The OF Blog: June 2003

Sunday, June 01, 2003

Michael Gerber Interview


Over the past decade, Michael Gerber's humor has inexplicably appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He has also written for PBS, NPR, and Saturday Night Live. You might think this would‘ve satisfied him--you might think he could‘ve left us alone--but no, he had to go and write BARRY TROTTER.

Born in 1969, Gerber began writing humor at an absurdly early age; he attributes this to lax parenting and National Lampoon magazine. Early influences included classic humorists like Robert Benchley and James Thurber; Doug Kenney, Henry Beard, and Michael O'Donoghue from the Lampoon; and the British humorists Peter Cook, Alan Coren, and Monty Python.

While at college, Gerber was able to resurrect The Yale Record, America's oldest college humor magazine. He remains active with the Record, as president of its alumni group. Donations are accepted, but donors are hereby warned that they may be spent on liquor. (Now you see why The Record had to be resurrected.)

Singly and with his writing partner, Jonathan Schwarz, since 1996 Gerber has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Playboy, The Wall Street Journal,, The Village Voice, McSweeney’s and certainly a few I'm forgetting. Their commentaries have been aired on WNYC, New York's NPR affiliate. A 1998 piece, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Doughnuts," was recently collected in Fierce Pajamas, The New Yorker's anthology of humor writing. During the late ‘90s, the pair compulsively contributed to the Weekend Update segment of Saturday Night Live, and also created a seldom-seen, somewhat legendary 20-page parody of The Wall Street Journal.

BARRY TROTTER AND THE UNAUTHORIZED PARODY is Gerber's first book. Less than a year after it was self-published, it skyrocketed to the almost-top (#2) of the London Sunday Times Bestseller List, where it squatted rather rudely for six months. Nearly 300,000 copies of the book are in print, and its many foreign editions (Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, German, and Estonian, with more on the way) prove that immaturity is truly a universal language. Gerber lives in Chicago with his wife and three cats, and is finishing several new books, including the inevitable Barry Trotter and the Unnecessary Sequel, out later this year. When he's not offering unwanted advice to callow Yalies or hawking cheesy spoofs, his hobbies include watching Fellini movies, listening to Beatles records, and setting off fireworks. Oh, and rooting for the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, not that it helps them win."

The books:

Barry Trotter Series
*Barry Trotter and the Shameless Parody
*Barry Trotter and the Unnecessary Sequel : The Book Nobody Has Been Waiting For - Hits stores this September in both the US and UK


First of all, let me say that we at Other Fantasy welcome you and greatly appreciate that you are taking time out of your schedule for us.

It's my pleasure. It gives me an excellent excuse to avoid doing a pile of dishes sitting in the sink.

1. As a first book, how pleased were you with how "Barry Trotter and the Shameless Parody" turned out, and how worried were you about other's opinions on touching Rowling's work?

Well, I think I'm like a lot of creative people in that I naturally prefer whatever I'm working on at the moment. This is what keeps all of us churning stuff out, but it can also lead to John Lennon saying things like "Look, Yoko's stuff on this album is loads better than any of that crap that I put out with the Beatles.' So sometimes the person that creates something is a lousy judge of whether something's any good. What I can say about Barry the First is that I really enjoyed it as I was writing it. But my wife likes the sequel better. I love both of them equally--but you know, the audience is the only opinion that really matters.

Yes, I was very concerned about people's reaction to my parodying JKR. She is a beloved author, and rightly so. I enjoy her books immensely, and as I learn more and more about writing novels--as opposed to the magazine and TV stuff I'd done loads of in the past--my respect for her grows and grows. What I hoped would happen has (generally speaking) come to pass: readers have recognized Barry Trotter as a fan's book, an irreverent, but complimentary work. That doesn't mean I don't tease a little, but the satirical portion, the annoyed or castigating portion, is aimed at the over merchandising of the phenomenon, not the books themselves.

2. Did you set yourself specific times in which to write, or write as the ideas came to you? How much did and do you write on the average day?

Ideas often come to me right when I wake up in the morning, from pixies whispering into my ear; if I'm good, I'll throw on some sweatpants and start right in, mining whatever weird stuff my subconscious has cooked up until the vein runs dry. But what I usually do is write down some notes, then check to see if the roof's fallen in somehow, get breakfast, pet the cats, procrastinate mightily. Then, after lunch, I'll write for several hours.

