Just when you thought you might consider maybe sticking that wretched Elf back up on the shelf (the better to ensure some good behavior from the kids through Christmas) along comes Jen Mann to remind us why that
creepy little marketing juggernaut … excuse me … doll is such a P.I.T.A.
Yep! The playground set’s Dorothy Parker is baaaaack with a deliciously barbed book that skewers all manner of holiday celebrations from Christmas to Halloween (and just about every occasion in between). When you’ve reached your limit on the seasonal treacle dished out by the Hallmark Channel, et al., go lock yourself in the closet and binge-read this. Filled with seasonal goofs and gaffes, crazy faux pas and hilarious snafus, Spending The Holidays with People I Want To Punch in the Throat is the anti-holiday reader for those who understand that Thanksgiving to New Year’s (and possibly through Easter) is the most stressful time of the year.
As she shares her myriad tales of celebrations gone south, Mann gleefully laces her holiday hum-buggery with a snark that zings without being the slightest bit Grinch-y. The result is a wickedly delightful reminder that no matter how much our own festive attempts may fall short of the mark, things could always be worse. Or hysterically funny.
I managed to catch up with Jen by phone to chat about her latest book and how she really likes to spend her holidays. (You can check out our first interview here.)
Norine: If I recall, even though Spending the Holidays With People I Want to Punch in the Throat came out last month from Random House, it was actually your very first book, the book that caught Random House’s attention to sign you as one of their authors. How’d that all happen?
Jen Mann: That’s correct. I started blogging in 2011, and that Christmas one of my posts went viral. My new-found readers immediately started asking for a book. A genius friend suggested I write a holiday-inspired book since my viral post was about the Elf on the Shelf. I didn’t have a literary agent or any connections to publishers in New York, and I knew how slow they moved, so I went ahead and wrote and self-published the book in 2012. It ended up being a best-seller on Amazon. I used that success to attract the attention of a literary agent. We worked together to come up with the book proposal for People I Want to Punch in the Throat: Competitive Crafters, Drop-Off Despots, and Other Suburban Scourges (2014). A publisher mentioned they’d be interested in a new and updated version of Spending the Holidays with People I Want to Punch in the Throat as well as the suburbia book. I had always planned to add more to it, and so I agreed to add it to the proposal. After a bidding war, I went with a two-book deal with Ballantine, which is an imprint of Penguin Random House. Ballantine chose to release the suburbia book first since it’s a more general book and could attract a wider audience.
The new version of Holidays is a bit different, isn’t it? My favorites are still in there: The Over-Achieving Elf-On-The-Shelfers; Skeevy Santa; I Want My McDonald’s; the White Trash Dollhouse. (Good save by your dad, by the way, telling you that Santa wanted YOU to finish building it. That was masterful.) But now there’s a whole section on other holidays, which I thoroughly enjoyed. (By the way, I really felt your pain when you blew it with Gomer and the Easter Bunny.) Was that your idea or your publisher’s?
Yes, all of your favorites from the previous version of the book are there, and now I’ve doubled its size with a bunch of new essays. If you have the original, you’re still going to want this one, because it has a lot of new material. I did add some more Christmas stories, like what the Hubs does when people show up unannounced on my porch to sing Christmas carols on a cold December night. But as I got going, I realized that you can only tell so many Christmas stories. My family is funny, but they’re not THAT funny. So, I emailed my editor and suggested we add some more holidays to the mix. I told her that I had a good Halloween and Mother’s Day story and then while I was writing the book, I totally blew Gomer’s mind during Easter and so that needed to go in there. I wasn’t sure how to package these stories, because usually I try to keep my books chronological, and I didn’t think it would work to mix a story about our Chinese New Year celebration in between two Christmas stories. My editor came up with the idea of dividing the book into three sections, and I was very happy when she did.
So now we’ve had People I Want To Punch in the Throat and Spending The Holidays With People I Want To Punch in the Throat. This seems like the perfect series to keep producing. Are there plans for, say, Spending the Summer With People I Want To Punch in the Throat? Or Going On Vacation With People I Want To Punch in the Throat? Touring Europe With People I Want To Punch in the Throat? I mean, this is the gift that keeps on giving.
