Author and humorist Samantha Irby finds herself unexpectedly well-equipped to handle the novel coronavirus crisis. She can write in her adopted home of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Her standard “uniform” is lounge-wear worthy: soft, forgiving tees and sweatshirts. Low-key anxiety keeps her in place and her brain busy; that simultaneous mix of paralysis and (maybe) productivity. Irby has also hit that rare sweet spot where an obsession becomes a handy survival tool; as a self-confessed “hand soap hoarder,” she covets and judges the soap when she visits other people’s bathrooms. (If you have followed Irby’s rise from “Bitches Gotta Eat” blogger to the best-selling author of Meaty and We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, you know that Crohn’s disease means she spends a lot of time in bathrooms and literally talking shit.) In her own home, she stockpiles bottle after bottle of fragrant foam.
So now is her moment, even more so since she’s just released another book of humor essays entitled Wow, No Thank You (Vintage Books, $15). It’s vintage Irby: scatological, ribald, culturally trenchant overthink that might come from a girlfriend if you had one so smart. But it’s a book of adjustments: to living with a ready-made family, making friends as an adult, parting with her uterus, and coupled “lesbian bed death.” I interviewed Irby for Prism, and we talked about aging, her approach to personal hygiene, and reality TV. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Greenlee: Much of your book is about the “before and after” of your club-hopping, actually-wore-pants-with-zippers youth. Do you really feel old at 40-something?
Irby: You know that I’m a sick person. I don’t predict a super long life. And I don’t even mean that in a sad way, but the thought of living to 90 is depressing to me. Other people, you want to live to a hundred, 120 [years old]. Drink infant blood. Stay alive like a vampire. That’s cool. But me, my body is falling apart at 40. I cannot imagine what it would be like 40 years from now. But if it is still moving around, I know it will be terrible.
Greenlee: You sound a little like Jen on Love is Blind, who kept telling us she was 34 years old—and life is downward from there!
Irby: I could not watch that because I just don’t believe in watching hot people fall in love. I can’t. I love to look at a beautiful person. I love to see a beautiful person in a movie. But if I never saw another beautiful person find a beautiful person to fall in love with them, it would be too soon. I want to watch ugly people fall in love. Or fat people fall in love and thrive. I want to follow [their] post-show journey … Like please, please show me that tall muscle dude fell in love with the size 28.
Greenlee: Love might be blind (sometimes!), but reality TV producers are not.
Irby: That’s my sort of hangup with The Bachelor. I hung in there a few episodes. And then I started to feel manipulated by the producer. I get it! I know I’m not watching real life. But, like, we can actually see you all working the puppet strings. Just once I want a season like this: You still have to work your stressful job and we’ll pay for you to go on dates, but those dates are going to be at The Cheesecake Factory. Or then tell me those people fell in love while riding the bus instead of being in a rented convertible. That’s the show I want. Then I will believe the love is real.
Greenlee: You admit to loving hand soap and creams, coveting and buying bougie brands you see in friends’ bathrooms. How are you holding up in this age of very-drying hand sanitizer?
Irby: We have probably 30 bottles of hand soap in the basement. I buy them and then my wife [Kirsten] hides them. And then I think we don’t have any. So I buy more. I am a person who goes to the World Market and it’s like, “Okay, I need six of these.”
Greenlee: It’s nice when your obsessions become useful.
Irby: Don’t think that I haven’t turned to Kirsten and said, “I told you!” I was like, “See, I am not a spendthrift. I’m a visionary.”
Greenlee: Speaking of the coronavirus, what are you doing now that your book tour was canceled?
Irby: Yesterday I was thinking, “Oh, I’m never traveling again. I don’t want to go anywhere.” The thing about writing a book is that you spend the rest of your life selling it. But when it comes out, you have two or three months really being annoying and dealing with people muting your tweets ‘cause they don’t care anymore that you have to sell this damn thing. If things are back to normal in 18 months, I can’t be spending like two years doing this. Yeah. No.
Greenlee: You have a playlist in the book. Is your self-isolation playlist still lingering in the ’90s?
