Thinking about comedy
This is the transcript of a conversation between Mary Ann Hushlak, a friend and dramaturge, on writing Rules for Thursday Lovers.
CAPTIVATED BY A NOVEL; THINKING ABOUT ITS CRAFTING -- and COMEDY
Mary Ann Hushlak and Yana Stajno talk about Yana’s novel,
Rules for Thursday Lovers
18 June 2015
MAH is Mary Ann Hushlak
YS is Yana Stajno
MAH: So. Here we are. Rules for Thursday Lovers. First off, I’ve been doing some reading about the concept of comedy.
YS: Which is a bit of an underrated art.
MAH: How do you think of . . . about comedy?
YS: I think - it’s tragedy speeded up. But the difference is comedy makes whoever’s watching or reading the actions feel superior. In a tragedy they’re more emotionally involved. Once people laugh, they feel, oh, I wouldn’t make those mistakes. This other person is making those mistakes. So there’s a distance in comedy that is probably comforting.
MAH: An aspect I find intriguing about your novel is I put myself in their position and I think, oh, could I do that? NO, of course not but could I? It’s fascinating that it seems real enough for me to wonder.
YS: If I pulled that off, that’s really good.
MAH: Now -- when you started on the book . . . did the characters come first, or the plot?
YS: Neither. The idea came first. It usually does with me. The idea being – it was in a conversation with a friend. She somehow wasn’t very happy in her marriage or life, and I quipped, oh for goodness sake, get a lover. She said, I don’t have time to get a lover. And I said, well, just timeshare a lover. And then I thought, ohh . . . that’s an idea for a story, a drama really. It’s a drama.
MAH: Ok – that it feels more like a drama than a comedy. Why? Why, what?
YS: I don’t know. It’s because I’m – I love dramas. I love the moments in which things are transformed because I’m working with them all the time.
MAH: As an acupuncturist.
YS: Yes. I’m working with dramas and - because people are never ill unless a drama . . . either physically or emotionally has happened. So it’s my territory – drama.
MAH: And when you started with the idea, did you immediately think it would be women timesharing a lover?
YS: Yes definitely. It was always women. Also because women are the sorts of people who would - men wouldn’t bother with trying to collaborate in this way. Women would have the illusion that - because they manage the everyday world anyway - they could manage this rather difficult, fun thing in this way.
MAH: One of the aspects . . . as I was doing this reading about comedy, was that comedy is about us in human society, about who we are in human society rather than let’s say just our individual, existential angst.
YS: Well, the essence of comedy, which is a very practical essence, is that things go wrong. So it’s very practical, comedy. Things do and will go wrong.
MAH: Things go wrong in tragedy –
YS: Later. Things go wrong, later.
MAH: And also we don’t expect to laugh. As I now laugh! But to come back to . . . you viewed it would be two women characters.
YS: Yes. I was also very interested in the idea of misunderstandings and that’s why I wanted everybody’s point of view. I wanted the story told from each of the women separately so we could have all the fun of their misunderstandings and I wanted the story told also from the lover and from the husband and I think I’ve even got the story told from the pickpocket. We end up with the same distance from various characters and the story changes depending on who’s seeing it. I was very keen on that idea. So we’re not going with the tragic arc of one character; we’re going with a weave of error and muddle. But always I love my characters. They’re all aspiring to something.
MAH: That’s what you love about them?
YS: Yes. They’re all trying something completely outlandish that is doomed to failure and there’s trying it anyway. So I think if I was to say anything about this tale is I would like everyone to have the feeling that if somebody wants to do something as outlandish as making a kind of memorial hat to a missing German student or timesharing a lover or - that - in a short, sweet life - they should try it. So long as they’re not killing anyone. And if somebody else is trying to do something so outlandish that maybe we shouldn’t judge them until we get close enough to hear their heartbeat.
MAH: So what you’re saying is . . .
