Samantha Irby has a painting of a pink porcelain toilet in her Zoom background. My assumption is that the small piece of art, sitting above my view of her face, is a nod to Irby’s desire for readers to consume her books “while taking a shit,” as she tells Esquire. It’s also an encapsulation of how I feel on this warm April day: sick with a violent stomach infection.

Given that the New York Times bestselling author writes at length about unpredictable bowel movements in her delightful fourth essay collection, Quietly Hostile, I’m comfortable telling her that at any moment, I may excuse myself from the interview to use the restroom. Luckily, Irby is understanding. “You know I can relate,” she says, unspooling a story of contracting E.coli last year, which facilitated projectile vomiting and a trip to the ER. “I had to do a poop test,” Irby says, and I’m charmed.

Speaking with Irby from her home in Kalamazoo, Michigan is not unlike reading her prose. I prompt her on the varying subject matter she explores in Quietly Hostile—like creating a television pilot, the first day of lockdown, getting stoned, and receiving death threats after writing on HBO’s And Just Like That. Then, Irby walks me through her list-like explanations, interspersing anecdotes that make my face hurt from giggling. Her laugh is contagious, and much like her writing, you can’t help but smile when witness to it. And while Irby jests on the video call that her work is “not meant to be studied,” there’s much to learn from an essay writer who creates literary currency out of commiseration and coping. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ESQUIRE: In the book, you describe what it means to be Quietly Hostile: “I am mild-mannered and super polite, but just beneath the surface of my skin, my blood is electrified.” Why did you choose this for the title, and what do you hope it conveys?

SAMANTHA IRBY: I never name my collections going in, except the first one, Meaty, which I did with a small press. They don’t let me choose. I wanted to call the last one “Dying Is Fine.” And they were like, “Bitch, no, we’re trying to actually sell books.” I usually don’t come in with an idea. I turn it in piece by piece, late, to my editor. She then pulls out phrases that might be good collection titles, and some of them, I’m like, “I didn’t even know I wrote that.”

When I found out Quietly Hostile was first on the list, I was like, “Oh, I remember writing that. Yes, that is the title.” What always chaps my ass is that when you’re funny, people assume you’re always funny and not depressed and you don’t get mad. I get mad, but it incinerates my internal organs. I’m not screaming at anyone. I’m boiling my pancreas because I’m so pissed off.

In the essay where you write about those first lockdown days, you convey the humor and absurdity that can partner with tragic experiences. Why is it important for you to create laughter out of sorrow?

I always try to sprinkle a little sugar on the hard stuff. I’m not going to write about the science of the pandemic. I haven’t caught COVID, knock on my head, so I can’t write from the lens of experiencing it. When big tragedies strike, everybody tries to be thoughtful and knock it down to the nitty gritty. I don’t know how to write about the pandemic in broad strokes, or how many people died, or systems collapsing. That’s not my beat. But what I can do is make people feel less alone about the shit they do. What’s most important to me is writing things that people relate to. One person could say, “Listen, that happened to me, too,” and the humiliating story is worth it because one person can relate.

Half of the reason that I write is because I’m mystified by my own behavior, and the other half is asking questions like, “Wasn’t it nuts that the news was teaching us how to wash our hands? Remember singing Happy Birthday?” A lot could have happened that would have inspired me to write a more sensitive, heart-tuggy piece. But I’m not going to fake it. Let’s just talk about how insane it was. Sometimes we get so busy analyzing, which I get, but I really love to kick back and be like, “Wasn’t that fucked up?” That’s my vibe in life, generally. I try to bring that energy to my writing, too.

I was looking forward to your chapter on HBO’s Sex and the City revival And Just Like That. You write that people were upset about “the choices a fictional character I did not invent makes on a show that is not real regarding a man who absolutely does not exist.” People called you a “murderer” for killing off Carrie’s husband Mr. Big, as if it was your choice. Why do you think audiences have such a strong connection to fictional characters?

I was 19 when Season One of Sex and the City came out. It definitely imprinted on me, but I have some distance from it. I was living in Chicago. I’m a fat Black woman with a shaved head. So it wasn’t like this could be my fantasy, but I was invested. I honestly wanted Carrie to end up with Aidan. I understand the Big fantasy, but come on, he was not nice to her.

I don’t think the problem is with people being passionate about the things they like. The problem is what do you do with that passion. Like, I love Forest Whitaker and everything about him. He is my Instagram avatar. I’ve watched all his interviews. But I would never spend time on the internet figuring out how to write a letter to someone who wrote what happened to him in a movie I didn’t like. If all my dreams came true, I would force everyone who is active online to sit through a short course in how TV writing and production work, who makes decisions about what, and what the level of responsibility is for each person, so that maybe they could chill out.

Also, when the writer’s room was announced, everybody’s response was about how they added Black and brown people. It was very easy for people to blame the things they didn’t like on that. Or the things they were pretending not to like, because I know from the metrics that millions of people watched. That’s how we got a second season. But for a certain type of person, it’s irresistible to be like, “You added Black and brown people [to the writer’s room]. Those are the ones who added the Black and brown people to my white show. And they’re probably also the ones that killed Mr. Big.”

Quietly Hostile also explores your experience writing a pilot based on your life. While the show didn’t get made (for now), you wrote that it was challenging to base the series on your life and writing while simultaneously crafting a plot that translates to television. Can you talk more about balancing these realities?

