My phone call with Lena Dunham (!)

Yesterday, at 10:30am sharp, I dialed a fancy Manhattan hotel and asked to be connected to a publicist, who then connected me to…Lena Dunham! Dunham’s collection of personal essays, Not That Kind of Girl, came out today, and I was curious to talk to her about sex, books and how she’s changed over the years. Here’s what she said…

You talk a lot in your book about bad sex or weird guys you dated in college. Do you regret anything? Or do you think it was all part of becoming who you are?
I always try to be pretty anti-regret. I find regret to be the world’s most uncomfortable emotion. My mother is the Biggest Regretter. She actually named a body of work she did “The Music of Regret” because, as she said, “the music of regret is the music of my life.” My mother will talk about how she ordered the wrong thing at the restaurant for two days afterward, and how she wore the wrong shoes to top it off. So I went defiantly in the other direction. I mean, are there two minute chunks of my life I would make disappear? Yes, but writing is a way to take things that felt like they have no meaning and give them meaning. Writing takes a humiliating experience and gives it purpose.

You’re obviously an incredibly hard worker. (Allison Williams [who plays Marnie on Girls] told Vogue, “She writes constantly. Late at night, early in the morning, constantly.”) Do you feel like you’re becoming different from the characters you’ve portrayed so far? You’re in a happy serious relationship, have an amazing driven career…would you ever write about THAT girl?
The interesting thing is, that’s not who I was when I was younger. My teachers were constantly asking my parents, “Have you gotten her tested for ADD?” For me, it’s a real study in how you have to find your passion and everything else falls into place. I was the kid who was always pretending to be sick, always making excuses for not having my homework, so the fact that I have a fairly evolved work ethic is a shock to all of us. That’s something that comes when you’re connected to your actual purpose. With the show, once Hannah really locks in with what she’s supposed to be doing, I like to think that work won’t feel like work anymore, and some of her less savory habits will disappear. Right now she hasn’t quite found it, and I like to think that when she does she’ll be a more contributing member of society.

Do you ever think “I’ve told all my stories”? Or that you have to do something crazy to write about?
I used to have that feeling way more than I do now. It actually drove a lot of the things I did: Well, if I go to this alley late at night where this sommelier has asked me to meet him, then I’ll learn all these things about myself and I’ll have a story to tell… It was a big revelation to me that I didn’t have to do that. But it’s challenging when your business is writing about your own life—the next few projects I’m doing have nothing to do with me. There’s a kernel of emotional truth that I relate to in each one, but I’m excited about the idea of turning my eye onto something else. I think I’ll know when it’s time to return to myself.

Which books do you love? Are there books that have been meaningful at times in your life?
I have that feeling when I talk about books where I get paralyzed by all the books I love. My first and favorite book is Eloise, the story of a girl who lives with her nanny, dog and turtle at the Plaza. I’m working on a documentary about the writing of Eloise, and I’ve gotten all these amazing women to talk about how Eloise and how she’s affected their lives. As a kid I was obviously obsessed with Judy Blume, as we all were. Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. Blubber. Deenie was the first time I’d heard masturbation talked about not in hateful whispers. I stole Lolita from my glamorous cool babysitter Libby in fourth grade. I didn’t really understand it at the time, but I’ve reread it several times; it’s a real favorite of mine. I’m totally obsessed with anything that involves tough women facing down a hard time, be it Little Women or A Little Princess. My favorite mystery page turner is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I love the book Love Poems by Nikki Giovanni, the only person I ever wrote a fan letter to. It’s beautiful, you would love it—it’s all about being a daughter, a mother, a wife, all those versions of yourself.

Nora Ephron once talked about a game she played while waiting for restaurant tables where you think of five words that describe yourself. Which five words would you choose at this point in your life?
Woman, writer, radical, hungry, sleepy.

What’s some good advice you’ve gotten in your life? That you’d want to pass along to other women?
One that I really love was when I went to the music festival SXSW for the first time and I was having boy problems. At a party I was talking to this beautiful woman who I never met again, and I was telling her about my boy problems, which in hindsight was probably inappropriate. And she said, to paraphrase Maya Angelou, if someone tells you who they are, believe them. Basically the idea is that people tell us who they are every day in 1,000 ways, and we try not to hear them, but we have to hear them.

Describe your perfect day off.
My perfect day off involves sleeping til 11 and having an iced green tea waiting (somehow someone’s already walked the dog), reading the newspaper under the blanket until my hunger becomes unbearable, walking a very short distance to brunch, and then watching movies that are on my list all afternoon.

You’ve talked about your fascination/fear of death. What would you want written on your tombstone?
I know exactly. When my great aunt Doris died last December, she was almost 101. I got a beautiful small watercolor she had painted during her life, and it was of a tombstone. And the tombstone said, “She has done her best.”