On an average day, I'll come up with three or four "keeper" ideas, and write a page or two, single-spaced. (Single spacing seems to help, somehow--you have the line right there above to give you support, you're not skimming off into the blank white of the page/screen with every return...) Five pages is a great day, rare. If things are really tough, I'll sit down and write something out longhand in a spiral notebook. Nobody sees this, it's totally raw material, so I can experiment and screw up and try things that are inane. I carry a plain spiral notebook around all the time and jot stuff down in it. When I need to be presentable I carry a little moleskin book--my wife gets them for me, I have no idea where. The Wife Store.

3. I've read that you are a fan of the Harry Potter series yourself. Would you say that the idea to write Barry Trotter came from your closeness to the series, or due to its success and thus a greater understanding for readers?

Well, liking it was the first step. To parody something properly, one must immerse oneself in its world. If you don't like being there, it's very difficult to do the necessary research--that's why most parodies that slag the original are short. But I can't deny that part of it was thinking a parody of Harry Potter could sell. A parody is most effective if it shares the same medium as the original, and it's very, very rare that any book garners a readership big enough to justify a full-length parody. For a print humorist like me, HP was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. On top of all this, I know the US publishing industry well enough to know that sooner or later, somebody was going to do it, and since I liked HP, I felt it deserved to be parodied well--and from a position of affection, not mindless tearing down (which is the standard approach to written humor in the States). Finally, after I started shopping the first few chapters, and receiving the maddening response of "yeah, it's really funny, but we can't touch it," it became a point of honor to finish the book, do as good a job as I could, and see it through to the bookstore shelves. (If only for the five minutes before the WB got it pulled off!) Americans talk a lot about freedom of speech, but the fears and requirements of the huge corporations who actually print and distribute the stuff have a tremendous winnowing effect. Our rhetoric aside, American media shows a fairly narrow range of what is possible, and since *I* had read and loved tons of Barry Trotter-type stuff back in the 70s and 80s, I felt obligated to do my best to get the next generation of it out there. Parody is cheekiness in the face of authority, a quality that I think we should all be cultivating these days.

I'm sure lots of people had the thought, "I'll parody Harry Potter." However, I was the only one stubborn enough to write an entire novel, then publish it myself. There are a limited number of comedy writers who have the print chops to even consider doing a full-length parody of HP, and the other guys have easier ways to make a living, and had more at stake financially, than I did. So there was, after ten years of Ramen Noodles, definitely in a "right person-right time" thing. And I was very lucky, especially in the UK, with the publishing and marketing. But I seem to have strayed from your question...

4. Do you think that the many recent film adaptations of books have caused an increase in the popularity of parodies? What effects do you think the recent increase in the making of films of fantasy novels has had on the genre?

Well, if you take "Bored of the Rings" as your model, it had sold over a million copies in the first fifteen years after it was published, without a movie. This was due to the Harvard Lampoon college humor magazine being something of a brand name in the mid- to late Sixties--Bored was just the latest in a string of very successful print parodies they had done. So Bored's re-emergence with the Jackson films shouldn't be too surprising--it's been building a readership for 34 years and counting without them.

Speaking as a bit of an outsider, I think readers of fantasy and science fiction have a natural affinity for humor; they have a tendency to splinter into subgroups which know a great deal about a certain property--say, the world of Dune, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer--and that makes them ripe for humor. Each created world has a series of well-defined rules, stated ("Vulcans have pointed ears") and un-stated ("If you're wearing a red shirt, you die"), and that's fertile territory for rule-breaking, that is, humor. All jokes are inside jokes, and fans of fantasy and SF often use their love of a certain property to knit themselves together. So parody of specific fantasy and SF stuff is extremely thick on the ground. And there is the habit of fantasy and SF readers to read widely within the genre, which allows for moe general things like Terry Pratchett. Although to restrict TP with the label of "parodist" is unfair, I think--as it would be with Douglas Adams. Those guys were/are comic novelists, just as much as PG Wodehouse or anybody else you care to name--they just happen to toil in the fantasy/SF genre.

To be honest, it might simply come down to intelligence and imagination. The more things you know, the more things are apt to strike you funny in juxtaposition. And the better imagination you have, the more easily you'll be able to do the complex work that's required for reading parody and humor. So maybe the affinity between SF/fantasy and parody/humor is simply a function of what SF/fantasy readers are like.

