Literary Story: Structure, Imagination, Enjoyment, Meaning
Story in Literary Fiction: essays, interviews, stories, advice
- William H. Coles - Bio, Wikipedia

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Interview – Susan Yeagley / Kevin Nealon


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Yeagley/Nealon Interview

William H. Coles

Susan Yeagley was born in Nashville, Tennessee. She graduated Cum Laude from USC’s famed film school. She trained at the Groundlings in comedy where she performed stand up. She has worked in film and television in various distinguished roles and has hosted World’s Funniest Commercials in 2006 and 2007. She lives in Los Angeles. She is married to Kevin Nealon.

Kevin Nealon was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but grew up in Connecticut. He excels at stand up comedy. He was on Saturday Night Live for nine seasons creating memorable characters—Mr. Subliminal, “Franz” of Hans and Franz (with Dana Carvey), and Mr. No Depth Perception, the anchor of Weekend Update, and others. He has starred in films and he has had many appearances on network television as a guest and in recurrent roles. Recently, he has had a lead role in the cast of “Weeds,” a Golden Globe nominee in 2009. He is married to Susan Yeagley.

 

 

January 10, 2009

I’m here in Los Angeles on the beach just south of Malibu with comedians Susan Yeagley (SY) and Kevin Nealon (KN). Susan went to school at the USC film school and trained with The Groundlings in comedy. She works in film and television. Kevin is best known for his work on Saturday Night Live, films, and in stand up. Kevin’s TV show series “Weeds” has just been nominated for a Golden Globe Award. The awards ceremony is tomorrow night. Congratulations and good luck.

KN

Thank you. [nodding]

WHC

I’d like to tell you about the website, www.storyinliteraryfiction.com, that has been developed for the writers of literary fiction as a resource for learning. Literary fiction is dependent on structure, imagination (rather than description), meaning (enlightenment of character and the reader). Literary stories evoke feelings or intellectual change in the reader. It is a difficult art that very few writers are attempting currently, preferring to work in memoir and creative nonfiction. Writers seem to find comfort in describing something they know rather than imagining story and character for maximum effect of story and character on the reader.

Our goals today are to establish what humor is and how it relates to being human, and with the understanding of humor, determine, using your skills and experience, how writers can build better characters and tell better stories. You both are perfect for helping in the understanding of great story creation: you live with stories, your careers depend on imagination (so important also to writers), and you dedicate yourself to making others laugh and, essentially, feel good. I’d like to think how the feelings of the humorist and the audience interact, but avoid how to make people funny.

First, I’d like to ask general questions about what humor is to you. How do you live with humor? How does humor relate to being human? Second, I’d like to have you create two stories with me. I’d like to take a famous individual, find out what is the essence of that person and why people are attracted to him or her, find what his or her core desire is, incorporate the core desire in a story, structure that story so it works toward an established ending. Your perspective is unique, and with your special talents, writers will be able to see the imaginative process of a humorist at work.

To start. Writers rarely think about humor and how it acts to shape lives. Is it possible for a human to have no humor?

KN

I don’t think it’s possible. I think everybody has a funny bone as far as appreciating, laughing . . . some sense of humor. They may seem humorless as a person but . . .

SY

There is always something that makes them laugh.

KN

I don’t think the body is capable of surviving without having that release.

WHC

Is humor then, a release of tension?

KN

Tension, I think, is a gift for humanity. It allows humanity to continue on, to get along with each other; it keeps people balanced.

WHC

Is there a negative aspect to humor when it falls into ridicule? Buffoonery. When laughter comes at the expense of someone not conforming to the expected?

KN

You know, there are a lot of different reasons why people laugh at things, whether it is buffoonery or intellectual comedy. I don’t think anything is off limits. Everybody has a different reason for laughing. And it is so subjective.

WHC

Do they laugh because of surprise and an awareness of differences in what is expected as to what actually is?

KN

Yeah. For me it’s surprise sometimes. Other times it’s not conforming to they way things should be. It’s misdirection. Sometimes it’s shock.

