Providing a voice for LGBT people of color is crucial in today’s world, and that is exactly what Philadelphia-based writer R. Eric Thomas has done with his spectacular new book Here For It (Or How To Save Your Soul In America is simultaneously heartwarming and hilarious, and written as a series of stories that give a peek into the writer’s own life and experiences as a gay man of color living in today’s America. I sat down with Eric to talk about what the mission of Here For It is, what he hopes those that read it can take from it, how a simple viral post he created changed his career trajectory, and what it was been like to collaborate with the one and only “Auntie Maxine”.
Michael Cook: You book Here For It (Or, How To Save Your Soul In America is absolutely incredible. You have managed to take the musicals that Mr. Rogers Neighborhood used to do and brought them into todays pop lexicon!
R Eric Thomas: They are so good! I want a whole compilation with Lady Elaine in those operas, I am obsessed with her!
MC: Tell me about the book Here For It….
RET: It’s a collection of stories in essay form that are all rooted in humor. They are all about different forms of identity in the ways that our identities can sometimes come in conflict with each other or can help us have a fuller experience of life. I look at my life through the lens of blackness and through my identity as as a queer person, a Christian, and as an American. It spans from childhood in my earliest understandings of being “different” up to adulthood and a more integrated sense of self.
MC:When did you know that writing was going to be the passion that you would be following?
RET: From my earliest memories, I wanted to write. My mother would take me to the library when I was a kid and I would insist that we would get as many books as we can. The library would limit you to borrowing forty books at a time, so we would borrow forty books. I would insist that she read them to me and I saw so much possibly in books. Even before I learned how to write, I would dictate stories to my parents. It took years and years until I realized that I could actually do that; I thought I needed some sort of permission. I don’t have an MFA, I didn’t go to some sort of writing program, so it really was not until I started writing for Elle, which was sort of a fluke. I had a Facebook post that went viral and an editor reached out to me and had a lot of faith in my abilities From that point, I realized “oh, maybe this is something that I am actually allowed to do”. Before that, I had been doing a good amount of freelance writing that I think was how I decided to work at writing. Pitching, generating ideas, juggling writing with day jobs, and other responsibilities is very hard and takes an incredible amount of skill, so it’s a great skill builder. I think so often though, we are looking for someone outside of ourselves to say “you are worthy of doing this and you are allowed to do this”. Often that voice doesn’t come. The internet is great in that respect. You can write something and people will respond to you. People responding to my writing on the internet really reawakened that passion in me.
MC: What do you think truly makes a good writer?
RET: I think empathy is the biggest benefit to my writing. Whether it is fiction, plays, prose, essays or even profiles of celebrities, there are a lot of experiences that I have not had, but I can write about them because I think of every experience, whether it is a real life one or a made up one, as inherently human. I think the writers that I gravitate towards are able to see themselves empathetically and see other people empathetically. When you are writing fiction there is this adage that the author never thinks of themselves as the villain, they always think they are doing the right thing which is what makes a good villain. I think that extends to everybody. Not only do we not think of ourselves as villains, even when we know we are not doing the right thing, we believe that there is a reason that we are doing the thing that we are doing, even if it’s selfish. Being able to think of everybody in the world, even the people that we hate the most, with some sort of empathy I think really improves ones writing.
MC: When you are not writing, how do you detach from the computer?
RET: Pop culture is a huge release for me. It’s weird because part of my job at Elle is to write about pop culture. For example, I’ll watch The Good Place and think it was really great, and then I’ll think “hmm maybe I should write an article about it”. It’s also mercenary, it’s that freelance mindset where you are like, “I like this, what if I got paid to write about it” (laughs)! I do though, love to find things that I cannot monetize. I love going to the theater and I can go to a show and know the no one needs me to write about it. Music is also a huge thing, throughout the book. There is also a whole soundtrack to this book. I don’t have any musical talent, I sing but not well, but no one can stop me. That is this place where I can totally get lost. I love going to concerts and discovering new music. That is a place that I can totally detach and feed my soul.
MC: It’s so funny how we all think we’re Kelly Clarkson when we’re driving in the car.
RET: Oh I am Kelly Clarkson in my car. I have won many Grammys in my car (laughs)
MC:You have so much going on in 2020 and you are really branching out it seems.
RET: It’s not super intentional, but my father has this phrase that he always says, “you have to make hay while the sun shines”. I have no idea what it means, but I am taking it to heart. I have a play running in Baltimore right now called Safe Space. It’s a Clue-inspired comedy about a ghost that terrorizes a non-profit. I have my book that just came out, Here For It. Then in September, I have another book coming out. It’s about the life and work of Representative Maxine Waters. It’s sort of in the style of the book The Notorious RBG. It’s a great introduction to her work and to her life. I write a daily column for Elle.com about pop culture and politics. I am touring for both of the books, so I am excited to just hang out with people in cities around the country. To just tell stories and talk about pop culture that gives us life. I am working on a couple new plays and eventually I will probably start working on another book. I think the might be enough, although I keep trying to add more; it’s like Eric sit down (laughs)!
MC: Touring for your books must be a surreal experience, getting to meet so many people that you have impacted with your words.
RET: Online culture has really shaped our society, and it can be really beneficial, it has been really beneficial to me. I think people are really rediscovering how important it is to see each other face to face and to have actual in person experiences. There is nothing like like theater, there is nothing like live performance. It is unpredictable and it’s electric. The way that I wrote the book is meant to be consumed, read in bed and waking your partner up with laughter, on the beach, like that. The experience of me with a microphone chatting about the stories is a totally different thing and it’s very exciting.
MC: Have you gotten to meet Maxine Waters while you were working on the project?
RET: Yes! I actually got to meet Representative Waters a couple years ago. I had written about her a couple times for Elle and the articles went viral. She reached out to me and asked me to come be a part of a rally that she was doing in DC around Trumps’ tax returns, which remain unreleased. We got to meet and she interviewed me, which was wild; I was like, I want to talk about you! (Laughs). That was really fun, and we have met and spoken a couple of times. She is so generous, so smart, and really inspirational. She is one hundred percent a civil servant and a leader. It is just amazing that regular internet writer like me gets to interact with her.
MC: What would the Eric of today tell the Eric that was falling in love with reading and writing as a child?
RET: I think that little boy had a faith in the world and in the possibilities of the word that books will give you. A faith that you can be seen and be heard and that your experience is valid and important, and that your place in the world is valued and important. I would tell him to just hold on to that and to believe that no matter what he hears. For many years, the other voices that I as a queer person don’t matter or are less than, or that as a black person I am less than or don’t matter. That I should take myself out of the world; those voices got much louder. It took a long time to get back around to the idea the I can build my craft. I can learn how to write a good sentence, and to make it funny. That is something that the world needs. I would tell that little boy that the world needs him, and that he should keep putting pen to paper. And to keep up his penmanship; he will definitely forget how to do that (laughs)!
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