Ever wonder how to be a writer? Here, in Part I of this two-part interview, authoritative, prolific--and brilliantly funny--author Gina Barreca elaborates on the pleasures, practicalities and privileges of being a book author. She tells how she got her start, why authors should "be truthful" — and what keeps her going (hint: it has something to do with paying her bills).
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? A writer of humor?
I started to keep a notebook when I was thirteen--I filled it with stories, silly jokes, cartoons from the newspaper, and half-truths about boys I liked and diets I thought I should be on. So I guess there was always a part of me that wanted to write stuff down, but I never even dared hope I could be a real “writer.” In fact, even after writing eight books and editing seventeen, I still have trouble using that “W” word and I think a lot of other women writers are in the same position. Hemingway, Updike, and Fitzgerald? I don’t think they had problems calling themselves writers even when they were in short pants. But a woman can have a whole library shelf with books that have her name on the spine and she still wonders “Gee, am I just faking it?” Of course that could just be my girlish way of looking at things…
In terms of humor, I always loved reading funny writers when I was growing up. I grew up reading cheap paperbacks by Jean Kerr, Erma Bombeck, and Alan King; later Dorothy Parker, Jerome K. Jerome, and Anita Loos became my favorites.
You've had a prolific career as someone who writes and edits books on subjects of serious social importance (marriage, for example, in Perfect Husbands and Other Fairy Tales and women and drinking in Make Mine a Double — but with a humorous bent. Were you constrained to NOT be humorous early on in your academic career? How did you find your writer's voice?
When I first announced that I wanted to write about women in comedy in literature, my well-meaning professors suggested that I change my topic and write about for example, working women in Thackeray and Dickens. One of the wisest things I ever did was to insist that Virginia Woolf was right when she wrote, “Be truthful… and the result is bound to be amazingly interesting. Comedy is bound to be enriched.” She wrote that in “A Room of One’s Own” in 1929. I decided it was time to see exactly how women enriched comedy. I did my doctoral dissertation on hate and humor in women’s writing because I suspected that if I did a more somber subject, I’d never actually have been able to complete it.
It's enviable that you've married your professorial day job with a successful humor book publishing track record. How did you get started? Tell us about your first trade publishing experience and how you broke into book writing for a general audience.
I ‘ve always written for three reasons: deadlines, a job, and a paycheck. I have never waited for inspiration; my muse, like a waitress at a roadside diner, counts her tips at the end of the day. I was in my first year of teaching and my un-air-conditioned office at the top of a flat-roof building at the University of Connecticut was simply too hot to work in one August afternoon. I went to the basement of the university library where I knew it would be cool to hang out (literally not figuratively) and read a copy of The Women’s Review of Books. I liked an essay written by somebody whose work I had never seen: name was Carole DeSanti. I was so impressed that I sent her a note. To my surprise, she wrote back and asked me what I was working on. It turns out that she was an assistant editor at a New York publishing house. I explained that I was interested in women’s uses of humor, but also at the same time said that I couldn’t write a book for a trade press because I had to write a scholarly book in order to make sure I got tenure.
I had already had secured a contract for a revised version of my dissertation with Wayne State University Press. I think it was like falling in love when you’re already in a relationship: I became more attractive because I said “I’m out of reach” rather than “PLEASE GIVE ME A CONTRACT.” Carole convinced me that if I could write a book about humor in Jane Austen and George Eliot, I could also write a book (and at the same time, yet) about Patty Duke and Lucille Ball. She then did something magical: she paid for my lunch.
You have to remember I’d only just come out of graduate school where nobody had ever paid for my lunch. It occurred to me if I wrote books people might actually buy, I might be able to get a lot of nice lunches out of the deal as well as quite a few glasses of champagne. I wrote those two books simultaneously while teaching a full-course load. If you need to do, you do it.
For more on the author's life — including book marketing and writing time-management and what is, to her, the most awesome part about being an author, read Part II of the interview with Gina Barreca.
Gina Barreca's books, which have been translated into seven languages, include Make Mine A Double, They Used to Call Me Snow White But I Drifted, Babes in Boyland, and It's Not That I'm Bitter. She has appeared on 20/20, 48 Hours, NPR, The Today Show, Joy Behar, and Oprah to discuss gender, power, politics, and humor. She is a professor of English and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut.