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The Guy Who Never Grew Up

An Interview with Steve White

by Joyce Dixon

Steve White on his book tour with Wally (white terrier) and Chloe (black scottie) in the classic wagon.
 
 

 

There's a lot to be said for not growing up.  I'm not talking about the Peter Pan Syndrome, because Steve White has dealt with life's tragedies in a very grown up fashion.  What I am talking about is hanging on to boyish charm, creative spirit, fearlessness, and a sense of fun.  Steve White takes the most mundane items and turns them into moments of hilarity. His memoir Family Vacations & Other Hazards of Growing Up is "Leave it to Beaver" meets "The Wonder Years".

Steve White splits his times between advertising and writing projects. He is an independent contractor, who has built quite a reputation.  His advertising campaigns for Pro Skate Shop, Pratt Corporation, the Indiana State Fair, Hoosier Lottery and FUZE Design have won Addy Awards. His own site FamilyV.com won a Gold Addy Award and the Judges' Award. 

He has also done successful campaigns for philanthropic organizations.  White created a record-setting United Way television/radio campaign, which raised $32,000,000 ($250K over goal).  His print campaign for the Governor's Council on Drunk Driving was awarded the Citation of Excellence.  Literacy is an important issue for him.  He has been a literacy volunteer, and while on his book tour, encourages others to become involved.

Steve White was born in Knoxville, Tennessee and lived a time in Memphis, before his family settled in Kansas City, Missouri when he was six.   Steve was lucky to have parents who encouraged creativity and nonsense.  Being allowed to let his imagination flow, with the drive of his late wife Jennifer, has made Steve White a writer to watch.

 

You seem to find humor in every situation.  I have never laughed so hard reading the copyright/legal page of a book.  Is it hard for you to be serious, or do you naturally see everything from the funny side? 

-- First, thanks for laughing at the copyright page. I put that stuff there as a little reward for folks who venture so close to what is usually boredom. Yes, I try to find the humor in life where possible. Even dark humor -- I sometimes call myself a widower just to see how people react. It's kind of hard for them to laugh, because they're really laughing at me, at my situation. But I try to show them that I can have a sense of humor about it, too, as tragic as it is. And widower is such an old term, it's kind of lost in modern language. No, it's not hard for me to be serious when I need to be. But again, I do try to find a smile where I can. 

In your book, it is clear that your sense of humor is a trait from your mother.  Besides plastic ants in the food, what did she do to set you on this twisted course? 

Ha, yeah, I get a lot of humor from my mom. My dad can be funny, too, but my mom has the Goof License. It's really fun to watch her (and join her) in messing with really serious people. Her sister, my Aunt Connie who is also in the book, in the story about where my mom asks her "Does he have hair under his arms yet?" -- my Aunt Connie is the type of person who always blushes at these types of questions. They're not even about her, but they make her blush, so it's just a lot of fun to watch that or simply watch her wheels turn (and spin) as she tries to decipher whatever practical joke we're playing. It's also fun because I see a lot of my dear grandmother in Connie's expressions of "Ohhh -- you guys!"  -- my grandmother is also in the book's dedication along with my wife.

Regarding what else my mom did besides the plastic ants, that one essay sums it up pretty well...the race-car noises, the cheerleading, the Shel Silverstein books, giving my dad a breath mint meant for dogs and watching his mouth get all frothy (okay, that wasn't in the book but may be in my next one), the Oreo sickness (see Vacation Aggravation), and just her everyday humor. She's about the most disorganized person I know next to myself, but she is golden.

I have another Aunt, named Debbie, who is also real sharp, a real goofy gal. But even then, there are opportunities. On a recent Kansas City visit from her home in Omaha, Deb left her cell phone at my folks' house. I happened to be there to answer her call (she borrowed my cousin's phone to make the "Have you seen my phone?" call); so my little sister and I were both on the phone there with my mom just chuckling in the background, firing all kinds of inane questions at Deb in a very serious manner.

 

 

The White family in the Disco 70's. Dad in his plaid suit and wide lapels on everyone. Steve is on the left.

Like "Can you please describe the ring tone? What kind of buttons are on the phone?" We had her going on that for like three minutes before she realized we were just being REALLY obnoxious. Turns out the phone was in her purse the whole time, which made it all the more uproarious.

