Monday, February 24, 2014


Ask a Clean Person About Her New Book: A Conversation With Jolie Kerr

Lovely, stylish, very clean person Jolie Kerr has a book out Tuesday from Plume, and we are very excited, not least because Jolie got her cleanliness-writing start right here at The Hairpin. My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag . . . and Other Things You Can't Ask Martha is precisely what it sounds like, a cohesive, informative, and fun compendium to help you reduce filth of all shapes, sizes, and proteins without judgment. New York-area folks: Mark your calendars for the book launch, moderated by Hairpin writer Bobby Finger, at the Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn on Wednesday, February 26.

I talked to Jolie about how the column got its start, how she's different from Martha, and what she thinks about the “gender divide” in cleaning, among other things. And, yes, we talked about that frustrating stain on my couch.

Hi Jolie!

Hi Jen! I have been so looking forward to this. I miss The Hairpin so much! I’ll always be a Hairpin girl.

This is a good segue to talk about how the column got started in this very web-spot.

I’m now calling it an origin story, that makes me laugh. It’s recounted in the intro of the book in more detail, but the gist of is that my friend (and Hairpin pal) Tyler Coates came up with the idea that I should write about cleaning. I was absolutely NOT sold on the notion, but I mentioned it to Edith anyway and she was like, "Oh my God yes obviously. Jolie's Cleaning Corner."

Because I was so unsure of how to make a column about cleaning interesting and readable, I decided to go with a Q&A format. That's 100 percent the secret to its success. The stories—the relatable, funny, heartbreaking, utterly gross stories—are what make Ask a Clean Person work.

Where did those first questions come from?

I sent out an email to maybe like 20 or 25 friends, Hey, kicking around this idea for The Hairpin, do any of you have questions? I thought I'd get 2 or 3 pity questions. No. Emails were pouring in from my friends, and the questions were crazy, they were great. I was like, Tyler may have been onto something. I think by the third week I had enough reader questions that I was up and running.

Allow me to note the great and ever-growing tradition of people with book deals stemming from Hairpin posts. Congrats!

It’s true! I was the first. I’m going to admit that. I was maybe a tiny bit competitive about wanting to get the first book deal.

What was that process like?

It's kind of embarrassing how easy it was? Well, wait. It was not easy. I just had an easier path than most.

I started the column in March of 2011, and by the summer I'd gotten some interest in a book from a publishing affiliate of Barnes & Noble. A few months later, I was contacted by an editor at Grand Central, who introduced me to the woman who became my agent and who asked me to write a formal book proposal. While in the course of doing that, I was also contacted by an editor at Penguin, who ultimately was the one who bought the project.

How was writing the proposal?

The proposal writing process was gruesome. I was working full time at doing legal marketing, setting up a new business development program for a firm I'd joined in the summer of 2011, and I was writing the column every week, plus the proposal. In hindsight, I actually don't know how I did it. The busyness was a blessing though. I was going through an exceedingly tumultuous time in my personal life—I'm pretty sure I was actually having a nervous breakdown throughout the fall of 2011—and I was being undermined/bullied at work. So throwing myself into Clean Personing was probably the thing that saved me from going fully into a dark and scary place. I do remember getting a lot of emotional support from Choire during that time. Thank God that Choire Sicha exists.

I finished the proposal in February/March 2012 and gave first right of refusal to Grand Central. They passed, which was disappointing but I also felt like hearing "No" was an important rite of passage. We then gave the proposal to Plume as an exclusive, and they bit in May 2012. The manuscript was due on January 7, 2013. I handed it over on January 7, 2013. That was a good feeling. The writing process wasn't easy, in part because it was very lonely. I'd say that's the hardest part of writing a book. I wanted my commenters back!

What are your favorite questions, or types of questions?

I mean, obviously the best questions are the ones that come with a way out there back story, like the one that inspired the book's title. (Do you know? I still stay in touch with the gal with the handbag!) I remember exactly where I was when the Jizzcliner landed in my inbox. I think I started barking? I went totally feral, oh my God. 

I also like any question that lets me make people feel less embarrassed about being quote unquote gross. Pit stains are a great example of that—one of my greatest days as a Clean Person was going into the Deadspin office shortly after I'd run my pit stain piece on the site and having one of the writers look up from his computer, tip his head at me ever so slightly and give me a thumbs up at the mention of that particular column. There was also a post I did for Jezebel about vaginal discharge buildup in underwear that I was so nervous about—just, like, "Did I get this right in terms of the tone? Is this going to make the commenters come after me with pitchforks and torches?" that turned out to be a huge success in terms of the response. That's one of the best feelings in the world, to know that you've made someone feel less alone regarding something that's embarrassing them.

