Whew! I am so glad I didn’t make the list!! I didn’t make the list, right?? Jen?? Jen?????
Back in 2011, Jen Mann was happily ensconced in the Kansas suburbs, selling real estate from her home office, with her husband and two adorable toddlers beside her. And all was well in the land of wide lawns and good schools. That is, until Jen ventured out with her cherubs and entered the occasionally puzzling and all-too-often irritating world of … Other Parents & Their Children.
“I was like, Good God! Who ARE these people?!? I hate them!” Jen relayed when I reached her by phone in her Kansas home, where she was hurriedly cleaning up before her cleaning lady arrived. (If you’ve ever had a cleaning lady, you get this essential pre-cleaning ritual; if not, we know that, yes, this does seem crazy.)
But back to THEM … Them being the collection of not-so-charming characters Jen ran into as she navigated life with kids. Chances are, you’ve met THEM too: Competitive Mom, Hypercritical Mom, Psychotically Over-Protective Mom, Xanax-Gobbler Mom, Over-Achieving Mom, Playgroup Bully Mom and assorted other smiling-through-gritted-teeth moms who’ve raised passive-aggression to an art form.
But you know what’s fun about surviving encounters with the Obnoxious & Clueless? Writing about it later. Ah, writing well really is the best revenge. And like a Dorothy Parker of the PTO, Jen has gleefully eviscerated the worst offenders of the Playground Set in her new book People I Want to Punch in the Throat: Competitive Crafters, Drop-Off Despots, and Other Suburban Scourges, coming out from Random House tomorrow. It’s the second collection of essays to come out of her gloriously rant-y blog, also called People I Want To Punch in the Throat. Part “momoir,” part confessional, part juicy suburban tell-all, the book, People I Want To Punch in the Throat fills in the backstory of characters that regular readers of her blog have come to know and love, detailing how Jen met and married her husband Ebeneezer (aka The Hubs) and what married life was like before her children, Gomer and Adolpha, came along. (And no, those are not their real names.)
So, if you’ve ever been trapped at a coworker’s barbecue … or had to get out of your car at school pickup, while still in your bunny pajamas … or wished for the perfect retort to a mean mom to come flying out of your mouth at exactly the right time … if you measure the value of your cleaning lady not only by her ability to make your beds, but to manhandle your boobs so your newborn can latch on … you’ll ROTFL with (and a little bit at) Jen, from cover to hilarious cover.
And while I’ll admit to being a tad nervous that Jen might punch me in the throat, I sucked it up to ask her how it all began.
Norine: Really well done, Jen. People I Want To Punch in the Throat is a funny, funny read. So relatable.
Jen Mann: Thank you. I’m very proud of it.
NDM: I think one of the reasons people enjoy reading you so much is that you suffer no fools. You’re not afraid to stand there and call Bullshit. You will say the things the rest of us wish we were quick enough on our feet to think — and ballsy enough to actually say. And you do that with such … warmth.
JM: Well, it’s very easy when you’re sitting behind the computer. But I also think that’s part of maturity and life experience. I’m 42, and when I started the blog, I was 38 or 39. I think you reach a point where you just don’t give a fuck anymore. That usually happens when people are 65. But I’m kind of a crotchety old lady already.
NDM: And you’re not afraid to make yourself look humble or bumbling for the sake of the joke. I love that.
JM: Thanks. One of the things I complain about are bloggers who write about how perfect they are in everything they do. I’m so far from perfection, I don’t want anyone to ever think that I’m saying I’ve never done this. Or My kid has never done that. It’s more like, I’ve been there, Sister. I feel you. Motherhood is the toughest job. We can either laugh or cry, and we might as well laugh through it. The same goes for marriage. I’m happy to air my dirty laundry if it makes you feel better about your dirty laundry.
