Recently, Superstition Review caught up with New York Times best-selling author, Laurie Notaro whose works include There’s a (Slight) Chance I Might Be Going to Hell: A Novel of Sewer Pipes, Pageant Queens, and Big Trouble, and The Potty Mouth at the Table.
Gloria Bonnell: People love you for your sarcastic humor. You describe your own work as “funny fiction with creepy things tossed in.” Is there any topic, besides the in-laws, that is off limits?
Laurie Notaro: Oh sure. There are things that happen, situations that my friends have been in that really take a long time to be funny. Like they need decades to ripen. I guess you could say that in comedy some fruit is too tough to digest for a long time. Sad things often become funny with enough time. But there are some things that stay unfunny forever. I hate those things!! And as time goes on, the more books that I write, people I know have become increasingly more apt to say, “Now don’t put that in a book!” but not everything is book material. I know my cousin’s father in law thinks his life should be a sitcome, but it’s not material I want to touch. There are definitive boundaries and qualifications that a subject has to meet before anybody should write about them. Right now, I’m in a situation that requires a certain amount of very dark gallows humor. It’s funny to me and the person I’m joking with, but if someone outside our situation were to hear it, they would think that I had the conscience of Hitler. My friend has a brain tumor, the nastiest kind, and she is starting to do wacky things. I’m staying with her until her family comes, and this morning when I woke up, the dress she was wearing was in the doorway on the floor, and her bra was resting on my feet. Her dog also pooped in the hallway. I thought, “So what if I wrote a script about the bossiest person in the world who gets a brain tumor and everyone has to be their slave? This would be awesome in that show!!” And I bet you did not laugh at that.
GB: Your husband sounds like a darling. How did the two of you meet? Is he your beta reader?
LN: Nope. I believe there are some books of mine that he has never read. Sometimes he doesn’t get around to it for quite a while. If I am toying with something that has the potential to be tasteless, then I will use him as a barometer when I’m writing. But otherwise, he’s rather uninvolved. If he asks what I’m working on, if her hears me cackling from my office, I’ll tell him. Or if I think I’ve written a really, really good joke. But otherwise – he is typically as shocked as my mother is when he opens up a new book. We met working at Zia Records in the early 90s when Pearl Jam was hot shit. We worked for the main distribution office: he was the driver, and I was the receptionist. They were lots of cute guys in the warehouse; but he was the only one who was dumb enough to give me his phone number. But I seriously won that lottery. It’s sad that he lost.
GB: There are, undoubtedly, a lot of writers who wish they were you, could write like you and had the nerve and panache that you possess. What would you say to them? What writers are out there that you admire and secretly wish you could be like?
LN: Ha ha ha. I wouldn’t say to anyone who wanted to be me that I hoped they really like begging for money that they’ve already earned – and being in a whole a lot of trouble with the IRS! Being a writer is hard; not only because you have to push yourself to write every day, not only because the competition is an enormously fierce, not only because everything depends on your sales and not the quality of your work, but also that you need to be a very good publicist, a very good marketing person, a very good manager, and a really good budgeter. If I had to do it all over again, I would just break down and be a stripper. At least I know I get paid at the end of the night.
GB: What have you been reading lately? Tell us about it.
LN: I have been reading a lot of books written by women writers from England and Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. Writers like Stella Gibbons, Nancy Mitford, and DE Stevenson. It’s a whole era and genre of mid-brow writing that was huge in their time, but has rather been forgotten and it’s a treasure trove of jewels. I’ve become an old book collector. It’s pathetically boring. But the work is amazing and it’s worth going back into history to find these books. They are delightful, they are brash, they are haughty, and they are hilarious.
GB: You like to write fiction and nonfiction equally as well. They are different monsters, though. Fictional characters need to be given a life. Letting characters unfold the way you do is an admirable skill. Do your characters ever frustrate you? Do you always let them live their own lives, or do you find yourself putting restraints on their behavior, at times? Are there any characters hanging around in your mind waiting for you to write about them?
