Several years back, a writer friend asked a literary agent what the marketability might be of her comical epistolary. “Unlikely” was the answer. Comedy is nearly impossible to pull off and novels written in letters are equally risky. So what was it about Julie Schumacher’s 2014 comical epistolary, Dear Committee Members, that defied the rule of thumb, reaped commercial success, and even took home the Thurber Prize for American Humor? Was it Schumacher’s knack for delivering levity in the most despairing of moments? Her taste in comedy “tend[ing] toward the morbid… [the] devious, cynical, subversive“? Her ability to write a “novel that puts the ‘piss’ back into the epistolary”?
Whatever it was, Schumacher is back at it with The Shakespeare Requirement, a sequel to Dear Committee Members, in which everyone’s favorite long-suffering English professor Jason Fitger returns to school for a new academic year and is reluctantly made chair of Payne University’s English Department. As Fitger embarks on a quest to get all English faculty to agree on a “Statement of Vision” for budget approval, all manner of carnivalesque hilarity ensues.
I recently had the delightful opportunity to interview Schumacher at Chicago’s renowned feminist bookstore Women & Children First about The Shakespeare Requirement, and more recently over email where we discussed what it’s like to be the first woman to win the Thurber Prize, the significance of art and literature in education, the tyranny of acronyms and technology, and who she would want cast as Fitger if The Shakespeare Requirement were adapted to a TV show.
The Rumpus: Huge congratulations for being the first woman to win the Thurber prize for humor writing! What’s life like post-Thurber? No doubt, everyone expects you to be funny.
Schumacher: Yes, at times I suspect that I am disappointing people who are expecting me to be able to tell jokes, do brief standup sketches, and in general be amusing. I am, in fact, not very funny. Jason T. Fitger is funny, and I do see him as an aspect of me, but I don’t have his confidence or courage. I’m also not, I hope, as much of a jerk.
Rumpus: Which other female writers would you like to see win the prize?
Schumacher: I’d like to see lots of women win it. I was astounded that Roz Chast didn’t win for her graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?—but because I won that year, I can’t claim to be unhappy about the judges’ selection.
Rumpus: What initially prompted The Shakespeare Requirement’s precursor, Dear Committee Members?
Schumacher: The idea for the novel came to me in the best possible way, and all at once. I was teaching an undergraduate fiction class, and I asked the students to envision a short story based on a particular structure or form: an exchange of emails between adversaries, or a series of advice columns, or a list of items found at an archaeological dig. The students challenged me to do the same. In fact I’d never begun a work of fiction in that particular way, but I immediately realized that if I were to zero in on a form, I would choose the letter of recommendation—because I was achingly familiar with it. So the novel began as a sort of puzzle: would it be possible to structure an entire book around the letter of reference?
Rumpus: What was it like to move from the constraint of letters in Dear Committee Members to third person in The Shakespeare Requirement?
Schumacher: It was hard, especially at first. I tend to steer clear of omniscience. Once I made the leap, I asked myself, ‘Who handles literary omniscience really well?’ Tolstoy, I thought. So I re-read and re-read my favorite passages of Anna Karenina—which didn’t make the job any easier, because how in the heck was I going to write like Tolstoy? I did crib one tiny thing from his novel, though: there’s a brief passage in Anna Karenina in which the narrator assumes the point of view of a hunting dog, so that the reader understands the animal’s thoughts. So I did include a paragraph in The Shakespeare Requirement that dips into the consciousness of a dog.
Rumpus: How has The Shakespeare Requirement gone over with your peers? Have any of them found its contents strangely familiar?
Schumacher: My colleagues at the University of Minnesota have been incredibly supportive and happy for me. Periodically they send me emails about things that they hope I will satirize in a third Fitger novel. Prior to a recent faculty meeting, more than one person said to me, “I hope this isn’t going to be like the one in your book.” We all know that weird things happen in academe. Every work situation has its inanities, but because English departments are full of writers, they end up as the subjects of novels more often than, say, post offices do.
Rumpus: Entrenched in the world of academe myself, I found reading The Shakespeare Requirement and Dear Committee Members so tremendously cathartic. I imagine writing it had to have been similar. What was the process was like for you?
Schumacher: I loved writing these books. There was so much readily available material! And I became very fond of Jason Fitger. He’s an egotist and a pain in the tail, but he’s fighting for so many things—arts and humanities and education—that I care very deeply about.
Rumpus: I love the moment in The Shakespeare Requirement when Fitger walks into the Econ
Department and tries to make an appointment with Roland Gladwell’s secretary, but his efforts are thwarted because he refuses to use the university’s electronic calendar. It’s such a wonderful
microcosmic example of the tyranny and limitations of technology, which is felt in academia and
beyond. I’m sure in your day-to-day, you’ve acquired an abundance of stories that deal with things like email snafus or online forms that have run amok. What’s one of the most absurd you’ve encountered?
Schumacher: Well, you can probably tell from the fact that I have cut-and-pasted your questions rather than answered them within the attachment that I am not generally on good terms with technology, which (it was your word, not mine) has come to tyrannize the workplace. The shiny new toys (phones, computer programs, apps) that are dangled in front of us promise to make our lives easier, but often they create more work and more frustration: don’t get me started on the online system for letters of recommendation—more than once, I have emailed department chairs to say that, unable to penetrate their various byzantine systems, I will be sending my recommendations via US mail. Like Fitger, I try never to use an online calendar. And I leave my phone at home in a drawer as often as possible.
Rumpus: I also enjoyed the way you played with academia’s adoption of certain clichés and buzz words. What are a few that make you fight back the urge to audibly groan?
Schumacher: I’m always amused by the acronym SLO (pronounced “slow”) for “student learning outcomes.”
Rumpus: That’s great! Any other good ones?
Schumacher: Well, I gave a reading in Iowa recently, and in setting the stage for the passage I was about to read, I explained that my character, Jason Fitger was struggling to get the English department faculty to agree on a “Statement of Vision.” As soon as I spoke those words—“Statement of Vision”—I heard someone at the back of the room. It was a shriek of despair and recognition.
Rumpus: What would you argue is the benefit of having a “Shakespeare Requirement” as part of an undergraduate degree? Do you feel it should be required? Or maybe you have a different sense as to what should be required?
Schumacher: I like to dodge this question entirely, leaving it to my literature (rather than creative writing) colleagues. I did poll a small group of undergraduate English majors about the issue, though, and was interested to see them divide roughly in half, in their opinions. One half of the group said they found it somewhat absurd that they were required to study the work of a single, long-deceased, white male author for an entire semester, when there are so many authors and works from which they might learn. The other half said that, if English studies lacked a foundation and a structure, it would seem to become a random group of electives, rather than a discipline composed of a logical series of courses. Plenty of English departments have done away with their Shakespeare requirements; we still require a semester of Shakespeare for English majors at the University of Minnesota.
Rumpus: What kind of impact—if any—has Shakespeare had on you? If not Shakespeare, what other writer has helped inform or shape your world view?
Schumacher: I have to confess here that I never studied Shakespeare in college. I was a Spanish and Latin American studies major as an undergraduate, and was busy reading One Hundred Years of Solitude and Don Quixote.
Rumpus: Then how would you say Márquez and Cervantes impacted your world view and/or writing?
Schumacher: There are authors whose work I love and often re-read, and there are authors whose work has influenced me. Sometimes those two categories overlap, and sometimes they don’t. I can’t claim to write—or even try to write—like Garcia Marquez or Cervantes. But in falling in love with their paragraphs and their sentences, I’ve broadened my imagination and my sense of what might be possible in fiction.
Rumpus: In light of the current student debt crisis and the push for young people to take up more practical pursuits, what defense for the humanities would you make at this point in time?
Schumacher: I understand why students and their families, justifiably anxious about debt, are eager to see four years of higher education “pay off” in the end. But I think the emphasis on practicality is sorely misplaced. What we believe is practical today may not be tomorrow; the workplace is changing so quickly. In order to adapt to it, college graduates need to be broadly rather than narrowly educated. They need to be able to imagine, to collaborate, to analyze, to draw on a wide range of knowledge and experience. What did Steve Jobs study? Calligraphy. Not business and not computers. I still fervently believe that students should follow their passions, and that art and literature can open our minds and make our lives richer and more worthwhile.
Rumpus: Things are always changing in academia. I feel that’s especially been the case these last twenty years. What would you say are the bigger or stranger changes?
Schumacher: For me, the biggest change has come in the form of technology. Like Jay Fitger, I distrust a lot of it, and I’m skeptical of the benefits. Students find it very hard to put down their cell phones. Their attention spans are shorter. They seldom read for pleasure because of the constant allure of the screen.
And, of course, the inside of our classroom doors are now emblazoned with posters advising us about how to behave in the event of an active shooter.
Rumpus: How have you adapted, kept agile throughout?
Schumacher: I’m not the best adapter, in terms of technological innovation. I detest the cell phone and try not to use it. I don’t watch TV. Other than email, I avoid the computer. I’ve written all my novels in composition notebooks, by hand.
Rumpus: Any sage advice for staying in the game?
Schumacher: In terms of writing rather than computing, I try to approach whatever I’m working on as a low-stakes experiment. I try to let the creative half of my brain off the leash in the early stages of a project, rather than guide or hamper it with the editorial half of my brain. If I feel too serious or stressed about what I’m writing, it generally doesn’t go well.
Rumpus: You chose satire as your genre for Dear Committee Members as well as with The Shakespeare Requirement. How did you come to write satire? What’s your favorite thing about it?
Schumacher: I didn’t originally set out to write satire or humor. In Dear Committee Members, I set myself the task of writing a novel in the form of letters of recommendation—which was oddly liberating rather than constricting—and the satire quickly crept in. I do think humor and comedy are important, particularly now, at a time when so many people are angry. Jason Fitger is angry—at himself, at his university, at his colleagues—but that doesn’t stop him from feeling compassionate.
Rumpus: When I was reading The Shakespeare Requirement, I was thinking, This could be a great pilot for a television series: Academia’s The Office! If your book were adapted to a TV show, who would you want cast as Fitger?
Schumacher: That’s a hard question, because I haven’t watched TV for fifteen years. I can envision a much younger Jack Nicholson… Or how about Robert Downey Jr. on a bad hair day?
Rumpus: If The Shakespeare Requirement were to accomplish just one thing, what would you hope that one thing was?
Schumacher: I hope readers will see that the characters—and the academic setting—are treated not just with satire but with compassion, and with respect for the things they care about and work hard to do.