That’s the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and the interview took place on August 13, 2008. Here’s the audio:
Here’s the transcript:
Peter Mares: The Writing Class is a piece of darkly comic crime fiction. The hero, Amy Gallup, had early success as a novelist but in recent years her words have dried up. She now ekes out a living teaching evening classes in creative writing at a second-rate college. The weekly class is about the only thing that gets Amy out of the house, and while jaded, Amy is a good teacher and strives to do a professional job.
The novel begins with the start of a new class that brings together an odd assortment of aspiring authors; a pompous doctor, a young feminist forever complaining about gender stereotypes, a divorcee whose real interest is in meeting women, and an older woman who won’t hear a critical word said about anyone else’s work. There are some writers with latent talent and some hopeless cases incapable of a clichÃ©-free sentence.
In short, it’s a class much like any other, until things start to go a bit weird. Instead of the constructive criticism of fellow students’ work that’s called for, someone is writing poison pen letters, vicious and nasty. The letters escalate into threats and then the first class member ends up dead.
The author of The Writing Class is Jincy Willett who joins me from San Diego. Jincy Willett, welcome to The Book Show.
Jincy Willett: How do you do?
Peter Mares: You teach creative writing. Have you often wished that your students have dropped dead?
Jincy Willett: If I did I wouldn’t admit it. No, I like most of my students and I don’t want them to start killing each other. But I was inspired by the random thought some years ago that some day at one of these workshops somebody’s going to get hurt, just inevitably, so why not make a novel out of it.
Peter Mares: Give us a little taste of The Writing Class, a reading that introduces us more to the central character of the teacher Amy Gallup.
Jincy Willett: Certainly.
[reading from When Amy had still been writing fiction… to …almost as hard as writing.]
Peter Mares: Amy Gallup is a pretty sad figure.
Jincy Willett: Yes, I think she is, but she’s got a sense of humour. But yes, she’s very sad, she’s clinically depressed, and actually it’s kind of a challenge to write a pleasant novel about a clinically depressed person. You have to do some tricks to make them clinically depressed in an entertaining way. But she is sad, yes.
Peter Mares: Because I guess you risk losing our sympathy for her if…
Jincy Willett: Sure. It’s what writing teachers call the fallacy of imitative form. If you want to write about a scary character or event, then you have to scare the reader. If you want your character to be hilarious, you can’t get away with saying ‘he was the funniest guy we ever met’, you have to make the reader laugh. If you want your character to be lovable you have to make the reader love him. But there’s a whole subset of things, like depression and ennui and being repulsive that you have to figure out a way to evoke in the reader without making the reader throw the book across the room.
Peter Mares: Exactly, because it’s not going to work to make the reader depressed, is it, that’s not going to have the desired result.
Jincy Willett: Yes, and the funny thing is…suppose you write about a boring person, you have to make them boring in such a way that in fact they’re the least boring people on earth. It’s a trick.
Peter Mares: They have to be entertaining to the reader.
Jincy Willett: That’s right.
Peter Mares: Amy Gallup lives as a semi-recluse with only her aloof basset hound Alphonse for company, and she’s a loner who hates to be alone. I’m hoping, I suppose, that there’s not too much autobiography in here because, like you, Amy Gallup teaches creative writing, works as a freelance editor, like you she lives in Escondido…you haven’t got a basset hound called Alphonse, have you?
Jincy Willett: My basset hound died recently, which was why I was able to use him without any moral compunction. Sure. I always use myself like crazy, the only thing that I don’t use is the actual facts of my life, my past…there are things that I won’t use but I’m happy to use my personal self and parts of my character and the actual house that I live in. I’m just lazy enough…I mean, why not? You don’t have to sit there and rack your brain, you know what your house looks like.
Peter Mares: So have you got the same ingenious shelving system that Amy Gallup has for all her paperbacks?
Jincy Willett: Yes, absolutely. You would recognise my house.
Peter Mares: Describe that shelving system for our listeners.
Jincy Willett: Before I moved in…I’m a pack rat and I didn’t want to throw away my…I had too many shelves for wall space so I put pine shelving up maybe eight inches below the ceiling in all the rooms so that my paperbacks are all alphabetised up where you can’t get them, you have to use one of those tools that you reach up. But they’re up there, they’re all lining the ceiling in wasted space which wouldn’t be used for anything otherwise.
Peter Mares: So you couldn’t bear to throw them away so you put them where you can’t reach them.
Jincy Willett: That’s right, and I never look at them and it’s a complete waste of effort, but there you go.
Peter Mares: Amy Gallup, your character, hasn’t written for years and, as she says, the only thing harder than writing is not writing. Does that come from personal experience? Have you suffered a drought in your writing at some point?
