Interview with author of New Erotica For Feminists, Caitlin Kunkel
This month’s Q&A: Creatives Speak is an interview with a satire writer named Caitlin Kunkel. She has just put out a new book, coauthored with the founders and satire writers behind online magazine, The Belladonna. So what does it take to write a book and what exactly is New Erotica For Feminists all about? Find out below.
Caitlin, did you grow up around people who valued creativity? Humor?
Both my parents have very defined senses of humor–my mother is a nurse, and nurses are well known for black humor (which I love), and my father was sillier in what he would laugh at. I definitely always felt encouraged to make comedic commentary growing up. My sister Emily is a professional actor and my other sister Grace has the best sense of style of anyone I know, so we were certainly encouraged to exercise and develop our artistic sides.
How did you become interested in writing?
I was pushed to write starting in elementary school, and it began to feel like the one place I could be heard. For some reason, I was an angry kid so my writing felt like a space to address my 8-year old concerns, like why in the world I hadn’t yet been permitted to have a puppy GOSH. Writing always felt like it came naturally to me and as more and more teachers noticed and praised me for it, it started to seem like something I really could focus on. It felt like the thing that differentiated me and made me unique.
How is it financially possible for you to focus on writing?
I supplement comedic writing with teaching and occasional copywriting jobs, and I’m the writer for the public radio show Live Wire, which is a steady chunk of my income. I’ve taught screenwriting, English composition, and satire at Northwestern University and Pacific Northwest College of Art, and I pick up producing and consulting jobs as well.
I teach satire and screenwriting online for Second City and that has been a wonderful job for me–the workload changes every month, and I can do it whenever it works best in my schedule. So now I tend to write in the morning and spend the afternoons doing paid work. There’s almost always overflow onto the weekends, but if I need to read a student’s funny list or write one of my own on a Saturday, that’s not so bad.
I like to have a certain amount of steady, paid work lined up each month and then hustle for additional stuff on top of that. But if I have no idea where my income is coming from, I start to feel too anxious to work. So teaching has become my income anchor. I also teach satire workshops in NY, around the country, and coming up in London as well!
I will say that as a freelancer, my income is variable and it certainly makes a huge difference that my husband has a stable job that provides our health insurance. I also feel strongly that creative writers who primarily do creative writing should have skills in complementary fields like copywriting, in order to grab gigs along the way when it’s a tight month. I still write blog posts for a few hundred dollars a month – I enjoy the change of pace, and that extra money goes into savings.
I’ve also worked in fundraising and nonprofits over the years as I moved to being able to make my entire living from freelancing and teaching–it took me three years after graduate school and six years after finishing college to grow to that point. This year, I received a book advance that was large enough to pay off the last chunk of my student loans, and I have more financial freedom month to month now.
I know you’re a teacher for The Second City and recently I saw you share detailed updates about the creative work your students were doing. I appreciated what looked like a deep interest in your students. Besides a salary, what does teaching offer you?
I have found teaching to be unbelievably useful when it comes to clarifying concepts in my own head–in order to teach satire to people, I have to understand it on a much deeper level than I did when I was just writing for myself. It forces me to do more reading and to reinforce concepts in my head again and again–because I’m evaluating student work for comedic premises, strong points of view, and form, I have to develop a really sharp eye for those things in my work and the work of others.
I also get very inspired by the work of students, especially when they’re just starting out and they write some nutso stuff. You can see how unique and creative someone’s viewpoint is because they aren’t trying to ape another form, or emulate a website–this is coming 100% out of their own head. I love working with people new to comedy or new to creative writing. I know a lot of people think writing can’t be taught, but I couldn’t agree less–I think everyone has life experiences or viewpoints that they can be taught to express in a comedic way. You’re not telling them what to think, you’re just giving them some tools for ways to excavate their thoughts. I go on to write and collaborate with many of my students, if it seems like we have a connection – so then they become my peers.
How does creativity manifest for you? Is there any routine you must follow to find it?
I keep a lot of lists, and I’m constantly reading news or asking myself how I feel about certain things. Since I write so much satire now, it’s become second nature to look at a news story and ask myself if I see a comedic angle that could be used to target someone or something in that story, or to make a larger point about something I want to criticize.
In terms of a routine, I almost always start with a loose brainstorm freehand in a notebook and then start to translate ideas into word documents. I have to warm up to writing, and I do a lot of prep work (free writing, making lists of comedic beats, character bios) before I launch into a longer work like an article or a play.
I’ve noticed that if I’m not inputting a lot, by seeing new things in a lot of different mediums, reading comedic work, talking to people, my output will slow way down. So being stimulated through movies, TV, conversation, theater–that’s key for me to work.
What are you working on currently?
A brand new thing – a book! The process was fast and furious – in February of THIS YEAR, I co-wrote a piece with the other three editors of the comedy and satire site for women and non-binary authors, The Belladonna (Carrie Wittmer, Fiona Taylor, Brooke Preston). It was called “New Erotica for Feminists,” and it ran on McSweeney’s. And promptly starting going viral…like, really viral, being read over a million times and shared on Facebook over 100,000 times in the first month.
Within a week, we received an email from an editor in the UK asking us to turn it into a book, and within the next month we got a literary agent, wrote a book proposal, secured a US deal as well, and started writing the book. We wrote the whole 12,000 words (of jokes!) book from the end of March to June, then edited in July and August, and then promptly turned to marketing.
