Digging Beneath the Polite Veneer: Eileen Pollack Interviewed by Taylor Larsen

The writer discusses growing up in the Borscht Belt, the prevalence of literary humor, and the power of feminist punch lines.

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I met Eileen Pollack at a PEN center event where neither of us knew anyone. She walked right up to me and we instantly began a humorous discussion about the awkwardness of writers meeting writers at events and pretending to be cool. Her humor struck me right away and I was excited to hear that her most recent novel, The Bible of Dirty Jokes (Four Way Books), is a funny feminist murder mystery about a Jewish family from the Borscht Belt. This is her sixth book in a lineage of projects which address topics as far ranging as the political divide in America to life in beach town Boca. Her Victorian era biography (that’s right, range!), Woman Walking Ahead: In Search of Catherine Weldon and Sitting Bull, won a 2003 WILLA finalist award and is soon to be a major motion picture starring Jessica Chastain. Pollack’s second novel, Breaking and Entering, was published in January 2012 by Four Way Books was awarded the 2012 Grub Street National Book Prize and named a New York Times Editor’s Choice selection. The Bible of Dirty Jokes packs the same intellectual punch as what’s come before and sheds a light on the larger societal implications of speaking the truth in all its comedic, though sometimes tragic, glory.

Taylor Larsen You’ve had a long and accomplished career thus far, having written five other books of fiction and two books of nonfiction. How is this book similar to and different from the other books you wrote?

Eileen Pollack I seem to have two voices, one darkly comic and one much more serious (although readers tell me they laugh while reading even my most serious fiction and nonfiction). Not coincidentally, my comic voice is also my Jewish voice. I grew up in the Borscht Belt. Everyone in my family, my hometown, was a natural storyteller, a comic, even when relating a tragedy or a catastrophe. You can’t imagine how much fun I had just letting loose and writing The Bible of Dirty Jokes. The book just came; it flowed. (The same was true when I wrote my novellas “The Rabbi in the Attic” and “The Bris.”) When I write in my more serious voice, I’m not pretending to be someone else. When I’m serious, I’m the Eileen who left the Borscht Belt and discovered a much larger and varied world—at Yale, and then studying literature and philosophy in England. But which voice comes easier? Which mode of writing makes me happier? I can’t deny that my Jewish, comic self feels more primal, more essential.

TL Your book begins with an excellent hook: the premise of a wife, Ketzel, discovering that her late husband, Morty, a pioneer in the field of the dirty joke, might have led a secret life, visiting strip clubs and carrying on an affair with a former playboy bunny turned sociologist named Candace Cohen. Did this opening come naturally to you?

EP That’s the preliminary hook but there is a deeper one too: Ketzel’s older brother, Potsie, whom she adores, has gone missing, and her parents are sending her to Las Vegas to figure out what happened to him and to protect her niece from whatever danger she might be in. I got that idea from the true story of something that happened to a family from my hometown. But I didn’t want the novel to be purely a murder mystery, so I needed to develop Ketzel’s character, to figure out how she would change as she dug deeper and deeper into the secrets her family has been hiding from her all her life. Subplots usually echo main plots, so I figured, if she has been kept in the dark by her family, she probably also has been kept in the dark by her husband. Ketzel is in her fifties, but in a way the book is about her losing her innocence and finding the very real talents and strengths she suspected might be there but no one allowed her to discover.

Bible Pollack Cover

TL You’ve noted that our culture is often resistant to women in comedy, particularly women writing raunchy comedy. You also noted the recent breakthrough career of Jewish comics like Sarah Silverman and the comic Amy Schumer. Can you tell us a little bit more about this and how your own book grapples with these questions: Can a woman tell a dirty joke without the joke being on her? Are we lowering the discourse by engaging in a stereotypically male form?

EP Women must be able to tell the truth about their lives, even if that truth is obscene, even if it breaks the rules of taste and propriety that have kept women politely silent all these millennia. There’s a fairly straight line from early female stand-up comics—Totie Fields, Belle Barth, Rusty Warren—to contemporary female comics such as Silverman and Schumer, to the women who felt they could finally come forward and tell the truth about Harvey Weinstein and Louis CK. For much of my life, I told dirty jokes to ingratiate myself with my male friends and coworkers, or to prove I was their equal. I don’t think that’s a good reason. You can’t win on those terms. But female comics like Silverman and Schumer don’t give a crap whether the men in the audience think they’re funny or want to fuck them. It’s like Toni Morrison realizing she doesn’t need to care what white readers think because she’s writing for black readers. If white readers appreciate her novels, that’s fine, but she’s not writing to please them.

In the old days, in the Borscht Belt, men told jokes that had been handed down from Roman times. Female comics couldn’t just steal those same jokes because the one-liners came from a male perspective, often making fun of the comics’ wives. Once women started making up jokes about their own experience, men realized the jokes might be about them. Most men are terrified that women will poke fun at the size of their genitals, at their lovemaking skills, at anything about them, really. If that’s lowering the discourse, well, it serves a very different function than men making fun of women’s bodies and behaviors. Besides, men aren’t the only material women are interested in writing about or making fun of.

