Rhoda Janzen is a serious poet, a Ph.D., poet laureate -- twice! -- of the University of California. She also happens to have an uproarious, bawdy sense of humor, great comedic timing and what in her hands seems to be a wacky life. "Mennonite in a Little Black Dress," her funny-serious 2010 memoir about going home after loss and disappointment, hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list and stayed there for weeks.
Her second memoir, "Does This Church Make Me Look Fat?," has just been published by Grand Central, and it's just as funny, and just as serious. Early in the book, right around the time she starts exploring the Pentecostal church ("This group was shaking their thang and waving sparkler pom-poms"), she discovers that she has a virulent form of breast cancer. The doctors find a tumor, she says, the size of Chad, "sprawling across the Sahara of my chest."
Serious, yes. And yet -- funny.
Janzen will read from her new book at the University of Minnesota Bookstore at 4 p.m. Wednesday.
Here, she talks about her unusual writing apparel, her thoughts on Justin Timberlake and how she feels about her Mennonite mother reading her raunchy prose.
Q Your book deals with very serious topics -- breast cancer and religious faith -- and yet it's laugh-out-loud funny. Why did you choose a humorous tone for such serious issues?
A It's weird that when people begin to talk about faith or cancer, they get all deadpan serious. Don't we trivialize the gift of humor if we limit it to popcorn and stand-up? Humor is a tool to help us deal with challenging situations. And if it checks our poor-me impulse, so much the better!
Q How is your health now?
A Fantastic. Though I've got to say: Nobody mentions the scars. Those suckers cross your chest like the Oregon Trail.
Q Do your parents read your books? Is it hard to write about how you and your husband can't keep your hands off each other when you know that serious Mennonites will be reading those words?
A My folks do read my books before they go to print. I'd like to think that even serious Mennonites once experienced the gotta-grab-you passion. Mennonite babies keep appearing, so somebody's getting busy!
Q Describe your writing room (at home in Holland, Mich.).
A Cozy knotty pine, bookshelves floor to ceiling.
Q What is your writing strategy -- do you have rituals that you maintain?
A It helps to wear your husband's ginormous T-shirt and your sister's rejected yoga pantlet.
Q How do you get past writer's block (or the distraction of the Internet)?
A Sustained cardio jump-starts you with an intense 45-minute burst of maximum creativity. Once you're writing like a banshee, it's easy to keep going. I secretly believe there's no such thing as writer's block -- only people who refuse to exercise. Also, we gave our TV the heave-ho. This trained me to decline Internet distractions regarding the life and times of Justin "Trousersnake" Timberlake.
Q Do you have a favorite book from childhood?
A The "Anne of Green Gables" books, by L.M. Montgomery.
Q What books do you re-read?
A Those I teach, or those that teach me.
Q What's on your desk?
A Cat, coffee, computer, picture of my hubby and a 1925 Whitman Sampler tin that my mother used to keep bobbins in.
Q Where are you right now? Describe what you see.
A My desk looks out on the garden, still bright with raspberries and tomatoes. The corn is done, but if I do say so, I make one helluva bean tepee.
Q What are you reading right now?
A St. Teresa of Avila. Oh, and the new In Style.
Q What's been the best place so far to do a reading?
A Wherever readers are asking thoughtful questions.
Q Which authors have inspired you?
A Henry James, Willa Cather, Ivan Turgenev and the dude who wrote Leviticus. Dang it, if the Bible can bust out a long nitpicky list of rules, we can all feel better about organizing our closet with neurotic precision.
Laurie Hertzel • 612-673-7302. Twitter: @stribbooks