Imagine! But Make it Fun: Weaving Humor into Speculative Fiction – GUEST POST by Audrey Burges (THE MINUSCULE MANSION OF MYRA MALONE)
Imagine! But Make it Fun: Weaving Humor into Speculative Fiction
By Audrey Burges
Before I wrote magical realism, I wrote humor and satire. Or, as the late and much-lamented Mitch Hedberg would say, “I still do, but I used to too.”
I won’t pretend to be Mitch-caliber funny, but I’m someone who has always gravitated toward the puckish end of the spectrum when reading speculative fiction—Douglas Adams, Christopher Moore, Neil Gaiman. And as someone who began to publish a lot of humor with McSweeney’s and other satire outlets, I developed a tendency to sprinkle whatever’s weird with a liberal dash of funny.
When I began writing my first magical realism novel, The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone, I had already completed a twisty, literary novel centering on a mystery and a tragedy. And while that book contained a lot of gallows humor and fun character dialogue, it was not what you’d call an uplifting read—it featured a forest fire, a heroin epidemic, child neglect, and orphans. If your reaction to that description was “Wheee! That sounds like a laugh riot!” then I must ask where you were when I was querying this ponderous tome in 2018, because I could have used the cheering-up.
But sometimes the project you shelve winds up clearing the decks for the project you were meant to write, and for me, that project turned out to center on a reclusive miniaturist with a wildly successful blog. Her life was small—pun absolutely intended—but it included a delightfully overbearing best friend, and as the two of them began talking to one another, a book about a magical house became a lot more fun.
I love writing dialogue. I love the way that people’s conversations can open a door into what motivates them, what they enjoy, what they detest, what makes them laugh. I’m a somewhat shameless people-watcher and eavesdropper in real life, and those characteristics creep into my writing, inflecting characters and interactions with entertaining details.
Details are, of course, also essential to building a world where things look perfectly normal until they aren’t. And the benefit of using offbeat, unexpected details is that they do twice the work: they introduce the uncanny, but they also add humor to the narrative. The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone includes both a taxidermied Scottie dog and a leashed iguana named Sweetums. Oddly specific? Yes. Essential to the story? Read it and find out! (Okay, no, they aren’t.) Funny? Well, yes, I think so—because they’re so unlikely in a story about a miniature house, and yet they sidle right in as if they own the place. That’s what peculiar details do: add humor by virtue of being unexplained, because once you explain a joke, it’s not funny anymore.
To a certain extent, a book that centered on miniatures was bound to have magic, because tiny things are inherently magical. But in order for it to have lightness—two things for which I was desperately searching in the autumn of 2020—it also had to be a bit silly. There was a whole system of magic underpinning the house and the world that surrounded it, and I didn’t wind up being able to work it all into the first novel, because that level of explanation would have popped the bubbles of levity holding up the story. Full-blown mythology needs space to expand, and too much of it at once—at least when I write it—risks becoming about as much fun as that first book of mine. So I spread the story out to save space for the silly touches of absurdity.
After all, a leashed iguana doesn’t take up much room. But a world without one? What fun would that be?
Audrey Burges writes novels, humour, satire, and essays in Richmond, Virginia. She has stories published in McSweeney’s, Cease, Cows, Into the Void, Human Parts, Empty Mirror, The Belladonna, Slackjaw, and Points in Case. When Audrey isn’t writing, she’s being tolerated by her two rambunctious children and very patient husband.
The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone is out today! You can order your copy HERE