Zibby Owens: Hi, I'm Zibby Owens. You're listening to “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
I'm here today with John Kenney. John is the author of two novels, Truth in Advertising, which won the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and Talk to Me, which just came out on January 15th. His recent tongue-in-cheek poetry collection, Love Poems for Married People, which came out on New Year’s Eve 2018, is absolutely hilarious. You should buy this now for your wife or husband for Valentine’s Day. A former advertising copywriter, John has been a contributor to The New Yorker since 1999. He lives with his wife and two children in Brooklyn, New York. Watch our video here.
Welcome, John, to “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
John Kenney: Thank you. Thank you for the invite.
Zibby: Of course. Lots to discuss today. I know this is out of chronological order of how you wrote these books, I wanted to discuss Love Poems for Married People first for many reasons. One, because it’s so ridiculously hilarious and I loved it. Two, because Valentine’s Day is around the corner. This is such a perfect giftable item. Everybody should be giving it to their husbands and wives and everything.
How did you come up with the idea for writing this little collection of poems after your two novels?
John: It wasn’t my idea actually. I had written a piece a couple of years ago for The New Yorker, for Shouts & Murmurs, called “Valentine’s Day Poems for Married People.” It had been passed around a bit. Last June I was at a cocktail party at Penguin Random House. I was chatting with my editor and a woman who I didn't know. My editor introduced me as the guy who had written that piece. She said, “I love that. We should do a book about that.” We all chuckled about that. The next week, I went in to meet with my editor about the novel. She said, “That woman you were talking to was one of the people who runs Penguin Random House. She wants to do a book on this, so we’re doing a book.” I said great. She said, “The only thing is I would need a manuscript by August 1st,” which was about six weeks away. I spent a goodly portion of the summer writing a lot of poems, many of which were terrible and didn't make the book. It was a real sprint.
Zibby: In contrast to that, how long did it take for you to write your novels? I know there's so many more words and everything.
John: Start to finish, the novel was two and a half, maybe three years.
Zibby: Wow. So six weeks is like…
John: Yeah. I was editing the novel at the time. These were great fun to write. I can't give enough credit to my wife, who read all of them. She's a tough audience. I would say she killed fifty percent of them. They were a lot of fun to do.
Zibby: Didn't you have a goal of one a day or something?
John: I did have that goal at the beginning. That did not come to fruition. It was very simple at the beginning. I've got this many days. I need seventy-five, eighty poems because we’ll kill twenty or thirty. There were many days where I stared at the blank page and wander around YouTube looking at old New England Patriots videos.
Zibby: You did such a funny impression of your wife reading your poems. I do the same thing. My husband Kyle gives me something to read that he thinks is hilarious. I’ll read it. I don't usually laugh out loud when I'm reading. I'm just like, “Yeah, that was funny.” When you said your wife does the same thing, he’s like, “That's just like you.”
John: I dated a comedian for a while. She said when she would be writing material, if it didn't make her laugh, it wasn’t funny. When my wife says things like, “That's really funny,” it’s not funny. She's a tough, old Philadelphia WASP who you got to drag the laugh from her. If you get it, it means it’s not so bad.
Zibby: She reads everything out loud, right? Don't you have that?
John: She reads everything out loud, which is great. It helped enormously with the cadence of it. I actually did go back and read a lot of poetry. As ridiculous as the book is, I did want it to at least aspire to some kind of poem. They're terrible in terms of poems.
Zibby: No, but it’s so funny. They're not terrible. It’s funny.
John: I just wanted them to be funny.
Zibby: They're hilarious. Would you mind reading one of them?
John: I would love to do that. I will say that my mother-in-law shared it with a friend of hers, an older woman down in Philadelphia, who I think was under the impression that it was a serious book of poetry. She was trying desperately to be polite in her critique and said, “They're certainly different.”
This one is called “Why are you in the shower with me?”
Did the bathtub shrink?
I ask because here we are,
like we once did all the time.
Remember? At the beginning?
We would stand and talk,
seals slipping by one another,
a playful ease letting the other into the stream.
I'm not sure what you're doing in here.
There's shampoo stinging my eyes.
You just stepped on my foot.
For the love of Christ, who flushed the toilet?
Because I'm being scaled alive.
It was a nice idea though, honey.
Could you close the door?
Zibby: [laughs] So funny. They're all so great.
John: They're funny because they're true.
Zibby: Was your wife, she was okay with you -- you have to dig into your own…
John: It’s funny. We have some neighbors who live on our block. They're wonderful people, but they're pretty serious. When I wrote The New Yorker piece, the husband stopped my wife. One of the poems was about baggy underwear or something like that. He said, “I am so sorry your husband wrote that thing about your baggy underwear.” He's this elderly gentleman. She's like, “Oh, no. It’s supposed to be funny. I'm fine with it.” I show her everything. I think she's okay. We’re now just speaking through divorce attorneys, but I think she's fine. Her lawyers say she’s okay.
