The Writing Life - Q&A with Author Gina Barreca

One Writer's Answer To The Question: How to Be A Writer?

Photo portrait of Gina Barreca by L. Brisson
Writer Gina Barreca uses humor to explain serious social topics. L. Brisson

Ever wonder how to be a writer?

In this Q&A authoritative, prolific — and brilliantly funny — author Gina Barreca elaborates on the pleasures, practicalities and privileges of being a book author. She tells how she got her start, why authors should "be truthful" — and what keeps her going (hint: it has something to do with paying her bills). 

And, full disclosure, one of Barreca's publishers is Doubleday, a former employer of Valerie's.

Becoming A Writer - With An Aside for Women

Valerie Peterson: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? A humor writer?

Gina Barreca: I started to keep a notebook when I was thirteen--I filled it with stories, silly jokes, cartoons from the newspaper, and half-truths about boys I liked and diets I thought I should be on. So I guess there was always a part of me that wanted to write stuff down, but I never even dared hope I could be a real “writer.”

In fact, even after writing eight books and editing seventeen, I still have trouble using that “W” word and I think a lot of other women writers are in the same position. Hemingway, Updike, and Fitzgerald? I don’t think they had problems calling themselves writers even when they were in short pants. But a woman can have a whole library shelf with books that have her name on the spine and she still wonders “Gee, am I just faking it?” Of course that could just be my girlish way of looking at things…

In terms of humor, I always loved reading funny writers when I was growing up.

I grew up reading cheap paperbacks by Jean Kerr, Erma Bombeck, and Alan King; later Dorothy Parker, Jerome K. Jerome, and Anita Loos became my favorites.

On Finding Her Writer's (Humorous) Voice

VP: I don't think you're alone, though I think and fervently hope the current push for diversity is helping that. 

You've had a prolific career as someone who writes and edits books on subjects of serious social importance (marriage, for example, in and women and drinking in — but with a humorous bent. Were you constrained to NOT be humorous early on in your academic career? How did you find your writer's voice?

GB: When I first announced that I wanted to write about women in comedy in literature, my well-meaning professors suggested that I change my topic and write about for example, working women in Thackeray and Dickens. One of the wisest things I ever did was to insist that Virginia Woolf was right when she wrote, “Be truthful… and the result is bound to be amazingly interesting. Comedy is bound to be enriched.” She wrote that in “A Room of One’s Own” in 1929. I decided it was time to see exactly how women enriched comedy. I did my doctoral dissertation on hate and humor in women’s writing because I suspected that if I did a more somber subject, I’d never actually have been able to complete it.

Breaking In To Book Publishing

VP: It's enviable that you've married your professorial day job with a successful humor book publishing track record. How did you get started? Tell us about your first trade publishing experience and how you broke into book writing for a general audience.

GB: I‘ve always written for three reasons: deadlines, a job, and a paycheck. I have never waited for inspiration; my muse, like a waitress at a roadside diner, counts her tips at the end of the day. I was in my first year of teaching and my un-air-conditioned office at the top of a flat-roof building at the University of Connecticut was simply too hot to work in one August afternoon. I went to the basement of the university library where I knew it would be cool to hang out (literally not figuratively) and read a copy of The Women’s Review of Books. I liked an essay written by somebody whose work I had never seen: name was Carole DeSanti. I was so impressed that I sent her a note. To my surprise, she wrote back and asked me what I was working on. It turns out that she was an assistant editor at a New York publishing house.

I explained that I was interested in women’s uses of humor, but also at the same time said that I couldn’t write a book for a trade press because I had to write a scholarly book in order to make sure I got tenure.

I had already had secured a contract for a revised version of my dissertation with Wayne State University Press. I think it was like falling in love when you’re already in a relationship: I became more attractive because I said “I’m out of reach” rather than “PLEASE GIVE ME A CONTRACT.” Carole convinced me that if I could write a book about humor in Jane Austen and George Eliot, I could also write a book (and at the same time, yet) about Patty Duke and Lucille Ball. She then did something magical: she paid for my lunch.

You have to remember I’d only just come out of graduate school where nobody had ever paid for my lunch. It occurred to me if I wrote books people might actually buy, I might be able to get a lot of nice lunches out of the deal as well as quite a few glasses of champagne. I wrote those two books simultaneously while teaching a full-course load. If you need to do, you do it.

Author Marketing and Promotion

VP: You have a lot of speaking engagements, which I'm assuming help book sales — would you tell us a little about "the life of an author" as you experience it from a self- and book-promotional standpoint?

