A Long Time Coming: Josie Long on her debut book

Award-winning comedian and mum of two Josie Long is now an author. She talks to us from halfway across the world about her debut book, Because I Don’t Know What You Mean and What You Don’t

Feature by Louis Cammell | 15 May 2023
  • Josie Long

Even though Josie Long has had a 20-odd-year-long career in the arts, she still finds it hard to believe that she has written a book. She studied English at Oxford, but stage success decided her trajectory early on.

“[...What You Don’t] had a really long genesis, even though I’ve only written the stories in the last couple of years,” says Long, “When I was at university I really thought, ‘This is what I’m going to do with my life. I’ll do comedy but I’ll also write sad short stories.’”

But winning the BBC New Comedy Award at 17 and the Best Newcomer Award at the Edinburgh Fringe aged just 24, stand-up proved all-encompassing. She says, “I just found that I never quite had that space and time. So during the pandemic when I really couldn’t gig, I realised that I was allowed to cycle to the empty offices of Arts Emergency, and that I could use that as a workspace. Otherwise we were locked down in our tiny, immiserating London flat.

“It sort of coincided with my ADHD diagnosis because I got there and yet I still couldn’t get anything fucking done. But luckily my very dear friend [novelist] Nikesh Shukla did a few sessions of mentoring to just build my confidence up and help me get started.”

Long’s diagnosis makes up a large part of her current stand-up tour show Re-enchantment, as does the birth of child number two; something from which she feels the work has benefitted. She tells us: “All of these stories are about people with a very intense emotional pitch. A couple I wrote when I was either heavily pregnant or I’d just had my second baby. And I really felt glad that I'd written them in that little manic, unusual time.”

The book is a collection of snapshots that range from romantic to rousing, dystopian to hopeful, satirical to gut-wrenching. “What was cathartic was not having to write within the context of stand-up. To be able to write sadness and to not have to undermine it or make it a joke. Or to be able to try to craft beautiful sentences? That’s such a joy… to write stories that are meditative and about these things that I’ve been thinking and feeling for years. 

“All of them are fiction but contain something that comes from my life, be it: how I felt about someone; what someone did to me; a person I know; err, an ex-boyfriend I wish to seek permanent revenge on,” she laughs. “As a stand-up, you’re saying: This is me, I did this, I went here. With fiction, even though it starts in fact, you might add to it, just to make it this thing, to enjoy the story and its richness. It’s just such a new thing to me and so wonderful. It’s been amazing to draw on my life, use the pain of it, the joy of it… A few of the stories are about people who aren’t quite able to understand what it is they’re doing and why until it’s too late. Or be honest with themselves. I think that’s going to be a lifelong thing for me.”

Long is elated to have created something with the potential for a long shelf life, in contrast to her stand-up shows which are somewhat lost to time. Even if they’re recorded, “they’re just gone, they go… [Whereas] I do feel excited about the prospect that maybe in ten years people might read [these] and be talking about them,” she says. 

But how does she feel instead about the fact that these stories are fixed, unchangeable from now on? “Well at the moment, I’m thrilled. But what I hope is that I can improve as a writer and come back to these and be like, ‘These are dogshit.’ Because [right now] I think they’re the best I could possibly ever write.”

It’s clear the comedian, now author, is on cloud nine. Unprompted, she adds, “It’s just so incredibly exciting to have this thing out in the world. It is something that I’ve really, really put so much into and there’s a chance that people are going to fucking read it! It’s good, man.”

Because I Don’t Know What You Mean and What You Don’t is out 25 May via Canongate Books

Josie Long comes to Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow on Sun 21 May (part of Aye Write Festival), Portobello Books @ Freemason’s Hall, Edinburgh on Mon 22 May, and brings her tour show Re-enchantment to Eastwood Park Theatre, Giffnock, on Sat 3 Jun