Our guest of honour today is a wonderful British writer guaranteed to keep you chortling - Kate Johnson, aka Cat Marsters. Welcome, Kate!
“Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then for the love of God, tell a joke.” That’s how Joss Whedon describes his style of writing, and it’s something I wholeheartedly agree with. I’m horribly mean to my characters, getting them shot and stabbed and beaten up and quite often so painfully heartbroken it makes me weep to write it—but that doesn’t stop me cracking jokes about it.
Of course, it could just be that I’ve got a warped sense of humour.
It’s quite a natural reaction to make jokes in the face of danger and pain. Gallows humour, I suppose. You leaven the situation and try to make it a bit less awful. Remind yourself that there’s always something to laugh about. JK Rowling knows this, which is why her terrifying Boggarts are defeated by laughter. Satirists know this, which is why news panel shows are always making fun of terrorists and dire economic situations. It’s harder to be afraid when you can think of something silly. As that incredibly wise soul Roger Rabbit put it, “Sometimes in life, it’s the only weapon we have.”
Take my current WIP, Run Rabbit Run. When my hero, Luke, is informed that his trouble-magnet girlfriend Sophie has been accused of murder and subsequently disappeared, he replies dryly, “Must be a Tuesday.” On discovering his flat has been broken into and everything searched and conspicuously tidied, he remarks, “I really must get searched by MI5 more often. They’re excellent housekeepers.”
Some people call it flippancy. Well, Luke does, and it pleases him no end. His superiors, of course, are less than pleased with his jokes in the face of bad news. He doesn’t earn any points with his boss for replying to the news that he’s being suspended on full pay with, “Great. I’ll make a start on my Christmas shopping.” But by then he doesn’t really care.
As I mentioned before, this is something my favourite screenwriter, Joss Whedon, knows very well. When Buffy and her friends are told they’re facing apocalypse, they reply in dismay, “Again?” Preparing for a fight that might kill them all, they stand around discussing arrangements for a shopping trip. And it’s not just the prospect of death that moves the Scooby Gang to flippancy. At the end of one of the most moving declarations of love I’ve ever heard in the episode Chosen, Spike tells Buffy she’s ‘the one’.
“I don’t want to be the one,” she replies.
“I don’t want to be this good-looking and athletic,” he replies. “We all have our crosses to bear.”
I’ve been told by my editor that when she read my erotic fantasy epic, Mad Bad & Dangerous, in which various of my characters are beaten, starved, burnt and flogged, and which ends with a huge battle nearly killing one of my protagonists, that she ‘laughed like a loon at every page.’ She assured me it wasn’t at the terrible quality of my writing (she really did) but at the flamboyant humour of characters in grave situations. On being told his girlfriend is causing a breach of the peace, my hero Bael cheerfully replies, “Kett is a breach of the peace.”
And so we come to my latest release, a book set in a nightmarish parallel world full of mud and blood and empty of all hope. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still make a joke of things. There might not be any food, the army might be running out of munitions, the enemy might be bigger and stronger and harder. But there’s one thing my guys have got on their side: they at least still remember how to laugh.
Excerpt from The Untied Kingdom by Kate Johnson, available now from Choc Lit in ebook and paperback. ISBN: 9781906931681. Buy link: http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/book/9781906931681/The-Untied-Kingdom?b=-3&t=-20#Fulldescription-20
‘Sir! Sir, are you all right?’
That was Tallulah. Grimly, Harker dropped to the stony shore under the Tower’s walls and let the body over his shoulder flop on the pebbles.
‘I’m all right,’ he said. ‘Get a doctor, would you?’
She peered closer at the limp body. ‘Is it – is it a person? Is it alive?’
Harker, busy performing mouth-to-mouth and trying not to think about what the drowned woman would be coughing up if she was still alive, didn’t bother to answer. In the background, people were shouting. The guards on the walls had seen him dive into the river and come out with some sort of bedraggled alien.
Well, it wasn’t an alien, Harker was pretty sure. It was a human woman, and she – yes, there she went, coughing up river water through blue lips.
