James Martin & Tickling Boundaries with his Eggplant Emoji
By Angelique Fawns
James Martin is putting something refreshing and funny into the world. He just released Eggplant Emoji Volume 3: A Wealth of Comedy, a literary anthology that’s not afraid to make you laugh. These books are full of stories that are shocking, surreal, sexual, and full of giggles.
My story, “The Social Media Hunk” is one of the off-kilter inhabitants of the third issue, and Martin’s main goal is to showcase the best comedic fiction he can find. I sat down with Martin to learn more about this cutting-edge (and edgy) project.
AF: What was the inspiration for Eggplant Emoji?
JM: There was a convergence of inspirations which led to the creation of Eggplant Emoji. I have been attending the Bucks County Writers Group every week for seven years, and I had the luck to be surrounded by talented authors who were self-publishing their own anthologies. Efforts from the group created a horror anthology, called Creaky Stairs: A Book of Dark Truths, and Dandelion Revolution Press was born out of the group as well, which just published its third anthology. I learned a lot from the successes and mistakes of these publications, which gave me the technical inspiration for Eggplant Emoji. The creative inspiration began after I wrote a story called, “The Cockroach,” a 7000 word comedy about a man whose girlfriend befriends a cockroach, and he secretly kills it but every time he does, it just comes back, which disturbs him to the point that it messes with his libido. The story was a hit among the writers group, spawning recurring inside jokes, and 2019 (the year that it was written) was dubbed: The Year of the Raw Dog. I submitted “The Cockroach” to as many publications as I could, with many responses from editors who appreciated the quality of the work, but had no place in their publications for such a shocking and sexual story. It quickly became clear that the lit world completely overlooked comedy as a genre of literature, and very few, if any, literary publications were interested in pieces of comedy longer than 1000 words. I saw this as a void in the marketplace. I thought a literary magazine dedicated entirely to comedy would be unique and could reach an audience that hasn’t been catered to, while providing an outlet for hilarious emerging authors whose work has been ignored, not for lack of quality, but for lack of comedic publications. Plus I could finally publish “The Cockroach.” As a result of the other publications born out of the Bucks County Writers Group, when I had this idea, I felt prepared to take on the task. I spent a lot of time brainstorming titles for the anthology, but Eggplant Emoji seemed to encapsulate exactly what the book was: seeped in pop culture, euphemism, and comedic shock; it says what it is without actually saying it.
AF: Where do you draw the line between funny and offensive?
JM: I believe it boils down to intent. Anyone can get offended at just about anything, and that’s out of my control. What I can control is the intent, and how the intent comes across. I was raised on South Park, which always bends those lines on what is offensive, and I’ve learned a lot in how they get away with it. Shock is a funny filter; saying what isn’t supposed to be said can make people laugh. The big differential is: is a character saying something offensive, or is the author saying something offensive? For example, a story could include a racist character, so long as the narrative as whole is not agreeing with that character. This works especially well in comedy, because when the reader knows a character is incorrect in their offensive views, it’s easier to laugh at them, to turn the racist into the joke, while the piece itself can still be objectively anti-racist. To take the example back to South Park, Mr. Garrison says all kinds of crazy racist things, but the audience knows that he’s wrong, so we all get to laugh at him, and subsequently, we’re laughing at racism in general. I believe laughter is medicine. Being able to take dark subject matter people are afraid to talk about and find a way for people to laugh instead, is one of my favorite aspects of comedy. I would never reject a story just because the subject matter might be considered offensive; it depends on how the subject matter is treated and presented by the author, how human their characters are, how intentional the shock value is, what the overall message of the narrative is, and how funny it is. One of the few upsides to self-publishing, is that I have no corporate sponsors or advertisers or boss who I have to cater to. I have the freedom to make editorial risks, so it seems a waste to not take editorial risks for the sake of comedy. In fact, I think if no one is offended, I’m probably doing something wrong.
AF: What has the reception been like to this project?
JM: There are fans of comedy, and there are fans of reading, and I’m not 100% sure how much overlap there is between those two groups, but I am doing my best to find them. I’m shadow banned on Twitter because they just assume Eggplant Emoji is a sexual thing, so that’s not helping outreach. With so few comedic publications, I feel that readers don’t even know what to expect from a comedy; whereas horror, fantasy, or literary fiction already have an audience baked into the cake, full of expectation. I’m sure this is exactly why a comedy prose fiction literary journal has not been done before. Some may be dissuaded by that reality, but I have faith in this project and that faith is born in the quality of the work submitted by all the talented authors involved. I think there are probably more people like me who like to read and laugh at the same time, and if I keep working our paths will cross. From the beginning, I didn’t anticipate to turn a profit until Volume 4, and hopefully the cash on the cover of Volume 3 will help manifest that.
The best reactions I’ve gotten from Eggplant Emoji so far are from people I’ve never met coming up to me and telling me they read the whole book and really liked it. At this point comedy is a niche genre in fiction, but it’s one that deserves to be catered to. When I was in middle school, I loved comedy, but I wasn’t into reading because I thought books were boring; Eggplant Emoji is the kind of book that would have made me want to read when I was younger — and those are the kinds of disenfranchised readers I hope to cater to.
AF: Tell us a bit about your writing journey. Do you have a day job?
JM: I wrote a musical in third grade consisting entirely of Celine Dion songs. Not to give away the plot, but it was a tragic love story and at the end her heart goes on and on. I gave the only copy of the musical to my third grade teacher in hopes our class would perform it, which we never did, but I still occasionally google “Celine Dion musical” to see if that teacher went and got rich off of it.
