Interview with Reduced Shakespeare Company

I probably didn’t post this link last year, when the event happened. I was pretty out-to-lunch last year for a lot of reasons, and many simple things and deadlines fell through the cracks.

Anyway, below is the link to a very good conversation I had with my friend Austin Tichenor, one of the brains behind the Reduced Shakespeare Company. We touch on political correctness, of course, and comedy and codpieces and everything that makes life worthwhile. Enjoy!

Episode 499. On Political Correctness

Seeing Brightly in a Dark Tunnel

I’m short-tempered and self-obsessed.

I’m addle-brained in some things, and at other times as efficient and focused as James Bond.

I’m sleeping deep and hard, except on those nights when I can’t get my brain from running loops of 60s pop songs.

I’m frightened and lethargic and giddy and morose and secretive and proud and happy to be where I am, doing what I’m doing, except when I’m not.

All that means: I’m trying to get a new novel started.

Of course, getting it started is something along the lines of Buster Keaton getting the house plans from Sears and then losing the directions. But there’s only one thing worse than pushing through the fog and chaos that comes with a story a-borning, and that’s staring at the walls without a single idea in the world about what I’m ever going to do with my life. So I’ll take this state of mind, as unnerving as it is. I just hope I don’t run someone over in the car while I gaze off into space.

This doesn’t mean I don’t have an idea of where this narrative is headed. Just look at the timeline below. This will actually help me to keep all the facts straight. I just have to fill in the right side of the curve with “stuff” (as we writers say).

As Bozo Might Say, We Now Have 3 Pulitzer “Almost Winners”

Those who follow the publishing world intently (which means basically, the people in publishing and journalism, and maybe a bookseller or two) already know that the Pulitzer prize for fiction was not awarded this year. The three-person jury passed their three nominated books to the Pulitzer board, who then failed to rally behind a single winner and opted not to give the award this year.

I like to imagine that the reason for their decision was really the fact that the whole committee had stayed up late reading Honk Honk, My Darling, and didn’t have time to plow through David Foster Wallace’s salute to the boredom in an IRS office. Such delusions keep me alive like Nick Fury and his Infinity Formula. Please don’t deny me my lifeblood!

So I spoke on the subject at the Paper Machete, my newest fave reading series in Chicago that tries to attack the big stories in the news every week. The MP3 for the performance is below. If you’d like to hear the entire show each week, you can subscribe to it at iTunes or catch individual performances at

Would You Read a Book that Was Almost a Pulitzer Winner?

“Honk Honk, My Darling” — New Podcast Just Podded!

Wow, it has been WAY too long since I put up a new chapter podcast for the book. Big apologies are in order, for those of you who are on the edge of your seat to see what new voices and accents I can mangle while trying to hide my mediocre acting chops.

But if you knew how many hours it took me to mix the last podcast (“Have Yourself a Monkey Little Christmas”, which is now taken down until next December), you’d certainly cut me some slack. By a rough estimation, aside from the actual recording of the episode, it takes at least 1 hour to mix 1 minute of narrative. Add into that my searching the web for just the perfect sound effect, and the time goes up further. Don’t get me wrong, I still love doing this — it’s just a scheduling commitment that I sometimes put off for other things, like paying bills or writing.

So here you go, Chapter 11. I hope you like it. And tell your friends and neighbors about it.

Diving into Creative Swamps….

That queasy feeling in my stomach I’m presently feeling is only partially due to my head cold, and not at all due to our dinner last night of pork posole. (Mmmmm. Pork posole….) No, this feeling of vertigo and fuzzy focus and slight fearful paranoia means only one thing: I’m on the precipice of writing another book.

Oh, how I live for the writing life! I put up with this just so I can work in my slippers?

Dissecting where these feelings come from never does me much good. I know that the fear comes from a worry that I will neglect or let lapse some unspecified “important things” while I mesmerize myself into a strange state that brings the words on the page. While I’d like to state dogmatically that there’s nothing more important than my giving birth to another tome, I’ll leave that up to the bigger blowhards. I’m just not a big enough asshole to state that meditating in my little mental playground is more important than, for instance:

• Supporting my ever-lovin’ wife in her new and demanding job
• Helping Number One Son begin his college search, and arranging all the campus visits
• Helping the Urchin prepare herself for the arrival of high school
• Helping them both with homework, as I promised to do back in September, like every year.
• Keeping the household solvent and the college fund stocked
• Keeping the fires burning under my OTHER books and projects with other people that need tending. (Honk Honk, My Darling,, the PC Bedtime Stories e-book, the Rex podcast, two new comic book ideas, plus a new book that is now in the hands of my agent)

But this is my job, and I can be Joe Lunchpail if I try. People are already starting to bug me about writing a new adventure for Rex Koko. And since I now realize that The Wet Nose of Danger, which is almost completely finished, is really Book 3 in the series and not Book 2 as I had thought, many weeks now lay in front of me full of questions like, “Who is this character, and why the hell should anyone care about him/her?” Repeated through six or seven drafts.

