Anna Lefler is the author of the humorous, irreverent book, The CHICKtionary: From A-Line To Z-Snap, the Words Every Woman Should Know, as well as the novel, Preschooled, “a comic love letter to her children’s nursery school years in Santa Monica.” She has penned funny essays for McSweeney’s, Salon, and The Big Jewel, and has written and performed for the Nickelodeon/NickMom parenting-comedy show “Parental Discretion with Stefanie Wilder-Taylor.” However, Lefler did not dedicate herself to writing until she was in her mid-thirties and the full-time mother of two. She wrote much of her first novel in longhand on the steering wheel of her car after dropping her children off at preschool. A three-time Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop faculty member, Lefler launched A Hotel Room of One’s Own: The Erma Bombeck | Anna Lefler Humorist-in-Residence Program in 2017 at the University of Dayton. The program is the only one of its kind: a writing residency specifically for emerging humor writers. In an interview with Teri Rizvi, Anna muses about her comedic influences, offers advice to writers about finding their voice, and shares why giving back is so important to her.
Teri Rizvi: Steve Martin, Carol Burnett, and Erma Bombeck are your comedy icons. How have they influenced you as a writer?
Anna Lefler: Well, first of all, they set the bar extremely high. Having discovered each of them when I was quite young, I couldn’t have explained the mechanics of their craft at the time; I only knew that whatever gears and levers they had put in place, the end result made me fall apart with laughter. To me, this was powerful magic, and to have that effect on a reader or audience became the ultimate goal going forward. Also, baked into the work of these three artists (in my opinion) is a love for humanity and an understanding that we’re all flawed beings just trying to get through the day without falling into the blender. There’s unity and humility in that approach, and they inspire me to stay rooted in that perspective as well.
TR: What (or who) first inspired you to become a writer?
AL: I’d say it was the cumulative effect of years of reading. I always had a book or two going, preferably a funny one, and I habitually slipped out of the real world and into one created by a writer. After years in public relations/crisis communications writing tightly controlled pieces for clients, I found myself at home as a full-time parent with a desire to create some worlds of my own. Once I took the step to start, it was intoxicating—and it of course made me admire my favorite authors even more.
TR: Were you always funny? How did you develop your comedic voice?
AL: I have been kicked out of some of the finest public junior high and high school classrooms across our nation for “disturbing others.” So, yes, I guess I’ve always thought I was somewhat funny (Mrs. Boudreaux’s dim view of homeroom improv notwithstanding). I think my comedic voice is a variation on the commentary that’s always running in my head. When I started writing and doing standup, the challenge was to take all that internal weirdness and finesse it into something that might be amusing to normal people: those who aren’t trapped in my brain. I think it helped a lot to work on different channels at once—writing a novel versus performing in front of an audience. Trying to create laughs on the page as well as in a live setting accelerated the process of defining my comic voice and point of view.
TR: Your books, both humorous, are very different in approach. CHICKtionary is an amusing dictionary of the words women use while Preschooled has been described by author Jenna McCarthy as “a brilliant, sublime romp through today’s Pre-K jungle.” Where do you mine your ideas for your books?
AL: For me, real life provides all the inspiration I could possibly want. I’m a big eavesdropper, so I gather a lot of story and joke data sitting slumped down in a booth at IHOP. (Plus, PANCAKES—hello!) It never fails, though, that once I get underway on a project, I realize that I’m writing about a particular emotional challenge or conflict because it’s one that I need to work out for myself, in my own history.
TR: Parenting can be a jungle. How have you drawn from your own experiences as a mother in your writing and captured the absurdity? How have you managed to maintain your own identity after motherhood?
AL: “Absurdity” tends to be one of my comedy strike-zones because I find a LOT of life to be absurd, especially where it intersects with parenting. Preschooled mines that vein of parenthood—where you find yourself stepping back in the moment, cocking an eyebrow, and saying, “Really?” I found that, as a parent, I’d absorbed so many ridiculous interactions and observations that I became saturated with jokes and commentary. That stuff had to go somewhere, and I had a blast weaving it into the daily lives of the characters.
As for maintaining my identity after motherhood, that was always very important to me. I’ve tried to have some firm boundaries around the “grown-up” parts of my life to preserve my continued growth as an adult outside of my identity as a parent. I’ve been terrified since day one of what it would feel like to send a child off to college and remain behind in the echoing silence. I think that motivated me to have my own projects along the way—things that aren’t dependent on the children. My first child just left for college recently and I’m SO GLAD I clung to some activities of my own that I can immerse myself in. Otherwise, I would be face down in my front yard right now, weeping softly and wishing that someone would bring me a triple latte.
TR: What advice would you give emerging comedy writers trying to find their own voice?
AL: Write jokes and then get up and tell them. They don’t have to be rim-shot jokes. They can be more free-form, story-based material—but write stuff with the aim of delivering it yourself to a live audience. In my experience, if you want to identify your comedic point of view and do it quickly, walk up to a hot mic and commit to it.
TR: A Hotel Room of One’s Own, the writing residency you established at the University of Dayton’s Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, is a clever play on Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. What inspired you to underwrite this residency—in a hotel room, of all places.
AL: First of all, I love staying in hotels. LOVE. I think they are life’s great reset buttons, because every time I check into one, I feel like I have an opportunity to completely overhaul my identity. Maybe it’s knowing there’s unlimited ice right down the hall, I don’t know. But considering this effect, a hotel room seemed like an ideal setting for a residency that encourages aspiring humor writers to dedicate themselves to their personal creative projects for an intense period. Beyond the specific location of the residency, becoming a writer in my mid-thirties changed my life and my perception of myself in a significant way. I realize how fortunate I was to have had the opportunity to dedicate myself to my writing pursuits while raising my children. If I can play a small role in helping other aspiring humorists experience this positive transition by giving them some time and space to work, well, that feels like a very worthwhile pursuit to me.
I’ve been wanting for some time to create a program that benefits aspiring humor writers. I can’t think of a more outstanding group of people to work with on this endeavor than the organizers of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. For me, the Humorist-in-Residence Program coming together is a perfect storm: the legendary Erma Bombeck’s one-of-a-kind workshop + the Dayton Riviera + room service!
TR: Finally, is there any truth to the wild rumor that you once stalked comedy legend Alan Zweibel at the Dayton Marriott Hotel?
AL: “Stalk” is such an unpleasant word, don’t you think? I prefer the term, “tactically revere.”