In fourth grade, I got 50 pages into my first attempt at a shitty novel. By sixth grade, I had emerged from my shitty poetry phase. Middle school was a blur of angst and embarrassment, and slightly less-shitty poetry. I got back into writing in high school, with a new goal of writing and directing my own movies. At 17 years old, I made a short film that was featured in 13 film festivals across the country. I went to Emerson College for Film Production, during which I wrote and produced several more short films and internet videos, including Cat Broadcast Station, a comedy series of television for cats by cats.
After college, I began to feel that the stories I wanted to tell were larger than what I was able to produce on film, so I started writing a sci-fi / fantasy novel. I read the novel Nexus by Ramez Naam, and at the end of the book, he says he never would have finished the book if he didn’t join a writers group, which is when I decided to join the Bucks County Writers Group. There, I really started to discover my voice as a writer, and also honed my editing skills by critiquing prose every week. I started writing a bunch of short stories, one is published in Creaky Stairs: A Book of Dark Truths, and one is in Not Quite As You Were Told from Dandelion Revolution Press, and 4 of my stories can be found within the Volumes of Eggplant Emoji. I’ve also done open mic stand-up comedy two dozen times, and look forward to doing it more in the future.
I’ve had a series of jobs and gigs to support my creative work, from video editing and production assistant gigs, to retail, to enumerating for the Census; though I always prefer to get paid for being creative.
AF: What are your plans for the future of your series?
JM: I’m looking forward to the Call for Submissions for Eggplant Emoji Volume 4, which will begin in the first quarter of 2024. My next big endeavor is related to social media, I think I can expand my reach with videos on TikTok and Instagram. My dreaming-big end goal would be An Eggplant Emoji TV series, in which every episode is a different short comedy film made by different creators — kind of like Black Mirror, but for comedy. My biggest hope is that Eggplant can help make comedy a bigger genre as a whole. I miss the days when comedy movies were good; studios are too scared to take the necessary risks. I think condensing comedy into episode-long short films would help give emerging comedic filmmakers and writers a chance to be seen and heard, without requiring the budget of a feature. I hope Eggplant Emoji inspires more authors to write comedy, and more comedians to write prose. Some of the best movies are based on books, so I think if there was more comedy in prose, there’d be more good funny movies.
AF: If you could give one piece of advice to authors hoping to submit to your next issue, what would it be?
JM: My number one piece of advice to any writer is to join a writers group. A group of writers who read each other’s work and give their honest feedback is an invaluable tool, which will improve your writing. Being able to read another person’s writing and form critiques on how they can improve their work will also grant you the ability to apply those lessons to and improve your own work. If I hadn’t been in a writers group, I wouldn’t have gotten the feedback of what was and wasn’t working in my stories, and I wouldn’t have been able to learn from the authors around me who were self-publishing their own anthologies. Anyone who is serious about writing needs to find a writing critique group to be a part of regularly.
In terms of writing specifically for Eggplant Emoji, I highly recommend the “How to Write Funny” series by Scott Dikkers; the first 2 books, plus How to Write Funny Characters, are filled with valuable tips and insights for any comedic writer. If I tried to give advice on writing comedy, I’d probably end up paraphrasing those books. I also suggest checking out the first 3 Volumes of Eggplant Emoji, to get a sense of what we’re looking for. Our guidelines are 1000–7000 words (if it’s funny, longer is acceptable) of previously unpublished, character-driven prose fiction.
AF: How important is art and illustration to your books? Where does your intriguing and provocative art come from?
JM: A striking cover has always been a paramount aspect of Eggplant Emoji. Inspired by covers from Mad Magazine, the covers for Eggplant Emoji aim to be as outrageous and striking as the stories within. The back covers for Volume 1 and Volume 2 are also very detailed, and include Easter Eggs from every story in the book. Though I decided to re-evaluate the amount of time I put into the back cover for Volume 3, since it has the most detailed front cover of them all, which also has a bunch of Easter Eggs hidden throughout.
I do all the art for Eggplant Emoji, drawn on a tablet in Photoshop. The general concept for the covers has always included a giant emojified eggplant occupying most of the cover, with more realistic things surrounding the eggplant. Playing around with that concept for Volume 1, it struck me that I could put a reflection in the eggplant, and I channeled a little MC Escher in the reflections of the hand in the eggplant. Volume 2 continues the reflection in the eggplant, with the shocked face being my own, but the surroundings are more over-the-top: The concept is a male stripper unbuckling his pants, but instead of a phallus, he’s holding the eggplant emoji — and the back cover depicts a wacky-looking strip club. I wanted to try something different for Volume 3, and thought the whole cover filled with dollar bills would be fun, and I could use the Presidents’ faces for multiple shocked reactions. Since everyone is already familiar with money, it’s an easy comedic reference point while being visually pleasing. Creating the photorealistic dollars made for the most challenging cover of the three, because as it turns out, they make money hard to draw on purpose. I’m really happy with how it turned out though, and I’m already thinking up ideas for the next one.
AF: What can we expect in the future from James Martin?
JM: In the near future, I hope to get more of my non-comedy stories published in other lit mags. I’ve also been craving getting back into video formats and stand-up comedy. I love to sing and want to create more videos of me doing that. I’ve written 7 episodes of spec scripts for the animated series Home Movies, and getting that turned into a reboot for the show is just another big dream of mine. I have so many artistic and creative interests, and not enough time. Inspiration finds me all over the place, so whatever the next project is for me, I just want to keep producing the best quality work that I can.