YS: Because everybody is searching for something and some people are rather grander about their searches and their drama, and some people are more muddled, are more doomed in their searches, as in a comedy.
MAH: Do you think there will be judging to these two - Angie and Fiona? That they will be judged?
YS: I think they may, in this culture, which is fairly Protestant really, at root; they will be judged quite harshly and I think that’s a shame. So I would like by the end of the novel, the judgement to be mitigated and possibly why I’m doing it as a comic form is that when people are laughing they’re judging but they’re judging in a slightly less savage way than with cynicism.
MAH: Ah yes, the judgement of cynicism. Often very vicious indeed.
YS: And uncreative. And ungenerous. I don’t like it. So I’m on the edge of this here. I know there’ll be a cynicism and there’ll be a judgement of these characters but this is the offering I’m making in this novel.
MAH: It strikes me . . . how a work that has women with lovers is categorised. These days, it can almost by definition, be chucked into chick lit. With all those connotations. Yet what would we make of a Moliere or Beaumarchais, if they were today? Or Fielding, who I find – confession here - very, very funny. With Rules for Thursday Lovers it strikes me that, if I were in categorisation mode, it’s a comedy of manners.
YS: Well, I’d say comedy of manners goes down better in France. We’re more comfortable with comedy of errors and screwball comedies. Though there is Alan Ayckbourn. P G Woodhouse wrote comedy of manners. Comedy of manners is so dependent on class and because we’re so touchy about class it’s less done.
MAH: That brings me to the word rules, in the title and in the story. That somehow it’s as if the rules they’ve set up, that if they’re following rules they are still part of society. And if they are following rules they’re protecting themselves somewhat. In terms of our reading, our entire notion of what is romance, what is love, what is marriage – we have codes and rules. And this to me excavates in an ironic way – and I mean ironic in the best sense of the word – what are the rules?
YS: Well, quite. Especially with love.
MAH: What are the rules and that – that’s for me the fundamental question. The other aspect – how do you think about the rules and how did the concept of rules come up?
YS: Well, I thought that is how they would attempt to do something as ungovernable as share a lover on a Thursday afternoon. Well first of all they would decide it would only be Thursday and alternate Thursdays. And slowly they would construct a lot of rules that would be an attempt to make it run smoothly and keep everybody happy. But then the fun of it is to watch how impossible these rules are to keep. I’m interested anyway in characters taking on powers that are too big for them. So this is an attempt to take on love. Or you know, brush with love. With rules in place.
MAH: And so their sense that they could go forward and not think I’m doing something really bonkers is, well, it’s fine, we’ve got rules.
YS: Yes. Yes. I think that about society generally.
MAH: Recently, I had to read biographies of Moliere and Beaumarchais – and their plays. It was for a session I was presenting in a series on theatre in relation to the public. That’s all by the by, but what I became very aware of was how much the likes of Moliere and Beaumarchais were talking about the social order and how far it can be pushed. That’s what got me thinking about the why of these rules . . . as well as who sets the rules and who breaks the rules . . .
YS: Yes. All of those questions.
MAH: I found the pickpocket an intriguing character.
YS: Oh good.
MAH: And that’s because he’s like a witness.
YS: Quite a sober witness.
MAH: And in parts of the novel I thought, is he wondering what are they doing? Or is it because he transgresses rules.
YS: But he’s a professional.
YS: So he’s got his own rules of transgression that he’s always had. He isn’t attempting anything new. He’s the only character who isn’t.
MAH: That’s true. But he is drawn to them and it.
YS: Yes. But because he’s a pickpocket and what he can get from something that is spread open like a purse of one sort or another. Because when things are falling apart or bags are left open – a pickpocket . . .
MAH: . . . is opportunistic.
MAH: Now – how did the two central characters [Angie and Fiona] emerge as they are?
YS: How did they come?
YS: It’s tricky for characters. They just came like that, with one much more innocent than the other. The one that’s harder to like – Fiona – is the one I like the most because she makes the biggest journey.