Jincy Willett: Absolutely. I was way over deadline with this particular novel, and I felt like any minute some mobster was going to come over and break my knees, because I’d already spent the advance. My publisher is lovely, they never even gave me a hard time about it, but I spent a lot of time not writing and I spend lots of time completely dry. Why, I tell myself (and I think it’s at least partly true), is that when I’m not writing I am writing, because I’m one of the writers that when I actually write a page I don’t revise it. Some people do drafts and drafts of one piece, I just do one. So maybe I can kind of make an excuse for how long it took me to write this that way. Things have to simmer in your mind, you have to not be thinking about them in order to work out problems, you know?
Peter Mares: Yes, you can’t just run at it directly, as it were.
Jincy Willett: I certainly can’t, no.
Peter Mares: Jincy, central to the plot of The Writing Class is that everyone in this creative writing workshop knows that one of their number is ‘the sniper’, as you call him, the author of these hateful letters and probably a murderer. So no one can quite trust anyone else, yet they all need to work together if they’re going to solve the mystery.
Jincy Willett: Yes, and I think more to the point they all need to stay together if they’re going to keep writing. I don’t know if this makes any sense, but have you ever been part of a group that just clicked really well? To me it was kind of an interesting philosophical issue; would you consider actually staying with a group if you liked everybody in it and yet intellectually you knew at the same time that one of the people was not who you thought he or she was?
Peter Mares: Someone was deceiving you and threatening you as well.
Jincy Willett: But you don’t know who it is, and meanwhile you’re getting so much out of the community that you’re in that you’re loathe to leave it.
Peter Mares: Because in fact Amy Gallup gets sacked by the college and the students insist that she keeps teaching them. They decide to become autonomous and run the weekly writing workshop themselves.
Jincy Willett: That’s right. The truth is, people who want to write, if they get a good writing teacher or if they get into a place where they can actually feel free to be creative and to be critical, they like to keep going. You’d have to do a lot to stop them. I have no idea whether having a murder…
Peter Mares: A couple of murders might put…
Jincy Willett: Yes, I think that’s probably an exaggeration, but who knows.
Peter Mares: In each weekly class, of course, a student submits a piece of writing for general appraisal, and it could be an awful piece of science fiction or a medical melodrama or a romance or whatever, and Amy and the other class members have to examine this writing with a clinical literary eye, searching for hints that the author might be the one, might be the murderer.
Jincy Willett: That’s right, and also, in keeping with the point of the class, giving honest feedback about the piece itself. I prefer to believe that the class, even when things were really getting creepy, was more about the writing that it was about ‘let’s find out who’s doing it’. I may be kidding myself about this, but at least the teacher was trying to keep the class on point while everything was going to hell.
Peter Mares: They keep coming because they want to have their bits read and they want to submit their…
Jincy Willett: Absolutely, you want to have your turn, and it’s run exactly the way I’ve always run writing classes and the way the best writing classes are run is exactly that way. You pass something out and then everybody takes it home and reads it at their leisure and comes back and discusses it, and I think it’s the way to do it.
Peter Mares: And they all give honest feedback…but do people give honest feedback in those circumstances?
Jincy Willett: No, they don’t. What I always say is it’s worth doing because it’s the closest you can come to quasi disinterested feedback from a bunch of people. When you write a piece and you show it to your mother, she’s going to tell you it’s great. If you send the same piece out to the New Yorker it’s going to come back to you with a brutal ‘leave us alone’ form letter. The only place you’re going to get any kind of feedback where you can actually figure out what you may be doing right or wrong is in a workshop setting. I think in general the teacher is going to be more honest, on average, than other students are. But that depends. Some people are very good readers and very conscientious critics. Mostly they tend to be supportive.
Peter Mares: It raises one of the central issues of a creative class that indeed Amy (your character) deals with, and I guess you have to deal with as a writing teacher as well, and that is; what is the role of the teacher? Do you tell someone, ‘Look, give up now, you’re never going to get published,’ or do you say, ‘Well, try this, try that,’ and maybe sign them up for another term’s course because that way your class keeps going. There’s a certain conflict of interest, isn’t there?
Jincy Willett: Yes, there is, but I’m always very (I hope) conscientious about refusing to address the ‘Can I get this published?’ or ‘Will I ever get published?’ question. I would never answer a question like that because I don’t know. Horrible stuff gets published all the time and wonderful stuff fails to. I could privately think that a particular student would have a snowball’s chance in Hell but I would never say that because it would rude. But any good teacher can help anybody, regardless of whether or not they’re talented, to write better sentences, to write better stories, and as long as they understand that that’s what the contract is, it’s fine.
Peter Mares: Let’s come back to the murder mystery itself, the writing class. There’s a bit of the parlour room mystery here, isn’t there. The text in fact does acknowledge Agatha Christie and her Ten Little Indians.