SY

It’s seeing a church lady swear. It’s watching someone who is very athletic fall down on the ice.

WHC

Is it how we think about our construct of society is? How a joke or new thought differs from your idea of society at the moment.

SY

Yes.

KN

A lot of it for me too is . . . the hardest I laugh comes from real humor . . . like kids . . . you know, kids are the funniest . . . I used to love watching Candid Camera, or the Bill Cosby show where he interviewed the kids—I think Art Linkletter did it before him—because kids are the most innocent and they say things that don’t conform with the way the world is. That makes me laugh a lot. That’s a good honest laugh.

WHC

Yesterday, I had just boarded an airplane and I was sitting waiting for every one to get on board. The pilot, with the flight attendant, was greeting passengers. A mother came along with her—about—three-year-old boy. The pilot said. “Hey, Tiger,” as a greeting to the little boy. After a brief pause, the kid said “I’m not a tiger.” Everyone broke out laughing. It was funny. But why? The more I thought about it, I didn’t know. It must relate to children and their innocence. Is that right?

KN

Yeah. With the limited knowledge that they have and trying to rationalize things with their sensibilities . . . and we’re so far advanced than they are . . . we don’t—a lot of times—have the freeness of the way they think. I remember one time my little brother was about five or six, and [he went to wash his hands and] he came back down about two seconds later. I said, “Did you wash your hands?” He said “Yeah.” I said. “Did you use soap?” He said, “No.” I said, “How do you expect to kill the germs?” He said, “I drown them.”

WHC

In a book you recently recommended [Steve Martin’s, Born Standing Up] there is a story about a comedian/magician [Dave Steward] who had this opening joke. Steve Martin’s words: “. . .then he showed me his opening joke: He walked from behind the counter and stood on the floor of the magic shop, announcing, ‘And now, the glove into the dove trick!’ He threw a white magician’s glove into the air. It hit the floor and lay there. He stared at it and then went on to the next trick. It was the first time I had ever seen laughter created out of absence.”

I don’t understand this. Is it humorous when people are unable to perform something we expect them to do. What is funny about some serious daredevil riding a motorcycle up a ramp and trying to jump over twenty-five school busses, barely clearing the ramp, and crashing? Yet that type of scenario can provoke a laugh.

KN

I think it’s all a mindset, Bill. I was on Saturday Night Live, and we had athletes come on as guest hosts; they were hilarious because no one expected them to be funny . . . but they were used to hitting their marks because they were used to taking directions from their coaches so they knew where to be on stage, when to be there. So it’s a mindset people have; when they go to watch something that is not supposed to be funny, they’re very forgiving and it allows it to be funny. Michael Jordon was funny. Wayne Gretzky was funny singing Elvis in a Hawaiian luau situation . . . if that person was an actor or comedian, that person wouldn’t be funny doing it. It’s like when people come to see comedy in a stand up club, I mean this goes back to talking about being imaginative—for your fiction writers, I think people come into a room and they sit down and they open up their imagination, they go on that ride of the comedian, let their imagination run wild with comedian . . .

SY

. . . and they’ve also had a couple of drinks.

WHC

That would help . . .

KN

. . . the comedian is almost like a tour guide for their imagination.

WHC

Are they there to be amused? What is the core feeling they desire? Do they just want to forget about the day?

SY

Escapism. Life is hard. After working nine to ten hours on the job, and then go to a comedy club, let your shoulders drop, and get to laugh about your life, laugh about your relationships, and have someone get into it the way it’s fresh and new. It’s just a release. I think it’s escapism. When I go to a comedy club, I just want to go somewhere where my day hasn’t taken me.

WHC

So that’s a relief. Escapism as a relief.

KN

There are a lot of different psychologies . . . you know . . . when your dealing with a group in a room dealing with one person; I think laughter is contagious, and it’s more funny with more people than being alone. Somehow, the [general] laughter kind of lubricates your laughter. And a lot of times when people laugh and they’re with other people, they’ll look at the other person, and laugh, nod their heads . . . they’re both kind of lubricating one another with their laughter and it’s more fun.

