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Michael Arcenaux and Samantha Irby are two of the funniest voices of the moment. Their essays deftly tackle important, sometimes painful or taboo subjects. They do not shy away from exploring all the ways that life isn’t easy. Money, racism, sexuality...and yes, poop. It’s all on the table! The truths always come hard and fast with these two and we are thrilled to pair them together.
-Aminatou & Ann
It’s a strange time to be releasing a book into the world. Well, it’s a strange time to be doing just about anything. But as we prepare to publish our first book, one thing we had been looking forward to was connecting with other authors in person.
Earlier this year, Mailchimp asked us to curate a group of writers for a track at the Decatur Book Festival over Labor Day weekend. The plan was to pair the authors for conversations at events throughout the festival, and then have a great time together over the weekend.
Then, of course, Covid-19 hit. We don’t get to be in the same room as a group of writers we admire. But we still get the pleasure of pairing them up for deep conversations about each other’s work. On this site, you’ll be able to read edited transcripts of those conversations.
We relished the opportunity to choose writers we admire and couple them up to discuss their work. We can’t wait to read these authors’ conversations. And we are excited to promote all of their books—most of which have been released, like ours, during these strange days of the pandemic.
If you’ve read some of these books already, we hope the conversations will take you deeper into them and provide some fresh context. If any of these titles or authors are new to you, all the better. We hope their conversations spark your interest, and that you decide you want to read these books. Enjoy reading this summer.
-Aminatou & Ann
June 22, 2020
Well, hi, Samantha Irby.
Hi, Michael. I feel like you’re one of my best friends…
I talk to you all the time, which is the beauty of this internet world we live in, where you can be like, “I’ve never met this person, I don’t know what they smell like, I don’t really know how tall they are, but I know them better than I know my family.”
When I was rereading your book, particularly in “Are You Familiar with My Work?”—which was funny because you’re not that type—I liked it because it is difficult to make adult friendships, and so being gay and not being let out of the house really, the internet has always been my way to make friends. I was about to say I feel the same way about you because I’d much rather speak with you than a lot of the people I’ve known forever.
Yeah! I think the internet is a tool, at least in making adult friendships. If you do enough scrolling you get a lot of information about a person and you get a pretty clear picture. I think I told you that I have a tweet of yours from years ago, screenshotted and saved in my phone because it is so funny, and I was like, “Who is this person? I need to know him.” I keep it with me all the time.
What’s so funny is, if I’m not mistaken, we met before you deleted Facebook, which I appreciate you writing about because you already warned me about that and I’m in sync. I reached out to you, like “I’m such a fan,” and you were like, “You dummy, I know who you are.” I think you showed me that screengrab.
My love language is being like, “Hello, person I’ve never talked to. I want you to know that I have this thing bookmarked or I have 17 screenshots of your texts because they’re so funny.” That is how I tell people that I love them. “I like your work but also that tweet that you posted in 2014… I love you.”
We speak the same language. I really appreciate that.
I would say I was going to be like Barbara Walters, but I watched that Roy Cohn documentary during the pandemic and I find her association with him troubling. So insert some other person. Actually, you know what… Robin Roberts. That’s who I’m gonna be right now.
Unproblematic Robin Roberts.
I have seen this said about your book; it’s also been said about mine: “Our books are so perfect for the moment.” Would you like to begin with how that makes you feel? Because I have thoughts.
Yes. I want to say that first, I read an early copy of your book. But then, when it officially came out, I listened to the audiobook and this is going to sound corny, but in this time when you can’t see people, having them—particularly you—in my ears is so comforting. It’s like having a friend with you. Especially for what we do, it’s really nice to have a person telling you their own story. People who’ve read the book, fine. If you haven’t, listen to it. Or even if you have read it, listen to Michael read his book, because your inflection…
They can’t see me grinning, but I’m beaming.
