My dad died a few years ago. Here’s a letter he wrote to Paul Fussell, author of The Boys’ Crusade (I had given him this book with great trepidation because Dad didn’t talk about the war–combat vets don’t–but I knew that this book was about his group. I’m so glad I gave it to him.) Anyway…
“Medea in the Garden” was ready for reading, in installments, at
but apparently the Five Chapters website has died. So here’s the story.
By midnight all the men were asleep. My Kenneth was upstairs in bed, Bert and Joe had each gone home, and Di’s husband, Adam, was out like a light on the love seat. By then the fire was roaring and the snow falling in big fat clumps. And after onion soup, veal roast, artichokes, creamed new potatoes, Double Gloucester, stewed Anjous, Leah’s blackberry pie, and every color of wine, we four women were wide awake and ravenous. So I went to the pantry for breadsticks and Liederkranz and came back instead with cognac and my precious new 20-pound bag of plump, salty, premium, natural-color Escondido Nut Farm pistachios, which my mother sends us every Christmas.
This was one of those subversive impulses that flash and stun without warning. The sort which when you’re young compel you to blurt “I love you” when you certainly don’t, as a kind of insane courtesy. The happiness you spread never offsets the cost. Until now, I had shared the pistachios only with Kenneth, and that just since two years ago when he discovered them in a hatbox under the bed and threatened to rat me out to the children. It was some small compensation, that evening, to please my friends, to watch them reveal their fine natures through food play, but not enough. Never enough.
We had been talking about Baghdad and the polar ice caps, and about Caroline’s new drapes which she made herself with no previous sewing experience, and then on to how uncanny I was to have found a Sanredaam print stuck in an old book on party stunts, and so on, when Di leaned forward with that constipated expression she sometimes gets and asked, “Why do men like to slap women on the ass?” You can always count on Di. “No, seriously,” she said.
“What a wonderful question!” Caroline, bony as a chicken foot, scooped yet another mound of pistachios from the communal bowl and funneled the nuts through her cupped hands into an ashtray already choked with shells. She knew we were watching. “This way I get to… rummage through the empties and sort of…come upon the full ones. Then I sort of…pounce on them and wrestle them to the ground.”
Caroline’s little pistachio drama, hyperbolic and fey, is in keeping with her overall comic style. Like certain theater people, she is always “on,” her mannered dottiness at once wearying and contagious, so that in her company, and against our will, both Di and I often catch ourselves chattering in unconscious imitation, adopting as our own her clichés and the rhythm of her speech, and even the fluttering mock-genteel gestures of her hands. Only Leah, the rock, huge and solid, imperturbable as Buddha, remains intact, amused but unseduced, true to the classic ironic style: the majestic, straight-faced understatement. Leah objects at length and often to all the sort-ofs, quites, and wonderfuls.
Leah ate slowly, contemplating each nut throughout its progress from random selection to obliteration. “I like the closed ones,” she said. “I like to crack them with my teeth. If anyone finds any…”
“They won’t,” I said, keeping my voice light. “These are premium triple-grade-As, sifted and resifted by hand, for a guarantee of absolute perfection.”
“Quality control!” cried Caroline. “How wonderful. Of course I must say I do miss that bright rosy color, the telltale fingertips, the sort of—“
“Stigmata,” said Leah, continuing darkly, “Nothing this pleasurable should be guilt-free.” Once upon a time, Leah claims, she made these pronouncements in all seriousness. She ruminated and blinked in Di’s direction. “Has Adam been spanking you, dear?”
“What? Oh! No.” Leah, who has a genius for catching you on the wrong foot, had startled our Di into a blush the color of a dead-ripe Freestone. Di is a newlywed, younger than the rest of us by forty years, slim and straight as a wading bird; an intense sharp-witted young woman, and a treat for the eyes. Usually spirited company, she had been throughout this evening listless, preoccupied. An ominous little bundle in our midst, ticking quietly away. Like my own moody daughters. Like me, once a moody daughter. She was laughing now, with us, uncomfortable and pleased, at the center of attention. “Not exactly,” she said, provoking more laughter.
“And why not, I’d like to know?” Caroline brandished a fist. “Good God, what have we come to, where will it all end?”
“It’s not a personal question,” Di said. “It’s a theoretical question. I just suddenly wondered.”
“Of course you did,” said Caroline, “but the more interesting question is, why do women like to be slapped on the ass?”
“I don’t,” said Di.
“I sort of do, once in a while,” someone said. Actually it was me.
Leah cleared her throat. “They slap us on the ass for the same reason that compels them, when they are young boys, to run up and touch the Witch’s House.”
“Ah,” we three said in unison. Di was especially impressed. She added, “Wow.”
“Bravado, is all,” Leah said, shattering a nut with her back molars.
“Do you really think so?”
Leah pondered, ponderously, assuming at last a benign, abstracted smile. “No,” she said.