TL I selected this passage of your book, towards the middle, because I feel it showcases your range—we see the humor, the sadness, the vulnerability and the strangeness of stripping. Can you share your impressions of this particular scene and what it signifies?

“After she had danced a second dance and used what my father so delicately had to referred to as her female underparts to pick up the five- and ten-dollar bills her ‘students’ had placed on the leather rail, she flounced behind a door, presumably to offer her knowledge to the students in another room. The next number started, this time, with a majorette in a red sequined suit awkwardly twirling a baton. Need I describe the rest? There are only so many ways for women to take off their clothes, a process made more depressing by most of the dancers being far past their prime, with stretch marks, bruises, scars, varicose veins, and sagging breasts. That the naked female form, which should have been the source of so much joy, could create such despair seemed the dirtiest joke of all. Still, such is the power of watching amateurs that I couldn’t help but think how much better I would be taking off my clothes than any of these women.”

EP The scene is even more poignant once you realize that when Ketzel was a child, she was conned by her older cousin into letting him film her doing a striptease. She was indoctrinated into this culture at such a young age she catches herself thinking she could put on a better act than the strippers at the club. I think that’s true of most women. We grow up in such a sexualized culture we can easily imagine doing a pole dance or performing in a porn film. We’ve been trained to want to be the prettiest, sexiest woman in the room, no matter what. I visited a truly sleazy strip club in Vegas to write this section of the novel. I had visited strip clubs before, but this one was horrendous. One day, I hope, people will look back on such places and be as appalled as they are at Roman circuses and slave auctions.

TL The Bible of Dirty Jokes is a raunchy feminist murder mystery, but it is also literary fiction. Why do you think that literary fiction frowns on raunchy humor?

EP Literary fiction frowns on humor of any kind. Readers have trouble taking in that a novel can be both funny and serious. When I teach Moby Dick, I read aloud the scene in which Ishmael and Queequeg spend their first night cavorting in bed. I read aloud the fart jokes, all to convince my students Melville wants them to laugh. Humor, whether raunchy or not, is part of the human condition, so it should also be part of fiction. On the other hand, comedy is hard to pull off without resorting to stereotypes, scatology, and easy slapstick. I fall into those traps myself. Raunchy humor is meant to puncture the solemnity and pretense we put up to hide our animal nature, our insecurity. But writers like Chaucer, Dickens, Roth, Heller, and Paley have taught us that digging beneath that polite veneer is a very serious act.

TL Your book beautifully addresses the fact that some Jewish cultures romanticize crime and tough guys. What do you find most fascinating about this?

EP Only that Jews are so embarrassed by their own success in America—this is the first time in five thousand years we can vote, live where we want, not be afraid we’re going to get slaughtered or forced to convert—we indulge our nostalgia for misfortune and persecution. We hate to think we might have become effete, so we relish stories of Jewish tough guys. Better a Jew should be a gangster, a member of Murder Inc., than a Jared Kushner or Bernie Madoff.

TL Your book connects to the Me Too movement as it deals with female comics throughout the decades who try to make it in the entertainment business despite the discrimination and downright harassment and abuse they face. What do you hope this book does to contribute to the movement?

EP Anyone who grows up around entertainers knows what crap female comics, singers, and actresses have needed to put up with since men first allowed them on a stage. All these facets of our culture are related—the attempt to infantilize women, to protect their so-called innocence, the misogyny and sadism that often hide behind or are excused by “comedy” or “entertainment,” the ways in which a girl’s training to be sweet and compliant make her vulnerable to abuse. I’m far, far from being a prude. But I would love to see our culture remove the sadism, misogyny, and abuse of power from sex, comedy, and erotic joy.

TL How do you write comedy routines on the page and have them actually be funny without the element of performance?

EP A joke or sketch written for the stage has to be perfectly economical, the timing beat-perfect. But on the stage, you have the advantage of using your face, your voice, your eyes, your whole body to get across the humor. On the page, all you have are words. Timing and concision are still important. But the humor tends to come more from the character, the context, and the situation. If Ketzel’s comedy routines succeed, they succeed because of everything the reader has watched her struggle through on her way to her middle-aged triumph on that Vegas stage.

TL Why do you feel so committed to the experience of making people explode with laughter?

EP Where I grew up, comedy was the only culture. Trying to make my father laugh (and trying to top his jokes) was very important to me, trying to top his jokes. I literally wrote Bible of Dirty Jokes while sitting by my father’s deathbed. Everything in this novel comes from him. And the cycle is self-sustaining. The first time I gave a reading, when I was in graduate school at Iowa, I heard my audience laugh, and I thought: Wow, I want to get that feeling again. Whenever I read my more serious fiction to an audience and don’t hear any laughs, I wonder if anyone is awake. The only experience I’ve enjoyed more than reading my own fiction—say, in a bookstore—came a few months ago, when I performed my first stand-up act at a club in NYC. The rush was such a high, I didn’t come down for weeks.

Taylor Larsen is the author of the debut novel, Stranger, Father, Beloved and a fiction professor at Catapult, Pace University, and SNHU. Her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Brooklyn Review, among others. Taylor will be the Peter Taylor fellow this summer for The Kenyon Review Writer’s Conference. Taylor resides with her family in the Hudson Valley.

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