WHC

Do we use humor to bond with people?

SY

Yes.

WHC

Do we explore the boundaries of someone’s humor and if it seems to fit our own, we begin to like that person?

SY

Yes.

KN

Yeah . . . I think the big thing about comedy is people being able to relate to it. That’s what makes a successful comedian. Take someone like Jerry Seinfeld, [he] is talking about things that people can relate to—like a sock in the dryer–and it takes down a kind of barrier . . .

WHC

That’s true in your series [Weeds] too, isn’t it?

KN

Yeah.

WHC

Do you hurt when you’re not funny?

SY

No.

WHC

What do you feel?

KN

You mean when something’s funny [for you] and it’s not [for them]?

WHC

No, no. When you’re on stage, your desire is to please, your success depends upon [people] laughing at what you say, and when it doesn’t [work], how do you feel about that? Why are you up there anyway? For admiration? And then what happens when you don’t succeed? How do you feel?

SY

It’s different with what Kevin does because he’s doing live performances and I’m doing TV. If I’m not getting a laugh on a line that we did get a laugh on in rehearsals, we can always stop. That’s the luxury of TV and film, we can stop and go back, go to the writers and say “Hey, can we really punch this joke up? Can we rewrite a couple pages here?” So that’s a luxury I have as a comedic actress. Now Kevin, on stage, is a one shot deal. So it’s different. It’s a one shot deal. [Looking at Kevin.] You’ll have to answer your feeling.

KN

For me, I’ve done it long enough that I know things that typically work, and I get to an audience where it doesn’t work, I’ll know. People sometimes say: it’s never the audience. But it is the audience sometimes.

WHC

You mean these are plumbers who are not going to respond?

SY

Two hundred years old.

KN

I’ve done an act where I killed [them] in one room but maybe, very rarely, people would sit there, maybe they’re all tired, or they’re drunk, or it’s Friday and it’s the second show and they’re tired and drunk. I’ve seen people sleeping—they’re that tired. They had the whole week working; who know what is going on in their personal life? And it can be the audience sometimes.

WHC

It depends on how a person feels at the moment?

KN

Yeah.

WHC

If you hurt, or you’re depressed, it’s harder to be amused. And that’s not your fault [beyond your control]. [A laugh doesn't come.] You [the comedian] doesn’t think, “I’ve failed”?

KN.

[Sure]. But that’s not to say you can’t make that group laugh with something else. If you can kind of veer off your act, maybe take a different path that addresses why they are not laughing . . . that loosens them up.

WHC

Right . . .

KN

A lot of comics will say, “I’m bombing.” The room goes crazy. They [audience] love it.

WHC

There is another mystery that came to me as I was working on humor for writers, and that is the timing aspect. People say Johnny Carson had exquisite timing. I thought I knew what that meant, but I really didn’t. Is it presenting contrast at the right moment? What makes the right moment? What about the surroundings make the timing so important?

SY

It’s music in my head. I can hear when to say something . . .

WHC

Because you know what the response will be?

SY

It’s a rhythm, like row, row, row your boat. The song. I can hear when the joke needs to be delivered. Or the tone of it. It’s something . . . it sounds very vague . . . but it is something I can hear what needs to be said next in a way that will be hopefully comedic . . . and well received.

KN

Subconsciously, you know how people think, and you know how long it takes for them to process something, you know the direction they are thinking, and then you lay in that misdirection.

WHC

Aaahhh [starting to understand].

KN

But you have to lay that in there, the punch line or whatever, and at that moment when you know they’re processing something in a different way.

WHC

So the surprise processing has to be right for them because of their specific intellect and processing abilities?

KN

Yes. And I think if you’ve been doing it long enough, you can look at somebody and know where they’re at. You know when to time it perfectly.

SY

Kevin thought of something he did last night on stage was . . . he was talking about Christmas and how his family had a cap on Christmas giving where you just by fifty dollars [worth of gifts], the audience thinks of a fifty dollar Christmas gift and then he lays this into it . . .