MAH: And why is she your favourite?
YS: I think she was harder to make likeable so by the time I made her likeable I liked her.
MAH: And also she definitely has a relationship to Daddy.
YS: She has a relationship with Daddy, yes. A big struggle, yes. And also she’s the artist. She makes these ridiculous hats but it’s the one thing she’s carved out for herself.
MAH: What do you think the reasons were that she was harder to like?
YS: More selfish, more manipulative, more narcissistic, less caring, more ruthless. But as I wrote her, I found the vulnerability in her and I found her struggle to create.
MAH: And also Guy, [her husband].
YS: Guy. And she made Guy. She created Guy out of rather unpromising beginnings.
MAH: So there’s also this aspect of what are women’s roles in a family. And Angie?
YS: Angie – well, she’s much easier to like because she’s the one led into this ridiculous idea but I suppose she’s straighter and she’s the one of course who falls in love, and ultimately loses. She gains and she loses.
MAH: And how did her working in an old age home emerge?
YS: She just always was, she just did. Caring for older people . . . I liked the idea of somewhere in the story that everyone’s facing death and aging. And that this was a desperate attempt of these women to stave that off. And she would be in a good place to try and stave it off because she was seeing it every day.
MAH: So this is kind of a last gasp before middle age.
YS: Yes. Yes. Before the stench of mortality, which she was sniffing. And was one of the reasons why she would unconsciously be drawn to doing something quite so odd.
MAH: Now - the biographies of these two and, in particular, their friendship. Could this have happened if they hadn’t been friends from school?
MAH: I would think not.
YS: Because the competitiveness wouldn’t have been there. No, no, if a stranger had asked somebody to do this, it would be a very different affair.
MAH: So it was because they . . .
YS: They had this old memory of trying strange things when they were kids.
YS: And adolescent. And because they hadn’t met for years and years, they were thrown straight back into the dreams of adolescence. So they would have been unprotected in a way from each other.
MAH: The dreams of adolescence. In effect, they did an Adolescence Mark II.
YS: Exactly. They weren’t part of each other’s normal lives; they were part of each other’s earlier aspirational lives.
MAH: And because they didn’t know each other in the present, perhaps they couldn’t assess each other in the present?
MAH: So there’s that strange mix of not being able to assess each other in the present, yet knowing what they’ve come from. And the hats?
YS: I don’t know where that came from but it came and Fiona was ‘hats’.
MAH: Fiona was ‘hats’ and Angie was – the old age home.
YS: I suppose hats are what you show the world, what you conceal your head under, your thoughts under and what – it’s interesting that by the end of the tale Fiona is no longer wearing hats. So it’s very much a presentation. And also I say somewhere in the novel that one reason she does hats is that she hates seeing people’s backs. When you design a hat for somebody you have to look at their face - they have to show you their face.
MAH: An aside here but I’m curious. Why does she hate seeing people’s backs?
YS: Because her father was always marching ahead of her. She was always going on some journey or other with her father and he was always not very interested in her and marching ahead of her so she has a history of not liking backs.
MAH: And the timeshare? Did that come up because timeshares were in the news, you know people selling timeshares?
YS: A little bit, that’s for sure. But also I liked the play on the word because you know in a way the novel is also a study of ownership. I wanted the notion that we were only ever sharing a little time with people.
YS: And so I was also looking at property of one sort and another, and how much does anybody own of anybody, how much does one own of anything, how much of their life do they own.
MAH: So rules and what relationships are based on. Including friendship as a form of love.
YS: And what are the rules of friendship.
MAH: And the rules that take place at the zoo. The zoo.
YS: The zoo. Well, the zoo seemed an obvious place to, you know, interview candidates. Because as somebody pointed out, there are very clear places where you can meet and there are plenty of witnesses so it can’t get dangerous. The only thing that’s dangerous are the animals inside the cages. It becomes another play on the theme of the rules in relation to our keeping the passions inside cages.
