Tuesday, May 29, 2007

On Writing Humor

Today, I interview Judy Gruen, humor columnist and author of the new and very funny "The Women's Daily Irony Supplement." She talks about her secrets to writing humor and lets us know that real humorists never lose their funny side.

Tell us about yourself.
Wow, that's an open-ended question if ever there was one! I'm the mother of four great kids, now ages 13, 15, 17 and 18, and have been married to their equally wonderful father for nearly 20 years. I grew up in the LA area and haven't strayed much other than school in Berkeley and Evanston, Illinois, where I got my master's degree in journalism. My values are quite old-fashioned, but I still think my humor feels very current and worldly, at least that's how I try to make it. I'm also Jewish, and much of my life and values revolve around that spiritual guidepost.

Tell us about your book.
So glad you asked! I've been writing my "Off My Noodle" column for five years now, and it's sent to email subscribers around the world. About a year ago, I compiled the "best of" those columns into a book. This is always a dicey proposition, as the conventional wisdom is that essay collections don't sell, unless you are Nora Ephron or some other very big name. But I felt many of these columns were true "keepers," not dated or likely to feel dated any time soon and of high enough quality that they deserved to be in a book. I chose about half of all the columns I had done, plus wrote a few new pieces, and then reworked every single one of the original columns till they shone and were as tight and funny as I could make them. I also organized the book into six themed sections, including "A Woman's Home Is Her Hassle," (domestic humor) "Reading This Warning Label May Kill You," (societal observations) "Just Wait Till You Have Stretch Marks of Your Own" (motherhood), and more. So I didn't just throw in everything I had done between two covers and say, "Voila! A book!" I really put enormous effort into reworking and revising so that the project was worthy of being published and worthy of the huge investment of time involved in creating and promoting a book. The book also contains a few more sentimental, serious pieces, which I think adds a layer of depth beneath the humor.

Have you always been funny, were you one of those people considered the class clown?
Some days I inadvertently became the class clown, such as the time in 11th grade when I went to sit down in math class and the wooden chair split underneath my fanny. Can you say "mortification?" I think I always had a quick wit but didn't try to show it off; it came naturally when I felt comfortable with friends and family. But even now, some of my kids' friends who hang around the house say, "Mrs. Gruen, if I hadn't read your books and known you were funny, I never would have guessed you had a sense of humor." I find that a riot.

What are the secrets to writing good humor?
Oooh, secrets. I don't think there are secrets as much as old fashioned rules to work by, and they are, in my opinion, reading who you consider great humorists. Look at what they did, how sharply they focused each story, what kind of language they used, look at the pacing of the material. I also think that in general writers today (except perhaps for some literary writers) grossly underutilize the incredible English language. Read S.J. Perlman. His vocabulary is astounding, and he uses words that even sound funny. I love using words that are old-fashioned sounding but are still terrific and bring a surprise to the reader. "Miscreant" is a great word, and it even means what it sounds like. "Gobsmacked" is one of my favorite words. Read writers from earlier eras to refresh and enrich your vocabulary. Avoid cliches, both in phrases and in topics. Also, as with any craft, keep working to make your work better and better. Although I published my first humor piece 23 years ago, I still love the challenge of making each column better than the one before. I just love it.

Give us a sample of some daily irony.
Oh, I love that Paris Hilton is going to jail, the most un-Hilton-like setting imaginable. And how will she cope with a drab gray jumpsuit? And no parties at night? I think I'll do a column on that. Other ironies: that sex is everywhere in movies, music, billboards, and TV, but you can't refer to anyone's "sex." It has to be "gender," a word so clinical sounding it's absurd. We talk about sex everywhere except when it comes to saying whether one is male or female. I find that ironic. One more? How about the irony of universities that claim to embrace diversity but where professors who are openly politically conservative have a hard time getting tenure? Our society is very selective about who gets to spout off their views with impunity.

You say on your website that you're a Bikram yoga dropout. Give our readers a quip about that.
The deal with Bikram yoga is that they keep the room so hot that the teacher warns that dizzyness and nausea may be "normal" for some newbies. Doesn't that sound appealing? One of the contortions they expect you to get into is called "heart attack on a stick," which just shows that you must be very young and perhaps have prior experience as a circus acrobat to do this kind of thing and not kill yourself. Once was enough for me!

Your books target women and mothers. How did you develop an expertise and platform in writing for them?
The "expertise" was on the job training, having been a stay-at-home mom for nearly 2 decades. The platform building is very tough, as writing for moms is already a crowded market. In the past few years I have focused less on motherhood and more on issues relevant to where I am now: a 40-something woman who is somewhere between being carded for alcohol and hip replacement surgery. Consistently looking for outlets for my work has helped to build that platform, and fortunately I see good growth there. Eventually editors find you and approach you, which is very gratifying.

Tell us about your writing habits. When does a humor writer lose her humor?
If you are really a humor writer, I don't think you'll ever lose your humor. It's there, it's in you and needs self-expression. I work as much as possible each day, but have always done so around my family's schedule. I'm still a traditional mom, carpooling, grocery shopping, cooking dinner, taking kids to appointments. But as the kids have gotten older I've clearly had more time in the day to write and market my work. But often, I still need to work at night, since so much of my other job as wife and mother can consume most of a day. That's why sometimes I feel like I need a wife, too!

How did you find your agent/publisher?
I found my agent through another writer, but truthfully, he was not able to sell "The Women's Daily Irony Supplement." He shopped it while it had another name, and acquisitions editors told us that the writing was great but my platform was lacking, the platform was good but the writing was lacking, they already had another mom humorist on their list, you name it. This went on for maybe 7-8 months. Then we realized it was time to move on, and I spent several months researching self-publishing options. I had self-published before and knew there are many, many serious arguments against self-publishing, such as getting distribution, it's much harder to get reviewed and to be taken seriously. There is still a bit of a stigma against self-published books, though that is changing. The rise of POD companies that allow anyone to publish anything is great in the democratic sense but it also lowers the overall quality of a self-published title.

Still agonizing over how to get my book published, one day, nearly in despair, I picked up a magazine that had been collecting dust on my desk. It was published by an association of small, indie publishers. I said to myself, "What the heck," and called the association, told them I had this great little humor book, and did they have any member publishers whom they might recommend I contact? The man immediately recommended a small company called Beagle Bay, and I emailed them, and I signed with them.

What about book launches, do you do anything special such as having a party?
For my last book, "Till We Eat Again: Confessions of a Diet Dropout," I had a book launch party at a friend's house, but I haven't done that this time. I've been so busy with book promotion and keeping up with other writing obligations that I didn't put much effort into this. But if anyone wants to throw me a party, I'll bring the chips!

Check out Judy's website at: http://www.judygruen.com/


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