On that note, Deb was married [to my mom's and Aunt Connie's brother], Denny, for nearly 20 years. Besides being close to them from the family connection, Deb and Denny both also have a wacky, witty sense of humor which fortunately has also been inherited (indoctrinated would be closer to the truth in my family) by their two kids. Denny is the kind of person who can walk into a room and make you laugh just by looking at you.

Deb and Denny would visit us when we were kids and leave behind these "Stupid Family" books -- "The Stupids Step Out" was one title. These books are packaged like kids' books, and they are to an extent, but they are also hilarious for adults. One time, my little sister Bree and I walked up the street to visit our parents at their friends' home...wearing socks on our ears. This is something they do in the Stupid series. So you see Deb and Denny were/are another twisted humor influence. Sadly, though, Denny was killed in a car accident seven years ago. But through that, Deb has maintained her humor, as I have through losing my wife. I think losing one's spouse tempers you like steel in fire -- you're stronger as a result or you just fall apart. Either way, you have a challenge -- as my mom wrote to me in a card she gave me last week to mark the second anniversary of Jen's death. That challenge is to live, to continue with your life so that you may honor your lost loved one, so that only one person and not two have died.

It is also not lost on me that Deb and I and the rest of my family are IN the same family, share the same humor and have endured these tragic losses...we are definitely meant to be together, to try to shine our light on each other and outward. It's a soul group kind of thing.

My wife, Jen, also has this wacky sense of humor, or at least an appreciation of that. She was also a speaker and trainer; watching her on stage was like watching live electricity -- she would have an entire room smiling within moments. A lot of her training aids were kids' toys -- bendable monsters, rubber balls, etc. She even made people wear safari hats in one of her last trainings. Whenever something funny happens, I know Jen is there laughing with us.

Tell us about your screenplays.  Are they sitcoms or feature length?

My screenplays are features. Only one is a comedy, and a dark one at that. The other two have some comedic moments, but one is a suspense sci-fi and the other is a historical drama. Yeah, I'm all over the place with my scripts, but I like those other genres, too. I haven't written any sitcoms.

Have you done stand-up or comedy writing?
 

Nope, with one exception: I did co-write and act in a couple of comedic shorts about 15 years ago. One was a Monty Python-esque thing; the other was an Entertainment Tonight kind of send-up. I'm sure they were funny, but only to my friends and I who put them together! But when I speak on my book, I try to throw in some humor, even outside of the reading.

Your wife Jennifer died from a clot following an international flight (The problems with blood circulation and cramped space on long flights are now being addressed).  How did she affect your writing? 

Jen was and is my inspiration, along with a few other close people in my life. She was my sounding board. When I finished an essay -- and I wrote the book an essay at a time, in one essay per sitting -- I'd always have her read it. She'd say, ehh, this doesn't work for me, or this, this is good, etc. Sometimes she would also hear me working. I might be giggling in my office at some story, and she'd go, "Working on your book again? Hurry, I want to read what your writing!"

She also loved the essays where she was a player. She once said, "I think I should be in ALL your essays!"  Of course she was kidding, but it was funny. I had to explain to her that this was a book about growing up, and she didn't come into my picture there until the end of that.

Jen was also instrumental in the book coming to fruition. It took me four or five years to finish writing it -- I did it at night and weekends -- and went through some agent adventures, personal doubt, a million edits, procrastination, the usual writer stuff. One of my big regrets is she didn't get to see it produced (at least while I had her with me in physical form) -- the proofs arrived while she was in the hospital, right before she died. They sat unopened for a few months while I decided if I was going to stick around or not. I chose to go forward with the book and with my life as a tribute to Jen.

Even with the donation of Jenniferís organs, you made it humorous with sending a warning label with the transplants.  The warning label read -- "Watch out: infectious enthusiasm will invade the recipient's body with this transplant."  How is laughter a healing tool for grief? 

