An Easy Hour
with Leslie Stella
Leslie Stella
The Adirondack Review
What's your take on serious literature vs. comedy?

There are many levels of comedy, so I don't think of comedy and serious literature as being mutually exclusive. This brings to mind my favorite book of all time, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, which is both wildly funny and socially significant, particularly as an example of post-war British literature. The stories of P. G. Wodehouse and Dorothy Parker are also extremely funny and full of beautifully mean-spirited wit that can only spring from intelligence and wry wisdom, and at the same time address the ills of humanity in general.

Of course, I do understand what you are getting at with your question, but you're never going to hear me say that comedic literature is less worthy than its serious counterpart. There is a well-known metaphor for comedy vs. tragedy, but to paraphrase it for illustrating comedy vs. serious literature: in comedy, a man gets drunk and falls down, and we laugh; in the other, a man gets drunk and falls down, and we cringe. They both serve a purpose, and what I hope to create is a story where a man gets drunk and falls down, and the reader both laughs and cringes.

Will your next book be serious literature like "Devils on Horseback" [your short story that was published in The Adirondack Review],  or will it be another humorous one?

I love comedy; I can't imagine a time when I would not want to write a comedic novel. But that is not to say I don't aspire to incorporate elements into humorous novels that speak to more serious issues. I have had a novel sitting in a drawer at home for a year that I think of as sadly humorous; its protagonist is a sad-sack man with a rich, Walter Mitty-esque interior life and what he sees as a deadly bland and worthless exterior life. The story revolves around death, and the death of dreams, yet still has the man-falling-down-drunk pathos. This novel doesn't seem to belong anywhere, except with me. A chasm exists there between serious and humorous fiction that perhaps I am not talented enough to bridge.

That said, I am currently working on a new book that is, I hope, funny, yet adds more "cringe" to the mix than any of my previous ones. I do love slapstick humor, but I just want to add more dimension to it in this project.

Are you afraid of being typecast as a comedy writer, or "chick lit" author? I have seen your books listed in that category, and I wonder how you feel about that, and the term "chick lit" itself.

Publishing, like all consumer-driven industries, relies on branding. That is the nature of this business. So, no; I am not worried about being labeled a comedy writer; I'm proud of that, if people think I'm actually funny. And I'm not worried about being branded a women's fiction writer, but chick lit is a hornet's nest right now, and any chick lit writer better prepare herself for the inevitable reviews that begin, "If the Bridget Jones genre is not exhausted yet, then...." It's quite insulting to have anyone's book dismissed because the reviewer disdains the topic. You never read reviews of mysteries or thrillers that begin by disparaging the genre. However, because of the surge in chick lit's popularity and saleability, there is a glut of material on the market now, and naturally under those circumstances, not all of the books are good. Some are great, though, but seem like they were marketed as chick lit merely because they have young, female protagonists.

Will chick lit be around for the long haul? Who can say? What will be around for certain is, simply, good women's fiction. One of my favorite contemporary writers is Elinor Lipman, who writes wonderfully funny, intelligent novels about women (and men); books that are deeply relevant to readers across cultural and gender lines, which I think chick lit often is not. If I can borrow from a review I once read, her books are about life, not shopping. I'm sure most chick lit authors, myself included, would say, "Me, too! My book's about life, too!" But I think this is something to struggle with constantly, to write meaningful, funny novels that have a deeper message. There is, I think, a danger in labeling books to the extent that it precludes many reviewers or readers from giving them a chance, but it is up to me to make my writing transcend those labels.

How deep does Easy really go -- what's hidden beneath its fun exterior?

Recently, when I was doing a book signing and reading, a man in the audience raised his hand and asked, "Your book sounds like it is a comedy. Is there anything redeeming in it?" This is the type of question comedy writers often can something funny be worthwhile, be important? I believe that any piece of writing that gets you to consider something in a new way, or poses a question, or introduces a new subject of interest, is certainly worthwhile, and if you find yourself laughing as well, then that's a bonus.

In The Easy Hour, I think there are several positive messages: first, Lisa Galisa is an overweight woman, but she never diets, never looks at herself in disgust, never really feels that she is unattractive...she pokes fun at herself, sure, but in what I'd call normal, noninsane ways; we all rib ourselves sometimes, which I think is funny and healthy, and Lisa is no different. She enjoys food, she wears great clothes, she has an active social life, and guys like her. These are subtle but important messages for women and older girls who may read the book, that here we have a heroine who is not thin and leads a happy life anyway. There seems to be a lot of books out there now where the female protagonist is ten pounds heavier than she wants to be, and obsesses the whole duration of the novel about how "ugly" she is. What nonsense, and how insulting to women in general and truly obese people specifically.

Second, Lisa has a good relationship with her family. Of course they annoy her (whose family doesn't?), which provides for good comedy, but again we have a message here that some marriages do last a lifetime, some parents really do want the best for their children, some siblings really do support and help one another.

Third, Lisa works in retail and has all its accompanying career desperations, which I think strikes a more resonant chord with people than the typical chick lit protagonist who works in the media or for a huge fashion magazine. Wage-slave jobs are humbling and universal, there is nothing glamorous about them. I've worked in stores and cubicles all my life, as have many people, and sometimes I want to read about a regular person in a regular job. The deeper message here is that when Lisa does get a marginally more exciting job opportunity (as personal assistant to a socialite), she misses her old, unexciting career in retail, and why? Because she had forged a real bond with her boss and coworkers, they enjoyed a family-type atmosphere at the department store that could not be duplicated anywhere else. Lisa realizes she is happier with less money and less "clout" simply because of the personal rewards of working with decent people.

