On Writing Funny: An Interview with Christine Simon, Author of 'The Patron Saint of Second Chances'
This post was originally published on Dead Darlings, a blog about novel writing run by alumni of GrubStreet's Novel Incubator program.
Christine Simon’s delightful debut novel, The Patron Saint of Second Chances, is a story of survival. Welcome to the southern Italian town of Prometto, a “going nowhere place.” The population is dwindling, there is little to no tax revenue coming in, and to make matters worse, the pipes are busted. All 212 souls residing there are (unbeknownst to them) weeks from being relocated by the water commission if Signore Speranza—local vacuum repairman and self-appointed mayor—doesn’t divine a solution.
In a desperate attempt to boost tourism (thereby goosing the town’s revenue stream), Speranza starts a harmless rumor. Famed actor, Dante Rinaldi, has selected Prometto as the location for his next film. Unfortunately, the ploy works too well and soon everyone is begging for a part in the production. In order to save his town—and keep the butcher-turned-mogul off his trail—Speranza has no choice but to make the film. Each pitfall proves more hilarious than the last, and for a hot second there, it looks like Speranza and his ragtag band of auteurs might just pull it off—unless, of course, Rinaldi actually appears…
It’s easy to see how The Patron Saint of Second Chances will win readers over with its big, joyous heart. It’s a refreshing novel that reads like a dose of sunshine right when you need it most, averaging no less than three laughs per page. When I spoke with Simon, we discussed it’s brand of heartfelt comedy and the lessons she learned while writing the novel.
Nicole Vecchiotti: Prometto is a fictional village based upon your family’s place of origin, but tell me more about your grandparents. What brought them to the United States, and how that played into the novel you wrote, which is very much about the people who stay.
Christine Simon:My grandparents emigrated to the United States via Canada, my grandfather in 1951, and my grandmother following in 1952, and they left for the same reason Signor Speranza’s cousin leaves in the novel—opportunity and chasing that elusive promise of “something else.” I love the phrase you used—the people who stay. Over the years, my sister and I have frequently tried to imagine what our lives would’ve been like if our grandparents had stayed. It’s always been a point of fascination, imagining that “other life,” and I think those imaginings likely figured quite a bit in my affection for Prometto. My grandparents went back to visit their village one last time in 2016, and the videos we have of them crying with joy and hugging people they haven’t seen in years are priceless.
Let’s talk about writing literary comedy. The novel is laugh-out-loud funny. For example, the butcher insists he must send Speranza his order, which will arrive in 3-5 business days, as the shop is now mail-order only. “How else am I to make money in this town? The world is out there, Speranza.” The absurdity underscores how the village is just hanging on, and yet there is nothing cynical about this novel. It’s a great achievement to write a book that is earnest and funny at the same time, especially these days. Is that the kind of comedy you’re naturally drawn to?
Yes! I am drawn to the ridiculous, and also to the triumphant ending. I prefer stories featuring ordinary, as opposed to glamorous, characters, and I love an underdog. I specifically dislike cynicism—I’m sure there’s a place for it, but it’s not to my taste at all. I like stories about basically good, well-meaning people who are just fumbling along, and are occasionally inspired to do something extraordinary.
What lessons about writing humor did you learn while working on The Patron Saint of Second Chances? How did you know a joke was working?
I think the biggest lesson I learned is you have to write for yourself—write the book you want to read. Many times—for example, definitely when I was writing Smilzo’s scene with the goat, and also the mail-order meat scene you mentioned—I thought to myself, “Okay, I’ve gone too far—no one is going to like this.” But I liked it, so I just held my breath and kept faith that there’d be at least somebody out there who’d like it too. As far as crafting comedy in fiction, I learned extensively from screenwriting books, specifically Writing Television Sitcoms by Evan S. Smith and The Little Book of Sitcom by John Vorhaus. If a situation is inherently funny, or the mix of characters is purposely engineered to be amusing, funny lines and scenes almost write themselves.
It’s fitting that the village is engaged in making a movie, as there’s a certain filmic quality to the pace of the plot. In your acknowledgments you cite The Waking of Ned Devine, The Full Monty, and Big Night as inspiration for The Patron Saint of Second Chances—what did you learn from these films and how did you translate it to the page?
When I was planning this book, the movies you’ve mentioned were like mentor texts. They’re all “Golden Fleece” stories, as outlined in another screenwriting book, Save the Cat Goes to the Movies by Blake Snyder. A Golden Fleece is where the main character or characters are in quest of some kind of prize. To my absolute delight, when I outlined those movies, I found—just as Snyder had promised—that their structures are exactly the same. It was intoxicating when I realized that I could apply that same structure to my novel. Thinking in film structure was also helpful for maintaining pace—you could sit around in a novel with not much happening for fifty pages, but you could never get away with that in movie.
Signor Speranza is a fabulous straight man, but there are a lot of sight gags in the book—beginning with Speranza’s mustache and including Smilzo’s demonstration of the most important skill a stuntman can have, which of course is to run like Tom Cruise. Being able to pull off a sight gag in written form is super impressive.
I found the sight gags worked if I kept the language extremely straightforward and simple. If I used elaborate, wordy sentences to describe something visual, it would take longer for the reader to work out what I was trying to say. By keeping it uncluttered, hopefully the image I was trying to get across hit the reader quickly and vividly so that whatever the joke was supposed to be was able to land properly. I found it was possible to achieve a kind of comedic timing with sentence structure—compound or complex sentences if I wanted to draw something out, and then a short, declarative sentence as a kind of punchline. It also works to describe something mundane with ornate, formal language—the juxtaposition can be very funny.
Tell me about your writing journey, and specifically about the publication of this debut novel, which has been incredibly well-received.
I wrote a totally different novel starring Signor Speranza in November/December of 2019. It had virtually no plot, but I loved the characters and the setting, and I got a decent amount of interest from literary agents when I sent it out, so I was determined to rewrite it. The best thing I ever did was junk the whole thing and start from scratch, this time with my eye to having a strong plot. I worked on the new idea for around a month—I can still see where I was, pacing the kitchen and tearing my hair out, when the idea for the movie occurred to me—and then I wrote it very fast. (Shout-out to Writing in Overdrive by Jim Denney, a book that totally transformed my process forever). I realize this makes the whole thing sound ridiculously easy, but it wasn’t. I wrote my first novel in 2007, and have been alternately writing and giving up in despair ever since. Thankfully, quitting never seemed to stick for long. For Patron Saint, I wrote the first draft of this version longhand over forty-something days, typed it up and made various changes over another week, and then sent it out. I did two quick rounds of revisions with my agents over the course of two intense weeks, and then the book went out on submission. The revision with my UK editor was the one that nearly killed me. I think we went in three rounds, the first being the most intense by far. There were definitely points during that process when I wasn’t sure I could actually do it, and that maybe I had somehow conned my way into a job I wasn’t qualified to do. It was the hardest I’d ever worked on anything in my entire life, but it turned out exactly how I wanted.
Lastly, what advice do you have for aspiring novelists?
Words are cheap—free, in fact. Don’t be afraid to throw them out. If something isn’t working, it’s probably the structure that’s broken, and not any individual sentence or paragraph, or even chapter. If the book you’ve written doesn’t turn out to be “the one,” take a deep breath and write another one. Nothing is wasted, and you’re always learning. The best way to learn to write a novel is to write one, and then write another one. For me, writing fast was a breakthrough. If I’m writing at the speed of light, then I’m outrunning self-doubt. The last thing I’d say is to enjoy the process. As thrilling as publication is, the best and dearest thing to me, in retrospect, was actually writing the dang thing.