The structure of Hollywood is driving studios to look not just for movie ideas, but "properties" that can be turned into a world of merchandising opportunities. It's only natural that they'd look to fantasy/SF to do so, whether the original was a novel, TV show, or comic book. And since movies are the 800-pound gorilla of our current pop culture, parodies are a natural "brand extension," if I can be permitted some odious marketing talk.

5. Were the sudden plot-twists a mockery of modern writing tools, as case of throwing things as they came to you, or the result of actual planning?

There were two things going on with that. The first was that yes, I was mocking the preciousness and micro-managing and solipsistic self-absorption that I despise in so many current novels. THE NOVEL, all-caps, the story of my life, my magnum opus, the thing that makes me a Cultural Figure--I'm so tired of it. My opinion is: first, a book should entertain (and one hopes enlighten) the reader. Attention--anybody's attention--is a precious thing, and I personally feel obligated to reward it.

There's a lot of pomposity about novels and people who write novels and a definite High Culture/Low Culture sorting process that I don't like. Over here in the US, there's an almost compulsive positioning--and it is like a product, like a detergent--of the Next Important Writer. And meanwhile, most people are reading so-called "trash," past and present, and loving it. So in the plotting of Barry there was some sense of "I know you'll dismiss this as trash, so I'm going to revel in it a bit, just go nuts." Novels don't have to be "lapidary and labrynthine," which everything in the NY Times Book Review seems to be. Novels can simply entertain, and there's no less art in that.

There was also another thing afoot, which is related to my wife's being immersed in the culture of improv comedy here in Chicago. There is an aesthetic--which belies the form's roots in the 50s--of creativity on the fly, of trusting in the natural connective powers of your brain in medias res. It's a kind of Romantic attachment to expression in the raw. I like this; I also like jazz a lot (thus, the centaurs). So as I was writing Barry, I was going wherever my intuition told me the most laughs would be. The sequel is plotted much more conventionally, because I wanted to make some jokes about the repeating elements in JKR's plots. It will be interesting to see what people think of that.

6. Do you ever feel parodies aren't accepted as "proper" writing, and merely a cheap knock-off? If so, does this annoy you?

Yes, and yes. I believe that writing should be judged--as much as you can judge writing in a macro sense, which is usually nothing more than the tastes of the time--by answering this question: did it do what it set out to do? But instead there's all this crap about what's proper, and what's simply mucking about--which has to do with conforming to either fashion, as I say, or social norms, many of which are completely arbitrary.

James Thurber one complained that writing humor meant always sitting at the children's table. That's the bad news. The good news is that people actually read your stuff, unlike the latest "novel-as-puzzle-for-grad-students," so you can really reach people. And really reaching people is a lot more important to me than being asked to be a member of a club that I'd probably hate anyway.

If you're doing it right, comedy's a way to exxpress thoughts that are threatening; it's a way to encourage people to be imaginative and free. As such, it's completely, totally opposed to the current cultural trends. It's unruly, when standardization is rewarded; it's personal, when mass-appeal is rewarded; it's honest, when conformity is rewarded. So while it annoys me that I'll never be buried with the Poets, I think there are things a lot more important than the burnishing of my ego.

7. Did making the characters older make you more comfortable while writing? (Both in terms of familiarity with the older generation and also giving a greater gap between the characters and their counterparts.)

Yes. Because I advise the student humor magazine at Yale--our dear President's alma mater, so don't say we don't know a joke when we see one--I have a stream of college-age kids passing through my life more or less constantly. So I had more models. And also, older kids can do funny things without the undertone of unseemliness that having younger kids doing it would create. Writing about an 11 year old having sex--blech.

8. Ron's equivalent; Lon, is the most obviously changed character. Was there a specific reason for this?

Well, it came from the comic characteristics I was setting up for each--Barry was somewhat smart, but lazy (and a bit venal); Ermine was very smart, and lusty; and Lon was good, but very dim. Once you've set up those characteristics, then interaction takes care of itself. Lon is the most exaggerated of these, yes. He's also the most popular--because he's the sweetest, too. I love dogs and think they're very funny, so he was my way to get that kind of character in the book. I like to write in the voice of animals.

9. Many of the characters, such as Bumblemore, display characteristics which one could imagine are present in Dumbledore's character, but simply not stated. Do you often think of other possible aspects of characters whilst reading? (Not specifically Potter)

Yeah, sure. My mind naturally thinks of what takes place after the movie fades out. Doesn't everybody's? Nobody poops on TV. Once again, this plays into one of the larger subthemes of the book: drawing attention to the artifice of writing a book or telling a story. Revealing the magic trick. Which brings us back to Bumblemore...