Your answers to questions are so thorough! How do you figure out the right solutions? Is there a lot of research involved?

At this stage in the game, I've collected enough knowledge that I generally have an idea of how to answer a question, but I still research every answer before compiling the best two or three approaches. In part because sometimes there's a better or more cost- and labor-effective solution than what I'd previously suggested, and also because there are always new products and also just because I like to learn as much as I can. I do try to keep the answers to just two or three recommendations, otherwise it becomes overwhelming and/or confusing for the reader to have to pick through too much information. On the other hand, I do like to provide some choices so that readers can decide what method is right for them.

The other thing I do is to walk through any given scenario and start the advice giving from the very, very, very beginning. That sometimes means saying things like, "Go to the hardware store and buy..." But, like, that's the stuff that trips people up! I remember reading instructions to use mineral spirits—I think it was in Martha's Homekeeping Handbook—to treat stains and being all, "What the fuck are mineral spirits? Where do I get them? Is there a brand name? Don't make me go tromping all over this great green earth asking pimply stock boys where I can find mineral spirits, MARTHA. Gah." So not assuming people know what I'm talking about when I mention products, tools, and techniques, and providing that kind of information—what brand names to look for, what kinds of stores to check out, links to Amazon—is essential for me.

Your tone is also very different from Martha! I mean, I’d rather have drinks in a bar with you (and then confess my cleaning problems).

I try to presume that my readers know nothing, but to still talk to them in a way that doesn't insult their intelligence. Sometimes that means starting an instruction with, "At the risk of insulting your intelligence..." and then making a joke about how I can't help myself from being thorough. Self-mockery is an excellent tactic in this line of work. I also try to throw in a good dose of personal stories. I mean, do you know how many times I've barfed up a stomach full of Crystal Light? Red barf, you guys. It's not like I'm not totally gross too.

Can you talk about the “clean lady tradition” and how you diverge from those who have come before?

I think there are two main things that set me apart. First, what I do isn't aspirational. Martha is aspirational, Heloise is aspirational in a different way. Brit Morin, who doesn't do cleaning but is often compared to me because we're both doing domestic artistry, is aspirational. They're selling a fantasy of a perfect—or more perfecter—life. That's not a bad thing! But it's not what I do. Like, at all. I often joke that if everybody were like me, I'd be out of a job—and I really love this job, so I don't want that to happen. I want people to throw wild parties and discover that the cheap confetti cannons mixed with spilled beer stained their wood floors! I want folks to get all stoned and be all, “Mercy, this pipe is filthy and now I am stoned and obsessed with getting it perfectly clean." I maybe don't so much want people buying used bike shorts.

Second, there’s my commitment to taking gender out of the equation. There's an important distinction between me and my predecessors: I'm a Clean PERSON, not a Clean Lady. The problem with the gender divide in cleaning is not nature, it's nurture. Women have been trained to know how to clean, to have an expectation of cleanliness, and men haven't been in the same way we are. If you go into their environment and socialize them in the same way, they'll have it, too.

Is this happening in your writing for Deadspin?

I realize that I'm not, like, solving feminism here, but I actively went after a male audience instead of writing 500 thought pieces for The Atlantic on the gender divide in household chores. (Also is there any topic duller and more click-baity than the gender divide in household chores? Jesus. In the time it took you to write 5000 words that don't change a Goddamned thing, you could have hard cleaned your kitchen and re-grouted your tub.)

What else are you up to now? 

Right now I'm writing full-time and am a little bit of a housewife. I do a column once a week, alternating between Jezebel and Deadspin, and one-off things for Jezebel, like on Martha's insane beauty regimen. And then I do a lot of stuff for Foodspin, Deadspin's food and drink site, that's so much fun. And other freelancing here and there. Writing for Deadspin is the biggest pleasure in my life. I don't have to explain myself, they get me to my core, they're like The Hairpin readers.

What's the one thing you most hope people will take from your book?

