Red Nose stories: writing something funny for money

In Mary Casserley's illustration from GORILLA DREAMS, Gilbert irons his dad's very large, spotty underpants.I’m always uneasy about school bookings that fall on Red Nose Day – and not just because my customary red look loses its impact. I feel under an obligation to be funny and read exclusively humorous extracts from books like FRANK, GORILLA DREAMS, HEADCASES, THE LINCOLN IMP and ONGALONGING. Yes, I have quite a few funny stories and it’s great as a writer to make myself laugh as I tap away at the keyboard, but he truth is, I’d really rather cry!

I don’t want to sound mushy and I’d never want to depress anyone, which is why when I wrote VOICE OF THE ASPEN, and couldn’t rewrite history by pretending that the fate of the Native Americans killed or confined to reservations wasn’t tragic, I hoped to leave the reader moved by the power of cross-cultural friendship. But for me, crying over a book, whether it’s Anna Karenina, Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love, The Mill on the Floss or Noughts and Crosses (all read/reread recently) or one of my own YA novels like TRACES, THINNER THAN WATER or THE DREAMER, is much more than an exquisite and complex pleasure. It means that the characters and themes make a deep connection. It means that on an emotional and ideological level they matter because they illuminate a truth about human beings that stirs something probably located in the soul. And that’s a cause for celebration because I’m not sure fiction can be great without such truth and such connections.

When I wrote THE WATERHOUSE GIRL it was cathartic; I was moved and inspired by my character’s courage. But when I expanded the novel for publication I didn’t only broaden it with a dramatic sub-plot enabling Daisy to literally save the whale, but enrich it with humour. I made Daisy funnier. I thought there was a risk that in doing so I would reduce the poignancy of her situation but I think her wit and eccentricity (my favourite humour combination) enhance it. In the same way, FRANK would be more forgettable if we didn’t, once or twice, feel sorry for the nasty, maddening Splat, and if we didn’t, just occasionally, see Frank’s softer side peek through.

I like to write something funny (for a very little money) but unless a funny story has the power to make readers care enough to worry or cry, or reflect wistfully on feelings unforgotten, it falls short.

P. S. Note to self: when showing this illustration by the fab Mary Casserley, remember that the phrase his dad’s large spotty underpants never fails.

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