“You do, too,” I said, and continued before she could protest. “When I was a child, our neighborhood Witch’s House was the only stucco house on Columbia Avenue. It was pink with red tile roofing, and round rooms and turrets like a castle, and an ugly oak out front with all its limbs amputated.”
“They are often hideous, with round rooms and turrets,” Leah said.
“Our Witch’s House was just an ordinary old barn with a fat lady in it,” Caroline said. “She was so enormous that she couldn’t wear clothes. In the wintertime she wore blankets fastened together with safety pins, and in the summer she wore sheets. She kept pigs. On windy days, when she came out to slop the pigs, the sheets would loosen and billow and snap, and the pigs would scatter, and I used to pray for one great big gust to come and blow those sheets away. One day, at high noon, this actually happened.”
“Ah,” said Leah. We were all quiet for a while, listening to the crackling of fire and pistachio shells, and the stertorous breathing of Adam; contemplating the solid, glistening apparition of the Naked Fat Woman, who appeared, at least to me, to rotate serenely within the fire itself as if on a vertical spit, glowing red like the center of the earth.
“I’m pregnant,” said Di in a low voice. “I haven’t told Adam yet.”
Caroline opened her mouth to say, “How wonderful,” but didn’t and probably would have caught herself even without warning looks from Leah and me. For Di looked at no one, her expression aggressively noncommittal.
So no one spoke, and after a time the suspense dissipated into an easy lull. Adam’s breathing changed, becoming shallow and rapid, his eyes rolled beneath slightly open lids, and his long legs jerked arrhythmically, in little puppet spasms. He is a handsome young man, so the effect was more endearing than pitiful. Di was particularly taken. Apparently she had never seen him do this before. “Is this a nightmare?” she asked.
“We’ll see,” said Caroline, smiling. “He’s probably just chasing rabbits.”
Leah peered at her over the tops of her glasses. “He’s not a dog, Caroline.”
“I wasn’t implying anything. I dreamed about rabbits once myself. An enormous beautiful white rabbit, and it hippity-hopped into Baba Yaga’s house on stilts, or what looked like Baba Yaga’s house on stilts, when I thought about it later, you know. Then it blew up. Not the house. Just the rabbit. It just sort of whoomfed and oozed out under the door.”
We all said that was disgusting.
“Don’t I know it,” she said. “I was sort of retching when I woke up. But then I was retching a lot in those days, because I was p—“ Caroline began to cough. “Husk,” she whispered, pointing at her throat. “Ahem. As I say, at the time, I had one of those twenty-four hour bugs.”
“My mother had terrible nightmares,” said Di. “Sometimes she’d scream so loud and wild that we’d all be frightened out of our minds. One night my poor Dad—he must have been having a bad one, too—started screaming right after she did, and oh, that was a horrible sound. The two of them were awake and scaring each other to death, screeching their heads off in the dark, and of course we got hysterical too, and ran into their room. It took like forever to find the light switch. This became a classic family joke, like the time they broke the bed. I didn’t think it was all that funny, though. Mother always said her nightmares were silly. The worst dreams, she said once, don’t make you scream. But she would never tell me more about them.”
“Then she shouldn’t have mentioned them,” Leah said. These were my feelings exactly.
“But she did,” Di said. And this retort—for it was that—made Leah blink. No one said anything, and after a very uncomfortable minute Di got up and went to the bathroom.
In Di’s company we Old Ones had always refrained from homeowner talk and anecdotes about our kids. We wanted not to bore her or pull rank. On this occasion, though, she was inescapably, willfully junior; what with her pointed exit and equally stylized return ten minutes later. She entered the dark and silent room as though it were a stage, and she the ingenue, with downcast eyes and lips tightly pursed. She sat on the carpet in front of the fire, giving it her full attention, presenting to us her grave and lovely profile. I would have waited her out. I would have let her stew. But Leah and Caroline, who have only sons, were moved by pity.
“The worst dreams,” Leah told her, with obvious misgiving, “are when you wake up smiling.”
“Or humming a little tune,” said Caroline.
“And then you realize why.” Leah regarded Di with kindly intensity. She preferred, of course, to leave the rest unsaid. Di could see this, so she nodded as though pretending to understand, with a wholly unconvincing smile.
Adam sighed a whispery sigh, licked his lips, rubbed his nose with a baby fist.
“You dream about a baby,” Leah said, “and it cries and cries. You pick it up and it cries. You rock it and walk up and down with it and sing lullabies to it and it cries. It makes you frantic. It makes you crazy. Then a brilliant idea occurs to you. And you get a hold of a darning needle, and you thread it with fine silk wire…” Leah shuddered. Leah shuddering is impressive, for there is a great deal to Leah.
“And you, what, sew its mouth shut?” asked Di, unnecessarily. My God, girl. Of course you do.
“One should not,” said Leah, “feel guilty about a dream, or a conscious wish, for that matter. All that counts is what one does. One should not feel guilty about a dream.”