Jincy Willett: I loved that when I was a kid, I loved Ten Little Indians and I loved the setup where you already know everybody and you know the murderer is one of those people, and then the numbers get smaller and so on, I think it’s great. It’s just a variance of that.
Peter Mares: But you have a level of humour that Agatha Christie never aspired to, I guess.
Jincy Willett: She wasn’t particularly riotous, was she.
Peter Mares: Not that I recall, not a lot of laughs in Murder on the Orient Express as far as I remember.
Jincy Willett: No, those drawing room mysteries tended to be kind of sober and fey. Yes, it was fun writing this, although I must say I’ve never dealt with this many characters before and I’ve never tried to write genre before and it was hard.
Peter Mares: Why?
Jincy Willett: In the first place you have to have more characters. In my last novel I only had to have a handful. I had to actually have 13 characters, it was hell. Plus it’s plot driven. I mean, I could noodle around as much as possible talking about writing theory and how to make paragraphs snappier, but you know that your readers want to know who’s going to die and what’s going to happen next. I’ve never written anything so plot driven before. Usually I focus more on character and ideas, I guess.
Peter Mares: So you make a rod for your own back, as it were, by having a plot driven novel like this because, as you say…and reading it myself, yes, you want to get through the novel…not that you’re not enjoying reading it but you want to know what’s going to happen, who is the murderer, because you’re trying to guess for yourself, of course, as a reader.
Jincy Willett: Yes, sure, and it’s very mechanical really. I learned how to throw out red herrings, and yet I felt kind of guilty about doing that; why would I want to do that to my readers? And yet that’s the contract that you have with the reader when you’re writing a mystery. You can’t come right out and say, ‘Want to know who did it? It was so-and-so. Now let’s keep going’. So you have to misdirect them, and that felt odd.
Peter Mares: We as readers are looking for those red herrings as well, we’re expecting them. As you say, that’s part of the contract.
Jincy Willett: Right. Did it work for you?
Peter Mares: It did.
Jincy Willett: Did you guess?
Peter Mares: No, I didn’t guess…well, not until towards the end, and we’ll leave the listeners guessing of course. But it wasn’t obvious at all, no, I didn’t find it was obvious who the murderer was in the end. But what about…you’ve also added the comic element, the dark humour into this, and that must also create a difficult balance because you don’t want the humour to overwhelm the mystery or visa versa, and you also want to maintain that sympathy we talked about earlier with Amy and her existential pain.
Jincy Willett: Right, but just because you’re in a lot of pain doesn’t mean the world isn’t a slapstick and often hilarious place. I never try to be funny…in fact I’ve now been categorised as a funny writer, so that when I first finished this my publisher asked me to make it a little funnier. Apparently I’m just going to have to be funny. But I think I am naturally because that’s the way I see the universe, but in the past I’ve done a lot of funny/sad combinations, or funny/terrible. This time I was going for funny/scary. I don’t know whether I made it or whether it was just funny/sad.
Peter Mares: There are some scary scenes when Amy is alone in her house and getting threatening phone calls and so on.
Jincy Willett: I don’t feel ever like I have to try to be amusing because I just think the world is just…as long as it doesn’t actually kick you to the ground, you can’t help laughing at what happens. It’s just a ridiculous place, it’s a slapstick universe.
Peter Mares: I guess it’s not surprising that the Australian edition of your book has endorsements and comments on your writing by both David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs who I think probably have a similar approach in their view of the world.
Jincy Willett: Right, I guess we all see it that way. It’s not a terrible message though, the fact that it’s slapstick. Slapstick frequently isn’t funny, sometimes it’s just awful, but quite often it is funny.
Peter Mares: And there’s an irony too that these murders actually have a kind of healing effect on Amy, this reclusive character who doesn’t leave the house except to walk her flatulent dog. The murders add some excitement to her life and force her actually to engage with other people for the first time in a long time.
Jincy Willett: Yes, she gets basically dragged out in the world just a little bit, and there are really two stories; one is the mystery, and then there’s the larger story of a sort of glacial movement of this rather glacial woman from a total standstill to at the end being a little bit more out in the world, a little bit more connected, and that’s a good thing.
Peter Mares: Jincy Willett, thank you for joining me on The Book Show.
Jincy Willett: Thank you.
Peter Mares: Jincy Willett is the author of The Writing Class: A Novel, published in Australia by Scribe. And her other works include Winner of the National Book Award and Jenny and the Jaws of Life which have both, as I mentioned, won buckets of praise from respectively Augusten Burroughs and David Sedaris, fellow purveyors of darkly comic literature.
(and note that this radio network actually broadcasts a daily Book Show, to which you may listen for free, on podcast)