TACKLING TOUGH TOPICS WITH HUMOR by Robin Reul
When I first sat down to write my YA contemporary debut MY KIND OF CRAZY, I knew that I would be broaching some difficult topics like mental illness, abuse, poverty, and alcoholism. Not exactly the stuff of high comedy, but in taking a page from my own life (see what I did there?), I know that humor has always been my coping mechanism for dealing with painful situations. It’s a shield, a weapon, a form of medicine, a thread of connection and a way to put things in their proper perspective. It’s all about focusing on the light instead of the darkness, and above all, I knew that was what I needed to do with this book to do the story I wanted to tell justice.
I needed to create a character whose journey a reader wanted to follow. When we first meet my main character Hank Kirby, he has decided to invite the girl of his dreams, Amanda Carlisle, to prom by setting up sparklers on her lawn popping the question. However, his promposal goes up in flames (literally) when he plants the sparklers in a pile of mulch, which then causes a tree and her lawn to catch on fire. He almost gets away undetected, but there is a witness: Peyton Breedlove, a budding pyromaniac who thinks Hank is a kindred spirit and blackmails him into friendship. The beginning has some laugh out loud moments and the humor and Hank’s voice in particular draws the reader in and makes him likeable and endearing. However, the story quickly deepens into much darker and unexpected territory.
I think it’s easy to go to extremes when writing difficult topics. You can go dark and dramatic, which while poignant and moving can also be depressing, or you can go the opposite end of the spectrum and make it a black comedy, but then you run the risk of doing disservice to tackling the topics at hand respectfully. I knew I wanted to strike that perfect balance between humor and heartbreak, and that therein was the sweet spot for allowing the reader to become emotionally invested in an honest way. Voice is critically important, and humor is the vehicle that allows the characters, despite their differences, to cope and connect in meaningful ways. Humor has a magical way of breaking things (and people) down, making them seem less overwhelming and more relatable.
It’s difficult to create a bleak landscape and simultaneously have a character moving through it that tries to find hope and light in any situation despite all evidence to the contrary, but this is the piece I wanted so badly to impart to readers. This was the piece I knew was my story to tell. I dug deep in to my own teen experience, one that was clouded by low self-esteem, issues with connectivity and feeling like I was enough. I had a friend who was truly the light in the darkness for me at that time. What she brought to my life most of all was laughter and perspective at a point where I felt like I was drowning. When we were seventeen, she was killed by a drunk driver and the loss was devastating.
For years I carried the story of this friendship and connection in my heart, looking for the proper way to tell it. I knew I didn’t want it to be depressing or a story about drunk driving or where someone dies at the end. This was to be a story of friendship, of hope, and of the importance of being a light in the darkness for another, which is incredibly difficult to do when you are a teenager and caught up in your own universe and everything seems like the end of the world. I wrote the book I needed to read when I was seventeen.
I didn’t want to shy away from the grief, the ugly or the uncomfortable. But I didn’t want it to be the centerpiece either. I wanted to show that the line between humor and heartbreak is microscopically thin. My hope was to bring these issues to the table and show that we can let our experiences define us, defeat us, or make us stronger. Humor doesn’t need to minimize issues but instead can infuse a tough situation with levity, hope and heart. It can help deliver a message in a non-heavy handed way and that might be exactly what that reader needs at that moment in time.
Robin Reul has been writing since she was in early elementary school, when she used to make her own book club flyers for her classmates and then pen them original stories. Though she grew up on movie sets and worked for many years in the film and television industry both as an actress and in motion picture development, she ultimately decided to focus her attention on writing young adult novels. When she’s not writing, Robin can be found singlehandedly driving up the profit margin of her local Starbucks and indulging her love of baked goods, particularly those in the key of pumpkin. She lives in Los Angeles suburbia with her husband, son and daughter.
You can find a downloadable discussion guide available for the manuscript on my website for MY KIND OF CRAZY at http://robinreul.com/discussion-guid/.