Interview with Kathy Benjamin

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In 2009 Kathy Benjamin signed up to write for Cracked.com, “out of boredom more than anything,” but she happened to be pretty adept at it from the start. She quickly became one of Cracked’s most prolific writers, turning her natural disposition for researching into a long run of informative and hilarious articles, before bringing her talents to other sites like Mental Floss  and UrbanTitan too. In the course of all her freelancing, she incidentally made herself the perfect candidate when Adams Media wanted someone to write a non-fiction/humor book about funerals and death. Now her first book, Funerals to Die For: The Craziest, Creepiest, and Most Bizarre Funeral Traditions and Practices Ever,  is slated to come out on April 18th and can be pre-ordered through Amazon today. In this interview we discuss writing for Cracked, writing fiction, and funerals, among other things.

Brendan Bourque-Sheil: So, to begin with, I’ve been trying to find where your online writing career started. Did you write for any publications before you joined the Cracked workshop in 2009?

Kathy Benjamin: Nope. I entered a few short play competitions in the months before I joined the Workshop, but my first ever success was with Cracked.

BB: Were you specifically looking for writing gigs? Or did you just see they had a workshop that took submissions and decide to go for it?

KB: I was working retail at the time, and the creative part of me was dying inside. I got a BA and MA in History and had spent most of the past six years writing essays constantly, and then suddenly I wasn’t anymore. A friend had introduced me to Cracked and after reading them for a few months I finally noticed that Write for Cracked link at the bottom of an article. So I clicked, out of boredom more than anything.

BB: You got your first article accepted pretty quickly, and of course you’ve had a lot of success writing for the site since then. What appealed to you about writing the kind of content that Cracked does?

KB: I think the fact that they made the information so interesting and accessible. I don’t mean the jokes, which are very funny, obviously, but in most articles the jokes just compliment the way the information is presented, they are not the crux of the piece. Cracked has a way of presenting information that makes reading a  2,500 word article that is just full to the brim with facts feel like it took thirty seconds to read. So then you read another one, and another one. I know I’ve found myself totally fascinated by topics I don’t usually care about, like video games and comic books. I wanted to learn how to do that, how to get a million people interested in something seemingly boring that I was passionate about.

BB: Speaking of interest in topics you don’t normally care about, you can usually tell what a Cracked writer’s interests are by looking at the articles he/she’s written for the site. Movie buffs tend to write about movies. Science enthusiasts tend to write mostly science articles. But you  cover a pretty diverse range of subjects (psych experiments, courtroom juries, dating, rats). What’s your research process usually like, that you end up writing on so many different subjects?

KB: I just read everything. Originally I thought that I would write mostly history articles, because of my educational background. But then I discovered that the closer you are to the subject the harder it is to notice those weird patterns you need for a Cracked article. So I just read lots of books and websites about whatever seems interesting to me that day. Once you find an interesting fact, like for example, that left-handed people may have “killed” their twin in the womb, then you have a starting point: babies are secretly evil. So you start googling from there and before you know it have an article about six ridiculously evil things babies are capable of. But it’s hit and miss. For every good idea you have, you have five terrible ones, or ones where the research just isn’t there.

BB: I’ve read some of your fiction in The Four Humors and your serial, Level 15. Do you like writing fiction as much as nonfiction/humor?

KB: Oh man, that is a tough one. I like the IDEA of fiction. I think everyone believes that they have the next Harry Potter inside of them, and I know I’ve got some plots I’ve been working on in my head since I was 13. But I’ve started three different novels at this point and never gotten very far on any of them. I remember a comment from a professional writer, although I can’t for the life of me remember what their name was, that writing is like running. Some people can run marathons, others are best at sprints. It’s the same with writing. I think I am definitely a sprinter, someone who loves to write articles but for whom the mental endurance of a completing a novel might be too much.

BB: I would’ve thought writing Funerals to Die For required quite a bit of mental endurance. Didn’t you have two months to write the whole book?

KB: Six weeks. And I may have slacked off a bit for the first two… Yeah, that was definitely mentally and physically taxing, but really it was just like writing article after article. Every topic got a page or two, and then I moved on to a different one.

BB: So Adams Media came to you with the basic concept for this book, right?

