Writing Satire

Picture of Mark RaynerAuthor: Mark Rayner

How did you first get into writing?  What was the first piece of writing that shocked or moved you?

It’s fair to say my writing career began from about the time I was three, when I started talking in full sentences and using those to tell stories about pirates and monkeys. Apparently I haven’t developed much since then, though I have added robots and other humans to my cast of characters.

My Mom has a great story about me reading to my brother when he was still in the crib, and it was always the same book (Look  But in terms of stuff I really remember, I have to say Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, which I read when I was about 13 or 14, really blew my mind.

Tell me a little bit about how you first came upon the idea of writing satire.  What attracts you to that genre?

The idea of writing satire never occurred to me — it just kind of snuck up on me and I realized (much later, after I’d had my first play produced, actually) that I was writing satire. It’s the one thing that you can say of most of my work. Underneath all the silly characters, the goofy situations, the broad comedy, the dodgy science fiction, there’s a deep sense that everything should be better. As Nabokov says, “Satire is a lesson, parody is a game.”

I recently read a book about satire that said that every satire requires an element of secrecy.  “A Modest Proposal” is not half as funny when you know the writer’s intent at the outset.  Do you find yourself often veiling your intentions or at least suspending them to up the comedic factor?  How do you balance that with what you really want to say?

I’d be interested in reading that essay, because I don’t think I agree. If you’re hiding your intention, then it will be difficult to get your point across. I do think there is an element of misdirection with some satire, for example, the kind that Stephen Colbert does, but if you watch him for just a minute then you’ll see what he’s doing. But there’s a great deal of the canon that makes it really obvious that the satirist is holding up a character, a moray, or religion, to ridicule. (Candide springs to mind.)

I DO think it’s important to balance your point with the other elements that are important in storytelling such as character, plot, themes you want to explore. And I would make the argument that the best satire is the kind in which the author is not just ridiculing his characters (Juvenalian satire), but in which he has some sympathy for his subjects (Horatian satire).

My literary hero is Kurt Vonnegut, whom I consider one of America’s all-time great satirists. Vonnegut has a beautiful way of casting the folly of human nature into disrepute at the same time as having great sympathy and even love for his characters.

It seems like you’re all over the place in terms of the types of writing you can do.  How did you first get into writing plays?  What sort of skills did you feel like writing plays nurtured that other types of writing didn’t?

When I was at university I wrote both short stories and short plays, though it’s fair to say I had more success with the plays. I was getting a liberal arts degree with a heavy dose of drama (the kind you see on a stage, not the kind you experience in life), so it makes some sense that I spent a lot of time working on theatre. It’s a visceral art form, and I liked writing dialog, especially if I could get a laugh. The drama program also had all of its students taking acting courses. While this was not my forte, I think it has helped me more than anything else when it comes to thinking about character. In acting, we were taught to think about what the character was trying to achieve in each scene. What makes them tick? What was the backstory that got them to this moment in the play? This kind of in-depth thinking about even minor characters became a kind of reflex, and I hope it shows in my characters in my novels.

So give me the scoop on The Fridgularity.  What’s next for you?

The Fridgularity began as a kind of daydream I had on the beach. I had just finished reading Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near, and I was kind of horrified by it. Not his positive vision of the singularity, but the underlying ethic that we should be embracing all of this technology without really questioning the nature of what it is going to do to us as humans. Would we even be humans when this all happens? And then I took the SF trope of a super-intelligent machine intelligence evolving on its own, and then thought it would be funny if it only wanted to talk to one guy through his web-enabled fridge.

Up next? I’ve got two projects on the go — an epic SF tale about genetic engineering gone wrong and a fake autobiography of the often-overlooked Victorian speculative fiction writers, Emily Chesley.

What advice do you have for young writers who might be interested in writing satire?

Don’t. I’ve got enough competition already!


Mark’s Bio:

Human-shaped, simian-obsessed, robot-fighting, pirate-hearted, massively-bestselling wannabe, Mark A. Rayner is a writer of satirical and speculative fiction.

By day, Mark  teaches his bemused students at the Faculty of Information and Media Studies (at The University of Western Ontario), how to construct digital images, web sites, and viable information architectures that will not become self-aware and destroy all humans.

By night, he is not Batman. His cats, believe they however, are.

You can track Mark online at his website, where the offer of cake is purely pro forma: http://markarayner.com