Please welcome Wendy Wax, author of the novel While We Were Watching Downton Abbey!
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Mary Poppins Had it Right
by Wendy Wax
I have a lot of respect for authors who write deep dark journeys into the center of the soul. I even like scary ghost tales that keep me awake late into the night analyzing every creak and moan of wind. I have also read plenty of thrillers in which the hero must be brutally tortured at least once before he breaks free and saves the day. But the truth is that when I pick up a book eager to be transported into another world, I don’t want to be beaten up too badly while I’m there.
I feel the same way about the novels and characters I write. My protagonists are real life people who face real life situations. They deal with death and divorce (which come to think of it might be easier to handle in that order!) as well as illness, betrayal, bankruptcy and adultery. These are serious issues with serious consequences. But like Mary Poppins with her sugar, I use a spoonful of humor to help the harsh realities go down.
Unfortunately, when you write humor people don’t take you seriously. There are those that assume that if every sentence isn’t weighty, each family relationship isn’t dysfunctional, and a beloved character hasn’t been killed off by the end, that the book is somehow lacking depth. But I’d like to make it clear that I write ‘light’ by choice.
Just as some people take vacations in which they climb mountain peaks and enter triathlons, some of us prefer to lie on a beach (preferably with a good light read in our hands.) One is not better than the other. It’s simply a matter of choice.
And while I’m stating my case for humor, I’d like to point out that pulling on heart strings and making readers cry can be easier than making them laugh. It can take a lot of time to write a sentence that produces a chuckle. LOL moments can take even longer. Wrapping the appropriate level of humor around real pain and emotion can be a Herculean feat.
As any stand up comic who has slaved over each word of a comedy routine and spent hours practicing every nuance in front of a mirror will tell you, making humor appear effortless can take real effort.
Robert Louis Stevenson said, “If you are going to make a book end badly, it must end badly from the beginning,” and I believe the same is true for humor. I’ve done my best to introduce Samantha Davis, Claire Walker, Brooke Mackenzie, and Edward Parker, the British concierge of their historic Atlanta high rise, with the same kind of touch I use throughout While We Were Watching Downton Abbey. Sometimes a lighter tone can help a reader identify with a character a little more quickly.
For instance, I introduce Edward, who has George Clooney looks and Downton Abbey’s butler Carson’s discretion, and who brings the residents of The Alexander together for weekly screenings of the British drama, this way:
Edward Parker knew things about people that he sometimes wished he didn’t Within the first week of landing the concierge contract at the Alexander, he knew that Mr. Lombard in 310 had a girlfriend and often didn’t actually leave town on business as he told his wife, but holed up instead in the Vinings condo where the younger, blonder woman had been installed.
Late one Saturday night he discovered that Mr. Morrisey, the prominent investment banker in 212, occasionally went out at night dressed in his wife’s clothing—and that when he did he looked much better in them than she did.
Samantha Davis, who like Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary must keep her family’s needs in mind when she marries, is also introduced with a light touch. Here’s part of her introduction:
There was plenty of precedent for prince-marrying in the fairy-tale world. Sleeping Beauty had not ignored the prince’s kiss in favor of a few more years of shut-eye. Cinderella never considered refusing to try on the glass slipper. And Snow White didn’t bat an eyelash at moving in with those seven little men.
It wasn’t as if Samantha had gone out searching for a man to rescue her and her siblings when their world fell apart. She hadn’t feigned a poisoned apple-induced sleep or gotten herself locked in a tower with only her hair as a means of escape. She hadn’t attempted to hide how desperate her situation was. But the fact remained that when the handsome prince (in the form of an old family friend who had even older family money) rode up on his white horse (which had been cleverly disguised as a Mercedes convertible), she had not turned down the ride.
I’ll end my right-to-comedy manifesto here with one last plea: For those of you who have been made to feel ashamed for choosing a ‘beach read’ over the latest version of War and Peace, I say do not be cowed. You have every right to choose chuckles over high drama. And a smile over tears.
I plan to keep the humor coming– no matter what it takes. Mary Poppins had it right. Whether it’s sugar, friendship, a TV show or humor, whatever helps us deal with the harsh realities of life is okay by me.