing that I’m learning about Hollywood is that shit takes a really long time. At least it does in the developmental stages. Where we’re at: we just finished a second draft of the pilot and are waiting to get notes back from the network. Then I’m not a hundred percent sure what happens next. If they like it I think we go back and polish the script and then hopefully shoot what is clearly the most groundbreaking comedy pilot the universe has ever seen; if they hate it, Rupert Murdoch will show up at my door in the middle of the night and throw me into the mouth of a volcano.
I’m going to make the Abbi + Sam love story as short as possible: I did a show in Chicago called The Paper Machete in October 2013, right after my first book came out. Janeane Garofalo was also on the bill. After the show, once I’d finished breathlessly professing my love for her, I slipped Janeane a couple copies of the book. Fast forward to several months later and I got an email from Abbi saying hi and telling me that she loved that book and that if I was ever in NYC she wanted to connect to talk about an idea. It took me, like, eight months to respond? In addition to my typical flakiness I didn’t register that she was THE Abbi Jacobson, so I thought it was just some weirdo trying to convince me to fly to New York to have coffee with her. Several rounds of this correspondence took place, all at a snail’s pace because I’m shitty at email but also in my defense Abbi never came right out and said LET’S MAKE A SHOW OUT OF YOUR BOOK, until finally we met up for brunch when she came to Chicago and she asked if I was down. And I could be wrong about this but I think Abbi and Jessi were already homies and Abbi thought she’d be a good fit and lucky for us Jessi agreed to sign on. They are the coolest co-workers I’ve ever had.
Underneath the fart and vagina jokes, there are some deeply personal stories about taking care of your mother, who was suffering from MS, while you were growing up. Will those stories also make it onto television?
Yes! The show is going to be set like ten years ago, in my party prime, but I don’t think it’s possible to tell the complete story of my life and how the (often terrible) decisions I currently make can be traced back to how I grew up without including some of that past stuff. We wrote flashbacks into the pilot and I’m sure we’ll call back to some of the stuff in my childhood as it informs my choices as an adult. My parents have been dead for almost twenty years, and at some point I just don’t have anything new to say about it, you know? I also have zero interest in recreating an entire fictionalized version of my childhood; of all the ways my work can be useful, dwelling on shit I remember less and less clearly doesn’t seem like one of them. Plus I want this show to be funny, the kind of thing you can watch more than once, and if it’s a bunch of tragedy porn is anyone really going to? I don’t mind bumming people out a little bit but there’s a thin line between, “wow it’s so sad that happened” and, “damn girl you might want to get therapy.”
We’re both plus-size women. How do you think living in a bigger body has affected your relationship with the rest of the world and your writing?
Well I’ve been made fun of a lot. And rejected. And every other melodramatically tragic thing that happens to fat girls. I have never had a thin body. I was a fat kid, a fat teen, and now a fat adult. There’s a freedom in that; no one has any “before” pictures with which to shame me about “letting my body go” or whatever garbage people use to make others feel like shit. But that also means I’ve only navigated life in this big body. I can assume that thin people have it easier but maybe that isn’t true. I don’t care about the world! I have hyper-specific examples of, let’s say, romantic situations that didn’t go my way and maybe my weight was partly to blame, but skinny people get dumped, too. The most complicated relationship in my life because of my weight is the one I have with myself. I have terrible self-esteem and if there was a patron saint of the body-negative community, there are days when I would definitely be it. I don’t hate my body, but I’m don’t feel comfortable going outside in cap sleeves, either.
Do you plan on centering Meaty the series around a plus-size actress? Do you think that representation of bigger bodies can help other plus-size people out there with how they are perceived by the outside world?
It can’t be a story about me if it’s not a story about a fat person. I mean, it’s called Meaty for a reason. It’s important to me to put a show on TV that’s about a fat person just living a normal life, you know? Like, I’m fat and fat things happen to me (stores don’t carry my size! Trying to accordion myself into the back of a tiny Uber is hilariously humiliating!) but I don’t spend all my waking hours bemoaning my size! I hate these one-dimensional fat characters that get tossed our way every so often. Like, “okay fine, here’s a fat girl, but instead of giving her depth and a rich interior life we’re just gonna have her crying over her Weight Watchers points and drawing hearts on a picture of the football captain every week.” Not all fat women are sexless crones pressed to lose weight. We have friends and we hate our jobs and we go to slasher movies and not all of us can secretly sing. That is what I want to see on television.
From gourmet pickles in Austin to kale in Kalamazoo, your wife is all about some Farmer’s Market Shit. What’s the weirdest or bougiest gourmet vegetable Kirsten has brought home and did she get you to you eat it?
Oh man I don’t know if this qualifies as bougie but for my birthday this year she came home with a beet pie. A sweet beet pie. I fucking hate beets! I definitely have super-bougie tastes (she says while swiping a comically expensive Pat McGrath Golden Shiny Stick across the tip of her nose), but she’s the queen of actually using all those obscure fruits regular people don’t even go near in the produce section. I’m not a savage or anything but I also don’t just have shishito peppers lying around the kitchen just waiting for me to make use of them. If I buy something unconventional you can bet it’s because someone is coming over who I’d like to impress and I’ve already looked up fourteen recipes for how to use it. Kirsten will just buy exotic lettuces and instinctively know how to use them. It’s amazing. I don’t eat many of them, last night she put a bunch of shishito peppers on my plate and no thank you! But I admire her for knowing how best to cook them.
There’s a tremendous amount of raw, untapped talent out there. Whose art are you most excited about right now? Who do you think we should be be reading, watching, and listening to?
As intimidated as I feel by it I’m trying to get into more visual art lately. I always love walking into someone’s space and looking at what they hang on the walls. I just bought a few pieces to hang in my little office space, including some collages by Eugenia Loli (I love her stuff so much) and a few paintings by A’Driane Nieves.
I’m woefully behind on my TV watching, although I am all caught up on Game of Thrones and Power and Insecure. I’m impatiently waiting for The Affair to come back in November, and Billions is back this fall, too? I just watched Ozark on Netflix because I will watch anything Jason Bateman ever does and it was fantastic, and I’ve been meaning to get into Riverdale because so many of my friends are obsessed with it.
I’m really into slow jams slash sad jams. Like, sit alone in your car and cry music. I do all my best writing to heartbreak songs.
I just started writing monthly book recommendations for Marie Claire so I am full to the brim with book recommendations, plus I read a lot on my own and I have a lot of friends who write books too, which is wild. Some recent and about-to-be-released faves:
Little Fires Everywhere Celeste Ng
The Grip of It Jac Jemc
Eat Only When You’re Hungry Lindsay Hunter
My Absolute Darling Gabriel Tallent
The Floating World C Morgan Babst
Red Clocks Leni Zumas
The Wrong Way to Save Your Life Megan Stielstra
The Dark Dark Samantha Hunt
What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky Lesley Nneka Arimah
This Will Be My Undoing Morgan Jerkins
The Talented Ribkins Ladee Hubbard
Listen to excerpts of We Are Never Meeting In Real Life. Hungry for more? Check out Bitches Gotta Eat for hilarious essays. You can purchase We Are Never Meeting In Real Life and Meaty through independent booksellers and Amazon.