20 Questions is a Q&A interview series with musicians, authors, and everyone in between, celebrating experiences both shared and individual in the messy game of being human.
If you are a human on social media, chances are you’ve seen a hilariously witty tweet by Anne T. Donahue on a meme page you follow. (Or you just screenshot them to your iPad camera roll, like me.) Donahue, whose writing has appeared in countless publications across the Internet, knows a thing or two about what Liza Minnelli might also refer to as the messy business of being alive—and she loves sharing her observations and wisdom with all of us.
In 2018, Donahue published Nobody Cares, her first collection of essays. The book centers on a revolutionary idea that many of us never stop long enough to realize: nobody really cares what we are doing, whether we look good or bad, whether we go to this party or that, which can be a really freeing realization—especially when you’ve spent most of your life trying to convince people that you are a capable and functioning human being. Donahue is the voice inside your head, if that voice was incredibly witty, funny, and profound (a.k.a. the inner voice we should all aspire to have). Above all, Nobody Cares feels like a warm hug from someone who’s been there and is here to tell you it’s going to be fine.
I got to catch up with Anne for this new interview series, 20 Questions. We talked about the curses and blessings of the writing life, why loving pop culture is important, what she’s been reading lately, and maybe some details about her next book due out next year.
Have you always known you wanted to be a writer? Did you think of pursuing any other career paths before settling on writing?
Oh man, absolutely. I wanted to act! (Of course.) I wanted to be a nurse! A doctor! I worked at a bank, and for the first two weeks I was sure that my future was in full-time financial service. I’ve cycled through so many career possibilities in my mind, and I still do. But now, it’s the idea of doing something in addition to writing instead of abandoning writing to start life anew. Writing has always made me happy, and it still does, so now that I’ve gotten to do it as an actual job, I can’t imagine letting it go.
Your first collection of essays was called Nobody Cares. Was there a specific moment in your life when the “nobody cares” philosophy really hit you?
Absolutely! A few of my friends and I used to say it about people we didn’t like, because we are shallow monsters. But then, in my first meeting with ECW, I said it in the context of the way I used it in the book. (The idea that nobody is looking at us, and our lives are likely not so interesting that we consume the thoughts of other people.) And my editors were immediately like, “Holy shit, there’s the title.” So then it went from something I said to whatever it is now, which is bananas! Except whenever I say it sincerely, I sound like I’m plugging my own book, which I promise I only am about 50% of the time.
You are a devout enthusiast of pop culture and much of your writing has centered around that. What would you say kickstarted your love of pop culture?
I’ve always loved that pop culture does two things really well: it gives us an escape from our actual lives, and it’s also an avenue through which to better understand the world. But more accurately? It’s so fucking fun! When you don’t use pop culture as a platform for snobbery, movies and TV and music are the best! That’s how I got into it, anyway. I loved putting on a movie and then trying to learn as much as I could about it. I loved channeling characters and throwing myself into a harmless obsession. I’d be a kid, parading around like Maria von Trapp, convinced I could be the next Julie Andrews if someone would just discover me, already. I absolutely could not be, but that reprieve from reality was really helpful.
The best book you’ve read in the last year?
Yikes. Okay. Hm. You know what? I have absolutely no idea. This questioning is daunting! So instead I will say that I juuuuust finished Samantha Irby’s Wow, No Thank You and it was so warm and wonderful and funny. You should all read it!
The last series you binge-watched?
Oh, I am binging Real Housewives in a big way right now. I’m two episodes away from being caught up on Beverly Hills, and six seasons from being caught up on New York. These women are all my best friends, in my mind. And also in real life IF THEY WOULD JUST ANSWER MY EMAILS.
Favorite social media app?
Instagram! It’s the digital equivalent of a high school locker or going to a new pal’s house and seeing their room. Also, I think it’s replaced Tumblr in some ways which is fine by me. Mainly because I forgot my Tumblr password years ago, and I have no desire to revisit the past. At least not in that capacity.
The best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Hm. Jessica Hopper’s “Self-doubt is poisonous to your work” is up there. Also, any saying that suggests that the world doesn’t revolve around me. It really doesn’t, contrary to what my neuroses claim.
Favorite book of all-time?
Wild, by Cheryl Strayed! The honesty! The heart! I think about it constantly!
What’s the most challenging part of writing for you?
Writing! It sucks. Writing sucks! It’s boring and tedious and when I’m doing it I’m like, “UGH WHY IS THIS MY JOB?!” But then my work gets published and I feel amazing for a little while. Until the cycle begins again, and I consider packing my car up, driving into the wilderness and living off the land. (For maybe an hour, since I have no desire to be outside without a nearby bathroom, ever.)
Rumor has it that Nobody Cares might be adapted into a television series. Are there any details you can share?
This question has all the details I can share! We’re in the super early days of it, and about a million miles from the end goal. But it’s true! It’s been optioned, and that’s an exciting phrase to use.
If you had the chance to meet one celebrity, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
Morris the Cat. I want to hold him like a baby.
Favorite movie of all-time?
How dare this question. Just . . . how dare it. I refuse to answer! I can’t! It’s impossible! Titanic? Let’s say Titanic! Also, it seems like I just answered the question.
As a writer and artist, what would you say is the best way to rest or decompress?
Honestly, I just recommend doing exactly what you want to do. Do you want to go to the mall? Go to the mall. Sit outside in the sun? Sit outside in the sun. Read? Read. Eat? Eat. As long as you’re not hurting anybody else or yourself, I say just follow whatever it is you want to do and do it. Just don’t feel bad about taking time for yourself because holy shit, life is short. Decompression is mandatory.
What’s your current read?
Right now I’m reading The Missing Millionaire: The True Story of Ambrose Small and the City Obsessed With Finding Him by Katie Daubs. It’s so good! It makes me want to solve mysteries! So I guess going back to one of those first questions, I look forward to quitting writing once and for all to become a bona fide sleuth.
Milk chocolate or dark chocolate?
Milk chocolate! I’m a child!
If you could have one writer, dead or alive, to compose your obituary, who would it be and why?
Beverly Clearly! I stan our unproblematic, legendary queen!
Summer or winter? Do you prefer the heat or the cold?
It used to be winter! Which is a horrific admission to make. But now it’s summer. Though air conditioning is mandatory. So like, hot but with the option of it being cold. Jesus Christ, what a terrible answer. I’m so sorry.
One thing that’s been keeping you sane during the COVID-19 pandemic?
My parents! I’m hunkered down with them because they’re cool and we get along really well. But probably more accurately, the cat. And then the two neighbourhood cats who come visit. The dynamic is absolutely toxic, but as a Housewives fan, this is exactly the shit I need to feel alive.
One song that you will never be sick of?
“Gloria” by Laura Branigan!!! A goddamn HYMN.
Word on the street is that you are working on a new essay collection called Small Tornadoes, scheduled for release next year. Will it act like a sequel to Nobody Cares, or be something completely different?
WHO IS YOUR SOURCE. JK JK JK. I think it’s a bit of a continuation in that it’s about me and what’s happened since 2018 or so. But I feel a lot different writing this one, and have changed quite a bit since writing Nobody Cares (thank GOD). I think it’ll reflect where I’m at now without being hugely attached to NC. Did that answer the question okay? Hello, my name is Anne, and I have no idea how to describe my own books. But also I don’t think that revelation’s exactly surprising, either.