Talking with Lindy West about fantasy novels, deadlines, and why Seattle is her home

Lindy West’s debut memoir, Shrill was published yesterday to great acclaim. I had to recuse myself from reviewing it for the Seattle Review of Books due to personal circumstances; I was Lindy’s coworker at The Stranger for three years, and she asked me to read Shrill before its publication. And so I know I’m biased, but I do love this book: I think Shrill is funny and honest and heartbreaking and empowering and meaningful. It starts in the way you always expect Lindy’s writing to go, with some jokes and sharp observations, but by the end it’s become something different. Lindy’s writing gets more nuanced and vulnerable and powerful as the book goes along, creating so much more than just a collection of personal essays: it’s a story of evolution and a personal account of growing up, both as an adult and on the internet as a personality. Lindy and I met up for lunch on Tuesday, April 26th to talk about the process of publication, what she’s been reading lately, and her relationship with the internet.

How's it going?

Great. It's going great. I'm eating a beet salad. I'm home for a couple weeks before I leave for a book tour in earnest which starts May 14th and goes until, basically, the end of June, which is going to be really intense and really fun and really hard to be away from home, I think. But I'm excited.

You are doing all sorts of pre-pub stuff right now. Posing for photos and things like that.

Glamorous photos. It's very glamorous.

Some of the photos are amazing.

Thank you. Yeah, it's been really fun. It's weird to have your picture taken and try to look fancy. You get used to it, I guess. So, basically, right now we're just ramping up to the publication date. I'm doing interviews and photos and typing stuff on Twitter, which is always fun. The response [to the book] has been really amazing. It's been really good so far from people who've read it.

It has been.

We got a starred review in Booklist that came out today.


Thank you. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, too. It's really scary to write something so personal. It's so isolating; writing a book is very solitary. Basically, I was just alone for a year writing really much more personal things than I normally write. Now, all of a sudden I have to just send it to people — strangers — and let them read it. Especially as a former — I guess or still, current — critic, it's kind of like, “oh no, I should have been nicer. I should have been nicer about people's precious art.”

Are you worried that Sarah Jessica Parker is going to review Shrill at some point?


You kind of were on the fast track with this book because you did write it in a year…

I mean, I really wrote it in like, four months to be honest. It was really fast.

Well, that's your process. That was the pattern when we worked together at The Stranger: you tend to come in at the end with a finished draft just at the moment of deadline…

Yeah, exactly.

…as someone who has edited your work.

It was partly process and partly necessity where we set up a really tight timeline. I knew that I wouldn't really need the whole year. We did a long timeline and I was like, “I'm gonna do it in the last four months anyway.” So, might as well just go for it and try to get it out in the spring. When we signed the contract in March, that would have been for a Fall 2016 release. We decided to publish in spring so that it didn't clash with the election.


So, I just had to bang it out, which was really hard and scary but I don't know that I could have turned out a better book in a longer amount of time. I feel really good about what I did.

It's been very impressive, watching you through this process because when we were at the paper together you never missed an issue, but you did come up very close to the deadlines sometimes. Which is okay! Some writers only work under deadlines and that's fine.

I have never failed.


Like, ever. I don't think.

So the way that you were able to sort of work with your process and make it work for you, I thought was really impressive and showed a lot of self-awareness.

Thank you.

It was a grown-up way to put a book together.

It was also, knowing my own process, way less painful than I would have expected.

The writing of the book?

Yeah, there were only maybe two all-nighters in the whole thing, which, for me, is impressive because I do an all-nighter a week trying to get my Guardian column done and that's a thousand words. So the fact that I wrote seventy-thousand words and only stayed up all night twice crying ...

As opposed to seventy nights.

Yeah. I don't know what's wrong with my brain, man.

It clearly works for you.

Thank you. You're so supportive.

One of the things that I miss about working with you is that you would go to a movie and you would come back from the movie and you would yell at me for a half an hour and then you would write your review down and it would be a lot of the things that you yelled at me, only a little more eloquent.


