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I first came across Issa Rae in early 2012 after hearing the buzz about her web series, "Awkward Black Girl." She both wrote and acted, as the main character, J, who must maintain a sliver of sanity despite her difficulties in social situations. After Rae's much-lauded YouTube series, she penned a New York Times bestseller, "The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl." I chatted with Issa Rae, who is making her Arkansas Literary Festival debut this year, about her new book, awkwardness, media representation and the future of the entertainment industry.
Rae will appear at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Ron Robinson Theater.
What influenced you to write a book about your experiences?
I've always wanted to write a book, that's always been a dream of mine since I was a child. I was approached by various publishing companies about doing one for "Awkward Black Girl," the series. I met my editor, Dawn Davis, went out to lunch with her and she was like, "What are some of the experiences that make you awkward?" And that line of questioning really just inspired me to tell my own story and tell the origin story of my awkwardness.
What is your writing process like?
I'm one of those people that my whole day has to be clear for me to write. If I have to go somewhere or if I know I have some sort of obligation, then I'll be distracted because I'll find any excuse to not write. And so I would typically isolate myself, go outside of the house (because I can't write inside the house) and go to a coffee shop or restaurant. I write best when I eat or drink, not alcohol, but drink something like coffee with caffeine. I just spend the day writing. Sometimes I would have a target goal, but after a while I became frustrated and just wrote. Wrote when it was bad, wrote when it was good, but wrote.
How long did it take you to complete the book?
A year in total, with I would say three months of writing daily. I'm one of those people who come up with ideas but let them marinate for a time before I put pen to paper.
Can you describe what it means to be an "awkward black girl"?
I think I'm awkward in the traditional sense in that I'm socially uncomfortable. I over-analyze social situations. I'm introverted, and my blackness doesn't really fit mainstream media's definition in that we're always portrayed as — women, especially — loud, brash, sassy, sometimes cool, trendy ... and that's just never been me.
What do you think being an introvert has allowed you to do, in terms of the work you do now?
I sit back and observe. I think feeling uncomfortable and insecure lends to the best comedy and so that's definitely influenced my work. But yeah, introverts tend to be the quiet observers and that really helps in my material.
As a comedy writer, who have been some of your influences?
Definitely Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, Tina Fey and even Donald Glover. That's kind of the canon for me.
What's the common thread with those writers?
They have an uncomfortable humor, not as wry as British humor, but just enough to where you laugh out loud.
You mentioned in your book that you grew up watching programs with multidimensional characters played by people of color throughout the '90s on network television shows like "Living Single" and "A Different World." However, that kind of representation has changed since the millennium. What do you think caused the shift?
I just think the advent of cable and the spread of audiences. Network television was worried about ad dollars and, you know, in terms of competition, initially there were like five network channels. They only had to compete with one another, but as cable grew and started to become more popular, ad dollars were competing. So networks had to make sure they were going to get money, and I think to have the broadest appeal and broadest set of eyeballs you go with white, because everyone watches white people as opposed to people of color — because then it's more niche. I think that had a huge part in why so many faces started to disappear on networks.
As someone who's gained notoriety through a YouTube series, what are your thoughts on YouTube's usefulness to aspiring artists?
I just think it's an opportunity outside of the traditional, outside of the norm. It's a way to go around the gate. It's really allowed for access to a direct audience that appreciates your work as is and is hungry for what they're not seeing on television. And for some, it serves as a resume to help them transition into television and film, if that's their ultimate goal. It's just a really powerful tool.
What do you see as the future of entertainment outside of the major networks?
Television has tons of money and a lot of the money now is shifting into digital space. So I see an a la carte model approaching in that audiences will have television show apps as opposed to channels. And, you know, the channels can still be the umbrellas, but I think that people will just pick and choose like a shopping cart the content they want to see and make their own sort of entertainment system and model based off the shows that they want to see. You have so many channels that people don't care about. Having a cable subscription forces you to have [content] and now what the Internet is showing people is that you don't need all of that. You can have all the shows you want to see, binge-watch those or save them and that can be it at the end of the day.
What advice would you give someone trying to make it in the entertainment industry today?
I'm really big on collaborating. Find other people who are interested in doing what you're doing — people who are serious about it and not just talking — and find ways that you can work and build together. It's easier to do when you're on the same page and combining resources with someone else. That's definitely what I did in everything that I've done.
Could you talk a little about your current project with HBO?
We're in pre-production right now. It's called "Insecure" and it follows me and my best friend navigating life while pushing 30.