My Day Job

Share this post

All writers should have at least one.  I’m an online writing tutor.  Often I feel like Thurber’s Miss Groby, but I do try not to lose sight of the forest when hacking through the thickets of comma splice, sentence fragment, and dangling participle.  (Block that metaphor!)  Sometimes I contribute to the WriteCheck blog:

Making a Scene

Sentence Fragments

Contextualizing Quotes

Pronoun Cases

Writing Critically

Defining Words

Showing and Telling

Spellcheckers and How to Use Them


Essential vs. non-essential (Restrictive vs. nonrestrictive)



O, Apostrophe, Where Art Thou?




I actually love this stuff, and I’m always learning.  If you understand the reason behind a grammar or punctuation rule, you’ll be able to write more effectively.  When we write fiction, we’re of course free to break the rules, but we need to know what they are and, in each case, why they should be broken.   Respect your tools.  That’s the ticket.  And since you already do, I’m not going to insult you with the answers to this quiz*:

1. In the sentence “Hortense was furious when the judges overlooked her rhubarb omelet,”   the underlined word is an example of which of the following parts of speech?


  1. participle
  2. verb
  3. noun
  4. adjective
  5. adverb
  6. none of the above


2. In the sentence, “Hortense vowed, ‘There will be repercussions,” the underlined phrase is an example which of the following verb forms?


  1. the simple future tense
  2. the present tense, passive voice
  3. the future tense, passive voice
  4. the future perfect tense
  5. the future perfect tense, passive voice


3. In the sentence, “As she spoke, Hortense’s face turned an alarming shade of crimson,” the underlined word is what part of speech?


  1. a past participle
  2. a past tense verb
  3. a linking verb
  4. a causative verb
  5. (2) and (3)
  6. (1) and (2)


4. Which accurately describes the following sentence: “German shepherds are great problem solvers, and basset hounds never let go of a grudge”?


  1. run-on
  2. fragment
  3. compound sentence
  4. comma splice
  5. (3) and (4)
  6. (1) and (4)
  7. none of the above


5. In the sentence, “Infuriated bassets often exact revenge days after the perceived offence,” the underlined word is what part of speech?


  1. past tense verb
  2. gerund
  3. present participle
  4. past participle
  5. none of the above


6. Fill in the blanks: “A basset hound’s ideal afternoon consists of __________ on his back in the sun with _______ tongue hanging out.”


  1. laying, its
  2. lying, it’s
  3. laying, it’s
  4. lying, its
  5. lying, their


7. What punctuation does this sentence need? “Because of the city-wide truffle shortage Chef Monsoun will be unable to prepare Coquilles St. Jacques and patrons will have to make do with Coquilles San Souci.”


  1. a semicolon after “Jacques”
  2. a comma after “shortage”
  3. a colon after “shortage”
  4. a comma after “Jacques
  5. both (2) and (4)
  6. none of the above


8. In the sentence “Coquilles San Souci” is  prepared from bizarre, literally nauseating ingredients,” what are the two underlined parts of speech?


  1. past tense verb, past participle
  2. past participle, present participle
  3. past tense verb, present tense verb
  4. none of the above


9. Which accurately describes the sentence “Basset hounds will eat almost anything, however even a basset will turn up its enormous nose at Coquilles San Souci”?


  1. a run-on
  2. a fused sentence
  3. a comma splice
  4. none of the above


10. In the sentence “On the other hand, to a discerning basset with refined taste buds, Hortense’s rhubarb omelet is the bomb,” the underlined words are what parts of speech?


  1. preposition, adjective
  2. adverb, indefinite article
  3. preposition, definite article
  4. none of the above


Literary Death March (to July 9, 2013 and beyond)

Share this post

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)

May 7:

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.
May 9

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.


June 18

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

Library Journal

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.

June 25

I am a Top Ten Beach Read.  Or at least “Jincy Willet” is.

July 5

The NYT.

July 9

Pub date. Amy is an “Apple best book of the month.” I don’t know what that means.

July 11

Reading at Warwick’s in La Jolla.

July 11

Megan Labrise’s Kirkus Interview

July 12


July 21

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:

July 23

Translation rights inquiry from Norway.  (I love translations.)