Zibby: [laughs] As I've told you twenty times now, I gave it to Kyle for his birthday. We laughed all day long. It’s a great item and a perfect gift. I know that was an aside from your serious writing career. You've written these great books.
You won this humor prize for Truth in Advertising. What was that like, by the way? You wrote your first novel after years as a copywriter, went on to win this humor prize. Tell me a little more about that.
John: That was a complete fluke thrill. The Thurber Prize for American Humor, we got shortlisted. Sally Kim, my editor at Putnam and Sons said, “We’re one of eighteen,” or something like that. I didn't think much. I was thrilled. Then it was one of nine, maybe. Then it was one of three. I got to go to the event, which was really fun. It was at Caroline’s Comedy Club. You have to stand up and do a little ten-minute set, read a little bit, and try to make people laugh. It was with myself and Liza Donnelly, who's an incredibly successful hilarious cartoonist for The New Yorker, who's won a gazillion award, and David Letterman. Everyone said Letterman’s not going to show obviously because he's Letterman, so I wrote a bunch of jokes about David Letterman.
Zibby: Oh, no.
John. Yeah. He showed up with his monologue writer Bill Scheft, nine time Emmy-nominated writer. They're sitting in the front row. Caroline’s is very small. They're sitting there like, “Make us laugh, novelist boy.” I was sure that Liza would win. Letterman was retiring. It was a real thrill. Letterman was incredibly gracious. He wrote me this note. It was really nice.
Zibby: That's awesome. What made you write that first novel? Had you always wanted to write a book? Was there just so much great material? How did it even come about?
John: I did always want to write. I just wasn’t very good at it. I don't say that to be modest. I was always writing stories and sending them out and getting lots of rejections, which are wonderful things. They push you. I really do think failure is a great teacher. Fortunately, I have had a lot of teaching in my career. I was working in advertising. I was writing. I started the whole marriage/children thing late, so I had a lot of time write.
I decided to get serious about it in my late thirties. I quit a job. I moved to France for a while. I wrote a very long novel. I had the opposite of writer’s block. I just couldn't stop writing, which probably isn't a good thing. I don't think I knew what the book was about. No one published it, which was again a good thing. I went back about a year later, reread it. I took a small section of it and turned that into Truth in Advertising. That's how that came to be.
Zibby: Was it Talk to Me that you wrote during your lunch breaks?
John: I did. There was a gap of four years between -- what's the first one called?
Zibby: Truth in Advertising. Are you testing me now?
John: Yeah, just to see if you've read it.
Zibby: I'm paying attention here. I'm focused.
John: For those of you listening, Zibby has left room. I'm alone.
John: I adapted Truth in Advertising into a screenplay. That took me much longer. I thought, “I’ll bang this out in three months.” It was about an eighteen-month process going back and forth. With Talk to Me --
Zibby: -- Wait. To finish that, what happened with that screenplay?
John: That screenplay, there was a big star, Ryan Reynolds, who agreed to play the lead part. We were all set to go. Then Deadpool came out and did very, very, very well. Ryan was incredibly gracious. He said, “Look, I'm interested in this, but I have some other things on my plate,” like Deadpool 2. The screenplay’s in limbo now, not uncommon is my understanding of the Hollywood world. We’ll see.
Zibby: Sorry, I cut you off. Go ahead.
John: Not at all. I was looking for a new idea. I'm fascinated by the media. If Truth in Advertising is about advertising but also mostly about this very dysfunctional family, Talk to Me is about a man who loses everything. Ted Grayson is the most trusted man in network news. He has everything stripped away from him. He makes a terrible mistake on the evening newscast one night screaming at young assistant. It goes viral. His world comes crashing down. Mostly, the book is a love story between a father and a daughter who have lost their way. She's twenty-eight. She works in new media at a TMZ-like website. She's tasked with writing a story about her father, from whom she's largely estranged. Chaos ensues.
Zibby: You have a lot of commentary on social media, news, the way that people are consuming news through the book. If the theme of the father/daughter is the biggest one, this is the next. This is one of the things. You have this really beautiful passage. You wrote, “It wasn’t merely an escape from the outside world. It was escape from ourselves. It was a muting of our inside voice. Once, people sat after dinner on the back porch as evening gently overtook the day, watching the fading light, listen to the din or crickets, to a dog barking down the road, a train going by in the distance, alone with their thoughts, the bravest thing. Today, we would do anything to run from our own thoughts, the noise of our minds, so we check the phone, the text, the email, the alert. Why look inside for the answers when you can look outside? Hey look, a sale at J Crew,” which I started laughing at. That's exactly my inbox. I'm like, “Ooh, twenty-five percent off.”