MAH: Also what is nature and what is social?
YS: Yes. Both and the same. Yes.
MAH: And did you have to do a lot of research at the zoo?
YS: I did. I went to the zoo a lot. I still have a zoo card that allows me to go to the zoo anytime and in fact I’m planning to do a lot of zoo paintings.
MAH: Because part of what is intriguing is the notion that the zoo – where would be safe places to interview candidates, prospective candidates, and also prospective candidates who’d be willing to come to the zoo.
YS: Because not anybody would think – you know it’s also quite expensive. As somebody said, I think it’s Fiona who says, at least they’d be solvent. It’s quite expensive to go to the zoo, which is why I have a card to get in.
MAH: Which animals did you like, did you find a particular passion for?
YS: In the zoo?
YS: Every time I go to the zoo I have a different passion for a different animal. So I enjoyed the new tigers. I’ve enjoyed the sloth. Although is that at that zoo? Yes, it is. The sloth. I’ve enjoyed the lions, but they’re gone at the moment. I’ve enjoyed the bush babies. I love the pigs.
YS: Because the pigs shouldn’t be in the zoo. They’re really domesticated animals and there they are, in the zoo. Right next to the gorilla and the lions.
MAH: Oh there is a detail most people don’t . . .
YS: There’s something very charming about those pigs.
MAH: Pigs are very bright, you know.
YS: Very bright.
MAH: They’re very intelligent animals. Not like chickens.
YS: Yes but they’re safe there because they’re not being eaten. There’s something ironic about those pigs.
MAH: They’re not being chops.
YS: That’s right. So animals are dangerous there and those pigs couldn’t be safer.
MAH: That’s true. And the pickpocket went there because . . .
YS: Good pickings.
MAH: Good pickings. Because people – at least they’re solvent.
YS: He probably has a zoo card, you see. He must have. It’s terribly expensive otherwise.
MAH: And the prospective candidates. Did you worry about whether they’d be likely to . . . who would actually answer an ad like this?
YS: I have to say I didn’t worry about it. They just popped up in my mind and I went with it.
MAH: You couldn’t think too much about who would – because who would answer?
YS: Quite. Because who would?
MAH: Having said that, if you think of Facebook and the like, well, people do extraordinary things now.
YS: They really do.
MAH: And did you wish that some of your prospective candidates could be in the story longer?
YS: Yes but I was conscious that I had to crack on with the story. I was very attached to Rudolfo and very attached to Frederick and very attached to all of them, except that strange man with an umbrella. I wasn’t so attached to him. So as far as I’m concerned, they could all come back and have another story. If it was a musical they could certainly be in the finale.
MAH: I can’t help but notice how much I’m talking about characters. Which suggests to me in my reading that the characters – this perennial question – drove the plot rather than the plot requiring the characters. Somehow I wanted to have a picnic with the characters.
YS: That’s nice. Thank you. That’s very flattering. That’s good.
MAH: And the plot. And the art installation.
YS: Yes. Well the art installation had to be beaten back into place a little bit. The art installation was becoming the plot. So a bit of editing had to happen with the art installation. It’s the embodiment of mischief, the art installation.
MAH: As you were writing it, were you reading a lot of comedies?
YS: I’ve read comic works of one sort or other and I’ve certainly watched comedies. And I’ve learnt from the great Danny Simon about how to write comic structure. But really in contemporary writing, they’re hard to find, comedies I mean. I’ve read the Ukrainian – A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, which I enjoyed. And in film, I love Jacques Tati. I think I learn more from Jacques Tati than anyone. I think he’s terrific. Just perfect.
MAH: So it’s both film and books.
YS: I’ve learnt a bit from Tom Sharpe. I like Tom Sharpe. I’ve learnt from Barchester Towers. From Dickens. Pickpocket is pure Dickens. Muriel Spark – I think she’s wonderful. I think Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore is just genius. I’m trying to think more contemporary. I think comic writers tend to be television or radio, or plays.
