Megan Stielstra's essays are ostensibly about herself: she's always the main character and narrator. But Stielstra's work is just as much about the people she loves and admires; you can tell just as much about her through what she says about others as she does about herself.
Over Fourth of July weekend, Stielstra went to Kalamazoo, Michigan, to visit her friend and fellow essayist Samantha Irby. Stielstra and Irby first met while performing in Chicago's live-lit scene and have seen their careers develop almost simultaneously. Their first collections of personal essays, Irby's Meaty and Stielstra's Once I Was Cool, were published by Curbside Splendor in fall 2013 and spring 2014, respectively, and won acclaim from readers and critics for the way the authors wrote about their real lives and attendant disasters (sexual, financial, intestinal) with frankness and humor.
Their second essay collections are also being released in close proximity to each other—but this time with national publishers, and all the book tours and press coverage that implies. Irby's We Are Never Meeting in Real Life (Vintage) came out in May to near-universal praise and a spot on the New York Times best-seller list. Stielstra's The Wrong Way to Save Your Life (Harper Perennial) is out August 1; early reviews have advised that it's worth waiting for.
Between books, a number of things have changed in their lives. Irby went from living in Rogers Park, working as a receptionist in an animal hospital, and dating men to marrying a woman, Kirsten Jennings (known in her essays as Mavis), and moving with her to Kalamazoo. She's also been spending time in LA, where she's working with Abbi Jacobson of Broad City and Jessi Klein, head writer of Inside Amy Schumer, on developing Meaty into a TV series for FX. Stielstra's life changes have been less dramatic—she still lives with her husband, Christopher Jobson, and nine-year-old son, Caleb, but in an apartment near the beach in Rogers Park, and she still teaches, but at Northwestern instead of Columbia College—and she now also writes op-eds for the New York Times. (A nasty reader comment on one of them inspired the title of her new book.)
Stielstra and Irby called in from Kalamazoo to let us eavesdrop on their conversation about publishing and writing and how they're not at all the same, about where life and storytelling overlap.
Megan Stielstra: We're in Samantha's dining room in Michigan, which feels so incredible because, um, you have a dining room.
Samantha Irby: I know! I never before have lived in a place where I could invite people inside and actually have chairs for them to sit on, so this is a new experience for me. It really just means there's more space you have to clean before people come over.
All I can see is space and green and grass, and there's a garden here, and there are flowers and there are all of these beautiful lovely things all over the place . . .
I don't have anything to do with any that. But it's beautiful to look at. I have never cultivated a green thumb, so living in a place where there's, like, grass that has to be watered and cut . . .
But you have a dude.
Yeah. I like to refer to him online as our husband. I don't know how he would feel about that distinction. But he's an amazing dude. He's this big black dude who now has like a beard. I think he's got little twists or dreads. He wears a giant camouflage cape, and he looks like a superhero, like working out there. So a few weeks ago he was here doing some work in the garden and he was hacking away at some overgrowth near the garden, but he was using his truck as a radio. He had all the windows down and he was blasting music and I was like, "What is he listening to?" So at first I was like, "Is this a new hip-hop record I haven't heard?" And then I was like, "Well, maybe it's some old-school dusties, you know some old throwback." And then I open the door and he was poppin' like, what's her name? The country singer? Carrie Underwood?
He was singing along and using a chainsaw and he's like the most perfect dude. I mean, I can't be involved with anything that's not at least marginally funny, so if I have to live here—I shouldn't say it like that, if I have to live in this hellhole—If I have to live here, I need some hysterical elements, and Anthony is one of them. My favorite thing is that twice he's been here at dinnertime, and the first time I had made like this sausage and kale and white bean stew that was very delicious—but I don't know that that was Anthony's idea of delicious meal. But we made him take some, and then the next time he was here, Kirsten had made some beet-marinated chicken that she was cooking on the grill, and all these—you know, I am not a vegetable person.
I'm shocked by that.
