In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.
Samantha Irby, the bestselling author of the essay collections Meaty and We Are Never Meeting In Real Life., is usually celebrated for her candor and incisive humor. The founder of Bitches Gotta Eat sends up her own shortcomings with the same ease that she writes a withering deconstruction of social norms. So who would have thought that, when The A.V. Club posed this year’s all-new 11 Questions earlier this month, Irby would take a stand on niceness (she’s pro). There were a few other surprises throughout the conversation, but Irby’s professed love of Sarah MacLachlan and other people’s love for Halloween costumes will be familiar to readers of her work.
Irby touches on several of the same subjects in her third book, Wow, No Thank You., which is packed with personal revelations, pop culture-inspired reflections, and even some inspired advice. The collection is out on March 31, but you just have to scroll down below to get Irby’s insights on Chicago machine politics, crop circles, and the importance of knowing when you’ll die.
Samantha Irby: Oh, man, it would probably like a vanilla cookie kind of a situation. You know how in Clueless Cher wanted to bake cookies so the house would smell like cookies? I subscribe to that same belief, where, if it just smells like you baked, then people are, like, “Oh, what a nice house!” So, yes, some sort of cookie variety.
The A.V. Club: That’s what realtors do, right?
SI: Yes! So you walk into every staged house, and you’re like, “Oh, was someone’s grandmother just here whipping up a pie?” [Laughs.]
SI: This is so hard—honestly, it would be, like, 40 different ones—but the first one that came to my mind was Fumbling Towards Ecstasy by Sarah MacLachlan. I know, it’s not the coolest thing I could pick. I listened to a lot of alternative and shit, but that record I know forward, backward, all the ways.
But you know what? I’m not going to play myself. That’s a zero skip record; every track is good. “Possession,” “Elsewhere”… What’s the one where her man is dying? “Now You’re Sleeping Peaceful.” [Laughs.] A depressing song that’s also extremely good.
AVC: Do you remember going and picking it up? I feel like we’re from a generation where physical media was still a thing.
SI: I definitely had it on cassette. There was one summer I had to do summer school because I had flunked some classes and I needed to make them up, and I just had a very vivid memory of walking to and from the bus, blasting that album and singing it to myself in true sad girl fashion. [Laughs.]
SI: The one that’s the most plausible… Maybe that aliens are real and did the crop circles? Is that even a conspiracy, or have we decided that that actually happened?
AVC: I think that’s still a conspiracy theory, because there are a lot of people who still think they’re just hoaxes, that people are just making them.
SI: I’m willing to believe that aliens did that shit. I don’t know what else—I mean, I feel like a dude did walk on the moon. I mean, that feels real. [Laughs.] That feels real. So, yeah, I’m going to say aliens. Specifically, aliens making crop circles.
SI: Well, this is very specific. In 2001, I was working for this guy named John Schmidt, who was a number-three guy in the Justice Department under Janet Reno. It was Janet Reno, some other dude, and then John Schmidt. And he ran for Illinois Attorney General against Lisa Madigan, who, at the time… she had only been a lawyer for two years, but, you know, her father runs the Chicago machine, and we lost that election. And this dude was extremely qualified.
I got the job on a fluke. I had applied to work at some clothing store on Clark Street in Andersonville, and I needed more hours than they were offering, and so I didn’t get the job. But then three days later, this woman Phyllis, who owned the place, called me and was, like, “Hey, my husband is working for a political campaign, you should go work for him. He’ll hire you on the spot.” And I was, like, “Hmmm, I’m dumb and I don’t know anything about politics.” And she goes, “That’s okay, he’ll teach you.” So I got this job, I had to buy clothes that were appropriate to work downtown, and I worked for this guy John Schmidt, and I learned way more than I ever expected to about Illinois politics. And I was passionate about him, he was so smart, he knew so much, he worked in the Clinton Justice Department for so long. And we lost to this young woman who had the Illinois machine behind her, and I was, like, “Oh, everything’s a sham.” [Laughs.] This guy is more qualified than 10 Lisa Madigans and we still lost. Everything is fixed.
AVC: It’s somehow worse when you’ve really thrown yourself into it—like, you’ve let yourself believe that things could be different.
