My meeting with Maeve Higgins took place 47 years ago, which is to say it happened on February 25 2020. The setting was the rooftop of a Midtown Manhattan hotel (remember hotels?) plastered with awkward décor and presided over by anxious "servers" who told us the table needed to be given back in an hour.
It was a rainy afternoon in the middle of a regular working week. Higgins - author, comedian, columnist, actor and podcast host - was preparing to leave town for Austin, Texas, and then Los Angeles, to promote the US launch of her new movie, meaning she wouldn't be at her weekly comedy showcase in Brooklyn, Butterboy, the following Monday.
I had planned on attending, and we jokingly lamented that we were to be deprived the kind of multi-situational magazine profile style where the interviewer follows the subject around for a prolonged period of time. "A few weeks later, sitting in her kitchen ..." I began, "... she was still eating crisps," Higgins finished the sentence in mock bewilderment, and we laughed.
A few weeks later, laughter feels rather more out of reach. The novel coronavirus continues to tighten its grip on the world; the death toll in New York City, in particular, is sickening to think about. The Covid-19 crisis continues to strip the city of so much of its energy and its light, eliminating so much of what matters to its residents, taking down its pulse to an unrecognisable rate.
"I'm feeling the same as everyone is, probably, basically sad and worried, especially about New Yorkers," Higgins tells me later in an email. "I am impressed with how people are pulling together but horrified at the US government's deadly response."
Live shows are, for now, no more. Each week, though, Butterboy is taking place online. "It feels normal and social and silly for an hour or so a week," Higgins writes.
On a recent Monday I bought a $5 link by way of a ticket and joined the show's YouTube livestream. Higgins appeared in a crisp white collar in a quadrant of the screen, sharing the space with her co-hosts, each beaming in from their respective locations - Higgins from her parents' house in Cobh; she left New York in mid-March.
"I'm at my parents' house, and it's fine," she says during the hosts' intro. "I don't know if I told you, but they raised eight kids and all the kids left the house, as you're supposed to… I think that's a sign of good parents.
"And then at the first little sign of danger, who comes running back again? Their strangest child. The one they understand the least. Here she comes, hulking back in the door."
In the New York Times last week Higgins described herself as having "fled" - "scared I'd be caught in the coronavirus epicentre with no way back to Ireland".
"My life is back where it started and on hold indefinitely," she wrote, in a column that playfully alluded to falling over during exercise, concern about the fate of her dating life ("I swear to myself by this time next year I'll have a boyfriend. In fact, I decide, I'll have a boyfriend and a husband.") and acknowledged "an absentee's guilt for leaving".
Higgins has been living in New York City for about six years. The demands of life in the Big Apple suit her, she tells me when we meet in February, because she wants things to be challenging and varied. "I think I am an ambitious person and in some ways it's been helpful not to achieve everything when I wanted to achieve it," she says, Cork accent fully intact. "That makes you work harder and it makes you change tack, and it makes you more creative. I think I left Ireland because of ambition, I moved to New York because of ambition. You don't move here because you want to have a relaxed, happy life. "It's bigger and there are a lot of opportunities but there's also a lot more people," she continues. "But I thrive in that situation. I really think it makes you better - a better writer, a better comedian. And, I mean, I was in Ireland for the first eight years of my career, so, yeah. There's just more to do here. But it's not better or worse. It's just bigger."
She pauses and smiles wryly. "And better."
But such a well of opportunity can act as a kind of trap, as well, the 39-year-old notes. "Like when you're running up the stairs and someone's pretending to catch your feet, and you run up the stairs really fast and then sometimes I'm like: What am I doing here, again? The way capitalism works is you get one thing and then you want another thing. And this is a really ambitious, capitalistic place. But it's so fun. It's really fun and hard."
Goal-setting with a view to going back home is not something she's in the business of.
"I think that's really common for immigrants, but I don't actually have an end goal in mind. And I also don't feel any need to show anybody back home anything, because I live here now. So I don't think all that much about having to prove myself, or anything like that." she says.
