R. Eric Thomas, HERE FOR IT

R. Eric Thomas, HERE FOR IT

Zibby Owens: R. Eric Thomas is the author of a collection of essays called Here for It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America. A senior staff writer at elle.com where he has written the pop culture and politics humor column Eric Reads the News since 2016, Eric has also been published by The New York Times and many other publications. His writing for the theater has been seen around the country and has garnered him many awards including the Barrymore Award. He is the long-running host of The Moth StorySLAMs in Washington DC and Philadelphia. He currently lives in Baltimore with his husband, the Reverend David Norse Thomas.

Thanks for coming on. I really appreciate it.

R. Eric Thomas: Of course. Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: Would you mind telling everybody what your book is about?

Eric: Absolutely. Here for It is a memoir in essays. They’re all humorous essays. I really admire Samantha Irby. I really admire David Rakoff and David Sedaris. The essays are in that style. They are all about different positions of feeling like an other, feeling like you don’t belong. I talk about growing up lower income, black, gay. We grew up conservative Christian. I went to a school that was largely Jewish, and so just places where I felt like I didn’t belong, and figuring out what belonging means. I originally wanted to call it Belonging by Michelle Obama, but that title apparently was already taken, so that’s a little weird. The essays go from moments throughout childhood, like big, consequential moments in life, and then small, weird, little moments like awkwardly trying to be a wallflower at a party and accidentally catching on fire. It really runs the gamut. It goes through adulthood. It goes through right up to the 2016 election.

Zibby: Wow. You had another title that you threw in here, but I don’t want to repeat it because I feel like it’s — do you remember? You said there was another title.

Eric: I did. I originally wanted to call the book Why Bother. It was right around the time that Hillary Clinton’s book What Happened came out. I was really fascinated by the idea that you could pose a question that maybe was a statement, maybe was a question. For me, Why Bother kind of encapsulated the spirit of the book, which is like why bother to get out of bed in the morning? Why bother to try to make the world a better place? Why bother to try to feel like you belong? Of course, it would’ve been a harder sell, a book called Why Bother, but I do feel like, particularly in this moment — I didn’t write it for this weird, strange moment that we’re in, but I think that spirit still carries through. Why are we trying to reach each other still? Why are we trying to make our mark in the world? Why are we trying to speak truth to power? I think it’s because we feel like there must be something better on the other side. That’s what the book is about, figuring out what’s on the other side or at the end of the book or behind the next page.

Zibby: I hope there’s something good behind this stage of life. I just made this custom candle. It’s called “next chapter, please” because I’m ready to turn the page. That was actually my husband who came up with it. I’m like, next chapter. I’m done with this.

Eric: I feel that.

Zibby: I know your essays are fantastic. You have so many of them on elle.com. They’re funny and just awesome. Did you write these essays for this book? Did you have some of these essays? How did you decide to make it a whole book? What was the process? What was your thinking?

Eric: For years I have been involved with live storytelling shows like “The Moth,” which is another great podcast, or at an organization called First Person Arts in Philadelphia. I’d started telling stories from my life and figuring out what a narrative arc inside of these stories was. Then I’d done a couple of evening-length solo shows where it was three or four stories stuck together. I hadn’t written any of the essays as if they were formal essays until my agent and I started talking about what a book might look like. The reason that I chose this avenue as opposed to writing fiction or another kind of nonfiction book was that I felt like the things that were most consequential to me when I was coming up, and even now as an adult, the books that really shook my worldview were people’s stories told honestly and vulnerably and sometimes humorously and sometimes not. I really endeavored to figure out how to put my life into essays and figure out how to make it funny even though there are a lot of moments that aren’t funny, which I felt like was a fun challenge for any writer to say, I’m going to write my life story and I’m going to write it humorously and I’m going to figure out what the joke is. Either you’re telling the cosmic joke or the cosmos is telling a joke on you. So I’m like, well, let me beat the cosmos to the punch.

Zibby: I love the tone of it because it feels like you are just talking. As I read it, it just feels like I’m listening to you talk. Your voice is so clear. It’s really funny and awesome.

Eric: Thank you.

Zibby: I want to hear more about how — so you had a viral Facebook post that ended up getting you to your job and your whole career and everything. When you wrote about it, you said, “Pivoting to writing full time seven months after a viral Facebook post scored me a plum freelance gig, I found that I had reached a point at which the facts no longer made sense in the narrative of my life.”

