Ian A. Frazier ’73 has always had a knack for humor. Now a writer for The New Yorker, he has multiple publications under his belt: essay collections, humor books, nonfiction pieces. His latest novel, “The Cursing Mommy’s Book of Days”, brought Frazier back to Cambridge last week for a talk at the Harvard Book Store. Fifteen Minutes sat down with him to talk about childhood pranks, finding a voice, and his time at a porn magazine.
1. Fifteen Minutes: In Tina Fey’s book “Bossypants,” Fey says that she had one moment where she realized that she was funny. Can you recall the moment when you first realized that you were funny?
Ian A. Frazier: When Tina Fey told me I was funny. I’m kidding. It was something that I wanted to do since I was little. I’d like to make anybody laugh. I’d like to make my parents laugh, but it was very hard to make my father laugh. There probably was a point where I made my father laugh, and I thought, ‘Well, if I can make him laugh, I can make anybody laugh.’
2. FM: Do you have any stories from when you were a kid? Any crazy things that you did?
IAF: Mostly they were bad things—things that would get people mad at me. In our house we had a laundry chute, and I would drop army men and my brother would catch them at the bottom. Once, I thought it would be funny if, instead of an army guy with a parachute, I dropped a rock. He forgave me and my parents forgave me.
3. FM: Didn’t you write for the Lampoon?
IAF: Yes, and it was the greatest thing. I don’t think I’ve had that much fun since, to be honest. It was just exhilaratingly fun. It was what I wanted to do before I came here. Well, I probably would have wanted to come here anyway, but a guy four years older than I was who was on the Lampoon would send issues of the Lampoon back to my school. I read the Lampoon when I was in high school. When I came to Harvard, I was in Weld Hall. I put my bags away and went to the Lampoon and knocked on the door on my first day. I tried out as a freshman, and I got on. It was and it still is just a completely good thing.
4. FM: What were some highlights from your time at the Lampoon? Were you ever involved with any great Crimson pranks?
IAF: We did two parodies of The Crimson. One of the parodies of The Crimson, they [The Crimson] found out where our printer was and went and took all of the copies before we got there. But the Crimson guys forgot to take the plates. The [printer] place was closed by then, so we put the plates in the car and drove out in the middle of nowhere and found someplace that was opened and would print it. They didn’t have the right size paper so they printed it on paper that was too big, so we spent the rest of the night cutting the edges off. It didn’t have the regular serrated edge that The Crimson does, so it looked a little suspect, but we got it all done. We wrote parodies of people who are national pundits today like Michael Kingsley.
5. FM: What kind of work did you do immediately after graduating from Harvard?
IAF: There wasn’t a lot out there. Playboy was starting a new magazine called Oui, which was a copy of a French skin mag, and they needed people to work for it. They sent a letter to the Lampoon asking if anybody there wanted to come work. I wrote them back and they gave me a job. I went to Chicago, and I wrote captions for pictures of naked women. That was my first job.
6. FM: What was it like to be a writer for a porn magazine? Was it challenging?
IAF: It is incredibly challenging. It was a learning experience. You think you can write something like that and it’s easy. It’s like, ‘I went to Harvard. I should be able to do this.’ But it’s a talent, and it’s also a kind of frame of mind I guess.
7. FM: Did you have other odd-job writing assignments earlier in your career?
IAF: I did one piece for Harper’s where I went to Abercrombie & Fitch—back then it was mainly a sporting goods store—and I wrote down the name of every fishing lure that they had. I had lots and lots of fishing lures and I just wrote them down and gave it to Harper’s and they printed it. I had applied for The New Yorker, but they turned me down. In fact, they said they had too many people from Harvard. I reapplied, and the second time they did hire me.
8. FM: How long have you been writing?
IAF: I graduated in 1973 and I went to work for Oui, and I’ve been a writer since then, so almost 40 years. And when I got to The New Yorker, I was 23 and I was a staff writer. Now I’m a freelance writer with a contract, but then I was a staff writer. And I had to fill out a form for my pension plan because I was on the pension plan. It asks for the year when you will turn 65. And I was 23 and I added it up, and it was 2016. That seemed like far, far in the future; I mean, it was far in the future, but now it’s not.