So now it’s time to head into the creative hinterlands, armed with a few sketchy ideas, some characters that may or may not prove crucial to the plot, little baggies of gorp, and faith (not confidence) that I’ll be able to pull it off again. I can see a few spots on the landscape that I want to visit, if I can just build some bridges and/or drain some swamps to figure out how to get there. Drain enough of that swamp, and my little Shangri-La will emerge. (The swamp metaphor might push me to say “Disney World”, but there’s too much baggage attached to that.)

My brother once asked me about how I go about writing a longer story. To his way of thinking, everything from plot to characters would have to be laid out for him to even consider getting started. I tried to explain that that wouldn’t be writing, or that really it’s a PART of writing, but it can’t be the WHOLE part. When you want to build a fire, you make sure you have tinder, kindling and fuel, and that you can find an initial spark, but it’s foolish and pretty boring to predict HOW the fire will burn.

Fire or swamp? My metaphors are already starting to confuse me. Time to start scribbling, and Devil take the hindmost.

“I’ve Just Won a Major Award!”

You mean, the lamp made out of a woman’s leg?

No, something better!

Honk Honk, My Darling has just won the inaugural “Book of the Year, Nontraditional Fiction” from the Chicago Writers Association !!! YAHOOOO!!

This is truly awesome! I am so overjoyed that the judges gave the nod to Rex (and indirectly Lotta, Bingo, Boots Carlozo, Jimmy Plummett, Pinky Piscopink, Happy Jingles and all the other kinkers of Top Town). While I will proudly proclaim “Nontraditional Fiction” to mean my own strange brew of whatever makes me chortle, it really is directed at e-books and self-published books. And that’s pretty cool, too, in this brave new world of publishing, to have made a splash.

Here’s what judge Robert W. Walker said in his release:

This novel packs so much humor on each page, combining humor and the solving of the case with a unique panache. The novel defies categorization and flies in the face of convention while at the same time using the conventions of humor and mystery, a rare find; a paradox that works.

Man, it feels pretty good to defy categorization, and then win a category.

The last award I won for writing was in 1981 for a couple of short plays I wrote while at the University of Michigan. While writing has been good to me over the past 15 years, it’s pretty darn nifty to receive an award like this, voted on by my ink-stained peers. The award ceremony will be held at the Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, on January 14. We’ll all be reading and signing, and it will be open to the public. Can’t wait.

(Damn, I think my snark engine is broken. That’s what genuine gratitude gets you. I hope this isn’t a permanent condition.)

A Little On-Line Chit-Chat

If you’re curious about a little of my background and writing process, you can check out the nice interview with me on a new site called Thanks to Tracey Tressa for the nice write-up.

Here’s a creative writing exercise for you after you read the interview:

What sort of undersea creature does my pale bald head remind you of? What would you do if it confronted you while on vacation? Would it be dangerous? How do you think it could be killed?


Great Week for Baseball — and Bardball

As you fans know, this has been a helluva week for postseason baseball. I’ve had the obligation (yes, this is what I tell my wife) to watch my hometown team as it struggles mightily against the scary Texas Rangers. How many one run and two run victories can either team survive? There have been no laffers, no routs, nothing that would make you turn the game off early.

And as usual with the postseason, the expected heroes (Verlander, Cabrera, Hamilton) have not been nearly as productive as the also-rans (Nelson Cruz, Delmon Young). Why this happens every postseason is worthy of someone’s research. Maybe the heroes are too exhausted, or too distractible from all their interviews, or put too much pressure on themselves to single-handedly carry the team. Whatever it is, it’s what makes October baseball so awesome.

