Bookpages interview



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.”

Union-Tribune Interview

(for Amy Falls Down)



By  John Wilkens12:01 a.m.July 7, 2013Updated1:58 p.m.July 5, 2013

Escondido author Jincy Willett’s new novel is about serendipity, something she knows well.

Her critically admired 1987 short-story collection, “Jenny and the Jaws of Life,” was out of print – and her career was mostly dormant – until humorist David Sedaris, someone she’d never met, mentioned it an interview in 2001 as the book he’d most like to rescue from obscurity.

“Jenny” got reprinted, and Willett has gone on to write three novels, the newest being “Amy Falls Down,” which comes out Tuesday. It’s a smart and witty tale about a reclusive writer, once deemed promising and now happily obscure, whose fortunes change after accidentally hitting her head on a birdbath.

Willett will be at Warwick’s at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.

Q: Let me ask you a question Amy asks her workshop students in the book: Why do you write?

A: I’m not one of these writers who feels compelled. I think that I write because every now and then I get a good idea and then I’m curious about it and I want to see what happens. Any act of writing, particularly fiction, is a kind of exploration. You have a vague idea of where you’re going, but you have no idea if you are going to get there.

Q: Amy was the main character in your earlier book “The Writing Class.” Why did you want to return to her?

A: I just wanted to see what happened to her next. I knew Amy really well because she and I have a lot in common, so I knew I could work with her and I already had her in place. So I thought, what if she fell down and hit her head?

I’m interested in the role of accidents in our lives. To me, accidents are really haunting, more so than even murders. When something awful happens as a result of an accident, it just drives us insane – at least it does me. You can’t stop thinking, “My God, if I had just turned left instead of right, my whole life would have been different.” And this is true in a good sense, too. We have wonderful things that happen because we turn left instead of right.

Q: It’s a mostly positive thing that happens to Amy, although she doesn’t quite know what to make of it.

A: No. She’s a very resistant person. It’s just serendipity. I know that in my own life and in the lives of people that I’ve known, one damn thing happens after another, and sometimes the string of things that happen turns out to be significant. This is where a lot of people will say, “See, everything happens for a purpose.” I don’t know what they mean when they say that. I really don’t.

Q: What parts of Amy are you?

A: Spiritually, Amy and I are pretty much the same person in terms of our general outlook about books, about writing, life in general. We both had bassets, although mine has passed on to his wonderful reward. Whenever I would bog down, I could write about the basset. There’s nothing like a basset hound as far as I’m concerned.

But the biographical facts of Amy’s life are not mine. For one thing, she’s a much better writer than I am; I was never nominated for anything. She blossomed early as a writer; I actually stumbled into it later in life, when I was close to 30. I’m a widow, as is she, and we both had wonderful marriages, but I was not married to a gay man. And I had a child, she didn’t, which is a profound difference.

Q: Are there parts of Amy you wish you were more like?

A: I wish I had more talent. I’ll tell you what is really funny. When I finished, I don’t usually bug my publisher about anything, but I actually said to him, “Do you know of any agents who would be really good with publicity and stuff?” I’ve never had an agent because I never saw the point, but I realized kind of halfway through that I want Maxine (the fictional agent in the book). How childish is that? Man, I would love to have Maxine. Who wouldn’t? Your dream agent.

Q: Your book has some interesting observations about buzz and celebrity. Why did you want to write about that?

A: Oh, because I watch way too much TV. Honestly, my real job is I work four hours a day, seven days a week as an online writing tutor, and because of that I’m staring at print on screens. You know what that does to your eyes? It’s not good. As a result, my reading has cut way back, and to fill the void I watch way too much television. It’s made me aware of our culture of celebrity.

Pile on top of that the way the publishing process has changed so radically from when I started out in the ’80s, sending my stories out. The hurdles you have to go through as a starting writer are so different now. And everybody in the world seems to want to get published. I have lots of opinions about all that, and it was pleasant for me to exercise them.

Q: At one point in the book, Amy suggests we should stop publishing any new books for 10 or 20 years to let readers catch up. Is that something you see some merit in?

A: Yeah, I do.

Q: It would have to start after publication of this one, of course.

A: Of course. I’m really objecting more as a reader than a writer to just the glut of published work. We don’t have any shared experiences as readers any more because there’s just so much stuff. You’re either going to be reduced to having to read the same best-sellers, or you’re going to be reading something but you’ll be all alone with it because you won’t know anyone else who read it. I just think it would be really swell if we could have a breather.

Q: You’ve been described in reviews as a literary humorist. How do you know when something is funny?

A: The truth is, there is humor that appeals to a wide swath of people, and then humor that appeals to a smaller group. There’s no such thing as universal funny. I write something and if I actually crack up writing it, then that’s all there is to it.

