Quarantine Reading: Samantha Irby, Bess Kalb and Mary Laura Philpott

A canceled book tour may seem like the least of all possible worries in the world we live in right now. But for many authors who had planned to release new books this spring, there’s real disappointment in plans gone sideways. Whether it’s a launch party, a multi-city tour, or simply going out and toasting the milestone with friends, the celebration of a new book is a rite of passage most authors won’t get to experience in this stay-at-home season. Still, many are trying to look on the bright side, focused on sharing their books with readers in other ways. Musing caught up with the writers of three memoirs to find out what author life is like these days and how it feels to connect with readers virtually instead of in person.

Before we dig into the conversation, let’s take a quick tour of the books:

Wow, No Thank You.: Essays Cover ImageWow, No Thank You.: Essays

Fans of Irby’s wildly popular prior books — Meaty and We Are Never Meeting In Real Life — were thrilled to get another personal essay collection by the hilariously unguarded writer, who has also written for television. (Together with Aidy Bryant, she co-wrote Hulu’s series Shrill, based on the book by Lindy West.) Entertainment Weekly calls Irby’s latest “the perfect book for right now,” and goes on: “Irby can never make fun of herself enough, which is good news for us: Her misery makes for great company.”

Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A true (as told to me) story Cover ImageNobody Will Tell You This But Me: A true (as told to me) story

Bobby Bell died at age 90, but her larger-than-life personality takes center stage in her granddaughter Bess Kalb’s debut book. Written mostly in Bell’s voice, like a letter from the great beyond, this collection of wisdom and anecdotes pays tribute to the loving bond between granddaughter and grandmother. Kalb is a natural comedy writer (whose work you’ve likely heard on Jimmy Kimmel Live! or seen in The New Yorker), but she also shines when telling more poignant family stories. Novelist Jodi Picoult wrote, “I have not been as profoundly moved by a book in years.”

I Miss You When I Blink: Essays Cover ImageI Miss You When I Blink: Essays

It’s been a year since the hardcover release of I Miss You When I Blink by former Parnassian (or “bookseller emeritus,” as she says) Mary Laura Philpott. Now a national bestseller, the debut memoir-in-essays earned Philpott comparisons to Nora Ephron and closed out 2019 by landing on best-of-the-year lists from NPR to Esquire to Real Simple. It’s out now in a special new paperback edition, complete with a technicolor cover and bonus features such as an author Q&A and discussion guide for book clubs.

1. First off, how are you? Safely at home?

Samantha Irby: I am at home in southwest Michigan, which … it’s not as much of a hot spot as the east side and Detroit. I don’ t mind being at home, so this hasn’t been — you know the people who need to get out and see people very day? That’s not me. I feel a little guilty because I’m like, “Being at home is OK!” Everybody’s healthy and a little stir crazy, but I’m like I got a pile of books, our internet works, so I’m fine.

Bess Kalb: Yes! Hunkered down in Los Angeles with my husband and 8-month-old baby. The baby is loving it.

Mary Laura Philpott: We’re doing fine. Everyone’s healthy. Worry and grief are in the air, but it has also been joyful in some ways to have the whole family back home with me during the day again. (I wrote a little about those conflicting emotions recently.) There are four of us in one house — so inevitably someone crashes someone else’s Zoom call at least once a day. Nothing says “professional” like a beagle climbing in your lap and sneezing all over the screen during an interview.

2. In terms of book-related activities, what did your spring plans look like before the pandemic changed everything, and how does it look different now?

Samantha Irby

SI: So I was supposed to go on tour I think for a month a half. I enjoy seeing people and hugging people and having them heap praise on me, but traveling is miserable. I hate it. No one really talks about how on book tour you are meeting people and expected to be yourself while also being dirty and tired. You’re recycling clothes and hoping people don’t breathe in too deeply when you hug them. It was supposed to start in Iowa … I was going to come to Parnassus, and you were going to get a chance to see me dirty and sweaty. … So this is a big change from what I was supposed to be doing right now, but I don’t mind it. I gotta say, I’ve done some virtual Zoom events and I am really going to pitch this if I do another book; I’m going to pitch this as my future tour because it’s nice! I’m very happy to be clean and at home, but I do miss the hugging people of it all. But now you can’t hug anyone or you will die, so it’s probably better that I’m here and not touching anybody.