KB: Yes. That was the greatest day ever, opening my email and basically being offered a book deal. I was so sure it must be a scam until I googled the company.

BB: Did you already know much about the subject going into writing the book?

KB: In that first email, Halli, my now-editor, didn’t mention the exact topic. She just said it was “kind of weird.” Immediately I was like, “Please be about death.” I have the most pathological fear of dying, ever since the first time I went to a funeral as a kid. So I decided long ago that the only way to get un-afraid of it was to subject myself to all the information about it I could. I’ve taken classes on death and funeral rituals at three different universities as well as reading about it on my own. So when Halli called me and told me the book’s theme, I was so happy. It was literally perfect for me.

BB: Wow. Very serendipitous. By the way, have you seen the web series “Ask a Mortician?”

KB: No! That sounds awesome though.

BB: Oh, it’s fascinating. This very peppy mortician just answers a bunch of user-submitted questions about death and funerals. (I send her a link to the series)

KB: Haha, five seconds in that has totally won me over. I have a lot of respect for morticians now. I researched some really gross things for this book, like cannibalism and dancing with dead relatives, but by far the most disturbing was learning about the embalming process. To the point that I kept almost all of those details out of the book.

BB: Yeah, there must have been a challenge in making some of this information funny and accessible.

KB: Definitely. A lot of it is innately funny, like the tradition of strippers at Taiwanese funerals or the real life Weekend at Bernie’s, because I purposely tried to find lighthearted things. But every now and then there was something really difficult, like the Indian tradition of Sati, where widows burn alive on their husbands funeral pyres. I got there in the end though, and nothing in the book should be disturbing to read.

One thing I learned was that even those things that seem weird or gross at first, once you delve deeper into their meaning you find they are actually kind of beautiful, a meaningful celebration of a loved one.

BB: Yeah, well one thing the host of that show “Ask A Mortician” talks about a lot is the idea that death and funeral practices should be much more approachable subjects, but they’re not because we as people don’t like thinking about our imminent deaths.

But of course, the opening line of your book is “You’re going to die.”

KB: Ha, yeah. It’s one of those things we have to deal with. Death is something that we can and should all joke about together because it is literally the only thing every single person on this planet has in common. It is the ultimate shared experience. But it also scares the shit out of most people and the only way to combat that as a group is make fun of it.

BB: In that spirit, has all this research into funerals made you think about what you’d like to have at your own funeral?

KB: I’ve wanted to be cremated for a long time, but after writing this book I realize that is really boring. There are so many cool things you can have done with your body after death, like environmentally friendly burials, or being made into a museum display. Right now I’m sticking with cremation but maybe I’ll have a bit of me made into a diamond with LifeGem, if they are still around when I shuffle of this mortal coil.

BB: So suffice it to say you liked writing the book and working with Adams Media because you’re already working on another one with them. What’s it about?

KB: I absolutely love working with Adams Media and can’t recommend them enough to any aspiring writers out there (they have a submission page on their website.) But I look at this like childbirth: I’ve forgotten how hard it was the first time around so I’m ready to do it all again. Book two is still in the pitch stage at this point, but hopefully it will be about historical secrets, like the fact that the NYC subway was originally built in complete secrecy in less than two months, and the recipe for KFC’s 11 herbs and spices is only known by two people with armed guards watching over it 24 hours a day.

BB: What’s the book you’ve reread the most?

KB: To Marry An English Lord, a very Cracked-style book about the dozens of American heiresses who married into the British aristocracy in the late 1800s. There are lots of pictures and it is hilarious. I’ve had to buy it twice because the first one fell apart from over-reading.

BB: Who are some of your biggest creative influences?

KB: I try to be as funny as English writer/actor David Mitchell and Irish comedian Dara O’Briain (yes, that is spelled right.) When it comes to writing, the editors and columnists at Cracked deserve all the credit for the way i string words together on a page.

BB: What motivates you in your writing?

KB: I can get lazy sometimes, so I know that my main motivation is that antsy feeling I get when I haven’t written something in a couple days. But you can’t go wrong with money and nice Facebook comments either.

You can pre-order Kathy Benjamin’s book on Amazon today.