Q: I see on your website you have an accumulation of news stories about people getting arrested after stuffing things down their pants. What’s that about?

A: I don’t know. I guess it’s kind of obsessive. Every so often I get on the Internet and say, “OK, have we finally stopped stuffing things?” But no, we’re still doing it. I feel like I’m performing some kind of bizarre service. It’s just amazing to me. Tarantulas. The one I thought was hilarious was the woman with a crowbar, lurking around a church. I’m trying to imagine how you could possibly stuff a crowbar down your pants.

Q: There’s a line from your book that goes, “We write fiction to make sense of the world.” Has it worked that way for you?

A: I think it works that way for everybody, whether you are writing fiction or just telling yourself what happened today. We tell stories all the time; we do it from the time we are infants. This is the way the human brain works; it creates narrative threads, and it uses them to make sense of situations. We are very picky about the things we remember and we order them in certain ways, all in the service of story, and the story is in the service of understanding and making sense out of chaos. For people who think that storytelling is not terribly important or frivolous or something, I always say you’ve got it completely backward. Without stories we’d be nowhere. Nowhere at all.

© Copyright 2013 The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. An MLIM LLC Company. All rights reserved.



Milane Christiansen was a friend (she had many, many friends) who founded, owned, and ran The Bookworks, a wonderful independent bookstore in Del Mar, California.  I did readings there; they launched my last novel, The Writing Class.  She was an extraordinary person, as the following obituary, reproduced in its entirety, clearly shows.  Everyone who knew Milane will miss her.


Milane Christiansen, 70, Independent Bookseller

By Kathryn Shevelow

Milane Christiansen, the founder and, for thirty years, the proprietor of one of
the country’s great independent bookstores, The Book Works in Del Mar, died in
her home on April 21 at the age of 70. The cause was complications of ALS.

Christiansen arrived in San Diego County in the late 1960s. “At that time,” she
said in a 2011 interview, “there didn’t seem to be a lot of literary life going on. So
I decided I would bring it here.” She opened The Book Works in 1976. The store
quickly gained national recognition, drawing large audiences to book signings
by authors such as Oliver Sacks, Gore Vidal, Joyce Carol Oates, T. Coraghessan
Boyle, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Armistead Maupin, Amy Tan, Lily Tomlin,
Simon Winchester, and Paul Krugman, as well as local luminaries including
Manny Farber, William Murray, and Francis Crick. Chef-author appearances
were perennially popular: Alice Waters, Jacques Pepin, David Tanis, and Julia
Child came to sign their new cookbooks; Child’s last book signing before her
death was at The Book Works.
Alongside its stock of literature, art books, and cookery, The Book Works carried
the latest works on India, one of Christiansen’s lifelong interests. Born in Los
Angeles, she spent most of her childhood in rural Minnesota and Minneapolis.
After graduating from college, she joined the Peace Corps in 1965, two years after
its establishment, and at age twenty-two was sent to India. She spent two years
in Gujarat, where, on her own initiative, she moved into a house by herself in a
remote village, and set up a health care clinic to serve the poor. During her time
there, Christiansen developed the deep love of the Indian people and culture that
remained with her the rest of her life. “India gave me so much more than I could
ever have given it,” she would say. She subsequently returned to India several
Christiansen brought to her store her distinctive style, installing an old wood
plank floor on which she arranged oak tables, chairs, and her grandmother’s
upright piano; at the back was a carpeted children’s “pit”; mid-century paintings
decorated the walls; from the ceiling hung an antique carousel horse. She had an
extraordinarily fine eye, finding old and new trends in jewelry, ceramics, and
textiles. Artifacts such as Bauer pottery, mid-century paintings, old Buddhas,
vintage jewelry, and garden statuary set off her diverse and thoughtfully-chosen
selection of books, journals, and unique greeting cards. The store’s book bag
bore an inscription from Cicero: “If you have a garden and a library, you have
everything you need.”
For greater San Diego, The Book Works was much more than a store: it was a
resource and a treasure; a unique, warm space to gather; and an education.
Christiansen believed it to be her responsibility as a bookstore owner to support
serious writers both established and new, and to expand readers’ literary
horizons. Many of her loyal customers regularly stopped by to ask, “Milane,
what should I read?” She always prepared herself to have good answers to that
question. The Book Works sponsored not only readings and lectures, but also
jazz recitals, book discussion groups, and writing workshops. Most of all, it was
a place to browse and linger — a community. One of her former employees,
Adele Irwin, recalls, “I had customers bring their kids in and watch them play
and browse in the store just as they had as a child.” There were also several
bookstore romances, Irwin says, “with two marriages that I know of!”
After selling The Book Works in 2006, Christiansen also worked at Amba in
Solana Beach, a gallery and boutique that sells and promotes the arts and textiles
of India and directly supports their craftsmen. In 2011, she co-founded, with
Nina MacConnel, a series called “Good Earth/Great Chefs,” which hosted wellknown
chef-authors at the Chino Farm in Rancho Santa Fe for “pleine air” book
signings and food tastings. This series, which will continue, has proved
enormously popular: famous chefs such as Nancy Silverton, Alice Waters, and
Jonathan Waxman have sold an unprecedented amount of books at each of these
All those who were in contact with Christiansen during her illness were struck
by the great courage and strength she showed as her disease progressed. Many
younger people to whom she had been a friend and mentor over several decades
wrote with deep feeling to express the profound impact she had had on their
lives. She never lost her sense of humor, her pleasure in the company of her
friends and her beloved cat Kālī, and her love of relaxing in her garden with a
well-made gin and tonic.
A memorial service for Milane Christiansen will be held at the San Diego
Botanical Gardens in Encinitas on Tuesday, May 21 from 5:30 — 7:30 p.m. A
scholarship at UCSD has been established to commemorate her love of literature:
to donate, please search for the “Milane Christiansen Fund” (or #3872) at

