Famed commentator returns to Philly for book debut

R. Eric Thomas Photo by Katie Simbala

Not long ago, R. Eric Thomas worked a nine-to-five job and wrote plays in his free time. He amused friends and family on Facebook with witty and wise observations about politics, culture and everything in between.

That hobby catapulted Thomas to his current position as one of the country’s foremost humorists and cultural commentators. Since 2016, Thomas has composed a daily column for Elle.com called “Eric Reads the News,” where he holds forth on the Iowa Caucus, Beyoncé and “Cats” with equal élan. Ballantine Books will release his debut essay collection, “Here For It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America,” on Feb. 18.

And although the out writer currently lives in his hometown of Baltimore, Philadelphia justly claims him as a favorite son. After calling our city home for more than a decade, Thomas returns on Feb. 27 for a reading at the Free Library of Philadelphia’ Parkway Central Branch.

The momentum of Thomas’ career shows no signs of flagging. When I reached him by phone last month, he was not only preparing to launch his book but also overseeing the premiere of his play “Safe Space” at Baltimore’s Single Carrot Theatre. He spoke about his well-deserved success with modesty.

“At every step of the last five years, I have been shocked that it’s real and shocked that it continues to expand,” Thomas told PGN. “The idea of writing a book was always the dream of my heart. I really love books — I spent a lot of time in libraries growing up, and I spend a lot of time in libraries and bookstores now. But even as an adult, I didn’t really understand how a book gets made. So, everything has been a surprise to me. Maybe that sounds naive, but I also understand what it’s like to work really hard for something, and I know that I’m very fortunate to be able to write and have people read what I write.”

Thomas described the process of writing and selling a book as a combination of inspiration and practicality. He worked with an agent who approached him after reading several columns, turning a series of essays he’d written over the years and tales he’d told as host of the long-running story slam The Moth into a sixty-page proposal.

“I had this idea that writers put on cardigans and go to a cabin, sit at a typewriter and listen to a loon call across the pond,” Thomas said with a laugh. “There’s a lot of business involved. A lot of people have to look at this idea of what it would become and say, we’ll put some effort and some money behind it. I’m very used to deadlines, but the deadline for a book has been so much scarier than the deadline for an article. I realized that I was not going to be able to stay up until 2 a.m. and write 80,000 words.”

The essays in “Here For It” brim with the same unforced humor that has come to characterize Thomas’ daily column. Reading the book, you could imagine him as the kind of friend you’d want to join for a long, unfiltered lunch.

At the same time, Thomas doesn’t shy away from considering serious subjects, including his experience as a Black person in predominantly white spaces, his coming out experience, the suicide of a close high-school friend and his relationship with religion.

In the book’s title essay, Thomas writes about marrying his husband, David Norse Thomas, a Presbyterian minister who was Philadelphia’s first openly gay ordained pastor. When they became engaged, he planned to change his Facebook profile picture to a photo of Whitney Houston from the film “The Preacher’s Wife” — a tribute to his love for the late singer and a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of his future position as a congregation’s chief spouse.

But Thomas also incorporates lessons from the 1996 movie — in which Houston plays a woman who receives spiritual intervention (in the form of an angel portrayed by Denzel Washington) at a time of crisis — as a way to communicate his own spiritual reawakening. “I did not have a Denzel. I had not found the miraculous solution to a life beset with questions about church and my place in it simply by becoming engaged to a pastor,” he writes. “The fact was, I was in church, on occasion, after years of being away. And this was, yes, where I wanted to be. And stepping through the door, remembering the times of welcome and the times of rebuke in my past, felt like triumph and defiance.”

Thomas told PGN that he appreciated the opportunity to try out a different voice in his memoir, but that he also found aspects of dealing with real experiences “terrifying.”

“The book is not as hyperbolic as my column,” he said. “Real life doesn’t follow the same dramatic arc as a play. There are moments in my life that, if it were fiction, I would have tinkered with — made the highs a little higher and the lows a little lower. If it were a column, I would have made it all comedy, all the time. I was very nervous that people were going to pick up the book expecting something that was more frothy and frivolous.”

Anyone with an appetite for Thomas’ voice will have plenty of opportunities to encounter it in the coming months. In addition to “Here For It,” he will release “Reclaiming Her Time,” a biography of Representative Maxine Waters that he co-authored with Helena Andrews-Dyer, in September. (Thomas is credited with coining the nickname “Auntie Maxine” for the popular California Congresswoman in his column.) And although he couldn’t share specific details on the record, he hinted that a new play of his would debut at a Philadelphia-area theater next year.

Thomas’ continuing connection to Philadelphia is no accident. He jokes that he moved to the city on a whim after attending a concert at World Cafe Live, calling it “the best decision [he] ever made.”

“I was fully able to come into myself in Philadelphia,” he said. “I can’t say that I wouldn’t have in other cities, but the fact of the matter is, I didn’t. I came into myself there. I feel like Philly has this amazing mix of civic engagement, artistic rigor and inventiveness, and a sense of history — particularly queer history — that is unique in the nation. Philadelphia connected with different parts of me that were hungry to be seen and hungry to be affirmed. I learned how to be a good citizen of a city and citizen of the world, and I learned how queer people before me had laid the path.”

In Philadelphia and beyond, Thomas is now laying the path for the next generation of queer folks. Make no mistake: We are here for it.

“Here For It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America” is available wherever books are sold beginning Feb. 18. R. Eric Thomas will read and speak at the Parkway Central Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia at 7:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.