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ETHS Grad Samantha Irby Earns Title As 'Chicago's Funniest Writer'

Columnist Christine Wolf interviews (and kinda stalks) Evanston native Samantha Irby about MEATY, her debut book of essays.

Samantha Irby on her difficult upbringing: "if i didn't know how to make this sh-t funny i would've walked out into the middle of rush hour traffic years ago."
Samantha Irby on her difficult upbringing: "if i didn't know how to make this sh-t funny i would've walked out into the middle of rush hour traffic years ago."
I have a confession. I might have engaged in a bit of stalker behavior while trying to land an interview (below) with Samantha Irby.

Before I ever knew she was a Chicago performer, blogger and author, she was simply the woman behind the counter at my vet’s office. I averaged two visits per year for more than a decade at Evanston’s Bramer Animal Hospital, but I'd never considered Samantha Irby’s life out in front of the reception desk. Shame on me.

Then one night -- not too long ago -- I flipped through Chicago Magazine and found Samantha Irby smiling back at me. The article references her debut as an author: MEATY. Essays by Samantha Irby (Curbside Splendor, 2013) and urges  readers to "Meet Chicago's Funniest Writer".

Wait? I thought. Is this the same woman? I realized I’d never once asked her name in all the years I’d gone to the vet.

And so -- based only on a magazine review and our occasional (yet funny) exchanges -- I couldn’t wait to read about Samantha Irby’s “other” life. I went to Barnes & Noble and (of course) forgot the name of the book. To be honest, I’d forgotten her name, too. What a jerk I am. I tried to describe the author to a clerk: “She’s local…works at the vet’s office down the street…hilarious…Chicago’s funniest writer…” Anyone? Anyone?

The clerk’s eyes squinted at me from behind his glasses: I’m gonna need a little more here...

Finally, with enough Googling, I found MEATY on a shelf marked Discover Great New Writers. I bought the last 3 copies and informed the clerk he’d need to restock. Then I went to my car and started reading.

Can I just tell you something? I Could. Not. Stop. Laughing. We’re talking put-the-book-down-because-I-can’t-catch-my-breath-I’m-laughing-so-hard, the kind of laughter that makes strangers wonder if they ought to call someone because there’s a woman idling in her car, throwing her head back repeatedly on Sherman Avenue in front of the Barnes & Noble. Maybe not a 911 call, but definitely 311.

When I wasn’t laughing, I was covering my mouth -- because Samantha Irby loves to swear. I’m a mom of three, so you know the drill: we still say H-E-double-hockey-sticks thanks to my stink-eye-shooting 5th grader who’s on 24/7 profanity patrol. I hadn’t realized how much I missed swearing until I snuggled into Samantha Irby’s unfiltered world of calling-it-exactly-as-she-sees-it. And my God does she see it brilliantly.

Before I even finished the book, I called the vet to schedule an appointment (for "my dog"). When Samantha answered, I couldn’t stop myself. “I love your book,” I said, “and I had absolutely no idea you were a writer.” Star struck, I brought my three copies in that day for her to autograph, then asked if I could send her some interview questions. She couldn’t have been more gracious and humble.

I sent her my questions and I waited.

And waited.

I brought the dog in for his teeth cleaning (which required sedation) and Samantha apologized like crazy for her delay getting back to me. I told her not to worry, but a couple of weeks later I started to lose hope…after all, Samantha Irby's big time. She's everywhere, really. Like here and here. Oh and here. After all, I started to think, I’m just a local mom looking for a scoop…

…and then, on Thanksgiving morning, she sent me her replies. I hope you enjoy them much as I did. We're now friends -- she emails me music that she loves when I complain about a rough day, and I want to have her over for dinner to hang with my family even though my 5th grader's ears will collapse from the onslaught of profanity -- but that just builds character, right? Speaking of profanity, I've done just a bit of editing for our more sensitive Patch readers:

Patch: How are you feeling these days now that the book's out?

