Between the Lines: An Interview Series with Kelly Corrigan


Lesson Info

John Hodgman

(big beat music) Hi John Hodgman. Hi Kelly Corrigan, nice to see you! Nice to see you too! It's always a pleasure. We are old friends. We share some of the greatest people, both of us now, don't you think? That's true. So I wonder, if you could sorta lay out the range of work that you have done. Well, I started as a magazine writer and so I was mostly telling...i was writing about... food and non-wine alcohol for Men's Journal. And this is after you quit being a literary agent. Yeah, so I was originally a receptionist at a literary agency and I thought that that was going to be my career cause I would be able to help writers whom I love without having to do any writing myself. Yes, because it's so awful isn't it? I would just parasitically leach off of them Yes, fantastic. And have martini lunches and take naps next to a fern all afternoon. (Kelly laughs) My life was going pretty well in my direction. Yeah. I realized, slowly, that I really did want to w...

rite. That meant I was going to have to leave my job because I could not, in good faith, be in competition with my own clients. Right, right...sure. By that time I- Business would go straight down the toilet. Also, I was a terrible negotiator (laughs). Yeah Another thing, another reason... You're like, "Sure, that's fine. Yeah, that's funny." And I was making more money per human hour writing about cheese for magazines than I was selling beautiful books of short stories. No offense, but 15% of not a lot doesn't go very far. I hear ya. So I left. So magazines... So I started writing for magazines. The first stories that I was telling were largely about how to carve a turkey and other manly food topics which were hard to find. Manly food... Cause it was for Esquire or GQ? It was for Men's Journal. Oh, Men's Journal. Yeah, you know, the national magazine of men's everyday lives. (Kelly laughs) How into journaling all men are Yeah, of course. And so do you write a lot? And I don't even make fun of them. They gave me an incredible opportunity to travel and meet interesting people and write about how to make a steak, and then how to make chili, and then how to drink bourbon, and then how to make a steak again. But it's interesting because this probably wasn't bad training because a part of what you do so well is write very well and interestingly about fairly mundane stuff. That's kind of you to say and it also- You should put that blurb on your jacket, "Pretty mundane but well said." (John laughs) America's most mundane story teller. (laughs) John Hodgman. It was incredible training because you had to learn how to make things interesting. You had to find out, you had to think to yourself, well I don't suppose you didn't have to, but I did. Why is carving a turkey interesting? I had received a turkey carving set. A very beautiful carving set from my father-in-law. I think, the first birthday after I was married to his daughter; still my wife. Yes, Catherine. The great Catherine. The great Catherine Fetcher, Fl- what's her name again? Catherine Fletcher. The great Catherine Fletcher. And I love knives and I love cooking. But I realized I didn't know how to carve a turkey. This was a very quiet, maybe unconscious on his part, or maybe conscious, challenge of manliness. Can you stand at the head of the table and breakdown a turkey? And now there's a great story. That's a great story. The things that happen between father-in-laws and son-in-laws. Especially in early days when that relationship is being defined is really juicy stuff. And that was what made it interesting enough for me to write about and learn how to do it. And I carve a pretty mean turkey now. Well done, you. And I only carve the mean ones (laughs). That's how I justify it. (laughs) So then that led to writing books. Yeah, well, so what happened was I was also writing humor for McSweeney's. Yes. I should say, I was also writing humor for a website called McSweeney's which does a print component and still does. And they enjoyed my weird, dry arch sense of humor. And I enjoyed being kind of, adopting the voice of the eccentric authority on all subjects. And as i was writing for magazines, I was forced to become, kind of, a random expert on all subjects. Whatever was thrown to me I had to learn all about it. So that's like a thing... That's like one of your techniques. Is that you don't write as yourself. You don't write as John Hodgman, guy who lives in Brooklyn with a wife and two kids. You write as this kinda eccentric millionaire or the judge, or... I used to, that's true. I started out writing, when I wrote for McSweeney's, I wrote an advice column called "Ask A Former Professional Literary Agent" because that is what I was. But I was an exaggerated version of myself because I was deranged. And so people would write in with serious questions and I would give them deranged answers about what brand of beret to wear if you want to be taken seriously as an existentialist. (Kelly laughs) The obvious, the best novel to write is vampires versus serial killers. A genre I thought I was inventing, but it turns out it exists. And that crossed over into my first book which was called "The Areas Of My Expertise." Which presented itself