Julie Schumacher grew up in Wilmington, Delaware and graduated from Oberlin College and Cornell University. Her first novel, The Body Is Water, was published by Soho Press in 1995 and was an ALA Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Minnesota Book Award. Her other books include Dear Committee Members, An Explanation for Chaos, and five novels for younger readers, all from Delacorte. Ms. Schumacher lives in St. Paul and is a faculty member in the Creative Writing Program and the Department of English at the University of Minnesota.
“A Gradual Evolution,” An Interview with Julie Schumacher
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Niki Johnson. Of the process, she said, “I instantly fell in love with Julie Schumacher’s writing. In her latest novel, she weaves together an incredibly honest and poignant exploration of academia. I appreciate Julie’s grace in indulging me with compelling insights into her work.” In this interview, Julie discusses the comforts of composing drafts by hand, the surprising origin of her novel, and her admiration for pithy writing.
Superstition Review: Jay Fitger is a such a hilarious, brash professor. I might feel uneasy asking him to write me a letter of recommendation. He is really quite enjoyable from afar! What was your process in pinning down his voice?
Julie Schumacher: His voice came to me very quickly. As soon as I understood that the portrayal of his character would require that he talk about himself in letters he was writing for the benefit of other people—well, I knew what that would have to sound like. Typically I do a lot of revision in order to find a character's voice, but his was wonderfully immediate.
SR: In reading your interview with The Rumpus, I discovered that you wrote Dear Committee Members by hand, in a notebook. This is so interesting because another interviewee of mine, Lily King, follows the same method. What about this method works for you? Did this process help you relate Fitger’s aversion to electronic forms of writing?
JS: I don't think it helped me to relate to *his* aversion for writing on the computer; *I'm* averse to writing on the computer. Fitger and I are alike in that way; I channeled my own frustrations and neuroses into his character. I love writing by hand. It's less threatening. When I see my writing in print, typed, I expect it to be polished. But when I look at my own handwriting, I'm able to forgive it for being rough. The handwriting is solely for my eyes, not for anyone else's—which makes the writing process feel safer to me, more secure.
SR: Between Fitger’s countless LORs, you weave several interesting plot lines in this novel: Fitger’s relationship with his ex-wife and ex-girlfriend, past experience at the Seminar, adventures working in a construction zone, and struggle to support Darren Browles’ novel to name a few. Could you describe your process in organizing your novel? Did you begin with interweaving ideas in mind or did they develop as you worked through the story?
JS: I started writing without being certain how I would organize the book or tie the letters together, but I knew that a through-line would be a challenge, given the form. So, writing the book one letter at a time on the right-side pages of my notebook, I sketched out Jay Fitger's backstory on the left-side pages, trying to create characters to whom he could write more than one letter, people he could have relationships or a history with, etc. I did have a lot of charts and lists, also.
SR: Before Dear Committee Members, you’ve been busy with five young adult novels and a short story collection for adult readers, An Explanation of Chaos (1997). You’ve had such a successful writing career! Can you discuss why you decided to return to an adult audience?
JS: It felt less like a decision and more like a gradual evolution. I've often written about parents and children and adolescence, whether directing my work to a younger or an "adult" audience. But I started writing for younger readers when I was stuck on a novel I couldn't finish, and my own kids were young, and I was interested in what they were reading. Many of the books they were reading were beautiful and very literary (e.g. Charlotte's Web); what differentiated them from books for adults, I thought, was the directness of the plot, the emphasis on cause-and-effect in the story line. Having spent years struggling with the never-to-be-completed adult novel, I thought maybe I could teach myself about plot and structure by writing a short novel for children. And I wrote a novel called Grass Angel, and I so loved writing that book—the process was so joyful—that I wrote a few more. Now my kids are grown up, and I don't end up reading many novels for kids anymore, so it seemed like the right time to shift back to an adult audience.
SR: I was intrigued by a line in one of Fitger’s LORs in which, he manages to stray and reminisce about the past, then apologizes for the letter’s length: “I lacked the time to make it shorter.” Can you explain this idea further and how it applies to your own experiences in working with various writing forms: novels, short stories, and essays?
JS: I stole that line: it's attributed to several different people, and I think it's true. It's very difficult to be succinct and clear; it's much easier to blather on at length without saying much. I admire writing that's very tightly woven.
SR: Congratulations on recently being named the winner of the 2015 Thurber Prize for American Humor. Not only that, you are the first woman in it’s nineteen-year history to do so. How did it feel to learn you had won? Does your talent for satire come naturally or is it something you have to work for?
JS: Thank you! It felt terrific. I so admire the work of Roz Chast, who was one of the other three finalists, and I thoroughly expected her to win. In the local papers in Minnesota after the prize was announced, I saw myself referred to as "the funniest woman in America." Not true. I don't consider myself a comic writer or a satirist, and I didn't set out, in writing Dear Committee Members, to produce a "funny book." I just wanted to try to write a book in the form of LORs, and Fitger, and his sense of bitter humor, emerged from there.