Also, AFD featured in This Week’s Top Picks on BookBrowse (  Not sure  whether this helps sales.

July 24

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.)

July 26

Kind word from David Sedaris on FB.

July 30

Who would I like to play my characters in a movie? Never going to happen.

October 20

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

Interview with NPR Radio Pet Lady

November 20, 2013

At an ALA webinar, the fabulous Nancy Pearl recommends my book for holiday gift-buying.

November/December 2013

The Brown Alumni Monthly gets around to mentioning AFD (

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

Metazen review.

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:




But It’s Okay, Do Not Judge

Share this post

Even more adventures in machine translation, this time from a page on  El taller de escritura  (The Writing Class):

Bueno, pues lo entretenido es que uno de estos variopintos personajes goza haciendo sufrir a nuestra Amy y comienza a hacerle la vida imposible de distintas maneras, partiendo por llamadas telefónicas y mensajes subliminales entre los textos de los alumnos hasta llegar extremos inimaginables, en un estilo que a ratos es cómico y a momentos mezcla la novela negra de Agatha Cristhie -de la cual la autora se burla abiertamente en sus páginas, quedándome la duda de qué tan homenaje a “Diez negritos”, de la antes mencionada, busca ser este taller de escritura-, haciendo de este libro una montaña rusa, que puede que a veces no sea tan realista, pero está bien, no juzgamos, porque no estamos analizando la biblia ni un texto de Kafka….

Well, the fun is that one of these colorful characters enjoys hurting our Amy and begins to make her life miserable in many ways, starting with subliminal messages and phone calls between the texts of students reaching unimaginable extremes, in a style that sometimes it’s funny moments and mix the thriller by Agatha Cristhie-which the author openly mocks its pages, staying the doubt on how tribute to “Ten Little Indians” from the aforementioned, this workshop seeks to be -writing, making this book a roller coaster, it may sometimes not be as realistic, but it’s okay, do not judge, because we are not analyzing the Bible and Kafka’s text.

No es de esas novelas que te hacen reflexionar sobre el significado de la existencia humana ni sobre muchos por qués, pero es un libro que entretiene, que te absorbe, porque a fin de cuentas eres uno más en la clase y también quieres develar el misterio de quién es el cabrón que está fastidiando a medio mundo.

…It is one of those novels that make you reflect on the meaning of human existence and on many whys, but it is a book that entertains, absorbs you, because after all you are one in a class and want to solve the mystery who the fuck you are spoiling half the world.



N.B. I hope it’s obvious with these Machine Translation posts that the books themselves have not been machine translated.   They’ve been translated by actual gifted human translators.   I just enjoy going to bookseller and review websites and machine-translating the text.   Obviously even with the cross-stitching I have too much time on my hands.

Kirkus Magazine Interview

Share this post



by Megan Labrise on July 11, 2013 | Posted in Fiction

Jincy Willett’s latest novel has been mistaken for a roman-à-clef. Surely readers can be forgiven for being confused: It says roman-à-clef on the dust jacket. It also says “scathingly humorous,” but Willett might prefer it didn’t. “People get very annoyed if they’re told on a book jacket that they’re going to be laughing their asses off and they don’t even crack a smile. I don’t blame them,” she says. Sure, she wrote the funniest collection of short stories David Sedaris ever read, and the funniest novel according to Augusten Burroughs, but there’s at least one reader so disappointed by Willett that they claim to have driven back and forth over her book with the family car. (Willett reads online reviews.) “That was when people were buying hardcover books. Too bad,” she says.

Even if publicists insist on calling Willett a character, she isn’t. She does share select traits with Amy Gallup, semi-reclusive writer-cum-instructor in California–a softening misanthrope–but Amy’s what you’d call a character as in Willett conjured her from words, first in 2009’s The Writing Class. Amy Falls Down picks up where a murder mystery left off, when Amy is plucked from literary obscurity as the result of a weird and woozy interview given to a local reporter after braining herself on a backyard birdbath.

“It’s not a roman-à-clef,” says Willett, cranium intact. “Amy’s definitely based on me, but nothing else is based on anyone. The thing is you’re free to make fun of yourself. [Amy’s dog] Alphonse is based on my departed basset hound, and I can use me and I can use my dead dog with no compunction, but that’s it.” The people in her life are not to be exploited through fictionalization. Modern literary archetypes–writers, publishers, agents–are.