Writing about myself for a book is just me vomiting out a bunch of my feelings. But trying to write a story that’s cohesive and follows the television formula is different. A pilot has to do so much. It has to introduce you to people and get you on their side. You have to let viewers know what the season is going to be about and who these characters are. You’ve got to give them a reason to come back. We have to show people that Sam has a job but no money. Sam sleeps with men and women. Sam has a yet-to-be diagnosed bowel disease. And we have to fit that into 22 minutes and make it compelling. I don’t know if I will do anything more difficult. Especially since I only have my real life to pull from.

I don’t want to give myself too much credit, but I can make most things that happen to me interesting on the page. You have a lot of room to take a circuitous route to the end. It doesn’t have to follow a formula. But when putting together a TV show, you have to think about your life as entertainment, which is wild to do. What do people find entertaining? And specifically, what does this executive at Viacom like? I’ll never know. It’s surreal to be tasked with that. The hardest part was getting negative feedback—not because I can’t take it, but because it’s like, do you disapprove of me and the life I lived? Or do you disapprove of the way it’s written? It’s hard to separate yourself from it when the character’s name is fucking Sam. I was working with Abbi Jacobson and Jesse Klein, though, and they made their suggestions. Nothing is just you, which is a relief.

You love to experiment with the structure of your essays. What role does finding original formats play in your writing style and practice?

If I could spend my life making lists, I would. I love a plugin template. A lot of my work doesn’t lend itself to straight write-through. As a reader, I understand the beauty of the little space on the page [that can act as] a stopping point, a place to pause if I set the book down.

Anything I can do to break the writing down into smaller chunks of writing is great. I don’t want to write the whole thing, but if I chop it up into three lists and four interstitials, I can do it. Another thing I do is write the parts that I want to write, even if they’re not linear. For example, I know I want to do a section on X, so I write that part first because that seems fun to me. And then there’s another part where I want to talk about Y, so I do that a different time. Then I bring the parts together and see what I need to connect them. If I were writing persuasive essays or reporting, then I would have to stick with a format. But with me, I’m going to write the parts that inspired me to write in the first place, then figure out the connective tissue. Everything is a trick to get me to finish.

You mention a few times in the book how you enjoy taking edibles. As a fellow stoner, I’m wondering what role cannabis plays in your daily life and in your creative process?

I don’t want to be this guy, but I love weed. I love the feeling. But I’m not a good stoned writer. This is going to sound so stupid, but when I get high, I like to take a 50 milligram edible and just lay out. I don’t give a fuck. My dispensary has these edibles that look like fucking Legos. When I’m high and I’m just feeling good in my body, I immediately want to lie down. I like to experience it horizontally. Occasionally I will write my newsletter stoned, because I write that at night during the stoned hours. I have a lot of ideas when I’m high, like the essay [in Quietly Hostile] about whales. That’s some real two-in-the-morning-just-smoked-weed-shit. Maybe I’ll make a goal for the next book where I’ll write one fully stoned piece and I’ll tell the editor that they can’t edit it.

I was a late stoner, too. Of course I did drugs in high school, but when I was 19, my friend and I bought a joint from an old roommate’s boyfriend, and it was laced with crack. This was the late nineties. We didn’t know [it was laced], obviously, and my homegirl smoked. She was like, “Something is not right,” and I was like, “Let me try.” We agreed it was fucked up and didn’t feel right. My roommate’s boyfriend came home and we were like, “What’s up with these joints?” He was like, “I gave you guys the wrong ones. Those have crack in them.” Then I took a big break from unreliable street dealers. Now that it’s legalized, it’s great. My blood is going to be green. Life has never been better for those of us who like to get blazed.

It’s okay to write a thing where the goal is for people to take a shit, read an essay, and chuckle.

Who inspires you creatively? Who did you draw from as you were working on this collection?

I listen to a lot of old Black men standups like Paul Mooney, Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, and Robin Harris. I also like Mo’Nique, Sommore, and Mike Epps. Anyone doing “this is me” kind of standup, I love that. I don’t do much straight-up everyday satire, but I love the roasting of everyday shit, or political shit, or whatever is happening through a comic’s lens. I love Katt Williams, who is very good at telling a story. Standup is super inspirational to me.

In Chicago, where there was a community for it, I used to perform my work all the time. I feel like my writing is almost conversational—an elevation of telling a funny story at a bar. I’m a person who’s like, “If we have to sit here together, let me drum up my best material.” I want to make you laugh. I want to shock you. I want to get you to fall in love with me in five minutes, and standup is kind of like that. The best standup is like, “We’re all in this together, and isn’t this some fucking bullshit?”

People want to hear writers talking about writers, so I will say I love Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. I started reading it on the bus when I was 20. I was going to work and crying from laughing. I was like, “I didn’t know that you could do this.” I didn’t know that you could tell a story from your childhood, reframe it so that it’s funny, and put it out into the world. Also, Chelsea Handler’s collections are so good. I’ve listened to the audiobooks of every one and they’re so funny.

These kinds of books taught me that not every book has to be absorbing and thought-provoking. It’s okay to write a thing where the goal is for people to take a shit, read an essay, and chuckle. You can read it on the bus or while you’re waiting for your friend at a restaurant. I don’t write shit that is meant to be studied or to teach you anything, and that feels good to me. Whatever you take away from it is worth it, and hopefully it’s a laugh.

Headshot of Madeline Howard

Freelance Writer

Madeline Howard is a writer, editor, and creative based in Brooklyn. Her work has been published in Esquire, Nylon, Cosmopolitan, and other publications. Among other things, she was formerly an editor at Women’s Health. Subscribe to her newsletter ‘hey howie’ at  

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