as a very traditional book of lists, traditional almanac of trivia and little known facts. But all the little known facts in my book were invented by me. You were so ahead of the game. (laughs) I know. Well... So yeah, I would write, instead of the nine U.S. presidents who drank fresca or whatever, I wrote about the nine U.S. presidents who secretly had hooks for hands. And I would invent all this backstory. And I would present absurd things very straight faced in a deadpan which led to me promoting that book on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart; which was a T.V. show that existed. Yes, back in the old days, kids. Back in the old days, yeah. And then that led, and I continued that character on the show as the resident expert, the deranged millionaire, basically a deadpan voice of very serious authority saying absolutely insane things. Right. so I wanna know, why was that your storytelling choice? Was it conscious? Was it from a distance saying, "Here are my talents and skills, here's my point of view, here's what I wanna put out there and, therefore, I must do it in this way." Or was it more organic than that? It was a combination of elements. Mostly, it was fun. I wanted to be a writer of serious short stories with feelings and real people. And I did that a little bit and I could do that voice. A serious short story writer voice. But of course, I was imitating it. And what really happened was, I was at an event and Dave Eggers, the author and huge inspiration and patron of mine; and the editor of McSweeney's; the founder of McSweeney's. And a friend of ours both. That's right. Another person in that segment of... Magical golden segment. Yeah. He said, "You should write more for the website and you should write more in that character." And he said, "That's your voice." And I was like, "Oh!" it suddenly came into focus. Did you feel, at all, limited by that? No. Or disappointed? The opposite. Because what happened was, the first time I started writing in that deranged voice, it was in a very ear- one of the first E-mails I ever sent. I was just writing an E-mail to a friend of mine in Seattle and this character kind of came out. This exaggerated version of me. And it was a version of me... Right, just trumped up. So to speak. Yeah, sorry, sorry. I would like to circle back to that in a moment. But it was just something that came out of me. And I kinda dismissed it as such because it wasn't something I had worked on. Do you know what I mean? Yeah. And I was still trying to write serious stuff. And both Dave and another editor of mine, Mark Adams was my editor at Men's Journal, encouraged me to be funny and I was like, "Doesn't that feel cheap?" And Mark in particular said, "No, it's not cheap. It's not something everyone can do and you should use it. People like it." Well, so that's so interesting to me because I feel like sometimes when people are writing and trying to tell stories that they feel like whatever is easiest must be wrong. Exactly. The opposite is true. That's right. And George Saunders had an interview on one of my favorite public radio shows, "Bullseye," that really blew my mind cause he experienced the same feeling of liberation. George Saunders is an incredible writer of serious short stories, but he's also extremely funny. And he went through a similar process where at some point something or someone gave him, I can't remember the details, but gave him permission to be funny. It never occurred to him that he had permission to be funny. And the moment that he gave himself permission to be funny in his work, he described it as he had felt he had been in a fight for his whole life with one hand tied behind his back and now he had, not to turn everything into toxic masculinity, but these are the times we live in. Right, right, right. But yeah, he felt incredibly liberated and I did as well. And so that voice worked... Was incredibly fun to work in and to reveal myself indirectly through. And because it gave me permission to do anything. I could make the dumbest joke about nine failed palindromes, slow speed deep owls being one of them. (Kelly laughs) Write it down, maybe you'll find that funny, I don't know. And then also to tell, particularly by the third book of fake facts that I wrote which was called "That Is All," to actually do some actual storytelling about myself and my life as I anticipated the approaching end of the world in 2012. We all thought the world was going to end then. Tell me, what eludes you? Like, what can't you do that you would really like to be able to do? Uhm... On the page i mean, as a storyteller. Oh! Nothing (laughs). Really? There isn't like, like would you like to write... Have you written screenplays? Yup! That's great. That's fun. Have you written for the stage? No. Is that interesting to you? Sure, doesn't seem like there's a lot of money in it. Well that brings up a really interesting thing that I just wanna say because the people who are listening to this probably have practical concerns. And you and I both do too. It's an expensive world and we're educating children and... Yeah. So I wondered if... I'm actually having other people educate my children That's right, and writing a check for the privilege. That's right. So I wonder if... The wide range