Books

Jenny Slate and Jean Garnett

The Slate Book Review author-editor conversation.

Jenny Slate and Jean Garnett.
Jenny Slate and Jean Garnett.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Katie McCurdy and Jean Garnett.

Jean Garnett acquired Jenny Slate’s essay collection, Little Weirds, in 2017 based on a 50-page writing sample. The collection was finished last winter after a four-day editing session at Garnett’s house. Here the Little, Brown editor and the comedian discuss stand-up, tidying up your feelings, and the delights of making something unclassifiable.

Jean Garnett: I first saw you perform stand-up years ago at a little club in Williamsburg. You were so alive and so present onstage that the whole dark, sweaty, beer-smelling room felt like it was vibrating. I’m curious about how the kind of live storytelling you’ve been doing for over a decade informed the writing of this book.

Jenny Slate: I loved those Williamsburg days! The show was free, and then it was $5, but you maybe got a free Miller High Life? I definitely drank unlimited free High Lifes (my favorite! It’s like “beer soda”!) and felt such a weight-free pride sitting on the bench at the side of the stage with the other comedians, like we were a team but one that did something like a joy-sport. (Is that a euphemism for sex? Joy-sport? It should be. “I’d like to make them the captain of my joy-sport team!” Yes. It works.)

Those performances were done in the dark, and the objective was to make people laugh and, yes, to make them feel something real and to assert my realness, but the margins were narrower because I had to make them laugh. What is the same between my writing and my stand-up is that an urgency occurs and comes to such a high energy level that I have no choice but to blast out. Onstage, that expression comes out wild, pure, full of joy and doubt and need, and there is only one draft. Onstage, I am in possession of the truth of my need, that I need things from people and I need a lot. I don’t sort, or really plan much, or even think. I just tear into the moment. And that’s what happens in the first draft when I write.

But the difference is that the objective (to be funny) is removed when I write, and it is a relief to remove it. I don’t want to be funny all of the time, and also I’m just not. I am tender and scared and sad, and being funny can cover that up, and then I feel sick and lonely. What I want is to not suffer in silence, but to find a pleasing way to fly the flag of my own experience, even when the colors are dark. So the answer is: I’m always the same, but while the stage is louder and more distilled or concentrated, writing is a deeper way for me to show more of myself. Both arts show how I am strong, and they show versions of how I am alive.

Now, a question for you. When I was pitching this book, you came by yourself to the meeting. Everyone else came in groups that were confusing to me. Why were there so many people? Did you come alone because you had seen my act? Did I seem more like a person to you? When I think about this book, I know that I came to it all by myself. Why did you come by yourself? I loved you for it, by the way.

Plus, you said you had a pimple, and that really broke the ice.

Garnett: I just wanted so badly to connect with you in a real way that would have been impossible with a group. I remember your agent, Claudia, emailing me before we met to say, “Heads-up, you are the only editor taking your meeting alone,” and that did spook me. I pictured everyone else coming before you with their impressive teams. But my instinct was that you were going out on a limb with your writing, trying something intimate and brave, and in meeting you I wanted to go out on a limb in my own way.

Slate: Did it confuse you that I wanted to write a book of little thingies that were not stories of why “SNL blah blah blah”?

Garnett: That you weren’t doing a more standard comedian memoir–type book? Jenny! It would have confused me if you were.

In the early stages of this book, we were corresponding a lot, and then there was a point when you were like, “I need space,” and we didn’t email for a while. It was like you realized that you were gestating something, and you needed certain conditions and certain kinds of nourishment and minimal interference. You went quiet for a few months, and then at the end of the summer you sent me an email saying, among other things, “I am incredibly doubtful of myself, but also I am so in love with this process.” I was really struck by the idea that you could feel serious doubt and yet (seemingly) not be tortured or incapacitated by that doubt (and maybe even love it?). I’m so curious about that intense period of creation that I didn’t get to see. Where did you go to get the biggest push of your writing done, and what did you need in order to do it, and how did you manage to love the process even as you experienced the pain of doubt?

Slate: Oh, Jean! You know, I think I must be very good at tidying up my feelings. The “I have self-doubt, but I also love this process” statement is really a picture of two huge emotional planets that are covered in geysers and have terrible temperatures and look a lot better from far away. The terrain of both is difficult for me. But I think that I hate hiding my experience, and that it was important for me to tell you that I was having difficulty, and that it was significant but that it also wouldn’t be the death of me. I think it was also my way of saying that I was working hard and not just fucking off?

Here’s what I think happened in the first wave: I just let everything clatter out, and I hardly edited, and then I would send the pieces to you. As you remember, the center of the book used to be (or was trying to be) a piece about a female deer who wanders out of an essentially benevolent wilderness and into a venison sausage factory. I labored over this piece. It was very lavish and very violent, and the metaphor was very personal to me. As I went deeper into the creation, I seemed to be fused with the deer in the piece, and it was killing me and grossing me out, and so I started to write small other things to lift myself up and feel relief. This was the silent time of “no sending,” where I was just writing down the tiniest lines and letting them sit. I collected the bright and lightweight little strips of thought in my mind and tried to relax about the idea that there was, indeed, a deadline.

Wave three was August and September of 2018 in which I did let my self-doubt torture me, or, I don’t think I had any control over how I felt. And then what happened was that I started to look at the peppier (even while sad) pieces that I had written to lighten my mood while writing about the deer. I just started to look at these and try to see what was the actual thing, and then I cut and cut. There’s nothing more soothing to me than tidying.