This is going to sound really hokey, and I wouldn't say it anywhere but to The Hairpin: I hope that they come away from it feeling like it's OK not to know things. So many people begin questions with an apology, or a lament of how stupid they are, and I wish I could tell every one of them, "It's honestly OK not to know the answer here! Stop being so hard on yourself!" Well and also I guess I really hope people make their beds. But that's sort of a general life dream for me!

Can we address the stain on my couch? It’s black ink because I, like, sat on a pen, and then I did what I later read (from you) you’re not supposed to do and put water on it. Is there hope?

Has the ink stain spread because of the water?

Not really.

If you've got rubbing alcohol at home try blotting some on the stain with a cotton ball or the corner of a dishrag and see if that helps. If not, we might need to get into dry cleaning solvent territory. Don't fret—there's always K2r.

Thank you. Anything else you'd like to say?

I don't think the column could have worked if I'd started writing it anywhere but for The Hairpin. It is absolutely a product of its environment. Having so many amazing people trust me with something that was sort of always my pet obsession was life-changing. That trust was, and still is, such a powerful and flattering thing. Because of it, when I do this job, it makes me the best Jolie I can be. Putting on my Clean Person hat makes me a better person, or at least the best possible version of myself.

And you're helping the rest of us be the cleanest versions of ourselves. We are grateful.


Previously: A Conversation With the Author of Are You My Boyfriend?

Jen Doll is a regular contributor to The Hairpin.

45 Comments / Post A Comment


Yess!! This is perfect, and you do such a good job of helping people without making them feel like idiots. I am eagerly awaiting your book's arrival at my local bookstore (I preordered).


well done man. this is a work of art.@l

Lily Rowan

I cannot textually express how excited I am to get this book to put on my shelf next to Heloise! I have always loved Heloise since childhood, and am not even a Clean Person! But I do love advice of any kind, especially when it's got the right kind of personality.

Lily Rowan

Also I need to go home and soak my underwear now. No reason.

Jolie Kerr

@Lily Rowan I mean, imagine my surprise when the Ladies of Jezebel did not call for my head over a discussion of vaginal topics!


@Lily Rowan I too am excited about not just having this book on my shelf, but using it frequently. Yaaaaaaay Jolie!

Lily Rowan

@SarahP Oh yeah, perhaps it did not go without saying that I read the Heloise all the time because it still has good tips! (In addition to things like how you don't actually have to clean under the bed every day....)

lucy snowe

i adore your writing, jolie! even though i am not generally a clean person at all (exhibit a: the hardened banana stain on the couch cushion under me. sigh.)

i look forward to buying my very own copy of your book. congratulations!

Jolie Kerr



I love the tone you take in your writing! Looking forward to the book, and here's hoping that you come up with a new and different idea one of these days for readers back on the Hairpin, not just Deadspin/Jez!

Jolie Kerr

@harebell <3 <3 <3


I may have passive aggressively avoided reading some of Jolie's columns because you left the Hairpin and I realize now the error of my ways. Many many kudos and I look forward to owning this book!

I keep *intending* to make my bed :)

Jolie Kerr

@mabellegueule When we announced that I was leaving The HP for [drops to a whisper] Jezebel, one gal was so mad at me that she fumed, "I'M NOT GOING TO MAKE MY BED FOR A WHOLE MONTH IN PROTEST."

I still laugh/cry over that. (Come over and check out the Deadspin stuff, we really do have so much fun.)

Jennifer Culp

Jolie, your column has made me a cleaner person. I make my bed every day (WHY didn't I before you wrote about that?? It makes life so much better!), you taught me how to mop a floor, you taught me how to clean my microwave and oven, you have helped me get SO many stains out of things, and you made me realize that cleaning, and keeping my living space clean, is not some impossibly difficult mystery that I can never hope to master. Your work has improved my life. Thank you, truly. And I am so looking forward to owning the book!

Jennifer Culp

Oh my god, and I do not think I could have handled dog ownership (which I leapt into after I starting reading your column, KNOWING they are disgusting and I should get rid of them). My dogs probably have you to thank for their lives.

Jolie Kerr

@Jennifer Culp Oh my gosh, thank you so much for the kind words! YOU GUYS!! (See? This is why I was so excited to come back to visit The HP!)

Do you still make the Sylvia Plath joke when you clean the oven? I do. Totally.

the angry little raincloud

I am so excited for the book, and so excited to go to the launch on Wednesday night. This is especially good timing because I'm moving this weekend, and will have a day to thoroughly clean before all my stuff arrives. (I already printed out Jolie's old columns on move-day cleaning.)

