Key of­fers light take on per­ils of pub­li­ca­tion

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“On Tues­day, May 12, 2015, pre­cisely eleven years, five months, and twen­tysix days af­ter I an­nounced to my wife that it was my dream to write a funny book, it was true,” writes Mem­phis na­tive Har­ri­son Scott Key of his first foray into pub­li­ca­tion. “The book was now alive and for sale in real life, soar­ing like a great happy bird through the In­ter­net and book­stores across Amer­ica. It had only taken 4,195 days.”

Key’s lat­est book, “Con­grat­u­la­tions, Who Are You Again?”, tells the story of a writer’s jour­ney to pub­li­ca­tion and the toll it took on his per­sonal life and emo­tional health. It doesn’t sound like a funny story, but it’s a funny story.

“Hav­ing a dream is not un­like fall­ing down a well,” Key writes. “How else to de­scribe the dizzy­ing sen­sa­tion of be­ing the first mem­ber of my fam­ily to have his name said aloud on Na­tional Pub­lic Ra­dio, which felt sort of amaz­ing, and would have felt even more amaz­ing if any­one in my fam­ily knew what Na­tional Pub­lic Ra­dio was?”

The son of a Mis­sis­sippi as­phalt sales­man and a teacher, Key was a funny kid. In fact, he early on dis­cov­ered that hu­mor was his su­per­power: “My fa­ther had tried to teach me the ways and means of power — vi­o­lence and viril­ity, meat and blood — but no, no. Laugh­ter was power.” Just the pro­logue of Dou­glas Adams’ “The Hitch­hiker’s Guide to the Gal­axy” stuns him with its magic: “It was barely two pages, not even seven hun­dred and fifty words, and the world cracked open like a mag­i­cal co­conut of love and in­side the co­conut I found my dream. The real one: my call­ing.”

De­spite earn­ing ad­vanced de­grees and em­bark­ing on a suc­cess­ful col­lege teach­ing ca­reer, Key never lost the yearn­ing to emu­late his lit­er­ary heroes: “They say writ­ing is like giv­ing birth, and it is,” he quips; “it’s just like giv­ing birth dur­ing the Mid­dle Ages, when all the ba­bies died.” Nev­er­the­less, he put in the hours, col­lected piles of re­jec­tion slips, and even­tu­ally pro­duced a pub­lish­able book — a funny and poignant mem­oir about his troubled re­la­tion­ship with his larger-than-life fa­ther.

And that’s when things got com­pli­cated: “For the pur­poses of this book, I am go­ing to de­fine the Amer­i­can dream as the an­swer of a call­ing to es­chew the more com­mon pur­suits of per­sonal peace and af­flu­ence in or­der to do some­thing beau­ti­ful and ex­ceed­ingly dif­fi­cult with your life, such as writ­ing a book that shames your fam­ily and all but guar­an­tees you will never again be in­vited to cer­tain homes to cel­e­brate na­tional hol­i­days.”

“Con­grat­u­la­tions, Who Are You Again?” is a funny, cau­tion­ary tale about what hap­pens when a writer’s life­long dream comes true, es­pe­cially if that dream leads to riches and fame — even, as in Key’s case, if it’s only a mod­icum of riches and a tiny bit of fame. There are ed­its to wran­gle, con­tracts to sign, photo shoots to suf­fer through (in­clud­ing one in­ex­pli­ca­ble bath­tub shoot), and in­ter­views to flub. (Key’s at­tempt to book a face-to-face with “Our Lady of Per­pet­ual Ques­tions,” Terry Gross of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” failed mis­er­ably.) Key takes the reader along on his tiger-by-the-tail book tour, which he de­tails fur­ther in an ap­pen­dix ti­tled “Book­stores, Fes­ti­vals, and Re­lated Tour Per­for­mances that were Fun and Al­most Killed Me.” The pub­lic­ity took him away from his young fam­ily for ex­tended pe­ri­ods and nearly wrecked his health, but even­tu­ally he learned to take it more lightly and even en­joy him­sel.

“A book, like any work of art, helps you find a bit of your own light, and my light is silly, and my light is sad, and on good days my light is true, and I can shine it now, if I ap­ply my­self and stay hy­drated,” Key writes. “No­body tells you that a dream is not some­thing you will ac­com­plish, long from now. It is some­thing you do ev­ery day. That is all it can be. That is all it ever was.”

And now he’s done it again. May Terry Gross smile upon him.

For more lo­cal book cov­er­age, please visit, an on­line pub­li­ca­tion of Hu­man­i­ties Ten­nessee.

Har­ri­son Scott Key

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