March 25, 2015, with Barbara DeMarco-Barrett
(Interview in December 2013)
A graphic interview with me, by Matt Runkle, now available for purchase.
NATURE’S LITTLE JOKES
by Megan Labrise on July 11, 2013 | Posted in Fiction
Jincy Willett’s latest novel has been mistaken for a roman-Ã -clef. Surely readers can be forgiven for being confused: It says roman-Ã -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-Ã -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 Ã¼ber-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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 clichÃ©s, 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.”
POKING FUN AT THE BUSINESS OF PUBLISHING
INTERVIEW by BECKY OHLSEN
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.”
(for Amy Falls Down)
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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