So I’m wondering who do you yell at now for your process? Did you yell this book at someone's head?

Yeah, I guess I mostly yell at my husband now. Although I wrote this book mostly by myself. No, actually there were big parts where I was like, "Meehh, I can't write it! Come home and let me yell at you," and then he did. He's a wonderful — much like you — a wonderful sounding board and he really understands how I think and how I write jokes, so he helps me a lot. He's really proud because there's a couple jokes in the book that were his jokes. I'm not going to say which ones. All the funniest ones are mine.


No, I mean, we both work from home and don't really do anything else, so usually it's really just us in the house all day, everyday, yelling ideas at each other and making jokes. I guess he's my new Paul.

As I think it's pretty obvious, I write in my own voice. I know that when people read me they just hear me talking. People who know me tell me that all the time. It's a pretty natural way to do it, to just sort of blab on and on about something and write down the best sentences. I just sit there and I type. Sometimes I even just talk into my phone recorder and then transcribe it later.



It's funny because there was a point where I realized that that was your process. I'm thinking about the only other writer I know of who wrote like that was Robert E. Howard who wrote the Conan books.


He apparently screamed all the words as he was typing them, which makes reading the Conan books a lot more enjoyable, because I'm imagining this sort of mamma's boy who's homebound shouting at his typewriter: "AND THEN CONAN DREW HIS SWORD!" I think it makes the books a lot more interesting.

I never read any of those but now that I know that we're kin, I will.

If you ever want to get into barbarian novels, that’s the way to do it.

Barbarian novels are not that far from my personal wheelhouse.

It's true, you've written amazing things about Game of Thrones.

Yes. Big fan.

Are you still reading fantasy?


Who do you like?

It’s a genre where the canon is so dominated by men, but it's so heavily consumed by women. It's a weird negotiation to read fantasy and try to figure out, “where am I represented in this? How is this treating me as a woman,” you know? Mostly what I do is I like to have a… [pause] This is so dorky. I can't believe you're making me talk about this.

This is great.

I like to have an audio book on hand at all times ... just as I do stuff around the house. I find it very soothing to have some sort of escapism that I can just feed into my brain because my life's kind of stressful and garbagey a lot of the times.

I mean, it's great but you know, I also have this steady drip of poison into my brain thanks to the Internet. It's nice to have this completely bizarro escapist other-universe to go live in a little bit each day. I like to listen to my audio books when I go to the gym and then I call it my fantasy body. Which I think is funny.

Right now I'm listening to Brandon Sanderson's… what the fuck is it called? Hold on. It's like you could just have made it in a fantasy book title generator. Hold on, it's called “Words of Radiance.”

It's just like this huge sprawling, endless thing. I think it's great. It's not super gross about women, which is good. Although, when I found it, I was Googling "best fantasy audio books" and I was looking at some Reddit board. Unfortunately, it's clearly like all dudes recommending books by dudes to other dudes.


There's this couple who narrate audio books and their names are Michael Kramer and Kate Reading and they're married. I became familiar with them because they narrate all of the Wheel of Time books which are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours long. I'm almost all the way through them. That's where my fantasy body started.

So Kate Reading reads the female chapters, chapters that are for the female narrator, and Michael Kramer reads the chapters of the male narrator. They do the same thing for these Brandon Sanderson books and also, Brandon Sanderson was the author who was brought in to finish the Wheel of Time books after Robert Jordan died.

Anyway, so I'm looking at this message board and they're like, "these Stormlight Archive books are amazing," or the audio books. They're like, "Michael Kramer's so good! Kate Reading, I don't care for." They're like, "I don't know what it is about her. There's just something annoying that I hate."

”I think her chapters got cooties in my ears…..”

They weren't self-aware enough to realize that connection. Then a bunch of them were like, "Yeah, me too!" So, clearly it wasn't just like one guy didn't like her voice or whatever.