of things you do that some portion of those are really at a practical level just to stay in the game and to stay relevant, and to try new things, and to get a paycheck. I would say that my answer about plays was a little glib and I'd like another crack at it. Only to say that yeah, there isn't a lot of money in it. But also, I'm not particularly passionate about it. And if I loved, I mean I love theater. Do you know what I mean? But I never felt whatever instinctive, intuitive... Like, 'I gotta do that.' Feeling that would drive me to do it. And if I felt that I would do it anyway, do you know what I mean? Which is so required to sustain oneself. It's the only thing that matters, do you know what I mean? The reason I'd write screenplays isn't because it makes money, although, it's a pretty good ratio of work to payment if you can get the job. I love movies and I've always loved movies, and love storytelling through movies. So when i had the opportunity, once I was on T.V. a little bit, to get into that world, I took it cause I wanted that. And it's a very interesting and different storytelling mode because it's all dialogue and gesture. Has it changed the way you write books? It has... Dovetailed with doing my imitation of stand-up comedy. Uh-huh Those two things really changed my approach to writing in general. How? Well, I wrote the thousand pages of fake facts and loved every minute of it. But by the end of those books, which were very... very... I'm trying to come up with an adjective that describes what I mean without making them sound unappealing, cause they're great. (Kelly laughs) They're really funny books and they're still in print. They truly are. But they're very intricate, they're very thought through, very dense. The jokes take a little time to build. They make references to all parts of different history. Which, if you don't get them, it's... It's a portrait of an addled mind, basically. A truly addled mind. When I was done with them, I really felt like I had told every joke I knew how to tell. I really mined my life for every story and observation I had; and the world had not ended, and now he's gonna have to fill time with something, and I didn't know what. I felt empty, you know? And also, everyone's doing fake facts now. Yeah, it's a very crowded field all of a sudden. Yeah, i needed to come up with something new. So I started, instead of writing for the page, I started writing for the stage. Not plays, but creating material to perform on stage for money in stand-up comedy. I booked a residency at Union Hall, which is a performance space in Park Slope. Very small basement space where comics go and try out stuff. And for about two years I went in there, I would say, three weeks a month and I had to fill up an hour any way I could. And I padded it out as much as I could with friends and with gimmicks. But at least 25 minutes of it had to be me just talking as much so that I could hear what was coming out of my head as to make jokes or fill time. So it's kind of an incredible method you have. Like, that was an incredible method of storytelling discovery. Like you were talking yourself into all sorts of topics to see what was kinda sticking and gelling. Yeah, well because I really felt that I had run out of material. Which everyone does. We should just say that. That there is not one person who writes a book who doesn't put it down for the last time and think, "There's nothing left; I have given the best material I've got; I've used every word I know; It is O-ver." And it can be really depressing and scary. Terrifying. Especially if you're relying on your ability to craft story for your livelihood. What am I going to do? Well, desperation is a good motivator. Yeah, I wondered about motivations for you. Like, what kinda gets you going creatively both from a really healthy way, but also in an unhealthy way. Like, does envy factor into it? Does like a bad review get you fired up to work? No, that just makes me feel terrible. The one bad review I ever got made me feel terrible. Which was written by a joker. Canadian person. (Kelly laughs) But, you know what, that bad review really made me think about what I was doing. I got a bad review and I can tell it to you word for word right this second. I thought I about it everyday I was writing this last book. Yeah, what you don't want is for that to stunt you. Because, look, you get a lot of good reviews and you obviously have a lot of readers so you're doing something right. Yes. And there is stuff in this review that's like, nope, he didn't get that right or he misunderstood what I was doing. But then there's some that's like, yeah, you know what, he really saw right through me on that one. Yes, and also... I gotta work on that. Sometimes I feel like feedback is a real gift and you have to stay in a position to hear it and most people, after a while, are not really gonna tell you... I mean, it's like showing someone your baby. The baby's always beautiful, and your brand new house is always beautiful, as your haircut is; nobody's telling you... I will lie about a person's house, I will lie about a person's haircut, but if they have an ugly baby, I'm gonna say it. (Kelly laughs) they need to know. A lot of them grow out of it. That's what I say to them while they're