You guys, I interviewed Jenny almost two years ago about humor writing, being a humor writer, eating other humorists, and—especially—the book she was writing at the time. Well, guess what? Last week Jenny’s memoir hit #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List. So all of you who were saying two years ago, “Jenny, your book’s going to be a best seller“. . .buy yourselves a drink!
You were absolutely right.
Jenny Lawson is the Bloggess—funny, profane, twisted, and golden-hearted, she’s been blogging since 2006 and now drags a following of almost half a million page views a month. She’s been interviewed pretty much everywhere, and she does interviews herself as well. She also writes a parenting column for the Houston Chronicle (which she shares with Mindy) and a humor column for Sexis Magazine (yes, it’s about sex). She’s caused an online uproar over Dr. Pepper that was picked up by AOL, been blocked on Twitter by William Shatner, and been voted #1—and disqualified—in the 2009 Shorty Awards in the category of government, for which she won her title of Czar of Nothingness from the mayor of Martindale, Texas (and in which capacity she designs awards for nothing in particular to give to yourself). She speaks on the subject of humor at the Mom 2.0 Summit and also at BlogHer, to which she is this year bringing her Traveling Red Dress to share with others. Plus, she found James Garfield at an estate sale.
Jenny, I know you said you were done interviewing for the season, then agreed to this one anyway. So I will try to keep it short and succinct. What makes funny funny?
I think what makes funny funny is the unexpectedly random being taken seriously. I think most of us think bizarrely strange things all the time and never share what’s in our heads for fear of being ostracized, but I’ve given up on ever fitting in, and so I just decided to write it all down.
Using dead kittens to make gloves for the homeless, what I would do if I was attacked by a zombie baby, open angry letters to German Princesses who are stealing my look. . .that sort of thing. I think people laugh because it’s bizarre and they feel better about themselves in comparison, but a small part of them is nodding in recognition because they too once wondered why Jesus wasn’t considered a zombie.
Is there a line you won’t cross as far as alienating readers? I don’t mean offensive material, but hostility. How do you manage to keep being charming and funny about things like fear, anger, anxiety, without ever coming across as whiny and annoying?
I write way more than I publish, and I edit a lot, but I’m still pretty whiny and annoying. I try to avoid writing about anything that would legitimately hurt someone reading it. Offending people is fine. Hurting them? Not cool. I’m lucky to have friends that I can call up and read a post to, and they’ll laugh hysterically and then say, “That was awesome. And you can NEVER, NEVER publish it.” Good friends make good editors.
What is your relationship to your humor writing? Do you ever reach a point where you’re frustrated with translating darkness and pain into something people can enjoy? Or is there a light in the depths that you can always depend on to continue to add meaning to your life?
I have a dark sense of humor, so it’s natural for me to find the humor in some of the most terrible parts of my life. I write about depression and anxiety disorder and miscarriages and having a number of autoimmune diseases. Even in the darkest corners there are still things that make me laugh, and those are the things that save me from the dark. It sounds odd, but I think some of my funniest work has come from my biggest personal trials, and I think people can not only relate to that, but it helps them see that there is a light out there.
Also, I think it’s nice to give people the chance to laugh at something that’s typically a sacred cow or that is always treated with sadness and reverence. The funniest jokes are the ones told in the front pew of a funeral when you know you’re not allowed to laugh. The difference is that I do laugh. And then I blog about it, and everyone else laughs and relates a horrible story that ended with laughter, and suddenly my whole blog is filled with hysterical stories of tragedy. That’s kind of an amazing thing.
Can you talk about the difference between saving your self-esteem by writing humor about having no self-esteem and actually having no self-esteem? Or is that getting too dark for an interview about humor writing?
I struggle with low self-esteem, but blogging has helped me tremendously to see the value in myself and what I do. I think there’s a difference between being self-deprecatingly honest and beating yourself up about things you can’t change, and I’m finally learning the difference.
If you were on a desert island and forced to choose which of your fellow castaways to eat, in what order, and they were all different famous comedians, who would you eat first? Last? Never? Why? At which point would you get eaten?
I’d eat Sarah Silverman first because she’s a vegetarian and grain-fed beef is delicious. I’d eat Eddie Izzard last because I’d want someone to cheer me up after eating Sarah Silverman, and he always makes me laugh. I don’t think I’d get eaten because I’m always sick, and I’m on a chemo drug for my arthritis, and so I’m probably too dangerous to eat. But they’d probably drown me pretty early just for being annoying. And for eating Sarah Silverman. People love her.
It’s just one book, and I’ve been working on it for the last six years, although I’ve only been really serious about it in the last year.
I have yet to see anyone ask you about the book, itself. (Maybe I didn’t read enough of the interviews.) What is the premise? the basic idea?
It’s a book about my life, about all the times I’ve ever embarrassed myself. It’s awful. And probably hilarious when read by people who didn’t have to live through it. My current working title is Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, and it’s KILLING ME. It’s so easy to write a blog because if I don’t like it I know I can just delete it later, but with a book it’s set in stone forever. Also, it will be the heaviest book in the world because it’s written on stone.
You’ve said you have always been a writer. Do you expect to write more once you get the hang of it?
I’m hoping that my next book will be easier, and I’m tempted to quit, but my agent (I still feel weird saying that) thinks I have several books in me. So I’m just nodding my head and going with it. This particular book focuses on my family as a child and my family now, and my stories are so baffling that I actually had to send photos of the things I was writing about to my agent just so she’d believe me. I’ve had a very strange life. A good life. . .but a strange one.
You’ve said it’s taking a long time to write. Why, do you think? Are there specific aspects that you’re struggling with?
I’m struggling the most with finding a way to tell my story without being disowned. The problem is that when I start writing about my life it’s not just my story anymore. It’s my parents’ story, and my in-laws’, my husband’s, my daughter’s. . .it’s hard to share completely in a funny way and not run the risk of over-sharing someone else’s story. That’s why in the introduction I explain that this book is only 90% true, so that whoever is mentioned in the book can say that whatever ridiculous thing I wrote about them is made up.
The funny part, though, is that I ended up not sharing some great stories because, even though they’re true, no one but the people who actually lived through it with me would ever believe them.
Only a few weeks after this interview, Jenny’s book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, sold. For the record, I immediately offered to teach her how to use a semicolon. I think. I may not have said it out loud. But I was serious.
Jenny writes hilarious posts about her life, love, and family every week on The Bloggess, where she originally won my heart with her tale of James Garfield (possibly because I was so taken with the name “James Garfield” for a dead warthog that it took me two whole days to realize she didn’t just make it up).
The photo of Jenny on the right in her famous Traveling Red Dress was taken by Karen Walrond, author of the photography book, The Beauty of Different. The Dodo Award was created by Jenny, Czar of Nothingness.