Writing Comedy? You Can’t Be Serious!
I say, I say, I say. My book’s got no category.
Your book’s got no category? How does it sell?
It’s not funny, trying to sell a comedy novel. Comedy has always been part of my writing, in my twelve commissioned plays, or my first ten published books – poetry, drama, crime fiction – even the best-selling language text books had jokes in them. The more tragic, moving, or desperate the story I’m telling, the more determined I am to include humour and joy. Life is a mix, in the midst of death, we are in laugh. My own painful disabling injuries I used as chuckle fodder for my hospital visitors, how else to keep the grapes and chocs flowing? Even my mother’s dementia had its funny side – the laughter we shared about how strangely we each thought the other saw the world is a cherished memory. More of that anon.
My first actual ‘comedy novel’ is LYDIA BENNET’S BLOG, ‘the real story of Pride and Prejudice’. Like the original Lydia in Austen’s P&P, her eponymous novel is as stroppy, awkward, rebellious and mouthy as any modern teenager, and as shamelessly self-serving and flirtatious. This applies both to the character in my novel, and to the book itself as I try to share my work with the world. LYDIA BENNET has friends in high places, and I’m not just talking about posh beanpole Arsey Darcy or nice but dim Mr Blingley. She has fans to die for, eminent authors I value and respect who gave her fab reviews – Catherine Czerkawska, Dennis Hamley, Paul Magrs; and Linda Gillard, who gave her the ultimate 5* accolade, ‘I laughed out loud. Several times – while HAVING CHEMO!!!’.
But of course to reach beyond these few but choice readers, Lydia B needs to be squeezed into the corset of Amazon categories, though delightful bits of her insist on escaping their confinement. Is the book a ‘parody’? Yes, kind of. But it’s a carefully researched literary in-joke, irreverent but loving, finding new reasons Austen never knew for the events and relationships that bug the Bennets, reasons which make crazy sense and are even moving. Why does Mr Collins fear Lady Catherine so much? Why so desperate for matrimony? What is Charlotte Lucas’ deal? Why does Lydia Bennet broker their marriage and why is it a match made in a kind of heaven? Why is their betrothal both moving and dignified, in the midst of Lydia’s normal lively teenage scorn and invective? It’s not a parody like other parodies. It’s possibly an Austen ‘inversion’, but they don’t have a category for that. Other humour categories don’t really fit. Much of the comedy is in action, much in the language, as Lydia utters a ‘cri de cur’ as yet again her brilliant foresight achieves ‘ouija vu’, or she sabotages yet another would-be suitor for Bing’s bling or Darcy’s dosh, or schemes to bag the gloriously wicked Wickham for her sexy self. It’s not a mash-up like ‘P&P&Zombies’. It’s like ‘Clueless’ in corsets, like ‘Adrian Mole’ in a bonnet. I’ve had a brilliant new cover designed by Alison Richards at firstname.lastname@example.org to get across the ‘timeslip’, ‘steampunk’ feel – these and other terms are accurate but not comprehensive. I’ve tried looking up books or films in a similar ball-park: ‘Adrian Mole’, ‘Lost in Austen’, ‘Jasper Fforde’s Eyre Affair’: but they are either listed as ‘fiction’ or anything but comedy. Perhaps ‘comedy’ isn’t funny or sexy, although Lydia Bennet’s certainly both.
In fact she’s just the person who’d be flirting at a funeral… which brings me to some serious humour. Dementia, the science of dying, human specimens, dissection + dating Zulu marathon runners, funeral flirtations, sex technology = ALL THAT LIVES, my ‘CSI:Poetry of sex, death and pathology’ which is newly on Kindle as well as in paperback. Well, if ever there was a book to defy categorisation this is it. Why can’t Amazon have a ‘science poetry about pathology, mixed with funny erotic poetry about mid-life sex’ category? As it is, not being about ‘myths and legends’ or ‘spirituality’, I’m stuck with bald ‘poetry’. I lived this book, I did the research into dating and dying. Spending time with cold lifeless bodies, frozen brains… well we’ve all been on dates like that! Seriously though folks, my life for several years did consist of watching my parents die within a year, studying the science of how we die, and beginning to date again after a long marriage ended often to erotic, often to hilarious, effect. Sex and death, that’s life. Finding out about them and writing about them, that’s how I cope. Here’s an example of something my mother and I laughed about together – her insistence that my father was actually two men. The first poem in the book, introducing both strands.
MY MOTHER’S TWIN LOVERS
‘I must get back to the men,’ my mother announces,
Then slyly meets my eye, as I choose this time
To avoid my usual reply. ‘I know what you’re thinking!’
She’s triumphant. ‘That there’s only one of them! But
You’re wrong, you know!’ My mother is having an affair.
She’s cheating on my father with another man, who lives
With them, looks like his twin, and even shares his name.
‘I think they must be cousins,’ she explains defiantly.
Before going to bed with my father she slips next door,
Turns back the spare bed quilt, and leaves her slippers there,
So the other man won’t suspect. She has doubled her marriage,
Two-timed adultery. After blameless years of barely moderation,
Let alone excess in anything, she now has a surplus of husbands.
It’s as if in creating my father’s double she’s conjured up her own
Wicked twin, denied a life ‘til now when time is running short.
She has gained an extra husband while the one I had is gone,
Which is fine, but now my elderly mother, with dementia,
Has a more exciting sex life than I do, kicking up her heels
While mine have been dragging. Perhaps it’s time, I think,
As I take her home to her lovers, for me to get back to the men.
Innovative forms I’ve invented too are in the book, see them animated here on youtube, in my AV poetry installation text SLICING THE BRAIN, exhibited in London, Newcastle, Swansea and Berlin so far. Rubbing shoulders with work by Renoir, Degas, Henry Moore, it makes people cry – when I perform from the book, people need to laugh too, and they do, though mixing the two strands is risky. Bring it on, as Lydia Bennet would say!
Knock, knock. Who’s there? Arthur. Arthur who? Author who defies categories.
Badoom – tish! Thank you, I’m here all week.
🙂 Thank you, Valerie, that was great! I met Paul Magrs at booQfest last September (I’ve been asked back so may see him again :)).
Valerie Laws is a novelist (crime and humour), poet, playwright, performer, mathematician and specialist in science poetry / art installations and commissions. She is the author of eleven books, the latest being her first YA comedy cross-over e-book, ‘Lydia Bennet’s Blog – the real story of Pride and Prejudice’, available on Amazon Kindle store and on her blog www.therealstoryofprideandprejudice.blogspot.com.
She is Writer in Residence at a London Pathology Museum and has won many awards and prizes, including a Wellcome Trust Arts Award. In her Arts Council-funded ‘Quantum Sheep’ she infamously spray-painted a new form of poetry onto live sheep using the principles of Quantum physics. She featured in BBC2′s ‘Why Poetry Matters’ with Griff Rhys Jones, with her next random haiku on inflatable beach balls in a swimming pool, and performs worldwide live and in the media. She lives on the North East Coast of England, is disabled but works largely in the mainstream, and is a fanatical swimmer.
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