As some of you know, I write an occasional column for McSweeney's Internet Tendency, "Speaking for all Christians Exactly Like Me." The column came about as a result of McSweeney's annual contest, which awards ten or so people with an opportunity to write for the site for a year. Today, I'm continuing an ongoing series of interviews with the other nine winners (or as many of them as I can track down and get to return my emails).
Today’s guest is Janet Manley, author of the McSweeney's column "Testomania." You'll probably figure this out on your own, but my questions and responses are in italics.
JJ: So I noticed from various things you've put on the Internet that you do stand up / variety / live performance shows of various types. What do you think are the biggest differences between writing for live performance as opposed to writing a column like Testomania?
JM: I think readers, if there are any, aren't going to get as many clues about how the voice should sound, and just how ridiculous the column thinks itself is. You also get pretty fast feedback if something isn't funny when you're performing. It doesn't matter if I haven't showered for my column. Also, the McSweeney's font/layout makes your writing look smarter.
JJ: What's been the response to your column so far?
I really love when people tweet their results. I also get a lot of blank emails with the auto-subject line of the column title, so I'm not sure if people are about to exact revenge and then back out, or are just unsure of whether they want to talk to me. I love to get emails, though
JJ: So who do you think of as your audience? What kind of person do you think would really appreciate the stuff you're doing?
JM: Eek, I'm afraid to say myself. If only there were more me's out there. When something works out really well, it's usually just because I could hear it all playing out. If not me, then a sort of amused old man, a Jack Handey/Ted Wilson-type. They always seem to have good taste.
Writing something funny or "good" is oddly rewarding if someone actually reads it, but I guess I have a ton of dumb ideas always popping into my head so it makes sense to write some of them down, to entertain the inner idiot.
JJ: So do you think that you would still write these things if nobody else read them? I'd like to think that I would for my own stuff, but I probably (definitely) wouldn't. I get weird things popping into my head all the time too, but it's so much work to write down in a way that satisfies me that I doubt I would do it if no else could read it. And I'm not sure why this question seems important to me.
JM: Excellent question.
JJ: I thought so too, thank you.
JM: You're welcome. My stuff is rarely very popular - I suspect if I had fewer outlets, I'd just be sending more long-winded emails to friends and family.
JJ: How'd you get started writing?
JM: I think the first "published" thing of mine was a lousy article for a mountain newspaper on the dog poop problem. In spring, all these abandoned shits come back to haunt the towns when the snow melts, and can cause health issues. I wrote for small newspapers, always as a freelancer, just trying to get anyone who would publish me - which is not many people, to be honest. After that, or at the same time, I was doing an MA in creative writing, and that brought the critical aspect in, where I could maybe feel a bit better about putting my name on something if I thought it was objectively at least okay. (And then I got a ton of rejections, and now I'm trying to do packets.)
JJ: What's "objectively at least okay" to you? Like, what does your work need to have or show or do before you'd be willing to put it out there?
JM: I'm always on the lookout for plain bad writing, which will reliably make me cringe on sight. But to know something is good, I probably take a loose tally of moments where I feel the writing is okay/funny vs. moments I'm unsure. I guess that's just gut, huh? I think I read somewhere that Colbert has his writers put $signs$ around each joke so when he looks at a script he can see how funny it is. This is a bit similar.
JJ: How do you pick the different ideas for the tests you make? Wait, that's a really bad way of asking the question I really want to ask. The problem is that I have this inkling of an idea about your column that I'm trying to confirm and/or reject.
Ok, so here's the idea: a lot of the columns seem to be a really funny commentary on narcissism, like, there's a character you develop through the test questions that is super self-centered, and the whole premise of the column is about the way online tests enable our obsessions with ourselves. But then other columns actually seem more outward, politically focused, like "Which Economic Alliance Are You?" for example. So is that intentional, or are you deciding which ones to pick more on the basis of how funny you can make them?
JM: Yes, you're right about the narcissism. It's like horoscopes. I think I'm just trying to see what can be funny, and take the piss out of real internet quizzes ("Which character from 'Girls' are you?" "Which Disney princess are you?") while also having something of substance to make fun of. Economic alliances was really fun because who doesn't want to laugh at the BRICS? I think it's accidentally a bit niche (calling all Sandals fans!) but I really just want to find different ways to be ridiculous in a format that looks serious. I also want it to be fun. I hope at least someone takes each test and is like "I'm ready for death!" I'm not sure how boring it is for people to see similar formats each time. I did do undergrad psych, by the way, and I really thought personality psychology was problematic.
JJ: How boring the same format is probably depends on your reader. I find it sort of comforting. How about when you're not writing a column, what do you do?
JM: I'm an editor for a blog at SparkNotes - a sort of Gawker for teens. I do some standup, and run a monthly comedic variety show, and I do try to do other writing, although right now those are mostly all I have time for. I'm huge on the outdoors (used to live in Utah and Colorado and worked on ski hills etc.), but I'm not getting a lot of that since I moved to NYC. So I run, and occasionally get out to hike up the Hudson with husband and dog. (This is so boring, I'm sorry.) I also paint sometimes, and like to make gifs and dumb graphics. We eat a lot of cheese. I eat a lot of pomegranates, which take time to unpack.
JJ: Care to share your favorite gifs (the ones you make I mean)? There's a real lack of mildly humorous images on my site.
JM: Here's two, one very relevant to your last column. There are more at Put Out to Pasture.
JJ: How'd you end up in America? (Assuming you are from Australia, which I think is a correct assumption, since that's what you said in that video on your Google+ page. Also, here's your opportunity to compliment America to make me feel good about myself.)
JM: Ah! Good research! Short story: Ski instructor/patroller for six U.S. winters and four Australian winters, met husband on the hill in Colorado, got married after we both went back to school in our respective countries and moved to Denver. Married six years now. We had to live in the U.S. because my husband was finishing his law degree, but it also would (we figured) have more opportunities for writing for me, which is somewhat true. NYC has certainly been a shot of adrenaline re: the creative people it has hiding in its dirty streets. The west really is beautiful, too. I've seen a lot of the west and it issssssssss awesome.
JJ: What's the last book you read that you loved, and why did you love it?
JM: Cripes, loved? Middlesex and The Funny Man. I got really into Born to Run, which I just-just read - like found it (I apologize) sort of inspiring. Otherwise, I'm afraid to say I've been on a YA-heavy kick due to work recently, and have lost sight of any adult novels I read prior to that (excluding Game of Thrones and that kind of jabber).
JJ: You don't need to apologize to me for feeling inspired. I was once moved to tears by a montage of Little League baseball, and I mean that literally. What about the book did you find inspiring?
JM: The author of Born to Run goes through all his various physical setbacks (ultras are bananas) and the perseverance he learns, and the way he describes the sheer joy of these maniac runners made me want to leap out the door with my sneakers on.
JJ: Let's say that somebody you knew was going to enter the McSweeney's column contest next year. What advice would you give them?
JM: I'm probably not the person to ask, but don't try and second-guess what anyone will enjoy reading, or what the judges are "looking for." I think I submitted some real dogshit last year because I was desperate to figure out What I Had To Say, and it ended up being absolute drivel.
You can follow Janet Manley on Twitter (@janetmanley) and find more of her work at janetmanley.com.