NDM: It looks like dirty laundry is the winning ticket because you’ve had the blogger dream come true. You started blogging in 2011. Within a few short months, one of your posts — Overachieving Elf-On-The-Shelf Mommies — went viral. You followed that up with the essay collection Spending The Holidays With People I Want To Punch In The Throat and boom! You got signed to a two-book deal with Random House. In fact, Random House is re-releasing Holidays for next Christmas. And along the way you edited and self-published two anthologies: I Just Want To Pee Alone and I Just Want To Be Alone. Honestly, unless you found gold doubloons or oil reserves buried in your backyard, I don’t think it gets better than that. How’d this all happen? Did you always want to write?
JM: I have wanted to write since I was 5. I used to write stories all the time as a little kid. My first job out of college was proof-reading for engineering specifications, which was about as exciting as it sounds. I worked at Conde Nast for a bit when I was living in New York, and then I did some political speech writing. So I’ve always been able to “use” my communications degree. But I didn’t start writing creatively until I started writing my blog. Originally, I thought I’d write a novel. I would tell my husband, I’m going to be Donna Tartt, [The Secret History author who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year for her novel The Goldfinch]. But when my blog took off, it was like, Here you are. THIS is what you’re going to write.
NDM: So did you just sit down one day and say, Hmmm … who are the people I want to punch in the throat? Let me blog about them?
JM: My husband was tired of listening to me constantly bitch. He said, I can’t listen to you anymore. You say you want to be a writer. Sit down and write a blog. At that point I didn’t read blogs, I didn’t know much about blogs. I was like, What would I call it? And my husband said, People I Want To Punch in the Throat. You say that all the time. That’s your title. Go for it. Run! And that’s really what started the blog. My husband saying, Please, for the sake of our marriage, start writing. If you love me, you will write it down … and stop telling me! So I did.
NDM: So basically, your blog and (as you write in your book) your cleaning lady, keep your marriage together?
JM: And our lawn guy. He’s a very integral part of our marriage too. Because The Hubs, he’s from New York City, and he doesn’t know how to mow a lawn. And that was part of the deal. When I was trying to give him all of the good things that were good about moving from New York to Kansas — my family lives here; the cost of living is less; I could start my real estate business here because my family would be my first clients; the schools were good, so we wouldn’t have to pay for private school — all he said was, I’m not buying a lawn mower. I don’t care if we eat home every night, we’re paying a lawn guy. So, fine. We’re paying a lawn guy. The lawn guy and the cleaning lady are both vital. We will eat mustard sandwiches if we have to, to keep those two in our lives. My husband is normally very confident in his abilities. He is convinced that if he watches enough YouTube videos, he could do open heart surgery. But when it came to the lawn, he was like Oh no. I will kill that. It will cost us more if I do it, because we will have to replace it.
NDM: Your breakout post was a rant against someone else who’d posted about all the ways you could have “fun” with your Elf on the Shelf. Personally, I think the Elf is creepy. And, as you’ve said, these “overachieving” Elf mommies are creating more work for themselves: taking ornaments off trees; baking and leaving a mess in the kitchen; scattering the feathers from a feather pillow all over the place. I don’t see the “fun” in that.
JM: When I wrote that, my kids were 5 and 3, and they were making the biggest messes ever. Then I read that post and thought, I have to bake cookies AND trash my kitchen? AND act like isn’t that hilarious and funny? I don’t think so.
NDM: So that post just takes off and your reaction to that is … what?
JM: I was rocking in the corner, crying.
JM: I was freaking out. In those days, I think I got 300 page views on a post. I’d written it; my 70 readers read it. And then a week later, my husband was looking at the analytics and said, There’s something going on. Who are all these people? Where’s this coming from? That’s when we quickly learned how to figure out analytics. I had people texting me saying, My friend who lives here in Ohio who doesn’t know you just shared your blog on her Facebook. My husband loves to analyze everything. He was sitting here making spread sheets. And I’m in a corner going Oh my god! It’s not for public consumption. I’m not sure I want everyone to read it. I’m not ready for this. At that point, I’d never had a hater. I’d never had a troll. You start getting those hateful emails, and you really take it personally — Oh my god! They really hate me. They really want to kill me. That upset me a lot.
