Humor sometimes feels like a soap-bubble—will it pop if you reach for it? If you define it, will you lose its spontaneity? Cynthia Leitich Smith (cynthialeitichsmith.com) and Uma Krishnaswami (umakrishnaswami.com) take on humor across middle grade and YA in their workshop The Joke’s On You: The Scoop on Humor, Middle Grade Through Young Adult.
[Cyn] How is humor reflected in your body of creative work?
[Uma] It began with traditional stories that I was retelling back in the 1990s. They were stories from India, from Hindu and Buddhist traditions, and I was having trouble finding a focus for the collection. Then I wrote a story featuring a humorous, benevolent, joking character. Suddenly the whole thing began to come together. I decided to use this figure, the elephant headed god Ganesha, to reveal the culture and the story world he came from. And the thing that worked so well was that he was loveable and he made mistakes—and he was funny! It was quite a revelation to me. I don’t think I have ever intentionally set out to write a funny book, but I have learned that humor opens doors, allows us to ask questions, make points in indirect ways.
[Cyn] Why is humor such a powerful storytelling tool?
[Uma] Because I think it relaxes us. You can’t laugh and frown at the same time. The muscles don’t work that way. The mind doesn’t work that way either. If you’re angry with someone who then makes you laugh, it’s hard to stay mad, isn’t it? So then humor becomes an indirect way, even a gentler way to get at subjects or situations that might otherwise evoke darker emotions.
[Cyn] Do you think of yourself as a funny person? If so, how do you channel that on the page? If not, how do you get to the funny?
[Uma] I didn’t used to. I used to be kind of earnest. I was a klutzy kid, and I remember being a bit sensitive about that. I never grew out of that—I am now a klutzy adult! So I’ve learned to laugh at myself because it sure beats feeling sorry for myself. What I did have as a kid, and what I try to tap in my writing, is the irrepressible nature of childhood. That kind of wild, bursting energy that wonders at everything and can turn from tears to laughter (or the other way around) in seconds. That’s how I get to funny, by reaching for my younger self. When I’m writing fiction, it always, always, for me, boils down to characters. Who are they? What keeps them ticking? What makes them laugh? What would they not find funny and why?
So now it’s my turn to ask you. What makes you employ humor in your books?
[Cyn] I have an affection for laughter, a predisposition toward high stakes and an aversion to melodrama. No matter if I’m writing a gentle novel of cross-cultural conflict or rollicking suspense-thriller about shape shifters, humor serves story. It cuts through the self-consciousness, the preciousness of fiction, and makes it relatable, accessible, real in the ways that matter. If the reader laughs with the protagonist, the distance between them has been erased. The make-believe adventure is a truly felt vicarious experience.
[Uma] What connections do you see between humor and hope, humor and heart?
[Cyn] It’s said that humor is the greatest meeting of the minds. Everyone can agree on what’s sad (say, the death of an innocent) but not what’s funny. I’m a fan of laughing with, not at. Gastrointestinal experiences do little to delight me. But I adore clever banter, the charmingly deflected emotion, the payoff of a long-building joke or steady escalation in the resonantly ridiculous.
If we can laugh together, we can accomplish anything.
[Uma] And can I ask you back, because it’s a super-great question and I really want to know: Do you think of yourself as a funny person? And if not, how do you get there on the page?
[Cyn] I’m funny. I’m not a comic or a cutup or the life of the party. But I tend toward humor socially and at the podium, especially when I’m talking about sensitive subjects. I subconsciously use it to illuminate, diffuse potential conflicts or resistance and to put people at ease. But mostly, it comes from a place of joy. I’m not always joyous of course, but I have a persistent optimism that’s a doorway for humor to slip in.