So today I am so excited to welcome Jesse Andrews, author of the incredibly funny Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, to WtOC today.
Remember when I got myself into a bit of a pickle trying to explain what kind of book this was? Was it a cancer book? Was it a funny book? Was it a… funny cancer book? Does such a thing exist?
Well anyway, I’ve decided that it doesn’t matter what kind of book it is. The only thing that matters is that it made me snort like nobody’s business and I just had to ask Jesse to talk about humour for On Writing.
So I did.
OK, so you’re funny? Tell us a joke. Nah… I’m only kidding. I’m not that kind of interviewer…
So, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a Funny Book. Pardon the capital letters but in pretty much every review I’ve read of it, there has been mention of the humour. And because of this, you are now a Funny Author. Do you kind of feel pressured that in your next books you’re going to be expected to be funny?
So I prepared this whole long metaphor to answer this question, this whole extended thing about how, vis-a-vis the world of writing and writers, I am a feral child at a Brooklyn dinner party, just trying to figure out how to make it work—how to interact with people without alienating or horrifying them—and Me & Earl is the first dinner party I’ve been to where it’s actually gone well (as opposed to the two previous dinner parties where things definitely did not go well, which is to say, the two unpublished novels that generated what at the time seemed like inordinately terse and impersonal rejection, i.e.,
DEAR NAME OF REJECTED AUTHOR/JOB APPLICANT/SUITOR
WE ARE NOT ACCEPTING MANUSCRIPTS/JOB APPLICATIONS/WOOING AT THIS TIME OR EVER
WITH SINCERE FONDNESS
OUTSOURCED REJECTION COMPANY IN BELGIUM
). But then I decided not to put you through that metaphor, because it sucks. But basically, yeah. What happens if the next book isn’t funny and it fails miserably? What if the only thing anyone wants from me is a book like Me & Earl and now I’ve made that book and my only remaining options are silence, failure, or a kind of abject parroty self-repetition? Like Henry James? Christ, what a miserable fraud he was.
Anyway, this is the existential nightmare that I spend my days blearily contemplating.
Where do you look for inspiration when writing comedy?
Actually, I changed my mind about that metaphor and am going to subject you to it now. Vis-a-vis the world of writing and writers, I am a feral sewer child whom an unscientifically laissez-faire group of scientists have captured and are attempting to integrate into modern urban life. Specifically, they have been repeatedly sending me to fend for myself at dinner parties in the nicer parts of Brooklyn: chatty urbane gatherings of good-natured but formidably intelligent thirtysomethings. And I have gamely been using trial and error to figure out how best to win everyone over. So at the first dinner party I decided to do what came naturally to me, and spent two hours alone in the coatroom making a great big nest out of spit and flour and lymph harvested from pigeons and everyone’s coats and scarves, but that didn’t produce the desired effect. People really hated the nest. So for the second dinner party I abandoned that approach and decided to get as cultivated and refined as I possibly could, which meant striding up to people, briskly pawing at their genitals, and making a guttural barking sound that I was confident would convey a kind of dignified admiration. I really thought this was pretty advanced well-socialized stuff. But that didn’t work either. People liked it even less than the nest. So then I spent a long time thinking about what humans like, and at the third dinner party I kept it really simple and just showed up with an enormous bucket of cookies—and to my limitless relief, that went over really well. But now I’m anxious about what happens if I show up to dinner parties without cookies. I’m worried that people don’t like me for me. They just like the cookies.
This metaphor assumes that feral children can bake.
I am pretty sure that answers your question.
It’s not often you hear the word “hysterical” in the same sentence as “cancer book”. When you first sat down to write Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, did you consciously plan a funny book?
There’s really no good way to put this: Yes. I set out to write a funny book about the slow, inevitable, and premature death of a human being. If we’re being generous, then we’ll concede that maybe I had the happy and perverse insight that there is a kind of humor that can come from places of monstrosity and despair, and it’s a way of taming them and understanding them, at least for a little while. But if we’re not being generous, then we sort of have to conclude that I am, on some level, despicable.
Are you ever worried that people aren’t going to “get” your humour? How do you pluck up the courage to get over that first thought of “No one’s going to find this funny!”?
Courage! I remember when having courage meant staring down a woolly mammoth and thinking, yeah, that thing has tusks, and teeth, and four tons of muscle with which to convert my breathing sweating body into a pulpy bloody hairy mash studded with chips of bone, but I’m going to run right at it anyway, because I’ve got a sharp piece of wood. I remember this because when I was 13 my parents sent me to mammoth camp. Mammoth camp is kind of a Pittsburgh-specific thing and I don’t think they even have them outside of Pennsylvania and Ohio. It’s mostly Jewish kids although I think that’s starting to change.
