When it comes to summing up what the Mommy Humor genre is really all about, nobody does it better than Mississippi writer Robin O’Bryant, describing just how well years of babysitting had prepared her for motherhood: I thought I knew. I had no idea.
To me, that is motherhood in a nutshell: Whatever you thought you knew before that baby arrives, you can pretty much toss right in the round file once the baby is actually born. But it’s in that uncertain, hazy, bewildering disconnect between rosy-eyed expectation and cold, harsh parenting reality where you’ll find the juicy, tender bits that O’Bryant deliciously serves up in her New York Times best-seller Ketchup Is a Vegetable: And Other Lies Moms Tell Themselves.
When Jessica and I featured O’Bryant’s blog Robins Chicks, which stars the same cast of characters who appear throughout Ketchup — daughters, Aubrey, Emma, and Sadie and husband Zeb — in our Truth About Parenting column, we said that reading her essays was “like biting into a warm slice of pecan pie and finding plastic Barbie shoes between the nuts: Infinitely sweet. Completely Southern. And loaded with the unexpected, totally random crap that comes with parenthood.”
Totally random crap … like being handed a big fistful of, well, actual crap by Emma. And godawful pregnancy constipation. And mopping up after three vomiting children on the road trip from hell. And let’s not forget the Wal-Mart employee who thought O’Bryant was an honest-to-goodness pornographer for snapping pix of her kiddos running “butt-nekkid” in her backyard. Or the time the honest-to-goodness FBI showed up on her doorstep thinking her husband was a pornographer when they traced illegal image-sharing to the wrong IP address.
Through every OMG! and Oh no, she didn’t! moment, O’Bryant keeps dishing up the laughs like heaping scoops of ice cream at a Sunday church social. So delectably funny, you can’t help but binge read. On the eve of her book’s re-release by St. Martin’s Press — by which we mean tomorrow, folks — O’Bryant shared with us her recipe for creating a sweet, sweet best-seller.
Norine Dworkin-McDaniel: So, I’m just going to continue with the food references here as long as I can and ask you straight up: Does ketchup pass as a vegetable in your house?
Robin O’Bryant: It’s more like I don’t care what my children dip their vegetables in as long as they eat them. And ketchup for Aubrey, my oldest, is practically a food group. In fact, when I got the very first copy of the book in the mail, Aubrey was 7 and sitting at the kitchen counter eating dinner. She had a plate full of equal parts chicken, broccoli and ketchup. I pulled the book out of the box, and she kind of squinted at it and said, “KETCHUP?? I thought you said the book was about us?” Then she picked up a stalk of broccoli, dragged it through her puddle of ketchup and shoved it in her mouth. I laughed until I had tears in my eyes. Then I got to explain “irony” to her. Aubrey’s almost 10 now and refers to herself at dinnertime as “The Ketchup Queen.”
NDM: Oh my goodness. That is classic. You’re a natural story-teller. Have you always written humor?
Robin O’Bryant: Professionally, for sure. From the time I was Aubrey’s age, I was compelled to write. I was always journaling about my life. I always wanted to be a writer. But I never said that out loud because I knew the next question would be, Well, what do you want to write about? And … I had nothing. In the Alabama town where I grew up, people had very clear job descriptions; you were something specific — a nurse or a teacher; my dad was a lawyer. I wasn’t drawn to fiction. I didn’t want to be a newspaper reporter or journalist. Since I didn’t know what kind of writer I wanted to be, I never said anything about wanting to write. Instead, I eventually became a nurse.
NDM: I always wanted to be Erma Bombeck.
RO: Oh, who doesn’t?
NDM: I have to say, if Erma Bombeck were Southern, she’d be you.
RO: That’s a huge compliment. Thank you.
NDM: Like Erma, you zero in on those small moments in our lives — the stuff that in the moment you’re thinking, This is horrible — and you make them really, really funny. I absolutely adored when you wrote in the book’s first essay, “Words I never thought I would say to the man I love: Bring me an enema. That’s priceless.