The third proposal is written, and my agent is reviewing it right now. It’s about all of the terrible jobs I’ve ever had. Like when I had to pick up my billionaire boss’s dirty underwear from his hotel room because he forgot them and didn’t want to buy new ones. Or when I spent a week filling out that boring job review thing, only to have my boss draw a big red line through it and tell me that my job was being eliminated. Or the time I worked in an office where we were given one pen at a time to write with, and we had to turn in the dry, empty pen to get a new one. Maybe Sharing a Cubicle with People I Want to Punch in the Throat??? I also have an outline for a book about traveling. So, for sure, I’ve got at least two more in me.
That’s great news for Throat-Punch fans, myself included. I couldn’t help but notice that you’re also releasing Kindle Singles. You have, what? Three? Four volumes out now? Tell me what those are about.
I am! I love doing the Kindle Singles. I have four volumes out, but I have at least 12 planned. Blogging has changed a lot over the years since I started. I’ve always been more of a long-form writer who doesn’t use a lot of visuals. In this new world of Instagram and YouTubers with millions of hits, my style doesn’t translate as well anymore. So I decided to move some of these longer essays that might not work as well for the blog over to Kindle. It’s a great way for my loyal readers to find brand new, ad-free content to read, and it’s a great way for me to find more readers who are interested in reading. Each volume has three original essays that don’t appear anywhere else. They’re stories from my childhood, opinion pieces, funny family stories, ranty stuff, etc. It’s a grab-bag of throat punches.
I’ve always loved grab bags. Which, by the way, is a perfect, not-awkward-at-all segue to talk about your anthologies, which pull together a diverse assortment of bloggers. Your third, I Still Just Want to Pee Alone, came out this past spring. Woman, I do not know how you do it, but brava!
I enjoy doing these anthologies. The first one—I Just Want To Pee Alone—was funny mom stories about parenting. Then I did I Just Want To Be Alone which was more about relationships. But the one that has always been “the little book that could” was Pee Alone. Two years later, that one is still going like crazy. It’s always up there in the rankings. I think it’s because we’ve always got a new crop of new moms coming in. If you look at Amazon, The Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy is always up there too. I remember someone giving that to me when I was pregnant with my first child. I’d never read a funny pregnancy book before, and I was like This is great! Then I realized, it was 10 years old. There’s not a lot out there for moms who are looking to laugh when they’re pregnant, so my husband and I decided that we’d go back to the Pee Alone format and go back to motherhood again.
Any favorites returning from the first Pee Alone book?
Kim Bongiorno of Let Me Start By Saying. She is like my right hand. And I’ve always got Bethany Thies of Bad Parenting Moments. She’s an amazing writer. She’s been in all of my anthologies. If you read the reviews, several of them call out her essay in this book. The opening line is “I wonder if my mother in law likes my tits.” Everyone likes that line and what she’s doing is pumping milk. It’s the early days when you’ve had your baby and you really don’t give a damn who sees you doing what. And so she’s in her living room, pumping, and then she starts mooing because she feels like a cow. In her mind she’s thinking, I wonder if my mother-in-law thinks I’m crazy. But then it comes full circle at the end when her mother-in-law tells her she’s beautiful and that she’s done something so amazing by giving her a grandchild, and isn’t motherhood great and now we have that in common. It’s a really warm, touchy-feely story.
The other one who stands out is Beth Caldwell of The Cult of Perfect Motherhood. She wrote about having very serious breast cancer and how she just assumed that she’d be there for her children’s future, and the reality is she probably won’t. The way she writes is so amazing. It’s not sappy. It doesn’t pull at your heartstrings. It’s really short and powerful. She just lets you in and lets you feel it. It’s just beautiful.
Any new voices this time around?
