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Interview

Samantha Irby on Her New Book, "Wow, No Thank You"

We sat down with Sam Irby, author of our April book club pick, to talk about adult friendships, book club snacks, and why she's probably staying in tonight.

Originally published on April 2, 2020.


“Sure, sex is fun, but have you ever been fitted for an orthopedic shoe?” That’s one of the questions Samantha Irby poses in Wow, No Thank You that might convince you she’s merely mortal like the rest of us. She continues, “Sure, sex is fun, but have you ever changed out of one cozy shirt into an even cozier shirt?” This woman is a genius.

If you’re staying home right now — and if you can, you should — Samantha Irby’s latest book is sure to help you through it. In her third round of essays, she reminds you that you didn’t really like going out all that much to begin with, even when life was very different three weeks ago. She reminds you there can be joy in sitting at your kitchen table with a Diet Coke at an hour that ends in “A.M.” And she reminds you that it’s okay to reject structure at the moment. It’s worked for her, anyway.

Wow, No Thank You is a promised smile in a time when that sometimes seems unfathomable. It’ll keep you in your seat, or maybe giggling right off it, with complete chapters devoted to how to win your step-kids over with cheeseburger macaroni and all the home repairs nobody tells you about before you buy a whole damn house in Kalamazoo.

Samantha finds hilarity in the mundane, and levity even in what’s painful. It’s her superpower in the craft of making you feel seen, and it’s why we need her more than ever right now. If you’ve read her past books, you know that she’s no stranger to chaos, to grief, and to wading through complex emotions with a wry wit. She’s learned to grow success — and humor — from hardship, and she’ll teach you a masterclass in it just when you need it most.

On the evening of our chat — a week and a half into a March that lasted 97 years — I thanked her for writing this book. The feeling of everything about to come was palpable, the magnitude of it all growing heavier by the minute. I thanked her for giving us the type of laugh that can only come from shared experience — the type of chuckle that says, “Hey, that same thing happens to me, too.”

“As a joke person, that’s all I really want — to make your day better, especially when it feels like everything sucks,” she said. Well then, mission accomplished.

Congrats on book number three! How has your relationship with writing changed as your life has changed these past few years?

It’s a little more difficult — let’s say difficult in quotes, though — because I feel like my life is less interesting than it used to be. When I was going out all the time, and living in a busy place with a lot of people, there was more to write about. Now I’m like, “Do they even want to know what I’m thinking about while sitting around this raggedy house?”

Good news: we do!

When I was working on the book, I kept wondering if anyone would care about what was in it, but I’m pretty good at making things funny — even when they aren’t, so at least there was that. The biggest material-related change is that I was a little worried about whether I was boring. These days, I have to be more judicious about the stories I tell in my on my blog. If something funny happens, I might have to save it for a book because there’s a real possibility that nothing else funny or exciting will happen.

The biggest process-related change has been trying to find space to write where everyone will leave me the f*ck alone. Now I live with other people who don’t always respect my noise-canceling headphones. I feel like multiple times a day, someone is standing in front of me doing the international sign for, “Hey can you take your headphones off?” So now I do a lot more of my writing in the middle of the night, which is new for me. I used to be an “I’m in bed by 11:30 kind of girl, and now I find myself pulling my computer out at ten and working until three in the morning. That’s a major change.

So you’re saying there’s hope for the rest of us that we might one day be able to stay up past 10 again?

The gift that perimenopause has given me is that I don’t sleep as much as I used to, so now I can be up when no one is making noise and I can actually get some sh*t done.

I loved the chapter of the book called “Girls Gone Mild” — about that moment when you realize you just can’t hang like you used to. I was wondering if you have advice for people stepping into that life moment. (I think most people reading this probably are!)

My strategy with most things is to lean in and find the nugget of positivity.

Maybe I can’t party anymore, but I’m also never going to get vomited on and I’ll never lose my bag in another club.

To avoid missing that past life, you have to remember whatever it is you hate about going out, and lean into that — whether it’s I’m too old, I need a f*cking chair, my knees hurt, or I hate waiting in line for the bathroom. You have to reframe it so instead of feeling bad about it, you feel good about how much you’re going to save on Ubers or about the fact that you’ll never have to figure out what to do with your coat in the club again. That is a dream!