“So you say,” Caroline said, clapping a hand on Leah’s shoulder with rare camaraderie and giving it a little wobble. “Okay, once I was trapped in my living room with Antonin Scalia. Joe was there, and another couple, and we were having a cocktail party, and here came Antonin Scalia—either that or Saddam Hussein–crazed with blood lust. He was chasing us around the room in slow motion with a butcher knife or—no, it was a gun. He had this terrible gun and he was waving it around.”
“You sure it was a gun?” I said, trying to lighten the air with a double-entendre, which of course fell flat, as I am not a vulgar person, but really, I had to do something.
“Then somehow I overpowered whoever it was and tied him up in one of our butcher block dining chairs. Butcher block! Freud Alert! Then I picked up this knife—you’re right, it was a knife—and proceeded to cut off his arms and legs. I had to do this to make absolutely sure he didn’t hurt anybody. It was hard work. It took a long time.”
“For God’s sake,” I said. Caroline has a mind like a sprung trap.
“I haven’t finished. I was so proud of myself! Then I looked over at Joe—he was sitting on the couch with Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman—and they were all staring at me with horror. And then I looked at Antonin Scalia, and it wasn’t him at all, it was just a great big, well, baby. Of course, after I woke up I was ill, but in the dream it seemed like just the worst kind of social gaffe. I was so embarrassed! I was swanning around, trying to laugh it off, and feeding the baby, who still lived, plumping pillows in back of its baleful little head. I kept saying, Look, he’s okay, he’s just fine, no real harm done! I kept saying, He’ll be as good as new, you’ll see!”
“They’re not always about babies,” I said. Di worried me. She was too solemn. God knows, we don’t want to take ourselves that seriously. The whole point of Di is to lighten us up, not the other way round.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Enough,” I said. “Life is too short.” The hour was late, and I was tired and cold, the way you get when you’ve stayed up too long. I offered more cognac all around, in a voice which was, I thought, clearly insincere, but Caroline took me up on it, and then I drained the bottle into my own glass. “Well, I wrote to the president again today,” I said.
“Tell me your dream,” Di said.
I sighed and rubbed my forehead as though it ached, but she persevered, silent, poised. The young are incredibly selfish.
“It was in the early days of our marriage, long before the children, although at that point we had just begun to try. Kenneth and I were traveling cross-country, sleeping in motels. I woke up smiling in a strange room and a gray morning, to a dull, rhythmic, thumping noise, which I came slowly to realize was part of a fading dream.
“I was killing a small mammal, some sleek, furry creature, like a ferret or a weasel. It was badly mangled but still conscious. I had a hold of one of its hindquarters and was beating the animal against a wooden block until the joint loosened and ripped away. This act gave me intense pleasure.
“When I was fully awake, I ran to the john and threw up. I couldn’t shake the scene from my mind, or explain it away, for the creature was as real to me, and still is to this day, as any you and I could see together. So I made myself go back to sleep again. I visited a thousand libraries, in different European cities, all quite detailed and of varying architectural design. I studied textbooks on anatomy, surgical techniques, anesthesiology. I put the animal to sleep and reassembled it. I didn’t skip a step. Sheets of muscle were layered and joined, veins and arteries somehow soldered, and at the end my stitchwork was so fine that the animal’s coat was seamless and no one could have told, just from looking, that it had suffered any injury.
“When it came to, it cringed at the sight of me and would not let me near enough to stroke its fur. Its eyes were terrible.”
“I’m sorry,” said Di.
“So am I,” I said. “Sorrier than I can say.”
“Why did you write to the president?” Leah asked in a tone that brooked no opposition. She is the oldest, the most forbearant, and God help you when her patience runs out. She had an ominous look about her now and her color was bad.
Caroline noticed it, too. “Yes, tell us,” she said. “What did you say this time?”
“Same old thing. Stop it right now, whatever you’re doing.”
“This instant,” Caroline said. “We know you’re up to no good.”
Leah sighed. “I haven’t been watching the news. I don’t have the heart any more. But I was under the impression that things were pretty quiet.”
“Yeah. Too quiet.” Caroline began to giggle. Caroline gets very silly when she’s overtired.
“I just reminded him that I wasn’t cut out to be a frontline soldier, and neither were my children.”
Caroline applauded. “Hear, hear!”
“That’s exactly it,” said Leah. “They put us on the front line.” Leah regarded the fire. “A long time ago. They should never have done that.”
“Why do you bother?” Di asked me, quite rudely. And here I thought we had placated her. “Nobody reads your letters.”
“I know, but it makes me feel better.”
“If you know, it shouldn’t make you feel better.” Crabby, militant, tiresome child. We had in the past suffered her to lecture us on “learning to deal with rage.” She made me regret this indulgence. “You’re comforting yourself with a fairy tale. You don’t have any real power at all. None of us does.”
“Hush,” said Leah.
“We have the power to swell up and burst,” said Di. “We have the power to feed and burp and wipe up poop and walk up and down in the middle of the night.”
“Hush,” said Leah.
