“I was trying to say goodbye to my ex-husband, who is an important person in my life and a friend,” Slate, an actress and comedian, said of the story, “I Died: Bronze Tree.” After her divorce from director Dean Fleischer-Camp in 2016, she heard that sometimes, as a healing exercise, trauma survivors reimagine painful experiences. “I decided to write for myself what my life would be if I had a relationship that lasted till the end,” she said.
Maybe this isn’t what you were expecting from Slate, who is known for voicing animated characters in television shows like “Big Mouth” and “Bob’s Burgers,” as well as the internet’s favorite anthropomorphic shell, Marcel. Nor is it what you might have assumed would emerge from the mind of the stand-up comedian whose monologues are punctuated by “poop and fart jokes,” as she put it, among other bodily concerns. But “Little Weirds” wasn’t really meant to be funny.
“People had approached me like, ‘Would you like to write some humorous blah blah blahs?’ ” Slate said. “And my answer was, ‘No, I don’t think I can.’ ”
She proposed an allegorical eco-feminist tome that she imagined would be in the vein of bell hooks. That didn’t work out, either.
The book Slate did write, which Little, Brown will release Nov. 5, is more autobiographical than sociological or critical, but it doesn’t quite fall into the category of personal essays. The word “divorce” only appears a few times in its pages. Disclosures are often cushioned by whimsical rhetorical devices. Proper nouns, even the name of her dog, have been largely left out. She writes about nurture and nourishment: returning to the (almost certainly haunted) house where she grew up; drinking a beer alone in the airport; saying hello to the dog first, and the human second, if at all; admiring the ferocity of other women; watching the solar eclipse in a crowd of strangers; picking the perfect flower to fill her window boxes. You might call them personal abstractions.
“Little Weirds” has retained some of its original feminist underpinnings, in its reverence for nature and the female body and its condemnation of male arrogance. Slate, who is 37 and was raised in the Boston suburb of Milton, said she couldn’t have written like this in her 20s. “Even though I grew up in a privileged situation — I went to private school, and my parents are both artists, and I had access to a lot of literature and art, and I had a really caring family and good health and safety — I don’t really feel like anybody directly spoke to me about feminism,” she said. “I didn’t understand that it was important to say directly that you are a feminist, and I didn’t know what it meant.”
It wasn’t until she was cast in the 2014 film “Obvious Child,” which revolves around a comedian’s unplanned pregnancy, that she came to understand the relationship between her body, her voice and the rest of the world. She credits her feminist awakening to that film’s director, Gillian Robespierre. They have become serial collaborators, ever since Robespierre identified something sensitive about Slate’s stand-up.
“I think a lot of really dramatic actors cannot do comedy,” Robespierre said, “but I do think there are more comedic actors and comedians who can perform difficult scenes and go to those deeper, darker places onscreen in a natural way.”
Slate, a self-described “moderately successful actress,” has leaned more comedic than dramatic in her career. But every now and then she gets a casting call that defies any notions she has about her range, like the time she was asked to read for the role of Pennywise in the film adaptation of Stephen King’s “It.”
“I had to put my computer across the room and look at it with binoculars and be like, ‘Sorry, I’m so sorry,’ ” she said, recalling her incredulity at the email. Then she began to envision a world in which she got the part. “Do I have boobs as female It?” she wondered.
Slate released her first comedy special, “Stage Fright,” on Netflix last week. The feature cuts from a stand-up set at the Gramercy Theater in New York to documentary-style interviews with Slate’s parents, Nancy and Ron, and her sisters, Abby and Stacey. (Her grandmothers make memorable appearances, too.)
In the Netflix special, Slate also shares artifacts from her childhood: the Laura Ashley wallpaper, the debate trophies, the hexlike poems scribbled on the walls of her closet, cursing the classmates who wronged her. There’s a wistful and resigned quality to it all — she expresses doubt that she will amount to anything other than a “weird aunt” in a world full of disappointing men.
“Little Weirds,” like many books published since 2016, makes dutiful references to Donald Trump and the reverberations of his election, though none so explicit as the ones Slate makes in conversation, about the proliferation of hate speech, violence and restrictive gender-based laws.
“When Gabe Liedman, my comedy partner, and I first started doing comedy, we felt really free to use language that were slurs against women or Jews or gay people, because we felt that that empowered us,” Slate said. “And now it’s like, I don’t want to hear that at all. We are in an emergency, and you can’t use that language because it’s all flammable.”
Since April, Slate has been living, mostly without air conditioning, in the childhood home of her fiancé, Ben Shattuck. The couple also spends time on Cuttyhunk Island, off Cape Cod, where Shattuck is the director of a writers’ residency and where Slate in June gave a widely covered speech to the island’s one graduating eighth grader.
She spends her time reading, writing, swimming in the river behind their house on the South Coast of Massachusetts and napping, as Shattuck, who is also a painter and a curator, has taught her to enjoy. Sometimes they drive his mother’s Prius an hour into Providence, Rhode Island, the nearest city, for dinner and a movie. When they are together, Slate seems most herself; she talks about missing her parents, who live a close-but-far ferry ride away, on Martha’s Vineyard, and reminisces about the time Rihanna complimented her on her dress.
She and Shattuck met two summers ago through a series of meaningful coincidences that brought them north of the Arctic Circle. Slate had flown to Norway to celebrate the 30th birthday of author Rebecca Dinerstein Knight, whom she met in Cobble Hill Park in Brooklyn, in 2014.
“I had just seen ‘Obvious Child,’ and I was walking home through the park, and I recognized Jenny. She was on the phone, and I gave her this incredibly ridiculous, silent round of applause as I walked by her,” Dinerstein Knight said. “She blew me a kiss. And that was the whole exchange.”
They connected that evening on Twitter and began an email correspondence. Dinerstein Knight sent Slate a copy of her first novel, “The Sunlit Night,” to read.
Which brings us back to Norway.
After the celebrations, they planned to visit Lofoten, the archipelago where “The Sunlit Night” is set, to scout locations for its film adaptation starring Slate. Dinerstein Knight and her husband, John Knight, invited his best friend to join them.
Shattuck appears anonymously midway through “Little Weirds.” He and Slate talk about poetry. He roasts chicken, bakes an apple pie. She sees his butt. “Nobody touched me,” she writes, “but it felt like I had been touched.”
This article originally appeared in