I began reading Jill A. Davis‘ latest novel, ASK AGAIN LATER, with a little apprehension. The story centers on Emily, a single woman in NYC whose life is thrown into a tailspin when her mother is diagnosed with cancer. Cancer certainly isn’t a funny topic. But Davis, an Emmy-nominated writer for the Late Show With David Letterman, not only got me laughing, but it was pee-your-pants-type of laughing. Uplifting, ironic, and extremely smart, Davis’ book was refreshingly free of bathos. It’s also a clear-eyed dissection of modern urban life.
Davis’ debut, GIRLS POKER NIGHT, rocketed up the NYT bestseller list and established Davis as a new voice in upscale women’s fiction. I was curious how Davis made the transition from television comedy writer to novelist, and if a writer can use comedy to explore dark subjects. The answers she gave are every bit as funny and thought-provoking as her books.
We are pleased to present our interview with Jill A. Davis.
What made you decide to be a novelist? How did writing for newspapers and television prepare you for writing novels?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer and I always had a notion that I’d like to write a book. I have a very practical side which lead me to writing for newspapers. While I was studying journalism at Emerson College in Boston I was working full-time as a feature writer for a small newspaper. This was the land before spell-check! I loved writing a piece one day and seeing in the newspaper the next day, and hearing from people who’d read the articles. It’s a very satisfying loop. At the end of the day, when my official work was finished, I started working on these humor columns that I really enjoyed writing. At some point I showed them to my editor and I think she had some space to fill – so she ran the column. I think it was about getting my phone service shut off and the extreme balancing act of paying rent, phone, tuition and beer money … Anyway, shortly after that I was writing these columns regularly and even then I appreciated that I had an amazing job. Some would say “hobby” because the pay really was THAT bad. But I loved going to work every day. Eventually, I sent those same columns to the Letterman show and I was offered a job doing those remotes that Dave used to do regularly. I’d write a premise (Dave and Zsa Zsa Gabor sample fast food at drive-thrus in L.A., for example) and then write jokes, edit the footage into a mini-movie that would air on a Friday. I also wrote top tens, viewer mail etc. but I think in both newspapers and television I developed a terse writing style, and I learned more about editing and timing and dialogue than I could ever possibly learn elsewhere. This was also excellent training for writing novels. Five years of interviewing people allows you really pay attention to how people speak; then writing for Dave, it was the same as writing dialogue. I had to imagine him saying whatever “joke” I was writing. It becomes very second nature.
Cancer and abandonment aren’t funny topics, yet you were able to delve into both in ASK AGAIN LATER and make it humorous, even lighthearted. Was this an intentional way into a depressing subject, or is writing in a humorous vein natural to you?
You can’t have light without dark, you can’t have happiness without knowing sadness. Or maybe you can … what do I know? I write comedy. That’s what I write. But I’m trying to write a very specific, very contemporary form of comedy. The stories I write are about realistic situations, sometimes uncomfortably realistic. I don’t know anyone who lives a “dramatic” life without comedy. But maybe that’s because I choose my friends carefully? And so should you! I really love watching dramatic movies, but I wouldn’t want to live one. If I had to choose a genre to live in – my vote is for comedy. If we have a choice. But that’s an argument for another day.
I think some people might say that breast cancer is a depressing topic. Others might say it’s a reality for women and what’s important about it to me are the following things: 1) It’s alarmingly universal. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who have written to me, talked to me after readings, called me and have said “I had breast cancer 5 years ago … ” “I had is “15 years ago …” (2) People are surviving this now, and it’s in large part due to the response of some amazing women who really got organized – and please don’t get annoyed with me for using this word – “politicized” breast cancer. Red ribbons gained huge amounts of attention and financial support for the AIDS awareness movement. Someone got inspired and said, hey, why not pink ribbons for us? This was genius! Because this was such a powerful spotlight being focused on a disease that largely targets women – and it’s changed the lives and treatment of countless people. What an amazing turnaround!
You also write short stories. Will you return to writing short stories? Do you think learning how to craft a narrative in a shorter segment helps or hinders when writing a novel?
Hopefully, it helps. But I don’t spend a lot of time writing scenery and I admire those who can and enjoy it. Once, when I was wrote a sitcom for ABC and we were shooting the pilot and I was meeting with designers to talk about what Anna’s apartment should look like. What color wallpaper should she have, they wanted to know. What? (Wallpaper! It’s NYC, and she’s in her early 30s – she doesn’t have wallpaper, her walls are painted! This is a rental!!!) So you see, for me all sorts of things were attached to these descriptions – yet I didn’t find the discussions interesting. But they were necessary because television is visual so all these things are intentional and specific. I disliked that part of the job. An executive suggested that Anna have a collection of American Pottery … so you see if you aren’t willing to make these decisions on a television show you will end up with these sorts of suggestions and they compromise the character in my opinion. There is nothing wrong with American Pottery, it’s just that McCoy vases were on every television sitcom set at the time – and the character was more the type to start a collection and not finish it. So giving her a collection of pottery just made her seem unimaginative and hyper organized. I focus on characters, dialogue and psychology. These are the three things that interest me most about writing. Would this character really do this? Why? Would this character really say this?
You chose to tell Emily’s story in ASK AGAIN LATER in first person present tense. What are some of the strengths for writing in this tense? Why did you choose it?
I am always more interested in hearing a story if I can trick myself into thinking it’s possibly real. It’s just that simple. When first person is well done, it should feel like a letter from a very close friend.
Your characters often hide vulnerabilities behind wisecracks. What attracts you to characters like this? Is it tricky?
There are many defenses to choose from and I think that comedy that is empathetic can be very appealing. Is it tricky? It’s choreography in a way. So there is a timing that’s needed, and set up that is plausible. This is one of the most fundamentally interesting aspects of writing comedy.
I have to ask: what was it like to write for Letterman? Scary? Thrilling? Did you learn anything useful for novel writing that you can share with us from that experience?
Scary?! Good God woman, what have you heard? It was thrilling in many ways. I worked with an amazing group of men at an incredible time in the show’s history. What I learned from that experience about novel writing is that I wanted to write novels. I wrote in a guy’s voice for over six years … I don’t think my writing for that show was any less personal in a way that the writing I’m doing now, it’s just different, and also allows me to have a life outside of work that I didn’t have when I wrote for television.
What is a typical day of writing like for you? How do you juggle family obligations with time spent on your books?
I take my daughter to school, I read the newspaper and then I work in my office until school is over. The job gets short-changed, and for now that’s sort of how it has to be.
Reviewers have called your work “chick-lit”. Do you agree with this marketing label or do you find that books written by women with female protagonists are easily lumped into this genre?
I write contemporary comedy. Yes books with female protagonists are easy lumped into one genre – more out of laziness than anything else. Books find their audience and audiences find their books regardless of what you label them.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given about this crazy business? The worst?
Write books quickly! Someone told me this once. I love the advice and it’s probably great advice – it’s the implementing it that’s tough.
What craft books do you recommend for writers?
I had to think about this one because when I first read the question I drew a total blank. But I remember really liking a book called Monster by John Dunne. It’s about screenwriting it and I was reading it in the middle of a very difficult screenwriting project and found some sanity in hearing his story. I received fan mail once suggesting a book by Stephen King called On Writing. I think I read it in a day. It was very engaging, and very practical.
What’s next for you?
Short stories and a novel, and hopefully a play at some point.
ASK AGAIN LATER is on sale now at booksellers worldwide.