For outsiders looking in, Amy Falls Down provides a side-splitting sendup of a swiftly tilting publishing industry. Gone are these days: When authors sent their manuscripts to publishing houses without über-agent intermediaries; when they got published without platforms, 100,000 Twitter followers or having to disclose their inner worlds to a need-to-know public; when not everyone had books in them. Both Willett and Amy find it unsettling that every surgeon has a med school memoir needing notes. “If you tell people you’re a writer they almost always say, you know, ‘I’ve always wanted to do that. I could do that.’ But if you were a surgeon or something they wouldn’t,” says Willett, who thinks not everyone should be a writer (or a surgeon).
But if you can and if you must, “The essence of writing is communication, telling people your story, and that’s an honorable and very important thing to do.” She writes, “Fiction, when it’s done right, does in the daylight what dreams do at night: we leave the confines of our own experiences and go to common ground, where for a time we are not alone. Where we don’t have to ask how it feels, because we feel it for ourselves.”

The common ground in Amy Falls Down is accidental (not tragic; there’s a difference), beginning with the birdbath. “Accidents are really interesting to me. They bother us more than anything. Basically all we can do is control our response to them, and so I was interested in Amy’s response. If she hadn’t fallen, she wouldn’t have made it out of the house,” says Willett. If things are funny because they’re incongruous, then accidents must be nature’s little jokes. It’s no accident that they can conjure laughs. Amy’s slapstick garden fall kicks off a series of unlikely events that can seem too rich to be true–but so’s life, sometimes.

P.S. A critic for “an online rag, more bookish than Salon, less huffy than the Huffington Post” rediscovers Amy when her wacky interview goes viral, and writes a reconsideration of her work. Willett writes:

Carmen Calliostro’s thing was titled “Bionic Leg.” In keeping with the standards of modern journalism, most of it was about Carmen Calliostro. She began with a yellowed verbal snapshot of her own lithe undergraduate form (litheness could be deduced from her byline sketch) supine on a sward in Ithaca (Carmen was way too shy to come out and say Cornell), thumbing through the stories in Monstrous Women and “falling in love with words for the very first time.” Next came a whirlwind tour of her literary education, during which she confessed (actually using the verb “confess”) to throwing Amy over in favor of a succession of trendier writers. “I was embarrassed,” she said, dimpling verbally, “to have been seduced by writing so old-fashioned. It was the fiction writer’s mission, I was sure, to intuit and interpret the spirit of the times. Amy Gallup was old news: the least zeitgeisty of writers.” (Apparently Carmen’s love affair with words had ended badly.)



I think that’s the funniest paragraph I’ve ever read.



Megan Labrise is a modern journalist in New York. Follow her on Twitter.

Slate Interview with Me and Tom Dunne

Share this post

July 12, 2013

Thomas Dunne (Publisher, Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press) has published Jincy Willett’s writing since 1987.   This July will mark the release of Amy Falls Down, Willett’s fourth project with Dunne. Amy Falls Down, much like the title character’s own book-in-progress, comes after a not-so-insignificant hiatus.   Willett’s last novel, The Writing Class, was released nearly five years ago, and much has changed in publishing since then.   The character, Amy Gallup, also experiences this–though as an outsider witnessing an entirely new system involving ‘tweets,’ and ‘platforms,’ and ‘author branding.’   These novelties provide a great deal of humor and honesty in Willett’s book, as her character, Amy, copes with the usefulness and yet absurdity of techno-aged publishing. The author and her editor discuss the evolution of the publishing business, why Willett isn’t writing bestsellers, and What It All Means.



JW     To me, the techno stuff isn’t all that bothersome (although it must be a nightmare for publishers). What has changed about publishing is that now writers who are just getting started have to have agents.   I find it hard to view this as anything but bad.   Before, the new writer had to rise from the slush pile–to catch and hold the attention of readers–underpaid, educated people whose job it was to sift through a mountain of mostly unpublishable manuscripts.   You had to write something good enough to keep that person reading.   Now you have to write something good enough to keep an agent (or an agent’s reader) reading.   The path to publication, which was always fraught and rocky (and rightly so), is much steeper now, and it’s all mixed up with marketing.   Like Amy, I’ve not had to grapple with all of this, because I rose from the slush in the olden days.   But I’ve witnessed the struggles of younger writers, and I feel bad for them.   They’re actually expected to think like marketers–to answer questions like “Who’s your book in the tradition of?”   For God’s sake, it’s in the tradition of me.