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I love that you start the book with commentary on all the coverage out there on “aspirational routines.” Why do you think people are so interested in that type of content and should we be focusing on something else instead?

Oh, I read them, I memorize them, I look up the hand creams featured in them to see if I too can have as happy of a life as this person if I purchase some.

We're told the idea of a routine (and being able to stick to one) is the way to feel like a good, productive person.

The idea of a routine has come to symbolize getting your life together. And I don’t want [the profiles] to stop — I just want those of us who read them to take it easy on ourselves and acknowledge that it’s usually not a person with the same stresses and lack of finances as the rest of us.

In my personal life, I’m usually choking down Advil, but that’s not the type of thing that makes the aspirational routine story. The amount of time it takes to shave your chin whiskers doesn’t make the story either. But the chin whiskers exist and you shouldn’t feel bad about that! I do believe that maybe there’s a tier of person that isn’t as gross as the rest of us. They live in a stark white apartment and use La Mer and dig into it like they can really afford it. That’s not me, but I do want to read about that person. I just also think we need to look at each other and acknowledge that’s not always us, and that’s okay.

Yeah, the thing I always try to think about when reading about someone with an aspirational profile is who is doing that person’s laundry. And if it isn’t them, that’s okay — but that’s a good time for me to acknowledge that that person and I have different lifestyles.

Exactly! I love influencer sh*t. I love their flat lay. I love to see their closets and how they pack, but for me, I also need the end of that sentence to be, “But here’s the stuff I didn’t tell you.” In my mind, I take a minute to think about whether this person’s parents are really wealthy, or if they have a staff to help out. Maybe someone else is cooking their meals. That’s what I have to do to keep my sanity because comparison can really be the thief of joy. It’s important to think about the things not making it into the story, and it’s important to remember you don’t have to have that life, even if it’s fun to look at.

In the book, you also discuss how difficult it can be to make friends as an adult. I found that so relatable and I think others will too. Why do you think it’s so hard? How do we get better at it?

It’s an awkward thing to pursue someone for friendship! It’s almost romantic. You have to chase them — and then there’s the work you have to do once you’ve caught their attention to convince them to do the work required to become close. It’s a lot! I’m still close with people I went to high school and college with, and I think about all the years of intimacy we’ve built up. How do you build that with someone in a short amount of time while your adult lives are happening and nobody has time?

My dilemma is that I’m not often in situations where establishing a friendship feels accessible. Right now I’m working on a show and I feel close to the people I’m working with because we’re in the same room every day. But what about when that built-it interaction isn’t there, and I’m just at home? Where are we supposed to go to find people we want to hang out with and how do I convince them I’m not a creep? It takes you right back to the eighth grade because it’s that vulnerable.

The rejection that could come from a potential friend is almost worse than a romantic partner. With romance, you can chalk it up to that person being an idiot. But when you’re wooing a friend who you think is some sort of soulmate, you really start to think there’s something wrong with you if you can’t win them over!

Exactly. With a romantic partner, you go in with the assumption that the person is only looking for one person — or maybe to date a few people at a time. So, if you don’t make the cut, at least the window was small. With friends, you really start to internalize it when you don’t make it into someone’s top 10, 25, or 30.

It’s devastating!! If you miss one romantic partner, it’s like okay well they were looking for one specific person; but people are supposed to want tons of friends!! If they reject your friendship, you can’t blame it on fate or circumstance. It’s such a big risk.

In your book, you talk about moving from Chicago, a big city, out to Kalamazoo, Michigan, which is much smaller. You also talk about the lifestyle shift of moving to a whole house you have to manage. I think a lot of people reading this might be on the cusp of that life moment — do you have any advice for them?

My advice is to try to keep the bigger picture in mind. And what I mean by that is that I often have to remind myself of the “why” behind these shifts. If you make a big life change, and then something goes slightly wrong, it’s easy to be like, “What the f*ck did I do? Was this a huge mistake? I don’t have any friends! I don’t know how to take care of a house! I miss this or that. There’s no Thai food here!” But whatever the problem is, you have to remember what you did it for. In my case it’s because I love this person, and I wanted to make this change in my career, etc. You have to give yourself a goal post or marker. Remind yourself that because you made these changes, you’ll be able to free up expenses that will help you achieve the next thing you’re aiming for.

