Key offers light take on perils of publication
“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 Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.
Harrison Scott Key