Drew Perry, author of the new novel Kids These Days, says Dave Barry’s Sunday columns were required reading in his household for years. “We’d fight for the paper,” he says. “We’d read them out loud. Then we’d read them again.” But it wasn’t until later on, after Perry started writing novels, that he recognized what was truly great about Barry’s writing.“Sure, he’s funny,” Perry says. “But it’s never just that. He’s never after just the joke. Look at Insane City. It’s hilarious, cover to cover, but it’s also full of heart, full of what makes us human. Barry’s a genius at getting you laughing so hard you don’t notice he’s sneaking up on you, about to tell you something capital-T true.” Barry admires Kids These Days, too, calling it “sweet, soulful, smart, and funny as hell.” Below, Perry and Barry talk writing, Florida, fatherhood, and comedy.
We’re both fathers. Being a father is completely terrifying. Your main character, Walter, is terrified of becoming a father. How much of Kids These Days is autobiographical?
I started writing the novel when my wife was pregnant with our first child, and this would come up at parties—the What’s the book about? thing—and I’d say, “It’s about a man who’s agreed to have a baby without agreeing to want to have a baby.” Everybody would pretend that was hilarious and then sneak away and leave me to find new ways to apologize to my wife, who was three or four or eight months pregnant and unhappily sipping club soda. But that’s what I was interested in at the time: I always write toward what I’m afraid of, and I was desperately afraid of having the kid we were having.
The novel’s bigger than my little world, because that’s what I think fiction might be for, so I didn’t light my life on fire and move the family to Florida, and I’ve never accidentally gone to work for a small-time crime boss, at least that I know of. The fear thing, though, belongs either entirely to me, or mostly to me. And I fear I’m like Walter, or that on some days I’m like him—he can be not so great at being in the world. He’s his own man, for sure, but I know him because I lived his inner life for a while. I’m still living it, really. I keep waking up and still being a father. It turns out being afraid of the idea of your kids—or of your actual kids—might never really go away.
So much of the novel is really funny, but it’s about a lot of things that don’t at first seem like they’d be good fodder for humor—a difficult pregnancy, marriages on the rocks, teenage runaways, characters landing in jail. How do you negotiate the space between what’s funny and what’s not? Why do you think humor works for a book like this?
I’m really interested in the places where tragedy becomes comedy, and vice versa. I think the lines between those two can be almost nonexistent—comedy often happens right alongside tragedy, or simultaneous to it. With it? Look: that sentence is either tragic or comic. Or both.
But the space between what’s funny and not can be really hard, and I’m all the time wondering, Does this joke work here? Is this even a joke? Is there anything funny about obstetrics? Because if you miss, you’re doomed—the whole enterprise collapses around you. But if you hit—if you can find the places where the characters are as likely to laugh as they are to cry, where the moment has overwhelmed them to the point where any emotional response is the right one, where no one’s really sure what’s going to happen next—then things are going well. Everything feels more alive for me in those moments. And often enough—though not always—those moments are funny, if only in some strange, tiny way.
The relationship between Walter and his fifteen-year-old niece, Delton, was really surprising. She almost seems like the center of the book. What made you want to write her?
I love her. She was one of my favorite characters to write. She’s fifteen going on thirty-one going on eleven. She’s a mess. She thinks she’s smarter than everybody else, and in ways, she is. She’s a kind of dented moral compass. She’s also a full-on teenage badass. She understands the world a little more completely than anyone else in the book. She becomes Walter’s guardian angel, sort of, even while he’s realizing that he needs to become hers. And she’s the future coming to visit him: Here’s what it looks like to have a kid. Here’s the best you can hope for, and it’s a complete disaster—except for when it isn’t.
Florida can be like a whole other universe. I know why I set my books there, but why did you choose Florida for this one?
I’ve vacationed at an excellent tiny beach south of St. Augustine—where Kids These Days is set—for more than thirty years, so that’s a landscape I know pretty well. But I’m not sure this book is about Florida so much as it is about beach towns, or beach towns of a certain vintage: The right half-shabby beach town, whether in Florida or elsewhere, is—you’re right—like another country, or another dimension. Where else in the world are the four most important things ice, swimsuits, gasoline, and beer? (Actually, maybe everywhere. Maybe those are the four most important things everywhere.)
A beach town has a strange feel of permanent vacation about it, and I’ve spent time worrying about what that might be like for the folks who live there. Paradise might be exhausting. Or overwhelming. As in We must! Have fun! Right now! I set this book there because Walter feels like he’s been dropped onto another planet, one that’s strange but familiar all at once, and good beach towns have always felt that way to me.
Also, if you set it there, you get to have yellow Camaros and pirates and flying men and secret agents and roadside shrimp, and I love those things.
Kids These Days is about some everyday things—making a marriage work, learning to grow up—but it feels like it’s also about big things, too. Maybe it’s sneaky big?
I hope it is. Or I hope everyday things are big things. This whole question of how to build a life for yourself, or rebuild one, and how to bring another life into that life—those feel like big things to me. But maybe “sneaky big” is right: The big existential questions never feel that way in the moment. In the moment, you’re just standing in line at the grocery store thinking, God, I hope she still believes in me enough to think being married to me is a good idea. Or How could she think I’d make a good dad? I can’t even make a good sandwich. Or How did we ever, ever land here? That last one’s both immediate and existential, I guess.