10. Film adaptations of books seem to be increasingly popular. Are you concerned about film adaptation, or do you expect it shall encourage more people to read? Or are they just a useful method for a plot?

No, there was genuine concern there.

I think that movies can help swell the audience for a particular book, temporarily. That's certain. But I think that book people--I'm talking about the publishing industry, primarily, but also authors--are a bit naive when it comes to getting books adapted. The real benefit is one of publicity, and that's a huge advantage for any book; the scale of most books is dwarfed by the least-successful movie. But a movie and a book are two distinct things--they aren't equivalent. And furthermore, it may not do a book as much good as we think, if there's a more easily consumable form out there, that is, a movie. It's a gamble--how many will see the movie, and simply say, "I know what happens, that's enough. What's on the next channel?"

I would hope that BT would give its readers a healthy distaste for the passivity that movies and TV insist upon. That's really the satirical point of the parody--that a movie ISN'T a book, and that in our current age, a movie can easily supersede a book. I know kids here who watched and loved both HP movies, but haven't read the books. That's the US, we're over stimulated and dopey, but it's worth thinking about. Watching a movie takes less time and imaginative input than reading a book does, and for Americans at least, both factors are very attractive. All this isn't to say books should never be turned into movies, but that we should be cautious about it. They are not equivalent.

11. Did studying Harry Potter for a year and writing a parody upon it make you at all cynical of the world that has been created, or warmed you to it?

Definitely warmed me to it. I was able to see the elements the JKR borrowed from other writers, but that didn't diminish my enjoyment--nor dim her achievement--one bit. She's done a tremendous job of creating a logical, and very "deep" world. That's why I did a sequel--there simply wasn't enough room in the first book to discuss it all.

12. How difficult did you find writing Barry Trotter? Is Harry Potter a good source material in terms of having plenty to parody?

It was difficult, because keeping a reader's attention for one page is difficult--much less 200! And if you make a really excellent joke on page 50, you might have to deal with the plot ramifications of that on page 150, and get into quite a pickle.

Harry Potter is excellent source material for parody, in that it's very logically consistent, and also very fully imagined, as I said. But there were serious problems to solve, from a parodist's perspective; first, it's funny itself. It's always much easier to parody something that takes itself relentlessly seriously--like Tolkein, for example. Second, HP's audience is very diverse. A parody written for ten-year-olds is different from one aimed at 40-year-olds. My solution to this was to build in several simultaneous levels of humor, and hope that each group would find something that satisfied them. It's a technique I haven't seen before, but I think I pulled it off. All things being equal, I think Doug and Henry had an easier job with "Bored of the Rings"--but that's easy for me to say, I didn't have to write it! And also, I had their work as a model, which was helpful. So it was probably equally hard.

13. Do you ever see "Barry Trotter" as how the characters of "Harry Potter" could turn out in terms of character rather than actual events?

Meaning, Harry turns into Barry as a result of the incredible attention that he was shown at a young age? Absolutely. When I was planning out the character of Barry Trotter, I started thinking about big-time college athletes over here are treated: they get EVERYTHING given to them, because they have a unique talent; rules don't apply to them; women (and men, if that's their thing) throw themselves at them; but they don't have any money themselves, and they are still quite dependent on adults. So that was the background thinking--if you took an 11 year old and told him that he was basically the Messiah, and he was a natural genius at everybody's favorite sport, too, what kind of person might that create? Who Barry Trotter is, isn't simply a black-equals-white version of Harry Potter, and it gives me a moment of annoyance when people assume it is. It's character-as-commentary, a deeper level of parody, which people can take or leave as it amuses them. And it's particularly satisfying to me when somebody notices that Barry changes over the course of the book, from a totally self-absorbed, incredibly shallow individual to somebody with a little more to him (while retaining those narcissistic tendencies).

14. Sleaze and corruption seem integral to the humour. Was this due to the story being based upon children's books?

Yes. The world of children's books is antiseptic, while the world of children is often anything but. (Heard the language used on a playground recently?) And part of my "point"--gosh, this weird little book is getting heavy, eh?--is to draw out and heighten this.

