Friends & Fiction
Friends & Fiction

Episode · 1 month ago

WB-S2E33 Writing with Humor - Take My Husband

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

WRITERS' BLOCK Ron Block and Mary Kay Andrews are joined by Ellen Meister, author of the darkly comic new book, Take My Husband to talk about writing with humor.

And then there's Charlie Webb, very very important character in the book. Charlie is a CO worker of laurels. He's about seventy seven years old and she works at Trader Joe's and he's a very beloved employee of trader Joe's. You know, it's funny. I had a writer friend who used to work at trader Joe's bet the book for me, you know, to to make sure I didn't get anything wrong, extra to help me get things right, and she said every trader Joe's has their Charlie Webb, you know, she said I'd recognize that guy. Every trader joes has that guy. Welcome to the friends and fiction writer's block podcast For New York Times bestselling authors, one rock star Librarian and endless stories. Joined Mary Kay, Andrews Kristin Harmel, Christy Woodson Harvey and Patti Callahan Henry, along with ro on block as novelists. We are four longtime friends with seventy books between us, and I am Ron Block. Please join us for fascinating author interviews and insider talk about publishing and writing. If you love books and are curious about the writing world, you are in the right place. Welcome to an all new episode of the friends and fiction writer's block podcast. Today we're talking about the element of humor in storytelling. Our guest today is Ellen Meister, author of the forthcoming dark comedy take my husband, which will publish on August. Beth Harbison, a New York Times bestselling author, says of the book that it's a sharp, laugh out loud novel about a doting wife who has finally had enough. Is deeply funny and horribly familiar. Take my husband is not to be missed, and I can absolutely agree with that. I am on blog and today my co...

...host is Mary Kay Andrews, who's certainly no stranger to humor in her writing. Welcome my friend. Thanks Ron, good to see you ellen. So first let's talk about Ellen. Take my husband. Her new book follows her other critically acclaimed novels, including the rooftop party, loved, sold separately. Dorothy Parker drank here. Farewell Dorothy Parker, the other life, the smart one, and secret confessions of the APPLEWOOD P T A, which was Harper Collins two thousand and six. She is also the author of sparks, five writing prompts to ignite your imagination. In addition to being a novelist, Ellen is a writer, editor, screenwriter, book coach, Creative Writing Instructor, ghost writer and, I'm assuming, occasionally piste off wife. How did you get how did you ever guess? I don't know any guys who aren't occasionally pistol exactly. I think spouses in general, we have. Definitely we have a lot of that. So, Ellen, welcome to the PODCAST. I am so happy to be here. Thank you so much for inviting me. Thank you so much for letting us have an early peek at this book. It's just so good and and there's a lot we want to know about it. But I want to start with the with the tagline that's on the cover of the book, just to entice people. It's like she vowed to love him until death. But why did it have to take so long? Did you come up with that? I actually did. Yeah, they asked me if I could come up with some, you know, proposed taglines for the cover, and I came up with that. I came up with a few and they love that one. So there you have it. It's so great and so it's actually gets. It's pretty much what the book is all of right. Having said that, will you tell our listeners what the book is about? Okay, so the book is about a woman who believes that she's happily married. Right. She's got this very, very traditional marriage and very traditional ideas about what it is to be married, which were means sort of...

...subjugating her own needs to her husband's. So she thinks she's happily married until she gets a phone call that her husband was in an accident and she has sort of a vivid imagination, and it runs a little while that she believes that he died, and her grief very quickly turns to relief when she realizes how much better her life will be when he's dead. And so that sort of takes her on this journey of deciding whether or not she wants to be the one to either nudge him or shove him off this mortal coil. That's that's the premise of the book. That's the premise. But okay, so what is the book really about? The book is really about getting to a point where you understand that you matter. Right. The book is really about deciding that your needs are just as valuable as anyone else's. It's really about discovering your self worth and acting on it. That's really of what the book is about. Perfect. You know, Ellen, your essay and publishers weekly talked about the inspiration to take my husband. Yes, it's a dark comedy for sure, and really relatable. I mean, who hasn't, in some dark moment in any partnership, toyed with a what if idea? What if he or she were gone? Could you talk a little bit about the nitty gritty of Laurel and Doug's relationship and how it got to to where it is now, because Laurel kind of lays out a timeline for us, right, right. Yeah, so the nitty gritty of their relationship is that, you know, she always had this very romanticized view of what marriages like I said, and you know when I was conceptualized in this book, I really understood that she would need to have a marriage that's kind of a throwback, you know, exceedingly traditional roles in her marriage and you know, I wanted to give it a balance. The marriage is an all terrible right, and then this guy, look, he's got a lot of problems. He he lost...

...his business, he's obviously, you know, dealing with depression in his own way. He's very lazy and he's not moving and he's not really giving at all in this marriage. But you know, she sort of has to come to terms with the fact that his selfishness in the marriage. You know, that's a two way street. That didn't happen accidentally. The marriage obviously didn't start out that way, but she spent a lifetime convincing him that his needs mattered and hers didn't, and at the point that we meet them in the book, you know he completely believes that. So she got herself into a terrible situation. I think they're both sort of responsible for where they are in this relationship, but I think it was very important for me to understand and for the reader to understand that laurel actually plays a role. She has some agency here, you know, in what's going on with in their relationship. Yeah, she definitely does. Women don't come to their ideas about marriage out of nowhere, right, and so you give us a real viewpoint into Laurel's mother, right, and their marriage, which you kind of unwrapped slowly. Yes, Laurel's mother isn't agoraphobic doll collector, and we understand that Laurel's mother. Laurel's father is passed, but her parents had divorced prior to his passing and Laurel, in seeing the difficulty in her parents relationship, you know as a child, sort of came to her own, not necessarily correct conclusions about what was wrong with the marriage and what could have made it right. So she's internalized all the problems of their marriage into the idea that her mother didn't do enough right, her mother didn't make her father happy enough. If her mother had only tried a little hard, if she had been a better wife, if she had subjugated her own needs more, she would have had this happy marriage, which is the only thing that Laura wants. You know, when she's a young woman, like I said, she have this romantic idea...

...of what marriage was and and got her priorities and ideas just a little bit mixed up, you know, when she went into her relationship and carried that through. When we meet her, they've been married almost thirty years and man, I'll tell you, like old habits like that in a relationship can be hard to break. But that's the journey that I set her on. Right well, and in addition to Joan, the mother. You have populated this book with some amazing, flawed, quirky characters that just jump off the page and they really round out the story. Can you talk about developing some of those, like eleanor and Bob and, of course Abbey is such a memorable character too, and Charlie. Right, so abby is the husband's sister. Right, it's Laurel sister in law. I needed a foil, somebody to be kind of antagonist, and Abbey sort of seemed perfect for that. She is the sort of passive, aggressive creature who, you know, comes at life like on the perfect one and she just she absolutely drives laurel crazy. She also thwarts Laurel's efforts to, let's say, fiddle with Doug's health issues. So so there's that. So she has that antagonist raw and then there's Charlie Webb, very very important character in the book. Charlie is a coworker of laurels. He's about seventy seven years old. She works at at Trader Joe's and he's a very beloved employee of trader Joe's. You know, it's funny. I had a writer friend who used to work at trader Joe's that the book for me, you know, to to make sure I didn't get anything wrong and to help me get things right. And she said every trader Joe's has their Charlie Webb, you know, she said I'd recognize that guy. Every trader Joe's has that guy. So Charlie is wise and wonderful and you know so it seems. And he becomes sort of her mentor he also becomes sort of the devil on her shoulder when she guess this idea that maybe...