crying. Whoa! I just thought you needed that note; you made a wrong thing. No, all babies are wonderful. So what gets you going? Well, what get's me going is panic. That I have to do something. Sometimes you have to do something cause you need a paycheck. Mostly, it's just like, I've tried... I've tried all kinds of other things. I sold cheese for a while, I counted traffic, I tried to be a literary agent. Yeah, you had a little radio show when you were in high school, didn't you? Yeah, I had a radio show. I tried to be a world famous actor once I had that chance. I still do it from time to time, I still love it. But I always come back to telling my own stories whatever they are, i can't avoid it. So then it really becomes, how do I know... When you feel empty, how do you come to know what's going on in your head? Cause you're still working, you're still processing, you're still experiencing; things are going in. Maybe it's a function of age or maybe it's a function of the humility that comes with age where you don't automatically presume that everyone cares about what you think, which is such a... Such a moment in time. Beneficial function of youth that allows you to get going. Everyone needs to know this. When you get older, you're like no one cares. I swear to god I wrote a whole book thinking no one had ever had cancer before. I mean I just... It never occurred to me that... Well, it's good that you didn't listen to the voice that said, "Don't do this." Getting on stage, for me, reset my whole creative process. Not that I hadn't been doing live performance before. I had been reading from my books, I'd been performing sketches from my books, but to write, essentially, not write at all, but to note; just note a few things that I was gonna talk about and then getting on stage and then feeling the panic of having to come up with that stuff for the people in the room. I think that it's more universal than not, but I can only speak for my own brain, it didn't let me down; something came out. And something came out usually through panic that I hadn't connected before and then suddenly... Did you record them because sometimes- Yes. Yeah, you would need to go back because the adrenaline's so hot... I've never listened. Oh, you could always remember the thing that you said that you thought was worth saying. I hate the sound of my own voice. I'm sure there's a lot that I forgot, but through the notes that I would make before going up, I could reconstruct it. And then do it again and again. And I would take that on the road, and I would do it again and again and again, and it would get better and better, and crafted here more and so fourth. And because you're on stage you have to condense, be quick... Also you have immediate feedback. It is an incredible thing, Yes. for somebody who writes alone in a room to go and read it out loud in front of people and hear the audience react. Even the tiniest little... There's stuff that's inaudible, but you can still feel in an audience where it gets very, very quiet and you think, "Oh, I have their full attention. This is really where this story starts to click." Yeah That's incredible feedback. I obviously work in a world with a lot of comedians in it and true stand-up comics will work through their material and their hour over and over and over and over again. And I, as a writer, this kind... Tippy-tap writer, would always go like, "What is your problem? Just write it good and say the good words." Exactly! And that carried me through for a long time, but it wasn't really until I started doing my imitation of stand-up where I was essentially working from notes and gestures and ideas and fleshing it out on stage in real time, getting feedback. That I realized, oh yeah, this is music. The pacing, where it hits, the words you use. All of that... is incredibly instrumental to... Telling the story that's gonna stick to with the people when they go home. Whether you're trying to tell them that's gonna make them laugh or just think and go, "Hmm" Or whatever; feel. Did you ever study poetry? Cause I feel like... No. I studied Shakespeare in my master's english literature and we had to read everything aloud. That really sticks with me now when I write. I feel like if I have too many long sentences in a row that I'm kinda wearing out the reader. And actually, by the time I'm finished, I've read every single word out loud to myself, to my own ear and think, "Oh, you need a small sentence here. You need to give 'em a break and you need to walk away from this for a minute and loop back and..." hearing is really essential. Yeah. Writing is music and writing is theater too. Obviously, this part of writing is a new innovation historically compared to this part. Right, typing versus talking. Yeah. So, I have a little speed round of questions for you. Oh, but here, let me just say this last thing. Sure. If you don't mind. I don't mind. Cause it sounds like you're wrapping up. Well, I'm running out of time. I have so much to say. It's you. It's your schedule. We can stay as long as you want. Let me just say this... Cause this gets around to me plugging my book you guys. (Kelly laughs) So what I discovered on stage was... that I wasn't interested in fake facts anymore. What was coming out of my head were