"I kind of have a problem with… like, I understand I was born in Ireland, but I'm not crazy about nation states and stuff," she continues. "Yes, it's where I happened to be born, and my family are there and everything, but I try not to be defined by being Irish. It's just one thing about me."
People in entertainment sometimes use the term "triple threat" to describe a person who can sing, act and dance. Would that it were so simple to sum up Higgins, whose recent professional projects are so numerous and assorted that I dread having to round them up.
In the movie Extra Ordinary, released in the States last month (available in Ireland on Netflix), she stars as Rose, a driving instructor in rural Ireland. Then there's her 2016 podcast Maeve in America, which covered the American immigrant experience. There's Mothers of Invention, the podcast about women leading the fight against climate change. As well as that, she's a regular contributor of opinion pieces to the New York Times and still does some comedy (an editor at the Times first approached her after seeing her on stage). Her second book, also Maeve in America, has just been published in Ireland. The rights to the book have just been sold when we speak; Minnie Driver's production company is making it into a series.
While at home with home being America, it's also the case that the longer she's lived in the States, the more Higgins has become acquainted with what she called "the darker undertones of the country" and its history.
"I definitely did have a honeymoon period and now I'm like, 'Oh, I live in like one of the most segregated cities in America. Why is that?'"
Our conversation is mostly sort of solemn, hitting on subjects she has tackled in her column writing and in some of the essays contained in Maeve in America, which, though shot through with humour, explore US immigration policy, financial stress, the power of a joke in a conflict zone, body image and loneliness. We come back on a couple of occasions to immigration, one of Higgins's main areas of interest, one she writes about a lot.
"The Trump administration has blundered but they've been relentlessly pursuing their immigration agenda. Really, really cracking down," she says. "I don't really follow the health-care stuff or the tax stuff, but immigration they're really barrelling though and it's really frightening for people that I know and people that I work with."
She hates not having a vote in either Ireland or the US.
"I think I should have a vote here [in the States]. I'm kind of okay with not having a vote in Ireland because I don't really think I'll be back there."
Becoming an immigrant herself led Higgins to start "to see different other people's experiences of it, and my curiosity was awoken", she says. Although she didn't realise it growing up, she also credits her coming from Ireland's most significant port of emigration, Cobh.
"I always knew about the leaving but I didn't know where they went," she explains. "This kind of closes the circle for me. And then seeing people like Mike Pence, whose grandad left, and it's very apparent to me, the hypocrisy, and it kills me, because they claim Ireland and I don't want them to. But at the same time they're very powerful. Maybe that's how I got interested in immigration."
There's a fourth possible reason immigration has become such a central focus. "From any storyteller's point of view, I think it's very interesting. One life left behind, another started. I think it's really good storytelling material."
When we meet she has just been reading over some of the essays contained in Maeve in America, one of which is about the moment when, in Higgins's words, "the turn really happened," the aftermath of the 2016 election of President Donald Trump.
"Basically [about] his presidential campaign and then the turn when he got elected and started putting all these policies in place. And how shocking that was - I was making a podcast about immigration at the time - and how dark it was," she says. "It wasn't a game, it was really serious and sad. So I'm still wrestling with the same problem of how responsible am I to tell other people's stories and what can I do as a person, as a fellow human being - I'm not even a citizen - when do I need to sit down, when do I need to actually get up and do some work."
Higgins engages regularly with serious and sad subjects; to scroll through her social-media feeds is to find links to deep reporting on climate, immigrant detention centres, stories about treatment of asylum seekers, and petitions for certain causes. She wrote a piece last year about leaving her bank because she wanted to take a stand against its lending to oil and gas companies. When I suggested hers was a campaigning voice, Higgins wasn't so sure.
"I don't really know about 'campaigning'. I do a climate justice podcast and I love bringing awareness to that. It's highlighting women who are working to fight climate chaos, wherever they are. But I don't think that's me campaigning," she says. "And then with immigration stuff, again, it's making a platform to help people tell their own stories. And then I also, like, advocate for myself because I write about my inner life and I think it's a valid thing to do, obviously, and I do it, so..."
