Thursday, February 22, 2007

In The Coop with Esme Codell!

We have a little saying here in Illinois, and it goes something like this: WE LOVE ESME. Okay, so it's not exactly the best catchphrase, but it's heartfelt. This smart and sassy writer is the author of many wonderful books, including Vive La Paris, Sahara Special, and Diary of a Fairy Godmother. If you haven't visited her website (for gosh sakes, what is wrong with you? Is your hand broken or something?), please go to right away. You'll thank us later.

(Fun Fact: Esme has an impressive wig collection.)

How do you know when what you write is funny?

I pee a little.

There are other clues. I get the wonderful sinking feeling I used to get in about the seventh grade, when I knew I was doing something wrong but did it anyway. It's a delicious indigestion reserved especially for class clowns. When I get that feeling while I write, I have to stop and read it aloud to somebody to check.

Do you have any tips for writing funny books?

Thanks for suggesting that my books are funny. I write about things like being mislabeled as a special education student or finding out about the Holocaust for the first time or living on welfare. Badda-bing-badda-boom!

I guess my advice would be to tell the truth. The truth is funnier than fiction. The more you can make people speak and act like they do in real life, the more the humor feels natural and believable. There really is humor even in terrible situations. Humor is our signal that there is still hope and warmth, still some neurons firing, still some humanity to pull is through.

Has being funny ever gotten you into or out of trouble?

Both in and out. All the time. Daily. Hourly. But my big problem is sometimes people think I'm trying to be funny when that's not necessarily my objective. There was a notorious incident in which I did an interpretive dance of Madonna's THE ENGLISH ROSES in my skivvies, at a very nice conference luncheon, as a little experiment in public speaking. One of the waiters said I was very funny and asked me for a date. But I wasn't trying to be funny. I was probably just a little jealous of Madonna. If rock stars can be children's book authors, why can't the reverse also be true?

A lot of people thought my first book talking about my classroom experiences, EDUCATING ESME, was very funny. But then I couldn't seem to land a teaching job in the Chicago Public Schools for a few years after. Ha-ha! How's that for a punch line?

What are some of your favorite funny books?

THE MONSTER AT THE END OF THIS BOOK starring Grover from Sesame Street, that was my favorite funny book when I was a kid. I liked Beverly Cleary, Roald Dahl, Robert Krauss, Russell Hoban and Richard Scarry a lot, too. They had a kind of an edge. I liked their books because characters didn't always do the right thing. People got in trouble. People who weren't me. That was very entertaining...and reassuring, too.

If you could live in one of your books, which one would you choose?

I do live in my books. All of my books come from very real places in both my geography and my emotional life. I can't seem to unload the real estate.

Who do you like more, The Marx Brothers or The Three Stooges?

Marx brothers, no contest. The Three Stooges make me nauseous. All that poking and hitting.

What was your best Halloween costume?

I was a Halloween costume repeater, generally alternating between Tinkerbell and Raggedy Ann. I used to wear those plastic masks from Woolworth's, the kind that assumed your face was flat and that your eyes were the size of pistachios; I think they must have been manufactured by space aliens. I always wanted to be the kind of kid who would be something cool and original and Marcel DuChamp-ish, like a ham sandwich or a washing machine, those cool things I see in parenting magazines now. But the lure of Tinkerbell's chartreuse zig-zig hemmed skirt and Raggedy Ann's sweet little calico was waaay too strong. My son is better at making up original Halloween costumes. One year he was Zombie John Stossel. Another year, he wanted to be Ninja Harry Caray. He's an inspiration.

What is your Dream Job for a day?

I would like to be a waitress at Hamburger King, that little joint near Wrigley Field. I don't know why. I just always wanted to be that. They serve some kind of Egg Foo Young, I imagine it would be very satisfying to put a big plate of that in front of somebody. I'd also like to be Justin Timberlake. But, is that really a job? I practice a lot, in case.

Clown Vs. Mime Deathmatch. Pick your winner.

Clown. Mime can't yell for help.

Funniest dead person you'd like to meet?

Ernie Kovacs. Zero Mostel. Ring Lardner. Ann Miller. Rosalind Russell. Just one? The dead are funnier than the living these days.

If you had a theme song, what would it be?

For sure, "It's a Most Unusual Day" sung by the lovely Jane Powell. My husband always says "that's your theme song!" when he hears "Make Up" by Lou Reed. But I'm pretty sure that song is about a transvestite. Oh, well. As long as he thinks I'm pretty.

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