An interview with author Jerome F. McFadden

Jerry McFadden
has been writing fiction for the past several years. His stories have appeared in various fiction magazines and e-zines, such as Flash Fiction Offensive, Over My Dead Body, Eclectic Flash Fiction, and BWG Writers Roundtable. Many of his favorites are included in his book OFF THE RAILS: A Collection of Weird, Wicked, & Wacky Stories  published in 2019. He received a Second Place Bullet Award for the best crime fiction to appear on the web in June, 2011, and has had his short stories performed aloud on the stage by the Liar’s League in London and the Liar’s League in Hong Kong. His stories have also appeared in various anthologies, including Hardboiled: Crime SceneOnce Around the SunA Christmas SamplerA Readable Feastand Let It Snow. He has also won honorable mentions in Writer’s Digest Magazine annual national fiction awards, as well as in several regional writing contests.


Interview with BWG member Janet Robertson 

Jerome McFadden is the author of Off the Rails: A Collection of Weird, Wicked & Wacky Stories. My favorite story in this collection is about a bank robber who is interrupted while holding up a bank, by a second group of bank robbers. I laughed all the way through it. So I asked Jerry about humor.  

Bethlehem Writers Group: Who is your favorite comedian? Who is your favorite humorous writer?


Jerome McFadden: To me, there is a big difference between comedy and humor. I see comedy as a slapstick or silly way of being funny, like a comedian working a room for laughs. Most of our "humorous" shows on TV today are in fact comedy, with the canned laughter plugged in to tell you when it is supposed to be funny.


Humor also makes you laugh, but there is a sharp edge to it that also makes you think. Humor is more indirect. It may make you laugh, but at the same time it may make you ask "Gee, should he (she) have said that?" Good humor writing tells a meaningful story that you enjoy reading, with spices of humor added to make you laugh, and maybe think about what was just said. 


Comedy is a gag, humor is a thought. Mel Brookes vs. Mark Twain. 


But enough preaching.


Favorite comedian (of all time): Robin Williams. I have watched and will re-watch everything he ever touched. In the early years, he was slapstick (comedy), but in the latter years he was humorous (see "Good Morning, Vietnam" and "Mrs. Doubtfire").


Favorite humor writer: How about a list instead—Janet Evanovich, Carl Hiassaan, Dave Berry, Bill Bryson, David Sedaris.  Deceased: George MacDonald Fraser, Nora Ephron.


BWG: Who do you consider an excellent, but not-well-known, humorous writer?


JM: Jane Susan Gelman, a recent discovery for me.


BWG: When you think of humor broadly, who do you think is most controversial? Why? What do you think of them?


JM: David Sedarsis. His books sell well, and he has garnered all kinds of awards, but I find his humor to be whiny and complaining. To me he sounds like a country & western "somebody done me wrong" song. I apologize to Mr. Sedaris in advance, but this is my humble opinion.  Please note: He is making far more money in writing humor than I am!


BWG. In terms of humor, are their great teachers out there, great books on writing humor?


JM: Good question. I have no idea. I have never studied nor planned to write humor. I have always had a smart mouth; that quite often got (and still gets) me into trouble. I come from a very large family (eight kids), and humor was a way of defending myself. It also found me my wife, as she was single child from a quiet family and I had the ability to make her laugh. It has worked so far for fifty years. But I also had a college roommate who was an All American athlete (for real) who would run around at a kegger party looking to beat the hell out of me when he was drunk as payback for all of snarky things I said to him or about him when we were both sober. 


BWG: Who trained or influenced you? 


JM: I trained to write, not to write humor. I went to the U of Missouri to study journalism. At the time, it was the top J school in the country (probably still is). I wanted to write magazine articles. That worked for me: I spent 20 years as a part-time freelance writer (never give up the day job!), writing articles for major American magazines and newspapers, while living in such disparate places as Houston, Casablanca, Paris, San Fran, and Singapore. (It was a great day job!) Along the way, I discovered that touches of humor often helped sell the articles. I morphed in fiction in later life and brought the smartass remarks with me.


BWG: What makes you different?


JM: I take my humor writing very serious. First, as I said before, there has to be a story, not just a joke. The story has to follow the guidelines of a serious story: a character or characters in the story that have a shattering event that they must work through, that changes them in the end. When the reader finishes, I would like him/her to think that he/she just read a great story that just happened to make them laugh, rather than a string of great jokes. I think what makes me very different is that I try very hard for an ending that the reader did not expect.


BWG: What are the biggest mistakes you see made in humorous writing?


JM: Taking it too seriously. I sometimes start stories thinking "this is going to be fun" but then get too far into them and realize it is not working—but then I keep trying to make it work rather than just dumping it and moving on. 


BWG: If you were to train me to write humor, and I had only four weeks to learn, what exercises would you give me?


JM: Teaching you comedy would be easier. There are hundreds of websites that think they can teach you comedy. Or you could watch the TV program The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The poor woman spends her life trying to learn how to be a comedian.


But humor? 


First. Find a good story to be told (written);


Then, be bold. You cannot be funny if you are afraid to poke fun at yourself or at other things, including very serious things. You want the reader to think "did he/she really say that?" You also cannot be afraid of falling on your face when you write these stories. Not everybody shares the same humor. Some of your pearls may turn out to be rocks. And someone somewhere will take offense.


Then, think out the box. In fact, there is no box, no limit. Go for the atrocious, ridiculous, illogical, and nonsense. I have written stories about skeletons escaping an anatomy lab, pigeons trying to learn how to fly in formation like geese, ground hogs not wanting to be disturbed on Ground Hog Day, shy bank robbers, a shootout at a viewing, etc.


Then, be unpredictable.


Also, enjoy it.


Also, edit, edit, edit, until you get it right (write).


Also, take your time to do it right (write).


But, important: Don't be vulgar. Using foul words for the shock effect doesn't work. Nor does making fun of race, religions, caste, physical disabilities, gender, or other people's language. You can be funny without being offensive.