Laughter is definitely a great tool for grief; I think the words healing force for grief fit better in my situation because both laughter and love have allowed me to continue with my life. I know that for me -- and this might sound corny but it is just how I feel -- my goal in life is to make other people smile. I feel that is why I was put on this Earth. The more people I make smile, the closer I feel to my wife and to my Creator and to my fellow man/woman. Think about it; when you're having fun, time passes quickly. When you're angry, upset, depressed, the clock does not move. The faster time moves for me, the more fun I can have, the sooner I will be with Jen again. Sometimes I feel selfish (I even feel selfish giving you my outlook on this)  because it's so much fun to make people smile, and if it's so much fun, how can it be good? Well, I just know it must be good to try and brighten someone's day.

One of my favorite stories was where you (age 8) got a chance to be an alter boy and came out in the priest vestments.  Catholic humor is not new, but is there something about the Catholic experience that sets up comic situations?

Thanks, that is also among my favorite essays in the book. I wondered about the Catholic humor thing, it isn't new, but I decided if I can put my own twist on it, it can still be fun. I think everyone can relate to going to church or religious training as a kid and at some point NOT wanting to be there, so I don't know that it's so much a Catholic humor thing as a religious humor thing...people remember the revivals, the Sunday School, the temple, bar-mitzvahs, whatever the religion, organized religion can be overbearing at times -- especially when you're a kid. And everyone knows someone Catholic with crazy stories, or perhaps has been to a Catholic wedding or funeral wherein the non-Catholics try to follow along with the sit-stand-kneel gig.

What are family reunions like?  Do you see the humor cycle continuing in next generation?  Are plastic ants still appearing on the dinner table?

My mom's side of the family gets together en masse at Thanksgiving, and has since before I was born. Today, that makes for about 40 or 50 people. Family reunions are a lot of fun. There is a lot of silliness that goes on; for instance, the past few years have seen dinner-roll vandalism. That is, one of my cousins (and this 40-year-old could have easily written Chapter 5 -- How to be Annoying) buys about a hundred extra rolls and surreptitiously decorates the home of whoever is hosting TG that year -- with the rolls. They find rolls for months afterward. He's going to have to find a new gig, though; people are onto him. He also has two teens who are witness to this activity, but I haven't seen any mischief from them yet. My sister's kids, though, yes, I think they will make fine jokesters if not actual entertainers. The five-year-old, Savannah, insists on performing song and dance numbers at any family and/or public gathering. I think she was in vaudeville in a previous life.

Back to Thanksgiving: we also have deer rides. For that one, my other cousin has this huge house, and she puts these giant reindeer figures in her front hall for Christmas decorations. So a few of us usually ride them like cowboys; we take pictures, too. The ants stay home for Thanksgiving; it's been a while since my mom has gotten them out, but it wouldn't surprise me to see them again. They have kind of been usurped by my little sister's remote control whoopee cushion. Which was banned from her workplace. Yes, Joyce, this is my family.

My other cousin, Chris, or Chrisser as call him...he's my Aunt Connie's son, and he definitely is a carrier of the silly gene and is passing it onto his son, Drew. Tracy, his wife, is also a nut. Chrisser and I have this ongoing gag called the Vollmer Millions. Our grandparents were anything but wealthy; they lived in the same small home for over sixty years in the middle of Omaha. But Chrisser and I always joke about finding clues to where the Vollmer Millions are socked away in that old house (which has now been sold outside of the family).

Steve White in the red t-shirt surrounded by his family celebrating the publication of Family Vacations & Other Hazards of Growing Up.

On your book tour, you are promoting literacy volunteerism.  How did this become a cause for you?  What has the reception been so far?

I've been doing literacy work for about five years now. As a writer, I cannot imagine what my world would be like if I couldn't read. We live in a written-word world. For those who are functionally illiterate, life is a series of compromises. You become totally dependent on luck, survival skills and the kindness of strangers, who aren't always that. The closest comparison I can come to is remembering bits of your Spanish or French language you took in high school -- and then living in a world where all you see are those few words you can recognize. You know those few words, MAYBE, but what about the rest?

Before moving to Kansas City, we lived in Cincy. I worked with three guys there. They were preparing to take their GED exam. All very bright people, ages 17 to 47. Also very nice. And patient with me as I studied the math examples. It was ironic that a writer who abhors math would end up tutoring folks in exactly that. But that was part of the GED.