Eventually, I needed total emptiness, many steps past “tidy.” I went to my parents’ empty house (truly empty of most furniture) on the end of Martha’s Vineyard. I was very alone, and I lived very simply, and I made sure to get fully dressed in a monochromatic outfit every day. I saw myself as some sort of Georgia O’Keeffe/Old Katharine Hepburn/Female Whitman hybrid. I stopped thinking about anything but my own response. I filtered away the world, and I stopped festering in my doubt because it was all just so clean and I felt very safe. Suddenly there was a rush of understanding that trying to “make a point” was gagging me, that the doubt had a message and the message was to bring the edible to the table, not present a massacre on a slab. I wrote to you and said that the Deer had to die, that the piece was death for me, and I stopped looking at it forevermore.

Did it seem like I was in a shack in the woods, pointing at tacked-up trash? Were you scared that maybe I would just create nonsense?

Garnett: Never. But I did feel, from the beginning, that you were doing something new with your writing, and that newness could at moments be scary, because it was not always clear to me how I could best help or steer you. And actually, yeah, when you sent me the full first draft, I did have the impression that you must have created this thing in the middle of the woods somewhere, not pointing at trash, but like maybe unlearning English and then relearning it?

I was on maternity leave at the time you sent it, and it was the first thing I had read since giving birth that made any sense to me. I had been trying to read a few new novels that everyone was telling me were so good, and nothing was moving me—it was like everyone was writing in another language. And then I got your manuscript, and it was like finally, someone is acknowledging how brand-new and bizarre everything is, what a psychedelic wonder and a terror the world is.

I wonder how you manage to do that, how you speak from unspeakable places, like an animal’s consciousness, or the place of just being born, or of being dead.

Slate: Well, this is going to be a weird thing to say, but have you ever had this experience with food or with music or with sexual activity where something happens, and suddenly you’re like, “Oh, yes! This is how I really like it when I like it.” I feel that way when I eat certain foods that aren’t even hard to find (like cucumbers), or when a tempo switches during sex and you can tell that the other person really knows that it’s you who is there and not sex that is happening, and you awaken while living the experience and you say, “Oh, right, this is how I really like it.” That’s how I felt when I was writing the book.

Garnett: During my maternity leave, you came to stay with me so we could go through and edit the book together. For four days we sat holding our laptops by the snowy window, and you read aloud, and I laughed and nodded and occasionally stopped you to suggest cutting or changing or rearranging some sequence. I wish I could do that with every author, not only because things can get lost in translation over email and in track changes, but because it was so helpful and important—and so entertaining—for me to hear the book in your voice. What do you think the most important work we did during that stretch was?

Slate: All of the editing that you did was the most important. You helped me to figure out what I was trying to say, and we cut and cut and cut and really went over it at your house as you held your new baby and occasionally breast-pumped.

I need an editor, and everyone needs an editor, and we are lucky to have you. What I don’t need is someone to change my voice when they don’t understand it. What was very good for me was that you always asked questions, rather than just changing things or cutting them. That would make me feel crazy. But sometimes I am a little out of control, and my writing becomes so much in an inner-world vernacular I only speak to myself, and that’s when your job is the most needed: You protect the authenticity of the experience of my self, but you teach it to speak language when it only wants to howl. And I grew to trust both you as an editor and my own aim as a speaker/writer. I depended on the editing like one depends on a parent!

Garnett: I learned some things about you, like that you are allergic to avocados, and you have two sisters, and you were a big dork in middle school in a way that sounded painful but ultimately enriching, and you are very good with babies and moms. You were newly in love, and it was beautiful to see all the new love energy around you.

Last question: In publishing, everyone is always asking for a book’s “elevator pitch.” They want you to classify and categorize and draw comparisons. Little Weirds really resisted that whole vocabulary. The title itself came out of a conversation we had about how to define what you were doing (“they’re not essays; they’re not fiction; they’re … ”). Have you encountered people along the way asking you to define your book in terms they could understand?

Slate: The term “elevator pitch” sounds like something created by a fearful man in a system that is uncomfortable for me, or deadly even, and I think it’s ugly, and I think my chances are so much bigger than an elevator ride and bending someone’s ear in a tiny box as it goes up and down in a business building. And sure, one could say, “Sorry, hon, this isn’t art camp. You have to sell your work.” But goddamn it, Jean, the truth is that I legitimately do not give a shit about explaining my work to anyone so that they can be comfortable or forewarned when encountering it. I am also hyperaware of the ways that patriarchy and its terrible valet, misogyny, have conditioned us to win our work in a certain way, speak about it, fret about it, and of course … never show that you have doubts about it!

There will be lots of people who read my work and want it to be something else or just don’t like it or don’t understand it or don’t need it, and so they will spit it out. That’s fine. I just want to be able to write again. I want to do my work—otherwise I will not be living as I am meant to live.

You know what I want to do in an elevator? Press the button. Not get stuck. Not fall down and crash. Not shoot into the sky. Not make or smell a bad smell. Enjoy a peaceful moment of transit.

How do you deal with it? Unfortunately, I may have decided that it is your job and not mine. Is it?

Garnett: Yes, it is, and sometimes there’s a feeling of indignity in the task that I struggle against. At its worst it is an icky form (like an ad or a headline), but at its best it’s just one person expressing genuine love and excitement about a piece of art to another person. One of the many special and exciting things about working with you is that for once I got to embrace and flaunt a book’s unpitchability. I got to say things like, “It’s impossible to describe. Just go read it.” And then people would go read it, and they would come back to me all lit up and wanting to talk about it, and I could see them also grasping for a way to describe it. There’s a place in the book where you say, “Somebody always needs to go first. I know this. I go first.” That’s the closest I’d get to an “elevator pitch” for Little Weirds: Whatever it is, it’s the very first one.

Little Weirds book cover.
Little, Brown