At the Baltimore library that R. Eric Thomas frequented growing up, the maximum number of books he was allowed to check out was 40. With each visit, he checked out 40. And the books that were too advanced for his age, “I made my grandparents read them to me.”
Thomas, now 38, went on to become a daily humor columnist for Elle magazine, where he delivers hot takes on topics like Elizabeth Warren’s “withering glares” at Michael Bloomberg and witty Project Runway recaps. Now back in Baltimore after living in Philadelphia for more than 15 years, he’s also written for the New York Times, W Magazine, Marie Claire, and others.
In Philly, he’s known as the longtime host of the Moth StorySLAM, and as the rising-star playwright whose Time Is On Our Side won the 2016 Barrymore Award for best new play locally. Thomas also won the prestigious national Lanford Wilson Award that year, honoring an early-career playwright.
Now Thomas is a book author, too. And he’s bringing his debut memoir-in-essays, Here for It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America, to the Free Library on Thursday, where he’ll talk about what it means to be an “other."
“I wanted to write a story where someone who is a minority in many ways could still be at the center of their own narrative," he said. “And I wanted to use humor to do that. … Sugar helps the medicine go down.”
The Inquirer spoke to Thomas before his visit about writing daily columns, the importance of voice, and what he describes as the “Huxtable scale of blackness.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
What made you want to write the book as a series of essays?
I was less interested in telling one, long, memoiristic story. With memoirs, there’s sorta a sneaky suspicion that you have to have had this extraordinary life for a memoir to be worthy and I don’t think that’s true, but I think it’s hard to push back on.
When I first started this, my feeling was that I haven’t climbed a mountain, I didn’t survive the wreck of the Titanic, so why should I write a memoir? Now I’m on the other side of it and I think everyone should write a memoir. A memoir is literally just a recollection of life.
How is writing for a digital audience different from writing a book?
One difference is the immediacy. I first put words on paper for what I knew would be this book over two years ago. It’s really hard to write into the future, to imagine what world we’ll be in, who’s going to read this, and what space they’ll be in. With a digital audience, it’s all immediacy.
One of the things that changed my life — the books that opened up new universes for me — I found in libraries that had been printed decades earlier. If I’m lucky, there will be people in 20 years, some high school student, some senior citizen, some mom looking for a laugh, who will pick up this book.
In the book, you talk about the “Huxtable scale of blackness," where you said you identified most with Vanessa. Could you explain that?
The Huxtables remain a really tough thing in our culture because of where they came from. The creator is a criminal and a controversial figure. But these characters were a part of a black family that was both stereotypical and also very unique, where each member of the family, as is often the case in sitcoms, had a very distinct personality. They were all different shades of blackness, but they also had different relationships to the expression of their blackness.
A character like Denise was more militant and more on the “woke” scale. A character like Vanessa was less in tune with some of the more advocacy-minded aspects of blackness and really more focused on socialness. Characters like Theo and Sandra and Rudy sort of fall in between.
And so when I talked about blackness, I talked about feeling like Vanessa, like a black person but not always as in tune as I wanted to be with the deepest, most socially progressive parts of what a black experience can be.
You write about the possible implicit bias in the Dewey Decimal System. How did you come to that realization?
I always thought of the Dewey Decimal System as empirical measurements or definitions of where books go. When I was doing research for the essay, “She’s got herself a universe,” I wanted to go back and look at the call numbers to find books about gay or queer life. I tried to figure out where these call numbers came from and who assigns them.
Because the system requires some human to categorize a book, it’s possible for the categorization to reflect implicit bias. As I dug deeper into that, I discovered that there was a librarian from Howard University, who actually had created her own system in the 1930s to counteract that. [Among other things, librarian Dorothy Porter moved black scholars out of the segregating 325 Dewey classification and into subject areas alongside white authors.] And that was really empowering and I wanted to include it in the essay.
It’s clear that you have a very distinct writing voice. How do you ensure that your writing still sounds like you after multiple rounds of edits?
I have a really phenomenal editorial team that gives incredible notes on structure and intention. My default is to put 9,000 jokes per page and so a lot of the time, the note was, “You don’t need this many jokes. Pull it back by 30 percent or by half.”
There are times when you have to adjust the volume of your voice a little bit. I ask myself, “Is this note about the volume, or is this note about the voice.” If it’s about the voice, it’s not a note that I can take. If it’s about the volume, that’s something that I totally get.
Finish this sentence. I’m most happy when …
… I’m eating.
I’m inspired by …
… Toni Morrison.
The lesson that’s taken the longest to learn is …
… Loving myself fully.
I’m most proud of …
… Loving myself fully.
R. Eric Thomas: “Here for It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America”
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Free Library, 1901 Vine St., free, 215-567-4341, freelibrary.org.