MICHELE NORRIS, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block.
First, a warning. If you start reading the new funny novel by Patricia Marx in public, as I did on the subway, you might find yourself snorting and have some explaining to do.
The book is called "Starting from Happy." It's a sharp-edged love story told in 618 mini-chapters that Marx calls chaplets. Many are just a line or a few words, such as, it was an insouperable(ph) mess. And the book is sprinkled with Marx's quirky line drawings, origami instructions, pie charts, pasta shapes and, for no apparent reason, a cumquat.
Patricia Marx writes the shopping column for the New Yorker and she's a former writer for Saturday Night Live. Her female lead in the novel is Imogene Gilfeather, a lingerie designer with, as Marx writes, a cruel haircut, tall and thin with jutting cheeks and fiery red hair, she looked like a kitchen match that stubbornly would not light.
PATRICIA MARX: She has been described by one character as a big no. Imogene Gilfeather says things that I wouldn't dare to say and doesn't become a better character in the end of the book.
BLOCK: She stays the same. She starts out saying, when people are trying to fix her up with Wally Yez, they say he's perfect for you. She says, perfect is not my type. She's pretty happy or she thinks she's happy on her own, right?
MARX: Yes. I wanted to write a book - I mean, one sets out to write "War and Peace" and ends up writing "Dick and Jane Get Ice Cream Cones." But I wanted to write a book about a single woman who wasn't desperately lonely and yearning to be with a guy and I wanted to write a love story about that. I'm not sure I ended up doing that, but, I mean, I ended up somehow growing pictures of underwear, but that's what I wanted to do.
And I wanted to kind of reverse the conventional roles of man and woman in a romantic comedy, the man being much more ardent, the woman being much more committed to her work and committed to not making any commitments.
BLOCK: Okay. So that's Imogene Gilfeather. Her romantic foil is Wally Yez. He's some kind of scientist, right? We're not sure exactly what.
MARX: He's some kind of scientist. I think he takes cats and makes them dizzy and studies them at some point and he looks at a lot of chipmunks. He is as enthusiastic as Imogene is not. He's just a happy, happy guy. He's a big yes.
BLOCK: He likes instruction manuals. He really has fun with them.
MARX: He loves reading instruction manuals.
BLOCK: Let's talk about the format a little bit here. Here's an example of one of your chaplets in its entirety. Everyone has a mother. Another one. It's one of those things, like soil erosion.
MARX: Uh-huh. You know, I'm sort of temperamentally terse. My first book, or the book before this, I forced myself to get up to 20 pages per chapter, but truly, I can reduce everything to about a word. If I were Shakespeare's editor, to be or not to be would be just, be, question mark.
And, you know, I got to the end of a sentence and I thought, well, I have no more to say in this chapter. I also, as a writer, think visually and I like a pretty page, so I thought this would be kind of a nifty look with lots of blank space.
BLOCK: You said, at one point, not in this book, but earlier, that you write comedy because you're too shallow to do anything else.
MARX: I say that hoping people go, oh, no, you're really not. But they really don't. Being serious just makes me a little bit embarrassed, earnestness does. So it is kind of superficial. You know, I write the shopping column. I think I've proven my superficiality.
BLOCK: Is it ever sort of a burden? Do you feel pressure? You know, I'm a humorist. People are going to expect me to be funny. If I'm just not feeling funny that day, what do I do?
MARX: Oh, gosh, is it ever. It's at times like that that I wish I were a lawyer because I want somebody to say, she's a lawyer. Say something legal or, you know.
BLOCK: Well, what do you do when, you know, people are looking at you just expectingly, waiting for you to be funny?
MARX: Just say, not today. Not on Thursdays. I don't know what you do. You come up with something. And then the advantage is, if you're billed as being funny, people laugh even if you say, you know, the wall is white.
BLOCK: Really? Oh, you think they just go along with it?
MARX: Yeah. They don't want to not get the joke.
BLOCK: Well, that's got to be a relief and tempting, I would think.
BLOCK: Patty Marx, why don't we end by having you read to us one of your chaplets. This is chaplet 224. It's a happy point, an early point in Imogene and Wally's relationship.
MARX: Okay. There was always something to celebrate. The five month anniversary of the first time they touched each other on purpose. The three month anniversary of the first time they took public transportation together. The two day anniversary of the first time they saw each other with wet hair. The seven month, three week, two day, four hour anniversary of when Wally really knew. They liked to reminisce about the instant that just went by.
BLOCK: It's Patricia Marx reading from her novel, "Starting from Happy." Patricia Marx, thanks so much.
MARX: Thank you.