Domenica Ruta quote
If you’ve spent any time on Book Country’s Memoir writing genre page or on the Discussion Boards, you’ll know that I am mad about memoir. Domenica Ruta’s Spiegel & Grau debut, WITH OR WITHOUT YOU, is billed as a “darkly hilarious chronicle of a misfit ’90s youth,” but don’t be fooled into thinking this isn’t serious work by a serious new writer. Ruta writes with disarming candor about life growing up with her vivacious, drug-addicted mother, Kathi, and also of her own struggles with alcohol and her subsequent recovery. WITH OR WITHOUT YOU is nothing less than the story of a writer claiming the truth of her own life, however subjective that might be.
LS: It seems to me that the very thing a memoir writer needs to make their work successful—bare-bones honesty—also make the prospect of publishing a memoir terrifying. WITH OR WITHOUT YOU is particularly candid: No one is safe from your gaze, from your mom to your dad to your high school boyfriend to yourself. How did you maintain that level of fearless disclosure as you wrote? Did you ever have doubts about making so much of your life public, and if so, how did you overcome them?
DR: The advice I gave not too long ago to a friend dabbling in memoir was to write the first draft as though you were already dead. What would you say if you never had to hear any criticism from anyone ever? This is a good point of departure for writing the first draft of anything, even fiction, but it is especially helpful with memoir. You cannot censor yourself in the early drafts or you will destroy the integrity of the work. In the process of rewriting the drafts that followed, however, I totally considered audience, both personally–like my family–and the larger public. Through the process of rewriting it became clearer to me what was necessary to say, what was bitterness I needed to let go of, what was harmful to others, what was an essential truth I couldn’t hold back. These are not decisions I could make up front; it’s a process of discovery. Then, when it was all done, I told myself any fire that comes my way as a result of what I’ve written is a fire I’ve earned honestly.
This is a guest post by urban fantasy author and Book Country member Jamie Wyman (@BeeGirlBlue).
You can’t have a conversation about humor in fiction without bringing up Christopher Moore. With more than a dozen books to his credit, he’s had decades to perfect the craft of writing with deep stories with charming levity.
My first experience with Moore’s work was a few years back when someone handed me LAMB. It was advertised as the “Gospel according to Biff, Christ’s childhood pal”. Based on that alone, I was willing to give it a shot. Within the first chapter I’d laughed out loud at least five times. And it just got funnier. You might wonder how someone can take something like the New Testament and make it funny, but Moore pulled it off superbly.
After that, I dove into the man’s catalog like a kid in a ball pit. The San Francisco Vampire Books (BLOODSUCKING FIENDS, YOU SUCK and BITE ME) had elements of romance with the humor. FLUKE touched the mysteries of whale song, a subject near and dear to my heart. And COYOTE BLUE set my mind to reeling about gods and tricksters. As I read his earliest works (PRACTICAL DEMONKEEPING, THE LUST LIZARD OF MELANCHOLY COVE and ISLAND OF THE SEQUINED LOVE NUN), though, I could see decent stories that lacked the depth of LAMB. Sure, they were hilarious romps through the trials of his characters, but they just didn’t have the prismatic quality to the writing.
Funny memoirs are hot right now: from David Sedaris to Tina Fey to Chelsea Handler to Bloggess, this is the age of the popular funny book. To get some tips on how to write humor, we turned to famous WireTap radio host and I’LL SEIZE THE DAY TOMORROW author Jonathan Goldstein, whom Sedaris calls “one of the funniest and most original writers I can think of.”
JG: A lot of the material in the book was drawn from the weekly column I do for The National Post, so that forces me to write each week. It’s an amazing gig that allows me to write about whatever I want, though I usually keep it to sandwiches, television, and candy. I’ve been writing it for over 5 years and, almost like an OCD thing, I’ve never failed to get one in, never missed a deadline. I number each one and the most recent one was #308.
NG: Your radio show, WireTap, is produced for the ear. How did you modify your writing for a reading audience?
JG: Writing for the radio is often about keeping people from turning the station or keeping them from giving more focus to whatever else they’re doing as they listen. You’re fighting for their attention, whereas writing for the page assumes having a person’s full attention as a part of the writer-reader agreement. This allows you to be more digressive and expansive–some might say more rich and literary, others, more arty and indulgent.
Infusing humor in your writing is a smart way to get readers to stick around. Who doesn’t enjoy good comic relief? Yet there is no recipe to make a book funny; “funny” is easy to spot but harder to recreate.
That’s why I decided to look at books I’ve read in the past month and study the strategies they’ve used to make me smile, chuckle, and even hoot with laughter.
Humor & Character
Humor can affect the way we perceive a character, appeal to our sympathies. WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE by Maria Semple is about a mother who retreats from the world. Kooky Bernadette is pretty hard to like at times, but her zaniness is steeped with so much humor that I couldn’t help but like her a little. To avoid interacting with other people, she hires a seventy-five-cent-per-hour virtual personal assistant from India to do her shopping for her and organize her life. Bernadette affectionately refers to the other mothers at her daughter’s school as gnats. She can spend hours fuming over the design of Seattle roads. Humor softens up Bernadette’s edges, brings out her humanity. It heightens her character in a way that is almost loveable. Bernadette has flaws but is not unsalvageable.
At Book Country, we really believe that in writing, there are no absolute rules. Since we want to become better writers via conversation and true engagement with other writers, we take pains to avoid being didactic about what writers should or shouldn’t do.
That said, Nevena and I do agree on one hard and fast rule:
Every writer should be reading David Sedaris, especially writers who want their work to be funny!