TOBIN: Hey, Kath. Before we get started, I just wanted to do, like, a quick check-in with you. We're recording this on May 29th, uh, right before we release this next episode. How are you? How’re you doing?
KATHY: Uhh, I guess I’m … I’m feeling pretty exhausted. Yeah.
TOBIN: Yeah. [EXHALING UNDERSTANDINGLY] Yeah, I hear that. I stayed up until 2:30 in the morning last night, scrolling on Twitter, um, following the protests happening in Minnesota [KATHY HUMS, AFFIRMING] and around the country right now because of the killings of George Floyd — and Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade.
KATHY: [SOLEMNLY] Yeah.
TOBIN: And I just wanted to say, you know, I know it can feel very bleak right now. The only thing I know to do, to quote Mr. Rogers, [CHUCKLES LIGHTLY ONCE] is to look for the helpers. What's giving me hope is reading and looking into how Asian-American communities can be supportive and not participate in anti-Blackness. That is the main thing I'm thinking about. Um, what about you?
KATHY: I guess I'm also feeling a little helpless right now, but I do want to say to our Black and brown listeners that we are here for you. And we hope this show is a source of joy and comfort. And speaking of which, the episode you're about to hear was recorded a couple weeks ago. It's conversations with some brilliant and very funny writers. So, we hope you enjoy it.
[PAUSE, THEN NANCY THEME PLAYS]
VOX 1: From WNYC Studios, this is Nancy.
VOX 2: With your hosts, Tobin Low and Kathy Tu.
[NANCY THEME OUT, THEN A WHISTLE]
TOBIN: I said the dumbest thing the other day!
KATHY: What’d you say? Tell me!
[LIGHT, GOOFY MUSIC PLAYS]
TOBIN: Okay, so, this was a couple of weekends ago, and I'm just at my house — like I should be! — [KATHY HUMS, AFFIRMING] and I realize there’s, like, no TV series that I'm super feeling. Like, yes, there’s a bunch of good stuff. I just don't feel like watching any of it.
TOBIN: So you know what I did, Kathy? [BEAT] I picked up a fricking book!
KATHY: You did [OVEREMPHASIZING THE “WHAT”] what now?
TOBIN: [LAUGHS] I know, revolutionary! [KATHY LAUGHS] But, you know, the thing is, I did a thing I haven’t done in a really long time, which is, like, I just plopped down in a chair, and I read a whole book in one sitting.
KATHY: I don't know if I've ever done that before.
TOBIN: Um, it was a commitment. (By the way, if you're curious, it was Lulu Miller's book, Why Fish Don't Exist. Super great read. You should definitely buy it.) Um. But you know what my dumb ass says as soon as I finish that book? I said — out loud — “Oh, reading a book is just like binge-watching a TV show.” [CRACKS UP]
KATHY: That’s definitely — that's a thing you said!
TOBIN: Yeah! I know! [KATHY LAUGHS] The point of my stupidity is, reading is such a gift right now. And I am so hungry for books that will, you know, make me think, make me feel, distract me.
KATHY: Mhm, mhm. Hear that.
TOBIN: So, last episode, we had that amazing conversation with author Carmen Maria Machado, so I think we should just keep this train going. We are going to hear from so many amazing writers today, all with books that are worth your time.
[TWANGY MUSIC PLAYS]
TOBIN: I am so excited because up first is Samantha Irby, one of the funniest writers out there, and she recently published her latest book called, Wow, No Thank You.
KATHY: It's her third book of essays. And it's about a whole new chapter in Sam's life. She's 40 now, and recently got married, and moved from Chicago to Kalamazoo, Michigan to be with her wife. So, these days she's trying to make friends as a grown adult in a new town, and she's also a new stepmom to her partner's teenage kids. Her career's changed pretty dramatically, too. She went from writing a blog hoping to get guys to notice her, to writing for TV shows like Shrill and Work in Progress. And I literally laughed out loud reading this book.
TOBIN: Yeah! And she talks about her life with such a brutal honesty, and in this hilarious way that's self deprecating but also manages to inspire hope in me in this weird way. Like, she's so honest about her flaws and shortcomings that it makes me feel better about myself and my life.
KATHY: Same! I just love how real and relatable she is.
