Mike MacDonald and Jilly Gagnon are co-authors of Choose Your Own Misery: The Office Adventure, a darkly comic take on the “Choose Your Own Adventure” children’s novels of the 1980s. In their version—definitely not for kids—readers play as a typical office drone who’s miserable at work and in life in general.
Mike formerly worked as a contributing writer for The Onion; he also founded his own Canadian satirical website, The Smew. Mike has been a journalist in Toronto and internationally, working for CBC News, Postmedia, and Journalists for Human Rights. Find him on Twitter @theonald.
Jilly’s work has appeared in Newsweek, Elle, Vanity Fair, Boston Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Toast, and The Hairpin, among others. Choose Your Own Misery: The Office Adventure is her first comic novel. Her first young adult novel, #famous, is forthcoming from HarperCollins in early 2017. Find her on Twitter @jillygagnon.
1MFWF: What led to you choose the office as the setting for this first book in your Choose Your Own Misery series?
Mike: Jilly and I have been writing comedy together for about five years now. In that time, we’ve worked collaboratively on newspaper articles, webisodes, jokes for The Onion, jokes for other websites, television scripts—you name it. We have a mentality of constantly trying to come up with new ideas, knowing that most of them won’t be things we end up pursuing.
Jilly: One day Mike came in with this idea about a choose-your-path book where you’re an office drone who can’t make your life better no matter what you choose. We were both in office jobs that were TERRIBLE fits for us. Probably that dissatisfaction with our own situations made this idea seem like a perfect fit for our next project.
1MFWF: Did you draw on personal experiences (of your own or of friends/colleagues) for any of the book’s adventures?
Mike: We tried our best to incorporate the sense of underlying malaise we felt while working in an office rather than hitting on any one specific experience.
Jilly: Agreed. Usually the frustrations you actually experience at work are either far too specific, or far too generic to make for good humor. Though obviously I’ve tried to excise a growth on my own, with a pen-knife before, in order to avoid huge hospital bills. Who hasn’t?
1MFWF: Is there something specific to being a millennial that makes the office seem particularly miserable?
Jilly: I think so, absolutely. We’ve been raised with this “Everybody Gets a Trophy!” mentality, and once you get into the workplace, you’re not only not rewarded for being a special unicorn, you’re often punished for it. The things you’ve been raised to value in yourself—creativity, independence, pride in what you do—are actually the things they’re trying to stamp out of you at work. It’s no surprise to me that Millennials are opting out of traditional office careers in huge numbers. Offices are still being run with this baby-boomer mentality, but not only do we have none of the security and benefits that created that workplace, we’ve been raised in a culture that left us ill-suited to it.
Mike: And Millennials often have certain skills—coding, social media, video production—in spades. However, in my experience, the people who are in charge of things often have trouble even setting up a Facebook page. It’s frustrating because good ideas take a long time to filter up, if they ever do. I recently worked at a huge, nationally-funded news organization here in Canada, *cough, cough, the CBC* and you couldn’t even embed a photo into the article page. Tossing in a GIF… that was unthinkable. The mantra was “digital first,” but the reality was that we were using tools from circa 1990. It didn’t make people feel good about the work they were producing.
1MFWF: What do you think is the single most miserable aspect of office life?
Jilly: I’m a person who works in short bursts of intense productivity, but then I need to get up and walk around, or read a book, or otherwise NOT focus on drudge-work for a while; for me, the sense of being chained to a desk for specific hours every single day, and being measured by that, not by the quality of your work, was the worst part.
Mike: Office management hierarchy. It can be frustrating for anyone to have a boss rework your best ideas, or to have to try to play to their tastes, not your own skills. But when that boss’s boss, and the boss above that, and so on, all get to weigh in, it’s almost impossible to retain any sense of pride in your work.
1MFWF: You wrote this book together as a remote team of two. Did that flexibility help you avoid misery in your own working lives?
Mike: Totally! By the time we were putting ideas together for this book, I had left my office job and moved to East Africa. When you can set your own schedule and work remotely, it’s a lot easier to live a more balanced life.
Jilly: I think working with Mike from afar was one of the bright lights that got me through the dark, dank tunnel of office life. I’d send him emails about story threads from my desk-prison, or write up one of our mini-chapters, and not only get that mental gear-switch I needed, but also the sense of superiority you get from minor, pointless acts of rebellion. Of course eventually even that wasn’t enough, and I jumped ship, too.
Mike: For the last year or so, we’ve been treating our projects together like a day job, with deadlines and daily meetings over Skype.
Jilly: Of course all that winds up being very flexible. Ironically, writing about the office was the direct path to us creating lives outside it. Thank god.
Learn more from Mike and Jilly about their book, Choose Your Own Misery: The Office Adventure.
photo credit: Jilly Gagnon