KN

Yeah. And then I say “We got this secret Santa works that doesn’t allow more than fifty dollars on each person, and so I got my father a Chrysler, and my mother a seat in the Illinois senate.” And I got a big laugh.

WHC

Neat. I like what is evolving as we go along, and that is the importance of imagination and spontaneity [especially in terms that will relate to the writing process].

Another mystery to me is the idea of dissecting humor. I was introduced to a famous humorist when I was in New Orleans, and I was going to ask about humor. He said, “You know, I don’t talk about humor. You either got it or you don’t. And if you got it, you can lose it if you start dissecting it.” This was a real fear for him and seemed to be an extension of the common belief that if you have to explain a joke, the joke isn’t funny anymore.

The question is: if funny is a glob and you start making it into little globs . . .

SY

. . . picking at it . . .

WHC

. . . the funny goes away. What is the essence of that? I don‘t understand.

SY

Honestly, in eight years [of marriage] it is not something that Kevin and I have ever talked about. We’ve never really dissected humor. We’re . . . we’ll run by something [by each other] . . . do you think this is funny? Or this? There is an “area” there . . . we always call it that “area” . . . we explore that area, we meet a funny character . . . you know, the aunt that does this . . . we talk about that, but in terms of going in with a microscope and looking at it, we rarely ever do that because . . .

KN

Just because . . . if you have to explain something to somebody [that is, why it’s funny] does not mean it’s not funny. It’s [just] not funny to that person. It’s like the tree falls in the forest and hits the ground . . .

WHC

If there’s nobody around, is there sound or not?

KN

. . . yeah, [but] it’s [still] a funny joke. By all standards that’s a funny joke. But if that person doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get it. It doesn’t mean the joke is not funny, it means it’s not funny to that person.

WHC

But if you explain a joke, it’s not longer that joke anymore?

SY

Right.

WHC

It’s an explanation [and a dissection] that doesn’t work.

KN

Although sometimes the explanation can be funny.

SY

It’s kind of funny, if you’re explaining it to someone . . .

WHC

Or divulging your need to explain it . . .

SY

Right.

KN

It’s like stand up comedy. There’s a lot of comics out there that I don’t think are funny. But they’re making a great living because a lot of people think they're funny. I don’t get why they’re funny, but [still] they’re funny to some people.

WHC

Isn’t that true of every performing art?

SY

Yes.

WHC

Musicians?

KN

See, you have to say that person is funny. Not to me but to them.

SY

Whether they are commercially successful or not. We don’t necessarily have to say we think they’re funny, but that the world has embraced them.

KN

They’re making other people laugh . . . that they have no taste [laughing] . . .

SY

Or they have five houses based on the fact they sell tickets.

KN

Comedy is subjective. Nobody can say what is right or wrong. You cannot have a board that says this joke is not funny. What may not be funny for some may be funny to others.

WHC

One key for me is that people who are funny at least have an interest, if not understanding, of human nature. Funny people know what it means to be human, and that’s why it’s so interesting to writers.

[Transition.]

So now I’d like to look at characterization in writing. We are not trying to make a character discover how to be funny. We’re trying to identify what humor means to this character, whether they are conscious of it or not, and how they use it in trying be human. Writers must think about character motivations and how humor relates. We can think of a character as composed of three major elements: a core desire, a formed morality, and a sense of humor. Using your skills as humorists, I’d like to let your imaginations and your humor evolve the character and story development. Help me make a person from real life a valuable fictional character. We’ll not carry the real person’s personality onto the page (that would be description, not creation), and we have free range to change anything to achieve an effective personality for our story.

For the first test, I’ve chosen Hillary Clinton. Let me explain why. It’s a single image, really, that raises possibilities for me, an image that seems to be the crack in the armor of her public persona that might tell us more about who she really is. After Bill Clinton had sex in the oval office . . .

SY

He did? [laughing]

WHC

You weren’t there?

SY

[shaking head no]

WHC

. . . denied it before the nation, was impeached at the first level, and Hilary seemed irate and humiliated. Yet there is one famous image of her walking hand in hand with Bill on one side and daughter Chelsea on the other? What made her do that? What were the complexities in her that made some people see her reaction differently–defiance, forgiveness, submission, political fodder?

