An interview with Paul Hawkins

The Ultimate Point of View: Looking at Life from an Alien Perspective 

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Paul Hawkins is a freelance comedy writer originating from England, now living in Berlin. He has published four books; the most current is How to Operate a Human: A User’s Manual, available as an eBook from Amazon.

 

Bill Bibo: Welcome to Mash Stories. You’ve said that a lot of the writing you do is kind of from an alien perspective, talking about humans as an alien might. You have a lot of information on your website, www.hencewise.com, but one piece is glaringly absent. Let’s start with the truth. Are you really an Alien?

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Paul Hawkins

Paul Hawkins: I don’t think I’m an alien, but I guess the only truly honest answer I can give is: I don’t know. The official story is that I came from the vagina of an Earthling mother woman, who also came from the vagina of a Earthling grandmother woman from Earth, and so on and so on, for billions of years, until my ancestors were only a fraction of a millimetre in length.

Bill: Is this the beginning of a literary invasion? I’ll tell you now that your next book had better not be “How to Serve Man”, as I have seen that Twilight Zone episode and I know [spoiler alert!] it’s a cookbook.

Paul: Don’t worry, this is not a “literary invasion”. Generally speaking, the literary world has to worry as much about my “invasion” as the United States military command has to worry about being invaded by Tonga. Neither me nor the military apparatus of Tonga have our acts sufficiently together to invade anything. Alas, my next book is not called “How to Serve Man” (at least it wasn’t going to be, until you gave me that idea), and I’m ashamed to admit that I had to Google your reference to get it. That episode was from 1962, Bill, and unfortunately I would not yet be born/hatched/spawned for 25 more years.When people say “10 years ago” to me, I still think of The Spice Girls, and Pokemon, and good Adam Sandler movies… but no, people were already bothering each other with sentences on Twitter by then. Now children have wheels, and Donald Trump is running for President. It’s a weird world.

Bill: What makes the human race so humorous and why were you drawn to write about us?

Paul: Humans—unique amongst the animal kingdom on Earth—are inherently hilarious, because they are capable of thinking things like “what is existence?”, but also still have to cut their toenails, and go to work, and cook eggs, and replace socks, and spend at least one Saturday every year de-yellowing all of the bits between the bathroom tiles, whatever they’re called. We can be so massively serious and clever, and yet almost simultaneously, unendingly weird and stupid. We are magnificently, classically absurd in this sense—capable of doing god-like things, yet also constantly having to poo and die, like pigeons. This is funny, as long as you don’t get too caught up in the silly, narcissistic idea that it would be better to live forever, which it wouldn’t.

Bill: How important is this point of view to your comedy?

Paul: I think the “alien point of view” gave me a lot of fun possibilities. Instead of imagining myself and my species as the greatest, smartest things that have ever existed, which I often do when I look at a cow for too long, I could instead imagine Earth, and its little human outbreak, as if through the eyes of a more advanced, more knowledgeable, and more enlightened alien perspective, and see how cute and silly we are in our grandest intentions. Even normal, ordinary, everyday life is suddenly full of before-unnoticed absurdities. Being an alien allows you to question everything—why do we eat meals? What’s hair? Why do we have jobs?

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excerpt from “How to Operate a Human” by Paul Hawkins

Bill: How can you take a step back and look at your subject with fresh eyes? If you are really human, how did you detach yourself and get inside an alien point of view?

Paul: Well, travelling a bit helped, and living in Berlin—outside of my native culture of polite, drunk, faffy English people—helps too. In this sense, I am an alien, assuming you mean in the “Englishman in New York” sense. I wander around, confused, enthusiastic, apologising for myself, trying (and often failing) to communicate convincingly with the host environment’s indigenous creatures. Sometimes I blend in, but sometimes I do something like take my shirt off in only mild German warmth, and am immediately spotted as a UFO (Unidentified Foreigner, Obviously).

This is also one of the more interesting and weird things about travelling. You think you’re doing it to learn more about foreign people and foreign cultures, but spending time abroad generally just makes you realise how normal these people and cultures are, in their own context, which makes you see, understand, and then question your own. The solution to “small town syndrome” is just to visit another small town, and become that town’s foreigner.