“We have the power,” said Di, her chin jutting toward Leah, “to make ourselves so important to them that they grew up to hate and fear us and make fun of us, and I hate it, I just hate it, and that son of a bitch can do anything he wants to, and you can write your letters from now until doomsday and it won’t make a goddamn bit of difference.”
“That’s enough,” whispered Leah.
Leah did that thing she does, where she moves without moving. I can’t do it. She loomed over the kneeling girl, filling her eyes, filling the room. Even I was afraid. Di paled, as well she might, and made herself small.
“The world can end in two ways,” whispered Leah. “One is with a bang.”
“Kablooey,” said Caroline. Leah shot her a look.
“That,” I said, “would be their way.”
“Their way,” said Di, her eyes huge.
“They have their ways,” said Leah, “and we have ours.”
“Tee hee,” said Caroline.”
“Don’t you dare!” Leah shouted like a thunderclap. We all jumped a foot. “This is deadly serious business, Caroline. Don’t you ever laugh at this.”
Caroline, clearly embarrassed, assumed a ludicrous air-raid posture, arms folded tightly over her head. “No fighting in the War Room, okay? You know I can’t bear confrontations. I’d walk over my own grandmother—“
“You’re scaring me,” said Di, to Leah.
“I scare myself,” said Leah. She smiled a great sorrowful smile.
“We scare us,” I said.
“Yeah, but nobody scares the Fat Lady,” Caroline said. “My, she was a sight to see.”
We were all breathtaken for just a moment, but Leah said, “You kill me, Caroline,” and that was the end of that. We were at peace all of a sudden, all of us, even Leah. Even Di, whose face was thoughtful now, and not quite so junior.
She went and fetched the coats. They all stood and stretched and bundled up for the record cold. We spoke in whispers, refraining from waking the driver until the last possible moment. He had slept through all of it, his own dream long past.
Di wrapped her neck and chin in a muffler the color of robins’ eggs, which set off her hair in a way we all admired. Her eyes were still quite unreadable. “I’ve always wanted children,” she said, gazing directly at each of us in turn.
“So did I,” said Leah.
“We all did,” I said.
“We’ve talked about having two,” Di said.
“You won’t regret it,” Leah said. “I never have.”
“Nor I,” Caroline said. “Quite honestly.”
“Children are the future,” I said.
We all smiled then, the way women do. There was a round of awkward hugs—a long standing practice which I blame Caroline for initiating—and Adam was gently roused and hustled out the door with sleep in his eyes. Someone else must have driven: I doubt that he even knew where he was.
What with holidays and various family crises and Kenneth throwing his back out again, it was five months before the next get-together, at Caroline’s. We had a pretty good time, although I must say my party was better, as Caroline is one of those egocentric cooks who feel compelled to alter time-tested recipes with arbitrary additions in order to make the dishes “theirs,” with predictably odd results. Di was more vivacious than usual and seemed to have lost, permanently, that sweet, slightly annoying deference which she used to show towards us older folk.
Her stomach was flat. Perfectly flat, almost concave. This would simply have saddened me, I think, except that she flaunted her tiny waist with a wide silk cummerbund of a particularly flamboyant rosy hue.
I did not like that heartless touch, that cummerbund. She and Adam left early, and at some point Caroline asserted—Caroline, of all people—that there was such a thing as being too thin. But that was all anyone said about it.
I’ve neglected to note that student films (through Prof. Frederick Lewis, Ohio University Media Arts & Studies) have been made from two of my stories. Working with these students was a pleasure.
From “The Best of Betty”:
From “Julie in the Funhouse”:
From Monday’s Union-Tribune, May 26, 2014:
Nope, it’s not there any more. Here’s the piece:
It is always summer in Escondido. Locals claim four seasons, but I’ve been able to identify only one. There used to be a fire season, which threatens to extend beyond November, and countywide conflagrations will soon be no more seasonal than earthquakes. Summer stretches from January, when the median temperature hovers around 60 degrees, to December, when it does the same damn thing. The rainy season (winter, so-called) is easy to miss, and there is no fall at all. Autumn arrives only in theory. Families troop up to Julian to admire the “foliage,” since some leaves do change color, but they do not do this in a magnificent way. For magnificence you need sugar maples.
I moved here from Rhode Island when I was forty-one, a widow with a small child. My family was in Escondido, so here is where I had to be. I bought a house and planted trees, took in dogs and a cat, settled in. But not for good. Even after twenty-five years, I’m still just visiting.
Once the place was paradise. In 1970 my family, minus me, moved here to escape the snow and so my dad could grow everything under the constant sun. At home, his garden had produced as many rocks as it had tomatoes. Here he planted kumquats, mandarins, white peaches, pluots, raspberries, grapes, nectarines, figs, persimmons. He grew flowers too, roses and plumeria, epiphyllum and iris. Persian melons the scent of which could madden you on the hottest day. I loved my yearly visits.
