Interview by Carl Marsh - November 2015
Are you ever going to write a novel yourself, perhaps even dare write a dystopian or a great American novel, as I know you have covered both of those genre specific story arcs in your Twitter accounts tweets @GuyInYourMFA and @DystopianYA?
I’m actually working on a young adult novel now - although not dystopian, and definitely not the sort of thing @GuyInYourMFA would write (a - gasp! - female protagonist) but hopefully the sort of thing that would have resonated with me when I was sixteen or so. It’s been fun to get out of the strictly parody voice and write for more than 140 characters at a time.
What made you create these accounts, and I admit that you are spot on with what you write, and it always brings a smile every time I read them?
@GuyInYourMFA started last September when I had a stack of student fiction pieces to critique for a class the next day. At the time, I was looking into applying for MFA programs, so I was fairly engrossed in “literary” culture. What struck me were the similarities in all of the stories I was reading, an almost self-conscious effort to make a story seem ‘Literary-with-a-capital-L’. From there, the Twitter handle was born, and I was amazed at how easy it was to tap into that pretentious jerk that everyone knows so well.
Surely it was your annoyance at "certain" content in "certain" books and the repetitive content in them being so similar, even though from a different author?
Absolutely. That’s definitely the case with @DystopianYA. I loved dystopian stories as a kid, and even now; the books that had the biggest impact on me were The Martian Chronicles, The Handmaid’s Tale, Ender’s Game, The Giver, Oryx and Crake, Fahrenheit 451 - books that created a world distinct from our own but with our same problems. So when I started to notice the newest crop of dystopian stories in the wake of The Hunger Games, I was hyper-aware of how authors who claimed to be creating a new world were really just recycling old tropes that readers respond to like Pavlovian dogs. We can’t help it! We all love to be sorted by some infallible entity that can tell us where we belong - that’s why we love Buzzfeed quizzes! We all love a love story, and someone who’s “Special” for no apparent reason.
You are a comedian but what was the journey like for you to get where you are? And was it always your chosen career pathway?
I actually began as a biology concentrator, planning on going to med school. I worked in laboratories my first three years in college - working on zebrafish neural crest cell pathways one summer, and Staph models the next. I sort of imagined that I would end up at the intersection of biology in politics, working for the CDC or similar. And then last summer I worked for Conan in LA and something finally clicked. Comedy, writing, TV… it felt right in a way biology never did. When I was pre-med, I felt sort of like an imposter, like no matter how well I did on tests or how many internships I got, I was still somehow behind. And obviously writing isn’t an easier job in terms of financial stability, but when I realized that’s what I wanted to do, it felt incredibly freeing. I’d rather struggle my entire life doing something I was passionate about than being stable in something that always felt wrong.
Have you had any publishers, agents or authors criticise any of your content, and if so, any examples, and how did you address them?
Of course. I’m only 22 - I’m still learning and working to make my writing as strong as it can be, and so I actually really appreciate feedback from any professional who can identify what I can do better. I ran into some trouble when I was trying to propose turning @DystopianYA into a novel - I had trouble figuring out the right tone to use and, as publishers pointed out, I was attempting to mock something that I still wanted readers to care about. In effect, I was doing the worst thing an author can do - making fun of her readers (which obviously wasn’t my intention.) My challenge then, was making sure I could get the readers “IN” on the joke in the way I could with the Twitter account. And that wasn’t something I could figure out how to do in book form, or hasn’t been yet. That sort of feedback is really helpful to me as I try to navigate the line between being a comedian, and being an author who still wants to be taken seriously.
What author breaks the mould for you, who is the one or ones that are just genius to you with what they write?
This is like asking me to pick a favorite child. Like I said above, I grew up devouring dystopian stories. The Martian Chronicles was my favorite book for a very long time, and might still be. It’s the type of book where I can open it up to any page and read any sentence and become immediately engrossed. I love books that are so beautiful that they make me want to cry. I felt the same way about Ender’s Game for a while - I read my copy so many times it was falling apart at the spine. My parents gave me a signed hardcover for my 16th birthday. When I found out what a hateful person Orson Scott Card was, it tore me apart because I had related to Ender so well and it was so deeply unsettling that someone who could be so discriminatory could understand my childhood mindset so intimately. I actually wrote my college application about that. More recently, I devoured Donna Tartt’s books, and at the moment I’m reading Never Let Me Go which is so incredible it makes me angry that I haven’t read it sooner.
You must have some advice to anyone planning to write a novel, and how ‘not’ to go about writing it?
Obviously, I’m not an expert. I’m struggling with writing my first novel (along with probably 80% of the human population and 10% of the animal population).
For me, the most important thing is just to get started. Just sit down and begin putting words on a page. Start typing. My favourite sentences and ideas usually come out as I’m working, things I didn’t plan and hadn’t even thought of until I saw my fingers put them onto the screen. I think the only way “not” to write a novel is to think about it so much that you never actually write it!
People should read more books, shouldn’t they?
The internet makes me boring. I get so easily placated by hours clicking page forward on Reddit, much in the same way I can watch hours of America’s Next Top Model without noticing that my jaw was slack, and I was drooling. I honestly think I’m my best self when I’m in the middle of a good book. Books clear my head. They make me patient, they make me curious, and they make me a better writer. Plus, you can bring them on the subway and the beach.
Can we expect any more Twitter alter-egos in other literary genres from you?
I think I have to retire the parody Twitter mantle. It’s incredibly fun, but I want to save some of my creative energy for other projects. Like getting a job!
Where do you see yourself with your career in the future as a comedian/writer; will it be TV, tours, movies, or writing more and more?
Ideally, all of the above. I’m still young, so I’m not sure that I know exactly where my career is going to take me, but that’s the fun of it. Lack of ambition has never been my problem.
I always ask this question, and I think it will be good if you could answer from both the @GuyInYourMFA and @DystopianYA guises, and you yourself of course. So if each of these and yourself were to describe themselves/yourself as an animal, what would it be, and why?
@GuyInYourMFA - a wolf, definitely. He’s proud, and intelligent, and works best alone. Just a stereotype of masculinity.
Valentine Neverwoods, the intrepid protagonist of @DystopianYA would think she’s a rabbit - smart, fast, and trying to avoid being hunted by the System.
I relate on a profound level to the 'Loneliest Whale'.
Occupation: Writer / Comedian