So, I’m rocking in the corner, crying, and my husband is sitting there watching. And around midnight he said, Okay, what are you going to do tomorrow? And I was like, This is good. Let this go. They seem to really like this. Let them read this. At that point I’d created a Facebook page for the blog, and I’d gotten 17,000 fans in 24 hours. He said, No. You have 17,000 people waiting to hear what you’re going to say tomorrow. You told me you wanted to be a writer. You told me you wanted to do this. Here’s your chance. You need to go entertain them tomorrow. Go write something and I’ll see you later.
That month — it was December — my husband did everything because I was so overwhelmed. I’d never written every day before. I’d always written when the mood struck me, and I had “time.” But my husband really took over taking care of the kids and getting ready for Christmas because I was consumed by What am I going to write tomorrow? He was like, You’ll figure it out. I’ll see you later. I’m going to get the kids dinner. And so that was how it started. For the next six months, I tried to write five times a week to keep everybody entertained and keep them coming back and to keep growing.
NDM: It’s wonderful how your husband really stepped up to help create a bigger space for you to write. I hear from a lot of other women bloggers that their husbands aren’t supportive. They don’t think what their wives do is “work” or important, and they begrudge and belittle the time they spend at the computer or at a conference to learn more about blogging. And that breaks my heart.
JM: Mine too. I couldn’t do this if my husband didn’t do what he does. He really lets me prioritize my writing and make it important. I had a deadline last week to turn in the new manuscript for Spending The Holidays With People I Want To Punch in the Throat. For the last two weeks, I have hardly come out of my office. He’s taken over everything. He’s like, Get it done. But he comes from a creative background. He went to NYU Film School, and so he understands how important it is for me to be creative. And he knows if he had an opportunity like this, I would support him.
NDM: At what point did you produce your first edition of Spending the Holidays With People I Want To Punch in the Throat? And when’s the new edition coming out?
JM: The new Holidays will be out for the holiday season in 2015. I’ve added to the existing book, changed some of the essays and cut some. It’s a different book, but still recognizable. But the first version I put out by myself in October 2012. We were a little surprised by how that happened. It seemed like every time we turned on Good Morning America, they were talking about a guy who put up a photo and 200,000 people liked it, and they wanted to talk to him. So we thought, Surely someone will call us to find out about the Elf. The only one who contacted me was Huffington Post. So when we realized no one was coming to see me, we thought, We’re going to have to do this ourselves. And that’s when we started researching self-publishing. The timing was really important. I felt like my iron was only going to be hot for so long. I really wanted to have the book ready for the following Christmas because my readers were asking for a book. Even if I’d gotten the book written, there was no way a New York publisher would have it ready for the next Fall. So that’s why I self-published it, to have it ready for the 2012 holiday season.
NDM: Smart. So, is that what caught Random House’s attention?
JM: After I put out Holidays, I got an invitation to an event where I could meet and interview Jeff Kinney, the author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I don’t get invited to ANYTHING. Companies are terrified of my blog name and what I say. But at that point, my kids were 8 and 6 and were huge fans of Jeff Kinney. So I quickly replied before they could change their minds. We will be there! Thank you! And I will be on my best behavior.
At one point after I’d interviewed Jeff, we were standing around with a bunch of other people. Nobody had the nerve to talk to him and our kids are standing there picking their noses. So Jeff says to us, What’s the name of your blog? And I say People I Want To Punch in the Throat. Then two women gasped and said, I LOVE you! Jeff and the publicity guy were like What? Who’s this? That’s when my husband took the publicity guy aside and handed him my book and said, This is my wife, she writes really funny stuff. She gets lots of page views and sold lots of books. Read her book. Not long after that, the publishing company called me. They suggested I get an agent. But ironically, Jeff Kinney’s publishing company never made an offer. My agent wanted to move very quickly, and that publisher was too slow to get it done, so I went with Random House.
NDM: I gotta say, your husband — aka The Hubs or Ebeneezer, as you call him on the blog — sounds like a keeper.
JM: He is a definitely a keeper.
NDM: Your meet cute story in the book (“You’ve Got Mail”) about how you guys met in an AOL chat room, then met face-to-face on that date that wasn’t really a “date” while you were visiting New York City and you were sure he was going to kill you and bury you in a shallow pond in Central Park, was priceless. I. Was. Dying.
JM: My mother just read it the other day and she called me to ask, Did that part really happen? I’m like Yes. She said Oh my god! Why didn’t you tell us? Because I knew you wouldn’t let me go out with him the next day. Yeah, he kind of scared me. But he’s like a dog with a bone. He gets an idea, and he gets very intense about it and will not let it go. He wanted to show me His. Favorite. Spot. In.The. Park. And he would not let it go. And he was scaring the shit out of me. I was like Dude, I will kill you. I WILL kill you. They will find you. YOU WILL NOT GET AWAY WITH THIS!
NDM: Really, how many couples can say they fell in love over a shared belief that the other was going to murder them? Seriously, that was one of my favorite essays in your new book. But what I really love is how you take aim at parenting’s universally loathed stock characters. And while I’m sure some of your stories are drawn broadly for comic effect, I got particular joy out of how you skewered the Classroom Moms who turn class party planning into a competitive sport.
JM: I’d never been exposed to moms like these before. Like you said, the characters are kind of broad; they’re a combination of many different people. I take the worst qualities and put them together. But that story of the room moms comes from an experience a friend and I had in which we were made to feel, at 37 years old, that we were not capable of leading 5-year-olds in a craft. And you’re like, It’s a Halloween party. I think I’ve got it. Some Room Moms really love to be involved. And some take that on just so they can lord it over other people and tell them what to do.
NDM: I can honestly say I’ve never wanted to be the Room Mom. From my own amateur anthropological study of the species, I think the Room Mom is a natural evolution of the Bridezilla who then becomes the Play Group Gendarme — like that group leader from your chapter, “Screw Your Play Group, I didn’t Want To Join Anyway” — to Room Mogul, um, Mom. I’m sure there are further evolutions … perhaps Travel Team Mom, Dance Mom, etc. But I believe she starts as a Bridezilla and evolves from there.
JM: You’re right. It’s the same mom. It’s that type of personality for sure. It’s all about protecting their own and not being so concerned about the whole. It goes back to the idea that if it doesn’t benefit my kid directly, I’m not sure I want to do it. Like we always have trouble finding people to work the Book Fair, which benefits everybody, but then you’ve got four women fighting over who gets to be Room Mom. When I served as PTO president, I could see the mini fiefdoms cropping up all over. I took on PTO president so we could bring everyone back to serving the whole school. I think we’d be a better society if we were more concerned about the whole.
NDM: Agreed. So, before we wrap up, I must ask — because I loved the chapter “Carpool Lines and Bunny Pajamas Go Together Like … Nothing. They Don’t Go Together At All” — by any chance are you in your bunny pjs, today?
JM: I’m in my cargo capris. My other standard form of dress.
NDM: For me it’s yoga pants. I have “good” yoga pants and kinda crappy yoga pants. Do you have “good” cargo capris, and “schlumpy” cargo capris?
JM: Yes! I do have good ones and bad ones. Today I’m wearing some “bad” ones.
NDM: Those are the perks of working at home as writers. We don’t need to dress to impress. We do that with our words. Although, a few days ago, I put on a simple tank and some jeans, and my 8-year-old says, Mommy, are you going to a party?
JM: Oooooh. Ouch! That’s what happens when I put on makeup. My kids are like, What’s the occasion. Is someone coming over? Are you going on TV again, Mom? No.
NDM: I clearly have to step it up if my kid thinks jeans and a tank is dressed for a party.
JM: You may have sunk lower than me.
NDM: Well, there are so many of us moms down here, it’s a party!
JM: Exactly. Mommy is going to a party, and we ALL look like this! That’s why I’m going!
Jen Mann is the author of People I Want to Punch in the Throat: Competitive Crafters, Drop-Off Despots, and Other Suburban Scourges out tomorrow from Random House. She is also the editor of the anthologies I Just Want To Pee Alone and I Just Want To Be Alone. See who Jen wants to punch in the throat today and everyday on her blog. You can also follow Jen on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.