Gabriel Ricard: I have to tell you that My Godawful Life is easily one of the funniest books I've read this year. Obviously, I'd love to know where the whole concept came from, where it started.
Michael Kelly: Oh, you're too kind, you're just saying that, but thank you. Wait, though, that's actually pretty lukewarm, what about the other years?
It started, ingrate, when I walked into my local bookshop one day and saw they suddenly had a whole section devoted exclusively to what we call Misery Lit, labelled 'Painful Lives', and I burst out laughing so loudly I had to walk straight out again. That just struck me as hilarious, that they would be so naked about it, that other people's pain was a commercial selling point. All the chain bookshops in Britain do it, or they call it 'Tragic Lives' depending on the chain, and even in supermarkets, they all have this section full of memoirs of child abuse and addiction and other terrible things. I'd vaguely known those kinds of books were popular but that was the first time it hit me in the face.
I put something on my website about it, and I jokingly said I was going to get rich by jumping on the bandwagon and writing a book designed to be the most painful life ever. And I wrote a little capsule spoof of the genre which people can still see if they want to head to my website, it's pretty much a shorter version of what are now the first few chapters of the book, and it was one of the funniest things I'd done and got a big response. A load of people wrote saying, 'Well done, I HATE those books, they're disgusting', which was a relief to me because I'd been worrying I was the insensitive monster for thinking there was something odious (and hilarious) about this. And various people said I really should do it as a book and pitch it to publishers. In particular my current webhost and patron Jeremiah nagged me to do it. I was already in contact with Pan Macmillan because they wanted to buy my previous book, Ulrich Haarburste's Novel of Roy Orbison in Clingfilm, which I'd self-published, so I idly pitched this Painful Lives spoof to them and sent them what I'd written, and they loved it and said yes. They thought the time was ripe because even people in the publishing industry were getting sick of these abuse memoirs by now.
So that was the starting point. But I didn't want to just hit those abuse books. I thought I'd made all the points that needed making about them in the original short bit I did on my website and it wouldn't have interested me to just stretch that out to book length. I thought I could use it as a vehicle to satirize or comment on other things, in particular a broader concept of victim culture, and as I wrote I was on the look-out for ways to do that, and it evolved into something more than the original pitch. At the same time I thought I also had to stay true to the style of what I'd sold it on and what everyone had loved, that concise high-energy blast of joke, joke, joke, joke, joke. If people go to the link above and read the original short bit, the first chapter in that is pretty much the first chapter of the book, and the book continues in that vein and perhaps two-thirds of it is the same high-speed relentless gag-writing. There are parts where it turns into a slightly more leisurely recit and characters are introduced, but with the same broad slapstick silliness. I think by the end it becomes more than that, but whatever smart-arse thing I was trying to do, it's cast in the form of a barrage of loosely-linked jokes, vignettes and parodies.
GR: Any particularly strong influences on the writing style? I was reminded a little of some of Woody Allen's early fiction, but I could certainly be completely off the mark with that.MK: You aren't, he's a hero, and the Mozart of that type of short funny prose pieces he did. But I could name a dozen other influences on my general writing style. PJ O'Rourke, Douglas Adams, Evelyn and Auberon Waugh. Benchley, Beerbohm, Bulgakov sometimes. I could go on but I would just be showing off all the books I've read. In terms of influence on sensibility rather than writing I'd have to name comedians too, the Pythons and Lenny Bruce for example and a British stand-up named Jerry Sadowitz. There are so many I'm always surprised when someone can pick out one. No one leaps out at me for this particular book. I devoured all these funny people at an early age, they're probably in there somewhere even if I don't recognise it, and if most of them wouldn't like some of the vulgarity I stoop to.
GR: Is the misery-lit phenomena really that bad over there?
MK: I was whining at my publishers for not doing more to push the book in the rest of the world and they said, 'They might not get it, they don't have them.' I said, 'Of course they do' and my editor said, 'They have them, but they don't have them like a plague the way we do.'
The cover of the book — personally I hate it, partly because my readers in the U.S. and elsewhere will go, 'What the hell is that about?', but everyone here thinks it's brilliant, it's an instantly recognisable parody of what's an instantly recognisable brand here, the child abuse genre. I keep reading that their popularity has peaked now but the shelves are still full of them.
I can't say for sure why they've recently taken off or why they're more popular here in particular. Perhaps we're just more advanced along the road of decadence. In the book I try to connect it or compare it to various other social phenomena. It's definitely cognate with the rise of reality TV and car-crash talk-shows and other forms of voyeurism. And those morbidly exploitative BBC documentaries (which I'm embarrassed to hear have made their way over there now) called things like The Boy With An Anus Where His Face Should Be or The Girl Whose Vagina Dropped Off.
Euphemia attempts to analyse the phenomenon in her bit in the appendix. In a culture where satisfying the craving for entertainment appears to be our highest motive force — is there a bigger religious ceremony than the Oscars? — anything that people happen to find entertaining is permissible. She also relates it to a wider cult of the victim, the sanctification of and self-identification with victimhood. And in the Pain Cult chapter I try to suggest we suffer from an endemic masochism or self-flagellating puritanism.
One of the points I try to make in Euphemia's monologue is the supremacy of art, that fiction is better than journalism, that recreating reality is better than passive voyeurism. But I have to say there's a sort of dull but worthy fiction that gets too much attention which personally strikes me as little better than the Misery Lit memoirs. It dutifully ticks social problem boxes, personal tragedy boxes. 'Mavis is a recovering paint-sniffer whose stillborn child is stolen by its Eskimo father in the week she learns her grandfather was a bisexual Nazi war criminal caught in a love triangle with a man whose village he'd wiped out. Then her vagina drops off. It never rains but it pours.' That sounds good, actually, I would read a book like that, but you know what I mean. I'm sure there's a place for it if it's done well but it tends to hog all the review space at the expense of more imaginative books, fantastic books, funny books, my books.
GR: Sunny McCreary is the perfect protagonist for a story like this. He is a character struck by both bad luck and an almost subconscious desire to take on as much suffering as possible. Was it difficult to create a persona like that and still make him somewhat accessible and even a little sympathetic to the reader? More importantly, do you at all feel sorry for Sunny's unending saga of agony?
MK: Most of the time I was going for jokes pure and simple. Or at least, whatever else I was also trying to do, as I say I was determined it had to be put together out of constant jokes. At least until you get to Euphemia's appended memoir, which is like a trap door you fall through at the end of the book which lets you see what's underneath. And Sunny's the vehicle for the jokes, the butt of them, the patsy, nothing more. Any sympathy you feel probably reflects credit on the reader more than the writer.
That said, there is a McCreary persona, or tone of voice, which emerged spontaneously in writing the original bit for the website. For the book I just had to try to stay tuned into it. But he's Janus-faced. At times he'll affect to put a brave face on things, in his doleful way, more usually he'll be saying 'No-one's had it worse than me.' That comes from the books he's a reflection of. Some of them are sold with the justification that they're actually upbeat heartwarming tales of overcoming adversity (although some are just unapologetically bleak), but they're in competition with each other in terms of grimness, there's a race to the bottom, they put quotes on the back along the lines of 'The most gruelling heartbreaking thing you will ever read', 'Even worse than the last dreadful thing you've read', and that sells them.
Also I think you have to divide the Misery Lit books into people who've had bad things happen to them through no fault of their own and the people who've done stupid things to themselves, the various rehab memoirs. When he's saying things like 'Necrophilia is a disease' or feeling sorry for himself about his addictions I think he's less sympathetic, but he's just blithely parroting the values our society's taught him, refusal to take personal responsibility.
Do I feel sorry for him? Does God feel sorry for us? No, he just laughs.
I don't think I was that cruel to him, was I? I sort of gave him a happy ending. He's pretty fulfilled getting his book contract, that's a happy ending on his terms. And I put a better, disguised happy ending for him in Euphemia's monograph. That Latin tag she kicks off with is an inscription found on a sun-dial which means 'I count only the sunny hours', which is obviously about her determination to look on the bright side but also a pun on and tribute to Sunny: whatever she learns to forget she will remember her time with him. And also she says he can be in her tribe if he shapes up. In her twisted Vulcan way she cares for him, she's grateful. That's something.
Euphemia will protect him in years to come. Unless I'm forced to write a sequel, in which case he'll get the shit knocked out of him for another 300 pages.
He doesn't have it that bad. He's at least pretty indestructible. He's like Grimes in Waugh's Decline and Fall, a force of nature, bits keep getting knocked off him but he keeps going. There's something quite appealing about that. I think Mary McCarthy said somewhere that comic characters are indestructible, you don't imagine them as mortal.