Julie Schumacher has written an entire novel that consists of nothing but letters of recommendation — LORs — from a wry, sorehead English professor. And she had so much fun doing it.
Both Schumacher and her book’s antihero, Jason T. Fitger, teach creative writing, so it’s no wonder that Fitger’s LORs aren’t the least bit boilerplate.
Fitger doesn’t dash them off thoughtlessly. He gets into them. He uses them. And in Schumacher’s “Dear Committee Members,” the current selection of the FYI Book Club, these unrelated letters, taken together, end up telling a story — several stories.
As Fitger takes LORs to new, inappropriate, wrenching and hilarious levels, the egocentric but good-hearted academic reveals his middle-age insecurities. His biting commentary takes aim at such targets as bureaucracy and cultural priorities, even as he goes overboard championing one of his students.
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The sign-offs alone are worth a spin through this 180-page epistolary novel, closings such as “Cordially and with a hearty welcome to the madhouse,” “Yours on the underfunded wing of the campus” and “Hoping to maintain a distance of at least one hundred yards.”
Here are edited excerpts of our recent conversation with Schumacher.
Q. Apparently college professors are awash in recommendation letters. How does it happen?
A. That’s a big part of where this book started. I realized over the years that I was reading so many of these — and maybe sending more than I was actually reading. For instance, we had 500 applications for 12 spots in our graduate program. I asked other faculty members, “Are you reading all of these recommendation letters?” They said “not always.” If the writing samples weren’t very good, we didn’t read the letters at all.
It seemed we were casting all these words into the void. There have been times when I would write a recommendation letter for a student, then I was on the awards committee, so basically I was reading letters written to myself. I thought, “This seems crazy.”
But as the makings of a novel?
I was teaching an undergraduate fiction class and talking to the students about various forms, unusual ones, they could use to write a short story — maybe through a series of letters among friends or text messages. The idea was that there are different ways you could structure a short story.
A student asked if I had ever used one of these weird ways to write fiction. And I said, facetiously, “I probably could write something from recommendation letters, because I’ve written so many for you guys.”
So I tried an experiment one summer to write a couple of letters every day. I loved it.
You chose a tough epistolary structure, only using letters from Jason, aka Jay, Fitger, none written by other characters.
I decided very early on that if this character was going to be portrayed only through letters he writes to other people, he has to be able to talk about himself a lot. So I could make him a total egomaniac and wildly inappropriate. It was fun.
The circumstances had to allow him to write letters to some people more than once. I gave him an ex-wife on campus who works at the law school and a girlfriend who recently broke up with him, and people he has spurned or offended in the past who he now has to write letters to. That created a narrative through-line.
I found it kind of liberating. There were so many choices I didn’t have to make. I don’t describe where he lives or what he looks like or how he speaks. That stuff was all off the board.
What’s great is that many of the letters are so wry they’re riotous. Are you a funny person?
I don’t think people would describe me as terribly funny. I need time to be funny, and having paper and pen in front of me made it easier. I really did laugh to myself as I was writing the book.
The letters have several duties here. One of them is social criticism, right? Jason Fitger pokes fun at many things, particularly his own university and the fortunes of academia.
Every job has its absurd qualities. Before I became an academic, I worked in an office, and I know corporate culture has its own insanity. This is insanity particular to higher education and similar institutions that are red-tape heavy.
I wanted Fitger to be enraged about things of concern to a lot of people these days: the cost of higher education, the ways students have to go into debt, the hiring of adjunct professors instead of tenured faculty. People out there feel sad and quietly desperate about higher ed.
And at this moment there’s all this talk about the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Of course, we need engineers and people who know how to use computers, but there must be some role left for the arts, for critical thinking about history and literature. Those are the things that have always mattered to me.
Plenty of send-ups here, including the subject matter chosen by creative writing students, mostly gory, sci-fi, fantasy stuff, according to Fitger. True in real life?
Well, you’ve got vampires, zombies, Tolkien and Harry Potter — this is a lot of what the students are watching and reading, and that influences what they write. I sometimes try to persuade students out of it, but sometimes you let them write what they write.
Some of the funniest of Fitger’s letters are references for students to random, prospective employers — Avenger Paintball, Xandu Park RV’s. (You have fun with that bad apostrophe.) Have you really written such letters for students?
I’ve been a reference for people teaching at a private kindergarten and at book stores or internships in journalism. But, no, never paintball. As I drove around town I would see business signs and think, “I could put that in, I could use this.”
Maybe the biggest task for these letters is to create a main storyline, of Fitger championing the literary efforts of one of his students, Darren Browles. Why did you like that narrative?
I wanted him to see an earlier version of himself in Darren. It gives the novel a feeling of nostalgia and regret. Fitger is thinking, “I was a young person starting out, and someone supported me, and I want to support someone else.” He wants to give back in some way.
It becomes clear he’s betting on the wrong horse. In one way it’s another blunder Jay is making, but it’s a heartfelt one.
The letters have to reveal Fitger’s character. Do you think readers will get him?
Some people may read Jay Fitger as solely a nasty person, inappropriate and vindictive. I became very fond of him. He cares very much about education and whether its heyday is over. He defends what he does.
He wants to save his program. He believes in it. He has no tact or diplomacy, which is a problem for him, but often his heart is in the right place.
He’s too honest.
