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David Rakoff answers the Stephen Leacock questionnaire

Half Empty by David RakoffOn April 1, the Stephen Leacock Association announced the five finalists for the 2011 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. We sent all five nominees the same questionnaire in order to get a little more insight into who these writers are, what their books are about and what what they think of being nominated for the Leacock!

We've reached the final nominee, David Rakoff, author of Half-Empty. Be sure to check out the Q&As with Trevor Cole (Practical Jean), Red Green (How to Do Everything), Terry Fallis (The High Road) and Todd Babiak (Toby, A Man) as well.

David Rakoff is a glass half-empty kind of guy and he's okay with that. He thinks the rest of the world should be too, hence Half-Empty, a collection of essays in which he explores his own pessimistic ways and reflects on everything from his childhood experiences of being precocious and picked on to his battle with Hodgkin's disease at 22.

Rakoff was interviewed on Q about Half Empty back in September 2010. Listen to that conversation here.

Q: Tell us what your Leacock-nominated book, Half Empty, is about.

A: Well, this is what makes my nomination such a lovely, albeit perplexing, surprise. My book, Half Empty, is an essay collection in defence of pessimism and melancholy, along with a veiled attack on the culture of unchecked optimism. It culminates in a chapter about my recent and ongoing bout with cancer. Hilarious! Actually, in truth, it thrills me that the humour in the book has been so flatteringly recognized.

Q: Where were you when you found out you were nominated? What did it feel like?

A: This question reminds me of the following story: when I was a wage slave in publishing, I had pinned to the wall of my cubicle a letter from the Book of the Month Club, back when there still was such a thing. It was addressed to the Dalai Lama, one of the house authors. It asked him exactly the same question but about being chosen as an Alternate Selection or something. I found that hilarious. "Where was I?" "In Dharamsala, being the divine embodiment of a religion, fighting Chinese oppression as a worldwide avatar of peace and non-violent enlightenment." So I guess my answer would be "ditto."

I was in my apartment (my default answer to any "where were you?" question) and I was gobsmacked. While fortunate and blessed in countless ways, I don't really get nominated for honours and the like. So, it's lovely.

(I am curious, however, at responses you might have gotten that don't essentially say the above. Has anyone ever said words to the effect of "I couldn't care less?")

Q: If you can't win, which other short-listed author would you like to see win?

A: If I can't or if I don't? That makes it sound like they'll find those incriminating photos of me, I don't know, being not funny. But if I don't win, there'll be hell to pay in Orillia as my vengeful pig's-blood-soaked telekinesis rampage goes into effect. You've been warned!

Q: Who are some of your favourite humour writers?

A: I don't know how they'd feel being called humour writers, but writers who make me laugh include James Thurber, Bill Richardson, David Sedaris, Sarah Payne Stuart, Fran Lebowitz, Ephraim Kishon, Robert Benchley.

Q: What is the funniest place in Canada?

A: I have to recuse myself here. I've no idea. Laughing Gas, Manitoba?

davidrakoff.jpgQ: Why humour? What compelled you to write funny stories?

A: I'm sure there are many psychological underpinnings as to why I feel compelled to see things through a humorous lens (although I'm melancholic in pretty equal measure). It's really not a choice, actually. It's as inevitable as being double-jointed and then walking a certain, double-jointed way. It's born of a world-view that was formed early on, at least pre-verbally, but it's as inexorable and central as the language I write in.

Q: What's the funniest book you've ever read?

A: Maybe Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. Or Men in Trouble by Sarah Payne Stuart. Perhaps America: The Book by the Daily Show folks.

Q: Where is your favourite place to write?

A: That question is flawed in its presupposing that writing is something I like doing, which I emphatically do not. I suppose it's least awful in my apartment. Truthfully, my small bladder, hummingbird's need to snack essentially constantly, and frequent napping all mean that I can't really write anywhere but my apartment, and so I've never really tried.

Q: What makes something funny?

A: I'll tell you what makes something unfunny, and that's analyzing what makes something funny. There are a lot of theories, from Bergson to Freud and on and on, each more eye-glazing than the last. Something's funny if it's unexpected, closely observed, authentic, off-kilter. But really, Buster Keaton and Dorothy Parker are both funny, but you'd be hard-pressed to find the Venn diagram that encompasses both.

Q: If you could meet Stephen Leacock, what would you say to him?

A: Please don't decompose on my furniture.

That's all folks! The winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour will be announced on Thursday, April 28!

Which title do you think will take the award? Let us know, and you just might win! We have three Leacock prize packs to give away, consisting of all five nominated titles. To enter, head to the Stephen Leacock Medal discussion group in the CBC Books Community and let us know which book you think is going to be named the funniest book in Canada.

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