It's shocking, I know. I bought, like, the variety of hot dogs, but I don't give a shit about what a rutabaga is, and she grilled them, and we made him a plate. He was very gracious about taking the plate but I was like, "Is he really gonna eat that?" We'll never know. But I would love to know what he secretly says to people about us. Because to us he's a superhero, right? And we feed him our weird food and giggle while we watch him working in the yard, and I wonder if he goes home and he's like, "Uhhh, I had to go those lesbians' house today." I don't think so, because he's awesome, but I would just like to know what he secretly tells people. "They gave me some more of their food." We'll never know.
Because you're never gonna ask him?
No! No, he did ask me, though . . . he wants to start a community business, where he would have his fellow business owners set aside 10 percent of their income every month and keep it somewhere and then invest in property and then split those properties. And I was like, "You know, I only went to high school, right? You know I can't write a business plan." And he's like, "Well, you wrote a book." And I was like, "Well, touche, touche, Anthony, I did write a book." And he's like, "You should help me write this." So, we'll see.
You have to write the business plan, or if not the business plan at least the essay. Like whenever I sit across from you and I listen to you, I feel like you're writing an essay as you talk it out loud.
I feel like we're gonna transcribe this interview and it's just gonna be the first page of a piece in the next book.
Yeah, I don't know if I wanna share Anthony with the world. He's my little secret. Well, now the Reader's little secret.
But you talk about him on social media a little bit.
So how do you decide what you put on social media, or what turns into an essay, or what's just something you tell out loud?
Well, this is the conundrum currently, being one of the last few people on earth with a fucking blog. It's like, what goes on the stupid thing I write for free and make no money off of, versus what do I save to potentially go in a book? My agent wanted two months ago for me to start thinking about doing another book. And I'm like, "Damn, already?" And he's like, "Well, listen, you took too long with the second one."
How long did it take you to write the second one?
It took, like, two years.
You had some other stuff going on, though.
Yeah, I did, but you know they don't care about that, right? It is nice to have lots of things happening, except that person A that you have a thing happening with does not give a shit about your deadline for person B, and person B, even though they know they've been bumped to second, really doesn't give a shit about this thing you decided to do with person C, who you probably shouldn't have started doing a thing with anyway.
Thanks for the breakdown.
Yeah. It's cool to have so many things going right. Like, I have a book and I have my dumb blog, and then I'm writing book reviews for Marie Claire, and then I'm working on this TV show. I'm like, none of those people care about the deadlines for the other people—as they shouldn't. The person I usually leave by the wayside is myself, right? I haven't written my blog in forever, and my thing I need to get together for the next book pitch I haven't even started thinking about.
Can we do that right now?
I have a potential title but I don't want to say it. One, because I'm worried someone steals it; but two, I don't know if this happens to you, but the book that I just put out does not have the title that I wanted or that I originally thought it should have. I wanted to call it Everything Is Garbage, which is still true.
What's the word when you're psychic? Prescient?
Prescient? No, is that it? This interview's gonna be called "Two dumb dummies who are dumb." Now they know how much I rely on thesaurus.com.
Well, it just seems to me like printing a book called Everything Is Garbage prior to November 2016 was just incredibly profound.
Yeah. I don't think they thought people would buy it, and maybe not. And I can't really say shit because people did buy We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, so . . .
I think you could have called that book like, I don't know, the symbol of Prince, not even a name, and we all would have bought it.
There are many differences between a small press and a large press, and one of them is there is a team of people who get a vote on everything. Which on the one hand is like, "all right, this is dope," right? Because the chance that I am going to embarrass myself on a national scale are decreased greatly by having to run this past an editor, copy editor, a lawyer, a style person, a marketing person. There are all these people that have to look at it and give it the OK before it hits the streets. And then it's like, "Phew, I wouldn't have caught all that. I wouldn't have caught this part. I definitely would have gotten sued about this thing." You know so, like, it's good.
But on the other hand, I have to learn that I cannot get married to my ideas. Things that I feel pretty confident about, over this process, I sort of turned everything in with a question mark like, "Here's this thing I wrote? I think this should go in the book?" Where before it was like, "Here, take all this trash, put it together." One of the pieces in the first book I turned in two days before it went to print. So I told that story at a meeting and I could feel them all having a collective heart attack. I felt so strongly about that title, but I learned quickly that . . . I'm a person who can see that I do not have a marketing degree, I have not worked in publishing. I always defer to the experts. I know I shouldn't say it was a hard lesson, but I learned very early on that unless I really wanted to fight about it, I should kind of have a relaxed attitude about what I wanted.