Then when I finished the first book in this series, then I was like, "oh, I wonder if there's an audio book of the second book." And there is. There's two main characters, a man and a woman. The first book is mostly about the man, who's a warrior-man having warrior emotions on a battlefield. Then there are also chapters about this woman but they're secondary and she's a scholar-magician-whatever. Then the second book is more about her. It was the same thing where all these dudes are like, "No, I don't know. I just really loved the first one. There's just something about this one that's kind of boring to me. I don't know. I just don't connect to it as much." It's just like man, you guys, just be around a girl for a minute. What is wrong with you?

Is that what you think it is, is that the experience is so alien to them or something?

I don't know. Also, I can't presume to know why they don't like Kate Reading and Shallan Davar. That's the character.

I remember as a kid being bored by the kissing parts in the movies, but it can't possibly be like that for an adult man, can it?

Did you see that thing? There was a story the other day where some video game was forcing dudes to play as women and they were like, "Baah." They could not deal with it. It isn't really a hostility like, "Oh, I fucking hate this book." It’s just like a boredom. It was like “I've been taught to find this boring.” I'm adding the “I've been taught” part, but there's nothing inherently boring about it. It's the same story. It's the same universe. It's the same writing style, same everything. The difference is that [the main character is] a woman. They're both doing the same, well I don't want to give any spoilers away, but ...

Okay. Hate to ruin somebody else's fantasy body.

I think a lot about why I'm drawn to this genre and I haven't figured it out yet. I'm resisting temptation to figure out a way to phrase this as a compliment to myself. I just feel the world very deeply and so sometimes I need a break. I don't know. There's something about maybe working in this job where you're just bombarded with information about the real world 24/7, and everything that's wrong with it, and everything that can't be fixed and I get so exhausted.

I always liked fantasy when I was a kid, but I read everything when I was a kid. Now I just, the idea of reading even just a really good book about real people's lives. I'm like, “oh yeah, okay, I do want to do that but, I'm so tired.”

You have this 24-hour feed of people's lives into your brain. I think I could easily break through that wall because obviously I still appreciate beautiful writing and I care about people's lives and I assume this phase will go away. For right now I have time for the Internet — processing it and writing about it. Then I have time for listening to stories about knights and people with names that sound like pharmaceutical medications. Everyone's name's like Geurdivan or whatever.

People who specialize in the riding of dragons.

There's no dragons in this series, so that's okay. There's, like, the crab things. So that's something.

I could listen to you talk about fantasy books for fucking days. I just love it.

Well, if you ever want me to give you a plot synopsis of the Stormlight Archives, I'm still figuring out what's going on. It's supposed to be a ten book series. Each book is... I haven't held a physical book but these audio books are like seventy hours long, so it must be at least a thousand page book.

Every time I try to pick up a sci-fi book now it's like the first book in a series. I just find that incredibly disheartening as a reader. That's part of the whole fantasy thing, so you must enjoy that.

It's not like I've always been a reader of contemporary ... I don't usually read fantasy novels as they come out, you know what I mean? The fact that this dude's only finished two books of his 10-book series is troubling. I only have eight hours left on my audio book and I'm like, then what? Then I have to wait twenty years for your next one, Brandon?

I'm the same with TV. I'm a binge watcher. I don't like to watch something every week they have to wait. I would rather pretend it doesn't exist and then at the end of the season watch the entire season.

It was really fun, sort of, to go through the entire Wheel of Time, sort of. So tedious. I never finished. I need to finish. An immersive, long-form book is so engrossing and you get so attached to it and you don't want it to end. Sometimes it doesn't end for four hundred hours, which is great.

Then the author dies and then another author comes in and finishes it for you.

Right. I'm a big fan of the original fourteen Wizard of Oz books, but then after L. Frank Baum died, there was like a million other authors who were like I also write books about Oz. I didn't read that shit. I don't do that. I'm not going to just read it for the sake of reading it, you know what I mean? I still want it to be good.