There's a certain type of kid--maybe all kids go through this--that defines him/herself against the prevailing opinion, or their parents, or what they liked when they were "little kids"--two years ago! MAD Magazine has existed for 50 years on this phenomenon. I think Barry very much appeals to kids who are just starting to question the world and the adults who control it. And if Barry can be a bit of a grubby guy sometimes, that's even more delicious--"Look, this character throws up--like a real person!" Someone recently called JKR's style "naive," in the sense of "pre-adult"--and while it works splendidly well, there's a type of kid (and adult) who glories in the messiness and eccentricity of the world. I think that type of person loves Barry Trotter--just as American kids in the 50s loved MAD. It's like a secret message confirming that yes, the world is nuts, you're not the only one to think this, you're not alone.

15. How important is the opinion of Potter fanatics on your book?

Highly important. Extremely important. I know that there will be some that will be outraged that I've had the temerity to "make fun" of Harry, but generally HP fans understand that I'm making fun *with* HP--the rules of the world, the characteristics of the characters--in a fundamentally affectionate way. My book's a bit like a teasing older brother to the HP series.

16. Did you find the difficulties you faced attempting to get the book on the shelves worry you as to how much quality may never be seen by the public due to publishing rivalry and fears?

Yes. Listen, quality is only one part--and often not the major part--of what gets bought by an editor, much less published, much less distributed and publicized widely enough to sell a reasonable amount. I had a lot of nice credentials, and a lot of contacts in the publishing business (I lived in Manhattan for most of the 90s) and it still came down to this: if the technology of print-on-demand publishing, and the internet, hadn't existed (or had simply been where it was in, say 1997, when I did a parody of The Wall Street Journal and lost my shirt), Barry Trotter would still be sitting on my goddamn computer! And in the UK, I was tremendously fortunate that Orion had just published Bored and was selling nice numbers of it. So I've been tremendously, tremendously fortunate with this project. If these next few books I'm working on do all right, I'm planning to turn my attention to creating something--a magazine, a publishing house--that will help identify, train, and champion all the terribly funny writers out there who haven't gotten the break, or gave up in disgust, which I almost did many times. The only thing that saved me was my utter inability to hold down conventional employment. Salvation can take strange forms.

17. I've been unable, despite my best efforts, to get a friend to read your book because she is a huge Harry Potter fan. (It's scary really). Do you have any suggestions as to how to get her to read it?

Give her time. Part of being a fan of anything is making that part of your self-image, and if loving HP is a large portion of how she presents herself to the world, she may feel like a hypocrite or somehow unfaithful if she reads and enjoys Barry T. When I was younger, for example, I LOVED the Beatles. I submerged myself in everything Beatley for years. Then that ran out--I knew it inside and out--and I got to look for stuff sort of around the Beatles that I hadn't looked at yet. I stumbled on to The Rutles (Eric Idle's loving spoof of the group) and loved it. And now I can entertain both in my head without having the parody destroy the original. In fact, the parody demonstrates to me why I love the original so much. I suspect that your friend will get to know Barry when she's ready. He'll be waiting, and probably practicing his spitting for distance AND accuracy.

18. Are there plans for more books in the Barry Trotter series? And will you be parodying any other fiction works?

You mean besides Barry Trotter and the Unnecessary Sequel? Well, I didn't plan on writing a sequel in the first place, but then the publisher asked. And I might not have done it even then, except that I got a ton of email from fans asking me to do another, "why didn't you talk about x event or y character?" I thk Lon is grate!" and all that. (Lots of letters in Lon-speak.) I suspect that Books V, VI and VII will provide plenty of grist for my goofy little mill, so it will really depend on whether I feel that readers want and would enjoy another. Writing books is a lousy way to make a living, but it's a great way to connect with people, and that's what I enjoy most. To know that I've written something that gives people pleasure--just as so many things other people have done, give me pleasure--there's no better feeling. So if Son of Barry Trotter does okay, and people start clamouring for another like they did after the first one appeared, I'd be tremendously pleased to try again. Barry's fate is in your hands as much as mine!

Other parodies....this comic novel is a parody of sorts, set at a college humor magazine. And I'm noodling with a parody of the history of the United States. Meanwhile, I'm always scanning the skies for another target...Any requests?

Thank you one again for your time and we all wish you the best if success in the future.

And to you, Dodge. It's been great fun.


Remember: ”Barry Trotter and the Unnecessary Sequel : The Book Nobody Has Been Waiting For” Hits stores this September in both the US and UK
Add to Technorati Favorites