I think a lot of it comes, too, from how we were making work for so long in Chicago. You know, you're doing these live shows—and I know both of our work started with a lot of that—and sometimes you're writing it the day before or the hour before, but you don't have to worry then about, I don't know, my dad in Alaska or my ex in New York or my kid 25 years in the future reading it, because it just exists in this moment with this audience.
Yeah. I think for me—probably for you, too—I definitely just write things with the punch line in mind, or where it landed with the audience in mind, and you can't write for a book like that. You have to have a point, and you gotta get to it, and you gotta support it. I also had the benefit of fixing it onstage. This didn't hit as well as I thought it would, so now I'm gonna say a little extra or give a little context, or insert a completely different story, off the cuff, in the middle of this story.
Well, because you can tell when you're on the mike, the audience is right there, and if you're in the middle of it and somebody gets out and checks their phone, whether or not they're a dick is irrelevant. The point is, I watched that, so how does that affect how I need to go back in?
That for me is the hardest thing about writing these books now, that I don't get to see how it plays and sticks it for the next time. I don't see which passage drags, or there's no way to stop mid-essay and confront someone who looks like they're not into it and say, "What would you like, sir? Should I curse less? Should I curse more? Should I get louder?" You just have to trust. And I really like to change everything all the time. I don't read my things after they're done anymore because I'll just keep changing them. I will finish something and then not turn it in for a week even though my editor's like, "Give it to me!" Because I need a lot of time just to read it out loud and change. When live lit became a big thing [a Chicago audience] sort of knew that's how it worked, that they might hear the same story in a different way, or that their laughter sort of drives the piece. And on the page, you just gotta trust that's your best thing. I'm immediately embarrassed by everything I've ever written.
That's been the hardest thing for me with this process with working with a larger publisher, is the wait from filing the final manuscript to when it finally hits shelves. My book isn't out for another month yet, and so I . . .
Are you already over it? I'm already over this one, like this is old.
Well, I turned it in November 1, and so I just started doing interviews, and I don't even remember what I said.
People will quote specific things at me and just sort of wait for me to say something, and I'm like, "Did I write—is that mine?"
Then they're like, "Oh, you don't even know your own writing?" and I'm like, "Yeah, no, I don't remember every line I've ever written." You know, it sounds like something I've written, but then I feel like I read other people's stuff and I'm like, "Did she steal that from me?" And like, no, she didn't, but I don't remember things I've written.
Which is great, their books are great, it makes me feel good that I can sort of craft similar sentences, but also just, "Yeah, I don't know my own stuff, huh?" Like once I'm done with it, I'm done. And you're about to go through that too, where people are like, "on page 73 you said," and then you're like, "I did?"
It already happened. My dad called me after I sent him a galley.
Oh, I do not have this particular torture in life.
I'm really lucky in that he and I have a really great relationship, so his opinion really matters to me. And the first thing he said was, "Is there still time to change things?" And I was like, "Fuck, what did I do? What did I do?" And I'm like, already I went too hard at something or I brought up some kind of memory that was difficult for him, and he's been 100 percent supportive of my work, so this is just a huge thing. And he said, "Well, on page 40 you have me carrying the wrong gun. That is not the kind of gun that I would've used on a sheep hunt, I would've used it in a blah blah blah." And then we had this whole conversation about the details being important.
One way to think about it was if I was writing this in fiction—if I was writing a fictional piece from the point of view of a hunter—that detail would really matter to me. But this is from my point of view, which is a woman who lives in the city of Chicago and never hunts imagining her father on a mountain hunting, and the situation under which I was imagining him was during a school shooting, so there was a lot of duress and so I wouldn't have had the details right. So I called him back and I was like, "Look, I will change that gun, because I wrote this essay about how much I love you and don't want you to read it and wince every time you get to it. But I am right. I am right because I am being true to my memory of it."