He often says things in a letter that you might only say to a friend in private. He has no filter. You squirm a bit and think, “Oh no, don’t say that, don’t say that.” And you know he’s going to say it.
That’s another reason it was fun to write the book. I am not that person. I’m very cautious in emails. I try hard to get along with people. I don’t make a fuss. I don’t have a temper. I’m appropriate in a work setting.
But aren’t there times you’d like to take the lid off? Jay got to do that for me. I think he offers readers a kind of catharsis.
Fitger had promise and some early writing success, but his work got little attention after that. His relationships have fizzled. What are your thoughts about his life trajectory?
I was thinking about that idea of success, and when does a person feel successful? Here he is, objectively in an enviable position, a tenured job, published multiple books, including one that people liked pretty well. But it makes him feel not successful.
I think it’s easy in this culture of constant running and pursuit to think, “I have to have a success every day. If I have one success, I have to have another.” There’s no moment when a person can feel satisfied.
I think also he’s in a tricky position. He wonders if his first book was successful because it was a bit salacious. He used the lives of people he knew.
And, he was very successfully mentored. The book raises questions about the extent to which mentorship and patronage matter. He has these doubts.
Is there hope for Jason T. Fitger?
I think if he felt entirely hopeless about the future, he would not be pressing as hard as he does in some of the letters. He wouldn’t write the letters at all.
He’s going to continue to struggle in his tactless way. He still cares about the things that matter to him. He is not a person who has given up.
From Julie Schumacher’s “Dear Committee Members,” published by Doubleday
September 3, 2009
Literary Residency Program
P.O. Box 1572
Bentham, ME 04976
Dear Committee Members,
Over the past twenty-odd years I’ve recommended god only knows how many talented candidates for the Bentham January residency –– that enviable literary oasis in the woods south of Skowhegan: the solitude, the pristine cabins, the artistic camaraderie, and those exquisite hand-delivered satchels of apples and cheese. … Well, you can scratch all prior nominees and pretenders from your mailing lists, because none are as provocative or as promising as Darren Browles.
Mr. Browles is my advisee; he’s taken two of my graduate workshops, and his novel-in-progress, a re-telling of Melville’s Bartleby (but in which the eponymous character is hired to keep the books at a brothel, circa 1960, just outside Las Vegas) is both tender satire and blistering adaptation/homage. In brief: this tour-de-force is witty, incisive, original, brutally sophisticated, erotic. You don’t need me to summarize it –– you’ll have received his two opening chapters. My agent, Ken Doyle, is apprised of the project and is gnashing his pearly incisors in the hope of receiving the completed manuscript soon. Any additional perks or funding you can provide for Browles during the residency will be appreciated; he’s likely to be wooed by editors all over New York.
A personal aside: I was very sorry to hear of Mike’s death. He was a terrific director, and I always enjoyed talking to him in the row of blue rocking chairs out on the porch during the occasions (too rare!) when I was able to escape my academic duties here in the midwest and accept his invitations to Bentham. He’ll be terribly hard to replace. Whoever tries to step into them will find he wore sizeable, generous shoes.
In sadness but looking to the future,
Jason T. Fitger
Professor of Creative Writing and Literature
Department of English
Sept. 9, 2009
Mary Alice Ingersol, Manager
Wexler Foods, Inc.
65409 Capitol Drive
Maplewood, MN 55109
Dear Ms. Ingersol,
This letter is intended to bolster the application to Wexler Foods of my former student John Leszczynski, who completed the Junior/Senior Creative Writing Workshop three months ago. Mr. Leszczynski received a final grade of B, primarily on the basis of an eleven-page short story about an inebriated man who tumbles into a cave and surfaces from an alcoholic stupor to find that a tentacled monster — a sort of fanged and copiously salivating octopus, if memory serves — is gnawing through the flesh of his lower legs, the monster’s spittle burbling ever closer to the victim’s groin. Though chaotic and improbable even within the fantasy/horror genre, the story was solidly constructed: dialogue consisted primarily of agonized groans and screaming; the chronology was relentlessly clear.
Mr. Leszczynski attended class faithfully, arriving on time, and rarely succumbed to the undergraduate impulse to check his cell phone for messages or relentlessly zip and unzip his backpack in the final minutes of class.
Whether punctuality and an enthusiasm for flesh-eating cephalopods are the main attributes of the ideal Wexler employee I have no idea, but Mr. Leszczynski is an affable young man, reliable in his habits, and reasonably bright.
You might start him off in produce, rather than in seafood or meats.
Jason T. Fitger, Professor of Creative Writing/English
THE JULIE SCHUMACHER FILE
Hometown: St. Paul, Minn. Grew up in Wilmington, Del.
Family: Married, two adult daughters
Education: Bachelor’s in Spanish from Oberlin College in Ohio and master’s of fine arts in fiction from Cornell University in New York
Position: Professor of creative writing and English at the University of Minnesota
Other works include: “The Body Is Water,” her first novel, a short story collection titled “An Explanation for Chaos,” and several books for younger readers.
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a “book of the moment” selection every six to eight weeks. We invite the community to read along.
Members of FYI and the library staff chose “Dear Committee Members” by Julie Schumacher.
If you would like to participate in a coming discussion of the book, led by the library’s Kaite Stover, email firstname.lastname@example.org.