In Corn-Fed: Cul-De-Sacs, Keg Stands, and Coming of Age in the Midwest, writer Melanie LaForce discusses growing up in the Midwest with a combination of humor and heart. The book begins when LaForce is a young girl struggling with anxiety at school and camp, and follows her through college, gaining a PhD, and into adulthood. LaForce writes in a frank and funny style about topics ranging from her love of secular Christmas to front porches, and Gen Xers will identify with references to things like Cabbage Patch Kids and Trapper Keepers that pop up in the book.
LaForce works in academia and has written essays and humor for New York magazine and the Washington Post, and you can check out an excerpt from Corn Fed in BUST here. I first met her in an online group for female comedy writers, and then in person at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop in Ohio, the state where she grew up.
I recently caught up with LaForce to talk about the challenges of writing a book, managing anxiety in a time before it was widely discussed, and the life lessons she learned working at Dairy Queen.
How did Corn Fed come about?
I’ve been informally writing humor my whole life. I grew up reading dad's dog-eared Dave Barry and Jean Sheperd books on the toilet. Then, when I was old enough to craft, I wrote silly stories about my classmates and funny quizzes for my best friends. In 2014, I wrote about my teen years working at Dairy Queen for The (now defunct) Hairpin. It captured the attention of my agent, who then worked with me to develop a book proposal.
It turns out it’s REALLY HARD to get a memoir published if you don’t have a “platform.” Certainly, some authors with very timely or dramatic stories to tell do get book deals without much of a following. However, editors at Big 5 publishers were fairly frank about my lack of internet presence. One editor at a Big 5 publisher fought tirelessly for my book, only to be shut down twice by his marketing team who said they had no idea how to sell it.
It sucked ass. For a couple of years, I drifted and revised my book proposal, working to become a stronger writer. Finally, Thought Catalog benevolently agreed to take on my book, even with a lack of cult followers. They have a much different model than Big 5 publishers (they work mostly with on-demand printing), so their risk (and the service they provide) is lower than one would find with a Big 5. I was grateful to finally have an outlet to finish this goddamn thing that I had sworn to myself that I would finish. And now I’m the best one-woman PR team I can be, whenever time allows.
Most writers have day jobs other than writing, which I understand you do too. How were you able to fit in writing a book around yours?
I have been a senior researcher at a university for the past decade. I took a risk and reduced my hours so I could spend more time writing my book. When money was too tight, I taught and did consulting work. Shifting gears is tough—I’d go from writing quantitative grant proposals by day to writing funny stories about my pubes in the evenings. Ultimately, it’s just a long haul for most authors to complete their books unless they are independently wealthy. I missed my book completion deadline twice. Another author friend told me that it's totally normal for most authors to miss their deadline at least once.
Your day job is of the more serious academic variety. What's it like for you to combine your more serious day job persona with a side gig in humor writing?
Academic Melanie and Nonsense Melanie are pretty discrete. They rarely overlap, except when I lie awake at night, worrying that a research funder will stumble across my online masturbation satire. It’s just easier to keep the lives separate.
In the book, you discuss having anxiety from an early age. But growing up as a Gen Xer, I don’t think anxiety was talked about or identified very much. Were you aware that what you were experiencing was anxiety from an early age? Or when did you first start labeling it as that?
I agree—when we were young, anxiety and depression were not yet (mainstream) understood. My parents did the best they could, giving me the same tough love that they had received as anxious children. In college, my panic attacks finally boiled over to the point where I was struggling to function, and I was finally diagnosed with panic disorder. In many ways this was a relief—to understand what I was dealing with, and to be given a blessed little bottle of Xanax to keep in my pocket. God bless Xanax, now and forevermore, Amen.
I like how you had some references to legit academic studies blended into some of your chapters in the book. Humor and academic studies aren’t always combined. Did you go in intentionally wanting to add some psychological research, or did that just organically happen?
It happened organically, as I am an insufferable know-it-all who can’t help but infuse social psychology nerdery into all conversations. It just spurts out out of me, because of my constant self-monitoring (Snyder, 1974) and high need for affiliation (McClelland, 1979).
You talk about learning some life lessons while working at Dairy Queen in the book. What lessons from Dairy Queen do you still find helpful today as an adult?
First jobs should teach strong work ethic, and Dairy Queen was perfect for that. We worked hard, and exemplified teamwork...Oh wait, can I change my answer? At Dairy Queen I also learned about masturbation. I still definitely utilize this intel. Yeah. That was the best.
How have the people in the book reacted to being written about? Did you run any portions by people before it was published?
Most folks were fine with the content, though some did not like being written about. I did run selections by quite a few people, even though I used almost all pseudonyms. Others’ memories helped with accuracy and depth. It was a great way to reconnect with old friends. And then brush them off and never have to talk to them again!
How do you use humor in your own life? What or who makes you laugh?
Holy shit, I have so many funny people in my life! My husband, my fam, my friends—especially my improv friends. God, they are talented. In TV and movies, I tend toward absurdist yet nerdy observational humor, i.e. 30 Rock, Great News, Broad City. But I tell ya, nothing beats a well-curated “dogs who can’t catch balls” YouTube montage video, am I right?
True! Anything else people should know about the book?
It’s cheap! Low risk, mediocre reward!
Is there anything we can do to make this interview funnier?
No. Well, maybe read it out loud with a funny voice.
Corn Fed is out now.
Top photo: Corn Fed cover (detail)
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Julie Vick is a writer living in Colorado. She has written for New Yorker Daily Shouts, Real Simple, and The Washington Post. Read more of her work at julievick.com or follow her on Twitter @vickjulie or Instagram @julievickwriter