MAH: I will come back to the place of comic writing in literature. But first - plot. The plot, even as I ask the question, almost feels secondary to the characters. Yet it’s not, obviously. Were there times you thought, okay this plot is getting out of hand? How do I steer them? Or did what would happen next – I hesitate to use the word organic – come out of what was happening before?
YS: I think it is pretty organic. Yes, the characters would suggest diversions. Quite a lot of diversions and I would constantly be trying to draw them back into what, in a way, I was trying to prove. But I would say what holds the novel together is – well, yes it is very plotted, but for me it’s more the theme. The theme is . . . everything is a meditation on ownership. Everybody’s questions are around . . . so I would keep bringing in . . . I would keep thinking of the theme – what is it that anyone owns? In terms of characters and diversions, Dr. Henkelscheiffer, well she kind of came in as a bit of a surprise, so she took over for a while.
MAH: Rules and ownership then. Without being explicitly stated, they’re the undercurrent.
YS: The theme holds it, for me. The theme holds the work together. And the plot - I hope people wonder what is going to happen next. I hope this interests them.
MAH: Well with the plot, given that we know it’s a comedy, we’re pretty assured that they’re not going to be murdered by an axe-murderer. This is not going to suddenly turn into a horror story; we know it’ll turn out all right at the end. Might be a bit bittersweet.
YS: It’s all bittersweet, for Angie, for Fiona.
MAH: Because we understand the codes of how comedy tends to end, we can go with the romp so to speak. Because --
YS: Because we’re in safe hands.
MAH: We’re in safe hands. And we laugh.
YS: I hope we laugh.
MAH: Recently in the literary pages of the papers, it’s been pointed out that there are far fewer main women characters in books nominated for prizes, for instance, let alone women writers. Here my question is – is this a woman’s story? The women are central and although you could say the men are ancillary, in some ways they’re not. There’s something here about the role of these women and how we read comedy.
YS: Well, I remember they always told me in radio drama that women are harder to have being funny. I don’t know why they said that but it was true that whenever a male comes into a scene people laugh more. I don’t know why; I wouldn’t expect that. Is there some preconception that women aren’t as funny as men? Or that somehow if we don’t have women being serious, then all hell is breaking loose. We need to hang onto somebody’s hand. In this novel I’m hoping these women are not people whose hands we could hold and feel very safe with.
MAH: And they are funny. Let’s just look at that a bit. About what humour is and what comedy is. If we feel easier to laugh when men come on a stage, is it because we know that the society isn’t going to fall apart because this is power?
MAH: Or maybe that, because they’re in a power position we can feel a little more triumphant because we can laugh. Is it that women are to keep the social fabric of the family, nuclear family, extended family, and friendship family, keep it knitted together?
YS: Yes, I think that’s right. People are much harder on women breaking out of the norm than they are with men doing it. Much tougher.
MAH: Yes and also should they be attempting to do this? Because if I’d put male characters in their position, if I reversed it, that it was two male friends who’d met after a long time and there was one suggesting they timeshare a lover, well – it wouldn’t be funny.
YS: It wouldn’t be funny.
MAH: It would be axe murder. Not quite.
YS: It would be drama. Yes. It would be unpleasant drama. It would be In the Company of Men type film.
MAH: So the competitiveness would turn . . .
YS: Very nasty.
MAH: And also the role of the woman . . .
YS: Would be very manipulated. Very abused.
MAH: And the fact that here these men were men who were not powerless . . .
YS: Yes we assume that women have less power and so it’s more bearable. You couldn’t change the sex and keep the humour.
YS: Which is good because with everything else, they change the sex. They put women in macho, male roles so they can have the woman count go up. Here you couldn’t ever give these parts to men, which I’m rather pleased about.
MAH: Why do you think comedy is taken less seriously in literary fiction than drama or tragedy?
