The Big Idea: Karen Katchur
Most people say that humor is subjective, but for author Karen Katchur, it was a craft that needed to be studied. Come along in her Big Idea to see how she studied comedy to write her newest novel, The Greedy Three.
When I was a kid in the late 70s, we played a lot of games outside. While most kids picked who was going to be “It” by using the method of “one potato, two potato,” where I came from, we said, “My mother punched your mother in the nose. What color was the blood?”
So it’s no surprise that when I started writing years later, my stories would lean toward the darker side. When I came up with the idea for The Greedy Three, I knew I wanted to make it funny, and of course, it would have to be darkly humorous. The problem was I never wrote anything comedic before and I had no idea how to do it.
I would like to preface here by saying that I was not under contract when the idea came to me, and this gave me the freedom I needed to try something new. At the time, I was struggling creatively. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to continue writing at all. But I started watching rock-n-roll documentaries on streaming services, and I found myself inspired. I listened to musicians talk about the ups and downs of their careers, and I was in awe of their talent and perseverance.
Then I stumbled upon a book written by Questlove called Creative Quest. In his book, he talked about what it means to live a creative life. I finally understood what that meant, not only in terms of my own life, but also how it translated not just for musicians and writers, but for all creative types. I bring this up only because I’m not sure I would’ve written Greedy if I wasn’t in a mindset to embrace my own creativity and run with it.
I always wanted to write a novel with the central theme being greed, and the timing felt right. On the surface, the definition of greed is simple. It’s an insatiable desire for money. If you believe the Gordon Gekkos of the world in the famous line from the movie Wall Street then: “Greed is good.” But is it really? On a subterranean level, the addiction for wanting more money is a never-ending quest that can’t be satisfied. It’s a relentless need to fill a void in a person’s life of which they may not even be aware.
This is the part I can’t entirely explain, but it’s in these voids that the characters in Greedy revealed themselves to me. I suppose they were there at the inception of the idea, percolating somewhere in my subconscious. By peeling back the layers of each character, I learned their greedy nature wasn’t about money at all, but about grief and loss and needing to fit in. And for one character, it was about freedom.
Greed and humor became the tools I utilized to tell the true heart of the story. What could be funnier than a cast of characters who will stop at nothing to get what they want, even to their own detriment and potential demise?
But like I said, I had never written anything funny before, let alone darkly funny, but I wanted to try. Since I had to start somewhere, I began at the beginning where my love for dark humor originated. I rewatched some of my favorite crime dramas like Fargo and Ozark. Some of the funniest scenes came when I was surprised and shocked by the characters actions. I found myself shouting at the screen. They did not just do that! That did not just happen! Until ultimately, I laughed.
Watching dark humor unfold on the screen isn’t the same as writing it. I did more research and purchased a couple books about how to write jokes and satire. They were helpful, and I found a whole new level of respect for comedic writers. They are brilliant. I’m not a joke teller by any stretch and I never will be, but as with any project, at least for me, the best way to start is by jumping right in.
I kept two quotes on post-it notes on my computer to keep me on theme. One quote made the book. (The funny one!)
“To be clever enough to get all that money, one must be stupid enough to want it.”
~ G. K. Chesterton
The other didn’t.
“Indeed, greed, by any name, is the mother and matrix, root and consort of all the other sins…”
~Phyllis A. Tickle, Greed, The Seven Deadly Sins
Every book presents its own challenges, and Greedy was no different. I had to write several drafts and sometimes different versions of the same scene so that every action by the characters not only aligned with their internal motivations and goals, but also met the criteria of being weirdly offbeat. There was one chapter ending with two characters speaking no more than ten words to each other that took me months to get exactly right. Months!
After several more drafts and restarts, I listened to the book using an AI voice on my Mac, and I understood there were more changes that needed to be made. This time I concentrated on rewriting the scenes specifically for audio. I could hear the nuances in the characters’ voices and how a real-life narrator could play up each character’s quirkiness and infuse the black comedy for which I was aiming.
I can honestly say that I had the best time writing Greedy. It was the most fun I had writing anything ever.