Patricia Marx's second novel, Starting From Happy, is written in short bursts that the comedy writer has christened "chaplettes." Longer than a tweet but shorter than many blog posts, these mini-chapters tell the checkered love story of a deeply bizarre couple named Wally and Imogene. Interspersed with drawings and personal asides ("Patty's seen Imogene's calendar, however, and wants to know: since when does 'get super to change light bulb' constitute being busy?"), Starting From Happy is frequently hilarious and above all, a quick read.
Marx prides herself on her brevity—she describes herself as "temperamentally terse." The New Yorker contributor talked to Slate about being a late bloomer and getting hooked on coke—Diet Coke, that is—as a writer on Saturday Night Live in the '80s.
Slate: Starting From Happy follows the relationship between the magnificently named Wally Yez and Imogene Gilfeather. Why did you think these "chaplettes" were the best way to tell this personal history?
Patricia Marx: So many reasons. The main reason being I write for the ADD reader. I can't stand to be bored, I'm really sensitive to other people being bored, and I wanted to keep it moving. That's one answer. Another answer is that my last book, Him Her Him Again the End of Him (which is not about transgender), was as introspective and wordy as I can write. I'm temperamentally terse. And so I thought I'd like to do something as far away from that as I can. I thought I'd just be as fast and detached as I can. Also it seemed like it suited this story I was telling, which is a relationship that goes by before you know it, a life that goes by before you know it. Finally, I once read Mrs. Bridge [by Evan S. Connell] when I was young and Speedboatby Renata Adler and thinking: short chapters. If I ever write a novel, maybe I could do that. So I beat them to it, since my writing hardly even qualifies as chapters, I had to come up with a new name.
Slate: I liked the name chaplette. The narrator in your first novel was unnamed. How'd you come up with the wild names for this one? Phone book? Acid trip?
Marx: That's my favorite part about writing. I love coming up with names. It's really too bad I didn't have children because I could have named them, although it would be awful for them, probably. They'd get made fun of.
Slate: Do you have pets? Do they have great names?
Marx: No, I had pets when I was little though. I had a German shepherd named Karl—Karl Marx, get it? And I had a cat that I got when I was around 6, and I named it—get ready for this originality—Tiger. Guess why? It looked like a tiger.
Slate: In an interview you did with Nancy Franklin in The New Yorker a few years back, it sounded like conciseness has always been part of your style. Were you serious when you said that you were influenced by the World Book Encyclopedia?
Marx: I was very serious. It just seems they knew how to organize it—the land and its peoples—and they got the message across, I thought elegantly. I'm a no-words-wasted kind of person.
Slate: That makes sense since you're a comedy writer.
Marx: That is my training. One false word, one extra word, and somebody's thinking about how they have to buy paper towels at the store. Brevity is very important. If you're going to be longwinded, it should be for a purpose. Not just because you like your words.
Slate: What made you decide to make Imogene a lingerie designer?
Marx: I knew who she was, and she was very much not like a lingerie designer. She wasn't playful and she wasn't frivolous. She was covered, as a person, psychologically. So I thought it would be a nice contrast. Plus, I don't know if at that point I had decided I was going to draw, but I thought I could draw rudimentary versions of underwear, so I thought that would be fun. Also, I don't really write about sex very much, so I thought I'd better get sex in somehow. I have a friend of a friend who designs lingerie, and in the back of my mind, I thought, I'll go interview her. But it turns out I'm lazier than the back of my mind and I never did. I just thought, how hard could it be? It has to be kind of straightforward. And we always have the Internet to fall back on for research. I've also seen underwear. In stores.
Slate: In Him Her Him Again the End of Him, the main character is stuck romantically and sexually, and she's a late bloomer. I know that the book is loosely autobiographical—were you a late bloomer as well?
Marx: Very, very late. I haven't even bloomed yet. I attribute it to being short, so you figure you're always treated as younger than you are. Maybe that means I get extra years in my life, or I'll get acne.