Posted: 08/29/2014 2:41 pm EDT
I met Peter Mehlman, known for his work as a writer and executive producer of theSeinfeld
show, at a Santa Monica coffee shop to talk about writing, being funny, and his debut novel, It Won't Always Be This Great
(September 2014, Bancroft Press).
Mehlman, who fed the Seinfeld
cast such lines as "Yada Yada" "spongeworthy," "shrinkage," and "double-dipping," said he was "still feeling a good endorphin rush" from his basketball game the night before.
Set in the crushing complacency of suburbia, It Won't Always Be This Great
is narrated by an unnamed Long Island podiatrist who commits an accidental act of vandalism that shakes him, albeit temporarily, out of his sleepwalking existence. Overflowing with humorous, strange, and insightful social observations, the novel is told with Mehlman's particular sensibility.
The unnamed podiatrist reveals the details and secrets of his story to a friend in a coma, which places the narrator in that wonderful middle ground between telling and not telling. Despite his friend's comatose state, the narrator chooses, on a few occasions, to withhold information because he thinks it's too personal. "It's a slight cheat on my part," Mehlman said, "because it allows the narrator to be conversational." Still, it does create an intimate bond between reader and narrator.
In a refreshing twist, Mehlman created a narrator who still loves and respects his wife, Alyse. Even after 24 years, he's still trying to impress her. "You never hear a story about a marriage that works," he said, "that a guy is happy to be in." And Alyse has a cool edge to her. She's more perceptive, maybe smarter than her husband, but less grounded. Meaning she's a fully developed character, not some trophy wife. "It's so easy to have them at war with each other, to have that quiet hatred," Mehlman said, before adding, "But who's going to do that better than Updike, anyway?"
There's a wonderful moment in the novel where the narrator is at a stoplight and his wife is asleep in the seat next to him. He looks at her and sees a little drool on her cheek and he feels good about the drool. While the narrator may spend much of his life sleepwalking through it, he is fully engaged in his relationship with Alyse, and you can't help but like him for that.
I wondered why Mehlman would turn to writing a novel, given all his success with TV writing. "I just like the actual work," he said. "You want the actual work to be something you love because the second you send it out it's devalued by like 50 percent. It's like driving a new car of the lot, it looses its value immediately."
On the challenges and strategies of writing funny, Mehlman said, "I think it helps to have a certain awareness of wanting to be funny. One great things about Seinfeld was that I became very aware of the seemingly meaningless little thoughts that float through my head. And they're funny. And they end up being universal." He went on the say that the word joke hardly ever came up at Seinfeld and that funny was organic to the show.
"There are very few totally original thoughts," Mehlman continued. "If your New Year's resolution was to have one original thought, it would be difficult. Most thoughts have been thought before. It's just a matter of who can capture them and put them into words. It's a race."
The novel didn't have a title the whole time Mehlman was writing it. After he was done, he heard George Harrison singing All Things Must Pass with the line, "It's not always going to be this grey". And with his apologies to George Harrison, Mehlman came up with It Won't Always Be This Great. He says the title doesn't exactly pertain to the book, it's more a feeling that captured the whole rather than any of the parts.
Some of that feeling can be felt near the end of the novel when the narrator and his family are taking a drive through their neighborhood. There's this sense that inside the car everything is good and that they are all, for a moment, a united front against the craziness. It's clear that this is temporary and that they will all soon leave the safety of the car and rejoin the world of crazies. But for a moment things are that great.
When I asked Mehlman about his approach to writing, he said "I don't think you can spend enough time deciding on the exact wording of your sentences. Sentence structure is everything. When Fran Lebowitz's first book came out, what made it so funny was the perfect English."
He went on to talk about using grammar and using as few words as possible, and how throwing in an extra word can ruin a line. "If I have a sentence that I think is going to be funny, and its starts off in nine words, I start thinking, isn't there any way I can cut it by a third, just to get the line out faster."
"I have very little advice about writing, but one of the few I have is that you have to put out a tremendous amount of effort to make it look effortless. That's the most important thing to me. It has to look like you didn't put much effort into a joke because if it shows effort it's a problem. If it shows too much effort it's failed."
