A Conversation with Maeve Higgins

The comedian and essayist sounds off on Rent the Runway and tells us what Neil deGrasse Tyson is truly like.

Maeve Higgins

Maeve Higgins was a bestselling memoirist and comedian in her native Ireland when, at the grand old age of 31, she left the only home she’d ever known in search of something more. Like many women in their early 30s, she both was and was not the adult she wanted to be. At once smart, curious, and humane, Maeve in America is the story of how Maeve found herself, literally and figuratively, in New York City.

Together, these essays create a startlingly funny and revealing portrait of a woman who aims for the stars but hits the ceiling, and the inimitable city that has helped shape who she is, even as she finds the words to make sense of it all.

Recently, Maeve spoke with Read It Forward’s Abbe Wright and Emma Shafer, touching on everything from her obsession with shelter dogs to the enduring sisterhood of comedy, and why she’ll never swim in the Gowanus Canal.

Read It Forward: Welcome, Maeve! We love Maeve in America. It’s a very funny essay collection, and you get into a little bit of everything: swimming with dolphins, Rent the Runway, the New York City subway, dating a guy you call Dr. Glasses. What was the organizing principle tying all of these essays together?

Maeve Higgins: Well, the common theme is that it’s my life. It’s all the small and big things that happen to a person since moving to America. I’m Irish, and I moved here five years ago. That was the catalyst because that’s what made me think a lot more about immigration and led me on all of these adventures. Some of them are as small as just trying to rent a dress from Rent the Runway, which is very emotionally fraught. It’s so fraught. I mean, ultimately, I got one, but it was not the right dress. It was sort of a widow’s dress.

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RIF: And literally the whole point of Rent the Runway is you can have anything, but actually just kidding. You can’t have anything.

MH: I mean, you can if you pay for it. The one that I wrote about was a Vera Wang dress, and I describe it as being Wanged, because I fell so hard for this dress—I think it’s 10% of the price of the dress, that’s what they charge you to rent it for three days. This dress is like $3,500, so to rent it, it was $350, which I just couldn’t do at the time, and not even, “I can’t bring myself to.” I physically couldn’t. I tried all of my credit cards, and none of them had $350.

RIF: Why did you want to move to New York? I’d also love to hear the most jarring thing about moving to Brooklyn. You grew up on a tiny island in Cork Harbor, right?

MH: Yeah, it’s way different. I think I came to New York because I had a romantic idea of being a writer in New York City; I got that from A. J. Liebling and Maeve Brennan. I pictured me and all these other sharp-tongued writers sitting around at the Algonquin Hotel.

RIF: Drinking vodka stingers?

MH: Exactly. And just, “Oh, did you hear what he said? Oh, well, I can tell you about him.” But of course being a writer, you live in Brooklyn and you’re broke and alone most of the time. You’re alone all the time, which actually works really well for me. I love that. But it’s certainly not the kind of dream that I thought I was following. It’s funny: I’ve been here for almost for five years, and now I contribute to The Times and I write for The Guardian, and all these cool things have happened, but it’s much different than I thought. I always imagine things wrong.

RIF: Well, there’s no way of knowing really what New York City is like. Even if you’ve come here so many times, to live here is so different than to visit. It’s so much worse, and so much better.

MH: I know. It’s so tricky. I remember coming here for a week and a half before I moved here, and I got a really nice apartment on Craigslist. I remember the guy saying, “Oh, and the cool thing is there’s a launderette on my block!” and I thought “That’s so depressing, he doesn’t even have a washing machine.” And now I’m like “Oh no, the launderette’s three blocks away!”

It’s sort of shocking to see the quality of life we put up with, not compared to most of the world, but compared to my friends back in Ireland and in Dublin, where they’re like, “Yeah, there’s a farmers market next to me.” And I’m thinking, “Oh, my lungs are black. I had a subway run over me. A man bit my face off.”

RIF: Maeve in America is very funny because, of course, you’re very funny. But it does touch on serious topics. You talk about what it’s like for you to live in America, and what it’s like for you to be a white Irish immigrant, and not a brown immigrant who gets treated very differently. You talk about leading a comedy class in Iraq and about body image and depression. Why was it important for you to delve deeper past the punch line in these essays?