That makes me want to cry!
Incredible, right? I think it was a joke to my aunt, but that’s what I would want on my tombstone: She has done her best.
Thank you so much, Lena! Big congratulations on your book and all you do.

P.S. A phone call with B.J. Novak and an interview with the costume designer of Girls.

(Photo by Autumn de Wilde, via Lena’s Instagram)

  1. Brilliant interview. We’ll all ask for that tombstone now. xx

  2. Wow! What a great opportunity! Thank you for this! I can’t wait to read her book!

    The Mama Gazette

  3. Love it. I’m going to buy her book asap. I loved her small promo videos for the book.

  4. wow.. that was awesome.
    i stopped watching girl last season.. it’s just didn’t appeal to me anymore.. but I still love Lena and most of what she represents.. this was a great read.. good questions :)

  5. First of all “…people tell us who they are every day in 1,000 ways, and we try not to hear them, but we have to hear them.” – YES.

    I also like when she talks about being so different from who she was as a child and states…
    “That’s something that comes when you’re connected to your actual purpose.”

    So true, and something I’ve been learning about a lot recently! Thanks for sharing this. Great questions. Great answers. I loved this.

  6. Oh my actual God! I am green with envy. Lena is definitely one of my favourite women :)

    Regarding gravestone’s, my Dad wants his to read “Under this sod lies another”.

    What awesome words to hear :)

  7. Ahh this is awesome! I love Lena and can’t wait to read her book!!

  8. I just finished reading rebecca and loved it! Fun to see it on her top list!

  9. And I totally agree with Alice’s comment!

  10. Yay! Congrats to you. Now I have all of these books to add to my list :)

  11. Good questions – great answers

  12. Loved your interview, especially the last question. When my three children were young, I used to always say that my tombstone would read “The Laundry is Done!”

  13. Hello Joanna ; great interview and I would like a little mouse to listen your conversation….Amazing and what a good boost to my dreams ; thank you ! Have a crazy day

  14. Wow. Fantastic interview. Can’t wait to read her book. You should write one too!!!

  15. Hi Joanna,
    I’ve been a loyal follower for years but never commented. I want to thank you. Your blog has often offered me what feels like friendship on a cloudy day. Thanks for sharing all that you do, it all resonates so soundly. You are an unpretentious role model (the best kind!), and it’s been such a rewarding journey as a reader. I am so pleased for you and your well deserved success.
    I think Caroline is great!

  16. Congrats, Joanna! This is such an amazing interview – you just know which questions to ask! Thanks so much for that! x

  17. I have a question for all of you! I decided to take an online course. It would be purely for me, not my CV so it has to be really interesting. At first I thought fashion (cause I am terrible at matching clothes:), but then I trarted to think that I should take something wider like writing or editoring or something about PR (where I work). So maybe you have some good suggestions that you or your friends tried that was really usefull? Thank you!!!

  18. This is awesome! Every time I hear or read an interview with her, i like her even more! Her NPR interview on Fresh Air was great too. You should check it out.

  19. I love that you two spoke. Thanks.

  20. Can’t believe you got an interview with Lena Dunham! Her responses are always so well versed (comes with being a writer, I guess).

  21. This is my favorite post on Cup of Jo ever (and I’ve loved so many of them!!!!). FANTASTIC INTERVIEW!!!!

  22. Great post! Lena’s answers were really well thought-out, and I really enjoyed reading them. Thanks for sharing!

  23. I kinda love that she described herself as “hungry” and “sleepy.”

  24. Wow amazing! great questions. I LOVE LENA. AND YOU.

  25. So, so jealous! I think I’m in love with Lena Dunham! She is so cool, wish I could be her friend.

  26. Cool! I’m waiting for my son to wake up so I can go buy the book. I watched all the videos you linked to the other day too. Thx Jo!

  27. Wow this is awesome! Two women who inspire me everyday (especially as a 22 year old trying to find a job in this world of ours). I hope she is right about following your passion and that it all falls into place eventually! Great post Joanna.

    E (

  28. What a wonderful follow-up to your previous post with the Q&A video sessions. I’ve ordered the book. Have shared with my college-aged daughter both of your posts (as well as other gal pals of mine). Such good wisdom and insight. How fun for you and terrific questions!!!!

  29. She’s grown and she’s not afraid to show it!!! And I’ve green teas is heaven. I’m waiting for my book now 💚 this made my day.

  30. How fun! She seems like a very easy person to talk to. My grandmother always gives me a similar bit of advice about believing people when they tell you who they are.

    The tombstone…talk about a tug at the heart strings. What a beautiful message. Thanks for sharing! You go girl(s).

  31. I thoroughly enjoyed the interview! She seems like a nice and sweet woman. I totally agree with: “… you have to find your passion and everything else falls into place.”
    This is so true!
    Thank you for sharing!