Irby: I have a brand-new playlist. A mid-tempo bop is really where I’m at. But also I’ve been listening to a lot of just straight-up pop music. This might be controversial, but the new Selena Gomez record is very good—and the new Robyn. It’s been out for a while. I’ve been listening to Selena Gomez’s “Dance Again,” that Dua Lipa [song], “In My Dreams.” I like to sway. That Katy Perry record where she’s got “Swish Swish” on it. And my crowning achievement I still go back to is my Spotify playlist that’s got 350 songs: smooth jazz, old soul, yacht rock, disco. It’s got Dan Hartman, Cissy Houston, Anita Baker, Teddy Pendergrass, Maze, [and] The Isley Brothers. I listen to that at least twice a week. But then it also has Tower of Power and Paul Simon. It really is a jam.
Greenlee: Of all the TV judges, why are you writing Judge Mathis reviews for your newsletter?
Irby: The initial appeal was it was taped in Chicago. You could go down there and get free tickets and you spend the whole day and it’s great. But I’m going to say something Freudian here, but he’s very like my dad. I love an old man. I love an old Black man.
Greenlee: Don’t tell me you find him … sexy.
Irby: He’s cute in an “Oh my God, isn’t that the deacon at church? He looks good in his suit” kind of way. I wouldn’t hunt him down, give him my number. But if he walked by on his way to the pulpit, I’d be like, “Okay, I see you in your suit, Greg.”
Greenlee: I know you worked at a vet for a long time. Is that why you always have animals on the cover? Asking for a friend if you’re a rabbit lover.
Irby: Well, I am going to break her heart because let me tell you, I do not get to pick that shit. There are designers and cover people in art departments. They do not ask for my input. Not a collaboration! So when the first book ended up with the cat on it, I was like, “Okay. It fits the brand.”
After we had the cat [on the cover of Meaty,] I asked to change the faces a little bit so that they look mean. If you look closely, the hedgehog is scowling. I told the art people as long as they’re baby animals with an attitude, you could do whatever you want. The bunny is so fat and grumpy looking. I do love it. Though sometimes I think my books look misleading because little kids are always like, “Oh, what’s that?” And I’m like, “Oh, ho, ho! Not for you!” But I think it’s hilarious to have baby animals on a book that’s about diarrhea and sex.
Greenlee: You moved to Kalamazoo to be with your wife and her children, a big transition from living alone and in more urban spaces. What makes Midwesterners unique and funny to you, even as a Midwesterner yourself? I’m thinking about depictions of Midwesterners, like the character Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls.
Irby: I think our niceness and earnestness and groundedness when juxtaposed against [people from other regions] is sort of hilarious. I can’t imagine living in any other place. I mean, I think you recognize a potato person when you see one. There’s a kinship there: We’re nice and we’re passive aggressive. And we will cook, no, bake you some carbohydrates. As in most stereotypes, there’s a grain of truth. And I think there is something a little sinister about, you know, being a doughy flyover-country person, making real meals out of tater tots … You put anything in a 16-by-9 dish and bake it at 350 for however many minutes, I will probably eat it without question.
Greenlee: So it’s not just a joke that you love casseroles? I’m not judging. I’m a food editor, and I love tuna casserole.
Irby: I love tuna casserole. Love it. With the canned cream of mushroom soup. You know, people get fancy and try to make their own. No, no. I want egg noodles. I want cream of mushroom soup. I want canned tuna in oil and I want Ritz crackers crumbled over the top. But my go-to casserole these past years has been, well, I really perfected the shepherd’s pie.
It’s labor-intensive enough that you feel like you have done something, ’cause you know, some casseroles are just like flopping a bunch of things in a bowl, pouring it into a dish and then baking it. But shepherd’s pie: I cook, I chopped many little carrots. I didn’t chop any peas, but I definitely rinsed them after I took them out of the freezer. I have chopped all of the herbs. I peeled and made mashed potatoes.
Greenlee: You actually mashed the potatoes, didn’t do those rehydrated faux mashed potatoes.
Irby: I’m not a monster.