Your inflection adds a layer to the book that—your first book too, I bought a physical copy and had read an early copy, but then I listened—it really makes me feel closer to you.
I would say that having a book come out right now is hard. We both hit at the worst part of the pandemic here. Everyone was trapped at home, they don’t know how to entertain themselves, clearly—everyone was tweeting, “I’m so bored. I’m so bored.” And then trying to sell a book to people who are panicked and trying to learn their new reality is like, how do I sell you something you really don’t need? At a time that you’re worrying about coughing to death.
First of all, thank you. I didn’t know you listened to the audiobook. I’ve actually never listened to an audiobook.
We buy each other’s books because we’re not cheap writers. Even though, technically, everyone should give us stuff for free. I’m kidding. But you know, I already bought your book and had an advance copy, too, but I reread it and then revisited some of it when it was excerpted—which, by the way, brava to your folks.
They really did the work, right? People are like, “How did you get in The New Yorker?”, and I’m like “Bitch, I don’t know!”
I hate the word timeless, but to me, when people say “Oh your book is so relevant now,” I’m like, I wrote about the façade of the American dream, the realities of what social mobility really looks like in terms of Black folks, if you’re not born middle class, which is basically a myth in and of itself. But you know, middle class might as well be rich to everybody else, which no one talks about.
The people who say those things, I’m like, yeah, but my book would have been timely anyway because mad people are struggling, they’ve been struggling. For me, the struggle was actually knowing my audience… I’ll say this, I get lovely emails from 70-year-old white women and gentlemen who have bought my book, and I really do appreciate them—shout out to PBS and NPR—all ages. But you know, my audience is also people who look like us. And right now, more than ever, they’re struggling. Half of Black adults don’t have jobs right now and no one really talks about that, including us, online. Everyone’s still trying to stunt and court death. So that was my struggle, asking. It’s been harder to get the word out—initially because my book came out at the deadliest week. People have been finding it but I was realistic about the fact that, I know a lot of y’all ain’t got it, so if you can get it I really appreciate it. The people with disposable income are finding it.
Both of our books are really timely but I feel bad that they’re so timely.
It’s two-fold… When everyone lost their jobs, asking them to find $15 or whatever to buy your book felt kind of gross. I will say, though, that I think we’re both really honest. I don’t mind, a few months from now, being like, “Hey, did you get a job? This book still exists.” At least I didn’t write a book about infectious disease or something depressing. At least our books are funny.
Can I just brag on you for a second? You debuting at #1 was my shit. I was so happy because, to tie it to what you mention in the book, I thought about it this morning on my run to the new City Girls… You’re kind of like the City Girl of literature or publishing in that you kind of fell into this for being cued off of some dude and you just happen to be amazing at it.
What I also really like is that I can tell you’re so cognizant of other people, and not in a way like you care about what they think. You clearly are a hard worker but basically you wrote the best episode of Shrill because you were told to. That’s what you said, “I was told to do it.”
Do you worry about that? Have Black people been lecturing you, like “You got all these blessings and you’re not…”
I get worried sometimes that people forget that I punched a clock for a long time. I’m 40 years old and just now having some success. But even when you have book success it’s not like executive producer of a movie success.
We both write about the realities of book money. You told me a lot about book money.
You shouldn’t have to say, “Listen, my shit is taxed at 35 percent, and that’s what I get after my agent gets paid.” The realities of this are boring to people, but I do worry sometimes that when you’re honest it often sounds like you’re complaining. And I don’t want anyone to think that all the years of struggle are undone by—and you know this—having success now. It doesn’t negate the hole you were digging yourself out of.
I’m starting from behind, and frankly, as talented and wonderful as I think we both are, a lot of our success is still dumb luck. When you mentioned that your parents knew enough to put you in a Chicago-adjacent city where arts and music changed your life the same way I had early exposure, even in my hood elementary school and middle school—that kind of made all the difference. Because also, your dad—or both your parents—and my mom knew what to do.
