Lindy West’s 2016 memoir “Shrill,” which became a hit Hulu series, not only heralded the writer as a major voice who refused to shy away from tackling complicated issues like body image and harassment — it also helped many readers in turn find their own voices. While she’s resistant to call herself an activist, there’s no doubt West’s work has challenged and changed the pop culture landscape and how we understand and engage with it.
So, it should come as no surprise that it’s that very landscape that West has chosen as the inspiration for her new book, “The Witches are Coming,” out Nov. 5. In the collection of essays, West dissects both current and former pop culture phenomena, points out and examines how the society we live in was not, contrary to what some believe, solely created by Donald Tump or his influence, writes candidly about abortion and recounts her experience attending a Goop conference. There’s even a chapter titled “Is Adam Sandler funny?” dedicated to analyzing the comedian’s filmography and how ― and if ― it’s held up over the years.
“The Witches are Coming” is simultaneously whip smart, infuriating, a call to action and, of course, laugh-out-loud funny.
HuffPost recently chatted with West about her writing process, “callout culture,” the mental health challenges that come with publishing a memoir and more.
There is so much information, wisdom, and humor bursting from the seams of this book. How did you go about writing it?
Writing ... is hard. And sucks. [Laughs] It was sort of half as-planned and half kind of organic. There were things I knew I wanted in the book going into it and then during the writing process there were things that occurred me to that needed to be in there that came out of the process naturally. It’s a pretty big idea that we should tell the truth or be more honest about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and each other, so there’s a lot that can go in there. If I wanted to make the book comprehensive, it would be a billion pages. So at a certain point I had to relinquish the idea that I was going to write something definitive and instead make something that was coherent.
I would say half the book is what was in the proposal and half of it was stuff that came up for me while I was writing it, where suddenly I would be derailed from what I was doing and then a whole chapter would come out that I didn’t even expect.
I’d imagine it’s hard for that not to happen when it feels like every day there’s an onslaught of new stories about Trump, sexual harassment, people having their rights stripped from them ― the list goes on and on.
Yes! I was like ― it wasn’t that I hoped Trump would still be in office when the book came out, but because it feels like what else can you talk about right now, it became a Trump era book, which was not the intention. I do think all these ideas and ideologies predate Trump.
It isn’t even about him and he managed to steal some of the spotlight.
I know! [Laughs] He just encapsulates so much of what’s toxic about America and I think it’s really hard not to just continuously point to him and be like “look what you did!” Look what we did. This is us. I’m hoping the book feels to people like a timely political book but also like a timeless encapsulation of this moment which I think has some historical value. I think it’s important to remember what this time feels like. We always sort of rewrite the past, you know? And I was trying to create a picture of how it feels to be alive right now.
It’s just important to be a conscious person who is thinking critically about the world around them. It’s boring to just condemn someone. Lindy West
There are a lot of people and pop culture moments you discuss in the book ― Adam Sandler, Joan Rivers, “Fixer Upper” ― that I think a lot of us have had to reevaluate our feelings about over time.
Yeah, and ― it’s not like people have to give up the stuff that they love. Like, I don’t hate Adam Sandler! I have that same nostalgia. It’s just important to be a conscious person who is thinking critically about the world around them. It’s boring to just condemn someone. I started out thinking I was just going to dump on the guy [Laughs], but where I found myself at the end was feeling nostalgia and also some compassion for our younger selves. I just think it’s unrealistic to be like, “This was bad and everyone who liked it was bad. You’re problematic and canceled.” There’s stuff from TV, like, five years ago that would be absolutely unacceptable now.
Where do you think the line is?
I think, again, the only line you can draw is more communication and critical thinking. It’s like, OK, I love Chip and JoJo [Gaines], but because they chose to not address this thing in a constructive way now when I watch the show that’s what I think about. I don’t think there should be a law that no one should listen to Michael Jackson. But when a Michael Jackson song comes on there’s a negative association and I don’t feel necessarily like listening to it. I think all you can do is think critically about what’s going on and watch and listen to whatever you want. It’s an imperfect process.
I’m curious then how you feel about Obama’s recent comments about “callout culture” not being activism.
Of course I agree to some extent, life is messy and I don’t believe in purity ― if you make that the standard it’s really vulnerable to exploitation by bad actors. But I think there is something healthy in having open, critical conversations about things we love. For my whole life it was ― you just let everything slide if it was a celebrity you loved.
Like Joan Rivers, who you write about in the book. Yes, she’s a comedy hero, but she was also very famously very awful to so many people.
That’s a really complicated chapter. She’s really important and brilliant and inspiring in so many ways and that’s essentially what the Obama quote is saying, that great people can also do bad things. But I don’t think the answer is like “no callout culture.” I feel like it’s kind of overblown ― like that’s the terrible part? Overzealous, woke 19-year-olds being too mean on Twitter and not the fact that in the rare instance that someone actually does see like, one consequence for truly horrendous behavior that they get to do a comedy tour, like 18 months later? And the narrative is “When are we going to forgive them?” and not “How many careers did they derail? How many people did they victimize?”
And sure, tweeting that someone is problematic isn’t going to save the world. Activism, being an organizer is a real job ― I hesitate to call myself any kind of an activist because I am very aware that I am an opinion writer, mainly on the internet.
But I’d argue that putting “Shrill” into the world is a form of activism. It’s changing the conversation, allowing people who have never seen themselves on TV to see themselves, tackling issues we’ve shied away from in a realistic, normalizing way. What has that been like for you emotionally?
What’s better than that? It’s a really personal book, and like I’ve said a million times, it’s a book I needed to read when I was younger. I hear from people every single day that these ideas ― which are not mine, by the way, I’m not the first person to say this stuff but I express them in a certain, vulnerable way ― and to hear from people the tangible ways that this piece of writing helped them make their world bigger, changed their lives. It’s really nice. When I say I don’t like to call myself an activist, that’s true. But also, it’s hard to write your most vulnerable personal story down in a book and then pass it on to the public to consume and critique as they like. It’s really hard. Especially with the TV show, even though it’s helped that we really fictionalized a lot, I feel very overexposed. It’s totally worth it, but it’s a mental health challenge, to feel safe and grounded and like you still own yourself and your life and are not just sort of public property.
What are some ways you go about trying to do that?
I don’t know that I’ve figure it out yet. [Laughs] It’s always important to spend time with people who know who you are, who really know you. I feel really lucky to have a wonderful family and core group of friends. Someone just pointed this out to me the other day about why it’s hard to navigate even the good parts of having written a memoir. And it’s because you can’t really rely on positive feedback and people’s praise to make you feel OK because if you let that in, you also have to believe the people that hate you. You have to let it all in.
It has to be internal.
Yeah. The things I work on with my therapist are, like, what makes me myself outside of other people’s opinion of me? Who am I, what is fulfilling to me organically? You have to be able to generate that within yourself. Not that I don’t love and appreciate everyone who loves and appreciates the book. It’s a huge part of my life and is so fulfilling and amazing, but at a certain point you have to have that engine inside of yourself.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.