Seems like every book I see these days is some sort of memoir--and I can't help but feel the popularity of the genre has had something to do with your massive success.
[The Memoir was] a cliché when I started. People were already kind of moaning about it. They'll probably look back 20 years from now and see this time as the "me me me" period.
Would you describe your own writing as being "me me me"?
Oh yeah. But I'd add a fourth "me."
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim is a collection of intensely specific, personal stories. How do you determine which quirky anecdotes from your life get the full narrative treatment?
Sometimes things happen and it just feels like a story. I was drowning a mouse on the front porch and a van pulled up. The guy walked up the steps and saw the mouse in the bucket, and I thought, "this is a story, and I've got three pages. If I can get him into the house, every minute I can keep him there is another page."
For me, the humor in your stories often lies in the exquisite details you recall. Do you have a photographic memory?
No, I've been keeping a diary for 30 years. I just write everything down. I was in a restaurant and there was a man on the other side of the room picking lint out of his change purse, so I wrote that down and a description of him and maybe one day I'll have somebody in a story picking lint out of a change purse. It's like taking little sketches when you're doing a painting.
At one point in Corduroy you profess to an affinity for neatness that borders on obsessive. And in the story "Repeat After Me," you assign your sister, Lisa, with an intense paranoia that makes her seem obsessive, too. Does it run in the family?
No, I wouldn't say so. I think everyone in the family has their own little mental hobby--but I don't know that it would qualify as obsessive. When I was in Germany last week I talked to a child psychologist--interestingly, his name translated to "Dr. Evil" in German--and he said what I have is really pretty normal. You have highs and lows that never really go away. In terms of the neatness and whatnot, often while sitting in front of the typewriter, looking for a certain word or phrase, I'll think "I bet if I wash those windows it'll come to me." My house is obsessively clean because I'm always looking for a word or a phrase.
That's too bad. I wish you had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder because in "Repeat After Me" you go on to speculate about an upcoming movie based on one of your books, and I was having fun imagining your character being played by Jack Nicholson, who also played a writer with OCD in the film As Good as It Gets.
That's odd because I was living in New York when that movie came out and some agent called one day and said, "They're casting a movie right now called As Good as It Gets and we've scheduled you for an audition as Jack Nicholson's neighbor, and so we want you to fly out to Los Angeles tomorrow and audition with Jack." And I said, "No thank you."
I'm not an actor. And it's not even the kind of thing you can really write about. What was I going to write? That Jack Nicholson farted? Whatever I said about him would be gossip writing, you know?
Do you get a lot of offers to audition for movies?
Oh, I don't know. I was in Northern California and Pixar asked me to audition for The Incredibles. But I guess it just didn't interest me.
Wow. That's strong of you. I'd have a hard time resisting a movie audition.
Well, it would be just another movie that I couldn't see. If I was in it or my voice was in it, I would never be able to see it. And also, I just thought, "Why would anyone respect me if I'm, you know, the voice of a tuna or whatever in a movie?"
Going back to that story "Repeat After Me"--which I'm clearly a little obsessed with; it's amazing--in it you contemplate on the difficulties of writing about your family, and I can see your pointÉ but as a journalist in a relatively small city I also know the flipside of that, which is writing about strangers that I then have to see around town. At least you know where your family lives and can avoid them if need be.
Right. That's one of the reasons I could never write criticism--because I would be afraid of encountering people. I started writing something this summer that involved a woman we know in France, an American, who has kind of adopted a French accent when speaking English, and it's really funny, and I had her in the story, and I thought, "If this gets published and it comes out in a book she's going to read it and her feelings are really going to be hurt. So I can't." I've really learned from my mistakes.
I noticed when writing about your family, you write about Amy (star of Strangers With Candy, amongst other things) less than others. Is that because she, as a fellow celebrity, also has a public forum to express herself, and could take revenge on you if she were so inclined?
It's mainly because Amy's well-known and so writing about her would amount to gossip almost. My family are all very good sports, and the only real problem with writing about them is that then people come up and say, "Oh I know you. I read all about you"--and they don't. They read about the character of my sister Tiffany or my sister Lisa, but it's not the real person, and I never confused it with the real person, and [my family] never confused it with the real person. But a lot of people do. It never occurred to me that would happen.
I like your info in Corduroy's story "Six to Eight Black Men" on onomatopoeias other countries have for their animal noises. I wanted to let you know that in Japan their dogs say, "Nan! Nan!"
God. How did they get that? In Germany ducks say, "sha sha." And every country thinks their noises are the only right ones. When I was in Germany last week and said that American roosters say, "Cock a doodle doo," the audience howled, and I thought, "You fuckers! That's what a rooster DOES say!"
That wasn't the only reason they were laughing, though--when read aloud your stories take on this new level of hilarity that is kind of amazing. What's the secret?
When you read out loud there's an element of show business involved because you're entertaining in a way. It's always good to go to other people's readings and learn about what does or doesn't work, and to remember what it's like to sit in the audience. When I read in Germany somebody said, "Will you read another story?" But that's like saying, "I think I'll have another pizza." It's an okay idea, but once you've eaten it you're like "Fuck!"