Ask a Clean Person About Her New Book: A Conversation With Jolie Kerr

by Jen Doll

Lovely, stylish, very clean person Jolie Kerr has a book out Tuesday from Plume, and we are very excited, not least because Jolie got her cleanliness-writing start right here at The Hairpin. My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag . . . and Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha is precisely what it sounds like, a cohesive, informative, and fun compendium to help you reduce filth of all shapes, sizes, and proteins without judgment. New York-area folks: Mark your calendars for the book launch, moderated by Hairpin writer Bobby Finger, at the Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn on Wednesday, February 26.

I talked to Jolie about how the column got its start, how she’s different from Martha, and what she thinks about the “gender divide” in cleaning, among other things. And, yes, we talked about that frustrating stain on my couch.

Hi Jolie!

Hi Jen! I have been so looking forward to this. I miss The Hairpin so much! I’ll always be a Hairpin girl.

This is a good segue to talk about how the column got started in this very web-spot.

I’m now calling it an origin story, that makes me laugh. It’s recounted in the intro of the book in more detail, but the gist of is that my friend (and Hairpin pal) Tyler Coates came up with the idea that I should write about cleaning. I was absolutely NOT sold on the notion, but I mentioned it to Edith anyway and she was like, “Oh my God yes obviously. Jolie’s Cleaning Corner.”

Because I was so unsure of how to make a column about cleaning interesting and readable, I decided to go with a Q&A format. That’s 100 percent the secret to its success. The stories — the relatable, funny, heartbreaking, utterly gross stories — are what make Ask a Clean Person work.

Where did those first questions come from?

I sent out an email to maybe like 20 or 25 friends, Hey, kicking around this idea for The Hairpin, do any of you have questions? I thought I’d get 2 or 3 pity questions. No. Emails were pouring in from my friends, and the questions were crazy, they were great. I was like, Tyler may have been onto something. I think by the third week I had enough reader questions that I was up and running.

Allow me to note the great and ever-growing tradition of people with book deals stemming from Hairpin posts. Congrats!

It’s true! I was the first. I’m going to admit that. I was maybe a tiny bit competitive about wanting to get the first book deal.

What was that process like?

It’s kind of embarrassing how easy it was? Well, wait. It was not easy. I just had an easier path than most.

I started the column in March of 2011, and by the summer I’d gotten some interest in a book from a publishing affiliate of Barnes & Noble. A few months later, I was contacted by an editor at Grand Central, who introduced me to the woman who became my agent and who asked me to write a formal book proposal. While in the course of doing that, I was also contacted by an editor at Penguin, who ultimately was the one who bought the project.

How was writing the proposal?

The proposal writing process was gruesome. I was working full time at doing legal marketing, setting up a new business development program for a firm I’d joined in the summer of 2011, and I was writing the column every week, plus the proposal. In hindsight, I actually don’t know how I did it. The busyness was a blessing though. I was going through an exceedingly tumultuous time in my personal life — I’m pretty sure I was actually having a nervous breakdown throughout the fall of 2011 — and I was being undermined/bullied at work. So throwing myself into Clean Personing was probably the thing that saved me from going fully into a dark and scary place. I do remember getting a lot of emotional support from Choire during that time. Thank God that Choire Sicha exists.

I finished the proposal in February/March 2012 and gave first right of refusal to Grand Central. They passed, which was disappointing but I also felt like hearing “No” was an important rite of passage. We then gave the proposal to Plume as an exclusive, and they bit in May 2012. The manuscript was due on January 7, 2013. I handed it over on January 7, 2013. That was a good feeling. The writing process wasn’t easy, in part because it was very lonely. I’d say that’s the hardest part of writing a book. I wanted my commenters back!

What are your favorite questions, or types of questions?

I mean, obviously the best questions are the ones that come with a way out there back story, like the one that inspired the book’s title. (Do you know? I still stay in touch with the gal with the handbag!) I remember exactly where I was when the Jizzcliner landed in my inbox. I think I started barking? I went totally feral, oh my God.

I also like any question that lets me make people feel less embarrassed about being quote unquote gross. Pit stains are a great example of that — one of my greatest days as a Clean Person was going into the Deadspin office shortly after I’d run my pit stain piece on the site and having one of the writers look up from his computer, tip his head at me ever so slightly and give me a thumbs up at the mention of that particular column. There was also a post I did for Jezebel about vaginal discharge buildup in underwear that I was so nervous about — just, like, “Did I get this right in terms of the tone? Is this going to make the commenters come after me with pitchforks and torches?” that turned out to be a huge success in terms of the response. That’s one of the best feelings in the world, to know that you’ve made someone feel less alone regarding something that’s embarrassing them.

Your answers to questions are so thorough! How do you figure out the right solutions? Is there a lot of research involved?

At this stage in the game, I’ve collected enough knowledge that I generally have an idea of how to answer a question, but I still research every answer before compiling the best two or three approaches. In part because sometimes there’s a better or more cost- and labor-effective solution than what I’d previously suggested, and also because there are always new products and also just because I like to learn as much as I can. I do try to keep the answers to just two or three recommendations, otherwise it becomes overwhelming and/or confusing for the reader to have to pick through too much information. On the other hand, I do like to provide some choices so that readers can decide what method is right for them.

