The Author’s Intersection of Tragedy and Comedy

One of the things that I didn’t anticipate happening when I entered the world of publishing and authors was, I somehow obtained the guts to reach out and talk to published authors (yes the more well-known variety, with world-wide distribution and translations of their works into a handful of obscure languages). It’s still a very strange experience that feels somehow like breaking an unwritten rule, or like I was granted a back-stage pass; the idea that I can just ‘talk’ to them. I recently had an exchange with one of my favorite authors, Mil Millington. (Actually, I’d call him my favorite living British author, if I’d have read more than one of his books.) He writes about the painful humor of relationships, mostly of the ridiculous-but-relatable variety. I remember tears of laughter running down my face while I read “Love and Other Near-Death Experiences.” Following my reading of that book I was led to his webpage which has a running stream of his thoughts, similar to those in his novels. I managed to find and subscribe to his newsletter, albeit long after he had curtailed populating and sending it out. It didn’t dissuade me from adding him to my RSS feeds, in case he ever did decide to send anything out. But it was quiet and Mil’s stream of consciousness humor faded slowly into the background of my everyday.

A couple years ago I received some electronic Christmas cards, the most entertaining of which (by far) was Mil’s. He sent it to his family, friends, then gave his newsletter subscribers a big e-hug by including us in the same letter (well, I have to assume that it was the same, since that’s what he told us). I giggled through it, read it twice (at least) and shared it with a few friends. Then I got caught in the whirlwind of my own book last year and forgot all about Mil, until this year’s Christmas cards came. Mil’s card was again the most entertaining, so I posted it on my Facebook  page for all to enjoy, which a few did.

But this letter came on a certain day: the day of the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut. I read it late in the day after I was saturated with grief and anger-filled posts and articles. And you know what? Mil made me laugh at a perfect moment when I could have spiraled into an abyss of dismal thoughts. And that felt so nice that I was moved to tell him (or whoever handles his newsletter) how much I appreciated it. To my surprise, he replied to me (and not just a little bit). He offered perspective and wit without my urging. I received it on Christmas Day which may or may not have been intentional. Below is our exchange. So that you have a taste for his style and flavor, I have included his email and card in the beginning.

As those of you who know will know, every year I pass on to you, dear Listers, precisely the same Christmas card that Margret and I send to our friends, family, and co-workers. This naturally implies that, as Listers, you reside within the same circle of Peter Singer-style empathy for me as do our kith, our kin, and our kolleagues. Rather than implying that I’m too lazy to write two cards.
So, Listers, a happy one to you all. May adequacy be unfettered, may contentment be at wholly passable levels, and may you sit smiling and wriggle-toed before a bustling fireplace and enjoy many a mince pie without an unsuspected nut allergy or gluten intolerance ending the festivities in anaphylactic shock and intestinal cramping.

Dearest Mil,

What a beautiful thing you did on a day when we needed it here over in the US. You made us laugh when we needed it most. Thank you, and keep on writing, please, oh, please!!

Your adoring fan,

His reply:

I didn’t know about the shooting at the time I sent the Mail, of course. I’d written the card days before, and sent it to friends and family. And because of the time it takes to work through the system, even when I set about starting to send the Mail to the Listers there was nothing around but a breaking story that ‘two or three people may have been injured at a school shooting in America, details are still unclear’. Here’s the truly tragic thing about the timing of things I write and horrific mass shootings in America, though: it’s more or less unavoidable. I was talking to one of your countrymen recently about the subject of gun control. (You can imagine our two positions – they are standard to the point of cliche: the three things people in England/Europe generally just cannot understand about Americans are Why they don’t change their gun laws, Why they believe in God, and Why they don’t want a health service that’s free at the point of delivery. It’s the juxtaposition of the familial and the alien that makes it so strange. That is, especially in Britain, we think of Americans as ‘more or less the same as us’ – they speak English (as I say, more or less); our lifestyles are nearly identical; like us, they’d like to do the kind and decent thing personally, nationally and internationally – even if they screw it up occasionally, they’d *like* to do it; we watch the same films, much of the same TV, and listen to the same music; etc. So, family. But then they have these three things that aren’t just nuts, but *nuts on methadone*; it’s as though you’re having a normal family dinner with your mother, and then she suddenly, but calmly, climbs onto the table and starts rubbing gravy into her hair.) Anyway, I send him an email, listing my considered objections to his pro-gun stance. He replies accusingly, “Right – you waited until *now* to send that reply, didn’t you?” I hadn’t waited until anything, I’d just sent it; but, later on the day I sent it, there was that shooting at the Batman premier.
And that’s the real tragedy of the timing, you see. If one writes for even a fairly modest amount of time, one can guarantee that something one writes will coincide with a horrific mass shooting in America. Even something as inexpressibly awful as what happened at Sandy would be better if one thought it was at least the last time something like that will occur; yet we know that something like it will not only happen again but it’ll be *things* like that, and they’ll happen *regularly*.
I could cry. I really could.
Your servant,

I then asked his permission to post his words here, because his demeanor and point are made in such a beautifully un-American way that it was at once refreshing and effective. He agreed, then he continued in such a lovely manner that I thought I’d include it too, because it illustrated quite clearly how most of the rest of the world must see the US in situations like this:

[What I wrote] didn’t, and doesn’t, strike me as insightful or incisive. Though I suppose that’s part of the issue with this: everything is plain – there’s nothing hidden to be unearthed. One would like there to be a secret solution just out of sight, yet within the reach of deep reflection, new thinking, or a brilliant intellect. But no – what it is, is what it is. In fact, those who say, “Ahh, but what you’re not seeing is that…” aren’t people who are more subtle thinkers, they are instead the staggeringly, obscenely unhinged…
Anyway, do with it as you wish. I suspect the, ‘Why don’t they change their gun laws’ sounds unintentionally glib. I realise that you can’t: you just *can’t*. You have a gun culture, and avid supporters of it make up a very significant proportion of the citizens of the country. Even more important, to remove the Second Amendment would require majorities – super majorities, in fact – that are simple political impossibilities. Regard our astonishment like this: suppose, as Americans, you looked at country that seemed to be full of people just like you… yet rather than democratic government, and everyone being born equal with the same chances of success and betterment based on their own efforts and skills, they were ruled by an unelected, hereditary monarchy (pulled from a family of no great intelligence or talent). Politically, this can’t be changed by legal methods because of the way the legal systems works, and (at least) 30% of the people *very strongly* support this system anyway and would mobilise against any move to change it. You’d understand the reality of the situation. But your basic reaction would still be a feeling of ‘What the *hell*?’