Samantha Irby: exhausted and overwhelmed. at the risk of sounding like an a--hole, i had no idea that there was going to be this much work once it came out. i amassed this huge following on my blog with virtually zero marketing other than posting links on facebook and letting word of mouth do the rest. i figured the book would work the same way? but then my book was chosen for barnes and noble's discover great new writers program and my publisher was suddenly like, "TOUR. T-SHIRT GIVEAWAY. SKYPE INTERVIEWS." so i'm happy but i'm mostly just tired.

Patch: It's no exaggeration to say the book's filled with "colorful" language, right? 

Irby: that is a really generous way of describing my foul-mouthed work. i like swearing in my writing, and i love hyperbolic language in general. especially when writing comedy. dirty words delight me. i'm like a dumb kid.

Patch: How did you acquire such an impressive command of profanity? I mean, your writing incorporates swear words in such abundance that I started unconsciously swearing in my day-to-day conversations while reading MEATY. Neat trick. Why DOES it feel so good to swear? Is it because, as kids, we're not supposed to?

Irby: sometimes a swear word just puts that extra bit of stank on a statement, that extra punch a sentence needs to let these dudes know that you really mean business. because you could tell a person "shut up," but it's a million times more effective if you look that person dead in the eye and say, "shut the f--- up, b-tch."

Patch: Speaking of kids, your childhood ranks pretty high up on the old crap-o-meter. Do you look back on it now and think, "It made me the strong woman I am today?"

Irby: don't be fooled. i spent a lot of happy afternoons in evanston constructing intricate soap operas starring my barbie dolls and assorted stuffed animals and toy cars. i can't know what i would have been like if all this sh-t hadn't happened to me, but i appreciate that i made it through. i really do believe that you can't possibly know someone's interior life based on his external appearance. everyone has his own struggle. i wouldn't trade mine. it didn't kill me, so i'm grateful for it.

Patch: My favorite essay in MEATY is "Milk and Oreos." In it, you include two love letters: one to white people and another to black people. I personally think it should be required reading. It's like fluorescent lighting in a dressing room, exposing every flaw from every angle -- especially the ones you're unfamiliar with.

Irby: everyone is so weird and touchy when it comes to talking about race. i want to change that, and i think comedy is the easiest way to do it.

Patch: You're unapologetic in your observations -- your writing feels entirely free and uninhibited. Has it always been this way, or did you have to work on writing so honestly?

Irby: i have always been unabashedly honest in my writing. that said, i try not to write about anything that i'm uncomfortable talking about publicly, because that isn't fair. i think it sucks when you make art you can't talk about. so the things i don't want to talk about don't get written. everything else? have at it.

Patch: From the first page of MEATY, as you detail every one of your flaws and shortcomings, I immediately felt a deep connection to you. Was that your intent -- to relate to readers so intimately -- or are you just trying to quit your day job?

Irby: if i wanted to quit my day job the last thing i would have done was written a book. i'm placing all my hope in scratch-off lottery tickets. THOSE are the keys to the luxurious future i deserve. i need to be on an island somewhere with turquoise water and noise-canceling headphones.

Patch: Speaking of your day job, you've worked at Bramer Animal Hospital in Evanston for how many years?

Irby: omg almost 12. i was 22 when i started! i have no idea who that person even is anymore. seriously. i had two roommates and was eating hot pockets and drinking gin every day. thank god for adulthood.

Patch: It's funny: I've been taking our dogs to that vet for 15 years but, until I saw your 2-page spread in Chicago Magazine, I had no idea that you were a writer, a blogger, a comedian...what else am I forgetting? 

Irby: a--hole, performer, crazyperson...

Patch: Meeting you inspires me to get to know people on a much deeper level. I mean that, even if it sounds really stupid. 

Irby: NOT STUPID AT ALL. i genuinely want to connect, like really connect, with as many people who will do so honestly as i can. there was a time when i was young and stupid and having a collection of vapid mannequins to party with all the time was a jam, but i'm tired of that sh-t. it's boring. i would much rather sit and talk to someone about her real life and what she's really feeling than be surrounded by a gaggle of airheads chattering about which club has the hottest dudes. which is a trick, because NO club has hot dudes. i give my phone number and my email out all the time, and i mean it. i'm giving that sh-t out earnestly, hoping to make real friends. 

Patch: I'm a kindred spirit when it comes to being an emotional eater and a lover of trashy TV. What's in your rotation these days?