The gentleman I'm working with right now is named Ken. He's about 65 and didn't go to high school. He started at the first book in the Laubach program three years ago -- that is basically first grade for the adult learner. Today, he's on Book 4 in Laubach and we're halfway through MY book, which is an exciting honor for me. What is also neat about Ken is that he's a kidney transplant recipient. I started working with him about six months before Jen died. I didn't know he was an organ recipient until after Jen died. Didn't know, or at least didn't put it together until he thanked me for donating her organs. It was quite a sight to see a 65-year-old man and a 33-year-old, in tears at the library. Ken is an amazing person. He is the stereotypical man's man, real matter-of-fact. But beneath that is this shiny, sparkling, seasoned soul who frets over his kids' decisions and wants only good for them, no matter how much they frustrate him at times. He also works with kids who are on dialysis at a summer camp every year. And does a lot of volunteering with Alzheimer's patients. And he even likes my book. Wow.

The reception I've gotten has been good, except from my hometown KC Star book critic. He won't review my book, even though I have a lot of events where I speak on literacy and hand out info on how to volunteer. Everyone else I've spoken with has been quite receptive to my literacy push. In each market on my tour, I try to get in with the media via the local literacy push -- I lean on my wagon and talk about how one in 10 drivers can't read road signs, then I give out a local phone number for people to call so they can volunteer or come to the book event to learn more. That's television. Radio is the same, but talk radio is different. Those guys usually try to berate me as if I'm some kind of left-wing lunatic; I get a lot of "No way! You made that up, that 1-in-10 figure!" It can be pretty odd to get that kind of reception, but I always just stay calm and rebut them. I guess it's their job to question anything of social value. Newspaper and print media are a little tougher -- they need a lot of lead time and I haven't been as organized there as I'd like to be. I do get some feature coverage, especially on my literacy efforts.

Besides your mother, who inspired you in writing humor (authors, TV shows, etc.)?

I come from a wacky family, even besides my mom, but outside of that...I grew up reading Lewis Grizzard. I thought he was pretty funny. His articles were the ones my mom used to rip out of the paper and save for me. Jean Shepherd is another writer who inspired me...I didn't read his books until after I had written mine, but he wrote the movie "A Christmas Story" which always enthralled me and still does. I named characters in the book after Grizzard and Shepherd and also mentioned them on the acknowledgments page. Gary Larson (creator of The Far Side cartoon) was also an influence; My mom always had his cartoons on our fridge and of course all his books. I also thank a few of my high school English teachers in the book. Mrs. Berryman and Mrs. Page-Edwards both encouraged me to write, though I certainly wasn't awake enough at the time to realize it.

Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe were also influences in that I love that they take me places I've never been -- and I also strive to do that in this first book, but to the opposite end: taking folks where they've been but have long forgotten. I even aped a little Poe in one of my essays. These guys I also thank on the acknowledgments page, but I only used Jules and Allan to identify them.

To a more subtle degree would be Charles Schulz, Peanuts creator. I also grew up surrounded by all things Schulz, and his observations on life always bring me a smile. Same with Erma Bombeck. My mom always had her books around the house. I can't deny Dave Barry also inspired me. He is a funny guy. Also, Bill Cosby. I grew up listening to his comedy albums from the late '60s...great stuff. I'm sure you could find a little of all these people in my writing.


Selected Sites for Steve White

Steve White Writes and Family Vacations

Steve White Writes Humorous Stories on Everyday Family Life

Laubach Literacy - Be a Literacy Volunteer this summer!



Family Vacations & Other Hazards of Growing Up
by Steve White
Chloe Press, 2001
Trade paper, $14.95 (202 pages)
ISBN:  0-9679092-8-7

    Southern Scribe Review

 

 

The more I read from Steve White about his late wife Jennifer, I realized that she was a muse that visited our world to inspire those she touched with her enthusiasm and motivational drive.  She was a force behind Steve, and she continues to touch others with her business sense.  Her book Work Less, Make More continues to inspire readers to find a balance of work and quality of life.

 

Work Less, Make More
by Jennifer White
John Wiley & Sons, 1999
Trade paper, $16.95 (246 pages)
ISBN:  0471354856

 

 

 

© 2003, Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved