I very much enjoyed this interview, a lively one with someone who had actually read the book. (This is fairly uncommon.)
I very much enjoyed this interview, a lively one with someone who had actually read the book. (This is fairly uncommon.)
Rebecca Byrkit, Clinical Professor of Liberal Studies and Creative Writing at ASU, recently did a zoom interview with me. Her class is Humor Writing.
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.”