For Virginia author and JMU professor Inman Majors, comedy is one way he deals with the serious world around him. The New York Post calls his latest novel, Penelope Lemon; Game On! “hilarious” and Booklist says it’s a “laugh out loud” read.
The book’s small town main character finds herself, at forty, divorced, living with her mother, broke and desperate for work. Inman is WMRA's featured author in March 2019 for Books & Brews. He spoke with WMRA’s Chris Boros.
WMRA: How were you inspired to create the Penelope Lemon character?
Inman Majors: I think the reason I got interested in writing about her is that I spent half my life in small towns. And in these small towns I noticed all these – often women – working a job like a bank teller and she was the sharpest person in the bank, she should be running the bank. For whatever reason she has not climbed as high up the social ladder as she’s capable of doing. And I didn’t think that person was being represented very much in fiction. I wanted to portray somebody who’s sharp, maybe made a few mistakes along the way but still has a lot going on and is interesting, smart, and worth being read.
WMRA: Was there a real person in your life that was inspiration for the character?
Majors: My mom was a high school teacher and on Fridays sometimes she and her friends from the neighborhood would get together – most of these women worked. And they would kind of cut loose in ways they wouldn’t normally do so I would come in to get a popsicle or something and I sort of lingered to try to hear what they were saying. When I was older, our place is where a lot of the women would gather and sort of do the same thing. My office was right next to them and they would tell funny stories and some of these women were divorced and some were just getting back into the dating game. And so the idea of online dating and being single at forty just seemed ripe for comedy.
WMRA: And you are all about comedy. Most of your books are comedies, right?
Majors: Well for a while I was alternating. My first was serious, then I did a comedy. Then I did a big serious book The Millionaires. And then the last two have been comedies and I found out last week that they’re going to do the sequel to Penelope Lemon as well so the sequel will be out next spring. So now it will be four comedies and two serious ones.
WMRA: So why comedies?
Majors: It’s fun to write. I teach a comedy writing class and I tell my students you should always be trying to make yourself laugh. So I’ll be in my office and my wife and kids will say “Dad’s making himself laugh again.” About four years ago I started a serious book and I had an extended illness and when I got better I didn’t feel like writing something serious. I wanted to write something light and goofy. This is the lightest book I’ve written. I needed a break from the world so when I’m writing comedy I can just check out for a few hours and just have fun.
WMRA: When did you get the writing bug? Were you a kid writing short stories or did it come later?
Majors: It definitely came later – I always liked to read. And I remember being surprised when my 8th grade English teacher gave me an award about being a good writer. I had no idea what she was talking about. I just wanted to play basketball. So that kind of planted the seed. And then my senior year in high school I read A Death in the Family which was set in Knoxville. Being a writer seemed so fancy and so highfalutin, it didn’t dawn on me that someone living in suburban Knoxville would have anything to write about. And then here was this book set in Knoxville and it was really moving to me and really beautiful. So it dawned on me that you can be from Knoxville and write about Knoxville, or wherever you’re from, it didn’t have to be London or New York or someplace exotic. And so I started to think about it then but I just didn’t know how to do it. And I knew if I got a real job I couldn’t be a writer so I just avoided a real job until I figured out how to get to grad school.
WMRA: And you do have a real job. You’re a professor at James Madison University teaching creative writing. What is the best advice that you give your students?
Majors: Don’t observe the character – become the character.
WMRA: As a writer, are you constantly thinking about new stories you want to tell and does it ever get overwhelming?
Majors: No, knock on wood, I’ve been lucky. My books have come to me one at a time. I’ve never stared a book and not finished it. And so far I’ve sold them too but there’s no guarantee of that.
WMRA: It’s surprising to hear you say you’ve never not finished a book. A lot of people have novels in us but we write 10 pages and never go back to it. Why didn’t that happen to you?
Majors: When I’m not writing, I don’t write. So I just trust myself. Mark Twain talked about giving the creative well time to fill back up. Sometimes he wrote books too quickly and he said “I didn’t give the well enough time to fill back up.” I kind of trust my body will tell me, my mind will tell me, when it’s time. And when it’s not time, I can go many months without writing at all. But when I commit, I’m in, I’m going to finish it come hell or high water. I do know this: I don’t want to write a book that doesn’t get read. If I write it, I want someone to read it – the more the better. I can’t make a career out of my writing, I have to have a day job at JMU.
WMRA: Well let’s pretend this book blows up.
Majors: Bye bye, JMU. (Laughs). See ya later. Wouldn’t want to be ya.
WMRA: Well you answered that question.
Majors: Well I've thought about it a lot.