Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 21, 2024

Ham on Wry: How to become an obscure novelist

By MICHAEL KUN | May 17, 2021



Students play volleyball on Freshman Quad in 1980, when Kun began his humor column.

  1. From 1980 to 1984, when I was very young and very thin and absolutely adorable if your vision was blurry, I wrote a silly humor column for The News-Letter. It was called Ham on Wry. I still don’t know why it was called Ham on Wry. That’s the name the paper’s scruffy editor came up with (hello, Andrew Hurley), and it stuck for four years through a couple more editors (hello, Steve Eisenberg). I probably should have asked one of them what the name of the column meant. They probably would have explained it to me if I’d asked.
  2. Okay, I know it’s a pun. I know there’s a sandwich called “ham on rye.” And I know what “wry” means. I looked it up, which in 1980 required some effort. I actually had to get up off of my rear end, walk all the way across the room, take a fat book off the shelf, then flip through the pages until I got to the W’s.
  3. After my first column was published, a local Baltimorean wrote a boiling hot Letter to the Editor accusing me of being “solipsistic.” I had to look that up, too. I had to get up, walk across the room and so on. It was tiring having to look up so much stuff.
  4. I’m an obscure novelist now. I won’t tell you about all of my books here. You can look them up if you’re so inclined. And you don’t even have to get up off your rear end to do it. Lucky you.
  5. The main character in two of my obscure novels is named Ham. If one person who remembered Ham on Wry got a kick out of seeing that name, it was worth it.
  6. Ham was short for Hamilton. Yes, I had a main character named Hamilton more than a decade before the hit Broadway show. I just wish I’d actually called one of the books Hamilton. God knows how many copies I would’ve sold by mistake.
  7. When people ask me how I became an obscure novelist, I usually tell them that I never intended to be obscure or a novelist, but that it started out with writing that Ham on Wry column for The News-Letter. Which is 100%, honest-to-God true. Then they ask me why it was called Ham on Wry, and I tell them I really don’t know why, and they invariably conclude that I’m not very smart and probably didn’t even go to Hopkins in the first place because it’s supposed to be a school for super smart people like the valedictorian of their high school class. She went to Hopkins, and she’s a doctor now. She even has a summer house in Nags Head.
  8. I’m not a doctor. I don’t have a summer house. But I do have a refrigerator with a water dispenser right on the door, like you’d see in a fancy home on the Upper East Side or other fancy places I don’t know much about. It dispenses ice, too. Two kinds. Cubed and crushed.
  9. Sorry for going on about the refrigerator. I’m not usually such a show-off. That valedictorian thing just got to me.
  10. Anyway, it really is 100%, honest-to-God true that I never would have had a writing career — or even thought about having a writing career — if it hadn’t been for The News-Letter. You see, one of the professors in the Writing Seminars Department (Stephen Dixon) tracked me down one afternoon at the union desk, where I worked part-time giving away candy and newspapers to other students. (Correction: For legal reasons, let’s say “selling candy and newspapers to other students.”) He’d read my column in The News-Letter, liked it and invited me to take some short story classes with him. I did. I think I took eight different classes with him. They had names like Advanced Short and Long Fiction Seminar or Intermediate Short Story Writing for Advanced Beginners. They all seemed exactly the same to me. I’d write a story, Stephen would laugh and the other students would scowl at me like I was dating their sister. The other students called me “teacher’s pet.” Other names, too. Most of them involved profanities.
  11. Here’s something you may not know: Writers can be cruel to each other. Very, very cruel. Students in writing programs can be even worse. Imagine having your stories critiqued by the people who post comments about YouTube videos. Only they know where you live, too.
  12. So, without The News-Letter, I never would have met my mentor and friend Stephen Dixon, and he never would have sent some of my stories to an editor at a prestigious magazine (who rejected them, but still), and he never would have encouraged me to write professionally. For money. Which I kind of do, unless you count that one novel of mine that actually lost money. Seriously, they gave away more copies of it to reviewers than they actually sold, so it shows up in bright red letters on the publisher’s ledger. It was one of the books with a main character named Ham. I would have been hurt if I didn’t think at the time that having a book that lost money was funny. I still think it is. I like to tell people that I wrote the worst-selling book of all time. I hope they put that on my gravestone. Not any time soon, but eventually. And with an exclamation point at the end. “He wrote the worst-selling book of all time! And he had to look up the word ‘wry’ in a dictionary! What a dope!”
  13. It ate at Stephen that he was not as well-known as he deserved to be. He came this close to winning the National Book Award once (imagine me holding my thumb and index finder about a quarter-inch apart). That would have changed everything for him, as it would for any writer. But he didn’t win, and his obituary last year didn’t say “National Book Award winner Stephen Dixon.” His disappointment was, sadly, the last thing we talked about before he passed away. He texted me when I was visiting my mother to tell me that the New York Times Book Review was going to review his new book on the cover the very next day. I ran around like a madman, telling my mother and her friends about how he was going to be featured on the cover. When I saw the New York Times Book Review the next day, he wasn’t on the cover. He wasn’t anywhere in it. When I texted him, he responded that he was just pulling my leg: “I was kidding. The New York Times doesn’t give a damn about me.” Stephen was a much better writer than I am, which is probably why being an obscure novelist doesn’t bother me. I’m just happy if anyone reads my books.
  14. Twenty-something years ago, I wrote a silly little novel called The Locklear Letters. Stephen contributed one of the cover blurbs for it. Imagine your dad telling everyone how proud he was of you; that’s what that felt like.
  15. In that silly little novel, the main character (Sid Straw) wrote a humor column for his college newspaper, and some of his columns appear in the book. Those columns were taken almost verbatim from my old columns for The News-Letter, save for a name change here or there. And because I got paid for writing that book, I technically got paid for writing those columns for The News-Letter. So, in retrospect, I was a professional college newspaper columnist. Imagine that.
  16. They made a silly little movie of that silly little novel. It just came out in April. They changed the title to Eat Wheaties! and they re-released the book with the new title. In the movie version, the main character (still Sid Straw) didn’t write a humor column for his college newspaper. Instead, he was in an improv group in college. So when people ask me about the movie now, they don’t ask me if I wrote a humor column in college, they ask if I did improv. Somehow, that question always seems like an insult, like asking someone if they play the accordion or collect spoons.
  17. If you did improv in college, that’s fine by me. The same for playing the accordion.
  18. No comment on the spoons.
  19. When I look back at writing for The News-Letter, what surprises me most is how little time I actually spent in the office itself. I usually wrote my column in my dorm or apartment a few days in advance, turned it into the editor (hello again, Andrew and Steve), then turned around and left the building. I suppose I could have stayed longer if I’d wanted, but I didn’t stick around because I felt out of place. They were the real writers. I was just the guy who wrote goofy stuff.
  20. Also, that office sometimes smelled funny, like there were dead squirrels hidden in the walls. 
  21. I’m no longer the very young and very thin and absolutely adorable boy who wrote a weekly column for The News-Letter. I’m old and out-of-shape and sometimes get winded if I type too fast. I’m a little out of breath now, to tell you the truth. And I get sentimental about practically everything now. I spend far too much time thinking about how my life would have been different had I made a few different choices here or there. If I hadn’t gone to Hopkins, or if I hadn’t written for The News-Letter, God only knows where I would be today. God only knows what I would be doing with my life or who my friends and family would be or whether I would still love cake as much as I do. But I know with certainty that I never would have had a writing career, obscure or otherwise. I know that the way I know the sky is blue and water is wet. I know that in my heart. 
  22. Of course, I also wouldn’t have written the worst-selling book of all time! 
  23. Hooray for me! 

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