So, funny story: This year’s winner of the prestigious Thurber Prize for American Humor had not set out to write a humorous book.
“I’m not a funny person, really,” said Julie Schumacher, looking vaguely distressed.
(Here’s irony: She may resist the “funny lady” label, but could pass for being Tina Fey’s older, more studious sister.)
At any rate, the Thurber judges laughed heartily at “Dear Committee Members,” as did reviewers for the New York Times Book Review and National Public Radio. Granted, an erudite bunch. But then, the novel is told through a series of letters of recommendation (or LORs) by an egotistical and artistically frustrated professor of creative writing.
Yet the book is more than a scholarly in-joke, familiar to any employee who’s contemplated “keeping a log of department meetings ranked according to level of trauma.”
Prof. Jason Fitger is at the junction of the comedy that readers find, but also the poignancy that Schumacher intended to illuminate.
“Somebody said that ‘comedy is tragedy plus time,’ ” said Shumacher, 56, who teaches in the University of Minnesota’s Creative Writing Program and English Department.
“I think there’s a point you get to in middle age where you start to do the counting — inventorying things you hoped for that didn’t happen, that sort of thing. I’m not a person who’s had huge disappointments, but there is that accounting.
“J is my first initial, so there’s something of myself in that character.”
Books alphabetized from A-K stock the floor-to-ceiling shelves in Schumacher’s study. L, M, N line the stairs and continue on to the second floor. Above her desk hangs a sign pointing toward the door: “To Life Boats.”
She writes by hand in composition notebooks, and jots ideas on notes. She is always running across shards of paper. “I found this note the other day. It said: ‘Nomad?’ And I’m like, ‘What was I thinking? Nomad?’ ”
She regards handwriting as “a sort of scrolling and forgiving medium. I find [computer] screens demanding, in a way.”
Schumacher avoids technology whenever possible, finding great value in being unreachable. She finally got a cellphone, but it’s usually in her sock drawer. (“Why would I want to talk to someone in a grocery aisle?”) She’s not even trying to be funny.
“My friends say, ‘I left you a message, but then realized you won’t get it for a couple of years.’ ” OK, she was trying to be funny there, but note the redirect: Friends supply the punchline.
Told that her last post on her Facebook author page was on Nov. 1, 2014, she looks barely sheepish. “I paid a grad student to do a Facebook page for me, and my kids said, ‘You paid someone? Any idiot can make a Facebook page.’ ”
Suffice it to say she is not on Twitter. She’s also given up TV, finding remote controls “a massive source of stress.”
So, how does she veg out?
“Read. I just read all the time.”
Challenge of a writing form
Students who walk into Schumacher’s creative writing class “thinking they can write about anything” are quickly set straight. “I tell them, ‘No, you can’t. You don’t go into math class and say, ‘I only do addition.’ ”
Among her “don’ts” are stories written from the point of view of an inanimate object, or set on another planet. Also: “No story starts with people gathered around an open grave.”
That’s pretty funny — and reveals that Schumacher is a whole lot funnier than she lets on, although she would prefer being called witty. Thurber Prize judges sounded overcome. Liza Donnelly said it best: “Her humor sizzles and settles into you and catches you off-guard. … ”
Schumacher appreciates humor, noting that her office door flutters with New Yorker cartoons by fellow Thurber finalist Roz Chast, nominated for “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” But her own book? Hmmm.
“Dear Committee Members” began as a writing challenge. She’d never tackled an epistolary novel using letters (or epistles in the form’s 18th-century origins) to tell the story. Schumacher quickly saw the challenge.
“To show the story of [Fitger’s] life, he would have to be writing about himself even as he was writing these letters for others. Who would do that? Well, only a real jerk.”
Oh, and he is.
Fitger’s passive-aggressive ways seep like the leak in his ceiling into his letters. He witheringly imagines one methodical student “setting each word in place with a jeweler’s loupe.” In a reference for a former girlfriend, he mentions “our years of tumbling in the hay.”
Schumacher also uses the letters to cast a grim commentary on the job world, with grads seeking jobs in catering, as nannies and working in paintball emporiums.
Charles Baxter, a teaching colleague and award-winning author himself, empathizes with Schumacher’s gentle dismay at “Dear Committee Members” being pegged as humorous, preferring to call it a “hilarious book with a deeply serious purpose.”
“When people think of Joseph Heller and ‘Catch-22,’ I don’t think they say he’s a comic novelist; they just say that he’s a novelist.” Baxter compares the two books because “they are not about individuals. They are about institutions. There’s a kind of language that gets generated because an institution is so powerful.” Thus, people are “hereby nominated” and promotions “bolstered.”
Whether it’s a LOR or an office memo, “we often have to generate prose that we’re not proud of, and it can make you crazy.”
Minnesota ‘grew on us’
Schumacher grew up in Wilmington, Del., and always wanted to write. She worked for school newspapers, “but I’m pretty slow. I mean, it took me so long to cover a boys’ basketball game.”
As a Spanish major, she imagined living in South America translating poetry. But after a stint in Bogota, Colombia, she returned home, working as a legal secretary and a copy editor for a medical magazine, but always writing.
Her first published story, “Reunion,” made it into “The Best American Short Stories of 1983” — which was cool, but then again: This was her first story. She was 23 years old.
“We had to supply these blurbs and I tried to make myself sound sophisticated. You know: ‘Schumacher is a writer, editor and translator in New York City.’ But I was typing for a living.”
Still, the success led her to earn a degree in Cornell University’s master of fine arts program. When her husband, Larry Jacobs, got a job with the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the U, they moved to Minnesota 27 years ago.
“It grew on us,” she said of Minnesota, in part because of her early success in walloping high school lacrosse players. Schumacher had played for 30 years — a lacrosse stick hangs in her study — and leapt at a sign seeking lacrosse players from out East when the sport was just beginning here.
“We’d come out with our gray hair and children in tow and just kill these high school girls,” she said. “It was great.”
Still, she knows her athleticism led to both hips being replaced in the past six years.
She hopes that readers are not expecting another novel that, in the words of an NPR review, may have you “laughing so hard it hurts.”
“One thing I’ve liked about my career as an author is that I haven’t done the same thing,” she said.
Her first novel, “The Body Is Water,” is about a mother’s illness and death. “An Explanation for Chaos” is a collection of short stories for young adult readers. Five other novels are for younger readers. She’s not sure what’s next.
And to be clear: She’s thrilled to have won the Thurber Prize and, as its first female winner, to have broken the all-male streak.
Still, she regards the humorist label with bemusement. Returning home after the ceremony last week, the heavy glass of the award tripped airport security. She explained to Transportation Security Administration agents that the object was an award for writing humor.
So you work in comedy clubs?
No, I write books, she said, as they waved other agents over to see the award.
So, you perform in comedy clubs?
They were waiting for a punchline, “but I had no answer for them.”