...there's a there's a good way out of this marriage. That would solve all the problems, and it doesn't. It's not divorced because then she wouldn't get any life insurance money. Right. I hope I'm not giving away too many spoilers, but this is all very early in the book. So Charlie I had a lot of fun with. I thought he was an interesting character and I won't get into you know what happens with this character later, but I had a lot of fun with that character. Joan, her agoraphobic mother, winds up with a couple of really interesting friends. I cannot here. I can't get too deep into it without I will tell you. Interestingly. This is sort of an aside. I had completely different ideas for who Jones friends were in the beginning, in the first draft of this book, and it was a little bit I went really crazy and it was a little bit too out there. So those characters that you think are so wacky was my editor actually reining me in. Let's just put it away. So I you know, I like to try to push it, see how far I can take things. So and I did. I loved when, in the beginning I was thinking it was reminding me of that old film nine to five, when the Lilli Tomlin and Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton are imagining the demise of their boss. But then she meets Charley and of course then things kind of crossover. I also think that every book should have an Isaac, but I won't give anything away about that. Just know that name before you read the book. So what about the doll collection? What did they represent? You know, one of the motifs in the book is loneliness and I really wanted to push very hard on that. So people have a way, different ways of dealing with loneliness, and Jon's way is through her dolls and it's sort of it's part and parcel of her agoraphobia, right. I mean she's got these friends to to keep her company, so she doesn't need to go outside and she doesn't need to go outside because she has these friends to keep her companies sort of they keep her, keep her cozy. It also gave me an...

...opportunity. I'm always looking for opportunities to give my characters arcs, so the dolls also provided something sort of built in way for for Joan to have an ARC in this book. I like my main character to have an arc and also maybe some of the some of the minor characters as well. I think that really adds to it. Yeah, well, no spoilers, but I'm wondering, Ellen, if you had worked out the ending before you started plotting or whether you just arrived at the end of Laurel's arc organically. It's a little bit of both, I said, always is for me when when I'm writing my books. You know, I always start with an idea of where I want to begin and where I want to end. I always know the ARC that I want my character to have. I also tried to sort of know something that happens at the midpoint to to sort of shake things up and and, you know, intensify what's going on in the book. So I did have an idea. You know, one of the things that was key to me, one of the influences for this book was, believe it or not, breaking bad. Now, I know as dark as this book is, it's not nearly as dark as breaking bad, right. I mean that it gets pretty that gets really dark and pretty Grizzly, but I just thought it was so interesting the trajectory of Walter White's character, right, he just every step he takes into evil makes it easier to take the next step and then easier to take the next step and you just can't believe he's going to go there. So that had some sort of influence on this book. I did want Laurel to be a very relatable character who does something or or gets an idea that's really unthinkable and I wanted to show her sort of pushing step by step by step. But also, like I said, I didn't want to spiral into that absolute utter darkness of Breaking Bad. I wanted things to take sort of a turn, and I do, without offering any boilers,...

I do flirt with the idea of redemption in this book. I will say, Mary Kay, that one thing that did surprise me was that I didn't think I was going to offer Laurel as much redemption as I did. I thought she was going to have to pay a little bit more, but I think I wound up liking her too much. I do that, and also putting her on a journey where she she didn't need the kind of punishment that I had anticipated when I first started working on the on the concept, I'm wondering if there's like an alternate version of this that I can get my hands on through there is an alternate version, but but it mostly just has that that side character, uh, that I was talking about. You Know Jones friends, and I will tell you this, if you're so good to go on a little bit of a tangent. Yes, I have always envisioned this book as a something that would translate well to a TV series adaptation. So that's something I'm actually working on right now with a partner trying to we we wrote a pilot trying to sell it to television, and that very wacky side plot that got exercise from the first draft. It's finding its way back in because I think television you could, you could push things a little weirder, Um, and viewer will accept it, maybe more than a reader will. That's awesome. So I didn't lose it. Okay, good, good, yeah, no, of course I'm all about it. I wanted yeah, so you wrote this during the pandemic, so let's talk about writing during the pandemic. It can have been easy, and it's but it seems like a great deal of your book kind of grew out of the darkness of the pandemic. Um what developed during that time that made it into the book? Take my husband. Well, I will say you know, I'm the kind of person like a lot of writers, and you know, I don't know if you you're the same way, but I'm not an anti social person. I'm a pretty outgoing person, but man, I need my alone time. I...

...mean I desperately, desperately need my alone time. I think that's pretty common for writers. You know, we live so much inside our heads and we just need we need all this mental space and sometimes that pushes into physical space. Right like I used to have hours alone in my house and that was very valuable time to me. Then the pandemic hit and not only means my husband working from home, but I've got three twenty somethings in the house. So yeah, so I was very full House and, you know, and absolutely nowhere to go. And I think writing this book was away for me to deal with my own madness. Right. I mean I, you know, had feelings like don't knock on my door, don't come in here while I'm writing, I want to wait a minute. Maybe I put that to a book. So so my own sort of spiral during the during the pandemic, worked its way into the book and man was at it was at a wonderful Cathartic way for me to work out my my frustrations. Yeah, I think if you talk to any writer that I know we're empty nestor with my husband and I, and he's retired, but he still has not gotten out of the habit of he walks into my office or wherever I'm minding, any time the day and says things like what were you thinking about lunch right, tell him repeatedly, I'm not thinking about lunch right, I'm thinking about a book. You think about what you want to think about. I'm thinking about I'm thinking about writing a book right now. So I'm in the world of my book. I can't be in the world of what kind of sandwich do you want for lunch? But he'll fix himself a sandwich. Just what I want to right. And I think people that aren't writers don't really understand the intensity of concentration that it requires. I mean, if I'm in the middle of writing a paragraph and I'm sort of pulling out threads and trying to make it all work and somebody interrupts my train of thought, it just feels it feels kind astrophic. So I think other writers can understand the you know,...

...the focus is its intense and you really can't be distracted. You certainly don't want to be distracted. Well, I'm so easily distracted anyway. I think I think I have a D H d. So I distract myself. I don't even need an outsider to come into you know, I do too. I mean you know social media. It's so easy in the middle of while you're writing, to sort of click up into facebook or twitter, and so people are saying, yeah, yeah, that's that's the truth. Okay, now we read somewhere that while you were writing this your husband slept with one eye open. He was a basis for doug the fictional husband. Would you talk about the multiple versions of him as you were in the drafting process? I mean, I can't believe that you're married to a Doug Ellen. I am not married to a dog. Honestly, my husband is a darling guy. Look, here's the thing. I did think it was like pretty shirety me to want to strangle my husband for interrupting me while I was right ing. So when I thought about the fact that I wanted to explore that in a book, I said I thought I have to make the husband not as sort of sweet and funny and gentle as as my Mike. So I made Doug Lazy and sloppy and, you know, self centered and, you know, just having other unattractive qualities so that people could sort of relate to my character more. And I also had to give her, and this was so key for making this book work, I had to find something that she wanted so desperately in life that Doug was getting in the way of and it had to be something that would make her sympathetic. Right. I couldn't have it just be that, you know, she wanted money, because she wanted, you know, you know, an expensive car or something. So, and you know, this is, you know, sort of digging into myself a little bit here too. I thought, you know, she would want a...

...grandchild, right, she would want to be there for her grandchild. I had three twentysomething kids, no grandkids, yet it's something that, of course, is on my mind. I love babies. So I really really pushed into that for Laurel and I made it almost an obsessive need, right. So I so I found that thing inside of Laurel that I could relate to and that I like to think, and I hope readers really relate to, something that she wanted so desperately that her husband was in the way. That made her not a terrible person for wanting to get whatever it was blocking her out of the way. I like how in in Doug's character art, you found a way to make him attractive at one point. So you found a way for the reader to understand. What did she see in this guy? Right, I mean, you know, Doug, Doug, he is madly in love with Laurel and and when they started out, you know, he he just held her on a pedestal and they had a great early marriage and they had a great sex life and they were very much in love and they just got into an absolutely terrible groove. Is a married couple. You know, I didn't want to make Doug so completely villainous, right. He had to be at least somewhat sympathetic. I mean, I don't really I mean I do sort of get into I don't want to, you know, go into any spoilers, but you know, here is a man who lost his business, lost his livelihood, so you know he is dealing with his own stuff. So I had to make him sympathetic but also sort of odious to laurel at the same time. But but yeah, I do hope the reader can see why she was attracted to him in the first place and he did very much give her what she wanted. She, Laura, is somebody who really loves to be adored and dug adores her and the beginning of the marriage that was that was a lot. Yeah, they really go through it. So I want to take just a little bit of a tangent here and I want to ask both of you a question because this is an element that I think you both are so amazing at and Excel at, and that's injecting humor...