  32. Loved the interview! Two inspiring women in one article.
    I’m stealing that 5 word description game.

  33. Sometimes I get sad that all my favorite blogs have turned into “mommy blogs”, but then you do something cool like this! So thank you! I think it’s really validating to hear Lena talk about how she’s found her stride. I am the same age and also a creative, it’s nice to hear that it will happen eventually. Can’t wait to read the book!

  34. AMAZING!!!! i have to agree with the other comments – such a fan of you and your writing and lena and her writing, so inspiring.

  35. How fun!!! Were you nervous…I probably would have gotten tongue-tied hahaha :)

  36. I LOVE Lena. OMG what an incredible woman…great interview Jo. Can’t wait to pick up a copy :)

  37. Wow how cool! Love the interview Jo – interesting questions! :)

  38. I love her! Just got her new book today and can’t wait to start reading it tonight. Thanks for the interview.

  39. yay! exciting! xo

  40. great interview joanna. loved the questions (and her answers too). hope you keep doing this interview series.

  41. She is such an insightful woman and it’s so nice to hear someone talk about certain realities of themselves that others might see as undesirable or not a trait of a successful person (like wanting to sleep in until 11). I so relate to her and I think that’s why she’s such a powerhouse.
    The Accidental Mama


  43. Wow, Joanna, you are so lucky!
    “Writing is a way to take things that felt like they have no meaning and give them meaning. Writing takes a humiliating experience and gives it purpose” = Yes.
    Love you, Lena!

  44. How amazing to get to interview her! Good for you and great interview. I can’t wait to read the book.

  45. Great interview Joanna, loved reading it. Can’t wait to pick up Lena’s book, AND go to a lecture she is giving in Amsterdam on 1 November. Exciting times!!

  46. Love this post, Joanna! Lena is amazing, as are you! Can’t wait to read her book.

  47. I didn’t like the shorts you posted with Lena Dunham giving advice. Sometimes she is too vulgar for me. BUT, I LOVED this interview. The tone and content of her responses are so authentic and everything she had to say resonated. Thanks for posting this interview! (And how cool you got to talk with her on the phone!)

  48. Oh love this. Her advice youtubes that just came out are brilliant as well. My favorite local Ann Arbor bookstore just reported that they have signed copies of her book available – on my way!!

  49. I cannot wait to get my hands on a copy of her book!


  50. What a great interview. Damn she’s good. I’m looking forward to the book and hope you get to nab more opportunities like this to speak to people your readers appreciate!

  51. Well, this is just incredible! Kudos! I would have (eventually) purchased her book anyway, but after this interview and the videos you posted the other day, you’ve just sealed the deal. Thanks, Joanna!

  52. I love the book Rebecca too! The movie version starring Laurence Olivier is fantastic and I found it romantic, despite the mysteriousness of it all!

  53. Making sure that everyone has seen this “Eloise at 46” New Yorker piece, because it’s hilarious:

    My dad and stepmom won’t read Eloise to my little half-sisters because they think the character is too bratty and a bad influence. I always saw her as independent and loved how she’s not treated as a ‘cute little girl’ in her world. Can’t wait to see that documentary.

  54. You are good at interviews.

  55. Thank you for sharing this! Lena Dunham is just so inspiring for young women (and writers) everywhere. I think she is so brave, which is something I try to be every day.

    Can’t wait to read the book.

  56. I kind of lost interest in Girls this past season but this interview makes me want to read her book. She is such an accomplished young women. I really admire her.

  57. Yay Joanna! I’m so happy for you and love this interview! You don’t know what this does for my heart. I can’t wait to rave about your interview and read her book!


  58. LOVE her! very insightful questions, loved reading this, sometimes you need a little push in your life (or day) and today this was it for me :) thanks!!

  59. Wonderful! I love Lena (her book is on my iPad as we speak) and your questions were great…as were her answers!

    Thank you…

  60. Very. cool.

  61. Slightly jealous that you spoke to Lena. Picking up her book today. I also have this fear of death that I place in the back of my mind that comes out at night sometimes. It doesn’t stop me from doing day to day activities, it just makes me think of all the stuff I want to do before death comes.

  62. Congratulations on this interview! I’ve been a fan of your blog and your writing for a while so it’s amazing to see how much your career as a blogger has progressed. Lena Dunham is such an incredible force as well so thank you for sharing all of her insight with us.

  63. I am so very glad I came back to your blog for second time today. I needed to hear from someone who is both writing and working another job. Love the story of the watercolor tombstone! It is inspiring and gave me the boost I needed for this afternoon! THANK YOU Joanna and Lena!

  64. So I just randomly checked your blog for the second time today and am SO VERY GLAD I DID. What a great, inspiring interview! Love that she sees herself as a writer and especially love the story of the watercolor tomb! Thanks Joanna and Lena!

  65. Yes!! Get it girl! I wish I could have been NSA during that phone conversation. Two examples of fabulous women!