I feel like I have an unspoken pact with most of the people in my life who end up in my work that like, "If you are looking for this to be a complete factual recounting of something that happened, you're not gonna get it." I cannot tell the story exactly how it happened. It's boring, it happened over a long period of time; I just want to get to the funny parts of it, I want to get the jokes off. If you want me to make it not about you, we could do that, but if you're going to tell me that your shirt was red and I said it was pink, you and I are gonna have a hard time being together. Kirsten ends up sort of the butt of a lot of my jokes. But she gets it. I'm like, "You knew what you were getting into, man. I know you didn't have a $37 jar of artisanal pickles on you, but you gotta let me make this joke because you could've." You know, this part did happen and this detail did not, but this detail is what makes it funny and work.
Well, I think the honest truth, what storytelling is, you add the extra ten feet that the hero had to jump. And you're never like, "I was at a party last night and there were four people and we had a Zima!" Like, "There were 300 people there and we all wound up naked in the pool!" And that's true. So when I think about writing creative nonfiction like that—being true to the way it was told and things my mom said at the time—all of that matters.
I feel like if the point of a piece is how I felt during the piece, then the details are less important. You know, like exactly where I was standing or exactly what I was wearing or what song was on the radio are less important. Is it funnier to say that this song was on the radio? Then that's what I'm gonna say. You know, does it move the story along to say that it happened in the summer rather than late summer, early fall? Then that's what I'm gonna say. I don't have very many people who will call and be like, "Yo, that's not how it was," which is . . . I'm very grateful.
Well, what's interesting too is that all those people who call have different memories of what went down, right? Like, based on where they were at. When I was going through a lot of the stuff for this book, my dad would have one version of the story and my mom would have another, and I would have a third.
And yours is the one that counts, because you're writing it. They can write their own book.
Right. And the people who will write you—OK, let's just bitch for a minute—the people who will write you and be like, "That is not what you should've said in your essay. You should have said 'blah-blah blah-blah.' " Like some of the stuff I've done for the Times, particularly the political stuff, will be like, "I do not like the thing that you said about Rahm Emanuel. You should have said 'blah-blah blah-blah,' " and then I'll write back, "That sounds like a great op-ed. You should write that op-ed. I wrote the op-ed on my opinion, which is what I stand for in this instance."
Yeah, if the New York Times wants to know what you think they'll ask you.
I need you to follow me around and be my guts sometimes.
I wrote an op-ed for the Times, and the only thing I got—because mine was about myself and burning through money—was fan mail from women that were like, "Thank you for writing that, that was so funny," and I got e-mails from men who were like, "I know you said you don't want to save money, but here's how you can." And I was like, "Well, OK, thanks, stranger, for telling me your unsolicited opinion on what to do with my money."
Real quick: what you just said about the women writing you to say thank you. Can we just real quick say thank you to those women?
Thank you everyone who has ever sent me an encouraging e-mail.
Yeah, thank you from me too. Because sometimes you sit there like, "Why am I doing this? I want to throw my laptop into the sea." And it's always in those moments that somebody reaches out to you and says the one little thing. So please write if there's someone whose work moves you. I'm trying to be better about that, to write the writers and the artists that move me.
I hate tweeting and am terrible at it, but it's a good way to quickly tell someone like, "I love what you do. Thank you for what you do."
I did a reading in New York last month, and this woman comes up to the table during the signing part and she's like, "I'm really happy to meet you. I run a support group for women with bowel diseases, and a couple of us came tonight to meet you and thank you for talking about poop all the time." And that was so meaningful and great. To me, that's the kind of stuff that makes it worth it in the face of people who are like, "This is trash." And I'm like, "Well, OK, but this woman and her IBD support group appreciate what I do, so I'm gonna keep on doing it." But I am lucky in that I don't get a lot of hate mail. If anything, I'll get advice mail, which is fine. But like, no straight-up "You're an idiot." But I also have Twitter set up so I can only see messages from people I follow, and I don't check my "other" Facebook inbox because that's the kind of stuff that doesn't roll off as quickly. I'll get somebody else's voice banging around my brain for way too long and then that makes me hesitant about things, and I don't ever want to feel that. So I don't read reviews or anything, I don't seek it out. The people who find me, then great—I appreciate their messages. So far no one has found me to yell at me, but we'll see. Life is long.