...into your writing. So I want to know how you incorporate that in and it's I mean it seems like every time you try it hits a Bullseye in the in the books and also in yours. Mary Kay too, is as you know. I've told you a million times. But talk about the process of how you decide what makes the cut to be included, like, do you have a test audience to you try the jokes out on? People always start with you, Ellen's. I don't have a test audience. I find crafting the jokes one of the absolute hardest parts, partially because it has to look so completely effortless. But you really have to. If, if, if you have somebody saying something funny, you have to set that up so meticulously right and it can't look set up and it can't feel set up. So it's it's very, very tricky. Now I I don't wind up going through like a cutting process. I I sort of I have characters and I put them in situations and I let them be funny and then it's really a matter of editing and trying to make the timing perfect and really get the paragraph sort of tightest as can be I love writing dialogue and I love getting it tight and just getting every beak correct. I don't know if it's the same for you, Mary Kay. Your your books make me laugh so much. I think for me it's it's a matter of creating characters that I have empathy for and that I kind of understand who they are and what they think is funny. And I think the deadliest thing is talking about how to make something funny. Talking about a joke makes it automatically not funny. So for me, sometimes, yeah, I'll throw a little stick in there or a little slapstick, and then sometimes it's just, you know, I love to introduce a secondary character who can be a foil to my pretend agonist. Or sometimes...

...my protagonist gets to be a foil to somebody who wanders onto the page and is smart mouthed and funny and and my character just is the sidekick. Sometimes it's fun. Sometimes I like to, you know, turn the tables and have my character just be the straight man. Do you use your stuff when you're writing? Are used to be that this is hilarious? Yeah, yeah, I mean I'll go back over a line that I think might be funny, that I think has possibilities and I'll go back and I'll think, Huh, I need to punch that up a little bit. Or you know, what really happens is I'll read, I'll read a couple of pages and I'll think, oh, this is deadly. I always think it's deadly. Oh God, this page is the story is just dragging on and on and on. I gotta Punch it up somehow. And then, you know, usually the punch up stuff happens when I'm half asleep, er, I'm in the shower. Yeah, yes, just sub conscious kind of goes to work on what you've already written. Yeah, sometimes, like I just I wrote the book I'm working on next for next fall. I just had a kid ride a bike into the scene and I started to do it organically and intuitively, but once he was on the page, I'm like, Oh, this is what this kid is doing. He's comic relief. Right, right, right, and I love that part of the process when it surprises you. Yeah, this is great. Now I want to follow this up with why do you think humor is so valued in books? Listen, we all have something to say in our books, but we really want to entertain the reader and keep them engage page by page by page. And I started out as an advertising writer and one of the lessons that I was taught, because I was writing brochures, was that a boss held one of my brochures over a garbage can and he said this is how people are reading your writing and you've got to get them before they let go and, you know, drop it into the trash can. And I think I carry that with me as a novelist and I really want to make sure I have my reader on every page.

