Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Joey Comeau

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Joey Comeau

The internet is full of beloved mascots, but it's hard to find one that has struck a deeper chord with people than Joey Comeau, whose webcomic A Softer World (created with Emily Horne) exploded in popularity for its pitch perfect combination of heartbreaking insight and gallows humour.

Joey's not just adept at the ultra short form writing of A Softer World — his popular novels and story collections capture the same dark wit and energy. One of his most unique works was Overqualified, an experimental novel told in job application letters that was described as "Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret chewed up and spit out by J.G. Ballard".

Joey returns now with the appropriately titled follow up, Overqualifieder (ECW Press), where he plunges back into the bitter humour of cover letters that reveal far too much about their sender. An uncomfortably funny answer to the question of what would happen if we told the (brutal) truth in an arena where everyone lies, Overqualifieder is simultaneously sweet and bitter, and, of course, slightly insane.

We talk to Joey as part of our Lucky Seven series today, and he tells us about why he wouldn't mind someone calling the police over one of his letters, the writing rituals that get him in the right mindset (you won't want to miss this tip), and why playing chess makes a perfect break from writing.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Overqualifeder.

Joey Comeau:

Overqualifieder is a second collection of job application letters, following 2008’s Overqualified. (The title is a play on Die Hard 2: Die Harder) Both books collect letters I actually wrote and sent to companies as part of the Overqualified project on asofterworld.com. But the project didn’t end after the first book came out. I still thought it was hilarious to send inappropriate job application letters as a response to the soul sucking monotony of applying for work. So, the website kept growing. It only made sense to collect these newer letters in a second book.

OB:

Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?

JC:

If there is a question that is central to the book, it is why do we pretend honesty has anything to do with the job application process? Why do we pretend it matters who we are, or what our personal qualities are? Employers don’t want to know, even if that would be useful information. There’s nothing less personal than a job application, nothing more bland and formulaic. It is shocking how even the smallest bit of personal information can tip a job application into what seems like a deeply insane level of over-sharing.

OB:

Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?

JC:

The project ran online from roughly 2004 to 2012, though some letters were written more recently than that and added to the website. Over time the letters changed in recipient only. I stopped writing to local (Halifax, Nova Scotia) companies and started sending the letters to international companies. This way if somebody became too alarmed by a letter and called the police then at least it would be an international incident, which I can only assume would be good publicity.

OB:

What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?

JC:

I write on my computer, and in my own space. My room, or someplace in my house. I don’t like to write in coffee shops, or public places. I find them distracting. When I write I listen to music — melodic and familiar enough that I don’t have to actively listen with my brain. That way the music is comforting and sets a mood without being distracting. As for rituals, I like to spread the blood of babies across the keyboard of my laptop to make my words taste better, with one extra dab of tot-blood on the webcam to prevent the NSA from watching me in this my most intimate of moments.

OB:

What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?

JC:

When I feel discouraged from writing I’ll play chess. Online chess is a good way to take my mind off a project, because when you’re playing chess (timed games especially) it is almost impossible to think about anything else. So for those few minutes, at least, you’ve walked away. And sometimes that is all it takes. But then, sometimes you need to walk away for longer. That is a harder thing to do.

OB:

What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.

JC:

I think a great book is surprising. There’s an element of the unexpected to it, a way it differs from the other books we’ve learned to consider “great” before it. I don’t think two books can be great in the same way. One of them is great, and any that follow are just the books that followed. Two books I think are great are We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson, and Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles.

OB:

What are you working on now?

JC:

I am writing a novel called Malagash, that is about a family reunion in Malagash, Nova Scotia, where nothing stays dead for very long.


Joey Comeau writes the comic A Softer World, which has appeared in the Guardian and been profiled in Rolling Stone, and which Publishers Weekly called “subtle and dramatic.” He is the author of a number of books, including Overqualified, The Complete Lockpick Pornography and One Bloody Thing After Another, and the Bravest Warriors comic book series. Joey lives in Toronto, Ontario.

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