Ashley Allen of Big Top Family wrote “The Day I Got Taken to Church.” This one will stand the test of time. She wrote about how she doesn’t swear in front of her kids. I really related to that because people always think I swear in front of my kids because of how much I swear on my blog. But I don’t cuss in front of my kids. So, she’s taking her kids to church. and they almost have a car accident; someone almost hits them, and of course, she swears. Then she’s like, “Oh crap! Did my kids hear that?” And her oldest, maybe 6, says, “Mommy, you said a bad word.” And she says, “I’m sorry. I thought we were gonna die!” and he’s like, “You thought we were gonna die, and you wanted THAT to be the last word we heard??”
That’s totally happened to me before. My kids are total hall monitors. They’re always worried about what I’m going to say next.
Ha! I hear that. Especially this time of year. Which reminds me, when I was a kid, I remember the holidays as just wonderful. Now it’s just stress, stress and more stress from Halloween to New Year’s. What’s up with that? And, more importantly, from a publishing point of view, why’s it so important to come out with a just-this-side-of-bah-humbug collection for the holidays?
Well, when I first wrote Spending The Holidays with People I Want to Punch in the Throat, back in 2012, Pinterest was a huge thing, and everybody was trying to outdo one another with ah-may-zing holiday creations and memory-making. Now that Instagram has joined the fray, I feel like there’s even more pressure to holiday better than your neighbor. What we see online is so phony and so staged (and anymore, it’s usually sponsored by some big company). I think it’s important to show those messy corners of your life and to laugh about them. Those are memories too. My kids won’t remember the fancy clothes I bought them for our annual family picture, but they’ll remember that that morning, I was rushing around so much to make our picture perfect, I spilled a whole cup of tea down my shirt. I had to change, and I didn’t match everyone. We’ll laugh about that for years.
That’s absolutely how holiday memories and family traditions are made! A few years back my sister had me get apple and pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving. So, I went to the supermarket and grabbed some pies from the frozen dessert section. My sister goes to put the pies in the oven as we’re sitting down to dinner and calls out, “Didn’t I ask you to get apple pie?” I’m like, Yeah, I did! “No,” she said, slowly, as if I were learning-impaired. “You got peach pie!” I’d been in such a rush at the supermarket, thinking about ten thousand other things (as we do) that I didn’t check the label. I’d only eyeballed the box and grabbed what looked like an apple pie. So now the joke in my family is that the writer can’t read. That story gets trotted out every Thanksgiving, especially if we have guests at the table. But since then, it’s a Dworkin Family tradition to have peach pie for Thanksgiving.
You know, so few of us can live up to the insane holidays we see in movies or on television or on the Internet. I like to be the one who sets the bar so low everyone can say, “Well, at least I didn’t lose my kids’ Santa gifts like Jen did last year!” I’m that friend. And I’m happy to be her.
Me too. So tell me, what’s your secret to staying sane for the holidays?
It’s the same secret I use to stay sane all year round: laughter. Life is stressful, and we can laugh or we can cry about it. I’d rather laugh every single time. Yes, I spilled tea down my shirt. But, no, the picture isn’t RUINED. I might as well wear orange and really stand out and be different. I lost my kids’ Santa gifts, but it will be hilarious once we find them. I’m not saying I never get stressed out, but I also try not to care too much about things that will cause me stress. Tree is half-decorated? Who cares? Presents aren’t wrapped? That’s what gift bags are for. Invited to another holiday party? You can always say “No, thanks.” Money is tight? Be honest with your family, set a budget, and stick to it, regardless of what the Joneses are doing this year. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, “I don’t know what to tell you? I guess Aynsley’s mother loves her more if she’s spending that much this year.”
Can you share one holiday tradition that you’d love to see die a quick death? (Or slow and painful, your choice.) And one holiday tradition you absolutely adore.
A holiday tradition I’d like to see go away: Of course, I have to say cookie exchanges. You’ll have to read the book to see why I hate them so much.
That’s page 100 for those following along at home.
And a holiday tradition that I love: Looking at Christmas lights. We have our favorite places that we like to hit every year. My house looks like crap, but I appreciate the work that everyone else does.
Me too, my friend. Me too. And now, as Jon Stewart would say, here’s your moment of zen:
Spending the Holidays with People I’d Like to Punch in the Throat is available online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble and wherever books are sold. Follow Jen on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram.