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JJ Barnes The Table Read

Written by JJ Barnes


I interviewed author and cancer survivor Mark Kantrowitz about his new book, Tumor Humor, the experiences that inspired him to write it, and his creative process.

Tell me a bit about who you are.

I am an 18-year cancer survivor. I was diagnosed two weeks after the birth of my son.

My cancer was treated with multiple surgeries and three cycles of platinum-based chemotherapy.

Cancer treatment was extremely harsh. I was hospitalized after every cycle for breakthrough nausea and bone pain. I also experienced every rare side effect of treatment, including high-pitch hearing loss, tinnitus, peripheral edema, peripheral neuropathy, Raynaud’s phenomenon, pancreatitis, and gall stones, among other side effects. I still experience all of these side effects today, along with constant pain and numbness in the extremities.

But, better to be alive with side effects than dead without.

Mark Kantrowitz, author of Tumor Humor, interview on The Table Read
Mark Kantrowitz

When did you first WANT to write a book?

I started writing cancer jokes to help cope with the challenges of cancer treatment. Friends and family also contributed jokes.

Having a sense of tumor helped alleviate stress and lighten my mood. Maintaining a positive attitude helped me push through the toxic rigors of treatment. Some of the jokes were even funny, and not just to fellow cancer patients.

A good joke can’t hurt, unless you just had abdominal surgery, in which case, yeah, it does hurt to laugh.

When did you take a step to start writing?

I posted some of my cancer jokes to my personal web page, where they languished for more than a decade.

There were almost enough jokes for a book. I decided to finish the book two years ago to celebrate what I thought would be my last MRI. However, in the roller coaster that is cancer treatment and surveillance, my actual last MRI wasn’t until this year. But, at long last, my oncologist finally said that he never wants to see me again.

How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?

Tumor Humor is my 13th book.

It took me a year after I decided to finish the book to actually finish it. Writing jokes isn’t easy.

It typically takes me three months to a year to write a book, from start to finish.

I have also written puzzle books and books about planning and paying for college.

How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?

My most recent book, Who Graduates from College? Who Doesn’t?, took almost a year to research and write. I first developed some of the insights more than a decade ago, but had never published them. The book provided me with an opportunity to update the old results and develop hundreds of new insights.

Mark Kantrowitz, author of Tumor Humor, interview on The Table Read

Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write Who Graduates From College?

Throughout my career, I have acted as a catalyst for improvements in college access, college affordability and college success. I am the leading national expert on all aspects of college admissions and financial aid, serving as a thought leader and change agent. I have worked to remove barriers to college enrollment and completion, and to help families make smarter, more informed decisions.

The goal of my latest book is to provide students, parents and policymakers with tools to improve college completion without sacrificing college access. The book is comprehensive and identifies hundreds of factors that have a positive or negative impact on college graduation rates.

What were your biggest challenges with writing Who Graduates From College?

My biggest challenge always involves finding the time to write.

What was your research process for Who Graduates From College?

I threw mud at the wall, and saw what stuck.

Many researchers start with a hypothesis and seek data to support or refute the hypothesis. But, this often biases them to ignore data that contradicts the hypothesis and to overlook other potential findings in the data.

Instead, I evaluated every possible variable. Some variables had positive predictive value. Some variables had negative predictive value. Many variables had no impact. But, exploring every possibility avoids prejudging the question.

How did you plan the structure of Who Graduates From College?

The structure of the book evolved naturally from the nature of the data. Some of the results involved student and family demographics, some involves secondary school characteristics, and some involved college characteristics.

For other books, I use a chronological sequencing of the chapters.

Mark Kantrowitz, author of Who Graduates From College?, interview on The Table Read

Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Who Graduates From College need?

I did not use an external editor. Instead, printing out a copy of the book makes it look different enough that I can edit it myself. After I edited it a few times, I sent copies of the drafts to friends, family and colleagues for their comments and suggestions.

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What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a book?

Try to write at least a few pages every day. Start small, exploring a single thought. There’s a lot of inertia in the writing process, so it is more important to get started than to write the perfect paragraph. An outline can help you get organized, but sometimes you should add the structure later. It also helps to set aside a place where you can write without distractions.

Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?

I am planning on writing an additional puzzle book, as well as additional books about financial aid and student loans.

And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?

Five of my books have been bestsellers. A few have won awards, such as the Excellence in Financial Literacy Education (EIFLE) Award from the Institute for Financial Literacy. I frequently hear from readers who have found my books helpful.

Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:

Information about the Tumor Humor book can be found at http://www.cancerjokes.us/. The book is available on Amazon at https://amzn.to/3jbQF5X.

The Who Graduates from College? Who Doesn’t? book is available on Amazon at https://amzn.to/3pFDksw.

The How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid book is available on Amazon at https://amzn.to/3DSA8Ns.

Information about the puzzle books can be found at http://laddergrams.com/.

Links to my higher education policy papers can be found at http://www.studentaidpolicy.com/.

My social media links include https://www.linkedin.com/in/markkantrowitz/ and https://twitter.com/mkant.

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