Dan Zevin has written a lot of funny books—Entry-Level Life: A Complete Guide to Masquerading as a Member of the Real World, The Day I Turned Uncool: Confessions of a Reluctant Grownup, The Nearly-wed Handbook: How to Survive the Happiest Day of Your Life. His most recent book, DAN GETS A MINIVAN: LIFE AT THE INTERSECTION OF DUDE AND DAD, spans his transformation from regular guy to Costco-shopping parent. It was named a semi-finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor and, after reading it, I can tell you the nomination is every bit deserved.
As part of my 10 Questions Series, Dan took a minute to talk with me and answer 10 fascinating questions about humor writing—covering the writing process, finding an agent, important advice for aspiring humor writers and more—that anyone who has ever considered writing humor should check out.
1. Tell us about the moment you decided to become a writer. Was it an easy decision? Difficult decision?
In third grade, it first became clear that I couldn’t add, subtract, multiply, or divide. Fractions? Made me cry. I was outstanding at book reports, though. Then, many years later, I went to NYU and realized, all over again, that I couldn’t add, subtract, multiply, or divide. Fractions no longer made me cry, though, because they had something there called a “journalism major.” By senior year, I was interning at Rolling Stone.
2. What’s your writing process?
My process is that I must first awaken my muse each morning with a healthy mug or 10 of high-octane espresso, allowing me to get that special spike in blood pressure I need to start the long day of procrastinating that lies ahead. At some point, I will possibly become inspired to begin the pathological process of brainstorming with myself. This entails using piles of scrap paper to jot down any and every funny thing I can think of regarding a certain topic. Then—after a coffee break—I will try to organize these psychotic ramblings (most of which are illegible) into an arch. I literally draw an arch, which is my “story arc,” and I try to fit each of the random funny bits into this arc, so I wind up with a beginning, middle, and end. Then I pick up the kids from school. As I say in Dan Gets a Minivan, having kids gives every writer what they’re truly looking for: an excuse not to write. (By the way, that’s from an essay I poignantly entitled, “On No Longer Giving a Shit.”)
3. What’s the most difficult part of writing humor?
Running out of half-and-half.
4. What’s the most rewarding part?
I do a lot of funny speeches and readings at all sorts of live events, conferences, and obviously bookstores, and I always feel so much luckier than “serious” authors who do these things because I get an instant reaction from my audiences—I get to see them laughing. So often I’ll go to a reading by a brilliant novelist, and the audience just stares blankly into space, hopefully because they’re paying attention, but I’m way too crazy to deal with that uncertainty. With humor, you write it, they laugh at it, boom, everybody’s happy.
I was one of those guys who thought nothing much was going to change once my wife and I reproduced. Then everything changed. I mean, look at me. I was a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. Now I’m a suburban dad driving back and forth to Home Depot in my minivan. And loving it! That’s the kind of stuff I wanted to share in my book—just those small, funny moments none of us ever see coming until we have kids. The way I see it, there are more than enough “serious” parenting books out there, but personally, I think the one thing every parent really needs is comic relief.
6. I found the chapter about your trip to Costco with your father to be not only hilarious but also touching. What is your favorite part of Dan Gets a Minivan and why?
I kind of like that chapter the best, too. It’s called “The Day I Turned Into My Father” and the whole thing is set at Costco, which is his favorite destination on Planet Earth. And guess what? Now, it’s mine too. See what I mean? It’s pathetic. But let me tell you, I get more people writing to my website about that chapter than any other one in the book. At a certain age, we all turn into our parents.
7. Walk us through the story of how you landed your agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, at the William Morris Agency, and how that relationship works.
This is my fourth book, but when I was trying to find an agent for my first one—which is a satirical survival guide to post-college coping—I gave the manuscript to my former Rolling Stone editor, Bob Love. I also gave it to every other citizen in the greater United States of America area, in hopes that they would then give it to an agent, who would then actually get it published. As it turned out, Bob did get it to an agent, but the agent didn’t want it, BUT the agent gave it to another agent (do you see how simple of a process this is?) and that agent was Jennifer Rudolph Walsh. Now I have a sitcom deal with Adam Sandler’s production company, who optioned this book along with my previous one, The Day I Turned Uncool, so I think the woman may know what she’s doing.
8. You’ve taught humor writing at Fordham University and Sarah Lawrence College, and have also led small workshops. What kind of challenges do you face when advising others on how to write funny? Do you find it easier or harder than writing your own humor?
People always ask me if it’s really possible to “teach” anyone how to be funny. The answer, unfortunately, is no. What I try to do is encourage students to use their sense of humor in anything they write. It’s often a radical idea to them, because they’ve spent so many years trying to be “writerly” and have had so many teachers making them “stick to the facts.” I’ve had a lot of students tell me it’s the first time they ever felt allowed to write anything funny. Isn’t that messed up?
9. What writers (or books) have had the most influence on your writing and writing career?
I’m a huge fan of Dave Barry and PJ O’Rourke, and the highlight of my career was when they both wrote blurbs for Dan Gets a Minivan. Dave Barry wrote that he wants to kill me, but I’ve chosen to take that as a compliment.
10. What one piece of advice would you offer to other writers looking to make a career out of writing humor?
You can use espresso beans as regular coffee. That way, you can drink a whole pot of it, not just some dumb little cup the the size of a tea-party toy.