I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by the very funny and generally pleasant comedian Jimmy LeChase for his Made of Bees blog. It’s one of the most flattering things with which I’ve ever been involved, so of course I’m sharing it here, because I enjoy people saying nice things about me.
Ira Brooker is one of my favorite writers, and that’s a big, big deal to me. Especially since I had no idea who he was 5 years ago, but the internet and Twitter are a wonderful thing, so through a group of friends Ira and I started to follow each other and got to know who each of us was from a comfortable distance. Then one day he gave me a stern tweeting to after I made a bad joke about how people should raise their kids. Ira is, from what I can tell, an amazing parent with a son that will one day rule the world, but I didn’t really know that at the time. I got mad, but decided not to wade into a fight with a stranger. Instead, I waded into his writing and, boy, did that ever humble me.
Ira writes the way I wish I could write. That’s the simplest way to put it. Some of his pieces have moved me to tears and others have motivated me to commit to my own art on a deeper level. Not that what I do (telling jokes to rooms full of strangers) is any great endeavor, but when I get down and out and looking for a reason to push through and get on stage, I read something from Ira.
He’s a friend now, and that boggles my mind how that all happened, but to me he’s more than that. He’s an inspiring person in my life that has helped me define who I am and what I want to be, and the best part is he doesn’t know that and I’m sure it wouldn’t change him if he did. Enjoy the interview, I loved getting to do it.
Thanks for doing this, Ira. You’re one of my favorite writers, and I’ve never had the chance to ask one of my favorite writers this question before, so here goes: why do you write?
Well jeepers, thanks much. That’s probably the second or third most uplifting thing somebody could say to me.
As to why I write, I have no idea what else I would do. Ever since I learned how to write, it’s just been what I do. I don’t want to say that it’s easy for me, because I’ve definitely put in my share of work and worry as a writer, but making words do what I want them to do has always come naturally to me. I also learned early on that other people enjoyed the way I put words together, which in turn taught me that I really like praise and attention. I’ve been fortunate enough to make a living out of writing, but honestly as long as people keep giving me accolades I’d still be showing off my words at every opportunity.
The flip side is that I’m not very good at much else. I’m hopeless at working with my hands. Face-to-face interaction tends to give me cold sweats. Put me in charge of anything financial and I’ll be bankrupt and/or jailed for accidental fraud within a month. The only non-writing career in which I ever showed any acumen was making coffee. I’m a damn fine barista, actually, but I’ve got a kid and pre-school is insanely expensive these days.
You write about a lot of different things, and you do it so well; which is part of the reason you’re one of my favorite writers, but the other part of that is how sincere you are. Do you make an effort to have that come through or is it just natural to you? I know sincerity is hard to force, but some people can pull it off.
I suppose I’d say sincerity does come naturally for me, but it took a lot of time and effort for me to learn that it does. Like any aspiring author, my original dream was to write the great American novel. In my mind that always meant coming up with a Big Idea, some kind of mind-blowing plot or iconic character that would make readers sit up and say, “Whoa, I’ve never seen anything like this before.” My old notebooks and hard drives are littered with the carcasses of Big Idea novels that never got past the third page.
As I got older, though, I realized that the art I respond to most viscerally isn’t about Big Ideas at all. The stuff that hits me hardest is earnest and honest and born out of personal experience. That doesn’t mean just first-person, soul-baring essays – although I do dig those and write quite a lot of them – but also things like Maria Bamford mining the humor from her battles with mental illness, or Lou Reed channeling the pain of his friends’ deaths into a pair of unflinching albums, or Tim O’Brien daubing his Vietnam experience with surrealist escapism. Sincere joy is a little harder to come by, for whatever reason, but I think of the Rhymesayers crew rapping about how cool it is to live in Minnesota, or Megan Stielstra’s essays on the wonders of parenthood, or even William Faulkner – that eternal beacon of light – realizing that “my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it.”
