By Elien Blue Becque
When Stephanie Wu’s new book, The Roommates, out this month from Picador, literally appeared on my desk in proof form I had no idea how it got there but I was VERY excited to read it. Wu’s collected tales of friendship, rivalry, culture clashes, petty arguments and existential ones delighted me and will ring true to anyone who has ever had the pleasure or discomfort of sharing their living space with someone else. Stephanie, RoomZoom Intern Tara, and I sat down recently in New York City to discuss the new book and all things roommate-related.
Elien: So how did this excellent book come about?
Stephanie: This is the second book in a series. The first book is on bridesmaid’s stories, which is also very of our generation although maybe closer to our late 20s. A very good friend of mine wrote that book, and the series editor approached me and said “Hey, we’re doing another one in the series, it’s on roommates, can you relate?” And I said “Absolutely.”
E: Everyone can relate.
S: Everyone can relate, and that’s the brilliant thing behind this series is that everyone knows someone with a bridesmaid story and everyone definitely has or knows someone with a roommate story.
E: It’s so true! Yeah, you’re sitting around the table and everyone always has a story.
S: Exactly, and after I started working on the book, it became incredible dinner party conversation. I would mention it. Bam! Story. Or someone knows someone with a story. It’s this never-ending topic.
Tara: A never-ending life topic if you’re in your twenties. How did you collect all these stories?
S: I mean, that’s the power of the social network, you know?
S: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Google Surveys, I used it all. I was not shy about pimping out my book and saying, “I need this. You know someone.” I think my mom even emailed her college roommates for stories.
E: You must have learned a lot. Did you have any takeaways about, human nature? I know that’s a really big question, but I feel like you must have gleaned some major lessons here.
S: Well, I wrote this in my intro but there were instances when I was interviewing people and where my interviewees would say “excuse me, I’m tearing up because this is such an emotional story for me to recount.” And then there were stories where I was getting shivers, and I was like, “I can’t believe this person is sharing this story with me and being so open about this very personal thing.”
The biggest takeaway, as, general as it sounds, is that you never know what life is going to throw at you. You could be the most type A control freak, but if you open yourself to living with someone you just never what could happen. And you’re not living with a sibling, it’s not a boyfriend or girlfriend or a wife or a husband, it could be a stranger or it could just be someone that you had a previous friendship with. And, it’s just a different relationship all together, and you never know where it can go. I would say in most cases it goes well — because there are millions of people that aren’t in the book [laughs]…but, it can also go very, very wrong. [Laughs]
E: True, really so true. We hope to mitigate that with RoomZoom. So who is you roommate now?
S: When I was writing the book, I was living with my best friend from high school but she moved out recently, and I totally could have said, “Okay, I’m going to live alone,” but I actually didn’t want to, so I found a roommate. She’s a friend of a friend of a friend, and we hit it off, and we’ve been living together for about a month and it’s been great so far! We both have normal work schedules so we see each other at nights and on weekends, but, I mean, we live our own lives, we don’t have mutual friends, so it’s not like we go out together on a Saturday night. It’s very much a relationship that works.
E: It sounds like you’ve had mostly idyllic roommate situations. Do you have any roommate horror stories of your own?
S: Well, my first roommate experience was when I came to the states for summer camp. I went to this nerd camp in upstate New York. I was born in the states but moved when I was three and whenever I would come back to the states for camp there was this huge culture shock—because it was Saratoga Springs, New York — and it could not be any more different from Taipei — which is where I grew up. It’s a huge city.
E: That must have been, like, really good for your brain.
S: It was very good for my independence. [Laughs] And the culture shock I think made it so that I was just like, anything could happen and I would not bat an eye.
T: That’s impressive.
S: But I remember certain things about my roommates, it was never anything I couldn’t live with. I do remember I had a roommate once and she was very, very kosher—which I did not understand at all. Again, growing up in Taiwan you meet Jewish people, but there are not that many orthodox Jews. And I remember one night, middle of the night, her alarm clock goes off and I was like, “turn that off!” and I think I was in the top bunk so I couldn’t really like—I would have to climb down—and she was like, “I can’t!” and I was like, “what do you mean you can’t?” It was one of the nights where she couldn’t touch electricity. How was I supposed to know that?! So I was screaming at her, “Like, turn your alarm off!?!?” She was screaming at me, “I can’t!” [Laughs]
E: Imagine if she hadn’t had a roommate!
S: It would have just gone on all night! Finally the RA comes in and is like, “Why is your alarm going off?” and turned it off. I don’t think I fully understood what happened until years later until NYU where I met tons of Jewish people. And I didn’t fault her for it, I was never like, “I can’t believe you did that,” but it’s just a funny, cultural experience that can only happen when you live together. [Laughs]
T: OK last question. Tell us what’s most important to you in your living situation.
S: I mean, there’s nothing more important than your bedroom. I’m a Cancer, and one of the typical Cancer traits is that they’re homebodies, and I never considered myself a homebody when I was younger as I’ve gotten older I’ve decided that there’s nothing more important than your bedroom. I also love to sleep. I am a deep sleeper, and when I am woken, I am not a happy camper. [Laughs] So my bedroom is very important to me. I’m not the neatest person, but I like having my own space so I can be as not-neat as I want to be, without someone saying, “Hey, your chair-drobe…getting a bit out of control…” My boyfriend says that to me but I don’t listen to him because it’s my bedroom, not his. [Laughs] Having this space of your own—especially when you live in a city like New York and there are very few things you can say “this is mine and no one else’s”—not the subway, not the restaurant, not a bar, not your office, this is your bedroom.
E: What else is in your room besides your chair-drobe?
S: [Laughs] Well for a long time I was very minimalist about my furniture, mainly because I didn’t have any furniture in college, clearly, and I moved around every summer. I’ve only started recently, as of, say, six months ago, started acquiring furniture that bought because it was aesthetically pleasing.
E: That’s fun!
S: Yeah, it’s a big, adult, step. So I got this — and I didn’t even buy it, I picked it up from a friend who was leaving the city, and it definitely not a necessity—ladder bookshelf from Crate & Barrel—
E: I love those!
S: Yes! You always see them on Pinterest, and you’re like “Ahh, mine would look so good and organized and all color coordinated.” Well, mine has become a place for me to keep my trinkets and souvenirs that I’m not ready to throw away And when I look at it, I’m so happy. It’s so nice, and it’s absolutely useless, but I can see all the stuff I love all there—
E: Totally agree.
S: So that’s kind of my newest prized possession, and then, about a month ago, my dresser collapsed, so I had to buy a new one from IKEA—
E: The dresser from IKEA collapsed?
S: It was a dresser from a family friend that was very old, but yes it was from IKEA, so I had to buy a new one from IKEA after doing so much research
S: I bit the bullet and actually went and with help from my boyfriend built it, which I have never done before.
T: That’s my favorite pastime, with my mom, sprawling out on the floor.
S: I’m always asking someone else to build it, or kind of supervising while someone else does it. But building your own furniture is an amazing feeling! [Laughs]
T: It is pretty cool!
S: At 27 I should have had this epiphany much earlier, but that was pretty amazing. Yeah, that was about like a month ago.
E: So you’re both a published author and able to assemble an IKEA dresser.
S: Yeah, I’m growing up a little.
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