Here’s a non-obnoxious-joke answer: Writing humor takes way less courage than performing humor, like acting or doing stand-up or even just telling jokes around people you don’t know that well. That, you have to do in real time. Writing you can obsess over until you’ve gotten it at least sort of right.
Also: It’s never true of a thing that no one will find it funny. Some person who laughs a lot will. I think everyone who’s funny started out with the benefit of an easy target: a little sister, a niece or nephew, that one kid from down the street. You do dumb voices for them, you pretend to be an animal, you tell stories of towering inanity, and they are having involuntary body functions from laughing so hard. It’s almost like a kind of torture. Drunk with power, you decide that you are going to learn how to do this to everyone. And you never fully succeed. Because everything is funny to someone, but nothing is funny to everyone. And that is why all funny people are eventually consumed and hollowed out by a violent sadness.
Here I am pretty flagrantly plagiarizing Aesop and his fable about the cat and the farting tree.
I know I’ve said that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is hilarious, which it is, but it’s also incredibly moving. How do you find the balance between the comedy and the more emotional moments in your writing?
Well. Thank you for that. Now I feel bad for being kind of a meandering jackass in some of these answers.
I think the thing I learned from writing Me and Earl, or the piece of knowledge that I consolidated in the process of writing, is that good storytelling demands contrast—you need push and pull, you need balance. If it’s homogeneously funny and mindless the whole way through, you feel a little sick at the end of reading it.
I don’t know if that answers your question, so maybe this is a better answer: The most important thing to me while writing Earl was honesty. The world had to feel real and honest, and the world that I know has funny and sad and banal and triumph and outrage all bound up together inextricably, and if the book conveyed that a little bit, then I succeeded.
There’s nothing worse than when someone tries to explain a joke to you, but there has to be some kind of explanation. When you’re writing a scene, how do you set the joke up and let the reader do the rest without clobbering them over the head with “Look! Look! This bit is funny! Are you watching?”?
I think you just keep rewriting the joke until it works and doesn’t have too many exclamation marks or trombones or fatalities. Or farting. There is no more blatant sign of laziness in comedy writing than farting. Especially an inanimate object farting.
I know, to an extent, you will end up writing what you as the author find humorous. But how do you make sure that your characters are their own character with their own personality and sense of humour… and not just you in book form?
Steal. Steal constantly and shamelessly. Steal from everyone you know.
Ha ha! That is, of course, a joke. It’s not stealing if you’ve already murdered them.
This is not actually a question about humor, though—this is a question about all writing, about how do you write people who aren’t yourself. And that’s just something you have to learn to do.
Honestly, and I’m going to get preachy and weird here, I think that’s the redeeming responsibility of any writer—the responsibility to empathize, as fully and faithfully as you can. Because otherwise it can be a disgustingly easy and enviable job. You sit around in a bathrobe typing lies all day. But if you remember that your readers get to be the people you write, and you make those people real people with real thoughts, then your readers get to have the most humanizing and miraculous experience there is. And, yeah, if you’ve written a world lazily populated by clones of the same person—AHEM THOMAS HARDY YOU REMORSELESS HACK—then you’ve failed that responsibility.
What are your Top Tips for writing humour in YA novels?
Here is what you should do. Make up a person, in your head, who is the person in the world you’d most like to make laugh. This is the reader for whom you are writing. Imagine everything about them. Probably, they’re pretty smart. And kind. And reasonably well-read. The easy stuff, the mean stuff, the fake stuff—that doesn’t work on them.
So you’re going to have to do better than that. But if you keep this person in mind, eventually, you probably will.
Here I am unrepetentantly ripping off the moral of Aesop’s fable about the rabbit and the poop volcano.
Actually, yeah…I think I am that kind of interviewer. Go on, tell us a joke.
oh for christ’s sake
God, all you had to do is tell us a knock, knock joke or something. God.
A huuuuge thank you to Jesse for answering my questions and providing such brilliant answers.
So, what do you reckon? Have you read Me and Earl and the Dying Girl? Did you love the humour too? Do you think there’s place for humour in any book? Is there humour in the story you’re writing? Do you ever get nervous that something’s not going to be funny?
Let me know in the comments!