TD       Actually, electronic publishing isn’t a nightmare for publishers, at least not as far as sales are concerned. While there have been, for example, changes in format, of course the fundamental elements of books–the information, entertainment, inspiration–remain. And e-books have hardly dented hardcover sales and have only slightly impacted trade paperbacks. The total numbers of books in all formats show more units being sold, whether on paper or electronically. The quick, impulse buy at a bookstore has become a quick download to an eReader. And agents are unavoidable, by the way.

JW       But I didn’t need an agent in 1987.   What has changed? Is it one more sign of the looming apocalypse, or are there just too many people submitting manuscripts now?

TD       Bingo.  In the early days, we managed to read all the slush, at least the first few pages of slush.   Now we can’t keep up with what the agents send us.  Of course, there’s always self-publishing, which takes out both filters–the filter of the agent and the filter of the publisher/editor.   I have encountered people, literate people, who had as many as eighty manuscripts in their closet, all terrible, but that was before the Internet. In the past twenty years or so, half the country thinks they have a book in them. Mass education, writing groups, creative writing programs, egad, so many people think they can write. Most cannot, and then there are a surprising number of people who are pretty darn good at stringing words together but have nothing to say, no story to tell. As Amy herself says, “There may still be more readers than writers, but surely we’re approaching some kind of catastrophic tipping point.”

JW       Enter the Agent.

TD       Precisely.

JW       And hundreds of thousands of books are published every year, most of them unread by anybody outside the writer’s immediate family.

TD         You worry too much.   The marketplace will sort out the stuff that won’t sell.

JW       Sounds like an article of faith to me.

TD       Amy’s right about platforms.   I hate that word as much as she does.   As much as you do.   But they’re a fact of life.   If the would-be writer is a big shot business consultant or professional lecturer–

JW       –or has walked on the moon–

TD       Or let’s say you’re a TV celebrity and you want to write a novel, any good agent will jump right on it.   If you’re an embryonic Kardashian, you’ll get a book done.

JW     A novel written by some slave in a basement.   Yay. Okay, what do you think of Amy’s point, which is obviously my point, since, let’s face it, Amy is basically me, that authors shouldn’t have to worry about marketing?   I don’t, but I’m friends with other writers, and I teach, and it seems as though in order to even get an agent they’re expected to figure out what their book is in the tradition of and how to market it and what their stupid platform is, and that’s just ludicrous.   If I knew how to sell shit, I’d be selling shit, I wouldn’t be writing.

TD       (sardonic laugh)

JW       Okay, so I spend most of my time not writing, which you’ve never understood is an important part of the writing process.

TD       (snort)

JW       But honestly, my sales pitch when I was a kid was “You don’t want these Girl Scout cookies do you?” If I had to push my own books, I’d stop writing. I hate the conflation of marketing and writing.

TD       I wish you’d go back to writing stories.

JW       What???

TD       True, short story collections don’t sell, and if I hadn’t been so new to the business in 1987 I probably wouldn’t have published Jenny, but the stories are brilliant.   And then the wonderful David Sedaris dropped from the heavens and kicked your career back to life by citing Jenny and the Jaws of Life as one of the great books of our time. It was like that deux ex scene in the Magic Flute. So we brought it back into print, and then it turned out you had an almost completed novel in a drawer, which I got you to finish  and to call Winner of the National Book Award, Rhode Island’s very own Gone with the Wind, and it got fantastic reviews everywhere. Stories are good luck for you. You need to write more stories.

JW       So…you’re saying that the Internet age has not ruined everything for writers?

TD         You’re changing the subject.

JW       Yes!