Learning how to tap into that sincerity was another thing altogether. I give a lot of credit to Columbia College Chicago, where I got my MFA in Fiction Writing. I really can’t say enough good things about that school. For one thing, the teaching methodology puts heavy emphasis on introspection. A good portion of class time is dedicated to visualizing the places, people and objects you’re writing about and understanding what each one means to you. For another thing, Columbia was where I really picked up on the concept of creative nonfiction. It doesn’t sound like such a big deal in hindsight, but taking creative nonfiction courses at Columbia College was the first time I really latched onto the idea that I could write artistically about my own experience. It didn’t have to be formalized as autobiography or memoir, and it certainly didn’t have to adhere to the cut-and-dried essay format I’d had drummed into me in public school. It’s a kind of writing I’d always done, and I’d say it’s probably the kind I’m best at, but seeing it validated as a real form broke a lot of things open for me.
When you try to do things that maybe go against what you’ve been taught or are a little risky it means the world when somebody comes back to with “that was good.” Do you remember the first time you had that moment where somebody other than yourself came up to you and gave you that “attaboy” you needed to keep you going after it forever?
I guess I don’t think about audience size so much as I do audience quality. I’d absolutely like to get as many eyes on my work as possible, but at this point in my life it means more to me to get reads and responses from people who I know appreciate solid writing. That said, it’s always uniquely gratifying to hear from a new reader. I’ve developed some cool relationships with people who have Googled their way to one of my blog entries, or who’ve seen one of my stories shared on a mutual friend’s timeline. As wonderful as it is to hear feedback from people I know and love, it’s nice to hear that I pack a bit of mass appeal.
It’s hard for me to say I’m trying to accomplish anything in particular. I suppose any time I can give voice to feelings that other people have been struggling with, I feel like I’ve served a purpose. Like, for whatever reason, I seem to have a knack for articulating pain. Whenever I’m hit hard by a major tragedy or a personal loss, my first reaction is to start writing it out in my head. By the time I sit down at the keyboard, the story pretty much flows out fully formed. I don’t have to think much about word choice or structure or any of that. It’s just a natural process and a necessary part of my therapy. And I’ve found that people can really relate to these stories. The biggest responses I’ve ever gotten have been to my most painful pieces – stories about Hurricane Katrina, the Newtown shootings, the death of a friend, the death of my cat, the death of Lou Reed. These are all things that shook me deeply and haunt me to this day. Writing about them helps me to cope, and it’s helped even more to hear from people who read the stories and found something to identify with.
I think all great writers, like you, have an uncanny ability at articulating, manipulating and crafting pain into something that goes beyond expectations. That’s one of the things I like the most about your work. Not to gush too much, but as sad as some of your pieces are, I always come away from them feeling better because of how powerful your writing is. Okay, done fussing over you.
Criminy, you’re going to spoil me for the rest of the week. Thanks, mate.
I’m a big hero guy. From a pretty early stage, I was interested in the artists as much as the art. Back in grade school I could rank all of the regular Archie Comics writers and artists dating back to the ‘60s (Samm Schwartz was my favorite artist, Bob Bolling my favorite writer). I used to get these huge, scholarly histories of comics and their creators from my local library and read them over and over. When I got to middle school I discovered The Beatles and educated myself on them so thoroughly that I could pick out all the factual errors in my school library’s copy of The Beatles Forever. At the time I didn’t know why I found these things so fascinating, but now I can see that I was picking apart the artists’ styles, figuring out how they made their art work and unconsciously folding it into my own repertoire.
I’ve always girded myself with my heroes and made them part of my identity, probably to an annoying extent. When Lou Reed died, I got a flood of condolence texts and tweets before I’d even said a word about it publicly. Any time William Faulkner comes up in the news, I know I’m going to get links from all of my writer friends. It’s weird – my wife is a scientist, and she doesn’t do the hero thing at all. She has favorite artists, of course, but she regards them as just people who make great music or entertaining TV shows. I once got to interview Eric Bachmann from Archers of Loaf and Crooked Fingers, a guy whose music has meant the world to both of us, while sitting at my favorite bar. It was all I could do to keep from babbling like a fool, but my wife just sat off to the side and waited for us to wrap up. That’s kind of nice, in that her lack of heroes keeps me grounded lest I ever get too big-headed about the importance of what I do.