John: It’s all of ours. I certainly don't mean it as a criticism, merely an observation. I'm the opposite of an early adopter. At the begging of the publisher, I just got on social media, as I mentioned to you a couple of weeks ago. It’s a blast. It’s fascinating. It’s also incredibly addictive. My son asked me the other day, he said, “Why are you checking Instagram again?” I said, “I don't know.” It’s fun. It does take us out of ourselves. This is not new territory, but I'm curious to see what it becomes. I think we’re seeing the end of boredom. If we choose, from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep we can be entertained. I don't think that was always the way. I'm older than you. When I was a kid, TV ended. I talk to my kids about that. They're like, “What are you talking about?” I was like, “It ended. It went off.” There was the national anthem and then it was snow or a test pattern until five thirty in the morning when the news came on.
Zibby: Mine went off after Silver Spoons or Different Strokes. It went off in my house.
John: Things used to stop. Things used to end. Things used to close. That doesn't happen anymore. Everything's open all the time. There's always stimulation, always. While that's fantastic in a way -- it’s fantastic, it’s great -- there are consequences to that for us personally as adults and in terms of our thinking and clear-headedness. I don't know about you, but my struggle most days is to find mental space, to sit down and to get away from that device and try to put some words on a page. It’s always been hard to sit down and write. That's not a new thing. I’ll go walk the dog. I’ll have lunch. I’ll look out the window. The pull now is vastly more powerful. I have to check a text. I have to look at something.
Zibby: I always feel, especially with kids, I have to be sort of connected. What if? If I sit down and try to write -- I don't get a chance to do that very often -- but I have to immediately shut down everything else. Every window is closed on my computer. My phone is off. I have to focus. But what if it’s the school? There's that little sliver, and then forget it because then some other call comes in. Just forget it. It’s impossible.
John: It is impossible. The other morning my daughter took my phone and hid it in a bag of hers. She heard me coming up the stairs. She knew she wasn’t supposed to be on the phone. It was a school morning. She quickly hid it in this bag near her desk. She has like fifty bags. The ringer was off. I couldn't find my phone until she got home from school. She had a after-school thing. She got home about four thirty, which means I was without my phone all day. It was fantastic.
Zibby: Were you okay? You survived?
John: It was a fantastic.
Zibby: It was the best day of your life?
John: It was very interesting. There were a couple of hours where I was a little withdrawal, kind of. Then it was like, “Oh. No one can reach me,” which was kind of cool. The sad thing is I think I only had one message. That was a little disappointing.
Zibby: In terms of boredom, we were both just talking about this new essay by Pamela Paul in The New York Timesthis weekend, “Let Children Get Bored,” about how important it is for kids to be bored, not just us to have the mental space that we need, but to let our kids be able to do what they want and come up with these make-believe situations, invent games, make some forts, all that stuff.
John: This is well-trod territory. It’s really interesting. They do lead such structured lives. Inevitably, they will find something. My son was home sick this morning. He knows he can't do screens. He's sitting in our bed, just staring at the wall.
Zibby: Oh, I'm sorry.
John: No, we’re on the sixth day of this. He's doing better. I grabbed three books. I plopped them down in front of him. He opened them. A hungry kid will eat what's put in front of them. I find that for myself too. I like being bored because it does send your mind to a different place. This idea of constant entertainment and stimulation, that's a really new thing in the history of the world. It’s a really new thing. It was interesting to see during the Superbowl, I'd bet five dollars that most of those commercials were written by millennials. There was a theme in a lot of them that technology was bad. This is the first real generation whose upbringing has been defined by technology much more than television. There were many commercials that poked fun at it. There was the -- I forget. It was pretty funny. It was an apocalyptic thing. It’s interesting to see their take on it.
Zibby: I like the one with Alexa when Harrison Ford orders all the dog food. That was so funny. It is interesting. Back to the book for a second, you included a lot of really poignant moments about this adult relationship, the father with his grown daughter, and also even with the mother, the mom Claire. They both have difficult relationships with their daughter Franny. She's so busy working that she doesn't have time to even have a cup of coffee for her mom. Her mom’s wandering around the city. She's reminiscing about the time that she literally went into the MRI machine with Franny on her chest, the time she sucked the snot out of her nose on a car trip, all this stuff that you just do. You wrote, “Adapt and overcome, as the Marines say, and what was a mother if not a Marine? What wouldn't she have done for this girl? And now, happy for Franny and her new life, her career, Claire still smarted at the selfishness of not meeting for a coffee.”
