Jenna McCarthy, author of the hilarious Shebook novelette Does This Boyfriend Make My Butt Look Big?, is a pretty cool lady. Here McCarthy shares her thoughts on curse words, weird fan mail, and the priceless things her kids say.
Have you ever experienced sexism as a woman writer?
I got one (what I thought was highly amusing) e-mail from an angry woman about my last book, If It Was Easy, They’d Call the Whole Damned Thing a Honeymoon. The woman went on and on about how she couldn’t believe the language I used, and how she kept having to flip the book over to the author photo on the back. How could such a beautiful young woman talk like that, she wanted to know? She ended her e-mail with “You are a beautiful woman, but certainly not a lady.” She called me beautiful! And young! Obviously, I loved her immediately. (You can read her whole note here.) I wrote back to her and explained that I went ahead and put a bad word right in the title, so really she shouldn’t have been that surprised. Flash-forward to just a few weeks ago, when a friend and I went to hear David Sedaris read. It was a packed 2,000-seat theater, and people were eating that shit up, and let me just say that David is one profane son of a bitch. I seriously doubt he got angry e-mails afterward telling him that “he’s an attractive guy, but certainly no gentleman.” I thought the same thing of The Book of Mormon writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone. How is it that men can get away with so much more than women can? I hope I am part of what ultimately changes that.
Are there any themes, characters or imagery you find recurring in your writing?
Every single thing I write is at least loosely based in my experience. My characters are usually a composite of several friends or acquaintances, and their stories are almost always exaggerated versions of things that have happened to me or someone I know. I keep notebooks filled with random vignettes, quotes, and images; these books are where I find my inspiration for new projects. Quasi-related aside: When my daughters were little, I promised myself I would keep meticulous baby books, as my own had about two entries in it, and I was always a little bit bitter about this. But as they were growing, I found myself looking for a place to write down all the priceless things that never stopped coming out of their mouths (“Mom, did you brush your teeth yet this morning? No? Good. Because if you did I was going to have to tell you that your toothpaste is not working.”). Eventually I looked at their fill-in-the-blank baby books and thought Who cares when they lost their first tooth or what crap I got at their baby showers? I went out and bought two beautiful blank notebooks and titled them “The Funny Things I Say” (by each child’s name). I have a children’s picture-book series coming out with HarperCollins next year (Lola Knows a Lot), and the dialogue is taken verbatim from these “funny books.”
Have you ever shied away from writing something because someone you know might read it?
No… but I probably should! When I went on The Today Show to promote my marriage book, my three amazing sisters-in-law had a “viewing party” and invited my 80-year-old father-in-law to come over and watch. I cannot stress how much I adore and respect this man, or how conservative and old-school European he is. So obviously, I didn’t really want him to know that I’d written a very graphic book about his son (with lines like “please get your boner out of my ass crack” in it). My sisters-in-law just laughed. “Dad’s had sex, you know,” they insisted. I still cringed and hoped he wouldn’t ever actually read the thing—although the girls did, and it was their brother they were reading about, and they all claimed to love it. To this day I have no idea if my father-in-law ever read that one. We just don’t talk about it. He still sends me birthday cards and gifts and talks to me at holiday dinners, so I guess it’s all good.
Is there such a thing as “women’s writing”? Do you hate the term chick lit?
Oh, this one is probably going to get me in trouble, but I do believe there is such a thing as women’s writing. Maybe it’s reverse sexism, but I think that women love sex and violence and espionage in books as much as men, but that most (not all) men probably don’t want to read flowery bullshit about feelings and inner emotional turmoil. That said, I write always with a female reader in mind, and I still get tons of letters from men saying they love my books (and I am pretty sure they’re not all gay because they frequently reference their wives). I’m not at all offended when my books are labeled chick lit. To me, the term implies that a book probably will be funny and likely will have an emotional component and ultimately will make me laugh or cry or both and probably won’t have any gruesome beheading scenes or confusing sports analogies. What’s so bad about that?
What writing projects are you working on now?
I am a freak, let’s just get that right out in the open. I have another humorous memoir-style essay collection coming out this summer about the untold joys of midlife titled I’ve Still Got It, I Just Can’t Remember Where I Put It: Awkwardly True Tales from the Far Side of Forty (Berkley Books). I also have a second children’s picture-book series in the pipes with Random House (Poppy Louise Is Not Afraid of Anything), and a middle-school fiction series (Maggie Malone and the Mostly Magical Boots) debuting this May with Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky. Oh, and I’m finishing a new novel (the working title is It’s Not About You) that might be my favorite thing I’ve ever written. Stay tuned!
Do you have a quote, mantra or thought you’d like to end with?
This might be embarrassingly self-serving, but if you like a book you read, leave a fucking review. Authors work in a vacuum, and we live for feedback, especially if it’s positive. Sadly, people who hate your books—or are offended by the content or profanity or whatever it is—are much more likely to leave a review than people who loved them. Think about dining or travel: If your dinner is perfect and your flight is on time, and your hotel turns out to be pretty much what you expected from the website or brochure, you probably just go about your merry way. But if they serve you raw chicken, or make you sit in a steamy cabin on the tarmac for eight hours, or the nasty hotel mattress is crawling with bedbugs, you’d better believe you’re going to leave a detailed, scathing Yelp review. So I’ll repeat: If you like a book, take five minutes to log onto Amazon and tell other readers that you did. It really means the world to us (and it helps bury those hateful reviews, too!).
Check out Jenna McCarthy’s Shebook, Does This Boyfriend Make My Butt Look Big?