SR: As a professor in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Minnesota, I’m sure you drew from experience while writing Dear Committee Members. Could you talk about the role teaching has had on your writing career? What is some solid advice you give to your aspiring writers?
JS: Teaching is inspiring on the one hand, exhausting on the other. My job involves reading a lot of books that I love, and talking to smart people about them—which is pretty incredible. As for solid advice, I think the hardest things about writing are also the simplest: Make or find time for it. Don't give up. Learn to accept criticism. Turn off the screen.
SR: I was touched by Fitger’s resolve to serve as a relentless champion for Darren Browels. Though, Fitger does not disappoint when he relates, “I identified with Browels—I saw him as an earlier more ingenious version of myself.” Was Fitger’s advocacy for Browels something that you planned from the novel’s inception? How important is it for a character to have redeeming qualities?
JS: Poor Darren Browles. I knew early on that his story was not going to end well. I wanted Fitger, in championing Browles's writing, to be backing the wrong horse. He advocates for Browles for selfish reasons—Browles is his last remaining graduate student in creative writing, and Fitger is afraid that the writing program will be de-funded—and also because he sees in Browles a hapless younger version of himself. I see redeeming qualities in both Fitger and Browles; otherwise I wouldn't have wanted to write them.
SR: Let’s talk about Browels’ revamped version of Melville’s “Bartleby.” I admit, “Bartleby” is not my favorite story, but it’s one I can’t seem to forget. What inspired the detail that Browels’ novel is a retelling of Melville’s story? I found Fitger’s praise for the novel rather hilarious. How do you think this informs Fitger’s judgment of praiseworthy fiction?
JS: I was assigned to read "Bartleby" in college, and I did not care for the story at all. I found it bafflingly dull. And I thought that if Browles was going to be writing something absurd, and not very promising—well, what better project than a grossly inflated retelling of a short dull work? Fitger praises Browles's project for self-serving reasons, but he's not willing to admit to this selfishness until the end of the novel—at which point he realizes that he has done his student no favors.
SR: Last year, your essay, “Was This Student Dangerous,” appeared in The New York Times. The issue with the responsibility teachers have to their students’ mental health is also brought up in Dear Committee Members. What roles do teachers play in the “Crisis Management Team?” Do the current practices extend beyond a teacher’s authority? Do you see an end to the issue of violence on college campuses?
JS: This, I think, is a desperately important national issue rather than an educational one.
SR: Dear Committee Members is unique to your past works because its structure is a compilation of various writings from one character—almost like Fitger’s own soliloquy. What drew you to this untraditional form of a novel?
JS: The idea came to me while I was teaching an undergraduate fiction class. I was telling my students that they could write a short story in the form of a list, or a recipe, or a series of emails, etc., and that they might find that a particular form or structure would offer them inspiration. One of the students asked if I had ever begun a work of fiction by choosing a particular form, and I said no. He asked me what form I would choose, if I were to do so, and I said, facetiously, that I should compose a work in the form of a letter of recommendation, because I wrote so many LORs. And then I began to think about that possibility—about whether it would be a crazy idea or a worthwhile idea. And I decided to give it a try.
SR: I’m genuinely curious, what was your process for coming up with some of the obscure institutions Fitger is requested to write his LORs for? While hilarious, I also feel like there is a disheartening theme regarding opportunities for students post-college. Could you discuss this theme as it applies to your real-life observations?
JS: Fitger does have *some* former students who have gone on to success. But I wanted to highlight the difficulty that recent graduates face in a hostile job market, and the best way of doing that was, I decided, to invent some truly absurd "opportunities" for his advisees. That said, I don't believe, as some people seem to do, that the key to success in a difficult job market involves wholesale abandonment of the arts and humanities in favor of business degrees. Like Fitger, I want to advocate for literature and the arts.
SR: In one of Fitger’s LORs, he gives Payne University the clever tagline: “Teach ‘til it Hurts.” Throughout the novel, he certainly points out the marginalization of the English department. Even I can relate from a student’s perspective. To what degree were you consciously writing about your own frustrations with the treatment of the humanities? Did any single frustration make it in the book by necessity?
JS: There's a current, fervent emphasis on the STEM fields in this country—science, technology, engineering, and math—which I find sort of numbing. Those who are interested in science and engineering should study those fields. But not everyone is interested. The world is larger than that, and more diverse.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
JS: I have a lovely little study in my house, painted deep blue, but I don't always write in it. The problem with writing at home: one can always clean something, or play with the cats. I tend to migrate from coffee shop to library to work to home, depending on how the writing is going. When it's going well, I can be found in the lovely blue room.