TOBIN: So relatable that she, just like us, has avoided going outside during this quarantine at all costs.
SAMANTHA IRBY: I don't know that I have felt outside air in — [LAUGHS] I mean, maybe, like, three weeks. I haven't even, like, stepped out to get the mail.
TOBIN: Well, I think what you're describing is what Kathy and I have sometimes described as, like, “We are indoor gays.”
TOBIN: Uh, that’s, like, our type. [KATHY LAUGHS]
SAMANTHA: Yes. And we are underrepresented in popular culture!
TOBIN: Yes. [KATHY LAUGHS]
SAMANTHA: Don't you think? [LAUGHS]
KATHY: Yes, yes.
TOBIN: We could have an indoor gay pride. [SAMANTHA LAUGHS] But no one would show up.
KATHY: Oh, wow.
SAMANTHA: Yeah, you just — everybody tunes their TVs to The Golden Girls at the same time —
SAMANTHA: — during the indoor pride. [TOBIN LAUGHS]
KATHY: Oh, yes, yes.
SAMANTHA: Wave your, like, rainbow flag out of the window and eat cheesecake and watch The Golden Girls.
KATHY: Uh, I’m curious, how did you come up with the title, um, Wow, No Thank You? [LAUGHS]
SAMANTHA: I think I wanted to call this, like, Is This Hell? Like, Am I Dead and Is This Hell? [TOBIN LAUGHS] Something like that. [ALL OF THEM CRACK UP]
KATHY: Like that!
SAMANTHA: [LAUGHING] So I pitched the book, Am I Dead and Is This Hell? And they're like, [LAUGHS] "Cute. We'll talk about the title when you've turned everything in." Right? [KATHY LAUGHS] So I turn in all the stuff — late, of course. And then we start talking about what to call it. And I, both times, was like, "Oh, it has a title. Remember how I told you it's called, Am I Dead and Is This Hell?” [KATHY LAUGHS] Um, and they're like, "Mmm, sweetie, no." So, my editor went through … she was like, "How about I go through the book and I'll pull out phrases that sound like they could be good titles." I can't remember exactly where I said it, but at some point I say, "Wow, sir! No, thank you."
TOBIN: Mmm. [KATHY LAUGHS]
SAMANTHA: And she had that — she had that phrase in there, and I was like, "Oh, that one, that's perfect." And then I was like, "Let's take out the ‘sir,’ because I don't want to alienate any sirs who might want to buy this book.” [LAUGHS, AND KATHY DOES TOO, WHILE TOBIN CHUCKLES] And she was like, "Okay, agreed." But it really does encapsulate [BRIEF PAUSE] my approach to many things. [ALL LAUGH] Like, it felt very true to both me and the collection. So I was — I was really happy with it.
TOBIN: So, you are now a step-parent to two kids, um, and you write about your parenting style, uh, using the term, quote, “detachment parenting.” [SAMANTHA LAUGHS] Um, how, how would you describe what detachment parenting is?
SAMANTHA: It is walking out of the room the minute they walk into it [TOBIN LAUGHS] while also paying for everything they have. [ALL BURST OUT LAUGHING] No, for real —
KATHY: Oh, that is ...
SAMANTHA: — it truly is, like, do not ask ... I … you have two parents who love you. They take great care of you. They will decide, like, what vaccinations you need to get, all of it. Like, don't ask me any life advice. I'm here to, like, sign into violent movies you want to watch. I'm here to, like, give you the password for that stuff, and also pay to keep the internet on. But you cannot come to me about any serious life choices. [ALL LAUGH] Because it cannot be my fault. Whatever happens to ... it's like my worst nightmare for these kids, who are great — they're sweet, smart, nice. But, like, ten years from now, for them to be like, “So, this thing you said to me in 2018 —“ [TOBIN LAUGHS, SO DOES SAMANTHA] “— destroyed my entire future.” [KATHY LAUGHS]
So, I just ... whenever either of them has, like, a serious look on their face, or they, like, have a genuine question that's not, like, you know, what snacks to get at Costco, I just am like — I leave the room. I'm like, “Oh, uh-huh, no. I'm the — life advice? No way.” [ALL LAUGH] Like, I'll just go get in the car and drive away. I'm like, "Is your mom still alive? Go ask her.” [TOBIN AND SAMANTHA CRACK UP]
KATHY: And has that actually happened? Has one of the kids come up to you and like, "I need advice about this?"