None of these examples are anything unusual or even that special; what they are, are normal everyday realizations that could happen to you or me, seemingly ordinary changes we could make in our lives that actually contribute to happiness: accepting oneself, appreciating and offering familial support, and basing success not on money or fame but on personal satisfaction.
by Colleen Marie Ryor
LESLIE STELLA is the author of The Easy Hour and Fat Bald Jeff. Her work has appeared in The Mississippi Review, Bust, Chum, Easy Listener, and anthologized in The Book of Zines (Henry Holt, 1997). Visit her official website:
What is The Easy Hour about?

The Easy Hour tells the story of Lisa Galisa (her mother was sure the rhyming name would bring good fortune), a department store wage-slave who dreams of leaving behind her life of retail hell. It is, at heart, a workplace-centered comedy that illustrates the vanity of human desires, and the gullibility of a society that embraces whatever is the next "new thing." Lisa believes the way out of her overworked, underpaid existence is to take a position as a personal assistant to a notorious Chicago socialite, and at the same that the new job releases her from the frustrations of her working-class background, it also unleashes some unexpected resentment toward the glitterati.
How does it differ from your first book, Fat Bald Jeff?

First, the similarities are that they are both comedies that explore the class divisions of working life that so many of us experience, we who are cubicle dwellers, store clerks, waitrons, bartenders. The main characters are disaffected working stiffs who long for something better, but come to realize that diamonds can be found in the most unlikely places: the camaraderie that can grow between ordinary people dreaming of meaningful lives, and the satisfaction that can come from accomplishing what most of society sees as inconsequential (or nonremunerative) projects.

The differences lie within the characters. I tried to develop Addie, the protagonist of Fat Bald Jeff, into a delightfully unlikeable young woman who eventually comes around. I admit I was brazen enough to try to create a modern, female counterpart to A Confederacy of Dunces's Ignatius J. Reilly. Addie is misanthropic and bad-tempered and utterly blind about how she comes off to other people. I love these types of characters, these deluded, selfish, parodies of human beings, who reel us in nonetheless. This is a difficult line to walk, but I enjoy characters to whom I am both repelled and attracted.
FAT BALD JEFF by Leslie Stella
Who would you see playing Lisa in a film version of The Easy Hour?

There isn't really one person who jumps out at me, but I think Janeane Garofalo could probably provide the necessary level of deadpan sarcasm tempered with likeability. The thing about Lisa is that she is a tough person with a hard exterior, a bad temper, and a bad attitude, yet I tried to imbue her with a little sensitivity and good humor so that the reader would root for her, not despise her. She's South Side Chicago through and through, but she's also at heart a nice Italian girl from a nice, mildly insane family. Onscreen, the actor would be faced with the challenge of making a fundamentally morose, grumpy person charismatic and loveable.
Tell us about some of your inspirations.

The inspiration for The Easy Hour was a British sitcom from the 1970s that is often rerun on public television, called Are You Being Served? It took place in a department store and very little of the action revolved around the actual selling of clothes, but rather revolved around the high drama in the employees' relations with one another and their battles for floor space. I just loved that show.

In general, I feel most inspired by those writers who combine wit with intelligence and warmth: Kingsley Amis, P.G. Wodehouse, Garrison Keillor... I am also influenced by these writers' use of setting, and how it nearly functions as a character (Amis's campus life, Wodehouse's class-bound British society, and Keillor's Lake Wobegon). Elinor Lipman accomplishes the same with her stories set in small towns along the East Coast. Sense of place is extremely important to me as a writer and, frankly, as a person, too. Environment forms people in real life as well as characters in fiction.
Any movie plans for The Easy Hour? Would you write the screenplay yourself, or would you have someone else do the adaptation?

So far there are no movie plans, though of course I'd love to see it onscreen. The book-to-film process works this way: my agent puts the book into the hands of the film agents he works with and they get back to him if they are interested in selling the project. Or if the book has created enough buzz on its own, film agents will come to my agent on their own.

I don't think I would be a suitable candidate to adapt the book into a screenplay because I've never written one before. I think in cases such as mine, the film people might "consult" with the author, or have the author cowrite the screenplay with a real screenwriter, or some other scenario where the author's input is valued and taken into account, but the author does not control the production of the script. Who's my pick to turn this into a movie? Wes Anderson (director/writer of the films Rushmore, The Royal Tennenbaums, etc.). I love his films' dry, understated comedy and I think with a book like The Easy Hour, which really has so many slapstick, farcical scenes, it would be important not to let the humor degrade into something hokey or too over-the-top. The restraint Anderson shows with the humor in his movies is ultimately what makes them so powerful and human.
THE EASY HOUR by Leslie Stella
"[Y]ou're never going to hear me say that comedic literature is less worthy than its serious counterpart. There is a well-known metaphor for comedy vs. tragedy, but to paraphrase it for illustrating comedy vs. serious literature: in comedy, a man gets drunk and falls down, and we laugh; in the other, a man gets drunk and falls down, and we cringe. [W]hat I hope to create is a story where a man gets drunk and falls down, and the reader both laughs and cringes."