He rolled on to his back and fought the urge to throw up. Who knew what he’d ingested in the Thames’ foetid depths?
People were streaming out of the South Gate now, and a guy with a stethoscope flung over his pyjamas was kneeling by the unconscious woman.
‘She all right?’ Harker said, and the doctor nodded.
‘I think so. We need to get her inside. Can I get a stretcher?’
‘Dunno,’ Harker said, mostly to himself. ‘Can you?’ Patting his pockets, he found his cigarettes – a soggy, unsmokable mess. Dammit. Well, if he couldn’t have a quiet smoke, he’d have a quiet nap instead.
He lay back, closed his eyes, and tried to block out all the noise and the light. It was a trick he’d perfected after years on campaign. These days he could sleep anywhere, any time.
Then a foot prodded his ribs, and he opened one eye, grumpily.
‘Well, then, hero,’ Saskia said, her face demonic in the torchlight. ‘I suppose you’ll be needing medical attention, too?’
Harker waved a hand. Truth be told, he was so wet and cold he was beginning to worry about his extremities. ‘Get me a packet of smokes and I’ll survive,’ he said.
‘I think we can run to that.’ Saskia extended a hand. ‘Come on. Wheeler wants to see you.’
Harker groaned. ‘Why? What’d I do?’
Saskia just glared at him.
‘Oh, right.’ Ignoring her hand, he hauled himself upright. ‘Let’s go and face the fun, then.’
Dripping wet, he squelched through the gate after Saskia and gave the guard there a damp salute.
‘Sir, is it true you pulled an alien from the river?’
Harker rolled his eyes at Saskia. ‘Yep. Blue skin, it had, and one giant wing.’
The young man’s eyes were enormous. ‘Gosh!’
‘That wasn’t necessary,’ Saskia said, as they made their way to the General’s quarters next to the mess.
‘Yeah, but it was fun,’ Harker said, looking back at the trail of puddles behind him. A slight commotion at the gates heralded the stretcher, complete with blue-skinned alien, but sadly minus any wings.
‘You never take anything seriously, Harker,’ Saskia said, stepping out of the way of a guard patrol on their way past the White Tower.
‘Nope,’ he said, knowing it infuriated her when he didn’t rise to the bait.
‘That’s probably why you’re still only a major,’ she said, which was an unusually low blow. Harker wondered what he’d done, specifically, today, to make her so angry.
‘Probably,’ he said, and grinned in the gloom as her scowl intensified.
General Wheeler’s office was attached to her quarters in Martin Tower. When the army had moved in, rooms were offered in the Lieutenant’s Lodgings and the White Tower, but General Wheeler had been keen to make the point that the army was not here to stay, and so had taken up temporary lodgings in one of the more luxurious towers.
Harker privately considered that five years was a pretty rubbish sort of temporary, but hadn’t seen any point in saying so.
He dripped up the worn stone stairs to her office, and stood at attention.
‘Ah, Major,’ the General said. ‘At ease. Do take a seat.’
Harker, contrary to his bones, remained standing. Saskia, looking thunderous, sat down. General Wheeler finished writing whatever terribly important document she’d been working on, and set it aside. Her pale blue eyes fixed on Harker like a searchlight.
‘And how is our alien?’
How does she know? Harker wondered. It happened five minutes ago. ‘Still breathing, sir, although not knowing much about aliens I’m not sure if that’s healthy or not.’
‘I really don’t think–’ Saskia began.
‘One eyewitness reports that it was, in fact, a dragon,’ Wheeler said, glancing at a document.
‘No, sir. Not enough wings,’ Harker said, beginning to enjoy himself. ‘Or scales.’
‘Really?’ Saskia snapped. ‘And how many dragons do you know?’
Oh, come on, she’s giving you that one. Harker paused for a delicious second, avoiding Wheeler’s gaze, then said, ‘Oh, a few, Colonel. A few.’
Saskia made a growling noise in the back of her throat.
‘Of course, several watchers thought it was merely a large bird,’ Wheeler said, ignoring this.
‘Still not enough wings, sir, and too many appendages of the arm variety.’
‘But you have no argument with the hypothesis that it may be an alien?’
‘No sir. Happy with that, sir.’
‘And this is because …?’
‘Blue skin, sir,’ Harker said promptly, while Saskia made a noise of impatience. ‘Not a natural colour among humans, sir.’
‘Of course not,’ Wheeler said. She scanned another document – Harker was under the belief she kept a few lying around to make you think she had notes on everything – and added, ‘Unless said human has been in a freezing river.’
‘Werrl,’ Harker said expansively, ‘if we’re going to look at it that way …’
‘Oh, don’t be ridiculous,’ Saskia exploded. ‘It was clearly a human being in one of those flying machines.’
‘An aeroplane?’ Wheeler said.
‘No sir,’ Harker said. ‘I think it was a glider, sir.’
‘You think, Major? And what do you know on the subject of aeronautics?’
Absolutely nothing, but he’d been listening idly in the mess the other day while a couple of engineers discussed the topic eagerly. If only for want of money, they’d moaned, we could be flying in the air, and that’d show the Coalitionists who was boss! Harker had smiled and declined to comment, because personally he figured that flying in the air would just give the Coalitionists something else to aim at.
‘Unfortunately, sir, it’s impossible to be certain,’ he said. ‘Reason being, that flying apparatus is now at the bottom of the river.’
‘And why is that?’
‘Had to cut it off her, sir. Current had hold of it.’
‘So it’s a female alien then, is it?’ Saskia said sourly.
‘Indeed it is,’ Harker said, smiling at her.
‘Harker, please stop being so silly. You saw her closer than anyone else, you know she’s a human being–’
‘Who fell out of the sky in a country where the only thing coming from the clouds is rain,’ Harker said. ‘Makes her a pretty foreign body in my book. Sir.’
She scowled at the ‘sir’.
‘An illegal alien, Harker?’ Wheeler said.
‘Well, I dunno if flying is exactly illegal in this country, sir,’ Harker said. ‘So far as I know, we ain’t never arrested a bird for it, but I don’t expect we allow people to go around doing it, either.’
‘We do have pilots, Harker,’ Saskia said reprovingly.
‘Either of ’em missing, sir?’
General Wheeler gave a faint smile. ‘Not to my knowledge,’ she said, and Harker knew that if Wheeler didn’t know something, then it wasn’t knowable. ‘Well, then, Major Harker. It seems clear to me that what we have is no more than an aeronaut blown off course. Naturally,’ she went on, before Saskia had even opened her mouth to object, ‘since we have very little in the way of an aviation industry, I expect you to investigate where she came from and why. It is entirely possible that she is a spy.
‘Yes, sir,’ Saskia said eagerly. ‘I can conduct the investigation–’
‘Colonel, you have much more important things to do,’ said Wheeler. ‘This is clearly a matter for the good people at St James.’ She let her searchbeam gaze settle on Harker, who shifted damply and sighed. St James. Hell.
‘I’ll see to it in the morning, sir,’ he said.
‘Do,’ Wheeler said, turning her attention back to her desk in that way Saskia had begin emulating. ‘Do.’
Buy link: http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/book/9781906931681/The-Untied-Kingdom
Kate Johnson lives in rural Essex where she belongs to a pride of cats and puts up with a demon puppy. She has done a variety of not-particularly great jobs, ranging from airport check-in to lab assistant, but much prefers writing for a living. For one thing, the hours are better, and no one ever tells her off for not ironing her shirt. In fact, the lack of ironing might be the single greatest advantage to being an author. Kate loves going off at mad tangents, which you’d surely never have guessed, but also enjoys reading romance and fantasy, watching funny stuff on TV, drinking coffee by the gallon and occasionally leaving the house. The Untied Kingdom is her first novel to be published in the UK.
Today, Kate is giving away a signed copy of The United Kingdom to one lucky reader who comments with their favourite example of black humour, or who comments on her post in some other way. The contest will close at midnight tonight and the winner will be annoucned on this thread tomorrow.