My new apartment thanks you in advance, Clean Person!

Jolie Kerr

@the angry little raincloud Please make sure you introduce yourself!


I think one of the great things about Jolie's tone is that she assumes you know nothing NOW, but that you are capable of learning. She never assumes that we don't know how to clean X because we're stupid, but rather than no one ever taught us.

Jolie Kerr

@Blushingflwr I think that speaks a lot to the point I was making about this column being so OF The Hairpin—like, I wouldn't in a million years ever think that anyone reading this site wasn't capable of learning. Smart gals, here.


I miss your Hairpin column/cyber-face/general wit around here so much, Jolie!


Mudita. That is the opposite of schadenfreude, and when I think of Jolie/AACP, I am filled with mudita.

Pure, clean, gardenia-scented mudita. Next to a freshly and tightly made bed. That kind of mudita.

Jolie Kerr

@karion God I do love a gardenia.


Jolie, no joke, my home is so, so different thanks in large to your column. That is not hyperbole. It is way tidier! It is organized! My bathroom always looks nice! My bed is always made! My kitchen looks nice! I still struggle with deep cleaning, but it's easier now, because it isn't like, the boogey monster waiting to attack me, but a task that I am fully capable of doing whenever I have the time. So thank you. I can't wait to buy your book.

/gushing fangirl

Jolie Kerr

@joie That is awesome to hear :)


My gift giving problems for 2014 have officially been solved! Everyone I know/love is getting this!

Every time I run into a stain/mess problem I google "whateverickyproblemitis" + jolie. I'm always amazed that 99% of the time my seemingly hopeless problem has been addressed. Although I'm still trying to remove a horrible, horrible ink stain from a stupid anthropologie purse. I fear it is lost. But maybe I need to check out K2R....

Jolie Kerr

@eiffeldesigns Oh yes, do check out the K2r for SURE. That stuff is insane and great.


Jolie, you being back on the Hairpin is all:


Jolie Kerr

@Bostonienne Awwww!


You are such an inspiration, Jolie! And I am looking forward to having your book, waiting on a shelf for the next time I spill something disgusting and need to figure out what kind of solvent will break it up.

Jolie Kerr

@City_Dater Thanks Mama!


Jolie, you're the greatest! I love how you will answer questions on twitter so fast (and by "questions," I mean my specific question about how my latex gloves melted into the linoleum under a sink--I still haven't bought new ones, I will do that today in your honor).

On the weed pipe tip--the answer is pure acetone nail polish remover. Take that, dude stoners!

Jolie Kerr

@OhMarie That was such a great and weird Q. You guys make awesome messes, what can I say?


@Jolie Kerr Rubber gloves; rubber!! I am bad at this.

Bus Driver Stu Benedict

Rake things. They probably have those rake things from Frankenstein too.

Bus Driver Stu Benedict

No, but seriously, I shunned the cleaning tips my parents offered, thinking I was so progressive with my Bon Ami. But there was one person who got me to reconsider my neglect of baking soda.

Jolie Kerr

@Bus Driver Stu Benedict But also Bon Ami is amazing.

isabelle bleu

Jolie! I am gushingly breathless with excitement for this book. A small group of friends have even formed a mutual-support email group around how thrilled we are to be making our beds, and taking on other Clean Person responsibilities. Please do be doing book events in the Pacific Northwest sometime soon!

Jolie Kerr

@isabelle bleu LAMOB 4EVA!!!


Jolie, I think of you every time I hand wash my bras and practice saying "braws" in my head. So happy to hear from you here, and I will be checking out the Deadspin columns ASAP!

Jolie Kerr

@hollysh Amazing. God, those first few bra washing pieces were so fun and so totally nuts. (I can still be totally nuts on Deadspin, they get it, but I have to be a little more serious on Jezebel—though the bra washing post I did there was really fun!)


Jolie! Your book is supposed to be delivered to my house tonight. Obviously I am eagerly anticipating an evening curled up with it while a container of Oxiclean sits somewhere nearby. You have taught me so much!


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hi Jollie, you were great on Fresh Air. I now have a cleaning question on my husband's Wool Italian suit which got soaked in wine at a party when someone spilled her drink! It's now been sitting for a while too since dry cleaning folks won't commit to cleaning it.

Can you recommend a solution?


Nice article you have published
Eid Mubarak Messages
Thanks for the share

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