Today I’m sitting down with my buddy Brendon Marks to talk about his new book, On Your Marks, Get Set, Laugh, a collection of one hundred columns originally written for newspapers. The articles have in common that they were all written by the same man, yet they vary widely in subject matter and scope, and there’s a liberal sprinkling of humor throughout. I found them to be fun and fascinating at the same time.
MJB: So, Brendon, tell us a bit more about the book. Over what period were these columns written? And for what newspapers?
Brendon: These columns were the first 100 that I had published and were written from mid-1997 to late 1999. I was writing for The Villager Journal, a weekly in Salem, Arkansas, The Sedona Excentric, a monthly in Sedona, Arizona, and the Arizona Roadracer, a bi-monthly runner’s newspaper in Phoenix, Arizona. I also did some freelance work for Inside Texas Running. These columns were published in soft and hard-cover in December 1999.
MJB: How did you start writing for newspapers? If any of our readers out there wanted to follow in your footsteps, how would they go about doing that?
Brendon: I credit my wife Hwa-Ja for the initial success. We had purchased some property near Salem, Arkansas with the idea of retiring there and when we went for a visit she thought I should start writing for one or more of the local papers so I would be a celebrity when we finally moved there. We hand-delivered some of my samples to every little newspaper within a fifty mile radius and David Cox, editor of The Villager Journal, liked what he read. I was very fortunate; if I were starting out now, I honestly don’t know if I could make it. So many newspapers are going under due to the instantaneous aspect of the internet that it is very difficult. You must find a paper that matches your style and don’t expect to get paid much, if anything.
MJB: I noticed a distinct similarity to Dave Barry and Bill Bryson with your very dry wit. Did you model your style after anyone, or is it all your own?
Brendon: I did not, I started writing casually. I would be at work and send out an email to several of my coworkers relating a story about something that had happened to me on the way home from work, or over the weekend, or while shopping with my wife. I received so many positive responses and “You should write book” urgings that I figured “What the heck.”
MJB: What the heck, indeed. Why not give it a try, and look at it now.
You’ve taken some very mundane, everyday occurrences and transformed them into humorous and informative articles. I get the feeling that your brain simply works that way, taking in the events of the day and turning them on their head. Do you find yourself narrating everything that happens during the day? Does everything inspire you to see the humor of it?
Brendon: It does, at first I was surprised when the things I wrote were found funny by others, then I realized that some other members of my family were similar. Mom would say something 100% serious, we would explode in laughter and she would have this puzzled look on her face that made it even funnier. When I set out to write a column I don’t ask “What should I write about?” I ask “What can I say that’s funny about…..?” I always have a subject in mind when I start, even though the direction may change before I finish.
MJB: Sounds like a formula that's worked out for you. And of course there's never a lack of inspiration in the happenings around us.
Paul Harvey and Jack Canfield (Chicken Soup for the Soul) perfected the art of short essays that are both funny and uplifting. Yours is the kind of book that can be picked up and put down on a moment’s notice, available anytime a reader has a few minutes but doesn’t require total immersion like a novel might. Do you find it easy to write short bits like this, or do you ever struggle with wanting to write more? When you write, do you just write until the episode is done, or do you have to do quite a bit of cutting after the fact? (I only ask this because I’m a novelist, and suffer from diarrhea of the pen!)
Brendon: It’s easy for me to write the short articles. I try to have my articles read in five minutes or less for a couple reasons. One, I dread that if I drag it on my reader will lose interest, give up, and never get to the important part. And two, humor is very subjective. I can get comments on the same column ranging from “It’s the best you’ve ever written” to ”it’s the worst you’ve ever written.” If a first-time reader is reading an “it’s the worst” article I don’t want them to be permanently turned off, I want them to try another, because the next one might be one they’ll relate to. I do write until I’ve said what I want, but I’m always mindful of the reader’s time and attention span. Another factor when writing for a newspaper or magazine is space limitations. With a book you can always add four more pages, but with periodicals you have a finite space. The Villager Journal wanted 600 words. Also, I find it is more often easier for me to add than it is to cut. It’s like fluffing a pillow, you don’t add anything, just put more space between the good bits. Bob Early, the long-time editor of Arizona Highways told me (along with 15 other writers) that if a sentence was not informative, interesting, inspirational, or insightful,…cut it. With that in mind my columns are quite lean to begin with. I have many columns sitting in the bull-pen waiting for more fluffing.
MJB: Sounds like the newspaper gig was excellent training for you. The Flash Fiction contests on Indies Unlimited is like that, too, and helps writers hone their words into only what's necessary.
Can you tell us what your favorite column was, and why?
Brendon: That’s very difficult. I looked back over these 100 columns attempting to pick my favorite of just those and couldn’t do it, expanding that to all that I have written would be impossible. However, I can narrow it down to a theme. My favorite articles are those that involve my wife. She has always been my greatest supporter and the opportunity to poke fun without having to hire a food taster has given me a freedom not enjoyed by all husbands. Furthermore, the husbands and wives alike relate, albeit for different reasons. However, my shining moment (so far) was when I had an article published in the August 2005 edition of Arizona Highways.
MJB: Congratulations! That's quite a milestone.
Do any of your observations ever lead you to think about spinning out further stories, writing fiction, writing a novel?
Brendon: I have always been impressed by fiction writers. I can barely do justice to things that have happened to me or that I have observed. I can embellish a little or change the outcome, but to just make stuff up while developing characters and a plot seems like a whole lot of work.
MJB: LOL, I think you'd be surprised. For us fiction writers, the hard part is deciding what NOT to write. I have way too many characters and plot lines clamoring for attention all the time.
What’s next for you? More books? More columns?
Brendon: This is only the first 100 columns. I already have over 200 more that will probably generate two more ebooks, and I will continue to write more columns as long as I can stave off dementia. Although some may think I have already lost that battle.
MJB: I'm sure that's not true. And if it is, well, you'll have your books to remind you of things.
If people want to know more about you and your unique take on the world, where can they find you?
Brendon: To say I don’t have much of a social media footprint is a gross understatement; however I am working on it. I can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.