GB: I’m like a snake-oil salesman: I carry books in my trunk. Every place I go, I bring books. I’m talking at a college, at a hospital, at fundraiser for a women’s shelter, at a library, at a prison? I bring books. Somebody might want some. I also work very hard to make sure my writing lives in more places than just between two hard-covers: I write a weekly column for The Hartford Courant, a monthly column for Principal Leadership, and I blog several times a week for Psychology Today and The Chronicle of Higher Education. When I’m not writing, I should be; when I find something interesting to write about, I like to make sure that I put the words into print. Writing is a profession, and like every other profession there are serious requirements. It’s not a once-every-couple-of-years deal. If you’re going to build a readership, you have to write constantly, consistently, and with genuine enthusiasm.

Book Publishing Marketplace Challenges

VP: From your first book to your most current, how has the publishing process changed for you as an author: editorially? marketing and publicity-wise?

GB: There are a lot of books published every year and very few of them reach the readers their authors hoped they might actually reach; it’s becoming increasing important for the authors to participate in the process. There are still brilliant editors, but there are fewer of them because there are fewer publishing houses and fewer independent bookstores—when the marketplace shrinks, the supplies consolidate, so that’s not a surprise. Anyhow, I have always enjoyed speaking in front of various kinds of audiences, from small libraries to giving keynotes in front of a couple of thousand audience members. I just need to make sure I don’t have a run in my tights, a coffee stain on my jacket, or spinach in my teeth (especially if there’s a Jumbotron). My students are now working in publishing. My goal is to have my students take over the business completely. I’m working on it.

Life Balance and Time Management for Authors

VP: How to you manage your writing with your other careers? Specifically, how and when do you make and/or find the time to write? Do you keep a regular writing schedule? Many aspiring writers who think it's a glamorous life--and would love to hear the details.

GB: There’s no glamour—or even glamor. It’s work, even though I’m glad to be able to do it. For example, I’m answering these questions while sitting in my basement office at UConn before running to a meeting of the University Senate (which is across campus, so I have to remember to change to my low-heeled shoes) and which, in turn, I’ll need to leave early in order to teach my two and one-half-hour class this evening (remembering to put the heels back on so that I can look Officially Professorial—or at least not quite this short). When I get home at 9 p.m., my husband of twenty years will tell me what’s left over and still available to eat in the fridge, and I will devour it (along with a glass of wine—which is why my latest book is called  and then before I go to bed I will finish the column for next Sunday’s Courant and email it to the editors and my co-author for final approval. Oh, and I’ll clean the cat-boxes and talk to at least two of my friends while I’m getting things ready for tomorrow morning. Alarm clock rings at seven a.m. and I’ll grade the papers for tomorrow night’s class while I eat breakfast (my students expect some blueberry jam on their in-class quizzes) and then start all over again—which I consider a privilege.

The Amazing Things About Being An Author

VP: What's the funniest thing about being an author? What's the most amazing thing about being an author?

GB: The funniest thing is the fact that people think it’s a glamorous life.

The most amazing thing is the authentic privilege (yes, that word again) of being able to have real conversations with people I’ve never met in person. When I first started writing, I promised myself that if I ever got a letter from somebody who read anything—from one word to every book-- I’d written, I’d answer their letter (in those days—1987-- we wrote letters). And I’ve tried to make certain I keep my word.

These days, with social media and email, it’s easier than ever for a writer to have a connection to her readers, and to know whether or not your voice is being answered by another voice. When that answer comes, it’s amazing. Even if it’s not a happy voice (I get some “how-dare-you” notes from readers who think that every phrase coming out of a woman’s mouth should start with “Darlin’?”), it’s fabulous to know that you’re being heard.

Advice for Humor Writers

VP: What advice do you have for other people who'd love to write humor, as well?

GB: Read the funniest writers, past and present. Read David Sedaris, Robert Benchley, Nicole Hollander, Gene Weingarten, Dave Barry, Stella Gibbons, Liza Donnelly, E.B. White, and Molly Ivans.

And if you really want to write humor, then do yourself a favor and go to your local bookstore to buy humor books. That’s how the story goes, folks.

Gina Barreca's books, which have been translated into seven languages, include , , , and . She has appeared on 20/20, 48 Hours, NPR, The Today Show, Joy Behar, and Oprah to discuss gender, power, politics, and humor. She is a professor of English and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut.