Thursday, November 16, 2023

Q&A with Joni B. Cole


Photo by Helmut Baer



Joni B. Cole is the author of the new essay collection Party Like It's 2044: Finding the Funny in Life and Death. Her other books include Good Naked. She is also a writing instructor and literary consultant.



Q: What inspired you to write Party Like It’s 2044, and over how long did you write the essays in the collection?


A: Deborah, thanks for the questions, and for this opportunity to meet you and your readers through your blog.


I’d say Party Like It’s 2044 is full of lots of little inspirations, rather than one big aha moment.


For example, "The Seven-Year Bitch" is an essay that was inspired by me wanting to better understand why I (almost) squandered my relationship with my partner.


The inspiration for the essay "The Other Woman" came in the form of a letter I received from a disgruntled writing client. But how could this be? I was so confused. All my writing clients loved me...or so I thought, until I came to understand this other woman’s perspective through writing that essay.


And the essay "Dear Mr. Impaler" was born of my long-held fear that I might be a descendent of the real-life inspiration for Dracula, though the piece ultimately became an exploration on the origins of cruelty.


I find it heartening—and helpful in alleviating a lot of editorial angst—to recognize that many of my most meaningful essays originated from “everyday” experiences that, for whatever reason, compelled me to start delving into them more deeply on the page.


As a particular example of this, one of my favorite essays, "Our Old House," is about buying my ex-husband a new oven for the home we once shared with our two daughters.


This is hardly a riveting plot, but many readers have pointed out how deeply touched they were by that essay, and how it offers insights into how we can all move past difficult experiences with love (and appliances) intact. 


As for how long it took me to write this collection, I wrote most of the book over the course of two years, from confronting the blank page, to the final draft, to the final-final draft, to the final-final-final draft.

Q: How was the book’s title (also the title of one of the essays) chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: If there is an overarching theme to the collection, I’d say it’s best represented in the title essay "Party Like It’s 2044."


Ostensibly, that piece is about me celebrating—or trying to celebrate—my birthday, despite being constantly deflated by birthday cards from friends reminding me of my impending decrepitude.


I don’t want to give away the exact meaning behind the title, so I’ll just quote a line from the essay that speaks to a recurring theme in the book: What was I missing, I thought. A sense of humor, obviously, but what annoyed me when I looked at this assortment of cards was the irony of the situation, meaning that after someone dies, we all talk a good game about their funeral being a celebration of their life, yet in most of the years leading up to that inevitability, we behave like a birthday is a cause for mourning.


Q: A review of the book in Artful said, in part, “’Finding the funny’ is a daunting task these days, and it’s Ms. Cole’s super-power. Her essays are relatable and unsparing and filled with everyday human moments and thoughts...” What do you think of that description?


A: Well, if I get to have a superpower, I love the idea of it being this—the ability to see the humor in humanity; to find the funny; to make people laugh, even during the darkest days.


That said, I find comments like this rather funny (funny peculiar, not funny ha ha). Until I read reviews like this one and several others citing the book’s humor (“laugh out loud funny!” “Hilarious” “the Seinfeld of authors...”) I never really thought of myself as a humor writer, especially because so many of the pieces in this collection deal with difficult emotions—professional insecurity, grief, guilt.


What I particularly appreciate about this Artful review is that the reviewer not only highlighted the humor, but went on to note other qualities I strive for in my work, from “relatability” to “the way the essays can take you to places unexpected.”


Q: How did you decide on the order in which the essays would appear in the book?


A: I wanted the first essay to be particularly entertaining and accessible, and to introduce a lot of the characters from my life that pop up in several of the stories that follow.


And I wanted the last essay to leave readers with a note of optimism, suggesting that after all the world has been through and is going through—from a pandemic, to an ugly era of divisiveness, to the climate crisis—I really believe we can restore our sense of humanity.


We can rebuild or forge new connections to make our personal world and the world at large better, one friendship at a time.  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Another collection of essays just like Party Like It’s 2044...only completely different.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’d love for readers to check out my author site to see if they can join in one of my talks or workshops online or in person, or to learn where they can listen to one of the interviews I’ve done for this new book.


In addition, I really enjoy taking to book-group members not only about my collection of personal essays, but also their stories.


And lastly, I have written two writing guides (that also get cited for their humor): Good Naked: How to Write More, Write Better, and Be Happier; and Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive.


If someone were to ask me the theme of those books, the answer would be simple: My goal is to help every writer—seasoned and newbie—do exactly what I promise in one of the titles—write more, write better, and be happier.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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