TD         No, I didn’t say that.   There’s one profound problem, and it’s the Death of the Book Review. It’s even worse than Borders going under. The loss of all but a couple of local reviews–look, when Jenny came out, there were all these newspapers that did reviews–The Detroit News, the Washington Post, The Atlanta Constitution, the Sacramento Bee–what a terrible loss, all of them. Jenny may not have sold like hotcakes, but you got at least 10 great reviews, which is probably why libraries bought the book, which made it possible for Sedaris to find it on a local shelf. Newspaper reviews are supposed to have been replaced by Internet stuff, but they really haven’t.   People are supposed to flock to certain websites to find out what book to buy next, but so far, no flocking.  And then there’s social media, which, so far, doesn’t seem to be making much of a dent. Maybe you really have to promote yourself.   I didn’t used to push writers to do readings…

JW       No.  N-O. My readings, except for a great one in 2008 in a wonderful local independent, have been disastrous. You show up in Pasadena to a room full of people all excited because somebody screwed up and they think they’re going to meet Steve Martin. You come to B&N for a signing and find that somebody dropped the ball and nobody’s there.  The ball always drops, and not in a good way.

TD       The saddest spectacle in the world!   A distraught writer sitting at a table full of unsigned books.

JW       Yes, but look.   If you’re lucky enough to be able to write down what’s really in your head–not what you think should be there, but what’s actually there, the essence of your own experience, and if you actually get it published, so that someone, somewhere, at some time can read you, you’re very, very lucky.   It would be nice to be able support yourself that way, but it’s not necessary.

TD       Have you ever considered motivational speaking?

JW       I could hire myself out as a professional counterexample.

TD       And if your husband hadn’t died, and if you had not buried yourself in a San Diego suburb for thirty years, and if you did not refuse to fly and therefore promote your books…and if you were not so glacially slow a writer, you would be recognized by even the pettifogging blowhards in the Academy as a national treasure. Maybe someday that will still come to pass.  I sure hope so.

JW       I’m not exactly the Zeitgeist Queen.   We’re not talking about publishing any more, are we?

TD       Let’s end with Amy.   We are trying to, you should excuse the expression, sell it.   One memorable line–out of many–is where she says “Feelings are not news, but they are the rightful province of art…   Fiction, when it’s done right, does in the daylight what dreams do at night: we leave the confines of our own experiences and go to common ground, where for a time we are not alone.   Where we don’t have to ask how it feels, because we feel it for ourselves.”   Is this what you mean by “writing what’s really in your head”? And do you think you’ve done that in Amy Falls Down?

JW       Yes, it means sifting through all the chatter and the rubble, seeing past the beckoning, seductive clichés, grasping the slippery truth, probably only for a moment, but for that moment, you’ve got it, and you can get it down.   With this book I hope what I always hope–that readers will nod their heads (not constantly, you know, but at the odd juncture) and think, “Yes, that’s exactly right.”   This is why we write and this is why we read.   It’s an act of communication, and if what you’re communicating is true–if you haven’t screwed it up (and there are so many ways to do that)–the response of your ideal reader isn’t “Wow! What a fabulous sentence!” or “Wow! I did not know that!”   It’s “Yes.   Exactly.   I felt that too once, and I forgot it until now, and I thought I was the only one.”

Bookpages interview

Share this post



We readers can be greedy things. Mere books are not enough for us: We want the authors, too. We want their autographs, their photographs, handshakes, interviews. We want them to tell us all the secret things they didn’t put in the book–we want it all, the entire package. And these days, they’re more or less obligated to sell it to us.

In her hilarious, merciless, entirely delightful new novel,  Amy Falls Down, Jincy Willett digs into this phenomenon from several angles. Our protagonist, Amy Gallup, is a contentedly washed-up fiction writer in her 60s who spends most of her days teaching writing classes online from her California home. Then one day she trips in the garden, conks her head on a birdbath and proceeds to give a newspaper interview she doesn’t remember doing.

The interview, and Amy’s intriguingly odd (because totally concussed) behavior during it, leads to newfound fame for the long out-of-print writer. “You’re not gonna understand it, but you are gonna have to trust me,” her agent tells her. “You’re not just a writer now. You’re a package.”

Amy finds the sudden attention at various points invasive, thrilling, oppressive, scary, sad and gross. Even as she resents the way in which a writer’s work has come to include the roles of performer and media personality, Amy learns to make it work for her. Turns out, she has a knack for it. One of the many pleasures of  Amy Falls Down  is watching Amy venture out of her shell and have fun toying with the media, the publishing industry, her students and pretty much everyone else. She has nothing to lose, and no interest in impressing anybody; consequently, she has no filter, and she gets away with saying things others won’t.

