“I’m so embarrassed that I thought I was a failure at age 30,” Austin comedy writer Wendi Aarons told me over Zoom recently, recalling how she’d let go of her Hollywood writing dreams in her late 20s. What she didn’t realize then was just how much writing she’d do in the decades to come. Now in her 50s, Aarons is releasing her second book within four months.
The first, “Ginger Mancino, Kid Comedian,” a middle-grade book about the challenges of middle school, was released in June on Bookbar Press. The second, “I’m Wearing Tunics Now: on Growing Older, Better, and a Hell of Lot Louder,” is out on Nov. 15 on Andrews McMeel Press.
“[‘Tunics’ is] about how much you grow between 30 and 50,” she told me.
A sort of hybrid memoir and comedy book, “Tunics” follows Aarons’ journey precisely through those decades from the days she first traded California for Austin (it was the 90s, before Austin was overrun by Californians–relax!) to finding herself as a writer amidst an otherwise quiet family life.
“My path from 30 to 50 wasn’t all that exciting, but there were small, relatable victories,” she said. But Aarons didn’t have some grandiose transformation, “Eat, Pray, Love”-style. She started writing short humor pieces sharing exaggerated versions of her frustration and submitting them to outlets like storied satire site “McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.”
As she tells it, her writing came as much from a desire to connect as to carve out a space that was hers. As she explains in “Tunics,” she’d found she was too quiet and normal for LA, yet not “normal” enough for the mom mafia of her Austin suburb, leaving her without a solid feeling of community.
Writing funny prose pieces about the things that irritated her — sample headline: “Welcome to the Middle-Aged Restaurant, Please Stop Complaining” — helped Aarons find other writers and friends who got her point of view. “It was just putting myself out there more and finding the people who understood me,” she said.
Her first McSweeney’s piece, “An Open Letter to Mr. James Thatcher, Brand Manager, Proctor and Gamble” — a missive about the absurdities of maxi-pad advertising — went viral in 2007. Soon, she was writing jokes for outlets like “US Weekly.”
“Tunics” focuses on the less noticeable transitions and conflicts, like dealing with a judgey suburban mom crew, the agony of job searching in your 40s, and getting involved in activism, like the 2013 Stand With Wendy protests at the Texas Capitol, for the first time in her life.
“There’s so much growth between 40 and 50 where you don’t worry about what other people think of you, and that’s very freeing,” says Aarons.
But especially reassuring is the swagger she writes of gaining when she found herself slowly becoming invisible to men after a lifetime of feeling limited by their gaze. (A limitation, no doubt, that many women can relate to no matter their age.)
As she describes a trip to Vegas with some other female writers, “Nobody looked twice or even once at us. We could have robbed $50 million from the vault at Caesar’s palace because we probably wouldn’t have even been seen on the security cameras… I felt untouchable. Is that what men feel like all the time? Like they can just take up space unapologetically?”
Aarons found that going unnoticed was far more gratifying than she’d expected. “It’s given me too much bravado,” she laughed when I asked her about it. “I’m gonna get punched at some point.”
With her middle grade book, “Ginger Mancino,” she takes turns toward fiction. The story follows a bubbly child comedian forced to start middle school when her career takes a dive.
The inspiration came from Aarons’ own inclinations as a kid. She had obsessed over comedy, but because it wasn’t encouraged in girls, she didn’t think of herself as a comedy nerd until adulthood.
She became interested in creating a character that was both a girl and funny, to encourage young women to recognize their goofiness as a strength. “The more I worked on [Ginger],” she told me, “the more impassioned I became thinking about how girls aren’t encouraged to be funny growing up and how once girls turn 13, they start to lose their goofy selves. I wanted to encourage them to keep that personality.”
In fact, the first publisher that took interest in the book had requested she make the main character a boy. Aarons refused.
“I want girls and women to use that funny voice and appreciate that voice in other women. I want girls to accept that side of themselves — to know that it’s brave to be funny. Any time you say something funny, it’s an act of bravery because you don’t know how it’ll be received.”
At first blush, Aarons’ two books cover experiences so different you’d think they couldn’t come from the same author. But Aarons saw the similarities instead. Both adolescence and middle age are viewed as awkward transitionary phases that everyone needs to get through as quickly as possible.
Notably, pop culture treats both life stages as desperately uncool, so they’re generally ignored.
“They’re more maligned,” Aarons told me. “Puberty is uncomfortable; it’s awkward. Middle age can be, too. You suddenly don’t look the way you’ve always looked or you don’t feel the same way.”
Likewise the teen years and midlife share a search for identity. “You’re just trying to find your spot in the world. It’s finding your footing,” Aarons explained.
But ultimately, both her books focus on the importance of friendship for girls and women. “I want them to realize how important friends are,” Aarons said of her hopes for her readers. “They really can be life-saving and life-changing. You’re never too old to find someone that you can hang out with all the time.”
Aarons will have a reading, author discussion, and book signing at Book People at 7 p.m. Oct. 22 to celebrate the release of “I’m Wearing Tunics Now.” Get tickets here.