Playwright, essayist and performer Isaac Oliver is on an enviable roll. The 31-year-old, New York-based funny man hits the Baltimore Book Festival this month as headliner to read from his new book “Intimacy Idiot,” an assortment of essays about and riffs on coming of age as a gay 20-something man. Oliver attended the George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology, which, he says, changed his life and “was a magical place, a haven for weird, expressive kids who like to sob in stairwells.” We talked to him about our town’s best quirks, his current love life and what he wants to do next.
“Intimacy Idiot” is based partially on your one-man performances. How did the stage-to-book process go down? A handful of the stories started as entries on a blog I had, which I then compiled into a stage show and began to really enjoy reading live. It evolved into an evening that’s really a hybrid between author reading and sit-down comedy, with a “side-hunk” actor who reads all the supporting characters. I was in residence at a wonderful theater in New York called Ars Nova, all the while writing and compiling material. From there, I put together a book proposal. Thankfully Scribner picked up what I was putting down, and they gave me a year to write the book, most of which I spent hiding behind wine bottles from it.
Do you enjoy writing or performing more? Oh, writing is the worst. It’s the absolute worst. It’s lonely; it’s arduous; it’s frightening. Performing can be frightening too, but it can also be joyous. There’s nothing more exciting—and therapeutic—than hearing an audience laugh, especially while telling some of these stories. The performing has certainly helped the writing—I learned how to listen to an audience and read their vibrations throughout a story and recalibrate. I also think it’s incredibly helpful to write with an awareness of an audience, to keep from turning too inward or solipsistic.
Who are some of your inspirations? To name just a few: David Sedaris, David Rakoff, Fran Lebowitz, Nora Ephron, George Saunders, Tina Fey, Joan Didion, Billy Collins and Alice Munro.
What are some of your favorite Baltimore haunts? Club Charles and the Charles Theater. Woodberry Kitchen is incredible. Ellicott City at Christmas. The Creative Alliance is an incredibly exciting arts hub. Grand Central for martinis and homosexuality. And I will always love that aquarium.
If you lived here again, which part of town would you choose? Well, I’d say Canton, but my parents just moved there because they’re suddenly cooler than their children. Every time I call them they’re out to dinner. I went home to visit and they were like, “You have keys, right?” So, maybe Fells Point. There’s also Federal Hill or Mount Vernon, or how about Roland Park? I like this game. What’s my budget? Am I married in this scenario? How happy are we?
What’s the funniest thing you noticed about living in Baltimore? It feels like a small town with a million people in it.
What is the most fattening thing you ate this week? Half of a donut in Los Angeles. They immediately put me on a plane back.
Are you dating differently now that you’re famous? Well, yes and no. Yes in that I’m finally putting energy into it again, and no in that the energy’s shooting into a brick wall and sliding to the floor. I did have a guy on Grindr say to me, after a few exchanged pleasantries, “I don’t think this conversation should go any further. I don’t want to be written about.”
Got any funny stories from your book tour? Well, my co-star Dan was offered work by a gay porn director. Our car battery kept dying on the way to Provincetown. In Baltimore, my mother made little underwear stickers that people could put on the bent-over Ken doll on my book cover. You know, to make it more mom-friendly.
What are you working on now? Sleeping, eating, reading and hopefully writing again soon. I’ve been making some notes toward a second book. And some sort of television foray with the first. We’ll see. Fingers crossed.