Growing up, Higgins worked as a babysitter for a few summers in Rye, a small city on the New York-Connecticut border, her main experience of the US before moving to New York City. "I always had this romantic idea of coming here to be a writer and I think that still is a valid impulse," she says, adding that she thinks it's a valid impulse for anybody to have.
"It's so expensive to live here and writing doesn't pay anything, so how does that make sense? But there's still something about this city that's stimulating enough to keep me here."
Higgins is in the middle of writing another book. She's perhaps not always been so prolific, she explains.
"I've had a long battle with doubt. And it's nonsense. I'll write whatever I want to write; people can read it or they don't need to read it. Whatever," she says. "If you start telling yourself what you can't write or you're not allowed to do, you're doomed. Because there's enough people gonna tell you that."
This conviction animates a lot of what Higgins does. "If your options are, as a creative person, to wait until somebody asks you to do something, then you'll be waiting. And that's what happened to probably every woman who tried to do comedy just before my generation."
The same goes for social media and her approach to it. "Twitter used to be helpful to me, now Instagram is really helpful. To get people to shows, to share my work. Before those things I used to have to ask some guy running a comedy club if I could do his show, I had to try and get through all of these different gatekeepers, and so I don't need to do that now," she says. "And I see that with younger comics all the time. It's very democratic and that's what I like about it. But I'm not naïve about it. I know it's addictive and it's destructive but probably, at my stage, I need it for my work. I still need it for my work and it gives me a lot of other opportunities."
In waging her battle against doubt, Higgins developed a technique for dealing with negative thoughts when writing. "I put very loud music on, in my earphones, and that seems to take off a layer of thoughts," she explained. "And as I have them - I'm writing on my laptop - I'll just write them on my notepad and I'm like: 'I'll deal with you later.'"
She "heard from Stephen King about the loud music thing," but the notepad, "I think maybe I did come up with that. I mean, anything that pops into your head. It could be a doubt, or 'this line is a piece of sh*t' or 'I need to return that email', any distracting thing. I think that means I can get rid of two layers of… chat, in my head, and get to the writing."
For the whole of writing Maeve in America, she listened to the American singer Frank Ocean. Lately as she works she's been listening to Billie Eilish. "This weird thing happens where if I even hear 'Ocean Eyes' in a shop, or something, I honestly feel like I'm sinking into my subconscious. It's like a learned thing. Like a rat gets heroin, or whatever."
Is writing what she hopes to do most?
"I don't really know. I'm not being evasive, I just don't know. If somebody offered me a tour and I was going to get paid loads of money to do stand-up, I'd probably consider it. But what I love doing is writing." She's level-headed about that love. ("What is money?" she asks at a juncture. "I make jokes about it, but money is a stressful thing.")
"I wrote a piece about Syrian students banned from the US and it took me at least a week and it was $400, you get $400. So, like, that doesn't work out." The piece in question was for Time magazine. "I can do comedy, it's just something I was always able to do. So if I need it, I can pick it up again."
Forthright herself, Higgins said she's been relieved by the ultra-forthright American style of communication ("I like how I know where I stand and don't take anything personally"). She used to say sorry all the time ("I thought that made me nice"), and she's cut that back ("You're bugging people for no reason").
"I know it's cliché, but 'I want a toasted bagel with…'" she trails off, leaving us both to imagine the so often heavily-modified American sandwich order, never placed with anything less than airtight self-assurance.
"But that's exactly what you should be doing: saying exactly this is what I want, and you try and get it and if you don't, that's okay. But trying to voice what you want and go after what you want. And that's fine. People will be thrilled. People will be delighted."
We needed the bill and struggled to get the attention of a waiter. Higgins scanned the room intently, before saying, as though to herself: "Let's see how truly American I am."
'Maeve In America' is out now, published by New Island Books (€11.95)