MH: Well, because I can do the punch line stuff on stage, right? I do comedy, too. That’s where I started over 10 years ago. And I think there’s great freedom to it, there’s a great spontaneity. You have an idea that day, and you can work it out that night on stage, but you’re always trying to get the laugh; that’s your job on stage. You want to get to the punch, and that’s still fun, but what’s more interesting for me is to go that bit deeper. If you just write that way, it’s not sustainable. It gets tiring to be so surface, for the reader and for me, too. As someone sitting down to write, I want to wring through an idea and really figure out what do I think, or why am I feeling like this, and the essay form is good for that.

RIF: So, in contrast to how you work out your live comedy ideas, how do you work through ideas you have for an essay and bring them into their finished form?

MH: I think to really get an essay finished to the point I have, you need an editor, and my editor Sara Stein is incredible. An editor’s really great for seeing what’s important, which pieces connect to each other, and what can be lost. I’m just describing the work of an editor, but as a writer that’s incredibly valuable and helpful. Also, pushing myself to figure out: why do you think this? Why is it this way?

In one of the essays, I visit a place called Friendship Park on the U.S.-Mexican border, between Tijuana and San Diego, and that was very affecting emotionally. I was taping for my podcast and that was all fine, but I needed to learn about how we got to this point. When it opened in the 70s, it was a little chain-link fence, and if you go back even 100 years, there was basically free migration between America and Mexico. But I can’t just know that; I need to research it and be thorough.

RIF: To be able to contextualize it, I’m sure.

MH: Exactly. And I have no business writing about it without doing all that work. So, I think that’s part of it—a lot of research and reading and learning on my part. Even if that doesn’t make it into the essay, it’s really helpful, and informs even the tone.

RIF: Another thing I love, and that you researched deeply, was the history of Irish immigrants in the U.S., and of Saint Patrick’s Day, tackling questions like why we’re dyeing fountains green.

MH: You know, I never got to the bottom of that. I still don’t have—and I don’t think any of us Irish-Americans have—an answer as to why we do that. I mean, it’s definitely greener, the land is. But there’s nothing about our island that says the water’s green. That’s so gross. The only green water I know is the Gowanus Canal, which everyone’s afraid of. But it’s a good metaphor for how mangled, how far from the actual island Irish America has grown, and has clung onto these customs, ones I don’t know where they even came from.

RIF: So, in this book you write this awesome essay about walking shelter dogs, which I just loved, and I learned that you’re now a dog owner. How is life as a dog owner?

MH: It’s great. I could never really commit to one because my schedule is so hectic. I’d be in New York—I moved here because it’s sort of an ambitious city, and people here have three hustles going on, and you’re out all day, and then you’re out all night. I was so into that, but it also meant you don’t have any stability. But I would still go to a shelter near where I used to live, called Sean Casey’s, and take the dogs for a walk. You just leave your email address with them, which makes me think they just want you to take the dog.

RIF: Yeah, like, “I won’t come back. The dog’s been adopted.”

MH: My email address is DogThief@gmail.com, and they’re like, “Okay, here are three of them.” But I have an update on my dog!

RIF: Tell me!

MH: So, I wrote about Stormy, who was so despondent and shut down, and we took him for a walk. He’d barely move, and one of his eyes was bulging. He was drooling and panting and, I thought, not long for this world, right? He really reminded me of myself when I’m depressed. Am I this hard to be around, and do I smell like this when things are bad for me mentally?

If anything, I overidentified with this dog, but one day went back and he wasn’t there anymore. It’s a no-kill shelter, so I knew he had been adopted. I hoped it was working out, but I had no way of knowing. When I was writing this book, I’d read parts of it onstage to workshop it and get the jokes right, and my friend Jeff came to a reading, and he was like, “Stormy. My friend Tanya, she has this dog, but he’s a hound, and he doesn’t have bulging eyes.” The next day, he sent me photos of Stormy, and I was like, “I think that’s him, but he’s smiling.”

RIF: He looks so much better.

MH: Yeah. So, that was over a year ago. Just today on Instagram, I saw his owner, who’s a magician. I don’t mean she changed the dog’s life, I mean she works as a magician. She’s just back from a tour of the whole country, where she brought Stormy. He wears a fez cap. He is the happiest, the goofiest, and his eyes don’t bulge anymore. He’s calm.

RIF: He’s a magician’s assistant. That dog is living a more exciting life than I am.

MH: Well, just check yourself into your closest shelter and wait there for a magician.

RIF: That whole essay reminded me of when you were on Amy Schumer’s show, in this scene that was all about how you only adopted the saddest, oldest dogs. I have a friend who volunteers at a dog shelter, and she said that when it comes time to adopt new dogs, people will literally fight over the dogs who only have three legs.