SAMANTHA: They — so, they have not asked for advice. I have ... so this is the thing I kind of like, but it's dangerous. I sometimes get the — because I’m — [QUOTING MEAN GIRLS JOKINGLY] I'm not a regular mom, I'm the cool mom. Um, I — [KATHY LAUGHS] — sometimes get the fire hose of child gossip, which — trust me — not as exciting as it sounds. [TOBIN LAUGHS]
It's truly, like, “She sat over here, and then I sat over there, and then I saw on Snapchat …” you know? It’s, like, the most boring thing you've ever heard in your life. But it is interesting to watch them, like, get all worked up. So, sometimes I get the — like, the gossip, but then it’s … I am an adult. [LAUGHS] So, I do, like, hear it through the prism of, like, “Is this bullying? Do I have to like go find another capable adult and tell them this story?” [ALL CHUCKLE] And so now I'm just like, I — I just avoid it altogether. I'm like, "Oh, you're having a fight with your friend. Okay, cool. Your mom is upstairs, come back down and talk to me when you want to watch Survivor.” [TOBIN LAUGHS WITH SAM, SO DOES KATHY] And they go talk to their mom.
KATHY: That’s so funny!
TOBIN: This sorta — this gets into a thing that I — I also love about your writing. Uh, I'm thinking about your essay in The Cut about marriage and sort of rethinking what commitment means.
SAMANTHA: Oh, yeah.
TOBIN: And it was sort of about, like, how, you know, like, commitment is not the rom-com we all imagine. There’s — there's something more, like, comfortable and mundane about it to sink into.
SAMANTHA: [LAUGHS, THEN, AFFIRMATIVELY] Mhm.
TOBIN: Um, and — and you talking about being a stepmom, you know, that there’s something, uh, that you're challenging, and this idea of, like, what a stepmom has to be.
TOBIN: And — and so I'm wondering, like, I — I read in your writing a lot, sort of, like, this challenging of heteronormative ideas. Um, and obviously that's just something you're writing about because that is your experience, but is there also something about it that you enjoy? Like, leaning into challenging those — those sort of ideas we have about what a person should be?
SAMANTHA: The pressure to be exceptional, when you are in any marginalized community, is intense, right? Like, you gotta be, like, the best gay, and you gotta be the best Black gay mom to be an example to all people who say that you shouldn't be allowed to be a Black gay mom. And I feel, like, just kind of like the way that I've lived and chronicled that life is just an example that, like, you don't have to be revolutionary. It's not perfect. It's not great, wasn't planned. You know what I mean? I certainly didn’t, like, set out to meet a kombucha lady who has a couple of kids and move to the country with her, [ALL LAUGH] but —
KATHY: Did you just — did you just say “kombucha lady”?
SAMANTHA: — but that's what happened. [STILL LAUGHING] Yes. She used to make her own kombucha. And I was like, “Not in my house!” [TOBIN AND KATHY LAUGH]
That SCOBY! Get that out. That has to go! [BEAT] She still does — like, she has a garden and she cans lots of vegetables and stuff, and I actively avoid everything having to do with that. But, um, but, like … [ALL LAUGH] I don't even remember what I was saying. Just, I think it is ... since I can be a person who is, like, a little public, and writes about myself, I think it’s, like, good for the culture just to see that happening and seeing that it works and that it's not a big revolutionary deal. This is just a normal life.
KATHY: Well, okay, so, I'm curious, then. You're talking about sort of being on the other sides of these big changes in your life and realizing that just doing the best you can is what life is made of. If you were to go back to your 20-year-old self, or your 30-year-old self, what advice would you give those versions of you?
SAMANTHA: Oh my god. Um, let's see. 20-year-old me? I would say, [SIGHS] to not worry so much about, um, catching up romantically, right? Like, I think I spent, like, a lot of my late teens, early 20s, feeling like I hadn't dated enough and I hadn't kissed enough people. And that's probably true. There weren't many. But I felt so desperate and ashamed about it. I thought everyone was passing me by, uh, in that way. And I would say, “Don't worry about it. You'll catch up.” Um. [LAUGHS KNOWINGLY, TOBIN CHUCKLES]
And at 30, I would say, “Don't let anyone —“ [STOPPING, REVERSING] or, “It's not even people who put pressure on you. It's putting pressure on yourself, based on what you think other people are doing. “And that is a thing I actively try not to do every day.