Now, how can we make her an interesting character? What is her core desire? Motivations? Then we’ll put that into a plot with an ending we know will work for the plot consistent with our characterization. Then refine what we’ve learned about her, without in anyway depending her real self after we’ve discovered her soul. We are creating a new character, with a new name, new desires, that will work well in the conflict, action and significant meaning we want in the story.

Hillary Clinton. She’s a fascinating object to American culture. She’s way out there.

What interests you about Hillary? Or does she interest you at all? Is she a flat personality?

SY

Oh, she’s very interesting to me because on one hand, you’ve got this strong, independent powerhouse, and yet, when her husband had the affair, or affairs, she transitioned into being very vulnerable and there was a tenderness to her that we hadn’t seen.

WHC

Did you feel that was real, or was that for political gain?

SY

I don’t think it was political gain. I think she was getting by every minute . . . probably at that time, it was a struggle . . . I think it was very genuine. She was holding on for dear life. I don’t think it was political gain. I think she was a hurt, heartbroken wife. Yet, knowing she had a role as first lady . . .

WHC

Did she love him?

SY

Oh, I’m sure. I’m sure they love each other. I’m sure they do.

KN

I think when you are in the spotlight like that you behave differently than you would if you were in the private sector. She knows everybody is watching her. And I personally think she is not only personally a strong woman, but she is also very determined . . . and aggressive, to become powerful.

SY

There is nothing wrong with that.

KN

But, to the extent she would stay with somebody like that for those political gains. I think that’s a big part of it.

WHC

So that, in a sense, is opposite to what you were talking about [talking to SY]. You saw her from a woman’s point of view. That she was hurt and responding.

SY

I think she was mad as hell.

KN

I agree with that.

SY

She was angry, livid.

KN

Embarrassed.

SY

Horrified.

KN

Humiliated.

SY

Everything.

KN

And I think Bill Clinton . . . that’s where there is a lot of comedy. If we could have been a fly on the wall in that house hearing the president get his . . .

WHC

And his explanation?

SY

His explanation. Brilliant.

WHC

So that might be the value of where a story might go.

SY

That’s the single one-scene.

WHC

So what would be the conflict? What would she be trying to do with him? Would she be trying to get him to apologize? To change? Undo the sex?

KN

I think the first order of business is for him to rip her a new one. And he’d better just sit there and take it. And listen. And not try to defend himself. And then I think she’s got him in the palm of her hand.

WHC

If we use that as the ending scene—say she comes into the oval office, for effect—how are we going to structure that ending scene? What is the conflict? What is the resolution, as we’re writing? What are the lines?

SY

And it’s always details, details, details. So does she put down her LL Bean catalog and her Starbucks Coffee? I mean, all the things we describe to make someone work.

WHC

How do we hold together what she was in the beginning, which was a combination of being hurt, that she does love, and that she’s so politically driven. That’s the essence of her we want in the ending. How do we hold onto that in the last scene?

KN

She’s got to strike a deal with him at the end. She has to have verbal deal, or a promise, to the extent that he will be supportive of her and her request for more power. I think to make it funny, to use your imagination, there has to be some real ludicrous demands that she can’t say no to.

SY

Yes. She has to pull out a list of twenty things that she wants from him, and those . . .

WHC

Never unzip your fly in public.

SY

That list is what she has to give him. And he has to sit in a place, almost like a timeout where he can’t move, and he has to hear the demands. It would be a funny scene.

KN

And also, he has to retain his powerful . . . ahhh . . .

SY

. . . aura . . .

KN

. . . aura . . . and he has to show that he still wears the pants in the family. That it’s not her, although it is her. And somehow he has to do that.

WHC

Could we start the story earlier? Before . . .

SY

The Monica Lewinsky . . .

WHC

Go back to an earlier affair, like Paula Jones . . .

SY

Or Jennifer Flowers.