Which seems as good a segue as any to get back to your book. You do get more personal in Shrill. All your writing is personal in that it comes from your perspective, but you do write more about particular events in your life here. Given that your life has already been used by certain people against you, it seems like you've given them a little bit and they just take it and throw it at you.

You mean bad people?

Yes, bad people. I don't want to talk about the bad people for the most part because they just take up so much bandwidth anyway. But this had to be a consideration when you signed on to write something that's kind of memoir-y.

Honestly, it's not that big of a consideration anymore. I'm curious, kind of. I wonder what they could possibly take from this to hurt me with. I've been doing this for so long that I'm not afraid of them anymore. I'm just tired. I don't want to limit my career and what I do because of bad people.

Were there other concerns though, about writing about yourself like this? We were both kind of trained to offer ourselves to readers but not to go to overboard with it.

Yeah, when we wrote at The Stranger, writing was different then. It was especially unfashionable then to be sincere and vulnerable. Irony was still like, really big, which was great at the time. I don't know. It's weird. I was just thinking about this yesterday. I feel like people think of me as an over-sharer. Instead, I'm actually really, really private. There are a lot of things that I don't write about at all and I never would and I'd be really uncomfortable sharing. I feel like I let people into a very carefully curated part of my life that's very honest and is vulnerable.

I am curious to see if trolls bother to read my entire book. If they do, I hope they'll buy a copy. I guess they could download the e-book illegally or whatever.

There are pirates.

You think I'll get pirated?

I'm sure you will get pirated.

That'd be kind of flattering. My publisher probably would be mad that I said that. I don't know. What could they throw at me that they haven't already done?

[Knocks on wooden table.]

I know, right? I know. I probably shouldn't be interested in finding out the answer to that. Also, what's going on with the Gamergate crowd right now is crazy, where they just pick a thing and then decide what it means and then all signal boost each other until people just believe that that's true, you know what I mean?

Crowdsourced gaslighting of people?

Yeah. Like, that woman that got fired at Nintendo for nothing because they just made up a thing. We'll see. I've said this before: the more vulnerable you make yourself, the less vulnerable you are. If it's already in the book, what can you say if I already said it? You can't, like, gotcha me on anything that I put deliberately in my memoir.

I'm kind of retreating from the Internet, anyway, a little bit. I'm hoping to just move on to writing another book after this and I'm certainly not going back to daily blogging. It's so hard. It's just too taxing. There's also always the chance that a troll will read the book and change their mind.

I'm sure that does happen, because books are good at doing that to people. Putting them in someone else's head for two hundred pages can introduce a new kind of empathy to their lives.

That's kind of the whole idea, right? Yeah, so maybe that will happen. That'd be kind of interesting, not that I would ever know about it. And that was an express purpose of writing the book, was to humanize myself.

Just think about that phrase for a second. “To humanize yourself.”

I know. But, you know, to make people like me, to be funny and charming and make people like me. Then be like, "Haha, you like a feminist" or "you like a fat lady," or whatever. I did that on purpose. That's in the book proposal. This is what I want to do. I guess I look forward to people who don't like me reading the book. If they decide to torture me, ugh, I'll deal with it. It will be fine. I've dealt with it before.

There was a very specific moment when your star was on the rise when you were at The Stranger where it felt like if you had gotten started ten years before, you probably would've moved to New York City because that's what people did at that point. In the book you write about going to L.A. and trying that out for a little bit. I know you made a conscious choice to stay in Seattle and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your relationship to Seattle and what that choice was like?

I'm from here. I really love it here. I just love Seattle so much, and I always have. Both of my parents are from here. There's something about knowing that when I drive through downtown, I can see my dad walking down the street with his briefcase in 1973 or whatever. You know what I mean? It just feels like it's in my DNA. It's an easy place to live. It's quiet. It's beautiful. My family is here. I have a beautiful house. I mean, I don't own it. That'll never happen.

