Protect Your Neck: Author, throat puncher Jen Mann hosts a moms' night out at AADL


Jen Mann

Jen Mann's publishing career began when a blog post about Elf on the Shelf mania went viral.

When you put the wrong date in your calendar for an interview with Jen Mann, the blogger/author behind People I Want to Punch in the Throat, you kind of fear that you’ll be added to the list.

But Mann -- who will be coming to the downtown library for a moms’ night out event on Wednesday, October 11 at 7 pm, as part of a book tour to promote her latest humorous essay collection, Working with People I Want to Punch in the Throat -- couldn’t have been more understanding, despite her famously feisty, tell-it-like-it-is persona.

Mann first appeared on most readers’ radars back in 2011 when her caustic blog post about failing to keep up with other Elf on the Shelf mommies went viral. The response took Mann (a realtor at the time) by surprise, but she also knew that she needed to act fast if she wanted to keep her new readers engaged.

“I had a lot of emotions,” said Mann. “On the one hand, I was terrified. I’d never had a million people read something I’d written. And while most responses were positive, there were also five percent of them that were people who were threatening my children and things like that. ... I decided then and there what to do. I wouldn’t post photos of them or use their real names on my blog. But I’d also wanted to be a writer since I was five, and I had 17,000 fans by the end of that first night, so I had to figure out how to keep them fed.”

Some major media outlets also came calling at that time, but because she didn’t want her identity revealed at that time, nor did she want reporters or camera crews to come to her Kansas home, Mann decided to work around them by instead focusing on developing and growing her blog.

“I thought, ‘I’ll just have to do it on my own,’” said Mann. “But I knew I had to take the opportunity I had and do my best to catapult it into something bigger while still respecting my family’s privacy. That was the balance I was looking for.”

Of course, none of us exist in a vacuum, so writing about personal experiences inevitably means writing about those we come into contact with or love -- a tricky paradox for bloggers wanting to write their truth while also respecting others’ privacy. According to Mann, she always honors friends’/family members’ requests to speak “off the record,” and keeps some people out of her writing altogether.

“You do figure out quickly who your real friends are,” said Mann. “There are a few people I’m no longer friends with. ... But this is by far the best job I’ve ever had, and I feel like, if you can’t support my dream, then I can’t be friends with you. ... But then some people treat me like I don’t have a job. When I worked in real estate, people asked me about my work all the time. Now, we’ll be at a party or something, and people don’t even ask. Like they don’t want to know.”

But on the other side are readers who only know her through her posts, which veer toward self-deprecating snark. The blog launched in spring 2011 after Mann’s husband encouraged her to start it -- not only as a creative outlet, but also as a daily means of getting enraging or frustrating things off her chest. (He even convinced her to give the blog its distinctive name, based on how often she used the phrase when complaining about various incidents.)

“To me, my brand is me, and my blog is me, and whatever I’m feeling that day, that’s what I’m writing,” said Mann. “There have been times when I’ve said, ‘If you’re looking for funny, today’s not the day.’ ... My blog and my brand are about being honest, pulling the veil back, and showing how we’re not all perfect. Social media’s always showing us what’s good in other people’s lives, not so much what’s hard, and what bothers us. I think that’s why Elf on the Shelf went viral. ... But there have been tons of times when publishers and agents have told me, ‘It would help if you’d tone down your rhetoric.’”

As you might expect, Mann’s response to this suggestion involved unprintable expletives (she’s been called “Erma Bombeck with F-bombs”).

Instead, she’s stayed true to her voice, maintained a fan base of 3 million on social media, and published numerous books: anthologies (with work by fellow mom bloggers she admires); essay collections; and earlier this year, a well-received young adult novel called My Lame Life.

“I wrote it because my kids asked me to write something they could read,” said Mann. “They never read the Punch in the Throat stuff -- it’s not appropriate, and it doesn’t appeal to them. It’s not for kids. ... But My Lame Life is done in the same vein as Punch in the Throat. It’s about a young girl using her voice for those who don’t have a voice. It’s a love letter to my daughter, really. I want her to be strong and speak up for herself and others. She’s in fifth grade now, and will be in middle school next year, and we all know how much middle school sucks. But I felt like, if someone had told me the things I say in this book when I was that age, it wouldn’t have sucked as much.”

Mann is currently working on a follow-up to My Lame Life, and then plans to pursue a women’s novel in the spirit of Bridget Jones’ Diary or Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

If you’re thinking this leaves less time in her life for blogging, you’re right, but Mann feels that her book projects are a better use of her time. She now only blogs a few times a month -- down from every weekday, following her first viral success -- and is generally more likely to split her work days between writing and keeping up with social media.

But Mann seems to be enjoying her current book tour, particularly events that bill themselves as a moms’ night out.

“Nothing against the guys, but when women get together and laugh at themselves, there’s nothing more fun,” said Mann.

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.

Jen Mann hosts a moms' night out at the Ann Arbor District Library's downtown branch on Wednesday, October 11 at 7 pm. Free.