Samantha Irby Shares Two Secrets About How She Does What She Does
In Conversation with Brad Listi on Otherppl
Samantha Irby is the guest. Her new book, Quietly Hostile, is out now from Vintage.
Subscribe and download the episode, wherever you get your podcasts!
From the episode:
Samantha Irby: I have two secrets that I’m going to tell to your audience for how to do what I do.
Brad Listi: I can’t wait.
Samantha Irby: I don’t know if this will help anyone else. First, I always have the ending. Always. I always know. Maybe sometimes even the final sentence is written in my notes, but I know where I’m going. For me, it’s always easier to write to a destination. Or even if I know the end, I can work on the outline backwards and be like, okay, well I want to talk about this thing before that, but then this has to come way before that—and then just piece it together that way. But truly if I don’t have an ending, I can’t write it.
I had started an essay for this collection about starting therapy, because I had started cognitive behavioral therapy a while before I started writing the book. And I couldn’t because I’m not done with therapy. I’m not cured. I didn’t have anything final to say about it. I didn’t have an ending. And I do have like 500 words of the beginning, but I couldn’t land the plane. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, so I pushed that to the side. So that’s one thing that helps me.
And then the other thing, this isn’t really a secret, but my tone is always the same in my head, right? Like, it’s always me writing. I have ways that I say things, you know, bits, the whole thing. But one thing that helps me for it to feel conversational—because that’s how I want it to feel, I do want you to be like, “My old friend Sam! Look at this scamp, she’s so funny.”—I’ll think of one of my best friends and write it as if I’m telling it to them. Like, how would I tell this to Ian? How would I tell this to Jessie? And in my head, I picture them and write to them. That really helps it feel conversational.
Brad Listi: That makes a lot of sense. Something I would add, and you can disagree with me if I’m wrong, is that when I’m reading your work, one of the things that occurred to me—because I was like, How is she so consistently funny? How did she arrive at this voice that feels casual and intimate but also literary? And then when you add it all up and it goes over well. One of the things that occurs to me is, this is not shtick. Like, she means this stuff.
I think that maybe somebody sitting down with the aspiration to write funny might make the error of being like, I’m just going to look for the joke and put on a funny air. The reason I think your work goes over well is that however funny it is, whatever postures you might be falling into or bits that you might be doing, at the heart of the work, you mean it. It’s authentic. It’s not just you looking for a joke, it’s you looking for a joke in the course of authentically exploring how you think and feel.
Samantha Irby: Yes.
Brad Listi: It’s an important distinction, right?
Samantha Irby: Yes. And honestly, this is on my mind ’cause you would not believe how many people ask why I don’t do standup. But what we’re talking about is the reason I don’t do standup. If I feel it and believe it, then I’m going to say it. And I don’t ever want anyone to be like, Oh, is she creating a character? I don’t want that. And you know why? I wish I could be like, Oh, I have a ton of artistic integrity. Which I obviously do. But it’s a trap!
If you’re anyone other than yourself, you can’t meet people, you can’t go on tour, you can’t do an interview, because then it’s just work to keep this persona going. I gotta remember like, what did I say? What do I believe? Hmm, okay, to this person, I hate men. Let me make sure I talk about how much I hate men.
That makes life hard for me. People get uncomfortable with how self-deprecating I am, and I’m always the villain of my own story. At the heart, it’s about how I messed something up or felt something wrong or interpreted something in the worst way. We all know writers who feel like they are on top of a mountain reading their words from a golden scroll handed down by Jesus himself. And it’s like, I was eating Panera when I wrote this. You know what I mean? I’m not going to put on airs! That’s crazy.
Samantha Irby is the bestselling author of the essay collection Quietly Hostile, available from Vintage. Irby’s other books include Meaty, Wow, No Thank You, and We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. She also writes for television, having worked on shows like Shrill, And Just Like That, and Tuca & Bertie. She blogs at Bitches Gotta Eat and lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.