Judging from her hilariously dark new memoir Agorafabulous!: Dispatches from My Bedroom (out Feb. 14 from William Morrow), Sara Benincasa will always win the “Who has it worse?” game. Spent a week during college in your apartment, unable to get dressed or leave? Benincasa could barely leave her bed, and took to pissing in cereal bowls rather than dealing with unfriendly bathrooms. Think you’ve got a great, “Kids say the darndest things!” story from that year you spent teaching? Benincasa’s time molding young minds involved Viagra and an adolescent erection. Seriously. We caught up with Benincasa over the phone about having enough confidence to write a memoir, the joys of medication and why she’d love a good heckler during her book tour.
Because you’re cool, I want to ask: Did you ever have any reticence about writing a memoir when the publishing world is so glutted with them?
I think you either have to have a really original voice or you have to have a story that is insane and has never been told before. Or you have to have both. I would hope I have the combination. What sold it overall, in addition to having a pretty likable, accessible voice, was a story that involved me pissing in bowls. And my advice is if you can work defecation into your story in any way, people will love it. There’s gotta be some kind of a hook, and in my case, agoraphobia and the ways in which I acted out was the hook. It was very strange and specific and weird, and not something that strikes a whole lot of people, although it’s far more common than most folks would think. I tried really hard not to seem self-pitying in the book, but rather to seem kind of amused by my own struggle. Not to undermine anyone else’s pain but to try to find the humor in the really dark shit. I love reading authors who take really dark stuff and make it funny without making light of it.
And you’ve been telling these stories in your stand-up act for a while, right?
I have two different acts. I have the one I do in the comedy club, and that tends to be lighter stuff, sex and relationships and jobs I’ve had. And then, when I’m outside of the club setting, I’ll tell longer form stories and take more risks with stuff that might not be funny but is sad. If I were at Gotham Comedy Club, that would not be the appropriate place to tell these pissing in bowls and suicidal stories. And if I were doing a one-person show at, say, UCB, I would incorporate some of the darker material.
At what point did you decide to make the leap from the stage to writing a book?
My intent was always to use the live show to write a book proposal. Because writing is so lonely sometimes. I had a job at Sirius XM Radio and I would use all my vacation time to go to theaters around the country, and I would have a list of bullet points of stories I wanted to tell and I would experiment with different ways of telling them. And through that I was able to put together a book proposal. And I started in spring 2009 with the show and we sold the proposal in spring 2010 and we got a final version of the book ready to go in October or November of 2011. And now it’s being published in February 2012!
I found during the course of writing it I gained a real sense of confidence, but also a sense of over-confidence. I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve traveled all over the place telling these stories and I’ve been holding down a job and doing all these things a stable adult does. And maybe I don’t need meds or therapy anymore.’ So I weaned myself off them and it worked really well for four months. And then there was a trigger. I was in a relationship and he moved to another continent, basically, and then having to finish and turn in this thing triggered a really deep depression. And finishing up this project meant that I couldn’t distract myself from these huge problems in my life that I hadn’t dealt with. But I had an amazing editor and agent who gave me some extra time while I finished this up at my parents’ house. And now I’m back on the medication. Tastes like freedom!
You’re touring with the book, too, right?
I am doing a nine-city tour—if you count Manhattan and Brooklyn as two. Which I will do. At each place I’ll have one other comedian there to do some comedy and I’ll do a combination of standup and stuff from the book. I love reading, but I’m not such a big fan of hearing someone read.
I was sure you were going to say the other comedian would be there to heckle you.
I would love that, if someone screamed during a really sad part, “You suck!” I’m Sicilian and I’m from New Jersey. I love a fight!
Meet Sara Benincasa at Housing Works (126 Crosby St.), 7 p.m., Feb. 16, with an open bar from 7–8 p.m. Do not heckle her.
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