It's my home town. I was lucky enough to have a really great home town that I love living in. I just had the good fortune to keep getting jobs where they said I could work from wherever, so there's just no compelling reason to go. It's like well, all right. If you're going to pay me a New York salary to live in Columbia City, sweet. I will do that. I know that I'm missing out on things. It's hard to know what my career would be like if I had moved to New York. I definitely miss out on things like media cool kid happy hour, or whatever, you know what I mean.

That was a great face you made when you said “media cool kid happy hour” that I wish I could record.

I don't regret not being there for that. I think it's kind of interesting to be this weird outsider where I go to New York and people are like, "Oh, I've never met you." You know what I mean? Like, "Oh, you exist." Also now I'm married and I have stepdaughters and you can't just move children. Their mom lives here so we'd have to move her. I don't think that she wants to move to New York and I'm not a millionaire. Life gets complicated and you get rooted in a place.

Aham and I have both had opportunities to work on TV shows recently and potentially in the future. It might end up where we spend half the year in New York, or a couple months a year. We're not ever going to leave Seattle as far as I know.

That's not to say that Seattle doesn't have problems. It has problems that definitely affect us. My husband doesn't want to live in a neighborhood with all white people and our neighborhood is becoming mostly white people in a way that is alarming. I don't know what we're going to do about that. Just keep moving south, I guess.

Yeah. Tukwila, here we come.

It's really important to us that we live in a diverse area and that our kids live in a diverse area. That's going to be a constant negotiation, but we'll figure it out. Both of us are really attached to Seattle. possible to do things here on a scale that's really fun. If I wanted to do a one woman show or whatever I could call people up at a bunch of different theaters and be like, "Will you help me?" It might not work, but I would at least know who to call. In New York, who am I, you know what I mean? Where would I even start? Maybe I should do a one-woman show.

You should. You totally should. Was there anything that was especially surprising about the publication processes compared to the world of blogging and…columning that you came from? From whence you came?

There's a lot more support. You have a team of people working on your thing with you. Whereas, working for the internet is increasingly like, “okay, finish your thing and put it up. We’ve got to write eight hundred more blog posts today. No time to fact check. Don't worry about it. You're your own copy editor.” So [the process of working on a book] was nice. It feels very old school.

The thing that surprised me the most about this process was that I was able to do it. It's really scary: it feels very hubristic to me to be like, “oh yes, I can write an entire book.” I have never felt that way about myself. I never even planned on being a writer in the first place and I'm still kind of convincing myself that I know how to do it. To be like, “yes, I will now write an entire book about me.” I'm not that interesting. I'm really not. My life is really just normal and good. I wasn't raised in a cult. I didn't have any kind of cool backstory. I just had two nice parents and we lived in a nice house in a nice city and I went to a great school and I had great friends, you know?

You're really selling this book.

Yeah, don't put this part in. [To the recorder:] There is a cult.

Getting over all that was kind of scary and hard. Can I really do this? Then, once you sit down and start to do it and you're like, okay, I write a thousand words all the time; I just have to do that 85 times or whatever. However many times a book is. Mine ended up I think, being about seventy thousand. Then you start to do it and you start to trust yourself and realize, “I do know how to do it.” I've been doing this job a long time. I was surprised, kind of surprised that I got it done and that I actually made something that I'm really proud of and that people like. I hope. I hope people like it.

I like it!

Thank you.

I think it came together really well and I...

Yeah, but you're my friend.

Yeah, and that's why I can't review your book. But I think it works really well as a book, which was my concern going in — that you had such a short amount of time. Not that there's anything wrong with a book of essays, but I think it would be a little bit of a letdown for you to have written a book of essays first because people have read so many essays by you, right?

Yeah, totally.

This functions as a book and there is a narrative, even if it's not directly handed off from one chapter to another. I think it's a good book.

Thank you. I'm really shocked that I can't wait to start writing another book. I think this book turned out really well, but now I know how to write a book and now I'm really excited to see what my next book is. I think I can make it really good. I just want to win an award, Paul. It’s not so much to ask.

I guess it depends on which award.

Well, I'm not picky.