WHC

Yeah, like that. Then carry it through with a series of events that build to the last scene. This would give momentum and more meaning as we got to the ending.

KN

It could even be that we find out later that she [Hillary]was the original one that had the affair with Monika Lewinsky. Now she’s super jealous. Now she’s cheating on her with him.

WHC

That brings in irony, humor.

SY

Or the ending scene could be Hillary driving Bill down to a church and taking him down into the basement to visit his first sex-addition support-group. Where he has to say, “My name’s Bill, and I’m addicted to oral sex.” Or whatever he would say. And she sits in with him and there is different [recognizable] political leaders in the sex addition class. That would be a scene that could be quite comedic to see.

KN

Again. It’s all misdirection. It’s how the shock value and surprise [work].

WHC

Now we can’t carry Hillary and Bill into our story. Their background in a power setting is important, but we don’t want to imply reality. We have to take the essence. We need to change names, and change some aspect of the character. Are there things that we can add to the character? You suggested many, including lesbianism.

In addition, doesn’t this have to be a story from two points of view? Doesn’t there have to be a narrator as the source of the two characters points of view, and maybe even carrying the meaning. Would you agree?

SY

Yeah. Maybe there is something that she does that drives him crazy—nothing would ever justify his actions, of course . . . but, maybe she has an online gambling problem at night, and when he’s wanting to get it on with her, she’s doing HollywoodPoker.com.

WHC

That’s a funny image.

KN

And he finds this out because he’s come to get on the computer to go to porno.

SY

He sees the Bank of America account dwindling because she’s got a funnel where they can just take deposits out of their account.

KN

Yeah, little subtle things like that. And maybe the reason she suspects he’s had oral sex, even before it’s come out, is because he’s been wearing this beret.

SY

And he’s been collecting berets . . .

WHC

And not just to cover a bald spot.

SY

And he’s actually invited the milliner to the White House to make hats.

WHC

There seems a need for caution as we develop a comedic route. We begin to lose the significant meaning the literary writer is trying to express. We need to preserve her core value and understanding of the world. Do you see what I mean?

SY and KN

[No response]

WHC

As the character becomes more comedic, the character becomes less credible.

SY

They become more clownish.

WHC

Yes. And yet the essence of humor is also what is needed. What we need to do is create and retain her core desires. Her political desire in conflict with her love for her husband.

SY

I think you keep the setting strong. We’re in the White House. If you keep the codes of the White House, the codes of being First Lady, the codes of being President, then that’s in place, then you have a lot of leeway. I think in terms if we were writing this scene for a sitcom, we’d have to be sure that set is spot on Oval office, Lincoln bedroom.

WHC

So this can’t be the director of GM and his wife?

SY

It could be. But we’d have to have . . . setting is so important for whatever the characters are discussing.

WHC

So it could work if we found as important a setting.

SY

Yes [hesitantly].

WHC

In essence, this story could not make people remember Bill and Hillary. We can’t have the reader believing you are describing them, even in a fiction way. So we have to move it to another power setting.

SY

Or you could move it to a sweet town in Savannah, Georgia, you could move it to New York City. It could be some art dealers. But wherever it is, it has to be authentic and true to those peoples’ lives.

KN

I think to get back to what you were asking about what she could do? She could have an enabler to allow him to pursue his addiction.

WHC

And what would be her purpose in that?

KN

To get to the next step. To stay in the White House.

WHC

To fulfill her political desires?

KN

Yeah. It’s like how much will someone put up with to get what they want?

WHC

Great stuff.

[Transition.]

I’d like to do one more. Sarah Palin. I’ve chosen her because you comedians have taken her and created tremendously funny and important sketches. Tiny Fey’s interpretation has won many awards. What about this woman is funny? Why is she funny? What about her personality would make her essence contribute to a great literary character? How could we create a story that would get what we discover about her across—and keep it credible? What are your thoughts about her as a good character? Is she too bland?

KN

I think she’s an interesting character because she’s a dichotomy of what we expect. Here she is the Governor of a state that is a very macho state, hunting, dogsledding; here she is this woman with four kids . . .

SY

Five.

