I met Jennifer Close in a basement classroom that stunk of chicken fingers. This was many years ago, in the thick of George W. Bush.
I was angry and helpless around the clock, a true professional liberal. I took it out on my students, but they seemed to feel they had it coming, which is what I love about students.
Jennifer was, by all appearances, a typical Boston College student: well-dressed, well-behaved, well-groomed. She had gorgeous red hair, pleated with elegant clips. I did not harbor high expectations.
Then her first story arrived in my chamber of pain and I enjoyed that rare, true sensation: the confounding of my own bigotry.
Jennifer’s prose was sleek and playful, and it possessed the one quality sure to provoke my villainous cackle. It was subversive. Her narrator could see just a little bit more than the people around her–more of the lying and more of the hurt.
Keep your eye on this one, I said.
As so often happens when I say this, Jennifer is now more famous than I am. Knopf has just published her debut novel, Girls in White Dresses, to considerable acclaim. The book, which I read in a single indulgent evening, offers a keen (and keenly subversive) portrait of young women adrift in the big city.
There is much drinking and a good deal of fretting over marital prospects. Think Jane Austen–shaken, not stirred.
Once or twice a week, I check the book’s Amazon ranking. It remains almost unrecognizably low.
The Rumpus: A lot of readers are going to want to know if you’ve based any of the characters in “Girls in White Dresses” on me, your extremely famous former writing instructor. You may now comment.
Jennifer Close: I think we both know that the chapter titled, “The Best Writing Teacher Ever,” was pulled from the book, thanks to your lawyers. It’s out of my hands.
Rumpus: What, if anything, do you remember from our time together in class? Specifically: please explain in what ways you would never have been able to pursue a career in the literary arts without my guidance. [Note: in previous installments, interviewees have rushed through this question, and it has proved fatal to their careers.]
Close: I remember your painted briefcase (there was a cow on there, right?) and that I was always afraid you were going to yell at me. You yelled a lot. And you called us all fuckers. All the time. I now realize what an effective teaching tool that was, because I was ALWAYS prepared in your class.
Some other things:
You were the first person to introduce me to George Saunders, which started a slight obsession.
You once asked the class if any of us had ever seen anyone get shot.
You told us you stole Advil from CVS.
There was a girl in the class that had no sense of smell, and you got really excited about that. You wrote down the name of the condition so that you could use it in a lie later on.
Also, I remember chicken fingers. Everyone remembers the chicken fingers.
Rumpus: I admit I felt a little sad reading the book–that finding love is still such a sad and fraught endeavor. Did you feel sad writing the book?
Close: There were some times that I felt sad for my characters, especially when they were in a situation that they couldn’t see past, and I knew they felt like things would never get better or that they’d never move on. But I think that there is a tendency in your 20s, to dwell and even indulge in your own sadness, because you’re at a time when you can do that.
But I also felt really happy at times, because there were little flashes of hilarious things that happened to these characters and even though they were sad sometimes, they also had a lot of fun. That’s just the way it goes.
Rumpus: Any blowback from friends or exes who saw themselves in the pages?
Close: Well, my fiancé seems to think that every single male character in the book is based on him. Which is just greedy, when you get down to it.
No blowback yet, but as far as I know none of my exes have read it yet. So thanks for making me nervous. It surprises me how much people want to find the “real” parts of the book, no matter how many times I tell them it’s fiction. Of course, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t little pieces that I stole from my life. But that’s just what happens. If your brother submits “whore” as a Scattegories answer when the category is “things that are sticky” during a drunk family Thanksgiving, then that is noted and will be used. Sorry, Kevin.
Rumpus: There’s a gorgeous riff, late in the book, about a reality TV program in which fat people struggle to lose weight. What impressed me was the sudden compassion your character feels for the contestants. Did you have any idea, when you were writing the book, that my wife and I had gotten into a rather nasty “The Biggest Loser” habit?
Close: Um, no I didn’t know that but I’m not surprised. I had my own nasty “Biggest Loser” habit and that’s what inspired that scene. I’m not particularly proud of that part of my life, but I’ve moved on. I do have to say that I cried—a lot—at that show, and I’m not a big crier. There’s something so naked about their struggle. It’s so physically challenging and every part of it is filmed, which is just downright embarrassing and makes you realize how desperate they must be to have agreed to such a thing.
Also, once I thought of the phrase, “Bawling at the big people” I really wanted to use it.
Rumpus: Please speak about your “publishing experience.” You may not use the word “grateful” or “platform.”
Close: Ok, I won’t say either of those words, but I will say this: It was really, really, lucky. From start to finish, the whole thing went so well. And I know this is not the case for so many writers, so whenever someone asks me how it went, “lucky” is my go to word.
I just feel so grateful to have this platform, you know?
Rumpus: It’s been a while since you’ve thought about this, so please return to our time together in class. Try to imagine what your life would have been like had you not had me as an instructor. Dwell in this dark place for a few moments. Now breathe.
Close: My life would have almost certainly been void of all things happy.
But seriously (and I’ve told you this before) I’m not sure that I would have pursued writing in the same way if it weren’t for your class. You gave us a lot of practical information for living as a writer. You told us that the hardest part of being a writer was just doing the work, which I remind myself daily.
And you told me the most important bit of advice that I’ve ever gotten.
You said that it was embarrassing to be a writer—that it’s hard to tell people you want to be a writer, that you expose a lot of yourself in the process, and that it’s just embarrassing at times, not just for yourself but for your friends and family.
I think about that quite often, and I tell myself that it’s part of the job and that it’s worth it. Because you told me it would sometimes feel this way, I know that I’m not alone, and that’s comforting.
Rumpus: Nice work. Your check’s in the mail.