just true stories about my life without varnishing them with all kinds of eccentric fillagree and people were not rejecting that. And so that led me to create two different... Shows that I toured around with. The second one being "Vacationland." Which is the story of... my misadventures in three different wildernesses. Western Massechusetts, where I grew up, Coastal Maine and it's painful beaches, where I will accept my death according to Catherine Fletcher, And middle age which connects those two. And that's what my book is about. Let's get a close-up on that. (Kelly laughs) And it all grew out of this experience of talking before writing. Which I think is a very new... It's obviously, in the history of culture, a very old thing, but for me a very new and important tool that I wouldn't have had unless I had scared myself to go on stage. And this is the first book of its kind for you. Its the first book of its kind for anyone. (Kelly laughs) Okay, are you ready for your speed round? Yeah, I am ready. Name a book you wish you had written. "Cujo" by Stephen King. (Kelly laughs) Not a joke. Oh my god. Have you read "Cujo?" No, I would never, ever in a million years read "Cujo." Why? I don't know, it's not my kind of book. Really? Am I missing something? Since I've been spending a lot of time in Maine I've been reading Stephen King, which I hadn't done before. And he is, you know he is a brilliant writer Brilliant. He's not a great self editor. I think he'd be the first one to say that. But that makes him even more charming. "Cujo," I picked up two summers ago. I thought...cause the movie was not supposed to be that great. I've seen the movie. I thought this was gonna be one of his lesser works. I think it's the finest novel that he wrote. And it's not supernatural, and it's terrifying, and it's beautiful, and structured incredibly beautifully in a way that reveals itself as I think it revealed itself to him. He's written that he doesn't remember writing it cause he was drinking at the time. But it worked; it's a great, great book and it sold a lot of copies, so, come on. "Cujo." I never thought that was- "Cujo" by John Hodgman. (Kelly laughs) What was the last story that made you cry? "Cujo." Really? Yes, I won't tell why. You have to read it now. If your mother wrote a book about you, what would it be called? "Don't Eat That Bowl Of Mayonnaise." (Kelly laughs) Good advice that my mom actually gave me when I was a kid. Who can't you live without? Creatively speaking. Paul F. Tompkins, the comedian. Who is that? He's an incredibly talented comedian who is so great... and so... I mean... So ahead of what I... He's the guy I have to prevent myself from imitating all the time. If you could get everyone in the world to read one book, what would it be? Obviously, "Vacationland: (Kelly laughs) True Stories From Painful Beaches" by John Hodgman. We're at B.E.A. did you think I was gonna say... What did you think? This is my job, this is my job. I thought you might say that. If it wasn't "Vacationland," is there a book that you wanted everybody to read? Is there a book that I want everybody to read that isn't "Cujo" and isn't "Vacationland?" That's right, taking those two off the table. I don't know, books are so many different moods. And one of the most important books in my life was "Ficciones" by Jorge Luis Borges because he was a super duper literary genius who was also unafraid to play around and make jokes. And yet, I wouldn't force my children to read that necessarily cause it speaks to a very certain mind. That's your sweet spot; saying something worth saying with a sense of humor. I guess so. It's just all that I can do. And that's the thing, it's all you can do. That is your work. And the truth is if you wanna make money, figure out the thing that is the only thing you can do and the thing you really wanna do no matter how weird or esoteric it seems because I do think that people will connect with passion and authenticity closer than they'll connect with trying to write a movie that's gonna make a lot of money Yes, or imitation. This was so great, thank you so much. Thank you so much! Yeah! Hooray, we did it! Hooray! (big beat music)

Between the Lines is a series about uncovering the REAL story of these 16 best-selling authors and what story telling means to them. Each of these authors has their own stories that influence their work. Most writers are writing either directly or indirectly based on their experience, their dreams, or their realities. They are telling their stories, whether they are "made up" or based on real life. That takes a ton of bravery, a ton of courage, and that is what stops people generally from putting themselves out there. There is a fear of being not only judged on your work but your ideas. Writing takes BRAVERY. It takes a leap to put yourself out there for eyes to read what you have to say, and then there is the part of actually getting it done. This series is really about being brave, how these authors write their truth and how they MOVE people through their creative pursuits. This series is about what is "between the lines" for each these authors.



  • I love hearing from all of these authors! Some of my longtime favorites and I also discovered some new authors I didn't know about. AMAZING!