I do it with tension, I do it with character, I do it with story and I do it with humor and I really hope to just like never, never, let them go. I want them to want to keep turning pages and to me that's where the humor comes into it. I don't know if it's a same for you, Mary Kay. Yeah, I think you don't realize how funny something is until you see the dark side of it. And the reverse is true too. You don't you don't know how dark something is until you see that sliver of life of light, you know, shining up the under the under a doorway, and then you realize there's something on the other side. And let me see what that is, and I think humor teases the reader along. If I've given you something really heartbreaking and dark, I know for myself as something it's really Um tense in a book like a thriller, I'm back away from it and if I throw something in that's light and funny, then I think, or I hope that the reader goes, oh, okay, yeah, it's gonna be it'll be okay ish, right, right, a lot of it is. Yeah, that kind of pacing. You know, you want to make sure if you're give in their ready dark scene, you also give them a light scene. Yeah, yeah, this is like a masterclass you two. I love it. You know, I wanted to ask you a little bit on that same line. Ellen. You were able to shift so easily. It's and of course it looks easy, it's not in the thematic line from light to dark and take my husband I'm thinking about Doug's health is in serious, serious jeopardy, and then you bring us back out of that. Can you talk a little bit about that? Is that planning in advance or that is that just taking the story where it's going? Well, you know, I do sort of plan that in advance, but I do always worry about if I'm going to be able to pull it off right. WHO Doesn't? Right? And one of the challenges that I give myself as a writer, and I know that you...

...do too, is to make everything happen on stage. Don't let those big scenes happen off camera. It's so you know, you forgive the metaphor. You know we're talking books and not not, not movies. But you know, it's so tempting to say, all right, I'M gonna skip at it, I'm gonna skip over that and have a chapter that's like a month later when he's better, you know. But but no, you know, when I feel the sort of urge to do something like that, I always catch myself and I said no, no, no, Ellen. You push into that and you write the hell out of it and that's going to be one of the best parts of the book, you know. So it's it's those scenes that are so darn hard to write and I forced myself to do it, the ones that seemed like no, I really don't want to write that darn scene, it's too hard. And those are the ones that there's so much meat in those scenes. Yeah, whenever things are going to too easily for my protagonist. You know, I have to sort of smack myself upside the head and say, come on, yes, you can't make it that easy, because then the book's over. Yes, yes, you know, sometimes I wind up and I'm so glad you say this. So sometimes I wind up. You know, I have this thing in my head right where I say, okay, so now in this part of the book, my protagonist like this terrible thing is going to be looming over them and they have to do all these things that make this terrible thing not happen to that I can't tell you how many times I found myself in this exact situation writing a book, where I had that thought and then I stopped myself and I go, well, wait a minute, what if the terrible thing does happen? I'm spending all this energy making sure it doesn't. Then I say, what if it does happen, then what happens to my story? And usually with as soon as I explore that, I say, Oh my God, now I've got a book, you know. Now the whole thing just cracks wide open. Yeah, the saying is kill your darlings. Yeah, yeah, well, speaking of Darling Ellen, you have been so darling to join us today. We love taking my husband. It's a triumph and you have given...

...us a book so many who made it through the pandemic can relate to and who whose marriages are partnerships made it through the pandemic. Yea for all of us. Yeah, and some didn't, though I think we all many people reevaluated their relationships. If you would tell us where our listeners can find you online and learn more about upcoming events for your new book? Take my husband. Oh Great, I'm very findable online right. I have my website, Ellen MAISTER DOT COM. Love to hear from readers and there's a contact page if anybody wants to reach out to me. I absolutely encourage them to do that. So Ellen MEISTER DOT COM, and I'm findable by my full name on twitter, on Facebook, on instagram. So so I'm all out there and, like I said, connect with me, reach out to me. We can have a lot of fun on social media. Yeah, thank you so much on this has been just to blast and the book is Great. I hope people are gonna grab it as soon as they can and devour it like I did. Thank you so much and a huge debt of gratitude to all of you for joining us for this episode. It never gets old telling you how much we appreciate your support and spreading the word. Please be sure to visit the friends and fiction bookshop Dot Org page to buy Ellen's books at a discount and books from all of our past guests, both the Wednesday evening shows and the Friday podcast. On behalf of the FAB Four. Thank you for listening. Thank you for tuning in to the friends and fiction writer's block podcast. Please be sure to subscribe, rate and review on your favorite podcast platform. Tune in every Friday for another episode, and you can also join us every week on facebook or youtube. Where are live? Friends and fiction show airs at seven PM Eastern Standard Time. We are so glad you're here.

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