Eric: It’s true. I’ll tell you how it happened in a second. I feel like if I was writing my life story as fiction, as a novel, people would say, oh, this happened, that was a little too easy. It’s kind of like how Carrie on Sex and the City, she writes like one column a week and she can afford to live alone in New York City and go drinking every night. It’s just not realistic. It seems fake. I was working at a community center as the program director for a little while. I used Facebook, just like we all do, to update about my day and things I’d read and seen. I wrote this Facebook post one Saturday morning about this picture of Barack Obama, Enrique Peña Nieto, and Justin Trudeau. They were striding down this red carpet. They just looked so good. They looked like a movie poster. I was like, uh, I feel weird about thirsting after world leaders, but whatever, this is where we are. And so I wrote about that, just a couple hundred words on Facebook. It went super viral, something like 65,000 likes and 17,000 shares. My former editor at elle.com, the site director Leah Chernikoff, saw the post. She sent me a message and was like, “Do you want to do something like this every day?” It’s like Cinderella. It’s like, welcome to your new life. I feel like Annie walking into Daddy Warbucks house, things that were happening in that moment.

Things kept going viral. Then people really started responding to the column. Then after the election, I wrote about all the things that were changing in the world. I also wrote about Representative Maxine Waters a number of times. That’s where a lot of people know me from. The columns I wrote about her went super viral. People really glommed onto them because she’s a phenomenal person and a phenomenal leader. She has a unique voice. It really dovetailed with the kind of writing that I like to do. Now I write the column every day. It’s harder to write humor about the news at a time like this, so there’s a lot that goes into it, a lot of conversation. I am supplementing that by also writing — I’m writing a new series for Elle where I look back at different genres of classic movies through the lens of our current moment of isolation. For instance, I wrote about rom-coms a couple weeks ago because a lot of rom-coms are about being isolated and trying to reach out to people through unique means. You find that there’s a lot of applicability in movies that came out thirty years ago to this current moment where we’re all Zooming at our relatives.

Zibby: It is so crazy that we’ve ended up here. In your latest — maybe it’s not your latest. In the one I read most recently, this morning, you wrote one about how handshakes are no longer the thing, which Dr. Fauci has said. You were so funny too about how that’s now the authority. So funny. You said, “Trend alert, handshakes are over, baby.” Then you suggest some other solutions to greeting people physically or whatever. I want to find it myself. I need help.

Eric: I know. It’s wild. It’s so easy for me to spiral or get just really wound up. A lot of times, I look for the absurdity and the places where absurdity is just truly absurd and not malicious. There’s a lot of things that I personally feel like some of the people in charge are doing that are absolutely malicious. I’m like, okay, I don’t know what to do about this. Some things are just ridiculous. When you break it down — I wake up every morning in this house and I’m like, I’m not allowed to leave my house. That’s ridiculous. I don’t know what to do with that. I’m like, all right, let me figure out how to make it funny. For me, it’s taking the granular, the little pieces of it and blowing them up to huge proportions. With handshaking, yeah, it definitely makes sense that maybe we don’t ever handshake again. That seems a little deranged, but whatever. This is the world we live in. I ask myself, then if I can ignore the big point, which is it’s not safe to handshake, and look at the granular point, which is how will I know we’re meeting if we’re not shaking hands? I’m like, well, I’ll just boop everybody right on the nose and then do the Harlem Shake, and that’s the way that we greet each other. Today for instance, I’m thinking about writing about the post office and how the post office is in danger of becoming insolvent, which is strange. Now we have to do a GoFundMe for the concept of mail? That feels beyond my purview. I didn’t sign up for this as a human adult in America. I’m like, no, no, no, I just want to put a little stamp on things and say, see ya never. We live in absurd times, but every time is absurd, I guess.

Zibby: Have you seen the Jerry Seinfeld routine about the post office from his standup show?

Eric: I don’t think so.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Go find it online after we get off. You will laugh so hard.

Eric: Yes, excellent.

Zibby: It’s so funny about how they might have to raise it by one penny. What’s a penny? Who even has a penny? Anyway, I won’t do it justice. I can’t embarrass myself, but it’s very funny. Use that as inspiration for your post office column. I want to go back, if you don’t mind, to the feeling-left-out part of the book. I know you make light of all of it all the time, but the poignancy to that stayed with me also. You had a quote about how — you said, “I knew I was not the same as my classmates, but I was compelled to believe that my options were just as promising. Demographically, I, a black male growing up in West Baltimore, didn’t have great odds, but inside the bubble even statistics seemed to work differently.” You talked about going to all these bar and bat mitzvahs, fancy places and riding horses, and also how your family was struggling financially in part because your parents sent you and your brothers to private school. I just wanted to know, did you feel guilty about that? How did you feel about this whole piece of your life?

