Story Behind the Story #9:
The History of Helpless Harry

The History of Helpless HarryBooks evolve in curious ways. Consider The History of Helpless Harry. Or, to give it its full title:

The History of Helpless Harry
To which is added a Variety
Of Amusing and Entertaining

I had written, or so I thought, a realistic tale about a boy—in an historical context—who was being pushed about, and generally bullied, until he turns things around and comes out unscathed and triumphant.

I sent the manuscript to my agent. She gave me a call and suggested we have lunch to talk about the book. Of course I met with her.

Lunch was a genial affair, with chit chat about family, publishing, and the like. Not a word about my book. Until she said, “What was your intent with your story?”

“A serious study of how a boy is mistreated, but, with struggle, sees his way to a good end.”

“Serious? In what way?”

“A realistic, and hopefully moving, novel.”

She hesitated a moment and then said, “What would you say if I told you I thought it was very funny?”

“Funny?” I said, shocked.

“Very funny. I suggest you take another look at what you’ve written.”

Rather shaken, I went home and went over what I had written—her words in my head. And “egad!” as they say in old-time melodramas, I had to admit that what I had written was absurd, and yes, possibly a slapstick farce.

I set back to rewriting, and added a variety of amusing and entertaining adventures.

With pictures by Paul O. Zelinsky it worked well. And was quite funny.

The Influence of Playwriting

Avi_The Influence of Playwriting  from Mackin Educational Resources on Vimeo.

Thanks to MackinVia for this excerpt from a longer interview I did with them recently. You can view more of Mackin’s videos here.

Who Was That Masked Man Anyway? and Catch You Later, TraitorIf you haven’t already read Catch You Later, Traitor, here’s more about the book. And, in this particular excerpt, I talk about another one of my books, Who Was That Masked Man Anyway?, which is both historical and funny.


The Unstrung Harp

Unstrung HarpCatch You Later, Traitor has been officially published. Whenever I publish a book, I always reread my absolute favorite book about professional writing and the writer’s life, Edward Gorey’s The Unstrung Harp.

I think there is more truth about writing in this work of genius than forty books about writing.

But, be advised, if you are new to the work of Edward Gorey it will not be what you expect. It will, beyond all else, surprise you and make you laugh. But, if you are a writer, a good laugh always helps.

Get hold of it. Keep it near your desk. Trust me. You need it.

And since I’m in the mood to make you laugh I will share this story, which was told to me.

A seven year old was shown a typewriter for the first time. It was demonstrated. His response? “Cool; a computer that prints right away.”

Have a good day.

In which I am caught by surprise …

History of Helpless HarryMany years ago, I had written a novel, about which I was pleased, but felt something was not right. I couldn’t think it out. It was a rather serious tale about a rural boy who had his revenge on his tormentors. I sent it to my agent (Dorothy Markinko), who read it and suggested I come and see her so we might talk about it. That I did, and we did talk over a leisurely lunch. It was toward the end of that meeting that she said to me, “Have you considered turning the book into a comic novel? A lot of it made me laugh.”

To say the least, that took me by surprise. My book was not meant, in any way, to be funny.

But I went back to my desk and with her words in my head, took up the manuscript, read it, and realized she was … right. I suddenly saw the book in a whole new way.

With much rewriting the published book emerged as The History of Helpless Harry.

The point of all this is, it is not unusual to work on a book—work it all the way through—and yet sense that something is not right. The task then is to work backward and find where the book took the wrong road, so to speak. It’s not an easy thing to do. It requires beyond all else, a willingness to look at your work with almost clinical objectivity. Beyond that objectivity a contradiction, an intuitive sense of where your tale wandered wrong.

Sometimes you need to find the road not taken, and take it.

Why am I writing this? Because—in regard to the book I am working on—I’m looking for the road I should have taken. I think it is somewhere around page 72 …

Ha-Ha, part two

Humor, being funny, is an immensely subjective phenomenon. I tell a pun, you groan. You tell a joke, and I do not get it. Alternatively, someone tells a joke which offends someone else. Therefore, when it comes to writing something that is meant to be funny, it is anything but a funny situation. I would not presume to tell anyone how to be funny. I can only describe my process—during those times when I sit down and try to be funny.