SI: Oh, my gosh, I was knocking doors, getting signatures, canvassing, doing all that—stuff that it’s not in my nature to do. [Laughs.] Even though I was 21 at the time, I was still, like, “Oh, no, knock doors and talk to people? That’s nuts!” But I did it because I had to for the job, and I got into it—I learned about his platform and what he wanted to do. And especially now—looking back at this rich white guy who happens to be a Democrat [Laughs.] and wanted to do good things in the world like a fucking unicorn… I didn’t even know then how rare that was.
But then the fact that he could have so many credentials and we still lost. I think everyone else who was seasoned politically knew what was coming, but I totally didn’t. I took it so hard. I couldn’t believe that this guy with mountains of experience, who had Bill Clinton and Janet Reno endorsing him, somehow lost to this new person. It was crushing. That was like a front row seat to how shit really—we’re in an election year, so I don’t want to say it doesn’t matter—but then it felt like it just didn’t matter.
SI: I want to say I would call my sister, but I don’t trust them. Honestly, my answer’s going to sound cynical. I would call my old boss Jim at the animal hospital where I worked in Evanston for 14 years. Because you have to call somebody who has money. [Laughs.] Because the stuff you need to bury a body or hide a body usually costs money, and I need to know I’m calling someone whose card won’t get declined.
I worked for him so long, he’s like my dad. So he would have that dad loyalty, but also, he’d be, like, “This Visa has lots of room on it. What do we have to buy?” [Laughs.] And then he’d be, like, “We’ll sort it out. We’ll go to church after to figure out how to get absolved, but, in the meantime, how much lye do you need me to buy? And what kind of truck should I rent?”
AVC: You’re a big fan of crime procedurals and podcasts. Do you think that has prepared you for that kind of scenario at all?
SI: I was a hardcore fan—I guess I still am, because I own several seasons on DVD of that show CSI. But I think the thing I learned from that show is that I am not careful enough to not get caught. Like, they really can extract your DNA; I don’t know that I’d be careful enough to not shed my nose hairs all over a crime scene. You know what I mean? It would be something extremely foolish. They’d be, like, “Yeah, so you wiped down this, but you left a full handprint on this other thing. Go to jail forever.” I could only commit a serious crime if it was worth spending the rest of my life in jail because I definitely would be caught.
SI: I went one year as Rainbow Brite. But I did not have a creative costume. It was definitely just, like, the mask that goes over your face and the little plastic dress.
AVC: The smock!
SI: Yes, with those little ties on the side? [Laughs.] I definitely had a Rainbow Brite—but my favorite thing about the costume was I’m pretty sure—you know how she had that side pony[tail]? It had, like, a fake blonde plastic molded side pony sticking off the face and I loved that costume so much. So much. Even as I wore it over my coat and my regular shoes. My mom definitely wasn’t going to get me rainbow socks to wear one night out of the year. [Laughs.]
One year, my mom was, like, “Here’s a bathrobe and a satin bonnet: you are a housewife.” I see kids—I’m not even jealous. I’m so grateful there are children who get to have better experiences than I did. I see kids in these elaborate costumes and I’m, like, “Oh, man, your mom really loved you. [Laughs.] My mom handed me a spatula and told me I was a housewife. Your parents care. You don’t even know how much your mom loves you. She really loves you.”
SI: I’m just cycling through the warm places in my mind—probably San Diego. And I know that I am a traitor to the Midwest by saying that, but as I’ve gotten older, my body and emotionally—maybe even more than physically—the sun going down at four and it being bone-chilling cold… I just don’t think I can die like this. And San Diego’s less desert-like and full of starlets than Los Angeles and they have amazing rolled tacos and other food, so San Diego would probably be it.
I was born in February in Evanston; I am a cold weather baby. But, lately, I just have layers of clothes on all the time. I’m, like, “I can’t. This is untenable. I can’t live the rest of my creaky old life like this.” It’s too much.
SI: Okay. If I’m keeping it really real, it’s from watching late-night Cinemax on Friday nights—they used to have Fridays After Dark. They used to show Emmanuelle movies all the time. So, watching soft-core French porn on Skinemax. [Laughs.]
I’m sure, theoretically, I knew, like, sperm connects with egg and all that. But seeing what that looked like, how you get your sperm to touch that egg [Laughs.] was definitely courtesy of Cinemax.