And it’s been a great week for limericks at Earlier in the week, I relaxed the rule of only one post per day, and the limericks have been plentiful, in both posts and comments. And shame on us, we haven’t been able to give any space to poems on the Brewers-Cardinals series (well, I do have one lim on the Cardinals, but because it came from a Cubs fan, it’s really nasty). Below is a sample of one of our better ones, by Hilary Barta, who also runs the site LimerWrecks. Come on over and check it all out before the World Series. That’s gonna be a yawner, I tell ya.

That hit over Beltre was crazy
A bit of the old upsy-daisy
The Rangers were trounced
when Detroit’s way it bounced,
still kicking like Cameron Swayze.

(Political) Corrections from the Mail Bag

I’ve always told readers of Politically Correct Bedtime Stories to send me their corrections of mistakes I’ve made in my writing, of unwitting sexism, racism, classism, antipolyamorism, or any other bias that might offend any reader or non-reader. I’m only human, after all, though that’s a pretty flimsy excuse. Here’s my latest mea culpa (sorry for the pro-western classicism), a big error brought to my attention by new fan Sherry Spence:

Since you encouraged suggestions in the event of “any bias as yet unnamed” in your Introduction, I feel encouraged to point out the unnamed bias in your use – in that very sentence – of the word, “rectification.” This reference to the right hand being the one that corrects is a direct affront to my left-handed husband and left-handed grand-daughter. I am sure that you can right this sinistral wrong with even-handed treatment and your usual verbal dexterity in the next printing of your righteous tome.

Guilty guilty guilty. Right doesn’t make might, not without what’s left.

A Man of Many Hats (And I Don’t Mean I’m an Improv Troupe)

Man, there are so many little details about getting a book finished and out, it’s no wonder my former publisher seemed incompetent.

On the other hand, they had a few more guys on staff who didn’t have to relearn the wheel every time, like I’m doing.

Honk Honk, My Darling: A Rex Koko, Private Clown Mystery is barreling down the track of e-publishment. It’s pretty exciting, and might even get here sooner if I weren’t such a doofus and actually read all the instructions, manuals and tutorials that are supposed to help me get it out there.

But barreling it is, thanks to the work of Airan Wright, who did the cover art (and also redesigned my webpages here). I don’t want to put the cover art up yet, but believe me, it is knockout. Or as my friend Jon Eig emailed, “Totally Kickass!” When Airan and I got together last month to talk about the cover of this and its sequel, The Wet Nose of Danger, it took us literally three minutes to agree on a look, feel and color palette. Fonts? Layout? Graphic elements? Check, check, check. Waitress, please, another zinzer torte!

So at least the look will be handled by professionals. The coding for Kindle and its brethren is going a little smoother, too. Honk Honk will be the fifth book I’ve formatted (did one for a friend gratis, though it may have been a little rudimentary). I haven’t really dug deep into coding, but it appears that’s not all that necessary for a straight-ahead fiction book. My copy editing skills from days gone by have come in handy (so has the OCD). My formats might be changed and improved in the future, since uploading new versions is really a snap. Doing it frequently would be a bad idea, though, if I want to keep readers happy.

In addition to this, I’m recording and editing the audiobook podcast for Honk Honk. Audacity is really a great program for it: Very intuitive, easy to undo mistakes and miscues, easy to save files. It DID crash on me when I tried to copy and insert a very big chunk of dialog I had been pasting together. But it wasn’t a catastrophic loss, and I learned (again) the value of saving files. The first episodes will be available shortly. It’s taking longer than I thought, but I’m doing 16 characters in all, which I’ve been editing together from separate audio tracks.

Now, the only things I have to figure out are how to set up merch from Cafe Press, how to promote the books online and arrange book reviews, how to create postcards for it, how to get physical copies made, and how to use social media to better promote me and my brand.

Well, I guess that’s what the afternoon is for.

Patriotic Ice Cream Flavors

One night at dinner, in the days leading up to Liesel’s class trip to Washington, we all brainstormed new ice cream flavors that they should sell in the ice cream parlor in the basement of the Smithsonian.

(You didn’t know there was an ice cream parlor in the basement of the Smithsonian Museum of American History? And that all the Smithsonian museums are free? Then you haven’t traveled in DC in hot weather with young kids.)