Irby: I AM SO IRRATIONALLY PASSIONATE ABOUT TELEVISION. that said, the good wife is hands-down my most favorite television show. sunday night i went to a play and seriously almost pouted because i don't have a DVR and was salty that i had to miss it. that, sons of anarchy, scandal, and grey's anatomy are my main jams. plus all of the real housewives shows on bravo. plus ben and jerry's mint chocolate cookie. or pistachio pistachio.

Patch: What makes you cry -- and I mean ugly cry (not a glowy, glistening, dab-at-your-eyes-because-that's-so-sweet cry).

Irby: everything. especially thinking about homeless and/or abused cats and dogs outside during the winter months. every time we get a blizzard i cry my sensitive little eyes out.

Patch: You write that, as a child, you often connected with your friends' moms, sometimes even more easily than to your friends. While I highly doubt you envisioned a 45-year-old suburban mom like me as your target audience, did you imagine a particular reader as you wrote MEATY?

Irby: YOU ARE MY TARGET AUDIENCE, CHRISTINE WOLF. young people are poor, irrational, and impatient. they're also way too loud. like, all the time with the yelling and the wild gesticulation. i can't even deal with that sh-t anymore. i just want to sit in a dark theater at two in the afternoon with a bucket of buttered popcorn and a movie featuring a softly-lit cate blanchett on the screen. i like comfortable clothes and room temperature soup, girl. these 30-somethings can have their skinny jeans and sriracha.

Patch: You're a graduate of Nichols Middle School and Evanston Township High School. I have kids at both of those schools now. God, I feel old.

Irby: you and me both, sister. my twenty year high school reunion is a handful of years away and here i am: still in the same g-dd-mned town, eating dinner at the same g-dd-mned restaurants, wearing sweatpants. BRING ON THE POPULAR KIDS.

Patch: I can see why Chicago Magazine declared you as Chicago's Funniest Writer. How crazy is your life because of that? What kinds of cool stuff happens to you these days?  

Irby: not as much as you'd think. homies who read my blog or have been at my shows used to stop me on the street all the time, that's not new. what's weird about the current newspaper/magazine coverage is that it's reaching an audience that had no previous experience with my writing. and now people who come to my job who never had any idea that i was anyone other than the person who facilitated their vet appointments know about my fancy secret life.

Patch: You lost both of your parents while you were still a teenager. Your father was an abusive alcoholic and your mother had significant medical issues resulting from Multiple Sclerosis. How ironic is it that Chicago Magazine recently called you "Chicago's Funniest Writer"?

Irby: is it ironic? that alanis morrissette song f---ed me up for life and i have no idea what things are actually ironic, "rain on your wedding day" and all that. most funny people are deeply troubled and totally f----ed up. i am the most miserable person you have ever met. if i didn't know how to make this sh-t funny i would've walked out into the middle of rush hour traffic years ago. life is f---ing terrible.

Patch: Was there an actual moment when you decided to write MEATY? Or, what inspired you to start?

Irby: i never really wanted to write a book. i was presented with the opportunity a couple times and was like, PASS. but after a while it seemed like a cool thing to work on, and i was excited about the idea of 1 exercising some of my lesser-used writer muscles and 2 giving people who read my blog something tangible that i'd made. plus it's just really f---ing rad to have an actual book on the shelf at a bookstore that people can just go buy. also it's a nice F--- YOU to every d--k who has ever been rude to me or dropped me without explanation or ditched me for a dude. enjoy choking on your regret, a--holes.

Patch: When did you start writing MEATY?

Irby: in earnest? probably last october. i wrote the outline last summer, but i didn't get serious about it until well into the fall. even though i knew it was due in february. i work best under pressure. at least i hope. who knows what kind of masterpiece i could've come up with if i wasn't such a procrastinating jerk.

Patch: How long did it take you to write MEATY?

Irby: four months, give or take. while watching a lot of youtube twerk tutorials and episodes of grey's anatomy on my iphone. that sh-t is compelling. i cried at almost every episode.

Patch: Pick one: Change the world or save a life.  

Irby: save a life. the world is just so f---ing big. and i'm lazy.

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