AVC: Do you think that kind of warped your perception of how sex goes down because of all the soft lighting?
SI: You know how men get their brains warped by porn, because women are just faking orgasms and whatever all the time and they don’t think about the work they have to do—it’s not realistic. For me, I did not think sex was going to be as awkward and gross—I thought it was going to be smooth and softly lit and romantic. Like, every time I would get rabbit-fucked by some drunk moron [Laughs.]—it was definitely a crash landing down to earth. And I was, like, “Oh, no, sex is for real like this. Okay. There is no caressing.” There was no caressing in my early sexual experiences. And I was, like, “Oh, I have been lied to. Why isn’t anyone cupping my chin?” Where’s my chin cup?
SI: Oh my god, I have so many petty grievances. You know, I really fucking hate bad manners, like when people don’t say hi back. Those little things that, if someone does them, maybe you don’t even notice, right? But when they don’t do them—like if someone lets the door fall on you, or you give somebody the courtesy hello and they sneer at you? That kind of little shit, I just am, like, “Who taught you to be like that? Why not just say hello?” If we’re trapped in an elevator, and I say, “Good morning,” you don’t have to interview me about my day, but you could be, like, “Hey, have a good one.” The little kindnesses that don’t mean anything but also mean a lot. I hate when people don’t do those.
AVC: People from coastal cities tell me they either perceive Midwesternness as fake niceness, or they just don’t have the time for it. I’m not sure that when people say, “Hey, how are you?” they really want to you to stop and tell them how you’re doing. It’s just a greeting.
SI: Is there something wrong—and maybe this is the real hill—is there something wrong with fake niceness? Who does it hurt? Now listen, if someone’s, like [Laughs.] ruining your life or whatever… if some bitch at work is stealing your promotion, you don’t have to get all saccharine in her face and pretend you care about how her kid is doing. But the general, the little niceties, the “Hey, how are you?”, the “Hey, I’m going to stick my hand in the elevator so it doesn’t close on you”—who does that hurt? Life is so hard and bad—being on earth is so terrible sometimes. Truly, who does it hurt for you to just let someone into the lane in front of you or any of these tiny kindnesses that do make a difference to the person you’re doing it to, or doing it for? You catch that door while I’ve got two bags of groceries, I’m very grateful that you did that and I appreciate you. Listen, I’m not going to write you a poem, but I will smile gratefully and say thank you. It’s that kind of little shit—and maybe this is proving my true Midwesternness, which I own: I am Midwestern through and through. But why not do that?
SI: Television, 100 percent. I think I could get into almost any show if there are enough of them in a row. I will watch anything, especially if it’s a series, I can get into it and get into the characters. But TV is my ride or die. I tend to learn things from podcasts—even though I don’t listen to a whole lot of smart ones—but TV is my, “Oh, I’m going to eat this pizza, and this ice cream, and watch six episodes of this thing and feel better.”
SI: Yes, and I would start crossing shit off my list. I would want to know to stop counting calories—I don’t even count calories, but… I would want to just stop giving a shit, start telling people the truth. Seeing anything I wanted to see. I would want to know when to do all that stuff. If we could take it a step further, I would also like to know how I was going to die. So, if it’s possible to be prepared for it, I’d like to be prepared.
If I could get a say in how I was going to die—I don’t want to be greedy, but yeah, I would love to know. I mean, I have this constant anxiety—I go to the movies, and I’m, like, “What if I have a heart attack and die in this theater? How will they get me out? Who will notice?” You know? I have that kind of low-level thrum of, “Is today the day I’m going to die?” It would be a big relief to know. Also—this is a really gross part of my personality—but I would love to be able to tell people when it is so they could be so sweet to me. [Laughs.] It’s like telling somebody when your birthday is. Just so they’re nice to you, like, “Oh, my god, I’m so glad you were born.” I really want to be alive when people are doing their tributes and telling me how they’re secretly in love with me and stuff. I want to know all that. [Laughs.]
AVC: Now, without knowing who it is, what would you like to ask the next person?
SI: if you could undo one decision you’ve made in your life, what would it be? That’s the kind of thing where I have, like, seven answers and I don’t know which one I’d pick. People are really going to have to think. Because we decide so many things.