Stephen Markley Interview Part 2: Humor and Politics in his Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

“Publish this Book” by Stephen Markley is funny from the first glance at the cover to the last page. His quirky, irreverent style of humor does not work for everyone, which is evident from the hate mail he regularly receives. But it works for me, making it one of only a handful of books that have ever made me break out into a belly laugh. In this part of my six part interview, I ask Stephen more about being funny, and about including his politics. In a later section of this six part interview, I will ask him to comment on taking so many risks in his writing.

Humor

Jerry Waxler: Your writing is really funny. A number of times I found myself laughing out loud, or muffling it so my wife didn’t think I was losing my mind. I only rarely get a belly laugh from a book, but when I do, it is a real treat. I remember years ago cracking up in a waiting room reading John Steinbeck’s affectionate account of his dog in Travels with Charley. And I enjoyed the laughs I got from a Dave Barry book, who you said was at one time one of your literary heroes. But it puzzles me how any writer could learn this skill.

Joan Rivers (“Enter Talking”) and Steve Martin (“Born Standing Up”) had to struggle for years to make people laugh. It’s a daunting goal. But at least a stand up comedian knows whether or not the joke worked. A writer doesn’t have that kind of feedback. Do you remember how you learned to get people to laugh at your writing?

Stephen Markley: Writing funny is hard, for the reasons you just mentioned, but also because people have very different ideas of what they find funny. Believe me, as I’ve tried to write funny over the years, I get diametrically opposed reactions all the time. Someone will write me and say, “That was over the top!” “Not funny.” “You’re so juvenile, get a life.” And then I’ll open the next e-mail and it will be a girl telling me something I wrote caused her to laugh to the point of involuntary urination (I swear I have gotten this on multiple occasions). Therefore, all I can say is that much like a stand-up comedian, it’s been a lifetime of trial and error.

Jerry: Could you share a trick or two to help the rest of us steer towards this valuable skill?

Stephen: Yeah, probably not. All I can say is that over the course of my life, I’ve inadvertently become friends with a lot of people who are way smarter and way funnier than me. Once you’ve surrounded yourself with smart, funny people, you can steal everything they say, do, think, and believe, put it on paper and call it your idea. This is not plagiarism but rather a kind of mental osmosis. You just gather from the best sources, put it through the sausage-maker and out comes a really funny riff about a cussing baby trying to figure out what a human nose is.

Politics

Jerry: I thought that including one’s political leaning in a book would be strictly forbidden by the industry who wouldn’t want to piss anyone off. So I was surprised that you were so outspoken about your unabashed favoritism towards Obama. (Was I dreaming or did you actually work Noam Chomsky into a conversation? I think it might even have been a pick up line?)

Stephen: Yes, a girl in a bar tells me she didn’t expect to hear Noam Chomsky quoted in a country song.

Jerry: Did you have to struggle to assert your political position? Did your publisher give you any sort of feedback or pushback about it? What sort of feedback do you get from readers?

Stephen: I never struggle to assert my politics because I think about them constantly and they’re just part of who I am. For instance, I get really pissed off at myself when I use a plastic coffee stirrer because it’s a petrochemical product I’ll use once and then toss out, thus providing financing to petro-dictators and their terrorist affiliates while deepening our energy crisis. I once kept a single plastic stirrer in my desk drawer for seven months to avoid this guilt, but it got gross.

The point is not that I’m insane (although I might be), but that I no more could have written this book without including my politics than I could have written it without including my passion for writing. They’re both just parts of me that belonged. As far as the publisher, yes, I did get pushback at first, but as the book progresses, it’s easy to see why this political vein becomes more important (and plays in heavily to the fortuitous ending). I cut some of the more extreme animosity toward Hillary Clinton because a large chunk of the book was written during that primary when tensions were running high and everyone was a little crazy, but the rest stayed.

Readers tend to love it or hate it depending on their politics obviously. I recently got a letter from this guy in Florida who said he was a conservative Republican but he still loved the book. I asked him why, and he said everything but the politics spoke to him. So I guess it’s not a deal breaker for some people, but even if it is, like I said,I don’t particularly care.


Notes

Visit Stephen Markley’s Home Page

To read my review of the book, click here.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To learn about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

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