LN: Oh, absolutely. There is an entire game of naughty characters hanging around in my brain that are begging for some air time. I’m about to embark on a new fiction book, it’s historical fiction, based on actual events! So these are real people that I’m writing about but the research and information available about them is mainly factual, so I’m going to have to really embellish and sculpt these personalities the way that I think they were in real life and the way that they will most benefit the story that I want to tell. When I was just a nonfiction writer, I was terrified to have to conjure up a character and kind of make a recipe for them. But the more that I’ve done it and the more that I’ve experimented, the more of a challenge it’s become in a truly wonderful way. I love putting all those nuances on a person; you get to make them do and act and feel exactly the way that the story requires. And that doesn’t happen in real life. I get to be the boss. And I super, super like that. I’m never the boss in anything else.
GB: Your humor helps the reader relate to those embarrassing or difficult things in their own lives. You must get a lot of fans who feel deeply connected to you. What is that like? Do you have a favorite fan moment?
LN: I have many great reader moments. I experience a dozen of them at every reading. Book tours suck the life out of you, but a reading can inject everything right back in. The part of your soul that traveling crushes gets inflated when you meet a giggly girl who keeps a bra in her purse and who flips out a tube of Monistat Seven when she’s looking for exact change. I love those girls. They make me feel totally okay with the dork that I am. And every time I meet another one, it’s like I get to punch the face of every hairless girl in my seventh grade PE class who was blonde and ran faster than me. Which was everybody.
GB: You are obviously very open with your life. Do you have any secret places that you keep from your readers? Is there a hidden Laurie Notaro? Do you ever want to “cocoon?”
LN: Oh, of course. 99.9% of my life is so boring that no one wants to hear about it including myself, let alone experience it. I had a fight with the Korean lady at a soup bar today. Who wants to hear about that? She was trying to take all the Thai coconut chicken soup, and my friend Gary is glucose intolerant. So that’s the only soup she eats. And it was my job to get her lunch today. There was no way that Korean lady was going to win that battle. I was getting the last drop of that soup, even if I have to scratch her. I was ready for it.
GB: What is the biggest thing that people think they know about comedy, that isn’t so?
LN: The biggest thing is that what is funny is not universal. It is so subjective, and what one person may wet their pants over, another person will be disgusted with the flatness of it all. If you tell people you are going to make them laugh, even if you infer it just the tiniest bit, and you don’t….? Wow. The fallout is crazy mean. Yes, it’s a big promise to make–inspiring laughter is like making lightening, and sure, it’s hard, but if you say you’re gonna and you fall short, there is no forgiveness for you, my friend. There is just a scathing one-star review on Amazon. So yes. There are people who do not think Larry David is funny. I couldn’t be friends with those people, but it’s true. There are people who think Two and a Half men is hilarious (my mother). I couldn’t be friends with those people, either.
GB: You are active on Facebook. How do you use Facebook to inform and develop your writing?
LN: Facebook is a great barometer for what people relate to, and for my style of humor, that’s really essential. I like having that link with readers. If it’s not fully formed or there is no link at all, I’ll know in about seven minutes. It’s fast, reliable and a wonderful guide. I have also discovered how crazy people are on FB, and I used to be a reporter at the Republic who got hate mail on a daily basis. Folks on FB are Super Fund crazy, like they played too much in the tailings dump from the local mine when they were kids. And they are always willing and able to show you just how insane they are.
GB: What’s next for Laurie Notaro?
LN: I really want to eat a pudding cup and watch people with English accents talk on TV. But I’m working on a novel–historical fiction that is going to be so much fun to write I am going to explode. It will be Downton Abbey meets The Real Housewives of New Jersey. It’s gonna be awesome. That’s all I am going to say. There’s a Korean lady who still has it out for me, and if she stole my idea, the scratching fight would get crazy.
Laurie will be speaking at Arizona State University, Cooley Ballroom A, ASU Polytechnic Campus on September 17th, 2013, from 6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
While no one can exactly teach you how to be a comedian, this talk by New-York Times Bestselling Author Laurie Notaro can demonstrate where to find the funny, how to get it off to a running start, establish timing, and then incorporate humor into your writing.
Notaro will discuss the mechanics of humor, voice, the role of rhythm, subject matter and the value of relatability, as well as writing for your audience vs. writing for yourself while merging the two approaches.
The evening will include refreshments, a book sale and signing, and an author Q&A. For more information, visit the Facebook page, here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1377315692498730/