The other thing I do is to walk through any given scenario and start the advice giving from the very, very, very beginning. That sometimes means saying things like, “Go to the hardware store and buy…” But, like, that’s the stuff that trips people up! I remember reading instructions to use mineral spirits — I think it was in Martha’s Homekeeping Handbook — to treat stains and being all, “What the fuck are mineral spirits? Where do I get them? Is there a brand name? Don’t make me go tromping all over this great green earth asking pimply stock boys where I can find mineral spirits, MARTHA. Gah.” So not assuming people know what I’m talking about when I mention products, tools, and techniques, and providing that kind of information — what brand names to look for, what kinds of stores to check out, links to Amazon — is essential for me.

Your tone is also very different from Martha! I mean, I’d rather have drinks in a bar with you (and then confess my cleaning problems).

I try to presume that my readers know nothing, but to still talk to them in a way that doesn’t insult their intelligence. Sometimes that means starting an instruction with, “At the risk of insulting your intelligence…” and then making a joke about how I can’t help myself from being thorough. Self-mockery is an excellent tactic in this line of work. I also try to throw in a good dose of personal stories. I mean, do you know how many times I’ve barfed up a stomach full of Crystal Light? Red barf, you guys. It’s not like I’m not totally gross too.

Can you talk about the “clean lady tradition” and how you diverge from those who have come before?

I think there are two main things that set me apart. First, what I do isn’t aspirational. Martha is aspirational, Heloise is aspirational in a different way. Brit Morin, who doesn’t do cleaning but is often compared to me because we’re both doing domestic artistry, is aspirational. They’re selling a fantasy of a perfect — or more perfecter — life. That’s not a bad thing! But it’s not what I do. Like, at all. I often joke that if everybody were like me, I’d be out of a job — and I really love this job, so I don’t want that to happen. I want people to throw wild parties and discover that the cheap confetti cannons mixed with spilled beer stained their wood floors! I want folks to get all stoned and be all, “Mercy, this pipe is filthy and now I am stoned and obsessed with getting it perfectly clean.” I maybe don’t so much want people buying used bike shorts.

Second, there’s my commitment to taking gender out of the equation. There’s an important distinction between me and my predecessors: I’m a Clean PERSON, not a Clean Lady. The problem with the gender divide in cleaning is not nature, it’s nurture. Women have been trained to know how to clean, to have an expectation of cleanliness, and men haven’t been in the same way we are. If you go into their environment and socialize them in the same way, they’ll have it, too.

Is this happening in your writing for Deadspin?

I realize that I’m not, like, solving feminism here, but I actively went after a male audience instead of writing 500 thought pieces for The Atlantic on the gender divide in household chores. (Also is there any topic duller and more click-baity than the gender divide in household chores? Jesus. In the time it took you to write 5000 words that don’t change a Goddamned thing, you could have hard cleaned your kitchen and re-grouted your tub.)

What else are you up to now?

Right now I’m writing full-time and am a little bit of a housewife. I do a column once a week, alternating between Jezebel and Deadspin, and one-off things for Jezebel, like on Martha’s insane beauty regimen. And then I do a lot of stuff for Foodspin, Deadspin’s food and drink site, that’s so much fun. And other freelancing here and there. Writing for Deadspin is the biggest pleasure in my life. I don’t have to explain myself, they get me to my core, they’re like The Hairpin readers.

What’s the one thing you most hope people will take from your book?

This is going to sound really hokey, and I wouldn’t say it anywhere but to The Hairpin: I hope that they come away from it feeling like it’s OK not to know things. So many people begin questions with an apology, or a lament of how stupid they are, and I wish I could tell every one of them, “It’s honestly OK not to know the answer here! Stop being so hard on yourself!” Well and also I guess I really hope people make their beds. But that’s sort of a general life dream for me!

Can we address the stain on my couch? It’s black ink because I, like, sat on a pen, and then I did what I later read (from you) you’re not supposed to do and put water on it. Is there hope?

Has the ink stain spread because of the water?

Not really.

If you’ve got rubbing alcohol at home try blotting some on the stain with a cotton ball or the corner of a dishrag and see if that helps. If not, we might need to get into dry cleaning solvent territory. Don’t fret — there’s always K2r.

Thank you. Anything else you’d like to say?

I don’t think the column could have worked if I’d started writing it anywhere but for The Hairpin. It is absolutely a product of its environment. Having so many amazing people trust me with something that was sort of always my pet obsession was life-changing. That trust was, and still is, such a powerful and flattering thing. Because of it, when I do this job, it makes me the best Jolie I can be. Putting on my Clean Person hat makes me a better person, or at least the best possible version of myself.

And you’re helping the rest of us be the cleanest versions of ourselves. We are grateful.

Previously: A Conversation With the Author of Are You My Boyfriend?

Jen Doll is a regular contributor to The Hairpin.