Here’s the list we came up with. It rivals the list of rock star ice cream names that we created after visiting the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Vermont a couple summers ago. The kids always come up with the best ones:

Macadamia Monroe
Rocky Roosevelt
French Vanillard Fillmore
Kennedy Crunch
Bull Moose Tracks
Bush Berry
Dubya Bubble
Peppermint Polk
Ulysses S. Grape
Turtle Tyler
US Mint Chocolate Chip
Adams Apple
Martin Vanilla Blueberren
John Crunchy Adams
John Fitzberry Kennedy
Cherry S. Truman
Minty Nixon
Raspberry Reagan
Cinnamyndon Johnson

Favorite name: French Vanillard Fillmore
Most eager to try: Mangobama
Least eager to try: Minty Nixon

How about you?

It’s Bee Season Once Again

It’s early spring, so for me, that means at least two things: I’m making props for the school play (more on it later) and I’m officiating at a school spelling bee. Today was the bee, and tonight is the debut of the play, so I got the double whammy.

I’ll say first off that I love doing both of these. It’s never a burden or an imposition. That’s why it’s a little heartbreaking that this will be my last bee. My hearing isn’t getting any better, and while I’ve never missed the spelling of a word b/c of it, I’d hate for it to be a factor in the future, especially since the winner of this bee gets to travel to Washington DC and compete nationally. Point of fact, today’s participants weren’t exactly Ethel Merman in the enunciation department, so I had to watch their lips and listen very intently. Time to hang up my Merriam-Webster and all the benefits the position held.

(For an essay I did some years ago when my son was in the city-wide bee in fifth grade, click here for the audio of the radio broadcast, or here for the text version.)

Today was the Chicago-wide bee for kids in private and parochial schools and homeschoolers. The 25 kids were a handsome lot, but so many different sizes! Ranging from 4th to 8th grade, there was literally a 2 foot difference between smallest and tallest.

The hardest part of judging a bee is that you end up pulling for every single kid, and you get your heart broken when they fall. Some kids were nervous, with quivering voices and loud sighs when concentrating. A smaller number were (or seemed) pretty nonchalant about it. One or two wrote the word out with their finger in their palms, but not as many as I’ve seen on TV. One of the youngest, smallest kids was really crushed when she misspelled a word (I think she was the first to do so), and buried her face in her hands and her collar as she sat down in the group. It was maybe the most upset I’ve seen a participant in my 5 or 6 years of doing this. In time, I noticed the boy next to her try to coax her back into equilibrium and elicit a small high-five out of her. Maybe bees, like sports, reveal character.

One thing about the words this year: Not many of the kids (thank heaven) got stuck with the extreme foreign words that have been included in recent years. I’m talking about really strange ones, like taj, klompen, babushka, sevruga, koan, peloton, Backstein, and aul (if you’re curious, “a mountain or desert settlement in the Caucasus region”, and a homophone for awl, which I wouldn’t think many kids would know unless their father was a cobbler).

Now certainly, the kids get the entire list of words to study, but what’s the chance of a kid spelling a word like mynheer (a Dutch word meaning “Mister”) versus a word he or she might’ve read or seen at some point, like charlatan or vernacular? Familiarity is a reason I would ban certain words like caribou and chipotle, since they are on commercial signs all over town, and thus might be easier to recall.

When it was obvious that the three finalists would be able to go all day on the list of words they’d studied, it was time to go off road and start from the list of words they hadn’t seen. These were all more common English words, but they weren’t a cakewalk, either. One participant fell by the way with her first word, deductible (yeah, how many schoolkids ever have to worry about a deductible?). But the final duo battled it out for about 15 minutes, going through 28 words back and forth before the victor emerged. He’s a 7th grader who placed about 4th citywide last year, so it was good to see him pull it out. But you wouldn’t believe how effortlessly both he and his opponent (a 6th grader) plowed through the word list, picking off desperately, exaggerate, fluoride, leviable and scuttlebutt (TWO T’s at the end!!!) like they were pumpkins waiting for release by a baseball bat.

The top five kids each got a prize, but the fairness of it left something to be desired. Fourth and fifth place each got a $25 gift certificate to Amazon. Third place received a year’s subscription to Encyclopedia Britannica dot com, and second place received the subscription plus a dictionary. All due respect to the hardworking folks at EB and Merriam-Webster, but these kids ain’t that impressed with your name brand. Numbers 2 and 3 were undoubtedly saying to themselves, “Those two get to spend their money any way they want, and I get a ticket to Research Dinosaurville.” Way to go.

