Trish Jensen: Comedy Can Be Pretty
(August 6, 1999)
"The plain truth is, I love to laugh. Beats the heck out of crying."
A couple of years ago, I was in the doldrums and needed a good laugh. I went to the store and spotted the Harlequin Love and Laughter line of books. I picked up one called The Harder They Fall by Trish Jensen, began to read it and my doldrums were banished! I have seldom enjoyed a book so much, and it is one that I always recommend to anyone who asks for a humorous romance.
Several months ago, I wondered if Trish Jensen had come out with anything new, so I tracked down her e-mail address and got in touch. I found out that she had published two more books under her pen name of Trish Graves, and she was kind enough to send them to me. Well, they were just as enjoyable as The Harder They Fall and confirmed my opinion that Trish is one of the best writers of romantic comedy around.
I love romantic comedy, but have no tolerance for the oh-so-adorably- cute-and-wacky female who is often the heroine. Trish Jensen's heroines are funny - very, very funny - but they are smart and witty and not a bit ditzy or cutsey-poo. Her heroes are often a bit up-tight at the beginning, but they have learned to relax and enjoy themselves by the end of the book. I also enjoy slapstick, and Trish has enough physical humor to make me laugh without turning other readers, who might not be as fond of slapstick as I am, off.
Now that I know Trish's nom de plume, I will be on the look out for all of her up-coming books. Her work is guaranteed to make me feel better when I am in a bad mood. So, without further ado, here's Trish!
Hi Trish, can you begin by telling us something about yourself?
I'll give you the short version, as I'm about the most boring person I know. I've been married to my husband Scott for almost a decade (he'd say it seems more like a century, but that's just because he's such a flatterer). I'm mother to a black lab named Chloe, and a calico full of attitude named Foxy. We live in Amish country, the mountains of central Pennsylvania.
How did you begin writing?
Well, okay, at the risk of putting your readers to sleep. . .
I attended Penn State University, graduating with a degree in Speech Communications. As far as I can tell, college merely honed my talent for chugging a mug of beer in under five seconds. Armed with a skill like that, naturally, the next step was to go to work for a political consulting firm in DC.
It took me about seven years to realize that chugging a mug of beer in under five seconds was a lot more fun than working at a political consulting firm. So I quit and returned to college with the vague idea of getting an MBA. That wasn't fun either, I discovered after one semester. So the next semester I did a U-turn, and signed up for English and creative writing classes. My final exam for the creative writing class was the first chapter of a fiction novel or short story. Thus a crazed writer was born.
My husband and I also decided that we weren't crazy about the new decorations springing up all over our neighborhood. Really, yellow crime scene tape isn't at all aesthetically appealing. So we escaped to the mountains of central Pennsylvania.
Being totally ignorant, but discovering the joys of writing, I boldly contacted the local daily newspaper and told them they couldn't live without a humor column, written by moi. They must have been really impressed with my beer-chugging credentials, because they agreed.
At the same time, I was churning out lots and lots of manuscripts. I'm a very wordy wench (as you're probably realizing even as we speak). All of them were total, utter drek. And then I discovered Romance Writers of America, joined a critique group that had no trouble telling me I was writing drek, and started actually studying the writing of other successful authors.
Those three things were the smartest moves I ever made, and within a couple of years, I made my first sale. I've sold five more since, including my first single title
Have you always been attracted to comedy?
Well, to humor, certainly. My father's philosophy was always laugh at yourself first. Beat everyone else to the punch. And the plain truth is, I love to laugh. Beats the heck out of crying.
Do you think that men and women are really all that different when it comes to "what's funny"?
I could make some basic generalizations of men enjoying physical humor more than women do. But I'm not certain that humor is divided merely by gender. Age plays into it, too. What was funny to my grandparents is probably not funny to me. What's funny to my two nephews would probably leave me slack-jawed.
In general, my husband and I find the same things funny. Where we divide is on the professional wrestling issue. He's for it. I'd rather be at the dentist.
Your first book, The Harder They Fall had a lot of slapstick humor in it and women are traditionally not supposed to like slapstick. Did you get any complaints? (not from me)
I have to tell you, I fretted about that. Since the opening scene is almost completely physical comedy, I thought I would get hammered by reviewers and readers.
After all, I'm not a big fan of "slipping on a banana peel" humor. But the positive response was overwhelming, for which I'm slobberingly grateful.
I've discussed why it seemed to work for readers with a very dear friend of mine. His opinion is that the reason readers embraced the story was that it wasn't mindless physical comedy. While all these bad things are happening one after the other, the characters are still thinking intelligently and humorously.
Don't know if he's right, but I'll accept that.
And I have to tell you, the most lukewarm response to that book came from a man. "Pretty good for a first attempt" were, I think, his glowing words.
Your comedy seems so natural and spontaneous, does it just flow, or do you really have to work at it?
These are great questions. Which means difficult to answer. I'd have to say that I instinctually think in terms of funny. I love witty repartee, bamboozling my characters. So in that sense it comes naturally. But I do work at it, too. I'll write a line and think, "That's not that funny." So I'll get up and pace until something funnier pops in my head.
And of course my critique partners are hilarious. So they'll see a line and say, "What if?" and I'll laugh so hard I cry and then instantly steal the idea.
How do you find the balance between humor that works and humor that seems forced?
You know, I don't have a clue. I just know it when I see it. The humor has to flow naturally out of a situation and a character's internal make-up. I've judged so many contests where the author tried so hard to make a not-funny character say something witty, and it just falls short and flat.
Also, I think an author needs to find the funny in real life. Not make huge or illogical situations because that just comes out bizarre and forced, rather than funny.
Probably one of the things that worried me about the character Darcy (from The Harder They Fall) was that I'd made her too cartoonish in the beginning. After all, I'm not a klutz (much), so I couldn't really relate. But the overwhelming responses I received from readers was, "I can relate to her."
How do you make romance funny?
Wow, if I could answer that definitively, I'd bottle it and get rich. Romance, by its very nature, is funny, I think. And lots of humor grows out of pain. But again, it has to grow out of the characters first. They have to have a sense of humor even when faced with cards stacked wildly against them.
How do you balance a book so that there is some tone to it in terms of humor and pathos?
Another good question. Are you trying to torture me? It definitely is a delicate balance. One of the toughest things to accomplish in a romantic comedy is writing the black moment in the book (when all seems lost for the couple) and keeping the tone as light as the rest of the book, but also getting the reader to sympathize and root for the characters.
Handling painful situations with humor is a skill I'm still trying to learn. Take the death of a loved one. Not funny. But if you remember, in Susan Elizabeth Phillips's book, It Had To Be You, she opened with the funeral of her heroine's father. And it was one of the most hilarious funeral scenes I've ever read.
I want to be her when I grow up. If I grow up. The jury's still out on that one.
Your heroines are funny, but not a bit ditz-brained (thank you). Did you deliberately set out to do this?
I find nothing funny about dumb. Dumb is dumb. If I can't respect the intelligence of my characters, no one else will, either. And I love my heroes too much to stick them with air-heads.
I always give my characters flaws from which humor will certainly arise. But then I always balance that with traits or skills they excel at (my English teacher would send me to a corner for that sentence). Because bottom line is, it's hard, if not impossible, to love someone happily ever after when you don't respect them.
Michael from The Harder They Fall and Kit from For A Good Time, Call... were stuffy businessmen who learned to loosen up. Do you find that that character makes for good comedy material?
Well, I'm not sure it's the profession that defines my heroes, but their attitudes. I like men who think they have a clue, and then throw women at them that prove to them they don't. I like men who are content with the status quo, only to find that status quo sent into upheaval when they find themselves falling for these women. And when the dust settles, the status quo isn't nearly as appealing.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
My two biggest heroes are Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Janet Evanovich. I also love Maggie Osborne, Susan Andersen, Sandra Hill, Claudia Bishop, Stephanie Bond, Rachel Gibson and many more I'm probably forgetting. As you can see, humor is the main factor in common with all these writers. For purely lyrical writing, I love Laura Kinsale, Susan Wiggs, LaVyrle Spencer, and Tanya Ann Crosby.
Can you tell us about some of your upcoming releases?
The book that will be out in Wal-Mart stores in late July (and is currently available at Wal-Mart Online) is For A Good Time, Call... written under my Kensington pen name, Trish Graves. A feisty ad exec clashes with the CEO of a cosmetic company over ad content and the rules of romance.
Send Me No Flowers is a September 1 release, also a Precious Gem available at Wal-Mart. A florist returns to her small Southern hometown to set up shop. No one in town recognizes her, except the Sheriff, who wants to know why she's come back.
Against His Will is an April, 2000 release from Leisure Books new contemporary romantic comedy line, The Time Of Your Life. Special Agent Jake Donnelly's favorite aunt has just died. But that doesn't stop her matchmaking for a moment.
Nothing But Trouble is another Precious Gem which will be out sometime in 2000. As it's not written yet, it hasn't been added to the schedule. Manhatten bar owner, Laura Tanner, scoffs when her dear friend Ali, who happens to be a horrible psychic, announces that Laura's about to meet her prince. She stops scoffing when she's introduced to one of her customers, Brandon Prince. (When released, this title was changed to On the House)