One more thought on heroes: over the past decade I’ve been lucky enough to live and work in communities full of artists who regularly awe me. At Columbia College I sat in classes taught and attended by some of the most astonishing writers I’ve ever encountered, people who nurtured other artists and taught us to make the most of our talents. People who founded reading series and literary journals and inspired me to do the same. People who wrote honest-to-god books that rank among the best stuff I’ve read in recent years. And now for the past year I’ve been fortunate enough to edit Minnesota Playlist, a theater magazine focused on arts in the Twin Cities. Every day I interact with and edit work from theater artists who create incredible things. Soul-searing monologues performed in the producers’ kitchen. Dance routines that twist my stomach in knots. Existential horror pieces drenched in literal buckets of stage blood. It’s easy enough to pick out heroes from afar, but lately being a part of these arts communities has been my biggest inspiration. They’re collectively my biggest current heroes.
There’s no good segue for this after what you just said about your heroes, but I need to ask about The Simpsons, because I’m not sure I’ve ever met anybody with as frightening a knowledge of the show as you. Plus, you have a damn gift when it comes to being able to communicate via screengrabs from the show. Why is The Simpsons so important to you, and how big of an influence has their humor had on your writing and your life?
A few years ago I started writing an inventory of the 100 greatest influences on my sense of humor. I was going call it “Why I laugh?” which is, of course, a Simpsons quote. It eventually wound up being too big and abstract of a project for me to complete, but there was no question that The Simpsons would be in the number one slot. The only possible rival would be David Letterman, but as important as Dave was to my formative years, he never permeated my daily existence to nearly the degree that The Simpsons does even two decades beyond its heyday. I don’t think I could hope to pinpoint how those first eight seasons have influenced me. At this point they’re just woven into my being. It would be like trying to figure out what kind of influence speaking English has had on me. So much of what they did at their peak is so incomparable. I think back on the layering of the humor, where the writers would come up with a perfect joke, build on it with two or three organically related jokes, and then cap it off with a non-sequitur that pushed the whole gag into outright brilliance. I’ve never seen anything else like it (Arrested Development came as close as anyone has). Sometimes I’ll stop and consider that a human brain conceived of “Hollywood Upstairs Medical College” as a throwaway gag and I’ll get chills.
As to the screengrabs, I’ve always had a freakish talent for trivia. It’s just how my brain works. I have instant mental access to far more meaningless pop culture flotsam than I really ought to. The Simpsons thing started with my brother and I being bored at our jobs years ago. We’d be having an email conversation and inevitably one of us would say something that brought The Simpsons to mind, and then we’d go back and forth sending each other relevant screengrabs, visually riffing until we ran out of images or got busy at work. I quickly learned that there is a Simpsons image to respond to virtually any stimulus. So now when I see you post a Facebook status about wanting a robot to do your workouts for you, my mind immediately sorts through the files and pulls out an image of Mr. Burns forcing an anaphylactic Smithers to pedal him around on a tandem bike. It helps that virtually every frame from the show’s classic years has been preserved online. (The classic years are seasons 1-8 in my book. My knowledge starts to taper around season 9 and falls off completely somewhere in the mid-teens.) Like most of the best skills, it’s impressive only to a select few and entirely unmarketable.
If you were hard-pressed to pick a favorite moment from The Simpsons could you do it?
This is easily the toughest question you’ve asked so far. My favorite episode is probably “Homey the Clown,” but then there’s “You Only Move Twice,” and then there’s “Lemon of Troy” and “Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk” and “Homer the Great” and on and on, and I’m not certain that any of them contains my favorite moment.
One moment that’s always stuck with me, and it isn’t even really a joke, is a tiny flourish from “Lisa’s Date with Destiny.” Bart is trying to talk Lisa out of dating Nelson and reminds her that Milhouse likes her, to which Lisa responds, “Oh please, Milhouse likes Vaseline on toast.” The scene could easily cut right there, but the “camera” lingers for a second on Bart, who adopts a thoughtful look and says, “Hm.” I find that little extra beat weirdly beautiful. I love the ambiguity of it. Is Bart learning new information about his friend? Contemplating what Vaseline on toast might taste like? Tacitly admitting that Lisa has a point? Whatever it is, it speaks to an internal life beyond the confines of the episode. It’s completely unnecessary to the plot – it doesn’t even get a call-back within the episode – but it adds so much. It’s the kind of flourish you just wouldn’t see on any other show of the era, and that’s what I cherish about The Simpsons.
How important is humor in your writing? I’m a comedy nerd so I have to wring this out of you.