Writing Not-So-Serious Books by Joanne Levy
“Do your friends tell you you’re funny?”
I still cringe when I think of the time when a very big deal New York editor asked me that question when we were discussing one of my manuscripts. Because really, how does a polite Canadian respond without sounding obnoxiously braggy (I’m cringing even as I type this, many years later)? Well, this polite Canadian answered by stammering out an, “Um, well yes, as a matter of fact, they do. Especially after the checks have cleared.” (Actually, that last sentence is my embellishment—I do write fiction for a living, after all.)
I’ve been told over the years that: I am funny, should be a stand-up comedian, write hilarious Facebook posts, and so on. So the truth is that, yes, I know I’m funny. It’s sort of my thing. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as making someone laugh or smile with something I’ve said/written/done. It’s addictive, actually, that heady feeling of making someone guffaw or even chuckle, and my secret shame is that I will do nearly anything for a laugh.
So it might come as a surprise to you that I started out writing Very Serious Books. I have a whole pile of unpublished books that are not the least bit funny. Now, don’t get me wrong, Very Serious Books are important. I don’t have to tell you, Nerdy Book Clubbers, that through reading about Serious issues, we see ourselves in others, others in ourselves, develop empathy, learn about humanity, and travel the world, which can be a cruel, difficult, warty place. This is not news. But the truth is, I wasn’t being honest with my writing voice when I was writing Very Serious Books. See, the funny in me always wants out. Like I said above, it’s my thing to make people laugh, and when you try to deny your thing, you’re not being your authentic self. I was holding back a fundamental part of my voice when I chose to ignore my funny side.
“But, Joanne,” I told myself. “People don’t take funny writing seriously!” Or worse: “People don’t take funny writers seriously.”
Then I read a book that changed my life. It made me look at my writing in a completely different way, and I’ve never looked back. I bet you will never guess in a million years what that book was, so I’ll tell you. It was Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore. Now, please bear with me—this is not a post about religion or religious books—and I do have a point, I promise.
Anyway, I stumbled on this book at my local bookstore when I was browsing one day on a lunch break, and the bright yellow cover caught my eye (covers DO matter!). Now, I’m a Jew, and not a very observant one, so religion isn’t normally a subject I’m interested in reading about, but that the title made me laugh meant an instant sale. I imagine some people might be offended by the subject matter of this book, that it’s something of a fan-fiction of The Good Book—the original text of which was not intended to be humorous. What amazed me, though, was how Moore took events that were absolutely not funny and made them uproariously so, with a sprinkle of good-natured teasing and a dash of hilarious folklore. (If you ever wondered why Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas, within the book lies a charming explanation that still makes me laugh.) But he did it with the utmost respect for the solemnity of the events that became the foundation of a religion. While the book is ridiculous in many ways, it is also very respectful and heartfelt.
I admit that I didn’t learn much about the ‘real’ story of Jesus from that book, but I sure did enjoy it. What I did learn was that you could create a very funny book that is about a serious and maybe even controversial topic. You could take not funny things and make people laugh about them and, more importantly, allow readers to see those people and events in different ways. It was like looking at history through a different lens than the one we’re used to using.
That’s where the life-changing thing happened: if Moore could make a story like that funny and thought-provoking, why couldn’t I? Why shouldn’t I take my talent for humor and put that in my writing? Because life is funny, even when it’s really serious. Sometimes especially when it’s really serious.
So I wrote a book where a girl is visited by her dead grandmother (among other ghosts). Sounds heavy, right? You might think that unless you’ve read my SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE. The book where a girl goes bra shopping with ghosts. Sounds ridiculous, I know, but I took a very serious subject (a girl’s first bra-shopping experience) and made it funny by adding a couple of meddling old-lady ghosts, a lot of awkwardness, and some pretty heavy-duty embarrassment. I must have done a decent job with it because people tell me that’s their favorite part of the book.
In my new book CRUSHING IT, there aren’t any ghosts, but I do touch on some important topics, namely the issue of being true to yourself—a subject very close to my nerdy heart. But I wanted to make the book really funny at the same time. To do that, I put my poor character, Kat, through a lot of really embarrassing and awkward situations. Nothing too tortuous, I promise, but enough to make readers laugh and cringe right along with Kat’s hapless adventures in trying to set her best friend up with the boy she has a crush on because she doesn’t believe he’d ever be into her. Tween angst at its finest. The kind of angst I know all too well as my own memories from that age are still painfully vivid. Nothing overly earth-shattering here, but that’s okay because other people are much better at writing Very Serious Books. I write Not-So-Serious Books, which also have an important place on bookshelves because sometimes a laugh is just what a kid needs as an escape or to help them not feel alone. Whatever the reason, I feel it’s my job to fill that need by putting my authentic, funny self into my work and write the books I would have liked to have read as a kid.
I hope that while laughing along with a character, readers can see a bit of themselves and realize they aren’t alone in how awkward they may feel and that they don’t always have to take themselves so seriously. Adolescence is a tough period, and no one feels perfect in their own skin all the time, but if we can laugh with a character and see that all can work out in the end, maybe we can see the same is possible for our ourselves.
Joanne Levy is the author of the novels CRUSHING IT (Aladdin M!X, 2017) and SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE (Bloomsbury, 2012). A survivor of the corporate world, she now works from home, doing administrative work for other authors and creating the friends she wishes she had when she was a kid. Joanne lives in Ontario, Canada with her husband, Labrador Retriever, African Grey parrot, and two cats, one of whom vomited during the writing of this bio. Visit her online at www.joannelevy.com.
See Joanne’s other Nerdy Book Club post here.