Mary Jo Pehl titled the introduction to her new self-published book of essays, Employee of the Month and Other Big Deals, “A Do-Over” because her first book, 2005’s I Lived with My Parents and Other Tales of Terror, wasn’t what she’d hoped it would be. A publisher had approached the Mystery Science Theater 3000 star and writer about penning a book, and she jumped at the chance, not really knowing what would be involved and ultimately unhappy with her writing.
Now, writing from a more honest place and with her Mystery Science Theater and Cinematic Titanic following behind her, she got her do-over by creating a better book through Amazon’s CreateSpace. And more books may be forthcoming.
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When you wrote the first book, what were your expectations? Was it something you thought you’d be able to tackle?
Yeah, of course. I tend to give other people the power assuming they know better what they’re doing than I do. For example, [the] book publisher, he must have known what he was doing, and my idea of publishing my book [was] that it would be one of those beautifully bound Penguin copies of something. I have this beautifully bound Moby Dick with this beautiful cover. And you just think that’s what your book’s going to look like.
You had written before in other contexts. Was it tough when you sat down to write a book to translate those skills? Did those skills come in handy?
I feel like writing that book itself was a huge learning curve, when I look back on it. I was so eager to get that book published, and it was over the summer and autumn, and the publisher had wanted to get it released by Christmas. So I was thinking dollar signs. Oh, Christmas rush. The whole world will buy my book for Christmas. And I let that dictate how I wrote it—which was very quick and not very polished. Not long after that, I had an opportunity to do a mentorship with a writer in the Twin Cities, and that’s when I really sort of honed the craft itself, really accessing the heart of how I wanted to write and what I wanted to write.
So was it easier this time around, or was it harder because you really had to dig in?
It was harder because I had to dig in, but it was easier because I felt more—confident might be overstating it. But I felt like I knew how to be truer to myself. It was like I knew my own mind better. I felt okay throwing out stuff that just wasn’t working. I felt much more confident about having it be a 120-page book rather than trying to make it a 250-page book that was kind of airy or light. Or not very choleric, I guess.
And by the time you gained that confidence, the publishing industry collapsed.
[laughs] Right. Maybe it didn’t collapse so much as it shifted so I felt more confident self-publishing because I dare say that just doesn’t have the rap that it used to.
People will sometimes get publishing contracts from larger houses after self-publishing. Is that something that you’d consider, or do you want to keep it as an in-house industry?
Oh, no. Are you kidding? I would sell out in a minute. But that remains to be seen. What I think is so great and what makes me so excited is the idea that, if that doesn’t happen, I still have the means and the ways to do it myself, which might lend itself to more experimenting. That’s really exciting for me, the idea that, if it happens, great. If it doesn’t, I still get to do what I want to do.
How would you compare the experience of writing an episode of Mystery Science Theater or Cinematic Titanic to writing a book?
Mystery Science Theater and Cinematic Titanic is all short form. That is more or less a call and response. The movie sets up something either visually or verbally in its dialogue, and there’s a very limited amount of space to respond to that and make a joke on it. This is really developing ideas, and there’s an actual—there’s a narrative arc in there that Cinematic Titanic or Mystery Science Theater doesn’t really have in the joke script. So there’s a huge difference there. I have to be really conscientious about not writing in quips. I mean, quips and humor are in there, but hopefully they’re part of a larger story.
Is Mystery Science Theater and Cinematic Titanic helping you get the word out about the book?
Oh absolutely. I think one of the reasons I decided to self-publish was that I wasn’t pleased with that first book, but I had a lot of really positive responses to it. So I started to think there was potential, and, as I say in the book, I really wanted a do-over, for my own sake. Just to make it right, just knowing what it could have been, what potential it had, what I wanted to try. And to your question, I knew that I would have somewhat of an audience, I knew that a lot of people would come along for the ride who were Mystery Science Theater fans and/or Cinematic Titanic fans. So I knew that there would be that, at least.