And all the days were hot, and all the nights were cool. Back home, in the dog days, when the humidity topped 95 and the nights were as sweltering as the days, the mayors of Middletown and Newport would sometimes throw open the state beaches so people could stagger, some fully clothed, down to the waterline, lie in the surf, and get a few minutes of sleep. Hardly paradise. Paradise was dry heat.
And swimming pools, accoutrements of only the wealthy in New England, here as middle-class as propane barbecue. The summer sky was always blue and when the sun got to be too much, I could sink into the pool. I always returned home with a tan and looked forward to coming back the next year.
Whether you fall permanently in love with San Diego—a love that takes you from youth through middle age and beyond—really depends on how much the outdoors means to you. The first time I saw swimmers frolicking with dolphins right offshore, I was enchanted. The same with gray whales and coyotes, bobcats and eagles. Birdwatching is much easier here than at home: there’s water all over Rhode Island, so the birds have the great luxury of being where you are not. Here they have to put up with people roaming the lagoons with binoculars and bags of stale bread. (Once, at high noon in July, I saw a kingfisher staking out a birdbath on Felicita Avenue. In Rhode Island he’d have commanded a trout stream.) There’s a whole lot of nature out here, and that’s not including the Zoo and Wild Animal Park, which I refuse to call anything else, and where I spent hundreds of happy hours with my son. But this is not my home.
Although I do see the allure.
They get you with the jacarandas. Fragrant trees the size of oaks, exploding all over May and June with outlandish lavender blossoms. Jacarandas look like Disney trees, dreamed up by the animators of Fantasia. Giant bouquets the color of Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes! My favorite shade, even though, according a test I took when I was a kid—it was in McCall’s– if your favorite color is lavender, you’re immature. Jacarandas look like Nature took a day off and one of her kids just went crazy.
They get you with fruit fresh-picked from the trees, trees you can plant yourself in your own back yard, because everything grows here and every season is a growing season for something. On a typical summer day in Escondido, ripe grapefruit will roll down my hilly street unmissed and unremarked, because there are so many more where they came from. Rhode Island has fruit trees, but only apples and pears get the chance to ripen fully. The first summer I came out to Escondido, my dad’s neighbor invited me to pick a peach. “Just cup your hand around it. Don’t pull. If it’s ready it will come to you.” And it did, I can still recall the weight of it, a freestone the size of a softball and the color of a New England sunset, its flesh perfectly soft and obscenely juicy, so that biting into it felt like the sort of thing you shouldn’t do in public.
They get you with surfing and swimming and skiing all on the same day, which must knock the socks off of people who surf, swim, and ski. And you can plan outdoor parties, dinners, weddings, pretty much without Plan B. This would be a serious plus for social types. Not so much for hermits.
I do get annoyed by the anti-California bias of people back home. I know more than one New Yorker who won’t even fly out here for a weekend because of imminent earthquakes. There’s something absurdly Biblical about their conviction that any minute California will be punished for its sins and they’re terrified of being caught in the righteous apocalypse. As though the rest of the country, the non-California part, didn’t have its own sins. Others say they would miss the seasons. I miss them myself, but not enough to move away.
It’s the sky, really.
They don’t have good clouds here. They’re mostly very high up, wispy or mackerel or absent entirely. I miss the drama of low clouds, whether threatening or friendly, black or ivory or bright white. The sort of sky you can lie on your back and watch. Here, at a certain time of the year, you can see great big clouds in the distance, but they’re fenced in by the mountains.
And the blue never seems to change. It’s a pleasant blue, your basic sky blue, but I distinctly remember a sky whose hue could deepen at a whim. At home the sky was small, hemmed in by buildings and trees, but its color changed unpredictably. The sky wasn’t background there. It was spectacle.
And the sunsets! Please, I can’t number the times a local has said, “Look at that beautiful sunset!” I hope I smile agreeably. Okay, there’s a modest wash of yellow and some orange and, if we’re really lucky, a cloud or two to set it off, but it’s just your basic sunset, and anyway you’d better look fast, since around here night drops like a felled ox. In order to have a gorgeous sunset, you need clouds. Lots of them, intercepting the sunlight, playing with it, passing it on to us, not for our sake, of course, but what a happy accident! And I still remember an otherwise unremarkable afternoon in Greenville, R.I., must have been more than forty years ago, when the air around us, not just the sky but the air, was pink, as though motes of water suspended in the humid air encased us in sapphire.
When I leave, I will miss a great deal. The night sky, far richer with stars than the sky I remember. I’ll miss the scrub jays and the coyotes and the possibility of rattlesnakes. I’ll miss the runaway grapefruit and the obscene peach. And the jacarandas! But in the twilight of my life, I insist upon a twilight sky.
According to Entertainment Weekly, I’m the author of a criminally underrated book.
I’m happy to see that the title of another c.i. book in the list is the name of my old African Grey. Catherwood lives!