One of my mantras is, “If I do this now, I’ll never have to do it again.” So if I make this move, I just need to do it, and it’s done, and it’s over. If you just do it, then it’s done. I would say always keep your motivation — whatever it may be — at the forefront of your mind.

A memory I want to share with you is that after watching season 1 of Shrill, I went down an internet black hole to find out everything I could about the show. That’s when I realized you wrote the pool party episode — which comes up among my friends and I all the time as an outstanding, inclusive TV moment. It meant so much to us. What was it like to work on Shrill, and how was it different than your book-writing experiences?

Writing for any show is so different than writing a book. When you’re writing a book, it’s all on you. It’s what you want to say, and you don’t need to have any immediate feedback. You don’t need to consider a million opinions upfront.

When writing on a show, you get input from everyone. Everyone has experiences and opinions and anecdotes — they’re chipping in on the jokes, and it becomes very collaborative. There’s a group vibe, but it can be a little intimidating because it never feels great to offer an idea to other people that they may dislike.

Lindy [West], the author of Shrill,and I are super close friends — we’ve known each other a long time, and I’m a big fan of hers. I think the most important thing to me was, at least with that episode, that it was something that would make her proud and would resonate with both of our audiences (which I think overlap). I didn’t want anyone who reads my stuff to watch that episode and feel it didn’t honor them. In writing that episode, it was really important to me to think about our audiences and to think about what people wanted to see from us.

After reading your first two books, a lot of people are really looking forward to hearing your voice again in Wow, No Thank You. What do you want people to take away from this book that’s different from the others?

My goal always is to give people a little levity, a chuckle, a moment of, “Hey, this person is going through the same dumb sh*t I’m going through.” I want to make them feel less alone.

I always want people to feel like they are not the only one. In this book, I still feel like a stunted adolescent at times. I’m 40 years old but this is a whole book full of things I don’t know, things I can’t handle, and ways in which I don’t feel secure. The difference between this and the other books is that I’m getting older and I still don’t know everything — and that’s okay.

Culturally, people think hitting certain milestones means you should have X by a certain age. For years, I kept waiting for the age where things snapped into place and I’d feel like I knew something and like I was a real adult — and now I’m 40, an age when people think you should have it figured out, and I don’t.

I just want people to know there’s a person out there that’s this old and still doesn’t know sh*t! I think, for a while I fixated on the age 27 as the age I was finally going to know something, but NOPE. That wasn’t true.

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QUICK PICKS

What are you reading at the moment or hoping to read soon?

I just got an early copy of Luster by Raven Leilani, which is coming out in August. A book that’s out now that I just got that I’m really excited about is New Waves by Kevin Nguyen. I went out to the indie bookstore and got my own copy and I am just so looking forward to it.

What are you watching right now?

I’m watching The Outsider on HBO. I read the book when it came out — I’m a Stephen King person and I love Jason Bateman. That show is so good and creepy.

What’s the best book club book that you’ve read and what book club snacks do you prefer?

The best recent book club book I’ve read — and I judge that on the voraciousness of the arguments during it — is Fleishman is in Trouble. I loved it but, wow, people had opinions on that book! We had a rowdy discussion about that one, which was great. And then my favorite book club snack is a dip. I always want a cheese- or cream-based dip — or even a veggie dip! I will eat any kind of dip.

What’s your ideal way to spend a night in?

I’ve started to night shower recently. I’ll still shower in the morning, but if I want to start a good night, I’ll shower with some good-smelling products from Lush. I’ll really do it up. I’ll get in my jammies. I am meant to stay home. I love watching stuff on my iPad or reading books on it. I really just love having something [I can watch of read] right in my lap for a perfect night in. And then I’m eating something delicious and smelling good — just like your grandmother would spend a night in.

And your favorite way to spend time with friends and loved ones?

My friends are food and restaurant people. We’re big orderers. Going to a place I really love, settling in, spending a few hours ordering and gossiping with my favorite people — I love that. I can’t be friends with people who aren’t food people. I won’t shame you, but also you probably won’t kick it with me if you’re not hungry.

What advice would you give your younger self, maybe the self you wrote about in Meaty?

Just don’t worry about it. I spent a lot of time worrying about things I couldn’t change and that’s just not helpful for anyone. Ride the wave. Getting stressed out about things that are beyond your control is the easiest trap.

Images by Eva Blue.