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The Writing Life
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by Moira Allen
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Piers Anthony is the author of 119 novels (as of 2001), including the 22 novels of the Xanth series. For more information (including a newsletter), visit Anthony's website at http://www.hipiers.com/.
How would you define "humor"? (I thought I'd start with the dumbest question first...)
I'm not sure I can define humor. Something that makes folk laugh in a pleasant way, that gives pleasure. My Xanth series is essentially humor. It started that way because I couldn't take fantasy seriously. Later I was able to, but Xanth was locked in.
What elements of fantasy make good sources of humor?
I regard anything as a potential source of humor. I have particular fun parodying current societal conventions. The whole "Adult Conspiracy to keep interesting things from children" is an example. It is ludicrous to think that trying to hide sex will make it not exist. Also, "Mundania" is unfailingly dreary; that's another spoof.
Your humor tends to spoof fantasy but also aspects of the "real" world. How do you strike a balance between the two?
The balance is not in the distribution of the text, not 1,000 words humor and 1,000 words serious. I try rather to have different levels, so that what is funny on the surface may be meaningful upon reflection. This doesn't necessarily work well, and some readers - and reviewers - are oblivious, but it is what I try for.
What seems funny yesterday may not seem funny today. How do you prevent humor from becoming "dated"?
I try to have each novel be an entity in itself, not dependent on outside references for its effect, so that it doesn't become dated. But again, what is funny to people is usually what relates to them and that changes with time, so some dating is bound to occur. I think my novels are surviving well, going strong after 20 years.
You balance your humor with some serious themes; why is that important, and how do you strike the right balance between "serious" and "funny"?
I'm not sure there is a balance in any one novel or even series. The emphasis in the Xanth series is on humor, ranging from slapstick to subtle, while there may be little humor in my more serious series like GEODYSSEY. However, there is another aspect: some readers need something light and funny to relieve the boredom or pain of their serious lives. I have had many letters from those who say Xanth kept them sane by giving them escape from the discomfort of chemotherapy or serious depression. Indeed, man does not live by bread alone, or by serious literature alone. He needs some laughter too.
To what do you attribute your gift of puns? (What are your favorite puns from the Xanth series?)
I don't think I have an unusual gift for puns; I can fail to get them in real life. But my readers send them in by the hundreds, so I have a huge range to draw on. My favorite is not exactly a pun, it's a maxim: "Never let a man get the upper hand; there's no telling where he might put it."
Is a humor writer ever at risk of not being taken "seriously" as an author?
Yes, critics pretend that I do no serious writing when in fact I can get as serious as any writer. For example, Firefly addresses the problem of sexual abuse, and my historical fiction is the most seriously comprehensive I know of, covering all of global human history for millions of years. But there is one serious benefit of non-serious fiction: Xanth has probably taught more children (and some adults) to read than most teachers have. The thing is, it shows them for the first time that reading can be fun. When they discover that, they read more, and improve their reading skills - and that improves the rest of their education. Fun reading needs no other justification, though it has it.
Do you ever get complaints (i.e., from readers who feel you're spoofing something sacred)?
I have not had complaints about spoofing anything, but when I had a lesbian character in the Adept series, sympathetically portrayed, I had a series of condemnations from a reader. Similarly publishers would not touch Volk, a World War II novel with a Nazi SS officer sympathetically portrayed. It seems that such things are okay only if you condemn them. Some ministers object to the sexual titillations such as men freaking out at the sight of women's panties.
Your books generally have an underlying social message. Why did you choose humor to convey that message?
I really didn't choose humor to convey any messages. My serious work is serious, while my light fantasy seldom is. In any event, I try to keep messages subtle; readers don't like lectures.
What would you say to the would-be humor/fantasy writer who asks, "How do I know if it's funny?"
This is like the question "How do you know you are sane?" You really can't answer it, if your mind is open. What's funny to one person or group is not funny to another and the same humor can get different reactions at different times. I once had a complaint from a girl who said Xanth was making her laugh out loud - in the back of Chemistry class. Now that's funny!
What are some perils and pitfalls one should avoid when writing humor? (E.g., what are some of the worst mistakes one can make?)
Mistakes in writing humor? For me, it would be bigotry masked as humor. That is, finding some mishap funny only if it happens to a black man or a Jew or a fat man or a woman.
Do you have any "pet peeves" about humor in fantasy fiction?
I'm not aware of pet peeves in fantasy. But maybe I'll find some when I write the novel Pet Peeve, about a parrot-like bird with a nasty disposition. Wait - I do remeber one: it is some of the fantasy I've read by other writers that is almost entirely mundane except for a little hint at the end that maybe there was something supernatural. I prefer my fantasy with plenty of magic.
Do you have any other tips you would like to offer the would-be humor/fantasy writer?
Just try it and see how it works. Humor, when studied, disappears, so I'm not sure it can be anything other than spontaneous.
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.