BK: I had a book tour planned, and then suddenly four or five days before the publication date, there was no book tour. I was supposed to go to New York to read at Symphony Space, and instead the venue did a Zoom reading for Facebook Live, and it was a surreal experience. I read my book alone in my office in my house to an unseen audience of solitary people. It was also different from a traditional reading in that I wasn’t wearing shoes. I’ve said yes to every online opportunity presented, because I love to connect with readers in any way I can. I’m doing radio interviews and podcasts from my bedroom closet. And I’ve done a few virtual book clubs, too.

MLP: We’ve had to cancel live events, obviously, but I’ve been connecting with readers in some fun and unexpected ways. I attend book clubs virtually [https://marylauraphilpott.com/bookclubs/] whenever I can, and I’ve done more online events via Zoom and social media. I’ve learned how to prop up my phone and sit so my head is visible onscreen and it doesn’t look like an interview with my neck or my armpit!

3. How are you feeling about the pandemic?

Bess Kalb. Credit: Lucas Foglia Photography

SI: It’s scary, right? the flu is also scary, there are so many scary things and I’m immunocompromised, so I often have a heightened fear around catching something I won’t be able to get rid of. The scariest part is you have to be dependent on other people. … You trust the scientists to come up with the vaccine or whatever. I have faith in that. But faith in people not storming the capitol so they can get a haircut or whatever, that is the part is the most distressing to me, that we have to rely on regular idiots. Like, I am a regular idiot, but I know how to stay home and just cringe when I see how long my hair is.

BK: I’m just glad the book is resonating with people in a time of crisis, and helping distract them from this strange and stressful time.

MLP: In a parallel universe, I might be sad about having a new edition coming out just as everything’s shutting down, but what can you do? And the way the book community has innovated not only to get books out to readers but to take care of its people has been amazing. If this paperback gives people something to do other than grind their teeth about reality, I’m glad. So I’m bummed out but also impressed and hopeful, and just sort of … oddly relaxed, I guess?… because nothing’s within my control. And of course, you can’t get too upset about any of this when people are losing their lives. It’s not hard to keep it all in perspective.

4. Let’s take a moment to share some love. What’s another book coming out this season that you’re excited about?

Mary Laura Philpott. Credit: Heidi Ross

SI: Michael Arcenaux’s I Don’t Want to Die Poor. His and mine were both on the edge of like, “They’ve all been printed — get out there and sell ’em.” His first collection I Can’t Date Jesus was so good and funny and the new one is also so good and funny. I hate this word and it gets used on me a lot — it’s relatable. And Michael writes from a very open and genuine place, which is just so nice. And I mean it’s truly a nightmare to be doing anything book-related at this time but his book is very good. I just got a book from Parnassus called The Unsuitable by Molly Pohlig and it’s a gothic ghost story — i just started it but I’m really excited to read that. The Herd by Andrea Bartz. I loved her book The Lost Night. I really love a thriller. That is my lane. I really want a fast-paced who-killed-who-in-a-sexy-way kind of book, and The Herd has all that and more.

BK: Mike Birbiglia’s The New One. It’s hilarious. And poignant! Samantha Irby’s Wow, No Thank You is a soul-cleansing tonic for these times. [Editor’s note: I swear we did not plan this.]

MLP: Can I name more than one? In memoir, the book of the season has got to be Wayétu Moore’s The Dragons, The Giant, The Women; holy moly, it’s breathtaking. And then there are two smashing novels with very different moods from a couple of my favorite novelists: All Adults Here, an ensemble story by Emma Straub about a loving but imperfect family, joyfully balances wit and soul; and Sea Wife by Amity Gaige, about a family who decides to live on a boat for a year, perfectly captures the uneasiness and claustrophobia a lot of us are feeling right now.

Bonus Q — to answer in just one sentence: What’s your local independent bookstore, and what do you love about it?

SI: It’s called Book Bug and I really do love it and spend so much time there. I love that they truly try to create a sense of community.

BK: Skylight Books. A gem in my neighborhood and a wonderful place to spend the entire afternoon.

MLP: Do you even need to ask?