By Jennifer Sadler and Craig Sonnenberg
First presented in 1997 to Ian Frazier for his book Coyote vs. Acme, The Thurber Prize for American Humor is bestowed annually upon both author and publisher of the most outstanding book of humor writing published in the United States. Initiated in 1996, 35 years after the death of Columbus native James Thurber, it is the nation's highest recognition of the art of humor writing. On October 4, at the Algonquin Hotel in New York, Steve Hely was announced as the winner of the 2010 Thurber Prize for American Humor for his book, How I became a Famous Novelist (Black Cat/Grove Press). The prize is presented with the support of the Greater Columbus Arts Council.
Hely is a Harvard graduate who currently writes for NBC’s popular sitcom The Office, and has written for many other shows, including 30 Rock, The Late Show with David Letterman, and Fox’s animated comedy, American Dad. He is also co-author of the comic travelogue The Ridiculous Race.
Hely’s award winning debut novel, How I Became a Famous Novelist, is a literary satire about a slacker who sets out to write a best-selling novel—for reasons having nothing to do with literature. It’s a hilarious send-up of literary pretensions and celebrity culture, with dead-on parodies of genres, bestseller lists, and even the writing process itself. Thurber Prize judge, Sloane Crosley, called Hely "...a magnificent satirist, a real storyteller, and a creator of a narrator who is both charmingly familiar and original. [Hely] has such enviable reserves of humor and made me laugh out loud with humiliation, hope and shame."
GCAC recently spoke with (the very funny) Hely about winning this prestigious honor and to learn a little more about his work.
GCAC: What is it about humor writing, or writing in general that attracts you? When did you start writing?
Hely: I've been writing since I could grip a crayon firmly. I wasn't aiming for humor writing - most of my early efforts were massive historical epics. But a little kid writing massive historical epics is pretty funny. The day I realized that, I switched to humor writing.
GCAC: What do you find most difficult about writing? Is it difficult trying to be funny sometimes?
Hely: The hardest part about writing is writing. The easy part is walking around, thinking about how great it will turn out. But actually typing in words is always hard. It's so much easier to watch TV, or take a shower, or do nothing!
GCAC: You write for some of the most hilarious shows on television. How is writing for TV different than writing a book?
Hely: TV writing is very collaborative, so that reduces the horrific loneliness of novel-writing. You're surrounded by funny, smart people - I've been lucky to work with people who've made my work much, much better. But in TV, because you're collaborating and because you're playing with someone else's money, you don't have the total control you have with writing a book. On TV shows, you've got folks to eat lunch with, which is a perk. And there are people you can turn to and ask "does this make sense, or have I gone totally insane?" That's a comfort.
GCAC: Most writers’ best expectation for a book is that it will be well received critically and will sell well. But what did you think when you learned that your debut novel, How I Became a Famous Novelist, won the Thurber Prize—the most prestigious honor for humor writing?
I was delighted! My seventh grade English teacher used to read us Thurber stories aloud - he was a great actor, so that added to the hilarity. So I'm honored to be associated with Thurber's name. But what I'm most excited about is a trip to Columbus. Always a pleasure to visit a new state capital!
GCAC: Has winning the prize allowed you to meet other authors you admire?
Hely: Yes, I enjoyed meeting both my fellow nominees, Jancee Dunn and Rhoda Janzen. Jancee promised to tell me some good stories from her days as a Rolling Stone interviewer. It was also a real treat to meet Sloane Crosley, who's got such a cool, funny voice. In her writing, I mean. Her talking voice is just plain cool.
GCAC: The craft of writing is for the most part a solitary occupation (or a behind the scenes experience in the TV industry) and writers generally receive little media or popular recognition. What’s it like to be in the spotlight?
Hely: It's tough! With everything I do now, I have to ask myself, "will this behavior bring shame to the Thurber House?" I was pleased that it temporarily livened up my Google alert for the word "hely." Most of the articles I had been getting were about some Australian guy I've been looking to topple for a long time, or else they were written in Hungarian.
GCAC: What advice would you like to share with aspiring writers?
Hely: Quit! I don't need a bunch of hilarious kids stealing my thunder! No, I would say not to be afraid to fail, over and over again. That's most of what writing is. Keep chipping away. And write every single day.
Three esteemed judges were responsible for selecting the winner of this year’s Thurber Prize for American Humor: Sloane Crosley, who was a finalist for the prize in 2009 for I Was Told There'd Be Cake; Laurie Notaro, who was also a finalist for the prize in 2009 for her collection, The Idiot Girl and the Flaming Tantrum of Death: Reflections on Revenge, Germaphobia, and Laser Hair Removal; and Bruce Tracy, who has more than 20 years’ experience in adult trade publishing as an editor and editorial director at Doubleday and Random House, and as a freelance writer, editor and consultant.
Past winners of this prestigious award include the editorial staff of the satirical magazine The Onion for Our Dumb Century in 1999, author David Sedaris of the best-selling novel Me Talk Pretty One Day in 2001, and Jon Stewart and the writers of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction. Ian Frazier, the recipient of the first ever Thurber Prize for American Humor in 1997, is the first and only author to win the prize twice, scoring it again in 2009 for his book Lamentations of the Father.
The runners-up for the Thurber Prize were Jancee Dunn for Why is My Mother Getting a Tattoo? And Other Questions I Wish I Never Had to Ask and Rhoda Janzen for Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (a Memoir of Going Home).
Through its Thurber prize and related initiatives, the Thurber House continues its mission as a literary center dedicated to celebrating the written word and continuing the legacy of James Thurber.
Photos: Courtesy of Thurber House.