So there are certain things I knew to do—you don’t want to have bad credit and be Black—but the reality is you still weren’t born with money so you basically have a bunch of knowledge that you can’t put into practice until you make enough money to dig yourself out of a hole. Who knows how long that can take, and you can be dead by then because you’re stressed out, which is why I have to stop smoking so much weed. [Laughter]
It’s also funny reading your book because—and now you’re going to see that I’m a true dumbass—I went to college for a year, and I went to a state school, with grants. I didn’t have to take out any loans, and this was 20 years ago so it was much cheaper. And then I dropped out but I didn’t tell the school in time so they charged me for a semester, which I then had to pay for.
It’s a recurring theme. Even when you mention lack of ambition, you do obviously have some ambition but the way you don’t fixate on it the way well-to-do people are kind of trained to do, is not that you can’t do it, but why would you think to do it?
Yes, it’s being realistic.
I’m about to give you a compliment… I feel anyone who’s completed college, that’s a miracle. Especially a poor Black person. I’m like, how did you do that? The minute it got tough I was like, oh you know what I could do is just drop out and get an hourly job bagging donuts. Which is what I did.
But I don’t have the smarts to back it up, which is why any time I read political or sociopolitical writing—especially yours—I’m like, “Damn, he really is smart. I should go to college.” But then I think about the debt of it all. While reading your book, I was like, it feels almost oppressive knowing you had this incredible experience, got all this knowledge, and then you come out of it saddled with this debt and no clear path out of it. I’m glad you wrote this book because you can be like, yeah, you’re successful, but Sallie Mae or Navient or whatever those companies are, they’re still calling and they’re going to be on your back for a long time.
I finally started paying off some of the loans in full, the smallest ones, because I can. But also to clean up my credit so I can move to Los Angeles… You know, I love “Hollywood Summer.” It’s been a bunch of months since I first read it, and then revisiting it, I’m like, first of all a lot has happened in 3 or 4 months. I’m surprised we’re both alive, but great. I like that you removed the façade of how things are supposed to look, particularly in terms of Hollywood. It frustrates me how you are such an easy sell and yet television will make it difficult. I feel the same way about some stuff with me. To me, both of us are so easy to sell because white people are not afraid of us, and Black folks and others will read us.
It’s easier than they think but people have such limited use. I appreciate you calling me smart, thank you, but people still talk to me like I’m a dumb country bumpkin who is not clearly aware, when the reality is I wouldn’t be in any of these rooms if I weren’t more aware of how things work than you.
I embody negativity because we both write about hating our bodies. I have an update. My ears are big as hell and do not really fit with the masks so we’re trying to figure that out. I’m getting old now, which is something you talked about. I’m not at the point where I’m the old ho in the club—and I’m gender-neutral about that cause people used to call everything a ho, including a Crock-Pot. [Laughter] This was my summer to basically get it out before I officially cross from vintage millennial to middle age. So, do you have tips for me?
I would say to embrace it. I think everything I write while distilling my anxieties for other people to read, ultimately is, embrace all your stuff. Specific to aging, embrace that it’s going to happen and roll with the punches. Just know that it’s going to take you an extra second to get out of a chair. You’re going to have to start taking the stairs one at a time. Don’t fear it, embrace it.
You write about body negativity and you make me laugh, whereas I wrote about making myself throw up and now it comes up in interviews, [whispers] “Are you ok?” Which, I do understand, but I wanted to show it’s a very bad habit and a symptom of me grappling with debt in a very dangerous way.
I’ve stopped, but I was really worried about people assigning me to the bulimic struggle. That’s a real struggle for people and I didn’t want to attach my name to it. I wanted to share something about myself that I think people needed, because you don’t normally hear it from men. But also, people are worried about if I’m eating in the chapter, even though I tell you at the end that I’m actually better. It’s like you wouldn’t believe me.
I think that’s the thing about this genre of writing that we both do. You are sharing and you can write what you want to write in whatever way you want to write it, but you’re not in charge of people’s reaction to it. I find that I don’t put anything in a book that I wouldn’t be comfortable with if it was on the news.
Because you write a book and then it comes out and then you just spend the rest of your life talking to people about the thing you wrote. I think the reason I do this—write these essays or long-form comedy bits, however you want to think of it—is because I’m hoping that whatever I’m sharing can ultimately help people. But you’ve gotta let go. People are going to project onto you and assign shit to you and you have to be ok with it.
As far as your essay, you are very much an essayist, how many more people have nagged you about your fiction?
Are you going to give in?
I don’t get nervous writing about myself but I do get nervous about every fictional thing I’ve done—the shows I’ve worked on, my secret fiction that no one has read. That’s the stuff that scares me. Which, I want to ask you, do you get nervous writing about yourself?
Honestly, even though I was maybe taken aback by some of the reactions to, particularly the thing about my food issues, I think I don’t put anything out that I haven’t already made peace with. So I’m usually cool with writing about myself.
To be blunt, when people ask me about fiction, I’m like, well, umm… It’s not that I wouldn’t want to do fiction but the reality is, I gotta pay off these loans. When I say most of my decisions are controlled by my debt, they are. I’m not all about money; I try to do anything with integrity. I see people still take shots about people writing hot takes, which is a common practice that’s been overplayed by the internet, like most things. Whatever. People do that because they need to pay their bills. Sometimes people say no or they do like me—take it and then try to flip it into something better than what the prompt is, just for the sake of getting ahead.
I can personally now elect to say no, more often than not. But I’m also cognizant of the fact that Donald Trump is president and he’s about to blow up this economy even if he loses, which he probably is, but whatever. He might kill us all, too.
The thing with fiction, as far as I remember, you gotta write a whole book and then they might not pick it up, which means that’s a lot of labor with no guarantee.
That means you have to really love and feel passionate about the thing. That’s the hard part. For me, I think the hard part too is the criticism of the world you’ve constructed. Because if you don’t like my essays, then you just don’t like me and that’s fine. But if I wrote a fictional thing and you hate that, you could hate the world I created or hate my imagination, and that’s scary.
I think what’s so interesting with that fear, though… you’ll get over that on your own time. There’s nothing I could say right now to bippity bop it away. But I think whenever you put out something, people are going to be receptive to it, and you’ll have to make peace with the fact that people might not like it. Honestly, you’re so funny and it’s so natural, and people really like the way your mind works, and even though you didn’t completely give yourself the credit, that episode from Shrill—from conception to formation—was very much you the entire time. And obviously it was a team effort…
It was a lot of other people, too. I have a hard time saying that anything I’ve made is good. I’m like, “oh it’s the editor.” I think the conclusion we’ve come to is that I need to go to therapy.
That is actually a note I’m glad I took—about therapy. When you wrote about it like you were tired, that is the first time that I honestly heard it so simple but brilliant. Because I understood exactly what you meant. I also know I need a Black therapist to contextualize stuff.
But at the same time, when you say you’re tired, I think, I would have to give the person two books first and be like, read these, and then when I come in we can outline how we’re going to take on each problem. Because I feel like I would have to explain my entire life and that’s so exhausting. That’s not a great reason to avoid therapy, but I can understand why a lot of people feel the same way we do. Just by not having any money, I had to turn inward and basically criticize myself.
I feel like I have this tool, and you can tell me if you feel this way, too. I feel like I process my stuff through the humor. Now, there’s probably a professional out there who’s like, “That is a terrible idea, don’t do that. Get some professional help.” But I think the essays serve—for me, at least—as a little bit of therapy, too. That I’m working something out in the work.
A lot of my books are legit me trying to help people not feel the way I felt in most of these instances. In the second book, you’ll see I was so much harsher on myself about money than even what really drives me—how I actually feel about people, gender, sexuality.
Let me say this about TV writing. I’m not really intimidated about the actual writing in and of itself, because I have a bit of experience, punching up stuff here and there, just on the ghost tip. My real fear is that I will never be given the opportunity to show that I can do anything that anybody can do, particularly a bunch of white men. That’s why I always call it out. Honestly, if I looked more like most other Arceneauxs—the white ones—people would probably see it faster and sooner and it wouldn’t be such a challenge. It’s constantly having to prove myself over and over again that I find so exhausting.
But to get back to the question about humor with therapy… I really tried to process it myself. There are certain things I know I still have to deal with. But the big chunks—I really feel like I have done the work. And what’s lingering will go eventually. When you don’t have the means you have to figure it out. I think a lot of our stories are like, yeah we’ve had this exposure to certain worlds, and through the internet and our own natural curiosities we’ve met people we otherwise wouldn’t meet, so we’ve done things other people like us haven’t been able to do. But at least for me I thought more and more, I’m like, no matter where I go, I literally am a poor, abused person from Houston, and that frames everything—every thought I have, how people respond to me, my career trajectory, it impacts everything. I just admitted it out loud. To even say the word “poor” felt like it was insulting to my parents, working poor. But then I’m like, most Americans are poor, they just don’t say it. So that was cathartic for me, and writing helps.
Yeah. I will get a therapist and say, ok, I’ve written about all these things but maybe now we should work on all these things. And then who knows, maybe the writing will become something else. That’s also a fear, too, that it might change the writing. But ultimately maybe it’ll change it for the better.
Even though my books were two years apart technically—as you know it took a long time to sell the first one—I definitely can tell my writing has changed in my second, the way I wrote about my mom. My natural inclination is to be funny because everyone in my family is funny with a strong personality, and I genuinely think in those situations if you don’t laugh you probably might not make it. And even when you can laugh it can still be a little touchy. I’ll leave it at that.
If you don’t laugh you might not make it. That’s real. Is that a good summation for what we do?
As far as essays, I wanted to be a talk show host initially, so essay writing felt the most natural.
I could see you hosting a talk show.
I know! Thank you. I just need to join SmileDirect and I need people to have faith in the fact that gay country Black men have more appeal than you think.
I feel like it’s in your future.
Thank you, because I’m not going to put a poetry book out. I actually still might write a fiction book.
Are you going to do YA?
I probably wouldn’t do YA, only because the YA crowd is tough.
Ok, you scared me from YA, now that I think about it. [Laughter]
Also, I don’t want to ever be accused of poisoning some children’s minds with my bullshit. So I would probably try something for adults. But I don’t know, just saying that is scary to me.
Would you flirt with the idea of a short story here or there first to test the waters?
Maybe. I used to write short stories a lot. Honestly, what I need to do is write something, send it to my agent, who’s very honest, and then see if he’s like, “Oh no, this is terrible. Get over that dream.”
I would love a short story collection from you. And to put pressure on myself, I should actually get around to doing one, eventually.
Yes! You should. Maybe we should write some short stories and trade them.
I will say, I don’t really skew young because I’m so vulgar. But the children do like me. High school students. So I’m trying to figure out what is the way to reach them. Because on another front, I am so tired of writing about a lot of queer Black boys taking to suicide because of bullying. I do know that I would like to make some kind of contribution but I don’t know when I would do it. As long as people just pay me what you should have been paying me this entire time, I feel more creative than ever, even in the midst of chaos. So I probably would do a fiction book in the midst of other things, if people would just pay the man.
I’m trying to be like you when I grow up. Which—by the way, girl—people can’t wait to read a bunch of books from you. How many people have nagged you already for another essay collection? Which, I would love.
I’m going to do it. I’m going to try to do a little something. We’ll see.
In a future book, are you going to talk about the pandemic?
No, I think that requires extensive research.
Not in research, but whatever happened to you during the pandemic. Nothing?
Oh, well… I mean… probably.
There we go.
I did start an essay about how I had a Zoom doctor appointment and how nice it was and how I wish I never had to go into the doctor’s office ever again, even though I have a very nice doctor. So I’m going to write about it in my way, my experience with being at home, which I love, and not having to go on tour, which I also loved. But I’m going to frame it like, “Hey I had a Zoom doctor appointment.”
Which, by the way, you are now free and clear if you really don’t want to tour. You don’t have to.
Never. Never again.
You can move product already so you don’t have to go through all that. Keep you healthy.
It’s the traveling that sucks—dirty clothes, trying to catch a flight. That’s the stuff I hate. Hugging people, I could do that all day. If people want to line up outside my house to get a hug and have me sign their book, I would love to do that.
I owe you several hugs. I might be wearing a mask and gloves, but we both must survive so I can hug you.
Yes. We will!
As far as my pandemic writing goes, I really want to write about how much closer I got to Karen Clark Sheard. You’ve noticed. I listen to “Balm in Gilead” every day.
I love her.
I heard that music all the time anyway because of my mom, but I saw that Lifetime movie. And you know—usually it’s with weed, but I don’t even need weed—I feel close to God if I’m extra lit and turn on Karen. Obviously I’ve fallen into Dorinda Clark‑Cole, too. And mind you, I’m not saved but there’s that little bit of Jesus in me.
Well, I want to read about that. I think other people do, too.
I’m obsessed with her. She reminds me of my aunties, but she can sing. I grew up Catholic but I’m familiar with COGIC. Detroit, they’re real Black, I get it.
Yeah, I want to read about your God experience during COVID. That’s the beginning of your next book right there.
I really do love your book. It’s very difficult to write about a lot of those things in a way that is naturally funny, self-deprecating but done confidently so it adds a different layer and subtext, and least the way I interpret it.
And also—I’ve told you this many times—there’s a wide array of Black writers and I’m so happy about that, but at the same time there’s still a real gap in the way people from certain backgrounds speak. Even the way you talked about free lunch... I wasn’t on free lunch but right before I was born, they definitely had WIC, or WIC came up when my mom got pregnant. I didn’t necessarily have free lunch but I only had 3 pairs of jeans that I got from Walmart and got clowned about them all the time. We couldn’t really afford all those other things.
When you talk about how you got cable again for Real Housewives of New York, I actually got it again when I was 8 and my mom was tired of me talking about wrestling so much. But literally throughout the entire thing, well beyond high school, I had to turn up the TV with tweezers. It was an old, old TV.
Yeah, we used to have a TV where we had to touch the wires to a metal umbrella. I can look back on those times fondly but thinking about what other people had, I’m like, how did I even make it? Also, gold star to me for making it.
Certain people around me thought we had more money than we did because it was two parents there, and I was like, first of all have you seen the other parent? Do you know how much… there’s just so many other variables. But I also kept thinking, like, girl, we’ve got roaches crawling over my neck… I got so used to it, and it really wasn’t until I went to college and I’m like, “Oh, these aren’t just TV Black people.”
So, again, when I read your work it reminds me of what I know to be true. If any of us get to be ourselves, and particularly if we get to be funny the way everyone else gets to, then people find it. So I always appreciate stuff like this. I’m such a fan.
Same! You know that I love your work.
It’s nice to look at you directly and say it, but you really have helped me in a lot of ways, telling me things other people wouldn’t, even about the money, the agent stuff, being honest. I am really tired of the fact that you don’t have a television show, but I know that won’t last for much longer.
You’re gonna sell a shit-ton more books.
I’ll come work on your show. Whoever gets there first.
Listen to the City Girls album.
I will. I feel like that’s good advice for everybody. Listen to City Girls.
So on that note, I love you.
Thank you for doing this with me. This was incredible. Let’s see each other’s faces more often.
I would really like that.
Bye, love you!