By that measure, It Won't Always Be This Great
doesn't seem to have taken any effort at all.See all of Peter Mehlman's work at http://pmehlman.com .Follow Elan Barnehama on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ElanBarnehama
MORE:Funny News StoriesNovelsEffortDebut NovelsComedyWritingPeter MehlmanSeinfeld
forthmagazine.com August 14, 2014
In Renee Swindle’s breezy third novel, A Pinch of Oooh La La
(August 5th/ Penguin-Random House) narrator Abbey Lincoln Ross, discovers that her artist boyfriend is having multiple affairs while watching a documentary about him at a film festival. After suffering this spectacular public humiliation, Abbey pours all of all her energy into her Oakland bakery.
The novel, though, is never bitter. A Pinch of Oooh La La
is full of sweets and treats and a band of folks who improvise and adapt as they seek the right ingredients for love. And there’s plenty of funny. “I love the mix of drama and humor,” Swindle said. “Sort of like a Breaking Bad. My last novel was about an alcoholic and when people said they laughed and cried—that was the best.”
Baking is the perfect metaphor for Abbey’s life as the novel begins. Bakers are in control. They understand that with the right ingredients, combined in precise measurements and a specific order, you get delicious. Abbey is in search of the right recipe for love but, as Swindle said, “there’s no formula when it comes to love.” Which is why Swindle gets Abby out of the kitchen and sets her on a quest for love.
As Swindle told me about her own recipe for writing novels she was sitting in her Oakland kitchen where she recently conquered her own fear of baking. She had a piece of her own cornbread in front of her. And, there was talk of making scones.
“I get one idea at a time and just start writing. I usually get to page fifty and then start over again. When I get to page 100 I do the same thing until I have a full draft. I’m not good at outlines,” she said. “All those starts and stops help me figure out what the hell I’m doing. On this novel, though, after I wrote enough pages my editor made me write a synopsis. That was helpful because it helped me keep the story contained.“
And then there’s all that jazz that, along with baking, becomes a backdrop for Abbey’s journey. The music comes in the form of Abbey’s musician father Lincoln who has many children with many partners. In Lincoln, Swindle created a refreshing alternative to the absentee dad as he brings his very extended family together. Instead of the usual loathing that most couples that once loved each other so quickly embrace, Swindle’s characters embrace each other and extend the definition of family. Unlike baking, jazz allows, insists upon, improvising. “Abbey,” Swindle said, “is very nurturing and she has to figure out when to give and when to not give of herself. She has to let go of her recipe.”A Pinch of Oooh La La is set in Oakland, which Swindle describes as her “funky little city.” And while she love’s the Oakland vibe, the city has more to offer as a backdrop. “I wanted to set my novel in the world that I see around me everyday. Oakland is racially mixed, socially diverse, vibrant community. It’s the world that doesn’t always get portrayed in fiction but it’s the world so many of us live in.”
Swindle feels drawn to dialogue. “Some writers a great at setting. I love to write dialogue,” she said. “I like listening to how people speak and how they put their sentences together. Which is often funny.”Swindle’s advice to new writers
: “Get used to sitting with yourself and playing around everyday so you get the groove of discipline. Cause if you want to write a novel
you’re going to need that. To be with a book more than not. Like running, start out slow and let it build. Be nice to yourself you.”
readers will undoubtedly feel compelled to head for the kitchen to get their bake on. Or, like me, visit their favorite bakery. I suggest not resisting.
Renee Swindle will be reading from A Pinch of Oooh La La
on Sunday, September 21st at 6:00pm at The Hotel Cafe
1623 1/2 N Cahuenga Blvd.
Hollywood, CA 90028. More info @ www.TongueandGrooveLA.com
See you there.
Renee Swindle’s first novel, Please Please Please, was an Essence Magazine/Blackboard bestseller. Shake Down The Stars was a Blogger’s Recommend Top Pick. Renee earned her BA from UC Irvine and her MFA from San Diego State University. More info http://www.reneeswindlebooks.com