by Matson Taylor
With The Miseducation of Evie Epworth I wanted to write a funny book about serious things. Loss, guilt, grief - they’re all there. But there are also (so I’m told) laugh-out-loud moments and snort-your-tea-up-through-your-nostrils moments. For every profound comment I try to make about the place of women in 1960s society or the importance of tolerance in personal relationships, there are talking pop-star posters or a fart joke.
I have always loved reading funny books and have a big list of books that make me laugh. These include classics such as Three Men in a Boat and Diary of a Nobody as well as Classics (with a capital C) like The Pickwick Papers and Tom Jones. Most of my favourite funny books and characters, though, are far more contemporary. The Adrian Mole diaries, for example. Adrian’s a character who’s been with me all my life - the first book came out when I was a couple of years younger than Adrian himself and we ended up growing up together. Adrian is pretentious, judgmental, and a terrible poet but we love him. There’s real magic in the gap between how Adrian sees himself and what he’s actually like. Ditto for how he sees the world and what the world’s actually like. Sue Townsend throws the reader right in the middle of this gap, giving us everything we need to understand what’s really going on, and then has tremendous fun with it (and us and poor old Adrian).
Diaries, in fact, lend themselves quite naturally to comedy. It’s the immediacy, I think, and the fact that we’re there inside someone’s head witnessing them make mistakes in real time. For readers, diaries are the equivalent of car-crash TV. It’s impossible to look away. In literary diaries we often find ourselves witnessing some terrible/embarrassing/jaw-dropping situation in great detail and in slow motion. The diaries of Bridget Jones do this brilliantly. We’re in her head. We feel her pain. We sense her fear of being caught wearing comfy knickers. And we laugh. We laugh a lot.
Another diary I really love is called The Diary of a Provincial Lady. Now, DO NOT be put off by the title. I was. For years. I’d see the book in bookshops and think that it might possibly be the most boring book ever written. I was so wrong. I heard a clip of something on the radio one evening and had to stop what I was doing because it was so funny. And, yes, it was The Diary of a Provincial Lady. I love it to the point of obsession. It’s the book I always turn to when I’m in a reading slump or need reminding that humour -like poetry- is everywhere. If you haven’t read it, go and find a copy immediately. It’s a domestic comedy written by a woman but if it were a non-domestic comedy written by a man it would be the most famous funny book in the world. Ever.
My last two favourites are writers rather than characters: Alan Bennett and Victoria Wood. Both have the ability to use exactly the right word at exactly the right time. Like poetry. Their sentences bounce along at just the right rate, with just the right syllables, and just the right cultural references. They are masters of using the everyday to create bathos and humour. Say ‘hostess trolley’ to anyone of a certain age and they will smile knowingly and think of Victoria Wood. Truly a national treasure.
Matson Taylor is the author of the "joyful and uplifting" debut novel The Miseducation of Evie Epworth.
Join Matson, alongside fellow novelists Susan Allott and Zoë Somerville, for a special online event on Thursday 6th May to celebrate the launch of their books in paperback. Get in touch for the Zoom link!