When I'm gonna perform a thing, that doesn't enter my head.
Oh, no, never, because people never come up and say shit to your face.
I think maybe the most—"controversial" isn't even the word—the thing that drew the most ire, I wrote this piece about Mad Men once and how there were no black people on it, and I read it at the [Paper] Machete. I don't think I ever published it anywhere, but there were definitely a lot of white men in the room who were . . . who could've been pissed off about that. But nobody came up and said anything to me. I would have never feared that someone would roll up on me and be like, "That thing you wrote sucked." First of all, untrue. Second, I mean, the computer-emboldened people—
And the anonymity.
Yeah. I have never, ever once worried that something I was saying was gonna get . . . it's like I'd just turn to someone I know and be like, "Did you hear what this guy said to me?" But when writing things, I'm like, "Ooh, where's this gonna be published again?"
"Who's gonna see it?" And then, I'm in a collection coming out this fall. It's called Nasty Women, and [Kate Harding, the editor] reached out to me and was like, "We'd like for you to write something up." Like, girl, I don't mind a little politics, especially not now. You're not gonna get me on the record saying shit. So that was that, and they came back and were like, "Come on, we need somebody with something funny." And I was like, "I don't have anything funny to say. People are dying in the streets." So I told them I don't have anything, and they were like, "Come on, just do it." So then I began thinking about my experience living in a red state in this sort of post-Trump America. And that felt fine because I was just sort of writing about me and my reaction to it, but I do not need the drama that you get for writing about politics. I feel like when we were talking about political things or sociopolitical things, you need to be coming from an educated background, and I like to watch Rachel Maddow and shit, but I did not pay attention in history and I only went to high school. So I feel like there are people who actually study this and are well-read and educated [who] should be talking about it. Let me keep making butt jokes and whatever else I write while the smart people . . . I know you're gonna say "you're smart," and thank you, but . . .
I was gonna say something more like, "Shut the fuck up." Obviously I've read so much of your work, and I've also read so much about your work. And would you not categorize some of the things you write about as political?
I mean, I do think my existence is political. I feel like repping for being a person on the margins and sort of talking about it is a political thing. I like talking about specific policies. I think the government should pay for things and just help people who need it—you know, roses and sunshine and rainbows. I mean, not really, but like, I'm like a literal rainbow.
Yes, a literal rainbow.
But then if you were like, "Well, what about this policy? What about this statute?" I'd be like, "Uhh, I don't know." So I am political in that I am a queer black person with some disabilities, some mental health problems—not problems, issues I'm dealing with—who is processing those out loud and on the page and sort of trying to be useful to other people in those situations. Sometimes it's just enough to have my words reach someone who doesn't know many people like me. I feel like I'm useful in that way, my life is political in that way, but if you were like, "Talk to me about the good and bad parts in the health care bill," I'd be like, "The part where they want to take it away is bad. The parts where people get coverage is good."
I think there's some connection with those two things. I think of all the people who I've heard, both in how they review your work and how they're talking about your work on social media or how they're standing in big, huge, long lines to your book signing, or standing in a big line in order to have five minutes with you or to have you sign their various body parts—which is my favorite part of Instagram, Sam signing people's body parts—but they're all talking about how your work gives them permission to be more open about their own life. And I think that's such a profound truth about what you do. Even the wildly hilarious work is still giving us the permission to tell our own stories, and I think that that connects the politics. But to hear, "Hey, here's something that I'm going through, and here's a way that my body lives in this world and how it doesn't roll the way that yours rolls."
Thirteen dudes locked in a room deciding health care. Right, like to hear those stories not just from you but from multiple people who sit down to make work after reading yours.
That was very nice of you to say.
Thank you, that's very true, and not in a "I'm exaggerating my hero's jump." It's just true. v