You wrote Manhattan on the Rocks in the shadow of tragedy. One of your brothers was killed by a drunk driver right after you started the novel the other committed suicide just before it appeared. How could you write a comic novel while living through that?
Some days I couldn’t. I didn’t even try. I just let myself grieve. But a lot of the time, my work actually helped me. Distraction can be a blessing when you are grieving. It doesn’t take away your pain, but it can take your mind off it. After a major loss, you also need to know that you still have things that give your life meaning and value, such as work, friends, or a strong religious faith. Otherwise you might not be able to get out of bed each day. You might just stay under the covers and cry.

So many people who make us laughwriters, actors, directorsseem to have had unusually difficult lives. Why do you think this is so?
There’s a saying, “Comedy is tragedy in retrospect.” In other words, comedy can be an attempt to transform tragedy into something easier to bear. But there may be a simpler explanation for why some people with difficult lives turn to comedy: If you’ve known tragedy, you want to stay as a far away from it as you can. I certainly do. Comedy is my way of putting distance between myself and pain. I’d be a wreck if I tried to write the kind of novels that, for example, Joyce Carol Oates does. Instead, I’ve become a wimp about some subjects. You will never pick up one of my novels and read about a heroine who feeds her fiancé’s body into a wood-chipper.

Some people say that Jane Austen is the same kind of wimp—her novels have no real tragedy. Is why you like her so much?
That’s part of it. But I also love her for other reasons. One is that she is, at heart, a satirist. Jane Austen doesn’t kill her characters with knives or pistols. She kills them with wit.

How are you like Laura Smart, the heroine of Manhattan on the Rocks?
I’m like Laura in that I rarely get depressed. Some people say I’m pathologically cheerful. And you could say the same about Laura. She can’t understand why so many people in New York make a second career out of going to therapists. But Laura is different from me, too. For one thing, she has more patience. I would probably have dropped Nick long before she did.

What about Lily Blair of The Accidental Bride? How are you like her?
Lily is braver than I am. She got engaged three months after she met her fiancé. I could never have done that at her age. But Lily and I have a similar sense of humor, rooted in the absurdities in everyday life. We also love the same novels —Middlemarch, Mrs. Bridge, The Portrait of a Lady.

Do you have any writing rituals?
In my senior year of college, I put off doing my application for Mademoiselle’s Guest Editor contest for so long that I had to pull an all-nighter to finish it. I wrote all through the night in a yellow granny nightgown with brown lace at the collar and cuffs. After I won, I wore the nightgown for years whenever I thought I needed extra luck with an assignment. Eventually I wore it out and had to throw it away. But if I could find another like it, I would probably wear it again. It was my version of the “lucky bra” that Murphy Brown used to wear on dates.

What’s the best advice you ever got about writing?
My journalism professor, Donald M. Murray, used to say, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” He was right. So many people never become the good writers they could be because they’re trying become the perfect writers that none of us can be. They get hung up an impossible ideal. Sometimes they can’t move beyond the first page—or first line—of a manuscript because they can’t get it right. I tell those writers: If you can’t get a line or page right, move on to the next. You can return to the part that gave you trouble. By the way, I think that’s pretty good advice about the rest of life, too.

 


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