Why I Love Rhode Island

1. The Speaker of the House says “lookit”:

2. A helpful update notes that “Dawn Keibals” may not be a real name either:

3. People will travel there from Tennessee in order to set off Roman candles in their motel room:

4.  Hell is directly beneath a natatorium in North Providence:

5. Roger Williams

6. The Young Adults.

7. Safecrackers go broke trying to open stolen safes.

8. Rats!!!




…all of which are ignored.  Still, it’s nice to be noticed.


absurder   asunder

Baba Yaga     Baba Gaga

blurbed   blared, burbled

Bobisode     Boise

Bunschaft     bun’s haft

bursty   busty

clacketing   closeting

Cloacina   cocaine

corvines   corniness

crapload     cartload, carload

cretinous     creationist, resinous

decomp     decamp

farty     fatty, party, arty

Fedexed   fidgeted

fetich   fetch

Fugard   sugared

glancingly   clankingly

gonna   gonad

groped   grouped

insectile     invective, infertile

Lex   lox

mashup   mishap

memetic     mimetic, emetic, meme tic

midwater     midwinter

Mount Pelée   Mount Peewee

mousing moussing, housing

neuronically   neurotically

neuroticized eroticized

p.o.v.     p.m.

pervy   purvey, nervy, privy

prosecco   prospector

redtail     retail

rehaul     Renault

Roofy     roomy, goofy

sithen     zither

tautog     tutu, tattoo

Tex-Mex     Tex-Maxi

thuggees   thuggish

unamused     amused, unmasked

unmagical   numerical, unmusical

untasted     untoasted, unstated

viatical   piratical

voguing     gouging, pogoing, rouging

walkies   willies, walkups, wackiest

whitecoats     whiteouts, whitecaps


Giggling in the Pigweeds

Quick–where does this expression (giggling in the pigweeds) come from? I can find only this.   I’m guessing it comes originally from Uncle Wiggily, but the phrase itself isn’t in the Uncle Wiggily stories (I don’t think).   It reads like Perelman…   Does anybody know?



Horrifying Words

Probably not everybody suffers from Specific Word Phobia (SWP)   (if anybody can come up with a pseudoclinical name for this, please do), but I’m guessing I’m not the only one, so I’m starting a new list.

What I’m looking for are words that horrify–not because of what they mean (rape, Akin,   etc.) but just because of the way they look, lolling or crouching there on the page, the way they sound, insinuating in the ear.   The ugly, icky word is physically repulsive.   One is literally taken aback.   One blinks, scowls; one’s mouth waters in an unpleasant way.   One simply hates the word.   One does not know why, nor does one care.

I’d be stunned if any universal truths emerge from this project.   I have no purpose here beyond curiosity.   I can’t be the only one with SWP.   Or am I?

I’ll go first.     Remember, the meaning of the word can be innocuous.   Appearance is all.   And just to clarify:   These are words you hate to use and when forced to, you find the experience unpleasant.   You probably grimace.



From Laura Preble:


From the Magic Hermit:





From Lynn Heilman:


From Lisa Roche:


From John Kornhauser:


From Billy Frolick:



From Karen Worley:



From Kathy Kulpa:



From Anne Baker:


From Elizabeth Carrera:



*I share “cremains.”   It’s like “clamato.”   Using it, one feels degraded.

Late-Breaking Sausage Attack Stories from Southeastern New England

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.

Read more:

My First and Last Homemade Movie

is posted here, and has something tangential to do with my upcoming novel, tentatively entitled Amy Falls Down.   As does this.


When Did People Start Saying “Bored of”?

…instead of “bored with” and “bored by”? Isn’t this just wrong?