Jack Knox: Once I began writing humour for publication, I fed off the reaction

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Jack Knox has been presenting his uniquely hilarious views on Canadian life for twenty years as a humour columnist at the Victoria Times Colonist. His first collection, Hard Knox: Musings from the Edge of Canada (Heritage House), was a side-splitting bestseller. Revisiting his most—and least!—popular columns, Opportunity Knox: Twenty Years of Award-Losing Humour Writing continues the bestseller trend to the tune of guffaws, chuckles, and ROFLs.

We caught up with Jack to hear about his illustrious career, how he finds the bizarre in everyday life, and who he enjoys reading.

How did you get started writing? Why journalism?

I always considered myself a reporter, not a writer. At the risk of sounding hokey, I believed in the power of journalism to build a better world. And I liked the adrenaline rush of chasing down a story.

You’ve held a number of positions at the Times Colonist— copy editor, city editor, editorial writer and editorial page editor. Which was the best (or worst)?

Being city editor is a job for dyspeptic drunks who yearn for the sweet release of a heart attack at their desks. On the Fun-o-Meter it’s somewhere between a root canal and being married to Donald Trump. It’s all aggravation with little satisfaction: As the boss of the reporters, you’re like an orchestra leader who doesn’t actually get to play the music. I wrote my first humour column as an antidote to that, to have a bit of fun and do some writing of my own.

Has your humour always shone through your writing, or was this something you honed over the years?

I can’t remember not writing humour, not even as a boy. As a news reporter, it was something I had to suppress. Journalists are supposed to think critically, to look for the gap between how things are presented and how they really are, but that’s the same place satire comes from – and you’re not supposed to insert satire in straight-ahead reporting. Once I began writing humour for publication, I fed off the reaction; nothing hones humour-writing skills like laughter (or the lack thereof).

Writing a daily column for so many years must be a lot of pressure! How do you approach writing your columns? Where do you go, or what do you do, for inspiration?

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Lewis Grizzard once wrote “Writing a daily column is like being married to a nymphomaniac. It’s great for the first two weeks.” If my column was all about the world according to Jack, the readers would tire of it quickly. The key is either to plug into those common subjects that evoke emotion – whether it be joy, or sorrow, or fear – in all of us, or to take readers places that neither of us has been.

Do your readers have different opinions about what you find funny? I hear you get nastygrams. How do you respond?

Abusive rants don’t bother me at all. In fact, abusive rants from Trump fans are validating.

The only time I’m really bothered is when the criticism stems from being misunderstood. After neo-Nazis turned up at the Charlottesville marches wearing khakis and golf shirts, I wrote a piece about reclaiming the ensemble for middle-aged desk jockeys. Someone ripped me on Twitter, saying I was treating Charlottesville as a joke. That bugged me because my intent was the opposite: I wanted to ridicule the ridiculous.

Do you have a favourite column or a favourite topic to tackle?

The most rewarding stories are the ones that take you places you’ve never been. I think the best piece I ever wrote began with Alban Michael, an Indigenous man from northern Vancouver Island who was the very last person on Earth to speak his language and grew into a pretty deep read on vanishing languages. I also interviewed a porn star in the nude (her, not me) once, and got a phone call from Barack Obama four days before he was elected president.

Hard Knox by Jack KnoxI know that both Hard Knox and Opportunity Knox were based on your work at Times Colonist. How did you decide what pieces to include?

Hard Knox was a book about and from the perspective of Vancouver Island, and everything I chose was run through that lens. With Opportunity Knox I only asked two questions: A) Does it still stand up, and B) will it make people laugh. So, while the new book still has plenty of Island content, it also has pieces on Ken and Barbie having mid-life crises, the time my parents bought me a dead guy’s bed, and George W. Bush’s Hurricane Katrina diary. I didn’t feel compelled to shape the content to a theme.

How much did you edit / rewrite, and how do you decide when it’s done (or good enough)?

I rewrote the columns in Opportunity Knox a bit, but not a lot – removing an outdated or cringeworthy passage here, adding a good line from another column there. It really was a luxury, though. The rigid limits of column-writing – a deadline that cannot be moved, a word count that cannot be altered — create their own discipline, force you to do the best job you can within the given space and time. After writing a column I’ll sometimes sit bolt upright in bed at 3 am, realizing (and regretting) that there was something I should have done differently. With the book, I would sit bolt upright – and realize I still had time to change things. I had a hard time figuring out when to stop, though. It was like an open road with no horizon.

After so many years writing columns, why publish the books now?

I think it came down to a combination of me wanting to publish something with some permanence to it, and Rodger Touchie at Heritage House deciding I had built up sufficient readership. For whatever reason, Hard Knox was successful, so that opened the door for Opportunity Knox. I’m tickled pink to have a collection of humour columns. To me, it’s the equivalent of the books of Eric Nicol columns that my dad would buy when I was a boy.

If my column was all about the world according to Jack, the readers would tire of it quickly. The key is either to plug into those common subjects that evoke emotion in all of us, or to take readers places that neither of us has been.

Is a Vancouver Island perspective important for you when writing?

A Joe Average perspective is important. Heritage House put out a bio in which it referred to me as an Everyman, a description I quite liked even if it was really just a polite way of calling me Homer Simpson. Honestly, I think my greatest strength is that people see themselves reflected in me. That said, there’s something about Vancouver Island, happily and defiantly out of step at the edge of the world, that gives it a slightly skewed perspective.

What authors inspire you? Who do you love to read?

After staying up until 3 am to finish Do Not Say We Have Nothing, I immediately wrote a gushing fanboy letter to Madeleine Thien. She replied with a nice note signed “Maddie.” Cool, I thought, we’re Jack and Maddie now.

For humour, I like those writers who have enough confidence and honesty to mine their own frailties: David Sedaris, Susan Juby, Bill Bryson. Hunter S. Thompson set the gold standard for gonzo journalism. I ate Elmore Leonard books like candy; he was a master of dialogue and didn’t waste space or ruin his rhythm by spelling out those things readers could figure out on their own.

What do you surround yourself with when you write?

I can, and do, write anywhere, though most of my humour writing is done while lying flat on my back on the couch. I’m a minimalist: It’s just me and my trusty laptop. If I feel like having lots of noise around me while I work, I’ll go to a coffee shop in Chinatown. Sometimes I hang out on the deck at the Trek Bicycle Store in Victoria but usually end up getting distracted and playing with somebody’s dog.

Jack Knox is the author of the bestselling Hard Knox: Musings from the Edge of Canada and a long-time and extremely popular columnist at the Victoria Times Colonist. His career highlights include being blasted with blowhole spray by Luna the orca whale, interviewing a nude porn star, and getting a phone call from Barack Obama four days before the 2008 presidential election. In his spare time he performs in a rock ’n’ roll band with members of his Tour de Rock cycling team. Opportunity Knox: Twenty Years of Award-Losing Humour Writing is his second book.

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