When a writer suffers a bump on the head, her literary career gets an unexpected boost.

Willett has many things in common with her protagonist, including that same amused befuddlement regarding the “packaging” of writers. By phone from her home in Escondido, California, where the Rhode Islander has lived since 1988, Willett talked about publicity, humor, David Sedaris and the curse of potential, among other things.

Amy’s biography matches Willett’s in several ways: same age, similar geographical background, nearly identical smart-aleck websites. Both teach writing online. Some of the lines Amy spouts in the book turn up in Willett’s interviews. The parallels are noticeable.

“My feeling about using autobiographical material is, I’m completely free to use my own character, but not free to use anybody else’s,” Willett explains. “She’s a lot like me, but that’s it.” Everything else is invented–and in fact, as Willett sees it, Amy actually “has nothing to do with me.”

“It’s lazy, that’s all,” she explains. Using a character that doesn’t need to be invented from whole cloth makes it easier for the author to spend her energy playing with ideas and themes. “The more you make things up, the more likely you are to discover things you didn’t know about yourself,” she says. “Whereas when you’re actually working with what you know, what you’re really doing is crystallizing things you’ve been turning over for a long, long time.” This leads to fiction that engages in the world of ideas and arguments, Willett says. “Not that you have a message–because that’s obnoxious.” The goal has more to do with “exploring certain issues you think are important, and you want to see if you’re right about them.”

Then, too, there’s the fact that using a protagonist only slightly removed from oneself adds to the fun of Amy’s unguarded venting, which focuses on the absurdities of the publishing world. “It was wonderful for me to be able to rant on and on about this stuff,” Willett says. “She does sort of go on.”

Late in the novel, Amy ends a speech by telling the crowd, “I am here accidentally and just for the moment.” Willett seems similarly unimpressed with the idea of fame. It means nothing, she says, except in the sense of still being known 200 years from now–“that’s a big deal.” But the thrill of writing lies elsewhere: “It’s communication, that’s all it is. You can reach out and you can actually communicate with people, even after you’re dead. All we’re doing, really, is talking to each other.”

Willett says she “stumbled into” writing in her 30s (unlike Amy, who was a promising young superstar). “When I was a child I lived in my head entirely, and of course I wanted to write,” Willett says. She finally composed one sentence at age 10, and found it so terrible that she “stopped forever.” But she fell back into writing in college, when she took a random creative writing class while majoring in philosophy. She really just wanted an easy A (“I was trying for a 4.0!”), but once she’d submitted a story, the professor told her she should send it to magazines. This sort of thing might be thrilling to some, but Willett was devastated. “The truth is, it’s one thing to have this daydream,” she says, but when it becomes a real possibility, then it’s suddenly your fault if the dream doesn’t happen. “Great, thanks!” Willett thought. “I was perfectly happy as a philosophy student!”

Nevertheless, she kept writing stories, and her first story collection,  Jenny and the Jaws of Life, was published in 1987. She might have continued writing fiction in relative obscurity except that David Sedaris discovered and fell in love with the book, and raved about it publicly.

“That was a very happy circumstance for me,” Willett says. “The thing I like about it is that it’s not a networking story–the only reason we got connected is that he discovered me in a library.” The two have since met and become friends. The Sedaris connection was particularly exciting for Willett because of her fondness for his particular lineage of American writers, especially the humorists of the ’20s and ’30s (S.J. Perelman is a favorite). “There aren’t many people doing that anymore,” she says, adding that writers today hesitate to make light of things. But the fact that something is funny doesn’t mean it has no weight, she argues: “If you’re doing it right, it doesn’t make light of anything.”

Illustrating the point, Willett’s prickly, unvarnished protagonist is at once gruffly funny and unexpectedly touching, the sort of curmudgeon who imagines she’s driving people away but is in fact winning their devotion, wholly by accident. A large part of this ability comes from the accumulated wisdom of having been around a while–something else the author and her character share.

“Writing is an older person’s game,” Willett says. “Experience helps, living helps.”