John Hodgman's 'Vacationland' is a touching memoir that will also make you laugh

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The last time readers heard from writer, humorist, actor, podcast host, and all-around funny and insightful guy John Hodgman, he was satirically peddling fake world knowledge in three surprisingly convincing tomes released between 2005 and 2011.

Macalester College, Kagin Commons
$30; $40 for two tickets and a book

In the meantime, among other pursuits, Hodgman’s podcast Judge John Hodgman polished his comic persona as an erudite know-it-all with warmth and emotional acuity. He also toured with a one-man show, Vacationland, in which he told stories of living in western Massachusetts and Maine with sincerity and humor. Hodgman turned the idea for that show into a beautifully written memoir, also called Vacationland (and subtitled “True Stories From Painful Beaches”), which came out on October 24. He visits Macalester College on Thursday.

Hodgman says the writing of Vacationland wasn’t quite the simple stage-to-page conversion he was expecting.

“I thought that doing it as a book would be good, and it would be easy because the structure was already there,” he says. “When the publisher said, ‘Can you do it in five months?,’ rather than what is more typical of a book, which is a year, I said, ‘Sure!’”

He soon found, however, that live comedy’s laugh-a-minute pace didn’t lend itself well to such a personal book.

“Standup comedy is a weird art form in that on a basic level it is your job to provoke a very mysterious and uncontrollable human sound at a certain rate of speed... Your job is to keep up a pace that provokes that weird, unexplainable human utterance at a regular interval or you will be deemed to have failed.”

Despite the adjustment period, his comedic sensibilities and writing experience kicked in.

“Humor writing, as with any writing -- you don’t have to make someone laugh out loud, just make them chuckle inwardly or raise an eyebrow. A book can do a lot more, and you have a lot more time to play with. It can be a lot more reflective.”

The subjects within Vacationland range from learning how to use a septic system to the death of his mother, all with the perspective of an older man making sense of his past and future.

Though it’s hard to imagine the book without the chapter about his mother, so heartbreaking in its poignancy and simplicity, Hodgman didn’t expect to write it. (Eileen Callahan Hodgman, to whom the book is dedicated, died of lung cancer when Hodgman was 29.)

“It became clear telling the story,” he says, “that that experience was haunting a lot of the experiences that followed. And I knew that on a psychotherapeutic level in my real life. But it became apparent as I went on… I’ve been pretty coy about this, and pretty casual about it. I didn’t want to give you the idea that it didn’t profoundly affect me.”

Writing that chapter, he says, was a challenge that he approached as he does any other work.

“Obviously it’s a big-deal subject, but you’ve just got to start very simply by saying what’s true. And part of what’s true is there’s nothing to say. My mom died, I felt terrible, and this happens all the time… But there is one thing that I need to tell you about that, and to understand that, here are the other things I’ve got to tell you.”

He then invokes an author, now long gone, with whom he now shares a Maine hometown and a literary sensibility. (He refers to this man in Vacationland simply as “the famous writer” to protect the privacy that the writer himself so valued.) 

“Just say the words,” the famous writer's New Yorker editor told him as he struggled to get over his writerly fears.

Hodgman says he took this idea to heart, and then came up with a maxim of his own: “We give you what our brain gives us and hope that it resonates what it gives us. We can only grow the beards we can grow. My beard looks terrible, but it is my beard.” 

IF YOU GO:

John Hodgman discusses Vacationland.
Kagin Commons Ballroom, Macalester College
1600 Grand Ave., St. Paul
$30; 7 p.m. Thursday, November 2

Find tickets here.


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