This is not self-promotion (since these secluded pages hardly function as publicity), but rather a real-time, step-by-step account of the typical run-up to a new book’s pub date (and for a while thereafter). When it’s your first book, this process is almost nauseatingly exciting. By your fourth, it’s not. Some dread remains; almost zero excitement. The book will come and go. Anyway…
First usually come reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, and Library Journal. Kirkus doesn’t publish theirs until a couple of weeks ahead of the pub date, and they don’t generally like me all that much anyway. [Called it! See below.]
Here’s PW, starred, on May 6:
Willett’s hilarious follow-up to The Writing Class pulls no punches when it comes to current literary trends. Amy Gallup was once heralded as a fresh voice in fiction, but with her novels now long out of print, she’s content with a quiet, anonymous life of leading workshops, keeping lists of great-sounding titles for stories she’ll never write, and maintaining her sporadically updated blog. One afternoon, however, while working in her garden, Amy trips and cold-cocks herself on a birdbath. Still reeling from the head injury hours later, she gives a loopy interview to a reporter working on a series of local author profiles. The result goes viral, and suddenly Amy is a hot commodity on the literary pundit trail. She couldn’t care less about being relevant or famous, which lends a refreshingly brutal honesty to her commentary on the radio, television, and lecture circuit. But her newfound notoriety also pushes Amy out of her comfort zone, forcing her to confront years of neuroses and an unexamined postwriting life. Willett uses her charmingly filterless heroine as a mouthpiece to slam a parade of thinly veiled literati and media personalities with riotous accuracy, but she balances the snark with moments of poignancy. (July)
Here’s the Kirkus:
Amy Gallup, 60, hasn’t published a book in 20 years, and she’s settled into a
quiet life with her beloved basset hound, Alphonse. None too excited about a
newspaper interview she’s agreed to give, she trips, knocking herself out on the
birdbath just hours before she’s scheduled to play the role of has-been local
Oddly, she regains consciousness to see the reporter’s car pulling out of her
driveway. In the emergency room later, she has the distinct pleasure of reading
her own interview–an interview she evidently gave without the assistance of a
conscious, rational mind. Amy’s cryptic, concussion-addled interview rejuvenates
her career. Suddenly, her agent–chain-smoking, aggressive but kindly Maxine–is
calling again, arranging appearances and pushing for new material. Her former
writing students are back, too. After all, their crazed, knife-wielding former
classmate (from Willett’s The Writing Class, 2008) is now safely behind bars.
The collection of friends and opponents surrounding Amy are flat characters
bedazzled with quirks, but that doesn’t quite make them quirky. Grudgingly, Amy
goes on tour, battling wits with shrill, book-phobic radio hosts,
twitter-bewitched moderators, new authors drunk on blogs and old authors drunk
on scotch. Along the way, she confronts the demons of her past, including her
buried grief for her late, gay husband, as well as her ambivalence about
success. The skewering of the business of selling books–despite some hilarious
scenes and Amy’s dry humor–gets repetitive as Amy tirelessly defends real
writing and debunks virtual book launches. Amy is endearing, yet it is difficult
to remain curious about a heroine whose only interest is writing.
Willett’s skill in crafting zany scenes and Amy’s acerbic wit are not enough to
keep this novel afloat.
Apparently AFD is on the July 2013 Indie Next List, which is a good thing, although I don’t know what it means. The whole Bookseller concept is opaque to me. It’s nice news, though.
Booklist Review, Issue: July 1, 2013
Amy Falls Down.
Willett, Jincy (Author)
Jul 2013. 336 p. St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne, hardcover, $24.99. (9781250028273). St. Martin’s/Thomas
Dunne, e-book, $11.99. (9781250028280).
In this sequel to the events that ended Willett’s The Writing Class (2008), erstwhile novelist turned online writing instructor Amy Gallup stumbles in her backyard just minutes before being interviewed for a where-are-the-has-beens-of-yesteryear article. It can only be assumed that her skull’s brief contact with a concrete birdbath is what >transformed Amy from an irascible wag to an insouciant wit. Whatever the cause, suddenly Amy is hot again. After the article goes viral, her former agent resurfaces, booking her on NPR and scoring profiles in mainstream media, and she’s the A-list guest for literary panels discussing such egregious topics as “Whither Publishing?” Best yet, Amy’s creative muse also reappears, and short stories spew forth as if out of the ether. It’s a heady ride for the one-time recluse, showing her that, hey, maybe success isn’t so bad after all. For anyone who has ever wondered what it’s like to be an author, Willett’s thinly veiled heroine provides a saucily irreverent look at the writing life.
– Carol Haggas
Since Willett’s fey, popular novels include a winner of the National Book Award, it is perhaps no surprise that the protagonist of her latest book is a writer. Withdrawn, cranky Amy Gallup hasn’t written much lately, but when she clonks her head on a birdbath after tripping in her own backyard, then follows through with a scheduled interview that ends up portraying her wandering thoughts as sheer genius, Amy is suddenly a media hit. And she starts to write. With a reading group guide and lots of publicity.
I am a Top Ten Beach Read. Or at least “Jincy Willet” is.
Pub date. Amy is an “Apple best book of the month.” I don’t know what that means.
Reading at Warwick’s in La Jolla.
Megan Labrise’s Kirkus Interview
Review in the Dallas News. They hate it, although apparently one chapter pleases them. I think I know which one.
Also brief review in the Ft. Worth Star Telegram:
Translation rights inquiry from Norway. (I love translations.)
Also, AFD featured in This Week’s Top Picks on BookBrowse (http://www.bookbrowse.com/). Not sure whether this helps sales.
At about 16:10, Nancy Pearl on AFD (on NPR). This is actually kind of thrilling. A librarian likes my stuff! (The highest praise imaginable. In another life, I’d be a librarian.)
Kind word from David Sedaris on FB.
Who would I like to play my characters in a movie? Never going to happen.
Review in the ProJo.
We could say that Jincy Willett’s new novel is “hilarious,” that her wit is “wicked, savage, ferocious,” that her theme is “compelling,” had she not beaten us to the punch by skewering book reviewers using those very words.
The fact is that Jincy Willett is hilarious, witty and compelling, and whether you are a writing biz insider or just an average reader who believes that authors should entertain us once in a while, “Amy Falls Down” succeeds on every level. Her characters and her story ring all-too true, her satire of the literary life is dead on, and she artfully follows all the writing advice her novelist-heroine churns out.
Amy Gallup hasn’t written a word in years. Instead she makes a modest living as an online writing teacher; her previous face-to-face class disintegrated after a student shot up the place. An admitted misanthrope (her blog is titled “GO AWAY”), she has a working knowledge of the Twitter-Facebook universe but not much faith in its usefulness.
Amy would continue on her grumpy path, were it not for a literal misstep one New Year’s Day. She takes a flying half-gainer in the backyard while chasing her Basset hound, Alphonse, and strikes her head on a birdbath. The resulting concussion leads to a blackout, during which she gives a cryptic interview to a local newspaper reporter that soon goes viral.
Soon her long-lost agent, Maxine, is calling, and Amy is being booked on talk shows, conferences, even NPR. And lo and behold, Amy is writing again, and she has no hope of keeping the world at arm’s length much longer.
Amy doles out writing advice with plenty of vinegar. She tells a writing conference audience: “this is the last place you should be. Nothing’s going to rub off on you.” During an NPR interview, she declares, “most writers just aren’t that interesting.” Bemoaning the book glut, she proposes a moratorium on publishing for a decade or so, just to let everyone catch up.
“For the first time in a hundred years, readers would have time to read all the books they’d been meaning to get to, and the tens of thousands more that they never even heard of,” Amy tells a radio interviewer.
Moratorium or no, put “Amy Falls Down” on the top of your list.
November 4, 2013
November 20, 2013
At an ALA webinar, the fabulous Nancy Pearl recommends my book for holiday gift-buying.
The Brown Alumni Monthly gets around to mentioning AFD (http://www.brownalumnimagazine.com/content/view/3542/28/):
Amy Falls Down by Jincy Willett ’78, ’81 AM (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s).
Fame, it seems, can arrive when you least expect it. Amy Gallup (The Writing Class) is an unlikely heroine, a weary writing instructor who hasn’t written a book in three decades. But Amy slips in the yard and bangs her head on the birdbath. A concussion ensues, followed by a loopy, unremembered interview with a reporter, which leads to a burst of Internet notoriety and a fresh chance at literary glory. A hilarious and hopeful novel.
November 23, 2013
Nifty aside from the redoubtable M.J. Andersen in the Providence Journal
November 24, 2013
December 4, 2013
Made NPR’s Best Books of 2013
Furious Fiction web interview posted
February 19, 2014
AFD is a finalist in the Audie (audiobooks and spoken word) competition held by the Audio Publishers Association:
Holbrook man used sausage links as weapon
A Holbrook man was charged after police said he attacked and robbed a Brockton man using stolen sausage links and a wrench at West Street and Forest Avenue Sunday morning.
The victim told police he was riding his bike about 8 a.m. Sunday when Michael A. Baker, whom he does not know, came up to him “and started swinging sausage links at him,” Lt. David Dickinson said Sunday.
“He said he was trying to hit him with that. The victim had no idea why,” Dickinson said.
Baker then threw stolen meat, bread and cheese he was carrying into a nearby barrel “and began smashing the victim with a wrench,” Dickinson said.
The victim suffered multiple lacerations in the attack, and was taken by ambulance to a local hospital, Dickinson said. His condition was not known on Sunday.
The victim told police Baker stole a silver chain, ring and silver bike from him.
A jogger found the victim yelling for help and saw Baker take off with the victim’s bike, Dickinson said.
Officers later found Baker heading east on Neubert Street on a bike, and arrested him.
