Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Author Snapshot: Josh Karp

A Snapshot of Josh Karp...

Born: Chicago, Illinois
Resides: Evanston, Illinois
Born: October 22nd, 1966
Web site:

Please tell us about A Futile and Stupid Gesture.
It’s a biography of comedy writer Doug Kenney, set against the backdrop of National Lampoon’s golden era -- the 1970s -- during which they were instrumental in making comedy dangerous, socially relevant and a very good business.

Kenney was kind of the key figure in the comedy revolution of the 1970s that resulted in Saturday Night Live and all that came after that, including Animal House and Caddyshack, both of which he wrote. He was a brilliant, Harvard-educated guy who was loved and regarded as a genius by pretty much everyone, but he never quite seemed to know who he was or what he wanted -- unless he was writing. Pretty much everything about him was conflicted and confusing except for his work, which fed off that inner conflict.

Kenney died under mysterious circumstances in 1980 at the age of 33. He had gone to Hawaii with Chevy Chase after the Caddyshack premiere. Both were trying to get off of cocaine. Chase went back to Los Angeles and Kenney disappeared a short time thereafter. He was later found in a canyon. He’d either jumped off a cliff or fallen by accident. One of his friends joked that he’d “fallen while looking for a place to jump.”

What’s on your nightstand?
A book about Wayne Gretzky for my five-year old son. Death of a Writer, which is a really great humorous mystery by Michael Collins and a biography of Ben Hogan.

What inspires you?
Mostly things that I’m incapable of doing -- visual art, jazz music (or any music), dunking a basketball. And definitely movies. The film Swingers -- as ridiculous as it sounds -- made me decide that I needed to change careers and become a writer.

What are you working on now?
A semi-humorous book about golf, spirituality and American manhood for Chronicle Books.

Tell us about your process.
I pretty much can only write on a computer. I teach journalism at Northwestern University and often I’ll be editing a student’s work or trying to explain how something should read differently and suddenly I find that the only way I can convey my point is to type it into their computer.

My first book was pretty much a super-detailed, heavily outlined piece. It needed to be. The book I’m currently working on is absolutely the opposite, I am just writing and it seems to be working. Whenever I get hung up on trying to outline or structure it, the writing suffers.

As much as I can, I try to write in the mornings. I drop my kids at school, go pick up a cup of coffee and then go up to the office on the third floor of my home and pretty much write, even if it’s not coming easily, from nine to 12 or one. Everything I do after that is always much more productive and enjoyable if I’ve written that morning.

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?

A Colonel Klink bobblehead that my brother sent me, a picture of Bing Crosby playing golf, photos of my wife and kids and my neighbor’s front yard out my window. Add to that a bunch of stacks of paper and books with a computer buried somewhere in the middle -- and that’s pretty much it.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
When I was about 11. I really wanted to be a sportswriter. I thought anyone who got paid to watch sports had the best job in the world. That said I was pretty bad at advertising, law and business during my 20s. I didn’t start writing for a living until I was in my early 30s.

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?

The first time I was paid and had a byline. The money itself wasn’t what was important. It was just that someone would pay me to write. I was utterly and completely thrilled. I think I made 50 bucks covering a community safety meeting on the North Side of Chicago. About a year later I finished journalism school and pretty quickly started making a living. I am always still pretty much thrilled that I get paid to write about stuff that interests me.

For you, what is the easiest thing about being writer?
Well, it’s hard to beat the dress code and the commute. But, more importantly, I find it fairly easy to come up with ideas that I want to execute, which is the really fun part of this job.

What’s the most difficult?
Being organized. That is not my strong suit and, more often than not, I have a lot of things I need to keep going at once and being able to do that in any kind of structured way is a bit of a struggle sometimes. I always seem to be able to do it, but I usually do it in a way that creates lots of unnecessary stress for myself.

What question do you get asked about your writing most often?
How do you write at home when you have four kids?

What’s the question you’d like to be asked?
What are your ten favorite movies?

What question would like never to be asked again?
What’s my opinion of movies made by the current National Lampoon.

Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.
Well a few people know. I failed biology sophomore year in high school. My parents are just getting over it now.

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