There’s a lot of comedy in this topic—noticing the simple fact that humans are all obviously one race, yet seem to have an almost infinite capacity to divide themselves into different clubs and tribes. You could instead, for example, think of humanity like a sea of water, all simply poured into different shaped containers called “countries” and “cultures”. When you are born in a container, you fit in it perfectly… so perfectly, indeed, it seems like it’s made for you. It’s right. It’s normal. From your limited viewpoint, behind the bit of glass your nose is pressed up against, you look out, and see totally different shapes of water to yourself: a Martini glass; a beer mug; a dog bowl; a foot spa. Your conclusion is that that kind of water is different. Weird, even. Look at those freaks.

A lot of the ways we think about ourselves—our nationality, religious beliefs, family, language and accent, shared cultural identity, etc.—are just features of our character that we are born into, arbitrarily, the same as everyone else is. If you can learn to think about yourself slightly more objectively, as an alien might, you can unwind some of this tangled knot, and see how much of that stuff is serving you, which ideas you’ve grown up with are good or helpful, and what other ideas might just be a load of silly baggage from your stupid, ignorant ancestors and the daft inertia of history. This is kind of what the book is about—it’s trying to strip back those layers, and make fun of humans as a whole; to laugh at the normal, ordinary commonalities we all share, like getting dressed, eating, doing a “job”, using tools, making friends, and living in a settlement of some size. An “instruction manual” is the perfect container for jokes like this, because its starting premise is, “this is how humans work!”

Bill: How did you collect your information for the guide on humans? Was it based on personal life?

Paul: There’s certainly a lot of stuff in there that was influenced by my personal life, regardless of how much I’m trying to spin you the yarn that I’m writing about humans like an alien might. Some chapters, indeed, are little more than bizarre, ill-concealed rants about things that I personally don’t get on with, like gyms and mornings. Would an alien be so irrationally antagonistic towards something as neutral as a morning or exercise? I expect not. Or, would an alien be as oddly celebrative of something as neutral as booze or sitting in a bath for absurdly long amounts of time? These are harder bits of wisdom to pin to some source of intergalactic, cosmic intelligence.

Operate_Human_Exercise_Hawkins

excerpt from “How to Operate a Human” by Paul Hawkins

Bill: What was the most difficult subject to research or write about?

Paul: I wrote chapters on things like illness, racism, the environment and the future of humanity, which might not initially sound like the most obvious source material for comedy, but actually it’s often nice and refreshing to pull the optimistic out of these features of life, just as any product’s self-promoting instruction manual would. I think the answers are friendly, positive, and hopeful, but I won’t spoil them here. You’ll have to buy the book to find out why humanity might not be doomed, and why everything will probably be OK after all.

What a cliffhanger!

Bill: You have a very funny blog with numerous examples of your comedic writing style including “Life: the ultimate near-death experience” and “You—a guide to your weird, incredible cosmic existence”. Do your books grow from your blog?

Paul: Thank you very much! Yes and no. I used it a few years ago to try out a few new bits like How to Write a CV and How to Interview Well, which then became my next book “How to Deal with Adulthood” (traditionally published here in Germany in May, but won’t be available in English until a little after). Other than this example, though, there are only really thematic overlaps. In general my books are mostly containers for jokes—that I occasionally sneak cool or interesting ideas into—and my articles are more about cool or interesting ideas—which I cover in jokes, so people notice less that I’m ranting at them.

In the future, I would like to expand on the kind of articles you’ve just mentioned, because I like the challenge of trying to write funny, and hopefully useful, things about trickier or darker topics, which are perhaps less commonly associated with comedy, like death or war or mornings.

 

Bill: Thank you, Paul. Alien or not, you’re a very funny guy. Thanks for sharing your unique point of view on the subject of Point of View. And I’m not convinced there isn’t just a little alien DNA in you somewhere.

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Bill lives with his wife in Madison, WI. Late at night he writes about intelligent mummies, incompetent zombies, and other things that scare him in the hope that someday they no longer will. He’d like to thank his wife and children and especially his grandsons, Nolan and Sonny, for keeping the child alive in his heart. It’s so deeply rooted now nothing could remove it. @bbibojr

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