Jen Spyra tells me how I can become Jen Spyra, sort of

And also about “Big Time,” her killer new short story anthology

I am in my last year of college. I am always behind on school, or work, or something. Reading has begun to feel like a chore, after four years of doing it for not-so-much-pleasure-but-more-so-to-get-information-which-I-will-then-have-to-incorporate-into-a-paper-or-something purposes. So it is not an exaggeration when I say that reading Jen Spyra’s new short story collection, “Big Time,” was a breath of fresh air (after spending the better part of my last four years in the basement of a library). 

I got to curl up with the book and sit down with Jen to talk about it—and I’ll tell you about both. 

“Big Time” gave me the adult version of the feeling I used to have as a kid person in the Bridgewater,  New Jersey public library. Sitting in a large velvety purple armchair, underneath a poster of “The Tale of Despereaux,” reading Roald Dahl’s “BFG” (again), eating a slice of orange (not allowed)—and without a care in the world. Just like that—Jen Spyra’s anthology takes readers into her universe, and lets us forget, for just that moment, everything else.

Spyra’s style actually reminds me of Dahl’s. Mystical, quick, and a little dark. Each story is its own spectacle and commands attention, like LED light displays at a county fair. It’s all just very charming, which is why I think if you’re considering reconnecting with your younger self, but in an adult way, this book is your chance to do so. 

More about Jen: She’s a comedy writer with credits including Late Night with Stephen Colbert, The Onion, and The New York Times. She Zooms (at least in my experience) from what looks like the world’s best-curated beige living room—though her personality and laugh are DEFINITELY not beige. She is nice enough to ask me t how my senior year of college is going, and relate it to her own time at Barnard. Talking to her, I feel as comfy as I did in that purple (definitely not beige) armchair in Bridgewater.  

I ask her if working in a writer’s room informed her short stories. She laughs, recalling the pretty standard experience of having her ideas or sketches not make it to production—but notes that some of those failed sketches actually turned into stories in the book. That’s why writing a book meant that, this time, she says, she could “make it exactly what she wanted.” 

Jen still works stuff from the scrap heap into new writing “all the time.” she adds. “I’ve picked things up that are many years old and been like, hmm, I’m actually going to run with that one now. And I’ve cannibalized things…maybe jokes that were cut that I love from sketches that actually slotted into stories. I am so used to it because you only have one little brain…you’ve got to use whatever you can get.”

That last part especially resonated with me personally. I, too, only have “one little brain.” 

The mini-murder mystery “Dinner at Eight” is one of my favorite stories in the book. Not a spoiler: The narrator keeps switching as the story progresses. Did I mention that every character can hear the others’ internal monologues? For example, Miss Hadley takes over narrating when the colonel turns out to be sexist, but when she turns out to be ableist, she loses the gig too. This is typical of Spyra’s style: taking a typical convention and spinning it on its head. This story in particular raised some bigger questions like: Who is in control of the stories we tell? And what influence does that have on what story we eventually read?

The big questions and fast pace seem deliberate (and they work). Like any deft TV writer, Spyra thinks of her audience. She asks “Is this entertaining? Am I losing you? Am I boring you? Is it funny enough? Is it interesting enough?” She says she thinks of her own friends and wonders “Will they think it’s funny?”

Spoiler: Yes! “There’s been an outpouring of friends and people that I respect telling me they’re into it,” she says, adding that reviews from other authors like Patricia Lockwood and Catherine  Cohen “keep me alive.”

At the end of our sweet chat I want nothing more than to know how I could one day do what Spyra does. How can a newer writer like me become a comedy writer and author as illustrious as…Jen Spyra? I am hoping for a secret formula or maybe insight into a particular day of the month in which I should stand under the full moon and say a specific word. No such luck. But I do get sound and actionable advice. 

“The first and the biggest thing is to really steep yourself in work that you think is good,” Spyra says.”You write in the style of people you admire, but eventually that morphs into your own unique voice.” And then pitch, she says. “Make sure you’re submitting to places! Then you build a little body of work. The only thing is you have to make sure that you are writing and forcing yourself to write.” 

So there you have it. Write, write, write—and when you’re not writing, read Jen Spyra’s “Big Time.” Ideally, in a nice velvety chair.