WHC

She’s got that photo where she is standing, I think, with her foot on the head of a dead-moose.

KN

She’s an ex-beauty pageant contestant. Here she is coming out of that state . . .

WHC

And she played the flute. Remember that ?

KN

Yep. And a Republican, thrust into the spotlight.

WHC

Intelligent, do you think?

KN

Intelligent enough to fool people. But most people can see through her with the winks, the cuteness.

WHC

How about the pig joke? Soccer moms.

KN

The pig with lipstick.

WHC

Yes.

KN

I don’t think it was her joke, was it?

SY

She started it.

WHC

I’m sure it wasn’t hers originally. But that’s the one she used in her acceptance speech.

SY

“What’s the difference between a pit bull and a soccer mom. Lipstick.”

WHC

I thought it was a pig.

KN

But that was a phrase I think a lot of politicians had used. A pig and lipstick.

WHC

Yes.

KN

And somehow it was used in relation to her.

WHC

Was that an intelligent idea on her part?

SY

I always wince when politicians do comedy. It’s like I’m not going to go and be on the Lakers' team. . . try to play basketball. It’s a little hard to see when politicians do jokes. It’s so forced. And someone wrote it for them. And the delivery is usually artless. So that’s always tough. And that’s why the pig lipstick joke . . . and everybody laughs in the room when politicians perform jokes—everyone laughs so robustly, when it it’s really not that funny, but they want to show they’re supportive of it.

WHC

One learning aspect of her is that she is incredibly focused and energetic. And she’s successful. She comes from a small town in Alaska, and she’s a vice-presidential candidate. I don’t understand. She’s not a good flautist, she’s probably not a good hunter, she’s certainly is not a good comedian, she doesn’t speak well in that you don’t get a sense of fathomless intelligence when you hear her speak. But she was able by just pure willpower to get to this level. What about her allowed he to do this? To answer that would begin to make her an interesting character.

SY

I think it was ambition. I think ambition trumped all the other qualities that were not up to par.

WHC

Ambition to do what?

SY

Ambition to be publicly recognized. Fame.

KN

Power.

WHC

So those are the core desires?

KN

You know this whole story, this whole series of events would be a perfect story to use your imagination with as a writer to create . . . who was that director . . . “It’s a Wonderful Life” . . .

SY

Selznic?

KN

No, the producer . . . Do you know who I’m talking about? . . . the guy with all those underdog movies from the forties and thirties? “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” [1936 comedy film] . . .

SY

“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

WHC

I’ll look it up. [Frank Capra]

KN

Anyway, you could take this story of Sarah Palin and use your imagination to turn it into a real underdog type of a story. And make it great while in real life it was ludicrous.

WHC

But not an Horatio Alger story. Not in a tragedy sense, but in a comedic sense about how she was able to go through this impossible scenario?

KN

Then you could use all kinds of imagination as far as her home life. Her husband . . .

SY

Her husband!

KN

Dogsledding and the kids.

WHC

One of the serious events is her Down Syndrome child; I think she always handled that well. How would that motivate her?

KN

That’s a perfect example of a writer using his imagination, taking a story and then building on it and creating . . . ah . . . you know . . . a whole different story.

WHC

What would you suggest might be some conflicts?

SY

Look at the marriage and we’d have to say—the woman, the husband, having to be the breadwinner . . .

KN

Having all those children.

SY

Having a teenage daughter pregnant. There’s a conflict. She’s preaching family values and abstinence and she’s got a teenage daughter pregnant; so there is a conflict there. I don’t know if that’s necessarily funny, but it’s an area . . .

KN

Conflict is also being a small town person in a big town like Washington . . .

WHC

Perfect. Exactly. And she seems uncomfortable in Washington.

SY

And also this kind of delicate-flower beauty-pageant woman skinning a caribou. There’s something interesting about that . . .

WHC

Tina Fey used that too when she did the bit about the beauty pageant with the wink.

What about going to one conflict? Could the conflict be moving to Washington and the way she uses Washington?