Eric: It’s amazing. My parents worked really hard to teach an inherent sense of worth to me and to my brothers, which the world was never going to teach us. The world doesn’t teach most people worth. There’s a million ways that we can feel unworthy. The idea that we were worthy of these things, these educational experiences, even these sacrifices really came up, butted heads with the reality when I started to realize that when they were paying for me to go to school, that meant they couldn’t buy new clothes for a decade, which is true. My parents didn’t buy clothes for a decade. They couldn’t afford to go on vacation. Sometimes food was — we were never hungry, but sometimes figuring out the food budget became an issue. As I became more aware as a preteen and teenager, I did feel really guilty. As a child, you feel, also, powerless. You’re like, I’m glad that you’re giving me these things. I think I deserve it. I’m a human. I want things. I want a mail service. I want food. I want to go to all my friend’s bar and bat mitzvahs.

Also, you start to understand how it works, what the reality of being a human in a society is, which means that you owe things to other people. One of the things that I continue to struggle with as an adult is the idea of, how do you ever repay your parents for what they’ve given you? I don’t have an answer for that. I wrote a whole book about how they’re great, which people should buy so that I can take them on vacation when I can see them again. There’s no way. You can never tell a parent, really, what they did for you. Maybe that’s the paradoxical beauty of the whole thing, that because it’s so great, it’s inexpressible. Words fail. You don’t need to say anything. We’re just sitting here being good to each other and being appreciative of each other’s presence. That’s the best way I can think of it.

Zibby: Aw, I love that. As a parent, that’s awesome to hear. Are you Zooming with your family and everything? Are you staying in touch?

Eric: Yeah, we were Zooming. My parents FaceTimed me the other day without warning. That’s a gangster move. I was just sitting watching TV. I didn’t have a shirt on. All of a sudden, their faces are on the screen. I was like, oh, excuse me, one second. I’m in my house. Yeah, we’re Zooming. We did a big family FaceTime, which is kind of nice. I have a brother who lives in the South. The rest of the family is here in Maryland. We don’t get to see them as much. Actually, we’re seeing each other more now because of Zooming and FaceTime and all that. There’s the positive part of it.

Zibby: That’s awesome. What do you have coming up next? You’re going to keep doing your Elle column, I’m assuming.

Eric: Yep, I’m going to keep doing my Elle column until they turn the lights off on me and I can’t do it because I live in my house. I have another book coming out in September that I cowrote with Helena Andrews-Dyer. It’s called Reclaiming Her Time. It’s about the work and wit and wisdom of Representative Maxine Waters. That’ll be a really fun book, really gorgeous book. It’s a great gift. You learn a lot about Maxine, or Representative Waters. I got a little causal there for a second.

Zibby: I won’t tell.

Eric: I have some other larger projects in the works. I don’t know what’s going to become of them or when they’ll ever see the light of day. I write all the time. I write plays. I write books. Then I write my column. I sit down and I’m like, what medium are we in today? The next thing to look for is Reclaiming Her Time, the book about Maxine Waters.

Zibby: Very cool. By the way, I just have to say that outside my window, the mail truck just pulled up.

Eric: Yay, mail!

Zibby: The perfect sort of coda to our conversation. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Eric: Absolutely. I loved Christy’s advice about knowing that it’s a business. I read Courtney Maum’s book Before and After the Book Deal, which is phenomenal.

Zibby: I love Courtney Maum.

Eric: I think it’s also equally important to really dive into what is at the core of your voice as a writer. For me, that means constantly reading writers whose voices I admire and whose voices are like mine and different from mine; and then also really reading your own work as if you were doing a literary study in college of somebody else’s work and examining how it’s put together, how it was constructed, what things work, what things don’t work; and then treating it like a business but also like you are refining an artisanal craft, like you’re making artisanal goat cheese. That’s my advice.

Zibby: Maybe from now on anytime I try to write, I’ll put some smelly cheeses around and I’ll channel that.

Eric: Smelly cheeses definitely help.

Zibby: Who knew? You never know when you ask this question, what people will say. This is perfect. Awesome. Eric, thank you so much. I’m glad we finally got a chance to speak. Your book was great and funny and awesome. It’s just what people need right now. Everybody go get Here for It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America.

Eric: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thank you. Buh-bye.

Eric: Bye.

R. Eric Thomas, HERE FOR IT