Why Do Made-for-TV Christmas Movies Hate Working Women?
Riane Konc on humor writing and her book 'Build Your Own Christmas Movie Romance'
Riane Konc has done the impossible: written a book. Specifically the book Build Your Own Christmas Movie Romance, a choose-your-own-escapade that spoofs every Christmas rom-com ever made.
The book is not only funny, it’s actual fun. Readers pick their own plots and dramatic mix-ups, meet and settle for their own men, choose to throw wine or to avoid mom’s call, and “create the holiday love story of a lifetime.” Riane’s book gave me—if there is such a term—a reading boner.
In no way is Build Your Own Christmas Movie Romance a memoir about Konc, who’s a humor writer and essayist, frequent contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Times (though she lives somewhere in the middle of the country), and author of one viral tweet about the Winter Olympics.
Riane and I “met” in 2014 when I rejected her submission “e.e. cummings, Email Spammer” to my humor column “Funny Women” on The Rumpus, then later accepted and published another piece and entered into the eternal editor-writer bond. So I’m a Konc early adopter and believe she’s best described as the hypothetical love child of Jack Handey and Mary Oliver. Which is to say, she writes extremely funny humor pieces and extremely poignant essays, and she’s the kind of writer whose writing makes you feel bad that you don’t write like her.
I emailed back and forth with Riane (pronounced “Ryan,” it turns out) about “the writing process,” the Hallmark Channel, holidays and romance, and a lot more.
Elissa Bassist: How, exactly, does one write a book? Please be specific and leave nothing to the imagination.
Riane Konc: It is very simple. You simply must—and I cannot stress this enough—sign a contract. As far as my experience goes, this is the best and only way to force yourself to sit down in a chair and do it. I don’t know how else someone writes a book. I couldn’t do it until I was contractually obligated to do so. When I agreed to write the book (an editor reached out to writers in a private Facebook group to write this particular book), I was going through a period of severe writer’s block and then one day, in a total impulse, I signed a contract that stipulated I would have this book written within three months (to publish before the holidays). And then … I just had to do it. I would wake up in the morning like I had every morning—void of ideas and unable to write—and yet I had a signed contract. I didn’t know the consequences of breaking a contract, but I assumed jail or death penalty, and that is honestly, literally the only reason I completed a book. I cannot recommend contracts highly enough.
EB: Rolling chairs back, staring, and questioning what happened is among the best depictions of the writing process, including the sob-typing scene in Something’s Gotta Give starring Diane Keaton and the “Oh my god…writing is so hard” pantsless scene in Hamlet 2, starring Steve Coogan.
You write the funniest short conceptual humor (that sometimes goes dark), and you write the saddest personal essays (that sometimes go light). For you, what do comedy and tragedy have in common that pulls you to both?
RK: I could say something about the obvious Venn diagram overlap between funny people and sad people—like, is it your personality quirk or your way of viewing the world that makes you funny and that also makes you sad? Or is it more than humor is a desperate coping mechanism for a certain sect of the—and pardon me for being scientific here—clinically bummed out? I don’t know. I do know the link isn’t absolute: I know a lot of people who are extremely funny and extremely happy, and I wish them nothing but the worst. (Just kidding.)
(And here I want to give the disclaimer that believing sadness or mental unwellness is required for your comedy or your art is really toxic and dangerous and untrue, so … quit romanticizing that.)
I also could say that I think the two (sadness, humor) inform each other because whether you want your writing to make someone laugh or cry—underneath that you want the reader to feel a little off-balance. You never want the reader to settle in and get too comfortable, like, “Oh, I know exactly where this essay is going” or “I know the punchline that will follow this set-up.” The best way to experience a joke or a big feeling in writing, I think, is to have it appear out of nowhere and then slap the shit out of you.
Finally, I could say that there’s a metaphor here about how a french fry dipped in a chocolate shake shouldn’t taste amazing, but it does.
But my real answer is that I write funny pieces and sad pieces for the same reason that anyone writes anything: I need to. There is something inside of me that really, really wants to write silly, short conceptual pieces about John Steinbeck using Snapchat, and there is also something inside of me that really, really wants to write overly sentimental essays about all of the feelings I get by seeing a single bird. So despite all the compelling reasons to quit, I keep doing it.
EB: Rumor is you watched a lot of Hallmark Christmas-themed rom-coms to spoof the genre and its tropes as expertly as you do. What are your thoughts on the Hallmark heroine? It seems she follows in the footsteps of most heroines: begins as unlikeable (busy, bitchy, moody, barren, flying off every possible handle), then she’s utterly disabled (fired, dumped, impaled somehow), everything is taken from her to make her likeable/relatable…oops, my question became a rage spiral…
RK: I’ll go out on a limb and say that, as in most media, the made-for-TV Christmas heroine is generally—if I may be so bold—not great. It’s not only this genre’s fault: the “made-for-TV Christmas movie heroine” is a very specific, festive iteration of the myriad ways to reduce real women to caricatures that exist nowhere outside the imaginations of lazy and misogynistic writers. My book is primarily a joke-delivery vehicle that ends up satirizing how women are portrayed in … well, most movies. I’m particularly obsessed with the way that rom-coms in general—and Christmas rom-coms especially—absolutely hate women who enjoy working. That’s why my book’s protagonist is a business-obsessed woman whose core characteristic is that she hates Christmas (in this world, these go hand-in-hand: it’s a character flaw that predicates another character flaw). Our heroine has also made the unforgivable moral error of choosing to live in a big city, and in the world of Christmas movies, being a big city businesswoman is the worst thing you can be or do.
