I’d like to welcome humor author and syndicated columnist Celia Rivenbark to Annette’s Paper Trail. Celia is on a blog tour for her latest book, You Can’t Drink All Day if You Don’t Start in the Morning.
From the author of the bestselling classics We’re Just Like You, Only Prettier and Bless Your Heart, Tramp, comes a collection of essays so funny, you’ll shoot co’cola out of your nose. From religion to recipes, from car-pooling to cat-whispering, Celia Rivenbark dishes up new essays about the old south, the new south, and everything in between.
I curled up with Celia’s book each night before bed (my only available pleasure reading time) and often woke my husband with my giggles. Even in a comedy club, I’m a smiler. It takes a lot to make me laugh aloud. And as a writer, I can appreciate a great image captured by a funny turn-of-phrase. I have to say, my two favorite essays were “Poseable Jesus Meets Poser Ken”—a hilarious analysis of Walmart’s action figure collections, and “Japanese Moms, Meet Most Honorable Uncrustables”—classic commentary about competitive mothers and their lunch-packing competitions.
Some of my other favorites: “Gwyneth Paltrow Wants to Improve Your Pathetic Life”—a great lampoon of celebrity role models. “I Want to be a Margo but I’m Really a Sha-nae-nae”—more fun than you can have actually trying on jeans and bras (and contemplating the landscape of your “trimmage”). “Lessons Taught Here”—a sweet and poignant essay about Daddies and dementia. “No TV? I’ll Put My Carbon Footprint Up Your Behind”—for anyone who has a thing or two to say about staycations and green living.
While you settle in with a cup of tea to read Celia’s interview about humor writing, I’m off to make myself one of her scrumptious recipes: You Broke My Heart So I Busted Your Jaw Apple Enchiladas. I love the smell of cinnamon baking…
Celia, your slice-of-life essays have been compared to Erma Bombeck and Dave Barry, two wonderfully prolific American humorists. What inspired you to start writing a humor column?
I became a humor columnist by accident. I made a pitch to my editor at the time to write restaurant reviews, but after an exhaustive presentation with charts and graphs and a bunch of crap about my educated palate, he just said, “Nah, that shit gets expensive. Hey! You’re kinda funny; why don’t you write a humor column instead?” I wrote one, it got a good response and I kept doing it for a lot of years. The only thing that makes me different is that everybody could write a humor column for a few weeks. It takes a different sort of animal to grind it out week after week, year after year, constantly trying to develop a larger audience. Bombeck did four columns a week at her peak and that just slays me. There will never be another one like her.
Where do you find the inspiration for your essays?
I was raised in the rural South. When you have an aunt who makes bedroom slippers out of maxi pads she glue-guns little pink roses to, you have no choice but to find inspiration around you. Oh, and there’s that whole pop culture thing. As long as the words Heidi Montag Pratt exist, finding the funny won’t be hard.
That’s hilarious! You can’t get better material than that! I know many comedians who labor for months over reworking the punchlines to their jokes. Do you follow any particular structure or outline when developing each essay or do you write off-the-cuff?
Off the cuff. I usually don’t spend more than 30 minutes on a newspaper column; an essay for the book takes longer, of course. If a column takes longer than a half hour, there’s a very good chance that it sucks.
When you put together your humor collections, how do you select the stories? Do you connect them through a theme?
Sometimes I group them as in “Husbands,” “Kid Stuff” and like that. In Belle Weather, the book had a home-improvement theme thanks to the year I spent remodeling a kitchen in our 85-year-old house. It was painful at the time but turned out to be pretty good fodder for a book.
Belle Weather obviously proves the old formula: pain + time = comedy. What tips do you have for scribes who want to “write funny”?
When I feel a bit blocked, I read a little David Sedaris or Jack Handey to get my mojo back. Or I’ll read The Onion online or watch “Curb Your Enthusiasm” because Larry David is, hands down, the funniest man in America. That usually gets me back on track. Right now, I’m reading a wonderful new book called And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on the Craft. It’s a terrific collection of interviews with top humor/comedy writers on how they got their start in the business. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to write humor for a living.
You’ve certainly made a career out of it! You’ve branded yourself as a Southern humorist. How important do you think it is to find a humor niche?
I didn’t brand myself; this is who I am and it’s what I do. My books aren’t restricted to Southern humor. If you read them, there are plenty of essays that have nothing whatsoever to do with the South. That said, I do think that Southerners are fortunate in that we’re raised to be great storytellers and we love to embroider the truth to the point of absurdity.
How challenging is it to have personal essay collections published?
If you’re asking if it was hard to get published, it really wasn’t. I was fortunate because an editor approached me about putting my newspaper columns into book form. That first book, Bless Your Heart, Tramp was published by a small local press and I sold copies out of the trunk of my car. I had some lucky breaks in exposure and the book ended up on the Southeast Booksellers’ best-seller list. This led to a call from Jenny Bent who was already representing Jill Conner Browne (the very successful Sweet Potato Queen) and was scouting for more Southern humor writers. She sold my second book almost immediately and has repped the others since. I was very, very lucky but you also have to remember that I’d been writing professionally for 20 years at that point. Dues had been paid.
What last words of wisdom do you have for aspiring humorists?
Don’t go to “how to write funny” classes or workshops. Humor can’t be “taught.” You’re either funny or you’re not. How do you know? Do people often say, “Hey! You’re funny! You should write that stuff down!” If they do, go forth and do just that. If no one (outside your loving family) has ever said that, humor might not be the best route to go and you might want to try another genre. I grew up as a class clown, prankster type. I was in it from the get-go for laughs and that has never changed.
If you’re funny, be willing to work for free if it takes it. Get published any way you can, even if it’s a column for a shopper or an obscure alt weekly. Get your name out there. Also: When you write humor, you have to take a few risks. Don’t pussyfoot around, terrified of making enemies or pissing off your friends. There will be haters out there who don’t get the joke and there’s nothing you can do about that. Except laugh.
Readers: Post your questions for Celia in the comments section and share your thoughts. Have you ever tried humor writing?
Celia Rivenbark has won national and state press awards and is the author of the humorous essay collections: Bless Your Heart, Tramp, We’re Just Like You, Only Prettier, Stop Dressing Your Six-Year-Old Like a Skank, and Belle Weather: Mostly Sunny With a Chance of Scattered Hissy Fits. Her latest essay collection, You Can’t Drink All Day if You Don’t Start in the Morning, was released in September 2009.
She lives in Wilmington, NC, with her husband and daughter.
Visit Celia’s website and follow her tour! You can read Celia’s humor column at The Sun News.