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Writer Sam Irby bears her soul – again – with new essay collection 'Quietly Hostile'

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Samantha Irby is an essayist and humorist - the latter of which was painfully obvious when we started chatting.

SAMANTHA IRBY: Like, all my friends' parents are going to be so excited (laughter).

SUMMERS: I think it's a compliment that your friends' parents are listening to NPR. I hope it's a compliment (laughter).

IRBY: It is absolutely a compliment that, like, every Prius in Evanston, Ill., has NPR on (laughter) all the time.

SUMMERS: I feel so called out right now.

IRBY: (Laughter) No, no. I promise you - these are the people I grew up wanting to be like.

SUMMERS: (Laughter).

IRBY: So, you know, by - not osmosis, by whatever - the transitive property, I want to be like you.

SUMMERS: (Laughter).

IRBY: So...

SUMMERS: Super polite but quietly hostile is how Samantha Irby describes herself in her newest book, also titled "Quietly Hostile." It's her fourth collection of essays in a career that's taken her from blogger to bestselling author to writing for Hollywood shows including the "Sex And The City" revival and "Just Like That..." Irby's new book touches on that show, but also relationships, Dave Matthews Band deep cuts and some very personal anecdotes. And I asked Irby to describe her writing for those who might not be familiar.

IRBY: OK, I like to warn people who haven't read my books before that they are disgusting. And I think, you know, people are like, oh, no, they're not - no, no, no. They're disgusting. It's a lot of bathroom stuff that's funny. A lot of decaying body stuff. I do make it all funny, but I also kind of, like, revel in the grossness.

SUMMERS: You do write in this really funny and really spot-on way about aging. How do you feel about getting older?

IRBY: I think my body - like, I have Crohn's disease. And I have some arthritis that is associated with the Crohn's disease, and I always just feel like a nightmare. So aging - the indignity of it - I've already been prepared for, right? You know how everyone's like, you know, when you hit 30, you're going to feel good about yourself. Your life is going to change. That didn't happen for me, and it didn't happen for me at 40. But I hear that 50 is when you start to feel comfortable with yourself and, like, assured of your place in the world. So I'm looking forward to apparently the complete lobotomy that happens when you wake up on your 50th birthday.

SUMMERS: OK, so I have to tell you - you put into words in this book something that I think a lot about all the time but I have never heard anybody articulate before.

IRBY: Ooh (laughter).

SUMMERS: It is about the complexity of feeding your spouse's kids. And I am also a stepparent. I wonder if it's OK if I read this part of the essay.

IRBY: Please.

SUMMERS: You wrote...

(Reading) I will pick up food from a dark and foreboding alley if it means I don't have to cook for children whose constant disapproval causes me physical pain. I'd rather listen to you calling me the C-word than hear one of them say, can I be excused? - in an annoyed tone while pushing away from the elaborate meal I slaved over to go eat stale Fritos and drink room-temperature Arizona in front of the Nintendo in their bedroom.

IRBY: (Laughter) It's the truth. I - (laughter) nothing is more crushing - like, they - if you ask them if they like your clothes, they do not (laughter). If you ask them if they like the music you put on, they do not. And it's sad because, unfortunately, for me, I'm a person who, like, seeks validation...

SUMMERS: Yep.

IRBY: ...Even from a kid, which is maybe the most embarrassing thing I could ever say. But, like, the meal stuff - it's like, I diced. And I chopped, and I sauteed. And, I mean, I don't need them to throw a parade when I serve it, but I kind of want them to throw a parade, right?

SUMMERS: You also write about your parents in this book, and I'm wondering if you can tell us a little bit about them and what your relationship with them was like.

IRBY: My parents both died separately. I was 18. My mom had multiple sclerosis, which is devastating. My dad was, like, a ne'er-do-well. They had gotten divorced when I was 4, and he was kind of in and out of my life. I'm like, I don't know them - you know? - 'cause your parents don't really show you their adult self. At least mine didn't. And so I think my specific, like, grief - oh, God, what word can I use other than journey? - experience has been, like, God bless them for getting together and having me. The situation is sad, but I am not sad. Does that make sense?

SUMMERS: It does. I mean, the thing that you wrote in your book about both of your parents that really stuck with me was the part where you ask yourself this kind of unanswerable question about whether it's bad that you don't miss them and whether you're supposed to keep a candle burning for someone whose voice you don't remember. And I mean, I thought about that a lot...

IRBY: Yeah.

SUMMERS: ...Because my mother is still alive. I haven't spoken to my father in decades at this point. And people always ask me if I feel bad about that. And it's like, am I supposed to? I feel like I'm living my life, you know?

IRBY: Right. Yeah. I mean, I think people who say things like that assume - and I don't mean to say anything about your dad 'cause I don't know him, but my own dad...

SUMMERS: He sounds a lot like yours. He sounds a lot like yours.

IRBY: (Laughter) OK. OK, good. So, like, people assume you had, like, good parents who were sweet and took care of you, and it's like, I didn't. So we had our time. I cried a lot in my teens. And then, like, you got to keep moving.

SUMMERS: OK. I'm going to make a hard right turn here.

IRBY: OK.

SUMMERS: You touch on so much in this book about love for Dave Matthews, but you also write about porn and self-pleasure. And there's even a whole list of things and places that you have peed over the past few years. So...

IRBY: (Laughter).

SUMMERS: ...I am curious - in putting this book together, was there ever any moment where you looked at something you wrote and were just like, nah, I - that one - that cannot go in this book. Did you ever have a moment like that?

IRBY: No because - I say this all the time, so I hope nobody's heard me say this before. But I truly - like, when you write about something personal, you have to be OK with it, like, being on a billboard or being on the news - right? - because, for the rest of your life, people who have read your work will, like, quote that back at you. You know, not thinking about how people on the whole are going to react makes it very easy to just say whatever I'm going to say. And then, as soon as the thing is done, I immediately send it to my editor so that I can't (laughter) take it back or waste the words or whatever. It's fine, you know? You want to talk about it? Great. You're disgusted by it and want to skip ahead? That's fine, too. I turn it in without thinking, and I'm like, well, it's in the world's hands. There's nothing I can do.

SUMMERS: Author Samantha Irby.

IRBY: (Laughter).

SUMMERS: Her latest book is "Quietly Hostile." Samantha, thank you so much.

IRBY: Thank you for having me. This was a dream. You're the best.

SUMMERS: You're the best.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE MATTHEWS BAND SONG, "ANTS MARCHING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.
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