Chris Goff: Today we have the pleasure of hearing from a former Rogue S. Lee Manning, who’s latest book “Nerve Attack” is scheduled for release on September 22nd. A reformed attorney whose legal career spanned from Cravath, Swaine & Moore, a first tier New York law firm, to the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General, to her own practice, S. Lee now lives in Vermont and writes full time. In this sequel to the award-winning Trojan Horse, former American intelligence operative Kolya Petrov, still struggling with the aftereffects of kidnapping and torture, is drawn back into the game when Dmitri, his childhood best friend, holds the key to stopping an attack by terrorists armed with a deadly nerve poison. As you will find out, S. Lee is multi-talented and has in ingenious plan to promote her new book. I’m just sad I can’t be there in person for the launch! Welcome, S. Lee.
I’m planning something different this year for the launch of my new thriller, Nerve Attack – on September 22, I’m combining the launch of my latest spy thriller with a comedy stand-up show at the Vermont Comedy Club in Burlington, entitled When Comedy Kills.
So why am I doing this – other than the fact that I both write spy thrillers and perform stand-up on occasion, and for me personally, it’s a kick to combine two things I enjoy?
First reason: it’s different. I’m faced with the same dilemma that so many new and unknown writers face – how to be noticed in the crowded world populated by mystery and thriller novels. Of course, you write the best book you possibly can, and in all due modesty, I write damn good spy novels.
But unless you’re already a well-known writer – or President of the United States – no one really notices, no matter how good the book. (BTW, I’m taking this opportunity to announce my candidacy for President in 2024.)
So I thought doing something different or weird for my launch- like having nine local comedians performing jokes in between my reading excerpts from my books and discussing the writing life – might, note the choice of verb, might get me a little more notice.
Second reason, though, is more interesting. I liked the idea of exploring the intersection between performing comedy and writing – not comedic novels – but serious thrillers.
(By the way, I’m better at writing spy novels than I am at comedy. Don’t take my word for it. I was a semi-finalist in the Vermont’s Funniest Comedian competition 2019, whereas my first novel Trojan Horse was a FINALIST in two categories at Killer Nashville, in the National Indie Excellence Awards, and WON in the Kops-Fetherling International Phoenix Award – where I’m convinced that at least one other book had been entered in my category. Winner and finalist trump semi-finalist.)
But back to the interplay: there are commonalities between my spy novels and my comedy, aside from how little money either endeavor actually earns. There are elements of comedy in my very serious novels, and there are elements of seriousness in my comedy.
In Nerve Attack, Kolya Petrov, the Russian Jewish immigrant and former American spy who is my protagonist, has to overcome PTSD and physical injuries, and reconnect with Dmitri, his childhood best friend, whom he’d put in prison ten years earlier, to prevent a nerve poison attack. The novel is not only suspenseful, it examines serious themes of loyalty, love, and friendship. It is not, by any definition, a comic novel. And yet, there are instances of tension relieving humor. Before agreeing to cooperate with the American government, Dmitri demands Kolya’s presence, ten million dollars, and a pint of Cherry Garcia. Dmitri constantly suggests time off from the mission to indulge in sexual escapades. And after Kolya kills two house invaders, a police detective suspicious of Kolya’s background interrogates him, and Kolya’s snarky replies are solidly in the tradition of spy witticisms.
The detective starts off. “Why were these men after you?”
“Maybe my former job for the IRS. Perhaps they were unhappy about their taxes.” (While working as a spy, Kolya’s cover identity had been that of an IRS agent, but even after resigning, he has to keep secret his previous profession.)
“How does a former IRS agent come to be so good at killing people?”
When I’ve performed comedy, my best bits were taking painful or difficult topics – and making fun of them. My comedy hit list includes – my anxiety disorder, caregiving my father who had Alzheimer’s, my mother’s propensity for hoarding cats, and going crazy from isolation during Covid.
In other words, there is comedy in my serious work, and serious topics in my comedy.
Both novels and comedy require a level of verbal skills, the ability to turn phrases. Comics and authors who don’t have a love of words and language might want to reconsider exactly what they’re doing with their lives. There’s lots of jobs in computer programing. Or plumbing.
Of course, there are significant differences between performing stand-up and writing novels. When I write a novel, it’s pretty much done in isolation, sitting in my office, staring at the mountain visible through the window behind my desk. While I do write my comedy routines ahead of time and of course I can (and do) practice in front of a mirror in my house, it doesn’t count as stand-up unless I actually appear before an audience – zoom or otherwise. Writers tend to live in their heads; comics live on stage.
Then there’s the time involved with the different crafts. A novel takes me from six months to a year from idea to final draft. Then there’s the months it takes to go through the editing process at my publisher’s. More time before the book launches. So it’s close to two years from idea to where strangers can walk up to me and say, I hated your book. Comedy takes less time. I write most of my routines in a day or two. Practice for another day or two – and then go on stage and bingo – I know instantly when I suck.
Final point, performing comedy and writing novels can be both ego shattering, anxiety producing, and depressing. (Please see above where I indicated I have an anxiety disorder.) And yet, both can be incredibly rewarding and enriching. The trick is to savor the good moments, and hopefully, those moments will outweigh the bad.
“Nerve Attack” is available for preorder on Amazon and through independent bookstores everywhere. The first chapter is available on her website. https://www.sleemanning.com