January 22, 2009

the olive interview: jessica anya blau and larry doyle part 1

  • About the author EB

Harper Perennial brings people together. As you’ll see in the interview below, Jessica Anya Blau (author of Summer of Naked Swim Parties) and Larry Doyle (author of I Love You, Beth Cooper) would never have become friends were their books not published by Harper Perennial. Well, maybe they would have, but it would have been less likely. So here’s part 1 of Jessica’s interview with Larry; part 2 will appear tomorrow.

(Larry Doyle hates having his picture taken)

Jessica’s introduction:
Harper Perennial sent my book, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, to Larry Doyle to see if he’d blurb it. He did and it was surely one of my favorite blurbs, and the one that ultimately ended up on the front cover. When I first read his blurb, I said to my editor something like, “Who is this guy? I love him!” She told me two things: he wrote and produced The Simpsons, and he lives in Baltimore. She also sent me his novel, I Love You Beth Cooper. I looked Larry up on myspace. Turns out he’s done much more than produce and write The Simpsons (as if that isn’t enough for one life). In addition to his hilarious novel, he writes regular pieces for The New Yorker, he’s written many screenplays, and he’s been a staff writer at several magazines. I sent Larry a note thanking him for the great blurb, telling him that I, too, live in Baltimore and asking him if he’d be my friend. Well, maybe I didn’t say, “Will you be my friend?” But what I did say was something like, “Will you have coffee with me?” We set a date for coffee after the holidays and then I read his book. It couldn’t have taken me more than two sittings to read I Love You Beth Cooper—it’s a wildly funny, sharply written romp of a story that mostly takes place in the night following the high school graduation of a slightly neurotic, utterly charming boy named Denis Cooverman.
By the time I met Larry for coffee, I already liked him. It’s now a year later and not only is Larry my friend, but so is his wife Becky, a charming woman who’s a mean Scrabble player and whom Larry calls his “foxy wife.” On December 15th, Larry and I met up at The Evergreen Café in Baltimore where he answered the following questions:

You’re a very funny person. Everything you write is hilarious. Do you try to be funny? Do you realize you’re funny or are you surprised that people think you’re funny?

What a sad life you would have if you were funny but you weren’t trying to be funny. You’d be really pathetic. I imagine there are some people like that, Crispin Glover perhaps. I try to be funny. Part of it’s craft and part of it’s a certain sensibility. People ask that question a lot, are you naturally funny. You can be naturally funny and not write funny stuff. And you can certainly have all the tools of being funny and what you write won’t be funny. At least it won’t be original or interesting. It seems to me like eighty percent of newspaper humor columnists aren’t funny. Maybe that’s because they have to do it so much, they write on fumes on something. You know how people have that fear of being a fraud? My big fear is that my writing’s all craft and not inspired.

So you don’t fear not being funny?

I know how to make things funny. I worry about there being an art to what I’m doing as opposed to craftsmanship. And I hope that there would be some genuine sensibility and genuine feeling behind that stuff. But I am confident that I can manufacture a joke.

Your piece in the December 15th New Yorker is very funny (I laughed out loud when I read it) and terribly depressing. Is the dark point-of-view of the piece yours, or is it simply the point-of-view for the purpose of humor?

People often say I have a dark sense of humor. [Larry assumes Dude voice] It was just a joke, man.
The idea [behind the piece] was that a lot of people are complaining about how horrible everything is. So it was just a kind of exaggerated “things could be worse.” There could be zombies.

Do people always try to crack you up—do they want to prove to you that they’re funny, too?

Since you know my general demeanor you know that people don’t really warm up to me very much. [This cracks me up!] That happens occasionally at a party, but not anyone who really knows me. I have to constantly explain to people how and why I’m not very funny. You know most funny people aren’t very funny so . . . I can be funny when I want to. Certainly when I hang out with a bunch of comedy writers I can be funny. But I’m not a performer. So.

You seem to have a tremendous scope when it comes to what you know. I think we can be pretty sure that you know more than I about politics, world history, pop culture, movies, books, television, cartoons, and maybe even medicine. Did you spend your adolescence reading?

No. It’s a cool trick to make it look like you know more than other people. You don’t necessarily have to know more, you just need to be able to steer the conversation to things you do know. Of that list, the only thing I thought I know more than you is medicine. I got my undergraduate degree, in premed. And I was a medical reporter for four or five years.

You write for The New Yorker, you write screenplays, novels, you’ve produced and written The Simpsons, Looney Tunes, and you’ve been a staff writer at several magazines. Which of these jobs has been the most gratifying for you?

Writing The New Yorker pieces are very gratifying. But would be more gratifying if . . I always wanted to be one of those regular New Yorker writers, with a little cubby hole. And I’ve never been accepted there that way. I don’t know how much of that is because they don’t do that anymore, or I haven’t gotten to that level. I always feel apart from that. Writing the book [I Love You Beth Cooper] was almost all pleasant. At least my memory of it. And the process of turning it into the movie [Larry also wrote the screenplay for I Love You Beth Cooper] was only half-aggravating, which makes it a thousand times better than anything else I’ve done with movies. The making of the movie went very well, compared to what one normally expects to happen. I’m most gratified when I’m actually writing and most unhappy when I’m not writing. As you know, the last six months I’ve had a difficult time making myself write.

What are you doing when you’re not writing?

Reading. Looking for anything on the internet to distract me momentarily. Being surly around the house.

Is the internet good or bad for you?

I don’t know if it’s net positive or negative in terms of productivity. I use it for a tremendous amount for research. And just for memory, trying to find out why the moon looks larger on the horizon. As I’ve gotten older my ability to conjure up my vocabulary has diminished. So I’ll often go hunting for words on the internet.

So you use it to avoid writing?


Are you in that relaxed place where you can assume that anything you work on will be bought, or picked-up, or optioned? Or do you still worry? Or maybe you never worried?

I still worry about it. I’ve got a number of years left that I have to make a living and I’ve been technically dead in Hollywood for almost a decade. I’m well past the age range of employability in Hollywood. So it’s only through sheer luck that I continue to get work in Hollywood.

Come back tomorrow for part 2!!!