What? You don’t know what the Thurber Prize is?!!? For those of you not familiar, “the Thurber Prize for American Humor is the only recognition of the art of humor writing in the United States.” It has been awarded annually since 1997 and I have not yet won it. I know, shocker, right?
I have, however, had the good fortune for the second year in a row to interview the Thurber Prize winner for The Phil Factor. Fortunately for me and you, guys who write funny stuff are usually pretty nice. The guy who beat me out for this year’s Thurber Prize is no exception. When I e-mailed to ask for the interview, John responded immediately. Two days later, I was still reading his debut novel, Truth in Advertising: A Novel, and doing a little research on John when he e-mailed to see if I was still interested in interviewing. I was shocked and dumbfounded. Yes, I know that seems to be my baseline state, but my newfound surprise was due to John’s cordiality. In the past I’ve requested interviews from subjects who have enjoyed far less notoriety than John has and they’ve ignored me, had P.R. lackeys put me off, or promised to interview and then never responded again. John is not just a nice guy; he is also a long time contributor to The New Yorker magazine.
TPF: John, be honest, were you completely gobsmacked that your debut novel won the Thurber Prize?
John: Hi Phil. This is John Kenney’s personal assistant. Well, assistant to his PR team, actually. I’m so sorry but John was called away at the last minute for lunch with Miss France, who’s a new friend. I jest Phil! Yes, I was stunned. Considering that David Letterman was one of the finalists, along with Liza Donnelly, long-time and much-awarded New Yorker cartoonish, I was hoping for third.
TPF: For my readers who haven’t clicked on the link above yet, what’s your quick, elevator pitch for Truth in Advertising?
John: A small island community is terrorized by a man-eating Great White Shark. Wait. Sorry, that’s Jaws. My book is about a guy on the eve of his 40th birthday who’s lost. He’s canceled a wedding, bored by his job, and estranged from his family. He gets a call from his brother telling him their father, a bad man, is about to die. There are also funny parts.
TPF: Keeping in mind the old saying that ‘you write what you know’ and you worked as an advertising copywriter for many years, how much of Truth in Advertising is closer to autobiographical than fictional?
John: I certainly borrowed from times where I’ve sat in rooms where people have spoken passionately about, say, toilet paper. And I absolutely chose advertising because I know the world but it’s a work of fiction.
TPF: Did any former colleagues recognize themselves in your book? If so, how did they take it?
John: No. I never worked with wonderful cartoon characters like say, a Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada. I had to make people up. If anything the main character suffers from some of the similar drawbacks of the author.
TPF: Is Gwyneth Paltrow aware that she’s in your book? Did you need some sort of legal permission to use her?
John: I didn’t know this at the time, but a parent friend from my neighborhood is good friends with Ms. Paltrow and sent her the book. Whether she read it or not I don’t know. I was careful to make the joke more about the agency people and the clients than about Gwyneth. And legally there were no issues although let me say for the record that I find her to be a lovely and beautiful woman and a wonderful actress.
TPF: What’s the biggest stereotype of the advertising industry that is absolutely true?
John: Except for the heavy drinking, recreational drug use, promiscuous sex and soul selling, almost none.
TPF: How did you go from advertising copywriter to New Yorker contributor?
John: Prayer. And determination. I sent pieces for ten years before they took one.
TPF: Now that your first novel has been successful, is another novel in the works and if so, can you give us a little preview?
John: There is another novel in the works. Definitely not about advertising. Early days on it though. As soon as I know what it’s about I’ll let you know.
John, thank you for stopping by #ThePhilFactor. I, and my readers appreciate you taking the time to talk about your writing. For those of you who want to read some of John’s writing for The New Yorker you can also find him in Disquiet Please! More humor Writing From The New Yorker. If you want find out more about John’s book and other writing you can look him up at both the Simon & Schuster website and his own website ByJohnKenney.com.
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