In 2010, Lindy West was living paycheck to paycheck as the film editor of Seattle’s alt-weekly newspaper The Stranger, when her viral review of Sex and the City 2 put her on the map. In the years since, she’s become a New York Times columnist, a best-selling author, and the kind of Hollywood player who can afford, say, an exotic hotel suite with its own private pool. She’s now a writer and executive producer on Shrill, a Hulu series based on her 2017 memoir, in which SNL’s Aidy Bryant plays a young, semi-broke writer a lot like West herself used to be. Out this week, West’s second book, a collection of pop-culture analysis titled The Witches Are Coming, unpacks hypocrisies high and low, from the glaring privilege of Goop-era wellness to the mysterious unfunniness of Adam Sandler movies. West spoke with us about the relief of finally being able to afford dental work, her biggest splurges after getting her first book deal, and navigating the financial uncertainty inherent in making your living as a writer.
In Shrill, the book, you write about not having the money to pay for your abortion; the clinic allowed you to pay for the procedure after you got your next paycheck. Nine years later, you’re a person with “executive producer” in your job title. How does that leap feel?
I remember calling my parents when I got my first grown-up job and being like, “They’re gonna pay me $32,000 dollars a year!” Like, I am rich. When I [got hired as a columnist at] Jezebel, during my quote-unquote negotiation — which I did not excel at — I think my boss offered me $50,000 and I was like, “I would prefer $55,000.” She was like, “Yeah, okay.” I clearly could have tried for $80,000. But $55,000 might as well have been a million to me at that time. I’m still getting used to having some money in the bank. A Hollywood paycheck is astronomically better than any other paycheck I’ve ever gotten, but it’s also just going to the same things as before. Mostly we’re thinking about, like, how are we going to send our kids to college? Can I help my mom in her retirement, and my mother-in-law? A couple weeks ago I needed a dental crown. I just got it done and paid for it. That was amazing. I remember once crying at the dentist because, between me and my husband, we needed like $11,000 worth of work. We were like, “Okay, what’s the bare minimum so that we can chew?” I’m very aware of what a privilege it is to be able to, like, get a crown.
Much of your writing rails against people who are oblivious to their own privilege. How do you square your politics with being a person who has that Hollywood paycheck?
I don’t really understand anything about money — how to manage it, how to save it, what to do with it other than buy clothes and pay rent and get my teeth fixed. I don’t know exactly how taxes work, either. I don’t think that I’m at the level where I benefit from Republican tax policy, but I’m glad I don’t find that tempting at all. I’m like, Please IRS and government social programs: Take my money, redistribute it, please. I do believe there’s something inherently immoral in amassing wealth.
My parents went through times when they had no money, and then my dad got a job at Microsoft in the early ’90s and ended up making a lot. I remember my mom saying it’s really easy to be generous when you have more than you need. My husband and I try to do that as much as we can. Though we’re not like the gala class where we’re donating $50,000 to a theater.
What are your go-to causes?
Abortion funds. And I live in Seattle, and pay something called Real Rent every month, which supports services for the Duwamish tribe, [the original inhabitants] of the land the city is built on. I also try to donate to things I pay attention to on social media, like if a friend says, “Here’s a GoFundMe campaign for a queer sex worker who can’t make rent this month because X, Y, Z.” Basically my money-management strategy is: Spend wildly on things that are fun and make my family happy, and then also give money away, sort of haphazardly, when I notice a need somewhere.
What are a few things you’ve spent wildly on?
My husband and I have essentially stopped cooking. We eat at restaurants and get takeout constantly. It’s very bad; this is a thing that we’re working on. But it’s just so fun to eat at restaurants.The other big thing is clothes. The small explosion in plus-size fashion brands unfortunately coincided with me accruing some disposable cash. When I was a teenager, there were no cute clothes for fat people. I had to go to seventh grade dressed like a businesswoman in lumpy pantsuits from Lane Bryant. I now compulsively buy every garment I see. It’s really been therapeutic to be like, “Oh my God, look, someone made a weird jacket in my size. I’ve never had a weird jacket before!”
I also just went to Bali for a writers’ festival. My ticket and our first hotel were covered, but I bought my husband a plane ticket, and then we stayed extra nights at a super-fancy resort. That was maybe my first big splurge since the TV show. I kept being like, “I have a TV show. I think we can stay four nights at the Four Seasons in Bali and have our own pool. I think it’s okay?” Oh, and I bought a used Hyundai Santa Fe, the first car that I did not buy used from my parents.
You have a TV show that’s going into its second season and your big splurge was a used Hyundai?
Yeah, but it’s from 2015, and it’s the limited ultra edition, which means that it has, I don’t know, a sunroof. I had been driving a 2005 Ford Escape that my mom sold to me after my dad died. The one thing that I’ve absorbed about money is you’re not supposed to buy a new car because they immediately lose half their value, right? What I’m saying is, I stan my 2015 Hyundai Santa Fe limited edition.
What was your first game-changing paycheck?
Selling Shrill, the book, in 2014. There was a small bidding war. The advance was in the low six figures, definitely more than I expected. That was the first time I had more than four digits in my bank account. It was a huge transition for us. We could start to kind of stabilize in a way that was really good for our general mental health. It’s not that money makes you happy, but not having money is a really corrosive kind of stress.
Hollywood is all about negotiation. For somebody who is conflicted about wealth, how do you handle that?
The thing about it is, someone’s gonna be making a bunch of money off this thing, right? That’s the beauty of having representation: Other people do it for you, and then they’re like, “Well, here’s what you got.” It’s a way to make sure you’re not undermining yourself.
Has anybody helped you navigate your growing power, in terms of getting paid?
Not really. Attorneys and businesspeople are like, “Hey you really need to sit down and have some kind of coherent plan for your life.” But I’m not responsible, I don’t save my receipts. I mean, I tried to, but then they just go in the bottom of my purse and turn into garbage. The only constructive thing I’ve done is finally get a consistent accountant instead of going to H&R Block the day before taxes are due. It’s crazy that we don’t teach this stuff in school, that you can come out of high school and not know how to balance your checkbook, or even what that means. I wish I’d started thinking about this stuff 20 years ago, and been responsible on a smaller scale, so that now I would know what the fuck I’m doing on a bigger scale.
It feels like women aren’t supposed to admit we don’t know how to deal with money anymore.
I know. I guess this is sort of my next major project of adulthood, even though I’m almost 40. But the thing about this job is like, yeah, you get big checks, but the job is not secure. People could never buy another book of mine again. The show can end, and maybe I never get another one. Maybe my voice gets old and stale and no one wants to read my columns anymore. That’s part of the reason I haven’t bought a house. It’s terrifying to think, well, what is my income two years from now? It’s not like I have a salary position at some company where I go every day from nine to five, where you can chart out what you’re going to make and put X amount away every month. That’s not what my income looks like at all. It’s all over the place, with wild spikes and then long periods where I make no money at all. As soon as I start to think about financial planning, the fact that I can’t plan makes planning feel impossible.
What’s one lesson you’ve learned about how to get paid what you deserve?
I’m from Seattle, where everyone is passive-aggressive and polite to a fault. I’ve definitely gone into every salary negotiation of my life as a Seattleite, like, “I’m sorry, I actually don’t need any money, I should pay you for this job.” There is no reason to be like that. It’s capitalism. You are giving them your body and your time and your calories so that they can make more money than you’re gonna make. A thing that I’ve learned as an adult is that everything is fucking fake. Men are out there asking for extravagant shit and getting it. Everyone is bluffing about everything all the time. So just go for it. Go after what you need and what you want.