YS: Well, I think fewer people can agree on what’s funny than they can agree on what’s tragic, or what’s upsetting or what’s horrific or what’s sad. So there’s an argument before you even start. And nothing defines people’s age or class or country of origin than what they laugh at. It’s always divisive and so you’re having less and less of a stock to draw from.
MAH: And when you say, what is funny, you’re meaning what we laugh at? Although we can watch a comedy and not laugh but it can be funny.
YS: Well, laughing is one aspect of comedy but feeling superior is another.
MAH: Sometimes when I watch comedy, I find myself making a distinction between comedy in which I laugh with the characters and those I’m expected to laugh at. Do you think that’s an appropriate distinction? Or do you think I’m just wishy-washing it?
YS: Well I think David Mamet had something very good to say about that. David Mamet said, when you say you’re laughing with someone, you’re not only laughing at them but you’re lying about it.
MAH: Let’s talk about this more. Because I think sometimes I’m, oh my heavens, I could feel myself, picture myself in that scene and I’m laughing at myself. But that might be seeing the absurdity of it. Absurdity I know is different than comic.
YS: It’s still comic.
MAH: Seeing the absurdity – I certainly know I feel very uncomfortable when I see humour – maybe it’s a different kind of superiority, where somebody is explicitly being made fun of, almost akin to a cruel humour. Now maybe I’m talking about cynicism humour. But as I look at, maybe if it’s coming from one character using humour as a means to be controlling . . .
YS: Well I think there’s the kind of humour that’s to do with contempt and I really don’t have much to do with that. I like to think I don’t feel contemptuous of any character I invent or write about. I think that’s a cruel kind of humour.
MAH: And there’s the humour akin to what I call cheeky chappy syndrome. Where people will say things, that oh, I’m just being cheeky when in fact they actually want to be cruel.
YS: Well, I do think humour is cruel.
YS: I think there’s no way round that. The ultimate cruelty, as a writer is that you can never allow your comic character to be self-aware because then they’ll stop being funny. You’re going to keep consciousness away from the characters you’re writing and that’s a cruel art form. Really. At base. But why you’re doing is because you want certain truths to be revealed and if you make people comfortable by feeling superior then they’re more likely to look at those truths in a deeper way than they otherwise would. Well, that’s why I’m doing it, I think. Certainly when I work with people, laughter is an incredible tool of relaxation and also a means of getting round a problem in another way. I think what’s lovely about humour is the subversive nature of it, the fact that you’re thinking of at least two things at once.
MAH: The contradiction.
YS: The contradiction; the paradox.
MAH: When you look back on the drafting and redrafting, were there major changes in terms of character or just deepening?
YS: More deepening. Deepening and actually slowing things down a bit. I tend to speed everything up too much. And also coming from playwriting, I leave out too much. You know, assuming it’ll be in the tone of a voice and people will understand it. It can’t be on the page. So I needed to add.
MAH: When you finished the last draft, was it hard to say goodbye to them?
YS: Yes. It’s still hard to say goodbye to them. I keep feeling they might have to have a sequel.
MAH: Yes, Angie could make another trip.
YS: Yes. They all could. Pickpocket, they’re all alive so that’s fine. They could run an agency.
MAH: Yes. A dating agency. The thought of it.
YS: The zoo could certainly do --
MAH: And which characters, are there any scenes, are there any characters you felt especially pleased about.
YS: Well, there’s one sex scene in particular because I think sex, funny sex, is really, really hard. First of all, sex is hard and funny sex is even harder. And I’m very pleased with Mr. Aranovitch. Anything in which Mr. Aranovitch is in – I’m very fond of him. I’m pleased with Pickpocket. The scenes with Pickpocket. And I’m pleased with Mrs. Willoughby
MAH: Ah, Mrs. Willoughby. What’s interesting here is how minor characters give a novel so much more than texture. And there’s the apartment. The flat.