“Funny You Should Ask” is the perfect Jewish rom-com — the kind of book I wish would get a movie adaptation, like, yesterday. Written by Elisa Sussman, who is also the author of the Jewish YA delight “Drawn That Way,” it tells the story of Jewish writer Chani Horowitz, who gets the assignment of her career: to write a profile of upcoming “Bond” actor Gabe Parker, who also happens to be her longtime movie star crush.
For Chani, a young, idealistic, self-proclaimed “loud Jewish girl,” meeting Gabe, her childhood crush, is a dream. What she doesn’t expect is for Gabe to know who she is — to have read her blog, to know about her life, to arrive to the interview just as prepared to grill her as she is to grill him. The interview turns out to be more than Gabe, or Chani, ever bargained for.
Ten years later, both their careers have been permanently changed by it, and Chani is assigned to write a follow-up to their life-altering article. Will they be able to rekindle that initial spark?
“Funny You Should Ask” tells a story that’s still rare, in which the Jewish heroine gets to be loud and proud and still get the guy. Weaving in interview excerpts and entries from Chani’s blog, the book is a fun escapist romp that is dreamy, vulnerable, and profoundly relatable — making it a perfect summer read.
Hey Alma talked to Sussman about the inspiration behind the book, why Jewish representation is important to her and why loudmouthed Jewish women deserve to be the center of more romances.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
I love the way you wove Chani’s Jewish identity into the book — it felt both very effortless and very specific. Both of your most recent books feature Jewish protagonists. Why is that important to you?
It’s all about representation and visibility! A few years ago, it felt like there were only a handful of romances with Jewish characters — I don’t remember stumbling across any when I was a teenager — so it was a matter of wanting to see myself in genres I love. Both “Funny You Should Ask” and “Drawn That Way” are very personal books, so it made sense that both protagonists are Jewish. It just felt right.
Tell me a little bit about the inspiration(s) for this book! Obviously, I couldn’t help but think of “Notting Hill” and similar “celeb falls in love with regular person” stories, but the first person I thought about as I read about Chani was Jewish journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner — her excellent celebrity profiles and also very Jewish name…
I love Taffy’s work, both her fiction and her nonfiction, and her profiles are one of the many inspirations for Chani and her writing. There have been so many excellent celebrity profiles by women that address the weird, awkward dynamic that is built into that sort of journalism, and I was really interested in expanding upon that. I also really wanted to write a normal person/celeb romance where the “regular” person is very, very much aware of who the celebrity is. Because it’s one thing to learn someone is famous after the fact; it’s quite another to be hyper-aware of it from the beginning. And then add a potential crush on that particular celebrity? Well, that’s a whole extra level of fun, awkward tension to play with.
For Chani, being a “lanky, loudmouthed Jew” seems to be a reason why she believes romance between her and Gabe would be an impossibility. Why do you think that is? (To be fair, I have some inkling, and am thinking of Chani’s rant about a certain Jewish filmmaker we don’t really mention anymore and his hate for Jewish women… But would love to know more of your thoughts!)
Jewish women have not been portrayed in a very complimentary light in pop culture. I grew up with portrayals of us as either spoiled, vapid brats or nagging, controlling bitches — and that’s if we’re even visible at all! It’s rare to see a Jewish woman portrayed as sexy or desirable. If anything, we’re what the guys settles for in order to please his community and have Jewish babies. Those kind of stereotypes are toxic and insidious, and I’m really glad to see more Jewish artists out there challenging them.
This book is a lot about this rivalry between Los Angeles and New York — Chani loves her hometown, but also there’s this thinking that New York is the place to make it as a writer. These are also the cities with the biggest concentration of American Jews in the country. To you, what is the difference between being an LA Jew and NY Jew?
I feel like this is a great set-up for a bagel joke. My grandparents on my father’s side were NY Jews (even after moving to LA) so I really got the best of both worlds in my family. I think we have more similarities than differences — a love of food and art and community and culture exists on both coasts. I think LA Jewish humor is a little more absurdist and silly, while NY Jewish humor is more dry and sarcastic, but there’s a ton of overlap. And we both think that we’re the best coast with the best bagels, naturally.
Did writing this book change the way you thought about celebrity culture in any way?
I feel a lot of empathy for people dealing with fame. There’s this narrative that if you’re famous, you should expect a certain level of scrutiny from the public, that it’s part of the deal, and you essentially deserve to be treated like an object for consumption. This book made me think a lot about fame and how strange and weird it is, and how often it’s conflated with success. Famous people are still people. Fame is not a natural state, and I think we’re all on an ongoing journey navigating it.
I don’t usually ask this question but in this case, it feels important — who is your dream cast for the “Funny You Should Ask” movie?
I try to avoid answering that because I want readers to imagine those characters however they want! I’m always thrilled to hear everyone’s choices, but the only thing that I would insist upon, if this were ever made into a movie, is that that Chani be played by a Jewish actress.
While we’re on that subject, what is your take on Sarah Silverman’s “Jewface” argument and if it’s important to cast Jewish actors as Jewish characters?
I do think it’s important! There are tons of talented Jewish actors out there, probably dying to play characters that represent a community and culture they grew up in. There’s a level of authenticity that exists when you have someone with that identity play a character with the same background, and viewers can sense it. It’s an issue of trust: There’s less of a chance that someone is going to veer toward stereotypes if they have lived experiences.
One of my favorite scenes in the book is when Gabe makes sure he can pronounce Chani’s name. The way he does it is so sweet, and I think also such a nice lesson on how to avoid microaggressions. Tell me a little about the inspiration for this particularly darling moment?
I have a difficult-to pronounce-name (the E really trips people up!) so that scene came from my personal experience — I’m pretty sure everyone with a “confusing” name has their own little tricks and tools to help others with pronunciation. I knew Chani was going to be a name that was confusing for readers, but it was important to me that she have an extremely Jewish name. It’s also a defining moment for Gabe: I feel like it tells us a lot about the kind of person he is — how he treats other people with that particular level of respect and care.
A very important question to me: is Gabe coming to seder at the Horowitz house?
Oh, absolutely! I am pretty sure he’d join with any kids to find the afikomen, and he’d probably ask for the brisket recipe to pass on to his sister.
What are you hoping people take from this book?
I really just hope this book makes people happy. The whole experience has been so joyful, so I hope that readers enjoy reading it as much I enjoyed creating it.