KATHY: [AFFIRMINGLY] Mhm.
TOBIN: I feel like I'm going to listen to that advice right now.
SAMANTHA: [LAUGHS] You have to! [KATHY LAUGHS]
TOBIN: This moment!
[BASS-DRIVEN MUSIC PLAYS]
KATHY: So, to wrap things up, um, we — we like to sometimes joke about the things — weird things or funny things — or whatever things out there that you would want, like, sort of elevated into the Queer Canon. Um, and they've spanned, you know, Tegan and Sara, or Jigglypuff. Uh, so, we're kind of curious. What would you want to put into the Queer Canon? What deserves to be put into the Queer Canon?
SAMANTHA: Oh my god. Well, overalls.
TOBIN: [EMPHATICALLY] Yes!
KATHY: Ooh, I love that.
TOBIN: I am — I’m bordering on purchasing my third pair, and I do not need a third pair. [SAMANTHA AND KATHY LAUGH]
SAMANTHA: Yes, those are the gayest! They are canon. [TOBIN LAUGHS]
KATHY: Love it.
TOBIN: Yeah! Thank you so much for making time to talk to us!
SAMANTHA: Of course!
KATHY: Yeah, this was so much fun!
[MUSIC CHANGES A LITTLE]
TOBIN: Coming up, a whole gaggle of queer authors give us a rundown of their new books, and we talk to writer Brandon Taylor about being a queer Black scientist, and why he quit.
KATHY: Nancy will be right back.
[MIDROLL MUSIC PLAYS BACK IN]
KATHY: And we're back!
TOBIN: We have been talking all things books, and Kath, even though this current moment is giving me tons of time to read, I also just gotta point out that self-isolation and travel restrictions robbed so many writers of book tours where they would normally be able to reach new audiences with their work. And, obviously, staying at home is the right thing to do, but there's gotta be something we can do to help some of these queer authors get the word out about their beautiful books.
KATHY: Way ahead of you, Tobin. We made a couple calls and asked some folks to tell us all about their books — what they're about, why we should read them — and they also gave us a little taste of what we can expect.
TOBIN: Hit it!
[BOUNCY, FUN MUSIC WITH WHISTLING PLAYS]
MATT ORTILE: My name is Matt Ortile, my pronouns are he/him, and I'm currently in my apartment in Brooklyn. The title of my book is The Groom Will Keep His Name.
MATT: [NARRATING] After all, heavy is the head that wears the crown of dairy queendom —
MATT: My book is a collection of essays, and each one dismantles a myth — a fable — story that I've told myself about what it means to be a queer Filipino immigrant in America, searching for belonging.
MATT: [NARRATING] — and freed of that burden, I've gotten better at discerning the difference: whether a man might fit nicely into my life, or if he's just a white guy with a beard.
MATT: A friend said reading the book was like having good sex. So the book is one safe option you have under quarantine, approved by the World Health Organization.
RACHEL MATLOW: Hey there, it's Rachel Matlow in Toronto. My pronouns are she/her, or they/them, or sir. That's good, too! My book is called Dead Mom Walking: A Memoir of Miracle Cures and Other Disasters.
RACHEL: [NARRATING] I waited expectantly for access to a higher realm and maybe some insight into my mom's magical thinking. Suddenly my face felt wet. I opened my eyes. The shaman was standing over me flicking Peruvian water on my head, chanting “Shanna-nana-nana-nana …”
RACHEL: It's a dark comedy about how my wonderful, feminist, New-Age-y mom tried to cure herself of cancer with herbs, cannabis, oil, and magic. Against my wishes. Spoiler — unsuccessfully.
[MUSIC TRANSITION, MUSIC BECOMES MORE ACOUSTIC, THEN DRAMATIC]
MEREDITH TALUSAN: My name is Meredith Talusan. My pronouns are she/her/they and them.
