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“Comedy writer. Pig owner. Father of 4 girls ages 10 and under. Internet famous. Real-life nobody.”
James Breakwell, aka Exploding Unicorn, is known for his comical Tweets and parenting books. I recently had the opportunity to interview him about his latest book, How to Be a Man (Whatever That Means): Lessons in Modern Masculinity from a Questionable Source, which will be released in June 2021 and can be preordered now. Signed copies are available from Main Street Books.
Here’s the interview!
How to Be a Man (Whatever That Means)
Alyssa: Your new book seems pretty different from your other writing, which mainly focuses on parenting and family life (and pet pigs). What made you decide to write this book?
James: Most of my humor is very much in the moment. I write about the funny things that happened that day or that week, mainly involving my kids. Fortunately (or unfortunately), there are always enough current disasters to keep me going. But I’ve built up a lifetime of funny stories from before I became a dad and joined social media. This is my opportunity to go back and share the material I never had a chance to tweet about.
How did writing these stories differ from your usual writing about your family? Was it easier or more difficult? Was the writing process different?
The main difference this time was there were other points of view. When I write my newsletter, you only get the story from my perspective. This time, though, I reached out to the other people involved in these misadventures to make sure I didn’t forget any details. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to fact-checking anything I’ve written. The truth is exhausting. I wouldn’t recommend it.
On social media and in your newsletter, you’ve told the story of giving your brother a well-dressed taxidermy bear as a wedding gift. Is that story in the book? How do other stories in the book compare to the craziness of the bear saga?
The bear story isn’t in this book. Someday, I think it deserves a book of its own. And possibly a prestige series on HBO. Watch out, Game of Thrones. There are, however, several stories that outdo the bear story in terms of sheer craziness. The gnome incident comes to mind. Any time your crime wave makes the front page of the paper, you know you’re in for a good time. Followed by a very, very bad one.
What challenges did you face writing this book?
It was hard to figure out just how much to reveal about myself. There’s one section in particular where I display some real vulnerability and talk about the hardest time in my life. It’s the first serious chapter I’ve ever written. I was on the fence about including it, but in the end, I’m glad I left it in.
What was your favorite thing about writing this book?
Reconnecting with all the people from my past was great, especially my former college roommates from the lawn gnome story. It gets funnier every time we collectively retell it. That’s one of the perks of a bad memory. Tall tales just keep getting taller.
Writing and Publishing
What are some of your favorite books? What is the last book you read?
I listen to audiobooks all the time, usually at triple speed while doing some other mindless task. Last year, I finished about two hundred of them. Apparently most of my life is mindless. Hurray for the drudgeries of parenting. This is a very roundabout way of saying that I almost never READ books, but I’ll listen to just about anything. The last book I finished was a biography of Rasputin. My all-time favorite book is Catch-22.
I’ve heard so many different writing methods that authors use, from outlining down to the last detail and scheduling writing time to jotting notes on scraps of paper throughout the day and typing it all up when there’s time. What is your preferred writing method or routine (or lack thereof)?
I do all my first drafts as voice-to-text. I just talk into my computer or phone. That’s even how I answered these interview questions. The blank page is terrifying, but if I just close my eyes and talk, I can fill up that white space in no time. Then I go back through and edit that first draft with a keyboard. That’s the pass that takes the most time. Next, I go through again for a second, much quicker readthrough before I switch to a text-to-voice app that reads my writing back to me (at triple speed, of course). I whip through the draft again and again, listening for anything that sticks out and needs to be changed. If I had to write the old-fashioned way, my comedy career would instantly come to an end.
Most of your writing is non-fiction (or at least based on reality). Do you ever write fiction, either to publish someday or just for fun? If so, what genres do you like to write?
Yes! I actually have a science fiction book coming out next year with Rebellion books. It’s the story of the last twenty-two humans in existence, all children trapped on a decaying moon base in a distant solar system. They’re being trained by dysfunctional robots to colonize a planet and save both digital and organic life, but there are complications. Like hostile kangaroos. And swords. And potatoes with teeth. I can’t wait for it to come out.
Are you a grammar nerd? What grammar rules or spellings tend to trip you up?
Despite being an English major, I’m the exact opposite of a grammar nerd. The point of language is to convey meaning. That’s it. Arbitrary grammar rules just get in the way. Often, the best way to communicate exactly what you want, especially in humor, is to break with what many would consider the proper way to speak. Most of the things people think of as “rules” aren’t really rules at all. There is no pope of English. Nothing you write is a sin. Well, nothing YOU write. Some of my stuff is definitely sinful.
What’s your favorite weird thing about the English language?
I don’t enjoy the weirder parts of English. They just lead to more things I have to remember when writing. While I do take many liberties with grammar, for the most part I stick to traditional patterns so I don’t have a million people message me that I made a mistake. For simplicity, assume any error you see me commit is a deliberate creative decision—even though it definitely wasn’t.
Did you always want to go the traditional publishing route, or did you also consider self-publishing? What has your publishing experience been like?
I decided early on that I wanted to go the traditional route, but in an untraditional way. Most people write a book and send out query letters to agents and publishers before they have any readers. I built up the audience first and had agents and publishers come to me. I wrote a book as the last step. I did everything backwards. At least I’m consistent.
What was something that surprised you about writing and publishing a book?
Promoting a book is far more work than actually writing one. And it never ends. I’ll still be pushing book sales on my deathbed.
What does your family think of your writing?
They’re very supportive. If they hadn’t been, I wouldn’t have made it this far. My wife knew way back in college that this is what I planned to do. If she didn’t want someone turning everything about our lives into a joke, she would have married a med student.
What is the best advice or feedback you’ve gotten on your writing? What is the worst?
The best advice I’ve ever stumbled across was to write the book you want to read. When I’m writing, if a section bores me, I cut it without a second thought. If I don’t like it, nobody else will either. I have to find some other way to get my point across. The worst advice I’ve ever seen was that fellow authors are your competition. I view other writers as my greatest allies, especially when promoting a book. Favors make the world go round.
Questions from My Followers
How long does it take to craft a joke?
It depends. The best tweets come together in just a few seconds. The more I have to tinker with something, the worse it gets. Jokes are a lot like ground beef. If you handle them too much, they just fall apart. I’m probably the only person who gets that analogy. I eat way too much meat.
How did you get involved in comedy writing and become successful?
I had some downtime at the end of a high school computer literacy class, so I did what any normal sophomore would do and started writing a fake book of the Bible. I emailed some passages to a few friends in class, and I saw them laugh. I was instantly hooked. Forget meth. Comedy is the most dangerous drug. As for becoming “successful” at comedy, that took time and effort. Like, embarrassing amounts of both. I started writing comedy articles for my college newspaper, got into journalism, got out of journalism, wrote a blog, abandoned the blog, and, ultimately, won at Twitter. There was some overlap between those stages, but that’s the general outline. I go into it in full, glorious detail in one of the last chapters of the book. You should really buy that thing. Not sure if I’ve mentioned that yet.
What’s the last thing you did for the first time?
I made homemade whipped cream. I put it in a bowl that was too small. It splattered everywhere. My kitchen looked like I blew up the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. My wife was less than thrilled.
What is a controversial opinion you have?
This one is straight from the book: Men should put their wallets in their front pockets instead of their back ones. There are a million reasons guys should make the switch, which is exactly why they’ll never do it. Men are the opposite of logic.
What is something that really annoys you but doesn’t bother most people?
I have an irrational loathing for fake drawers. If there’s a handle on something, it better open. I hate it when furniture lies to me.
Who has most influenced the goals in your life?
One of my earliest inspirations was Dave Barry. His success convinced me that comedy writing was a sane career choice. That was definitely the wrong conclusion to draw. Thanks for ruining my life, Dave.
In your opinion, what is your best joke?
I don’t think I’ll ever have just one “best” joke. If I ever write the best joke ever, then the rest of my writing career will be downhill from there. I mean, it could be headed that way anyway, but I’d rather not have such a clear jumping off point to start the decline. With that being said, here’s my top tweet of all time, at least as measured by likes and retweets.
Who are your comedy idols?
Besides Dave Barry, I look up to anyone who can make a living solely through comedy because it’s really tough out there. Most of us are just giving away our content for free. It turns out that’s a bad business model if you want to do extravagant things like afford groceries.
Is there something that happened to one of your kids that was really scary at the time but now is a funny story?
That covers pretty much any time they get hurt. After the panic subsides and I clean up all the blood, I think to myself, “How did they even do that?” It’s always a good story. Thanks for the career, kids.
What are your favorite and least favorite things about living in the Midwest?
My least favorite thing is the cold. It always comes back when you think it’s gone. Last week, after days of 70-degree weather, the temperature dropped by 40 degrees and it snowed. It killed all the blossoms in my apple tree and crushed all the landscaping I was doing. This place is the worst. And also the best. I love that it’s full of hearty, down-to-earth people who can withstand those kinds of extremes. I’ll never leave.
Thanks for reading the interview! You can preorder How to Be a Man (Whatever That Means). Check out Breakwell’s other books too!
- How to Save Your Child from Ostrich Attacks, Accidental Time Travel, and Anything Else that Might Happen on an Average Tuesday
- Bare Minimum Parenting: The Ultimate Guide to Not Quite Ruining Your Child
- Only Dead on the Inside: A Parent’s Guide to Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse
- Prance Like No One’s Watching: A Guided Journal for Exploding Unicorns