From Girls to Women: Lena Dunham Talks Young Adult Novels, Jian Ghomeshi, and Artistic Development
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From Girls to Women: Lena Dunham Talks Young Adult Novels, Jian Ghomeshi, and Artistic Development

We catch up with the creator and star of Girls and author of Not That Kind of Girl ahead of her Just for Laughs appearance on Saturday.


Lena Dunham, creator and star of the hit HBO series Girls, is in town to headline the Just for Laughs JFL42 comedy festival, where she’ll be reading excerpts from her new memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, which hits shelves September 30. Torontoist spoke to her about creating her own series at the tender age of 23, her decision to write a memoir at 28, and the new direction in which she’ll take JFL42 with her live reading and Q-and-A on Saturday.

Torontoist: Much of your work is autobiographical and your new book, Not That Kind of Girl, is a very personal memoir. Have you ever found yourself seeking out experiences for the sake of experiencing them? Hannah Horvath, your character on Girls, voices this need several times; do you feel the same creative anxieties?

Lena Dunham: You know, I have to say that I do not. I occasionally think to myself, “Should I be going to more parties?” and then I say, “No, probably not.” I feel as though life presents you with enough strangeness if you just live through it in an aware way. I’ve stopped thinking that painful struggles are the only thing that can inform creative work, so although I may have thought that when I was younger, it has not been my experience now.

TOist: So you’ve found yourself developing and changing throughout the seasons of Girls?

LD: Oh, of course. I started working on the show when I was 23 and now I’m 28, so the show will end up being a big chunk of my young adult development. It’s inevitable that we’re all growing and changing, and that’s an exciting thing to be able to depict on screen.

TOist: Girls is returning to HBO for its fourth season in the New Year. Over the years, audiences have seen characters alternately grow and stagnate. How have your relationships with the show and your character changed over the years?

LD: I mean, I think that I have in some ways gleaned a little bit more from Hannah. Initially it was a completely autobiographical character with a couple of shifts, but now she has taken on a life of her own and I kind of follow her where I think she should go. In terms of my relationship to the show, we’ve all been doing it now for 42 episodes, so we have a clear understanding of how to make it and how to play these characters, and so the job gets more pleasurable all the time as our confidence increases.

TOist: So you feel like you’re hitting your stride around the fourth season?

LD: Yeah, it just gets more and more fun.

TOist: I’ve read that you subject yourself and your character, Hannah, to unflattering camera angles to emphasize her flaws while not doing the same for the other characters, despite their shortcomings. Why Hannah and not the neurotic Shoshanna or aloof Jessa?

LD: You know, of course Hannah has some of the least flattering angles, but I also think that there’s no mercy shown to any of the girls. That being said, I think Hannah is, in many ways, the protagonist of the show. To be totally honest, I think that I’m more comfortable subjecting myself to uncomfortable things than I might be putting another actress through it. It’s one of the reasons I started acting in the first place: it was out of utility because I knew I had one actor that would never say no to me and it was me.

TOist: You have been writing, directing, and producing films and television for years, but Not That Kind of Girl is your first book. Why did you make the foray into literature this late in your career?

LD: It’s funny that you say that, because I think it’s important to me to do it now so that it’s really a part of me and a part of what I do, and that I wasn’t just going to write some memoir when I’m 40. A big part of what I do is write prose and it’s a passion of mine and I really wanted to make it clear through publishing the book that it wasn’t just going to be a side note—it’s going to be a part of my career. If I’m using Nora Ephron as a model, she made and directed movies, wrote articles and books … I wanted it to be a part of what I do and not just an afterthought. Writing prose is something that I’ve always done. Obviously, the first few years of the show really dominated my life and my consciousness, so I wrote the book as soon as I saw the space to do it.

TOist: Do you consider yourself more of a writer or performer?

LD: I consider myself more of a writer. I feel like writing is this thing that you always have, whether you’re feeling shy or feeling comfortable; whether you want to be seen or you want to feel private. It’s this safe place you can always go. That’s what makes it so magical. I’m a writer, and I happen to love performing and enjoy the capacity in which I get to do it on the show, but I have a feeling, even though we can never predict the future, that I will be writing long after I’m on television.

TOist: Your book is a memoir and much of your work is autobiographical. What are the strengths and shortcomings of film versus literature for showcasing your life and work?

LD: I love getting to collaborate with other people [in television] to really bring characters to life and add dimensions to them. I also love that it’s visual and you just can’t beat that, but at the same time, books allow for this really intimate relationship with your audience and with your reader: you know they’re always alone, holding [the book] in their hands, taking it in. Reading is my other passion: if I’m not working, I’m reading. I love to read. The fact that someone gets to have that relationship with my work that I’ve had with so many books—that’s exciting. Also, it allows you to give an emotional, first-person narrative and impose your worldview in a way that you can’t necessarily do in film.

TOist: What was the last book that blew you away?

LD: I just finished this lesbian YA novel called Annie on My Mind from the early ’80s. I read it because Nancy Garden, the author, died recently, and I was so impressed with her obituary that I hunted down the book and was so glad that I did. I love YA because I feel like we all still have that teenager inside of us who needs comforting. I love having it in my knowledge bank: things that I can recommend to young people or even to adults who need that comfort. I’d say my favourite book of last year was The Love Affair of Nathaniel P by Adelle Waldman. I thought that was so well done and a modern masterpiece. She’s a writer to keep our eyes on.

TOist: JFL42, like many of Just For Laughs’ past festivals and events, used to be primarily about standup and sketch comedy (comedy in the “traditional” sense), but last year with Family Guy Live, and this year with your book reading and Q-and-A, the festival will be broader in scope. What are your hopes for the festival and your show this year?

LD: I’m so excited. I’ve only read the stuff out loud once at Carnegie Hall last year before the book was done. [It’s] an opportunity to share my writing in this way and to connect with an audience and experiment. I’m not a polished live performer—it’s definitely going to be organic and interactive and we’re going to see what comes out of it. It’s a great chance to engage with people about the book. And I love Jian Ghomeshi! I’m very excited to meet him and talk to him, because I’ve done a lot of streaming of his radio program, Q.

TOist: So this will basically be a first look. Now, this is coming ahead of your book tour—how and why did you decide to do JFL42 rather than just stopping in Toronto for the tour?

LD: I’m hoping to stop in Toronto again, but I’ve always wanted to do JFL. Everyone I know who does the festival says it’s the most fun they’ve ever had. So it seemed like a great way to test drive the material in a place where I know the audience is smart and savvy.

TOist: Are you going to any other JFL events while you’re in town?

LD: Unfortunately my stop is so brief, I just want to have the Toronto experience. So hopefully we’re just going to do the show and enjoy ourselves, but we’ll have to be out the next morning. I’d really like an opportunity to spend some time in Toronto. My most recent trip to Toronto was also brief, mostly because my boyfriend [guitarist Jack Antonoff of Fun] is a musician and he tours there. We keep stopping in, walking down the block, and having to leave. So I’m really hoping for a longer trip. But I’m excited, because my friend Erin, who is a Toronto native and a designer, is going to be with me for the show. I’m really going to be embracing Canada in my brief time here.

TOist: So what’s on the docket for you guys?

LD: We’re going to find a great place to have dinner, walk around to get a sense of the city, and enjoy the energy around JFL42.