Is It Still a Story If Nobody Dies?

A chunk of my first novel, Chemistry, takes place in a mental hospital, where one of the main characters is being treated after a suicide attempt. In addition, a minor character dies. For my second novel, The Heart’s History, I decided to change it up a bit—killing off not one, but two characters, including a successful suicide.

In other words, a laugh on every page.

So you can imagine the adjustment when, at this year’s Saints & Sinners Literary Festival, I got invited to appear on a panel called “Leave ’Em Laughing: Writing and Performing Humor.” Beside me at the dais were novelists David Pratt, Beth Burnett, and J.R. Greenwell, and Jaffe Cohen, the stand-up comic and co-creator of Feud: Bette and Joan. What am I doing here? I wondered. In most of my work, my characters don’t die laughing, if you know what I mean.

The truth is that—spoiler alert—nobody dies in my latest, Channeling Morgan. After books about clinical depression and AIDS, I wasn’t sure I had it in me to write something relatively lighthearted. One might argue, of course, that I needed to write something relatively lighthearted.

I’ve always gravitated toward witty characters who spout clever, often snarky dialogue, but they were usually expressing their humor against a backdrop of … well, angst. Now, however, my characters are plopped into the middle of a satire, where nothing is sacred, and where, yes, a happy ending is preordained. I was frankly concerned that the book would be off balance—too funny, too hopeful. All play and no work makes Jack just as boring as the other way around.

I was full of doubts, mostly: Is it still a novel if nobody dies?

I suppose I could have had somebody slip on a banana peel and break his neck, but in the end I just decided to go for it.

I’m reminded of when Woody Allen followed up Annie Hall, the culmination of his comedic skills, with the dark and very dramatic Interiors. Some people didn’t get it: how could the guy who, just a few years ago, had dressed as a neurotic sperm waiting for ejaculation now make a Bergmanesque movie about suicide and existential pain?

Of course, the themes of Interiors didn’t come out of the blue: if you look closely, many of them are in Annie Hall and Love and Death, albeit disguised as humor. And in later films, Allen found ingenious ways of merging genres, as in Crimes and Misdemeanors (home of the at-once dark and hilarious line “comedy equals tragedy plus time”).

My next book, which I’m currently wrapping up, has its share of angst, but at least all the characters manage to survive until the end. I guess that makes it a hybrid genre. Here’s hoping I don’t get annoyed with a character and knock him off in the next draft.

Next time, tune in for a guest blog from Beth Burnett, my fellow panelist and a person who really knows how to leave ’em laughing.

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