MEREDITH: [NARRATING] I learned about how difficult it was to grow up smart, but for the world to see you as valuable only if you look beautiful.
MEREDITH: I am currently in Berryville, New York.
MEREDITH: [NARRATING] I learned about trying to live up to an ideal of attractiveness, but being beset with obstacles as soon as you approached it.
MEREDITH: And the title of my memoir is Fairest.
MEREDITH: [NARRATING] How, the prettier you are, the less you're taken seriously.
MEREDITH: And I hope your wonderfully queer Nancy readers will like my book.
[MUSIC BECOMES HOPEFUL AND VERY BOUNCY]
ALOK: My name is Alok, I use they/them pronouns, and I'm a writer and performance artists based out of New York City. I have a book, called Beyond the Gender Binary, coming out in June.
ALOK: [NARRATING] We deserve more options. This false choice of boy or girl, man or woman, male or female, is not natural. It is political. The real crisis is not that gender nonconforming people exist — it’s that we have been taught to believe in only two genders in the first place.
ALOK: It's a really accessible and beautiful book that teaches people how moving beyond a world that divides billions of people into one of two categories is actually going to help everyone.
[MUSIC SLOWS AND GETS DRAMATIC AND ADVENTUROUS, ROCKY]
KACEN CALLENDER: Hey, everyone! My name is Kacen Callender, I use they/them pronouns and sometimes he/him pronouns, I'm based in Philly, and my book is called Felix Ever After. Felix Ever After is about 17 year-old Felix Love who has never been in love. And, yes, he's aware of the irony. He worries that he isn't loved and accepted because he’s, quote-unquote, "one marginalization too many,” as a Black, queer, and trans guy.
KACEN: [NARRATING] It could have been easy to say that I was hurt because I'm trans, because someone singled me out for my identity. But there's something weird about that. Something off about suggesting that my identity is the thing that brought me any sort of pain. It's the opposite. Being trans brings me love.
KACEN: Felix Ever After is funny, has a rollercoaster romance, and — above all else — I hope that is affirming and validating to my trans and non-binary family.
[MUSIC MOMENT PLAYS]
TOBIN: That was Matt Ortile, Rachel Matlow, Meredith Talusan, Alok Vaid-Menon, and Kacen Callender. We've put links to all of their books on our website, so go check them out!
KATHY: Alright! Next up, we’re going to talk to Brandon Taylor. His debut novel is called Real Life, and it came out in February.
TOBIN: Yeah, it's a story about a queer Black scientist named Wallace who grew up in the South and wound up studying in a predominantly white science lab. And he’s trying to navigate what exactly is “real life” in that space.
KATHY: Which is interesting, because Brandon is, in fact, a Black, queer, former biochemist from a small town in Alabama.
[CARNIVAL-ESQUE MUSIC PLAYS]
BRANDON TAYLOR: So, I was always helping my grandpa with farm chores, like growing things and looking after the chickens and stuff. And so, even as a kid, I was always keeping these ridiculous little notebooks about, you know, this chicken and that chicken had eggs, and now the babies look like this, and all these weird, sort of Mendelian genetics.
KATHY: Aww! That's so cute.
BRANDON: I was such a little nerd! [TOBIN LAUGHS]
KATHY: Have you found your youth notebooks full of that information that you collected?
BRANDON: My dad and I were having a phone call a couple of years ago and he's like, “I found your old school notebooks. Like, you wrote all of these really dark stories about little boys whose — whose mothers poisoned them with Clorox. And I also found all these scribbles, you know, where you were, like, playing teacher or something, all these math equations.” [ALL LAUGH] Um, and so they — they exist somewhere still in Alabama, yeah.
KATHY: They exist! [BEAT] So, before you wrote your novel, you were actually on your way to finishing a doctorate in biochemistry which you decided to not complete. I'm wondering, like, what were the experiences that you had that kind of ultimately pushed you to leave the field?
BRANDON: I was in a PhD program and I was, like, deep in. I think I was a fourth or fifth year, I was, you know, two steps from starting my dissertation. I kept having all these, like, weird experiences that left me, like, really tired, and I'd go home and talk to my roommate, who was also queer and black and from Alabama, and [SAID LIGHTLY, WITH HUMOR] I'd be like, "Yeah, this is, like, really getting to me. I don't know what's going on." And he'd be like, "Brandon, that’s, uh, racism." And I go, “Oh! Oh, I see.” [KATHY AND TOBIN CHUCKLE] But there were a few things that — that sort of pushed me to the breaking point. And one was, then in my last year of graduate school, I had this one, um, lab mate who would constantly, like, undercut me, and undermine me, and would say these really ridiculous things that were just [LAUGHS] factually not true. And I — and I felt like every day I was having to re-litigate my right to exist in that space. Um, and — and I guess I just realized, “Oh, wait, it doesn't have to be this. Like, I can make a different choice about what my life is like. I — I can leave.”
KATHY: What did it feel like to finally leave it behind?
BRANDON: Frankly, it was really devastating and really difficult, because, from a very early age, I was really committed to a life of science. And, like, at the age of 27 — I guess I was 27, 28 — when it's like, “Oh, I'm gonna have to leave this,” because it's either: I continue on down this path and I get into even more difficult spaces that are even harder to navigate, or I choose a different way to live that means throwing away a lot of what I knew about myself, you know, away? And do I pick self-preservation and honoring my dignity as a person? Or do I pick this version of myself that I — that I've always seen as being the sort of end goal for me, but, which is ultimately, like, a toxic, you know, situation? [LAUGHS]
TOBIN: What got you interested in this possibility of being a writer? What attracted you to that idea?
BRANDON: You know, I mean, so I was a very lonely kid, and so as a kid I was always sort of writing little stories and making things up. But I never saw myself as, like, a writer, because I never really saw myself as a reader. I thought that books were this thing from the Before Time, and that all authors were dead, you know? I don't think I read a living writer until college [LAUGHS] or something like that. And so I never thought that a writer was a thing that I could be — until I took a creative writing college class in — in college. And it's one of those weird moments where I was having a really hard time with a story, and so my friends took me to Books-a-Million to buy a book, because that was their strategy for me if I was ever sad — they just fling me in the general direction of books. [TOBIN LAUGHS] Um, and so we went to the gay section, and there was no gay section. And so I went to the front clerk and I was like, “Do you have this book?”
And it was, like, a gay romance book or something. And the clerk was like, “We don't sell that. We're a family store.” [KATHY GASPS] Um, and it just made me so mad. [LAUGHS] It made me furious. And so my friends took me home cause they were like, “We failed this mission to cheer him up with books!” But I sat down at my desk and I wrote a short story in, like, one day. Like, I was like, “I'm going to want to fix their wagon. I'm going to write stories about gay people and that’ll — that’ll show them.”
TOBIN: And so you decided to leave your PhD program because you realized you connected with writing more. And that’s, like, a huge step! Um, do you remember a moment that felt symbolic of, “Wow, I've really left this thing behind, or I really am leaving this thing behind.” Like, did you set a lab coat on fire? I’m — I’m joking [KATHY LAUGHS, THEN ALL LAUGH] but, like, just what's there? Was there something that felt like, “Wow, I'm really doing this. I'm leaving this thing”?
BRANDON: Like, in the fall of 2016, I sent off one MFA application to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and I was like, “If I get in, I'll leave science. And if I don't get in, I'll just stay.” I sort of decided, like, that would be the coin toss of destiny. Um, a month into sort of finally catching up on my experiments, I find out I got into Iowa. And then I was like, "Oh no! What do I do?"
TOBIN: [LAUGH] That is the famously hard-to-get-into Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Um, we were curious, you know, you described your PhD program and sort of the microaggressions and overt aggressions that go on there. But at the same time, MFA programs are notoriously sort of white and cis, and how they favor people and the environments.
TOBIN: Was there a little bit of that carryover when you went into this MFA program of some of that same bullshit?
BRANDON: I didn't experience the same kinds of microaggressions that I experienced in my science program. But that said, like, I — you know, I didn’t. But I'm sure there were things happening that I wasn't aware, ‘cause I spent a lot of time alone, frankly. I never felt like, “Oh, they're not into this because I'm writing stories about black people.” It just felt like, “Oh, they're not into like my austere domestic realism [BEAT] or my personality.” [ALL CHUCKLE]
KATHY: So, the main character of your novel Real Life is this guy, Wallace, who is also a Black, queer scientist. There are definitely some overlaps between your experience and his. And I guess we were curious, just, like, what went into the decision to write this as a novel as opposed to, like, say a memoir?
BRANDON: It never occurred to me to write it as a memoir, and part of that is, like, I find nonfiction, like, deeply painful in a way that I don't find fiction. [KATHY AND BRANDON LAUGH, TOBIN HUMS UNDERSTANDINGLY] Writing fiction to me — I’m not saying it's like, “Ooh, I'm on easy street.” But I just find it so much easier than writing nonfiction. I actually didn't want to write a novel. I consider myself, like, a short story writer. Um, but I had this agent at the time who kept asking me how my novel was going. Every time, I was like, “No, no, no. I'm not writing a novel. I'm a short story writer.” [KATHY LAUGHS] And he's like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. But, like, how's it going?” You know? Um, and so I decided I was going to just, like, sit down and write a novel so that he would get off my back. [TOBIN AND KATHY LAUGH] Um, and I never thought it would see the light of day. And so then I was like, “Okay, if I'm going to write this novel so I can write short stories, I have to pick something that I can finish. I need to get it done and get it out — get it out of my hair so I can get on with my life.”
TOBIN: [CHUCKLES] I'm curious, because you're also known for writing these shorter nonfiction essays that often get very personal. Um, what do you find are the challenges of each, now that you've written long-form fiction, and also, you know, these short-form nonfiction pieces?
BRANDON: So, anytime I set out to write nonfiction, it feels like an excruciating exercise and trying to take the thing you hold most dear and treat it with the most brutality you can muster. [TOBIN HUMS, AFFIRMING] Like, treat the things you believe in most with the greatest scrutiny and uncertainty. Like, in an essay, when you really take apart an idea, you know, like, when you really break something down and you see what's inside of it, that does really appeal to me — which is perhaps why I keep doing it despite all the pain it causes. [ALL LAUGH] Someone asked me, like, “What's the one word that you hope gets applied to your writing?” And I'm like, “Lucid.” Like, I love things that are [BREATH, CHOOSING A WORD] clear and I love things that — where you can feel the writer thinking through a thing and not just, like, pretending to think, ‘cause I think there's some nonfiction on the internet these days that feels like a person making gestures toward thought, or pretending to think, or sort of having an aesthetic of a person who once had a thought, but, like, [KATHY AND TOBIN CRACK UP] they aren't actually thinking. Um.
KATHY: I love the way you put things. [TOBIN LAUGHS SO HARD IT BECOMES COUGHING] Yeah. That description is …
TOBIN: Wow. I'm going to think about that for days. [KATHY LAUGHS]
KATHY: So, question: are you still able to do science-y things? Like, are you still using that part of your brain sometimes?
BRANDON: Oh my god! I was at home visiting and my grandma kept complaining about how the sink was just, like, full of grease, and it was, like, really backed up, and they couldn't do anything about it. And I was like, “Well, just, like, do an acid-base reaction. That’s all you have to do! The heat will dissolve all the grease and stuff.” And they're like, “Uh, what now?” [KATHY LAUGHS] And so, you know, I was like, “Step — step aside.” [KATHY AND TOBIN LAUGH] And so I — I, like, mixed up some — some baking soda, then poured some hot vinegar down, and then it all just starts gurgling and bubbling and everyone's like, “What witchcraft is this?” [THEY ALL LAUGH]
KATHY: Oh my god.
TOBIN: You totally had your like Elle Woods moment where she gets the dog back for Paulette [KATHY LAUGHS] and she's like, “Oh my God, this is law. This is what law is.”
BRANDON: Totally. I have those weird moments all the time where a friend of mine will be like, “Oh, I wonder how this like weird abstract scientific thing works,” and I'll turn to them and I'll be like, “Well, actually, carbohydrates.” And — and they'll be like, "How do you know that?" And I'll be like, "I don't really know. I don’t …” [ALL CHUCKLE]
TOBIN: I'm curious, is there a book by a queer author — besides your own — that you love, and recommend?
