Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Off the Wall

Humorist finds widespread appeal with frank, irreverent column

By Michael Sims

OCTOBER 25, 1999:  P.S. Wall, the humor columnist, dunks biscotti in her coffee, looks around at the Fido lunch crowd, and leans close to reveal a surprising occupational hazard: "People are always stealing the reading copies of my books. Now they're even cutting certain stories out of them. When I was doing my reading at the Southern Festival of Books, I got to the last page--and it was gone. Someone had cut the next story out--one I'd read the day before, so it had to have happened then."

Wall also tells of leaving a mall after dark recently and hearing footsteps behind her, pausing with her, speeding up with her. Finally a man tapped her shoulder. She whirled around in full self-defense mode, only to hear, "Ms. Wall, I'm a big fan of yours. I was wondering if you could sign my books." Before he left, the man remarked that in person she isn't really all that funny.

Wall's stalker fits right in with the parade of eccentrics who populate her life and work. This trend began at an early age. "My background is very Southern. My family moved to the Northwest when I was a kid. When I was about 8, I had a teacher who thought that a Southern accent was a sign of ignorance. She made me stand up in front of the class and read, and then she would have the class imitate my accent. Then she made me say the words over and over again in a different way. She thought she was doing me a favor. In a way, she really did, because it made me start writing. I couldn't say what I felt, so I would write it."

Decades later, this incident led to Wall's writing career. "I would always write down my feelings, or what I thought of people. [Wall's then-boyfriend] Sweetie ran across a couple of these four years ago and said, 'Have somebody read these.' I went to The Review Appeal in Franklin. The editor read three of them, never cracked a smile, and asked me if I could do it every week. They didn't pay me, didn't even give me a free newspaper. But I thought, 'Well, this is kinda fun.' Then a guy in Georgia called and said, 'I pay $4 a week for Lewis Grizzard. I'll give you $5.' "

Since 1995, much has grown from this modest beginning. Another paper called, followed by others. Then a publisher in Kansas City told Universal Press Syndicate about her. In her first year of writing, Wall was named Humor Columnist of the Year by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. In 1997 Rutledge Hill published a collection of columns, My Love Is Free...But the Rest of Me Don't Come Cheap, which was picked up by Ballantine and came out in trade paperback several months ago. She was also a semifinalist this year for the Thurber Award, considered the Pulitzer Prize of humor writing. Her new hardback, If I Were a Man, I'd Marry Me, is also from Ballantine, as part of an impressive two-book deal. Although Wall has only been syndicated for two years, her column is already carried by 21 newspapers, including one in Australia, and by CompuServe and U-Express. From her unpaid weekly column in Franklin, Wall has risen to a weekly audience of 5 million.

Wall lives, with the man called Sweetie, in a barn-turned-house on 144 acres somewhere in the wilds of Fairview, where she turns everyday life into fodder for writing. Her titles are firmly in the tradition of Lewis Grizzard and Erma Bombeck. In fact, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution described Wall as "Erma Bombeck with attitude." But Wall has a most un-Bombeckian take on life, especially in her no-nonsense comments about sex.

On seeing a photo of the younger man a friend of hers is dating, she writes, "If I were a man, I'd have to cross my legs." On men in general, she observes, "Guys are like dogs. You wish you could take them all home when they're puppies. But after they've howled all night and slobbered all over everything, you come to realize that the ones who are already trained are much easier to live with." And of her relationship with her husband, she writes, "Sweetie watches my hormones like a farmer studies the Farmer's Almanac. He knows when to plow, when to plant, and when to give it a rest." Sweetie is the only name ever given to Wall's significant other in her writing. Other friends appear under fictional names, while some characters are composites of several people or even entirely fictional.

Wall is equally blunt about topics besides sex. On children: "People used to say kids should be seen and not heard. What do we need to see them for? I say we leave them in daycare until they're old enough to vote." On her husband standing in a line of overweight people outside an airplane bathroom: "Pinched between two albino sumo wrestlers, he looks like a rectal thermometer." And on the sociology of rural Southern aspirations: "Muslims go to Mecca. Jews go to Jerusalem. My people go to Graceland. Elvis is the standard to which all us white trash aspire. He's like white compost."

The real Paula S. Wall is very different from the semifictional character who narrates her column. For one thing, she is attractive and smart, two attributes she downplays in her everywoman persona. The columnist also presents herself as uncultured, as when she dozes off during a classical music concert. When she awakens, she writes, "I actually recognize some of the music and, in the fever of the moment, can't help but quietly sing along. 'Kill da wabbit.... Kill da wabbit....' " But the real Wall is a literate writer with a background in chemistry, biology, and ecology.

Wall's approach varies from column to column, from folksy to feisty. Not every arrow hits its mark. Sometimes that's because the arrow was too heavy or not sufficiently barbed. But Wall provides a high percentage of inspired lunacy, as when she and Sweetie remove a lizard biting the ear of their cat, or when she recounts Sweetie's determined efforts to get to a topless beach in Martinique. The result is an amusing and original voice that might be characterized in words that Wall herself used to describe someone else: "Not only did he choose the road less traveled, he chose the road still under construction."

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