For comparison, a book usually takes 1.5 to 2 years from acquisition to going to market, and we are doing it in 8 months. So it’s been happening almost faster than we can reconcile it, while also all working full-time and running The Belladonna together! But given that we already collaborated and spoke every day for the site, we had our rhythms and strengths locked in. The book is satirical feminist erotica and meant for feminists and those who love them…who are hopefully also feminists.
Basically, if you believe that there are inherent inequalities in society that need to be addressed, and you want to both laugh and fume at the same time, we highly recommend this book. We think the jokes and situations we satirize will be familiar to a lot of people, whether the twist is having a doctor finally believe your pain, or a version of the Genesis story where Eve doesn’t listen to a talking snake, or just that someone breastfeeds in public and no one cares.
You know, things that are currently fantasies. In fact, the entire US title for the book is New Erotica for Feminists: Satirical Fantasies of Love, Lust, and Equal Pay.
We will be touring with the book from November to February, working on expanding the site, and teaching some workshops. So I’m going to be stepping back from teaching for a bit to focus on my own writing for a few months. That feels great!
How do you decide if something you’re writing is good?
I love this Ira Glass quote, because I think developing your taste level is as important as developing your writing chops. It’s always hardest to teach people who aren’t sure what they are trying to do, or who can’t tell when they’ve hit the mark or not.
I’m VERY critical of my own work, and now the metric I use for evaluating it is: 1) Is it clear what I am trying to do? 2) Have I been specific and pointed throughout? 3) Have I been honest with myself about the amount of work I’ve put into this, or am I just desperate to be done? That last one is really where I feel I’ve come a long way–now, I don’t try to lie to myself when something is done or good, I can objectively evaluate it and know. Once I feel the draft is strong, but not completely done, I almost always send it to a friend or one of my sisters to do a final read and get feedback on it. Then I polish it up from there.
I know you were based in Portland for a few years. Any marked differences between Portland and Brooklyn?
Yes! There was a huge lack of diversity in Portland in so many ways–racially, culturally, and in terms of conflicting viewpoints. I found it very stifling creatively to work in a place where people all agreed on the same things, and where there wasn’t a lot of patience for viewpoints that made people feel uncomfortable or made them question their beliefs. For a satirist, that is death!
Coming from Chicago, where so much satire focused on the problems the city was facing, it was very strange to me that audiences couldn’t find any humor in laughing at themselves and admitting that the city had some real and very big problems. There are just so many more voices chiming in in Brooklyn and New York–I enjoy the feeling of talking to someone and knowing they don’t agree with me.
What are you reading?
After a long period where I was reading creative “self-help” style books like Essentialism and Deep Work, I’m now back to reading a lot of fiction and non-fiction. I just reread Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp, which is one of my all-time favorite memoirs. For my book club we read Lolita, A Suitable Boy, and Swing Time in the past few months. I’m about to start The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon, and All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung. Now that I’m done writing a book I can read again!
Are there any ideas you wish you had time to act on but haven’t yet? Do you think it will become possible to act on them in the future?
I always wanted to write a book, and now through a very strange and fast way, that came to be! I would love to write more short humor books like this, and I still have the dream of writing a longer comedic novel some day. I have one I’ve been working on for a few years, but it’s not my forte! So I would need to take a class. It’s a satirical look at the self help and wellness industry. I think about it and take notes a lot, so I do think in the next few years I’ll be able to crank out a first draft. It’s percolating!
Do you consider yourself an artist? Should artists starve?
Yes, I consider myself an artist. No, artists shouldn’t starve, but I do think it’s unrealistic to think that you will be able to make a livable salary freelancing without any experience behind you. The work I did in offices, fundraising, teaching, copywriting–all that taught me a lot about deadlines, dealing with clients, handling workflow, etc. And at the end of the day, SO many things that come your way as an artist are from the people you know. So working a full-time job for several years and building your contact list can be incredibly valuable in the future as your cohort all starts to rise at the same time. I do think after gaining some contact and experience, people can start to dip their toe into freelancing and making more money from their art and see if they can come up with a sustainable source of income from it.
Having been a part-time professor at a college, I don’t think being a professor is a full-time job anymore for anyone but a lucky few. I think I will probably hold more full-time jobs in the future, but when I return to freelancing I will always be patching together income from a variety of different sources. Almost no one I know who is an artist makes their living exclusively from their art, and that’s fine–the metric for being an artist in my mind isn’t if you make $100k a year doing it, but if you’re DOING IT.
How can people view and stay up-to-date with your creative work?
Tell us something we don’t know about you yet:
I was a state champion swimmer in high school and swam in college, and I think swimming it what gave me the attention span to be a writer. It’s just you looking down at the black line on the bottom of the lane, thinking your thoughts, feeling your body. I don’t feel my body as much in my office chair, but I’m very comfortable thinking my thoughts for hours on end and putting sustained focus into a piece.
Caitlin Kunkel is a comedy writer and satirist. Her work has been featured in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Live Wire Radio, and other places on the vast internetz. Caitlin is represented by Susan Raihofer of the David Black Agency.
She is the co-founder of the comedy and satire site for women of all definitions, The Belladonna. She created the online satire writing program for The Second City and teaches in NY at Magnet Theater and Catapult.