MH: See? That’s evidence. I suspected that. They want a project. One of my friends was like, “Oh, it’s because of America, because everything is so individualistic here and there’s no safety net, so you think I’m going to pour everything I have into this little wreck.” I don’t know what the bigger meaning is, but oh my god, if I were a rich person I would have an emu, a panther, something cool. I wouldn’t have a three-legged dog.

RIF: So, you’re a cohost on Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Star Talk. Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of my personal crushes. I don’t want to go into it for fear of embarrassing myself, but are you a secret science nerd?

MH: Yeah, I mean definitely I love science. I have a huge curiosity about it, so getting to work with Neil—it’s extraordinary. I mean, he’s the head of the Hayden Planetarium and the U.S.’s premier astrophysicist. He’s so learned, and he’s so generous with that information. He really makes it accessible. He has a number of comedy co-hosts to ask the questions anybody would ask and to break down these big theories, and these big ideas, into manageable chunks. He’s brilliant at doing that, and between taping, he’s still asking, “Do you know the difference between flotsam and jetson?” and tells you other cool stuff.

The other thing that I really respect about Neil is he’s very careful to keep a diverse workforce. He makes sure to include women, to include people of color, and that’s really striking because working in media, you don’t usually see leaders bothering to do that. But he does it, and I think it makes his show stronger and more interesting. I’ve never actually spoken to him about that, but I just have noticed that when I’m on his show, there’s usually more women and other minority groups. Women are actually the majority in the world, but in things like science shows, for sure we’re usually underrepresented.

RIF: Oh, so he really is a dream guy, OK.

MH: Yeah. I don’t want to be like, “He’s my crush,” but I think he’s such a great figure in my life.

RIF: I just love his enthusiasm for science, and how he surrounds himself with cool guests who know more on subjects than he does, and then he’s like, “Explain this to me!” His exuberance for the natural world is infectious.

MH: Definitely, and I’m really excited because they’re doing another season of Cosmos. I don’t know when it’s coming out, but I think that with the government we have at the moment, so anti-science, it’s really useful to have a show like Cosmos that can reach people who maybe wouldn’t listen to a science podcast. I can’t wait.

RIF: That’s awesome. So, we have Amy Schumer who blurbed Maeve in America, and then there are comedians like Phoebe Robinson and Kristen Schaal. Is there a sisterhood amongst women in comedy? 

MH: I definitely have found that. I’ve had male friends who are comics too, but I think it’s the women who hold you down when it comes time to it. I actually don’t know Amy Schumer well at all; I was on her show once. She’s always been really lovely to me, and she again made sure when she’s casting, she always includes people, and certainly other women. It’s really rough asking for blurbs, you just feel so cringe-y. I think I just DMed her, and I was like, “Amy, hi, just on the off chance, if you could give me a line…” and she sent it back in two minutes, and a really good quote, too. So, not only did she send me a quote, she did it so quickly, she put me out of my misery in the best way. I’m forever grateful to her for that.

And with someone like Phoebe Robinson, Phoebe’s a stand-up too, and also writes books. So, during the writing process, it was good to have somebody like her to talk to, because when she’d be freaking out about hers, I could say, “It’s okay, I was just there and it’s fine.” And then when I would be having breakdowns, she could remind me that it’s fine. It’s really lovely to have someone in your corner who knows exactly what it’s like.

RIF: That’s really nice. So, is there anything you hope readers take away from reading this book?

MH: I’m really glad that I got some immigration information into it, and I think today, native-born Americans are much more interested in immigration than they were before. Immigrants are under such attack these days that everyone’s more aware of it. So, hopefully some of the contextualizing that I did in my book is helpful, but what I really want is for people to laugh on public transport, and I’ve had a few reports of people saying, “I have to put it down on the bus. I couldn’t listen.” That’s my dream.

RIF: You achieved that today—I was laughing on the subway.

MH: Oh, good. That’s exactly what I wanted to hear. That’s heaven.


Author Photo: Jeannie O’Brien

MAEVE HIGGINS is a contributing writer for The New York Times and the host of the hit podcast Maeve in America: Immigration IRL. She is a comedian who has performed all over the world, including in her native Ireland, Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Erbil. Now based in New York, she cohosts Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk, both the podcast and the TV show on National Geographic, and has also appeared on Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer and on WNYC’s 2 Dope Queens.

About Abbe Wright

Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Editor of Read It Forward. As a kid, she used to get in trouble at summer camp for using a flashlight to read inside her sleeping bag after lights out, but these days, she lives in Brooklyn, where nobody minds if she stays up late reading. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.