Is this an inevitability that you raise independent children, they grow up, they do their own thing, and it’s good that they don't have time for you? Is there some way to create a happy balance with kids who are busy but still have time for their parents? Will I be completely forgotten is really the basis of my question.
John: I can only speak as an observer because I still have little people who I can control their world. I have five brothers and lots of nieces and nephews, twenties, early thirties even. They started real young. It’s been interesting to watch. I think what happens even in the tightest relationships is the relationship changes. That's so heartbreaking for a parent. It’s like your husband comes home one day and just says, “I think we should just be friends,” after eighteen years of marriage. “I think we should just be buddies. I'm just going to live next door.” Wait a minute. You're changing the relationship. “Yeah, I know.”
I think that's what happens with our kids is eighteen years of everything you have and then they say, “Thank you so much. I’ll call you. I’ll be in touch.” It’s exactly what they should say and deep down that you want them to say. It’s also absolutely heartbreaking. I have a really good friend, a more macho, tough guy you've never met. He just dropped his son off at college in late August. He was so proud of him. This working-class kid, he got into Yale. His dad’s driving home. He called me and he said, “I was just sobbing.” He said it was a combination of incredible pride but also, this relationship’s ended. It’s ended. That's quite a thing. I do think they come back. I really do. They have to go do their thing. I'm sure you did it. I'm sure you went off to college. Your focus was the outside world. It wasn’t back home.
Zibby: Although, I did have one night at college -- I went to Yale. It was not far away. I called home. It was five o’clock. I was really feeling homesick. I was like, “What are you guys having for dinner?” My brother was still at home. My mom’s like, “We’re having swordfish and roast potatoes and some string beans.” I look at my watch and I was like, “I’ll be there by seven thirty. I'm on my way.” I ran to the garage, drove home, had dinner. I got annoyed within an hour. It was time to leave again. I drove back to school and went to bed. It was perfect.
John: Your parents went to bed that night and say, “Did that just happen? Did she come home? Was that a mirage?”
Zibby: I don't know that my mom was even happy to see me. Yes, there's obviously the separation that you have to go through a grown-up.
John: It’s hard for kids too because you're trying to figure it out and struggling. On the one hand, you really need your parents and want them, but you can't say that in a way. Life is a series of miscommunications, I find. How often do you say what you want, have the courage to say what you want to someone? Vulnerability is scary. It’s really scary, especially if you're twenty-one or twenty-two or twenty-three.
In terms of the book, the character Franny, Ted’s daughter, is twenty-eight and desperately wants a relationship with her father. There are so many layers of pain, so much scar tissue, that she just can't get to it. He's the same way. He wants nothing more than that relationship. I'm Irish from Boston. They say that the only thing that -- Irish Alzheimer’s -- the only thing that you don't forget is the slights. Ted’s that way. He wants desperately to be with her. He can't seem to forgive her. She can't forgive him.
Zibby: I loved the scene when he was going through all of her old stuff when he was in the Sag Harbor house. Oh, my god. I was ready to cry. It was really awesome.
Now, you're at the stage you have two books out at the same time. That's really cool. Are you overwhelmed? What's it like to have two books?
John: A little weird. It’s odd to have two books that are so different from each other. The novel, I hope there are light parts to it. There's some fairly serious stuff. The love poems is just epically ridiculous. It’s really fun to have the two out at the same time. It’s really fun. Not sure I’ll do that again.
Zibby: What do you have coming next? Do you have more ideas for books?
John: I do. I have an idea for a book. It’s a short, fast novel that leans really heavily into funny. That's the hope.
Zibby: Awesome. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors out there?
John: Learn a trade. I am loathed to give advice to anyone. I would do the opposite of what I say. Just know that it’s hard. I would try desperately to ignore the noise. Publishing has changed so dramatically. It’s always been about business. I do think it has become really commercialized and leans very heavily into the big sellers. I do think there will always be a space for the small, quiet books that tell stories that matter to people. It’s hard to get an agent. It’s hard to get published. It’s hard to get attention. A book can disappear into the ether really easily. Trust me.
Write it even if someone's not going to pay you. Write it because you want to write it. I don't want that to sound cliché. It’s a very lonely business. It’s a very hard business. It’s a long slog. If it really matters to you, stay with that. Believe in it. Make it matter. Really make it matter. Very few people are going to champion your book. You have to want to do it as if no one’s going to see it. I know that's really hard to hear. Take it from someone who has published novels that almost no one has seen. Try to ignore the noise. Stay with your book.
Zibby: Thank you so much. This is great. Thanks for telling us your story.
John: Thank you for having. This is really a lot of fun.
Zibby: Thanks for coming on!