(for Amy Falls Down)
AUTHOR EXPLORES POWER OF ACCIDENTS
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.
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You mentioned a dog; whatever happened to the parrot? (Can’t remember the name. Catherwood?) He was fated to outlive you.
Yes! And you promised to strangle me if she started ailing. Unfortunately she ran afoul of an overzealous vet (parrot doc to the stars–he used to treat Lolita, an Amazon parrot who was on Johnny Carson all the time). He insisted she’d benefit from sinus surgery, which she did, for about five minutes, and then she died post-op. Thanks for asking! Hope you and Chris are well.
Was I right about her name being Catherwood? My first cat, a Maine Coon, was named Rocky Rococo, so I associate Nick Danger with pets in general.
Chris and I are tolerably well. We just got back from a memorial/party for Charles Strauss, who died last winter. An interesting cross-section of the population of Providence turned out.
Strangely, our vet is also a specialist in parrots. Of course we live out in the country, so he’s a parrot doc to the steers. (Cross-continent strangling is right out, so that last sentence will have to serve in its place.)
Yes, it was Catherwood. We ultimately decided she was female, although I never knew for sure. Sorry about Charlie. Is Avery still among us? Was he part of the interesting cross-section?