Remember the Choose Your Own Adventure series from your youth? Books that gave you the chance to pick a path through hidden caves, or explore the depths of space, or take a hot air balloon to the Sahara Desert?
Jilly Gagnon and Mike MacDonald‘s Choose Your Own Misery: The Office, is not one of those books. In what Newsweek called “maybe the funniest book released this year,” MacDonald and Gagnon have created a world that is disappointingly similar to our own, packed with soul-crushing, repetitive labor, weird HR reps, boring meetings and mid-week hangovers.
Gagnon will be at Porter Square Books tonight, July 14, for a group reading-slash-exercise in depressing office drudgery. We caught up with Gagnon before the event to talk idiot bosses, Buzzfeed quizzes and and the pointless bureaucracy of Legal Seafoods.
Scout Cambridge: So tell us about the inspiration for these very depressing—or maybe not depressing, but very realistic—Choose Your Own Misery books.
Jilly Gagnon: I mean, I think there are definitely parts where “depressing” is fair. Mike and I have been writing comedy together for years, and in 2011 he had a website that was kind of a Canadian version of The Onion. And we just gave ideas to each other all the time: “What if we did a TV show with zombies who were really into coffee?” or whatever. This was one of the ideas he brought in one day: “What if we did a choose your own path story for grownups in the office, where things didn’t really turn out well for you?” It was probably, in large part, because we were both at jobs at that point in time that were really bad for us, nine-to-five jobs. So we were like, “Yup, correct. That’s what we’re writing.”
SC: What were those terrible jobs?
JG: Mike’s is legit. He was at a major, national, Canadian news outlet. It was a total sinking ship, they were firing people every week. It was a people-weeping-openly-at-their-desks kind of place. Mine was a totally normal, nine-to-five job. I’m just really, really a bad fit for a nine-to-five job, you know? Oh, poor me! I was just writing marketing copy, it was not any worse than any other job, I just am not suited to be in that work life.
SC: What kinds of office drudgery do people have to navigate in this book?
JG: Oh, god, all of it. Some of it is very dry. We think it’s funny, but the joke is very dry about real stuff in an office. Going to a meeting and being unprepared and trying to cover your ass at the last minute—that kind of thing. Hierarchies, idiot bosses—there’s a weird secretary who you talk to throughout the book, mainly because you don’t like anyone else. Things like that. The social dynamics of an office. But then, we often try to get things to the ridiculous pretty quickly. There are all kinds of situations that are… heightened, let’s say, about the office.
SC: What was the worst job you’ve ever had?
JG: Oh, the worst job I’ve ever had—I don’t want to throw too much shade—but I worked at a Legal Seafoods, which is in this weird dead zone between being a corporate restaurant and being an individually-run restaurant. There are a certain number of high-level rules and a certain number of things that are left up to your restaurant staff. I guess I’ve never been in a place where it’s more pointlessly bureaucratic. There were nights where I’d come home, and my whole night, I’d earned seven dollars. Total. But they didn’t cut me, they wouldn’t let me go home.
But other than my marketing job, I’ve mostly worked in retail and service jobs. Obviously, you don’t make as much money there. But in a lot of ways, I think the worst thing about nine-to-five work is the sense of, like, pointlessness. There are several hours of most days where you’re like, “Okay, I could bust ass and double my output right now.” But then that means that every day has to look like busting ass. You end up becoming demotivated and dicking around on the internet. And then you feel really worthless. “Look at me, I’m a grown person and the only thing I did in the last hour was Buzzfeed quizzes.”
SC: And nobody noticed.
JG: And nobody noticed! Because the white-collar working world—I mean, there are jobs in there that are really intense and difficult, but there are a lot of jobs where most people are coasting, most of the time. There’s something really depressing about being in the ladder.
SC: What do the readings look like? Is everyone choosing their own misery together?
JG: I’m excited for it! And I’m super excited that it’s going to be at Porter Square Books, because that place is awesome. We’ve done a few of these. We do readings, and they’re totally interactive. When you come, you’ll be expected to help choose the way that the story goes. And I’ll only read the parts that people vote on. Generally speaking, you always think that people are going to be higher-minded than you are—Mike and I have particularly terrible, dark souls—but the people at the reading are always likely to choose the one that fucks people over very overtly, more likely to be on the horrible-person track. That’s where we end up. Things are going to end terribly, I can almost guarantee, because there’s going to be people voting on it.
SC: We’re all awful, deep down. Well and then, you guys have a second book in this series coming out later this year. Is that going to be similarly awful?
JG: Correct, about the holidays. It’s coming out October 18th. And it is! It’s got a really different vibe. One of the things we felt was so funny about the office is that—it’s like a meta joke in the book—you have to go back and do the same things the next day. That’s the particular misery of office life: It’s a hamster wheel. But the holidays, the ways in which they can be miserable are manifold and various. You can pull it out in a completely different direction, and it’ll still be a miserable holiday. There’s less of that sense of recursive, “this is happening every single day.” Which means that we got to be much weirder. Strange things happen in the holiday book. I’m very excited about it.
SC: Oh, for sure.
JG: Well, that’s what it really comes down to. It’s people that you’re forced to pretend to like. You’re stuck with them, and you can’t leave. That’s the scenario. We have tracks where you’re stuck at your significant other’s family’s house, tracks with your own family… no matter what, you are obligated to be spending time with people you may or may not even like. Things can get really ugly really quickly. We had a blast with that. Not because it’s an autobiography! None of these are really about us, I swear.
Gagnon will be at Porter Square Books, 25 White St., Cambridge, at 7 p.m. on July 14. Find more info at portersquarebooks.com.