Interview: Author June Melby on her memoir ‘My Family and Other Hazards’

June Melby teeny pic for LV (2)
June Mebly speaks at the Iowa Book Festival this Saturday. — photo by Parker Deen

As part of the Iowa City Book Festival, writer June Melby will read from new memoir My Family and Other Hazards this Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Javahouse in downtown Iowa City. She will also appear on Saturday at an authors’ panel discussion titled “Loyalty and Betrayal” at the Iowa City Senior Center at 2:30 p.m..

Melby’s memoir is an engaging and humorous account of her love-hate relationship growing up with Tom Thumb Miniature Golf, a miniature golf course which she and her family ran in a small town in Wisconsin during the summers of her youth. The book also examines the significance that Tom Thumb has for Mebly in adulthood when her parents put it up for sale in order to retire, leading to her to reflect on her relationship with her family, and the the different ways she and her parents have pursued their ambitions in life.

Little Village recently talked to Melby about My Family and Other Hazards, her experiences workshopping the book while attending Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, and her earlier careers in stand-up comedy and slam poetry.

Little Village: Your memoir focuses on the miniature golf course that you and your family ran while you were growing up. It’s a captivating read, but I was struck by it being a rather unique set of circumstances to grow up in. Did you have any concerns about the story being relatable?

June Melby: Most of the book is just a family story. How we tried to run the place and not go bankrupt, and also not kill each other at the same time. There is a pretty straightforward narrative there.

Yes, it’s not that common to have a miniature golf course in your yard, but I will hear from people who have a family business or family hobby they did together, and they relate to it through that. I did a TV spot in Milwaukee, and there was a guy on the show who was a jouster at those renaissance fairs and those Medieval Times restaurants. His daughter was with him, and she would sometimes dress up as the princess who would judge the jousting.

They both nodded their heads in the green room, “Oh, we could totally relate to everything you said. Our business, jousting, is like yours.” [laughs] That was unexpected, but terrific. They could relate to my story.

That is something I really liked about the book. The fact that you got the perspective of people like that, the people who are putting on the entertainment for you. And, also, what that would be like being a kid, where you have this fun activity right in front of you, but you are not really participating in it.

That really compelled me to write the book, the ironic nature of the business. Here are all these kids on vacation, at summer camp or at birthday parties, and we were not doing any of those things. We were working for them so they have a good time. And that was pretty wild.

I think I grew up really fast. I was kind of looking at the world like a grown-up. I think, in part, I’ve been a kid after ever since, making up for that.

When you say “making up for it,” are you referring to the move you made as an adult to California? The one that you cover in the book?

To some extent. But also just the things I write. My point of view can often be whimsical and more childlike. I was a rather serious kid with all these responsibilities. The events of your childhood really have an incredible lasting impact on you.

My dad was raised on a farm to work hard. He continued to work hard and gave us strong work ethic. And I had to work hard, and I must have had a built in need to be a kid later. Getting out there and doing goofy things.

I read that your next book is going to about your comedy career in California, some of which you recount in this current memoir. Is that correct?

I’m still playing around with it. I am fascinated by idea of the American Dream. And pursuing your dreams. Having traveled as much as I have, I have noticed how I am very American in a lot of ways. I’ve been really driven to make something of myself in the world. When I was doing comedy, I was very driven. I wasn’t dabbling. I worked a day job every day, and I went out every stinking evening and did an open mic for some comedy club.

There are certain assumptions in our culture about pursuing your dreams, and what happens if you do. And I really want to examine that further. I do that in my My Family and Other Hazards, discussing the nature of success. My parents’ version, where it was being incredibly generous to everyone around, and mine, which was was selfishly trying to get what I can for me. So in the next memoir, which I might call ‘Bombing,’ it will be set more in California, where I was doing comedy and pursuing those dreams.

In your memoir, you discuss your success with comedy and how it led you to relocate form San Francisco to Los Angeles. There is a humorous section there where you discuss the kind of odd venues you can get booked for as a comedian, going on to recount your experience performing [fully clothed] at a nudist colony. I was curious if there were any other strange venues or settings you got booked for while you were working as a stand-up comedian?

When you are doing comedy, you get booked for a gig, and you show up and you really don’t know what you are getting into. You just learn to say yes to any little thing because you just want to get to the next step. You’ll take any gig. And it will be so nuts sometimes. I once performed in a living room… it was a party for people from Mensa, the club where you have to take an IQ test to get in. Someone heckled me there and my response was, “Well, yeah, at least I didn’t need to take a test to make friends.” [laughs] That wasn’t a good gig.

You eventually found stand-up comedy less fulfilling and gave it up to for performing slam poetry. Was there any connection between those kinds of performing for you. Did they inform each other?

I think they do inform each other. I think that poets have a lot in common with comedians. That applies to poets who write on the page or poets who perform. When you do comedy, you are very aware of word choice. And you are very aware that a joke will work one way one night, and if you insert a slightly different word into the punchline, it won’t work. You become hyper vigilant about syllables and timing, concerned about wording and the sounds of words.There is a lot of crossover there.

I think what was helpful to me was doing things in front of an audience. You quickly find your voice that way. Your own way of doing things. If you are writing for the page only, I don’t know how you really find that

You don’t get your voice by getting feedback, but you find… how do I explain it. Your voice is your true self in a slightly exaggerated way. In a way that resonates. If I am doing something I don’t truly believe, it doesn’t get a response from the audience. Whether it is poetry or comedy. It won’t work.

It is only when I am really true to myself, that things work. So you quickly learn to discard those times you were trying to imitate someone else. That kind of experience was invaluable.

Did your graduate experience in Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program inform this book?

I definitely think it is a much better book than I would have written if I hadn’t studied there. It would have been just wacky stories about a goofy family and mini-golf. I don’t know if it would have gotten published. You need more than that. You need a thorough storyline.

It was great because I got to bounce ideas off people. I just started it during graduate school. And I could say to people [in the program], “I am thinking about a different chapter for every [mini-golf] hazard. And I want to have a theme for each chapter based on the hazard.” And they responded positively to that.

I got a chance to get feedback from my colleagues, and having real feedback is priceless. Especially early on in a project because you can flounder for years, doubting yourself or toying with different options.

I wasn’t planning to do the book until I had graduated, and until I considered myself much more educated about writing. But it crept out early on. It wanted to come out while I was still there.

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