To begin, I need to be in a certain mood. I think, speaking for myself, it is that sometimes I see the world not as funny per se, but ironic, begging for a satirical response. An old book of mine, Punch with Judy, is the story of a 19th century traveling medicine show. Falling on hard times, they decide to change their show to one full of comedy. Alas, when they try to be funny, they are not. However, when they become sad and morose, they are funny. Does it work? You will have to read it and tell me.

punch with judy who was that masked man anyway poppy and ereth

The book which I think is the funniest I have written is Who Was That Masked Man Anyway? The situation is two boys, Frankie and Mario, who are so enamored of the 1940 radio shows for kids, (The Lone Ranger, The Shadow, Sky King, etc.) that they try to live their lives as if they were in radio shows. Thus, the book is entirely written in dialogue (not one “he said” or “she said”) and the boys are constantly shifting in and out of character, as they try to help Frankie’s older brother—a depressed World War II veteran—come back to a full and romantic life. Why is it funny? Because the situation is absurd.

Or, there is the situation in the last of the Poppy books, Poppy and Ereth, in which the forever grumpy Ereth tries to teach himself how to smile.

Therefore,  in my present circumstance, in which I am being called upon to write something funny, I don’t try to think of a character that is comical—that’s not my way—but  rather  a state of affairs that is ironical, or absurd.

Will I succeed in writing the hilarious story I have been asked to do? If I do not, I will not get the contract and the joke will be on me. Get it?

Ha-Ha, part one

Who Was That Masked Man Anyway?A couple of times a year I visit my dentist for a checkup. He’s an excellent dentist, does a great job and is a really nice guy. His quirk: He obsessively tells jokes while I am sitting in his chair, mouth plugged by a variety odd shaped tubes and sharp probes. So while he, non-stop, tells his jokes, puns, quips, I cannot laugh or groan, or react in any way other than, as each joke rolls out, I give a thumb up or down. I assure you, the thumb goes both ways during 45 minutes. I guess that is what is called a funny situation.

What most amazes me most is his recall of all this humor. He thinks funny. Further, there is the realization that a joke is, in its way, a very short story.

There are writers who think funny. Among my friends are Bruce Coville and Richard Peck, and they think funny. I once met Dave Barry, and he clearly thinks funny. Gail Collins, the NY Times political columnist, must think funny to write the way she does. While I adore humor, admire wit enormously, and am told I have a decent sense of humor, I don’t think funny. I have written humor (I think Who Was That Masked Man Anywayis my funniest book) but I do not  generally, think funny.

That said, comedy has long fascinated me. It’s very ancient, having stayed remarkably the same since the dawn of western literature. Yet, while people love to laugh, humor is generally considered less of an achievement than other forms of literature. What comedic novel has won a big award? We say, “He is a clown,” and that’s not a nice thing. We say, “He is a tragic figure,” and there is a suggestion of grandeur.

This comes up because I recently sold a collection of short stories to a publisher, sold, that is, with one condition: “One of the stories needs to be funny. Can you do that?”

How do you write comedy? Is that laughter I hear?

[To be continued]

Resetting My Narrative Grooves

I very much enjoy reading short stories, and marvel at their power, and their ability to create a comprehensive experience, however brief. I even edited a collection (with Carolyn Shute) that has no theme, other than quality. It’s called Best Shorts. Over the years I have written numbers of them. There are two collections of my stories, Strange Happenings, and What do Fish Have to Do with Anything? Some nine others are in thematic anthologies and I think there’s an unpublished one somewhere in my files. There is even a one-act play in a collection called Acting Out.

short stories

My regular mode of thought is novels, so I usually don’t write short stories unless I’m asked to write one. Finding them a real challenge to write, I begin by reading many, so as to reset my narrative grooves. Curiously enough, my short stories are very much more auto-biographical than my novels—or at least they are most often based on something that really happened to me. Consider “Scout’s Honor,” which appears in the anthology, When I Was Your Age. Readers find it very funny, even absurd. Yet, much of it really happened to me, including the incident in which a can of beans is opened with a hatchet. I have no plans to write more, unless I’m asked. But then again . . .