11 Questions: IRL by Chris Stedman

IRL takes the shame out of our dependence on the internet and helps us imagine new kinds of consolation and community for a fragmented and sometimes lonely world.” — Briallen Hopper

Yes, that’s me! I had the honor of blurbing Chris Stedman’s thoughtful, prescient, and hyper-relevant new book about living online, IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in our Online Lives. And I’m in great company– Chris’s book has been widely praised by a range of folks including Hanif Adburraqib, Alexander Chee, Megan O’Gieblyn, R. Eric Thomas, and Cole Escola. IRL arrived at a time when most people’s already online lives were becoming even more so (my iPhone recently notified me that I’d spent an average of 17 hours online each day this week– though to be fair, some of those were Schitt’s Creek reruns playing while I was sleeping). What does it mean to live in a meaningful, authentic way while mediated by screens? IRL is here to help us figure this out.

Describe your book in three adjectives! 

Hmm. Let’s go with… curious, uncertain, and (realistically) hopeful. At least those are the things I want it to be.

What is one of your favorite sentences from the book? 

This is so tough. Maybe this one, from the last section of the book, which I think is my favorite part: “In the swirl of change, of gain and deficit, that being online has created, it is still a space where we should care about what happens.”

Name a book or writer that inspired or guided you as you wrote. 

So many! IRL draws on the work of a lot of authors. Rising by Elizabeth Rush was probably my favorite book of 2019, and it became such a touch point while I was finishing IRL. I also thought a lot about Flannery O’Connor, who was very formative for me when I first encountered her work in a community college literature course, and specifically how she used the element of surprise in her writing—upending expectations in order to help readers consider questions from an unexpected angle. I hope IRL does that in its best moments.

What is something you discovered in the process of writing this book? 

I did a number of things with IRL that I hadn’t done in my writing before, including a much more involved level of research, interviews, and reporting than I’d ever done before. I really tried to stretch myself while writing it, which was obviously terrifying. But I learned a couple things from that: everything that the research, interviews, and reporting taught me, which made the book so much richer than it would have been otherwise, but also that I could do things in my writing that I previously didn’t think I was capable of.

What was challenging about the process? 

Taking a different approach than I did with my first book was very challenging. Originally I envisioned a structure for IRL that was much more like my first, because that felt safe and familiar. I’m really grateful to my agent (Erik Hane at Headwater Literary) for pushing me to see that I was actually writing around a series of images and metaphors, rather than the chronological narrative I was attempting to make them fit into because that was how I structured my first book. I really appreciate people who can identify things going on in my own writing that I’m not seeing. Also, more generally, writing a book is such a leap of faith. You put all this work into it without knowing if it will ever see the light of day. And, even if it does, you don’t really know while you’re writing it if it will work in the end. I’m not good at faith. I crave certainty, even as I work to resist it. But taking that leap of faith each day was good resistance practice, and is ultimately what allowed me to finish the book.

What was sustaining about it? Feel free to mention writing snacks here. 

I’m already such a snacker, but my snacking reached incredible new heights while working on the book. A friend in my neighborhood makes unbelievably good hummus, and I would buy it from him by the quart. He suggested sometimes just eating it with a spoon, which I already do with peanut butter obviously, and he was not wrong. Also cookies. I can’t remember the last time I went a day without cookies. Music helped a lot, too. I literally can’t write without it. But most of all, I had some really amazing readers who gave me critical feedback, and also offered words of support in the more challenging moments. No book is ever written alone, but that felt especially true with this one.

What’s a song that would be on the book’s soundtrack? 

I pulled together a short IRL soundtrack for Largehearted Boy, actually, if anyone’s looking for a companion playlist for the book!

Who are some of the people you wrote this book for? 

Literally anyone who finds themselves using the internet for things that are central to the human experience—finding a sense of meaning, narrating and sharing your life with others, identifying your community and sense of self, and learning more about the world around you. Especially in a pandemic that, for many of us, has made the internet one of the (if not the) only spaces where these things happen. My hope is that IRL can function as a tool for anyone trying to figure out how to do these things in this new and confusing digital space that they’ve been told isn’t real, or at least is less real than the other parts of their lives. More personally, the book also feels like a kind of love letter to all the people who have supported me in digital space over the years; the virtual friendships that have kept me tethered in some of my most difficult moments.

What are some of the communities that shaped it? 

So many people shared their stories with me and trusted me to tell them in the book. One such story is that of my friendship with Steve, who is very active in furry fandom both online and off. I first connected with the furry community through Steve who, after we met on Twitter, invited me to see him DJ the closing set of a furry convention. I’ve since become friends with people involved in the community, and have even gone on a furry podcast a few times. Steve and I connected early on in writing IRL, and getting to know him and other members of the furry community played a big role in the direction the book ended up taking. Before knowing Steve, I naively assumed that adopting a furry identity was about hiding—building a character and “playing” them as a way to escape yourself, perhaps. As I learned, the opposite is typically true; for many, furry is a way of playing with identity and, often, expressing things that they can’t in other parts of their life. There’s a similar dynamic at work in our digital lives, I think. Digital actions are often cast as fake, as an escape from “real life,” a kind of “playing pretend.” But for so many of the people I spoke with while working on the book, the internet has offered radical opportunities to connect and express themselves in ways they couldn’t before. I definitely credit Steve and other members of the furry community for teaching me a lot and helping to shape the book.

What kinds of work do you want your book to do in the world? What are your hopes for its afterlife? 

I wasn’t sure when or if I would write another book, but I realized I was working on one when I started talking to other people about the questions I was exploring, and they said they were wrestling with those kinds of questions, too. I hope IRL can be a tool for other people who are sifting through what it means to be human in this digital age—especially for a generation that’s shifting the work of exploring who they are out of the institutions in which many people have historically done that exploring, like religious contexts, and into largely uncharted digital space. If IRL can help some people as they navigate that shift, I’ll feel like I’ve done what I set out to do.

What are you doing next? (Does not have to be writing!)

I’ve been working on a new project this year that is not a book. It’s another new kind of challenge for me. I can’t talk about it just yet, but I’ll share more on social media (Twitter is where I’m most active) and in my very infrequent newsletter when I can. I’m also teaching two sections of a class on vocation and the search for meaning at Augsburg University this spring. I’ve loved teaching this class and learning from my amazing students, and I’m excited to do it again. The class will be fully virtual because of the pandemic, so I’m really grateful for all that I learned about navigating life online while working on IRL. I guess the book continues to be a tool for me, too.

Chris Stedman is the author of IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives (2020) and Faitheist (2012), and has written for publications including The Guardian, The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, Pitchfork, VICE, The LA Review of BooksCatapult, and The Washington Post. Previously the founding director of the Yale Humanist Community and a fellow at Yale University, Chris also served as a humanist chaplain at Harvard University and currently teaches in the department of religion and philosophy at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, Minnesota. To learn more, visit chrisstedmanwriter.com or irlbook.com.

Briallen Hopper is editor of KtB, and author of Hard to Love: Essays And Confessions (Bloomsbury, 2019). She teaches writing at Queens College, City University of New York, and holds a PhD in English from Princeton. Learn more at her website, www.briallenhopper.com, or follow her on Twitter @briallenhopper.