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A local writer and performer known for her honest, searing stories has been igniting Chicago’s literary scene this fall, earning accolades for her new book, “Meaty.”
Many Evanstonians know author Samantha Irby as a familiar face at Bramer Animal Hospital on Davis Street – a comforting presence at the front desk who coordinates the needs of the human owners and animal patients she sees every day.
But to more and more Chicagoans, she is a no-holds-barred addition to the city’s literary scene, known for her blog “Bitches Gotta Eat” and her readings at venues throughout the city.
Ms. Irby lives in Rogers Park – she says that “the rent is cheap and I can still get away with waking up 40 minutes before I need to have my ass at work” – and writes most of her blog posts during her lunch break in a little room in the back of the hospital.
Ms. Irby started posting “Bitches Gotta Eat” in 2009; the blog now has nearly 16,000 fans and has had one and one half million page views. More than 2,200 fans follow her via @wordscience on Twitter – and more than 15,500 “like” her Facebook page.
The social media adoration for Ms. Irby is one reason her book has sold so well. With the book’s recent release, she has been the focus of profiles in the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, the Chicago Reader (which named her the “Best Nonfiction Writer” of 2013) and Jet magazine. The Reader also named “Meaty” the “2013 Best New Nonfiction Book by a Chicagoan.”
The writer has appeared frequently on “The Afternoon Shift” on WBEZ and is a guest speaker at Columbia College. And bookseller giant Barnes & Noble has selected “Meaty” for its upcoming “Discover Great New Writers” program.
Ms. Irby grew up in Evanston and graduated from Lincoln Elementary School, Nichols Middle School and Evanston Township High School. She says she is still “so Evanston” and remains very close to the friends she grew up with. She and her friends generally agree, she adds, that “you can always tell when someone is from Evanston.”
While a student at ETHS, Ms. Irby says, she performed with friends in “Theatre of the Awkward,” an improv comedy troupe. She says she remembers stealing pallets from behind the True Value Hardware store on Central Street to build a stage and writing comedy bits they performed in living rooms and backyards. She concludes she was probably better at the writing than the performing.
If she were to give advice to today’s high schoolers who are interested in writing, she says, it would be that “you have to have a job.” She emphasizes that worrying about supporting oneself by one’s art obstructs creativity as well as productivity, and that a job also helps one learn how to work with people.
A Range of Topics
When Ms. Irby was 18, she lost both of her parents. Her father, an alcoholic, died from exposure near Evanston’s Mason Park and her mother, who had multiple sclerosis, died after spending five years in a Chicago nursing home.
In a powerful “Meaty” essay titled “My Mother, My Daughter,” she describes the period during middle school and high school when she took care of her mother while trying to be a student.
“It didn’t take long for me to realize that the worse of a job I did keeping myself clean and getting myself out of bed to get to places on time and finishing my assignments by the time they were due, the more frequently my day was interrupted by various school authorities demanding to know who was in charge of my care and why they were doing such a shitty fucking job,” she writes.
Ms. Irby’s other essays in “Meaty” also cover a lot of personal ground, with many more personal details than most readers would ever think about revealing. But for her, she says in the book, “for some reason, those details seem necessary.”
In her essay “At 30,” the list of her “needs” and good intentions (“I need to look into retaining an acupuncturist”) is funny and poignant. The list introduces themes that appear in later essays, such as her lack of control over eating and her Crohn’s disease, as well as her experiences dating a variety of disappointing men, to whom she sometimes refers to as “garbage-ass dudes.”
From Blog to Book
The digital writing so prevalent now in emails, blogs, Facebook posts and Tweets is so informal that to turn it into a book of substance must be a real challenge. But Ms. Irby has done it and done it well, converting a blogging style and blog material into compelling essays.
Ms. Irby’s final essay in “Meaty” is a group of her personal recipes, and a recent blog post features several others. For her blog, she says, she “throws in the recipes to appease the readers who thought, based on its title, that her blog was a food blog.” She says she loves to cook, and these annotated recipes are as entertaining as her blogs and essays. When she dines in Evanston, her favorite Evanston restaurants include Crossroads, Pete Miller’s and Lulu’s.
Like many good essayists, Ms. Irby often makes herself her main subject. Much of her appeal has to do with her writing truthfully and humorously about what she and her readers think and experience and saying it better than they could – or would. She says she could not have foreseen the range of women readers who would directly relate to her writing.
Ms. Irby is doing a book tour that consists of “going where she knows people.” So far, that includes St. Louis, Ann Arbor and Brooklyn. She has finished the novel she refers to in her first essay, but is not showing it to anyone yet. She is working on an op-ed piece for the New York Times.
Despite her prolific output, Ms. Irby has no Internet at her apartment. “The Internet makes people overestimate the value of their opinion,” she says.
Witty But Serious
As a stand-up comedian, Ms. Irby has appeared in Evanston at Space, which hosts the live literary event Write Club, but she most often performs at Chicago venues such as Powell’s Books (where she hosts a reading called “Guts and Glory”), the Green Mill, Book Cellar, Paper Machete, and Funny Ha-Ha. Her onstage manner is warm, gracious and witty. She seems relaxed but in control. She is very similar in person. In one of her essays, she writes that she laughs “at a lot of stupid shit,” but she is always aware of her audience.
Older readers may be put off initially by Ms. Irby’s graphic descriptions of her sex life and how she deals with having Crohn’s disease. But those who put these concerns aside and keep reading will find she is a serious and agile writer, and what she says goes beyond the comic. Males may not like the way many of these essays paint them, but they will be unable to dispute the evidence she provides in their gender’s indictment.
She says she prefers writing blog posts to writing essays: She does not like to “sit with the work” for too long. She does little editing once she is done.
Ms. Irby selected the chicken picture on the cover from a stock photo website. She says she finds it funny, since chickens are the “least meaty of animals.” The title of the book can be taken to mean interesting, substantial, weighty, full of content, and rich in matter for thought. It is a great choice for these essays.