Monica Drake's sense of humor might really bum you out. The Portland-based author of the acclaimed novel Clown Girl—and, most recently, The Stud Book—finds comedy in life's farcicality and relentless misfortune.
"It's kind of an absurd comedy. It's that kind of tragedy upon tragedy to the point of absurdity," Drake says of her debut novel's title character. "I was picturing her as very much in Chaplin terms—as an underdog trying to pursue a relatively humble dream—and being ground through the big wheels of society, which becomes a kind of comedy."
Her brand of humor resonated in Hollywood, with comedic writer and actress Kristen Wiig optioning the film rights to Clown Girl. While Drake can't talk about the status of a potential film, she's thrilled with the idea of seeing her sense of humor translated to the screen.
"I've been told by Hollywood to call it 'edgy' and not 'quirky,'" Drake says. "Apparently 'edgy' has money attached to it."
In her new novel, The Stud Book, published in April, Drake takes a satirical look at the lives of four women struggling with motherhood or the idea of it. But drawing from her experience as an intern at the Oregon Zoo monitoring animal behavior, she approaches the topic with a tongue-in-cheek nod to our animalistic tendencies. She also confronts what it means to have children in an already overpopulated world.
"I love my own child more than anything on the planet, but I also love the planet," Drake says. "And how many of these babies can the planet sustain? So in the book I was hoping to not just get at what it means to be a woman and have a baby, which is the part that has gotten focused on, but what it means to be a human that chooses to make more humans. You can't tell people how many kids to have. You really have to refrain from even judging, but there might be a material reality that is worth a greater cultural discussion."
Not exactly funny ha-ha material, but Drake has long been praised for her sharp wit and dark comic approach. It's a style that has provoked fellow author Chuck Palahniuk to proclaim her his archenemy—in a loving way. Palahniuk and Drake are both longtime members of Tom Spanbauer's writers group, Dangerous Writing—a Portland literary supergroup that also includes heavy-hitters like Chelsea Cain, Lidia Yuknavitch, Suzy Vitello and Cheryl Strayed. Drake is quick to acknowledge the influence of the workshop on her writing, calling it the bright spot in a process that is otherwise "solitary and excruciating and full of self-doubt."
"I definitely am a workshop writer," she says. "I like reading my work out loud and seeing what comes back. If I can make Chuck laugh, then I'm happy. If I can make Chelsea perk up and think about my stuff, I am just so fortunate."
Sharing her own perspective on eliciting laughs, Drake will be part of a panel at the Wordstock Festival, along with Kevin Barry and Don Waters, talking about what really makes fiction funny, from snappy dialogue and unexpected situations to crushing heartbreak and humiliation.
"I do think both of my novels are comedies," she says. "I realize not everyone finds them funny, but personally I think they're funny. At a lot of my readings, I'm always glad when people laugh; it means they get it."
GO: Monica Drake will be on a panel called "Funny Ha-Ha? The Use of Humor in Fiction" at the Wordstock Festival at the Oregon Convention Center, 777 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., wordstockfestival.com, on Sunday, Oct. 6. 3 pm.