SY

I see one interesting conflict here is that she is a very attractive woman who wants to be seen as attractive and smart, but underneath that, maybe she’s just attractive. So maybe her whole fight is to be shown as a woman who is capable . . .

KN

Also I think the conflict is being by traditional standards, the mother who is the breadwinner and the power position, and the husband takes a second seat, and they have all these kids—and dealing with the public scrutiny.

WHC

For a reader there could be great interest in that domestic conflict. It has gender; it has freshness of modern society with the position of the woman. And the husband’s reaction. Again, this story might work out in two points of view. Or at least an overriding narrator involvement. The differences between a writer not having the luxury of visual images of film, makes the point of view resources all the more important. The writer can use internal reflection and internal monologue to advantage, though. Wouldn’t the advantage of internal monologue with the husband be great; he has to feel a little bit inferior on occasion.

SY

I’d also like to see him with his buddies on the Alaskan fishing boat. About . . . I don’t know . . . two hundred miles out, that would be an interesting scene where the guys are cracking open a beer with the line overboard, and their fishing, and he’s sharing what his wife is doing.

WHC

Could you imagine a point of view from the unmarried father of the daughter . . .

SY

Bristol Palin’s . . .

WHC

Yeah. Couldn’t there be perception advantages. He sees the family very objectively, he’s trying to get out of marrying this woman who now is famous, she is the daughter of a very famous person . . .

SY

And his mother just got arrested for drugs.

WHC

Is that right?

SY

I think she was locked up for taking drugs.

WHC

Maybe the story should go to him? To the children. Maybe go back and rethink the entire situation. It seems his awakening, and what he has to lose—he has a lifetime of things coming up—

SY

The seventeen-year-old?

WHC

Yeah.

SY

That is interesting.

KN

That seems to be an unlikely but a more interesting point of view.

SY

It could be her.

KN

This kid coming from a dysfunctional family. Getting involved in a family that is dysfunctional on a higher level. And being swept up in all that.

WHC

I’m thinking this is something I want to work on.

SY

The seventeen-year-old boy.

WHC.

It’s interesting that this energy and interest didn’t really occur as we were talking about Sarah Palin.

SY

Look at the choices he has on his plate. He has whether or not to marry her. And if he does, what will that look like [up] front to him, and what if he doesn’t marry? What does that looks like in front of him? And also, he’s privy to dialogue and conversations; he sees who these people really are. And we also don’t know of this thing with his high school sweetheart, Bristol Palin–was it a one night stand in the back of a car? Or was he in love with her for three years? Or was he in love with another girl in high school and Bristol came along at the right time. We don’t know where his heart is. What are his aspirations? Maybe he wants nothing to do with politics.

WHC

Perfect.

SY

And maybe he’s a liberal Democrat.

KN

It’s like a modern day version of the Beverly Hillbillies come to Washington. A dysfunctional family.

WHC

That’s an interesting thought.

KN

A fish out of water. A caribou out of water.

WHC

This has been a valuable session.

[Transition.]

One thing I’d like to give to writers: Great literary fiction writing is not just description of someone the author knows or an event that moved the author in some way. I would hope that writers will turn back to Chekhov, and the great literary prose fiction story-tellers. Those writers who develop characters who in turn move plot, all with the purpose of providing a meaning for the story–a meaning that may not be easily identified, but always that the reader has the sense that this is significant and new to them.

Your contribution today has been tremendous, to let us see imaginations and senses of humor in action to create a significant fictional story, stimulated by real people and scenarios, created, but not just described. You provide the options to achieve the power of an imagined story.

I thank you for taking the time.

SY (and KN)

Thank you.


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2 Responses to “Interview – Susan Yeagley / Kevin Nealon”

  1. Karen Moore Says:

    Fascinating story! What great subjects you picked…I am a huge fan of both Susan and Kevin.
    They are nothing short of comedic geniuses.
    All the best to you and your new ventures,
    Karen

  2. Sally Yeagley Says:

    What a stimulating interview. Bro Bill you are really good at forming the questions and directing the discussion. Job well done.

    Love Ya, Sally

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