And yes, the rumors about my watching many made-for-TV Christmas movies for research are true. You probably heard these rumors from one of many librarians in Cincinnati, who, at different points in March and April, had to watch in horror as I stood all alone in line, checking out 10–15 Hallmark Christmas movies at a time. “I swear this is for work” is something that I said several times, though I am pretty certain that none of them believed me.
EB: Now I’ll ask a question that interviewers love to ask female novelists: is your novella in any way autobiographical?
RK: “Novella” is such a masculine term. I prefer to call this book—as with all of my writing—a “public-facing diary entry.” I wrote it while on my period, clothed entirely in lace and whispers, and I took breaks from my lady scribbles to work on my other passion project: decoupaging ballerina music boxes in affirmations from Dove chocolate wrappers.
That being said, there is nothing autobiographical in this book except the feelings that Chrissy and her mom share for Sufjan Stevens, which only scratch the surface of how I feel about that gentle, magical singing man.
EB: Beyond bingeing Sufjan Stevens, it’s well-known by me that you watch a lot of TV. How do sitcoms help you write humor? Do you metabolize them in a special way?
RK: Wow, well, first of all, I think what you mean to say is that I spend my evenings drinking fine teas and puffing on the Queen’s cigars while reading a variety of leatherbound literary classics. “Books,” I say each night. “Simply and only books.” And then I do a little cigar smoke puff in the shape of the Penguin Modern Classics logo.
But yes, when I’m not doing that, I squeeze in situational comedies. What I absorb when watching TV or movies is the structure. For a book like this—and for short conceptual pieces—I crave structure. It’s something solid to play around on. And it’s a bonus if part of the gimmick of your book is (as mine is) making fun of a particular type of plot structure, because you get to make jokes about it and straight-up use it. Which is perfect, because: free structure!
EB: Did you have any party tricks from high school that you want to tell us about that ultimately informed your writing as an adult?
RK: I’ve since gotten rusty, but I once had all of Jack Handey’s “Deep Thoughts” (I’d estimate there are between 1,500–2,000) so thoroughly memorized that any person could say one word to me—for example, “tree”—- and I could quote any “Deep Thought” that contained the word “tree.” I refer to this as a “party trick,” but the more accurate term is “trick,” because—as anyone reading this anecdote already suspects—I was absolutely not invited to parties.
EB: From experience I can tell you that you missed nothing at parties except fun and sex. Now here’s my favorite question to ask, especially on Tinder: what advice do you have for aspiring humor writers?
RK: I don’t think most writers want to hear the truth: that the best advice is as boring as you feared, that you must read as much humor writing as you can, you must write as much humor writing as you can, that you must find people you trust to give you feedback, that you must learn when to take feedback and when to ignore it, that you must find a way to make peace with God (or your preferred God stand-in) about the inevitability of rejection, and that you must do this over and over until you die or get published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.
What’s good to remember about humor writing—any writing—is that it’s both a gift and a skill. Everyone has different starting points, and it’s okay—even important—to acknowledge the “gift” part of the equation (that it comes easier and faster to some writers, and that some writers are more natural idea-factories than others). I’m never going to write as much and as well as some writers, no matter what I do, and I have to just … find a way not to be paralyzed by that. You can’t do anything about what you start with, but you can become a more skilled writer (even more skilled than someone more naturally gifted) by reading a lot, writing a lot, paying attention, and having an editor’s direct email address.
EB: Since we’ve reached the end of this interview, do you have any tips on reaching/writing the best ending in your book?
RK: John Steinbeck closed one of the most popular books of the 20th century with [SPOILER] a young woman breastfeeding an old man in a barn—and yet, when I read it for the first time, I found it so beautiful that I don’t think I fully stopped crying for six months? So I feel like conventional wisdom falls apart when it comes to endings.
With Build Your Own Christmas Movie Romance, I had the luxury to include several endings—there are seven in the final chapter. I got to do “the cynical ending,” several “winking at the genre” endings, “the weird ending,” “the abrupt ending,” and I got to do “the romantic ending.” I now refuse to write any future books with fewer than seven separate endings.
But I think that there is one correct answer to your question: the best way to end a story, no matter the genre or medium, is to slowly pull back to reveal that actually, the entire story has been taking place inside of a giant snowglobe this whole time. Imagine how much better A Little Life would have been if Hanya Yanagihara had done this. Imagine how much better The Wire would have been. And how much better this interview would have been. This is the only real way to end any story, and deep down, I think everybody knows it.
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