“The officer could see a wrench in his left pocket. The officer noticed red stains appearing to be blood on (Baker’s) clothing and hands,” Dickinson said.
Officers charged Baker, 22, of 176 Longmeadow Drive, Apt. 204, Holbrook, with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, a wrench; armed robbery; disturbing the peace; disorderly conduct; and receiving stolen property under $250.
Officers later reported a break and entry into a sausage stand at the Brockton Fairgrounds.
“They saw the same cuts of meat and cheese and bread in the fairgrounds sausage stand. It had been pried open,” Dickinson said.
Baker was scheduled to be arraigned in Brockton District Court today.
The BCI unit of the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Department also responded to take photographs.
…instead of “bored with” and “bored by”? Isn’t this just wrong?
…is being produced as a short film, by the Ohio UniversitySchool of Media Arts and Studies:
(This appeared in the Lifted Brow’s No. 6 issue, an Atlas of the World. Writers were invited to choose their own sites, real or imaginary, and describe them in words, sounds, or images. Too bad it’s sold out! It’s fabulous.)
There are at least as many Hells as there are Providences. Hell is an unincorporated collection of souls near Ann Arbor, Michigan. There was once a Hell in Southern California whose founder was the sole member of its Chamber of Commerce, but which has since been paved over by a succession of federal highways. Hell is a city in Poland, a village in Norway, and a family of limestone formations in the Grand Caymans. There’s a Hell in Holland and a Hell’s Gate in the Netherlands Antilles. Hellville is in Madagascar, Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan, and somewhere there must be a Hellburg. All of these Hells are real, but none is true. When we tell somebody to go to Hell, we’re not directing him toward Ann Arbor.
The Valley of Hinnom, a ravine southwest of Jerusalem now flourishing greenly, is all that remains of the Old Testament Hell of Gehenna. Once the home of Ahaz and other barbarous, child-sacrificing idolaters, it soon became an object lesson–the Sodom of Jeremiah’s day–and a rubbish and sewage dump whose fires burned continually. Gehenna, then, was a real Hell, but again not the true one, only a smelly, smoking symbol.
And this is the problem with Hell: from the very beginning its geographic reality has been undercut by poets and prophets, because, like the rainbow and the unicorn and the Leaning Phallus of Albitragh, it begs to be symbolically used. Hell is the ultimate mixed metaphor, a slippery slope paved with good intentions and navigated by hand basket as every scrap of hope is jettisoned by the bucketful. Hell is war and other people and eternal solitude, or commuting five-days-a-week on the I-15 between Escondido and San Diego. Everyone has an “idea” of hell. If you troll the internet, you’ll find that hell is a three-month school holiday, a blind date, your idea of heaven, being force-fed the works of Henry James, the legalisation of all-night drinking in the UK, one night at the Hotel California, and five minutes with Arlene Massover. This is ridiculous, because, again, when we consign enemies, lovers, strangers, and inanimate objects to Hell, we’re not talking about ideas. We are wishing them into a real and seriously unpleasant place.
A place with a sulfurous atmosphere the temperature of roiling lava which bottoms out in a lake frozen solid with blood and guilt, but no, it isn’t Chicago, because the freezing wind comes not from Ontario but from the flapping wings of Lucifer, and because the music in Hell is appalling–unbearable for every single human listener, which is quite a feat. Out-of-tune trombones are featured, ditto cat-scratch violas, but that’s only the half of it. Hell is outside of time, atemporal, which means arrhythmic, so you can’t dance, even in agony, and the percussion instruments are cheesy: cowbells, cymbals, and tambourines. Though also kettledrums, according to Randy Newman, who should know. Instead of songs, there are screams, shrieks, yowls, the calls of predatory birds, and incessant cretinous laughter, the latter once actually recorded in 1923 by Karl Valentin and Liesl Karlstadt.
The architecture of hell is intricate. In Buddhist and Taoist mythology Hell, or Diyu, involves ten courts and at least eighteen levels, where specific punishments (freezing in ice, dismemberment by chariot, being devoured by maggots) are assigned to sins. Dante’s Inferno is a funnel of nine descending, teeming circles, the deepest of which famously houses traitors (Judas and Brutus), and not child killers and Hitler. We know about the architecture through the dreams of poets and theologians and a California real-estate agent who once spent twenty-three minutes in a ten-by-fifteen-foot cell being lacerated by demons before getting airlifted back to his house.
Just as everyone claims to know where the anus of the world is located, usually because they grew up there, so everybody has at one time or another identified Hell On Earth. But Hell is not aboveground. Hell is not a battlefield, a prison, a classroom, or a bureaucratic process. Who goes to Hell, and why, and for how long, and what goes on there, these are all matters of conjecture, but Hell itself is a real place with a real location.
Hell is at a point latitude 41 degrees, 51 minutes, 42 seconds North, longitude 71 degrees, 27 minutes, 31 seconds West, twenty-four miles beneath the chlorinated waters of the Salvatore Mancini Natatorium in North Providence, Rhode Island.