9. FM: Where did you get your inspiration to write the “The Cursing Mommy”?
IAF: It was something in our family. I’m married and I have two kids. There are frustrations and you curse; it was the phrase that came up. One time we were driving and somebody cut my wife off, and she cursed. My daughter was little and she was in the back seat, and one of her friends said, ‘Oh Cora, your mommy cursed.’ Just the combination of those words.
10. FM: You have written on a variety of topics and in a variety of genres, from journalistic works like “Travels in Siberia” to humorous essays like “Dating Your Mom”. How do you manage to switch between these genres while maintaining a distinct style?
IAF: There are all different kinds of voices. There are thousands, millions. And sometimes you get into one that just has a way of telling a whole story, like Holden Caulfield’s voice. Where did that come from? It just ran cross-country and churned up the whole country, you know? It was a really powerful voice. With nonfiction, you can get a baseline of voice that you totally hear. And the way to get it is by reading Caesar’s “Gallic Wars.” Because the first sentence of that, “All Gaul is divided into three parts,” is the foundation of all nonfiction up to now. It’s such a beautiful, magic sentence. It seems so flat and straight, but there’s so much behind it. I mean, he conquered Gaul and then broke it up. There’s so much authority in that.
11. FM: How does your latest book compare from things that you have written in the past?
IAF: All writing is voice. I’ve written a lot of humor pieces, and those are very focused on voice. It’s actually more fun to listen to than to read. Sometimes you’ll read a piece where you don’t know what the writer is talking about, but the voice is great. I’ll find that with science writing sometimes—I won’t have any idea what the person is talking about, but there will just be something in there. You know, my brother-in-law is a professor of physics at BU, and I asked him what he was working on and he explained it to me. I had no idea what he was saying, but in it was a phrase, ”non-perturbative chromodynamics.” I thought, “That is so pretty,” and I wondered what that could possibly mean.
12. FM: Which writers have influenced your style the most?
IAF: There are hundreds, but every time I’m asked about what I read, I think, “Oh I left such-and-such out.” Somebody recently asked me about comic novels, and I listed a whole bunch of them. And I left out Ring Lardner—he just wrote so many hilarious things. I also love Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor, Joseph Mitchell, Jamaica Kincaid. Jamaica is a friend; I remember first reading pieces by her and just being so astonished at the power of the voice and the details. In my generation, she’s the writer who I’ve admired and tried to emulate. James Thurber and E.B. White. A lot of poets—I think poetry and nonfiction can be very similar and especially in more recent times when poetry became more personal. For something like “The Cursing Mommy”, Charles Portis. Primo Levi, I think, is the greatest nonfiction writer of the twentieth century. But that’s a short list.
13. FM: What do you think about the idea that there are people out there that read your work and are inspired by you?
IAF: I would say they should read more widely. I mean that not in fake humility, but in that I think people do better to read authors a little bit farther back. I think people also do well by reading what they’re not supposed to. I would naturally read Mark Twain because I’m from the Midwest, but I think someone like that should also read things out of curiosity and out of interest. I’m flattered that people are inspired, but you do have to read. I don’t teach all that much, but when I do, I always say to students, “You’ve got to read all the time”. People say that they don’t want to read because it will influence their style. Don’t worry about that.
14. FM: How do you think the media and the print industry has been changing? Are people reading less and less in print?
IAF: It’s not like we’re not publishing books—more books come out now than ever. And having computers means that there are billions and trillions of words out there now that there didn’t used to be. I am often asked, “What do I think about the death of print?” And I always say, “Well, we’re here. We’re talking about books.” They may be on the way out but they’re certainly having a spasm at their death. The wonderful writer Anne Fadiman said about books, “A book is public”. And I think that is so profound. What you’re getting with your little thing like this iPhone, that’s private. But if you have a printed book, and you’re carrying that around, that is public. It’s like, “I want you to see me with ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ so you’ll know I’m a heavy person.” Or, you go to somebody’s guest house and there’s a book there. How would you encounter that otherwise?
15. FM: What do you do for fun?
IAF: I fish. I’ve fished my whole life. That’s one thing I do. I also like to look at the stars. I also walk a lot: I like to explore. I just walk about and look at stuff.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: Nov. 11
An earlier version of this article switched the order of two phrases in a response by writer Ian A. Frazier ’73 to a question about his literary influences.