Since it appeared that the words were a little less obscure this year, I don’t have many to give out for you to work into your everyday conversations, as I have in the past. It took a little digging, but here are a few to file under “It Pays To Increase Your Word Power”:

gynarchy — “government by women”
sitzmark — “a depression left in the snow by a skier falling backward” (if you can believe it, the speller got this one right)
hoomalimali — “the art or device of persuasion and flattery” (from Hawaiian)
decrement — “the act or process of gradually becoming less; decrease”
purfle — “a decorated border, esp. an embroidered edge of a garment”

Sparge these into all your parleys this weekend and flummox your conversances!

My New Yorker Captions are Unprintable

Am I the only one who hates The New Yorker caption contest?

Every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday (with luck), the week’s issue of The New Yorker gets shoved into our mailbox. And when my kids come home, the first thing they’ll turn to when they see the mag is the back page.

There, for the uninitiated, is the Cartoon Caption Contest page. Which I loathe like little else.

I don’t know why it is. Maybe it’s the faux populism that the contest seems to exude. Here’s The New Yorker, letting all of its readers decide what the high-larious caption to the high-concept panel ought to be. It’s almost like being at the Algonquin Round Table — but more akin to yelling punchlines at George Kauffman from the next table.

In a more desperate way, the nightly TV newscast lets viewers send in pictures of cloud formations, and twitter/text their votes about whether taxes are bad or the home team is unbeatable. It’s the dialog that all established media now think will make them indispensable to people’s lives. The only problem is, most viewers can’t take a memorable picture, and most readers can’t write a caption.

Each week, a couple thousand captions are mailed in. Almost without fail, of the three finalists, one caption will be an execrable pun, one will be a play on words that takes three extra miles to get to its point (which wasn’t funny to start with), and one caption has close to the right tone — dry, multiple-layered, au courant but not cliché, and somewhat Gotham-y. By Gotham-y, I mean that it has to do with a stiff upper lip in the face of decay or danger or failure, or a smart-alecky retort that tries to wrangle the absurd to a mundane level. Anything that might refer to a shopping mall, fast food, an open space, a highway without gridlock, or Bass Pro Shops is never going to make it to the winner’s circle.

I’ve read that each of the cartoons used for the contest had already been submitted to the magazine by the cartoonist with a real caption. A caption they actually worked on and shaped with the writer’s innate skill of timing and economy. I’d really would like to know what that caption was. Whatever entries from readers are published might be close, or might be completely off-target, but I’ll never know exactly what the original caption was, and that makes me feel like I missed something. Maybe that makes me a snob, as if reading the magazine didn’t already accomplish that.

But as a professional writer and humorist, I’ve had too many instances of people in person and in print who work really really hard to prove that they are just as funny as me, even though I’ve never challenged them about it. Do people feel the need to show engineers that they know about torque and materials stress? Show dentists that they know how to administer Novocain?

It’s the whole “I crack everyone up at the board meetings — do you think I should try out as a stand-up comedian?” syndrome. If you have to ASK whether you should be a stand-up comedian, then you are sane, and ergo don’t have what it takes to be one. It’s the same with being a cartoonist. Someone is trying to make a living at it, while others are turning it into a parlor game. I feel bad for both sides.

Mostly, I fell bad reading those awful, awful puns.

Do I Sound More Suave in French?

Like I wrote in the post below, I was interviewed by the Swiss paper Le Temps about the whole bowdlerization-of-Huck-Finn dust-up going on. The reporter didn’t send me the PDF like she promised, so I went on the website this morning and found I’d said this:

Joint aux Etats-Unis, James Finn Garner, auteur du grinçant Politiquement correct: contes d’autrefois pour lecteurs d’aujourd’hui (traduit chez Grasset, 1995), se réjouit que la décision de la maison d’édition ait provoqué une telle polémique. «Il y a un vrai débat. Les gens en ont marre du politiquement correct. Et tout colorer en rose ne change pas le fait que l’Amérique reste un pays disloqué, inégal, encore très raciste.»

Hope I come off good. I think she’s quoting my most lurid comment, like that’s surprising or something. Here’s what Babelfish says I said:

Joint with the United States, Fine James Garner, author of squeaking Politically correct: tales of formerly for readers of today (translated at Grasset, 1995), is delighted that the decision of the publisher caused such a polemic. “There is a true debate. People have some enough of politically correct. And all to colour pink does not change yet the fact that America remains a dislocated country, unequal, very racist.”

Didn’t know my book was “squeaking”, but I’ll take it as a compliment.