BRANDON: Oh, I mean, there's so many! Um, yeah. Literally, I'm like, “There are books by straight people? Oh my goodness!” [ALL LAUGH] Um, my favorite novel is Andre Aciman's Call Me By Your Name. And I know that’s, like, a controversial choice for many people, but, like, I — when I read that novel, 18 years old, it changed my understanding of the kind of life that was possible for me. I was like, “Oh, it's possible to exist in the world as a queer person.” Like, that book showed me that, like, my life could be interesting and could be a worthy subject of art. So, like, that book is always, like, a major touchstone for me.
BRANDON: And in speaking of, like, messy tomes, the book I think about maybe the most is James Baldwin's Another Country. Like, which is just one of these huge sprawling social novels in which everyone’s — everyone’s, like, a little queer, at least, [LAUGHING] like, there are no, like, fully straight people in that book, and it's a novel about [BREAKING INTO A SOFT CADENCE] race and class and gender and sexuality and what it means to live in this country. You know, like, a very complicated book on — I think, on America. It's a really brilliant book.
TOBIN: Um, so we sometimes like to add dumb things into the Queer Canon.
[DANCE-Y MUSIC PLAYS]
TOBIN: Um, if you were to nominate a very not-serious thing into, like, queer culture — the Queer Canon — what do you think we can claim?
BRANDON: [THINKING] Oh, [BREAKS OUT INTO LAUGHTER] that's amazing. I think Fleet Foxes are absolutely a queer construct. The band, Fleet Foxes.
TOBIN: Wait, what? [LAUGHS]
KATHY: [AGAIN, BUT LESS SURPRISED] Huh!
BRANDON: So, Fleet Foxes are, like — they’re, like, a band of white men from Seattle.
BRANDON: But I have this running Twitter theory where essentially every song about, like — by Fleet Foxes is, like, essentially about cruising and, like, feeling sad about a man who doesn't love you back. Like, they have this song, they have a — literally a song called "Mykonos," which is a gay destination. [TOBIN CRACKS UP]
BRANDON: Um, there's a song that opens, “My brother, where do you, where do you intend to go tonight? I heard that you missed your connecting flight to the Blue Ridge Mountains.”
[“MYKONOS” BY FLEET FOXES PLAYS THEM OUT]
BRANDON: And it's like, well, clearly, he's like, “Do you want to come over? Can you host?” In my opinion. [TOBIN CHUCKLES]
KATHY: I love this answer. I love it so much.
TOBIN: This has been amazing, Brandon. Thanks for talking to us.
KATHY: Yeah! Thank you so, so much!
BRANDON: Thank you for having me. This was such a blast.
KATHY: If you have a book that you love, share it with us in our Friends of Nancy Facebook group.
[FLEET FOXES CONTINUES TO PLAY FOR JUST A MOMENT, THEN SILENCE]
KATHY: Hey, folks. One last thing before we go. If you haven't heard, unfortunately, Nancy was not renewed for another season at WNYC.
TOBIN: It's a sad time for us at Team Nancy. But, I don't know about you, Kathy — I mostly just feel really fucking proud of what we did here.
KATHY: Oh my god, yes! We got to tell so many stories that we really believed in. We got to work together. It’s just been such a great time.
TOBIN: I think my big thing, and I know this is the same for you — we are so, so thankful for you, our Nancy listeners.
KATHY: You have shown up for us in so many ways. I don't think we can ever thank you enough.
TOBIN: Truly, truly. I also want to say, um, don’t be too worried for us. Kathy and I will be joining the staff at Radiolab in July, so look out for our voices over there.
KATHY: But, as for Nancy, our last episode will drop June 29th, and we'll maybe put a few extras in the feed before then.
TOBIN: So, please keep listening! Uh, we’re gonna go out with a party. Alright, credits!
[CREDITS MUSIC PLAYS]
TOBIN: Producers —
KATHY: Zakiya Gibbons and BA Parker.
TOBIN: Sound designer —
KATHY: Jeremy Bloom.
TOBIN: Editor —
KATHY: Sarah Geis.
TOBIN: Executive Producer —
KATHY: Suzie Lechtenberg.
TOBIN: I'm Tobin Low!
KATHY: I'm Kathy Tu!
TOBIN: And Nancy is a production of WNYC Studios.
[CREDITS MUSIC PLAYS OUT]