RO: Some of the stuff that’s in the book, my husband says it’s still not funny to him. Like the chapter “Road Trips” — that one seems to be a lot of people’s favorite. And my husband says the FBI showing up at our house is still not funny to him. I’m like, It’s funny now. And he’s like, Nope. Still not funny.
NDM: So, I had no idea that your background was nursing. What drew you to nursing, and then how did you decide to switch careers and write?
RO: When Zeb and I were first married, he was 19 and I was barely 20, and we’d moved to Fort Worth, Texas to go to this bible school that had a strong emphasis on missions and humanitarian relief. We’d both been in college, but we had no idea what we wanted to do, so we got married and moved to Fort Worth with the idea of Let’s see the world and try to get a little direction. We went on several mission trips: We were in Albania right before the U.S. started bombing Kosovo. We went to Thailand. There were several nurses with us on the Thailand trip. And they just had so much knowledge. They knew what to buy at the pharmacy. They were mixing medicines to treat these kids at an orphanage for ringworm. I saw how useful it was and that they were making a difference, which is really what I wanted to do. We moved back to Auburn, Alabama, and I got my degree in nursing.
I worked in labor-and-delivery and the ER for three years, until Aubrey was 18 months old and I was pregnant with my second child, Emma. I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. We’d lived the last year on my income as a nurse while Zeb finished his degree. But he was going to be making more money than I had as a nurse. I knew if we were both working full-time and then I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, that would be a tough transition, so I said, Let’s try it now.
NDM: So how’d you start writing about your family?
RO: I’m one of four siblings, and my husband is one of five, and we’re pretty close with our families. I’d been emailing my family about the funny things my kids were doing. Of course, every grandmother thinks her grandkids are so precious that the whole world needs to know everything that they’re doing. So hearing You’re such a good writer, you should write a book didn’t really count coming from family. But when my friends and family started forwarding my emails to their friends and family, and those people would Reply All, saying That’s hilarious, I finally realized I had something to write about.
I started the blog, Robins Chicks, and then I had the idea for Ketchup is A Vegetable. By then we had a 4-year-old, a 2-year-old and a newborn. My husband thought I was totally insane. Like writing a book would be a great use of my time at that point. But I started outlining the book. And me being a Type A person, if I was going to write a book, I wanted it to be on the New York Times best-seller list. So I worked backwards to get there. I knew I needed a top-tier literary agent, so I looked in the Acknowledgements sections of my favorite humorists to see if they thanked their agent, and I realized that my three favorite humorists all had the same agent. So I queried her. And in 2009, I signed with her. I thought Okay, here we go. And then she cut 60 percent of my manuscript. Just trashed it. She told me what she liked and what she wanted more of. For the first two years, every time I got an email from her, I was certain she was firing me. Instead, she mentored me. She saw my potential and worked with me to get me there.
So, we worked and revised my manuscript for 18 months. By that time I’d started a newspaper column, also called Robin’s Chicks. And I was still blogging, so my audience knew I had a finished book. They were like, Why can’t we have it? We want your book! The consensus from the book editors my agent talked with was that I should wait and continue to build my author platform. That’s when I decided to self-publish it. We knew I’d be able to sell books. What the publishing industry didn’t understand was the loyalty of my readership, especially in the South. My readers were so proud that I’d written a book, they really sold my book for me. When I did a launch party and signing at the independent book store here in Mississippi, the owner said, I’ve never seen people come in and buy 10 copies of the same book before.
For the next two-and-a-half years, I traveled on my own dime and went to all the conferences I could speak at so I could sell books there. I’d put 30 books in my suitcase and pack my clothes around them. I sold books out of the back of my car. I handed out books to people I thought would be key influencers. And I landed on the New York Times/Wall Street Journal best-sellers lists. After that, publishing houses started asking if I was interested in traditional publishing. I got multiple offers and ended up going with St. Martin’s because I’ve always been a big fan of their books.
I’ll tell you, it’s amazing to have help and a team now. Recently, someone contacted me to do a radio interview, but they wanted to read the book first, so I had to send them a copy. I’m holed up in my house, trying to write and thinking, I can’t waste an hour going to the post office. Then I realized, Wait! I have “people?” I forwarded the request to the people at St. Martin’s, and they said, We’ll get it in the mail today. Every time I send anything to the marketing guy, I’m like “xoxoxoxo.”
NDM: Your book is titled Ketchup is a Vegetable and Other Lies Moms Tell Themselves. What’s the biggest lie you’ve told yourself?
RO: Oh my gosh. I would say the biggest lie …. well … If I can hear the kids in the other room doing something I know they’re not supposed to be doing, but I don’t have the energy to actually follow through with disciplining them, I’ll pretend I don’t hear them. I realize I can’t do that forever because they’ll figure out they can get away with everything. But every once in a while, I’m like, They’ll work it out. It’ll be all right.
NDM: Reading Ketchup, I was particularly moved by your essay on the postpartum depression you went through with your first daughter, Aubrey. You wrote about how you felt like you were going to “drown in a sea of hormones and unexplainable grief.” That’s got to resonate with a lot of women who’ve gone through the same thing and been baffled and unnerved by feeling distraught at what’s meant to be a happy time after the baby is born.
RO: I struggle with chronic depression and anxiety. But being branded as a humor writer and funny, I didn’t want to share stuff like that for the longest time because I thought That’s not my brand. Then I realized I was doing a disservice to myself and my readers to not let them see the whole picture. You can’t relate to somebody who has all their shit together because nobody does.The most powerful thing we do as writers is share the things that make us vulnerable and weak. For me, it’s always the things I’m most terrified to write about that I get the most positive reactions.
That chapter is the only time I sort of touch on postpartum depression in Ketchup. The book I’m working on now is more of a memoir, and I’m exploring darker themes, more serious stuff. And I am a little nervous about how that’s going to be received. I’m pretty sure this book has the potential to piss off every single person that I know. I feel like Christians are going to be pissed off because I’m not Christian enough, and readers who are not religious at all are going to be like, Why’s she talking about all this God stuff? So we’ll see. I just keep telling myself that all I can do is tell my story. This is a story I have to tell right now. The best writing is when you can’t keep it in.
NDM: Does your new book have a title?
RO: It’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Mommy. I don’t have an official release date yet.
NDM: You’re obviously a Judy Blume fan.
RO: I’m a fan of books in general. I’ve loved to read since I was 5 years old in kindergarten. And I love that my girls love reading too. Especially Aubrey, who’s 9 now. She’s working on a short story that’s so good I’m going to publish it on Amazon and sell it for $1.99. People are not going to believe she wrote it; they’ll think I wrote it for her.
NDM: Ketchup is a Vegetable — was that a book you HAD to write too?
RO: Yes! And it spoiled me as a writer. Once I had the idea, it just poured out of me. I’d be up in the middle of the night making notes and thinking of other things to write. The first draft came out so fast. But then my agent killed half my manuscript, and I needed to come up with new material. I’m so Type A, I was like I’m gonna give her new material TOMORROW! So I cranked out more essays, and then she said, These aren’t as good as the other ones. What happened? I think I was trying too hard. I had to learn about my writing process. I’ve got to live it before I can write about it. The only thing that was going to give me new material was time.
When it comes to books, writing is very feast or famine for me. I can pop out a 500- to 800-word column easily. But for the books, it’s a much slower process. It’s a year or two of note-taking and writing a lot of really bad stuff that’s not going to go into the book. It’s a roller coaster of This is really, really good. Oh, this is really crap. Oh, I have to start over. Oh, this is great. I try to be mindful that this is my creative process and just because I don’t have anything to write about today doesn’t mean something won’t come to me tomorrow. I just have to keep showing up and writing.
Ketchup is a Vegetable and Other Lies Moms Tell Themselves is being re-released tomorrow by St. Martin’s Press. You can find it on Amazon here.