Julie Schumacher Q&A

December 30, 2019
Julie Schumacher reflects on the writing life and winning the Thurber Prize for American Humor.

“I look for situations that strike me as absurd or amusing, and then I play with them until something worthwhile emerges. At times I’ll write something I find funny; then later I’ll re-read it and think, ‘Nope, not actually funny after all.’ I could never do stand-up comedy; I need time to try to be funny.”

Your books are hilarious but always in service of the story. When you write, do you intentionally pace your funny moments?

I don’t think about distributing the moments of humor. I look for situations that strike me as absurd or amusing, and then I play with them until something worthwhile and/or comic emerges. At times I’ll write something I find funny; then later I’ll re-read it and think, “Nope, not actually funny after all.” I could never do stand-up comedy; I need time to try to be funny.

Your protagonist in “The Shakespeare Requirement,” Jay Fitger, a very accomplished and dignified fellow, suffered so many awkward physical calamities that he almost seemed like a Three Stooges character. Are there authors you keep front of mind when deciding on the tone of a book?

I like the balance of formality and absurdity. One of the best aspects of academic satire, I think, is that contrast between the “dignified profession” and the wackiness that can be found within it. For humor writing, I love David Sedaris. I love Lynda Barry, too — her blend of angst and hilarity.

Do you remember the moment that you learned you won the Thurber Prize for American Humor? Was it as overwhelming as one would imagine?

It was a terrific moment, totally thrilling. The prize was announced in Caroline’s Comedy Club in New York, and one of my co-finalists was Roz Chast (cartoonist at The New Yorker). I’ve always loved her work, and I was so certain she was going to win that I had no speech prepared when they called my name. I went up to the podium but have no idea what I said.

In your novels you touch on the very-real dynamic of universities cutting English requirements and sometimes entire departments. Is the trend as bad as it seems? Can it  be reversed?

The liberal arts — in contrast to the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) — are in trouble, in part because students and their families are justifiably worried about the cost of higher education. But I fervently believe in the importance of the arts and humanities. This isn’t an elitist or an “ivory tower” view. I would hope that my auto-mechanic and my local day-care provider and the barber on the corner — all of whom are voting citizens — would all be broadly educated, having learned about government and history and literature and religion and foreign languages and cultures. Lately, medical and business and law schools are preferring applicants who are “well rounded” rather than specialized. I think that’s a good sign.

Did you know that there’s a Julie Schumacher on Twitter who in her handle says, “I’m not the brilliant novelist”? Funny that she’s also a writer.

Haha, no, I didn’t know that — I’m not on Twitter.  Technologically, I try to live in the 20th century to the extent possible.

You have such a distinct way with phrasing, from describing a character who folded himself in half like a wallet or another who slouched while walking with the posture of a half-parenthesis. Those are the moments as a reader where you say, you can’t teach that. But you’re also a teacher so I thought I’d ask. Can you?

That’s a long and interesting conversation. As a person who teaches creative writing at the University of Minnesota, I believe that writing can be taught. Music can be taught, too. Dance can be taught. But the fact that dance can be taught — and a novice dancer can improve — doesn’t mean that every person who signs up for ballet lessons will end up dancing at Lincoln Center. Perseverance is a factor; so is talent; so is timing; so is effort; so is luck. Instruction and mentoring and guidance are a part of that package.

In your books you write about how exhausting the life of a professor can be with all the grading and attendant demands. It seems like one’s life would be consumed with lecturing and grading and that would be plenty. How do you summons the energy to write your own work?

I get a lot of writing done during the summer, when I don’t teach; and I manage to get a head of steam up during the summer that can carry me through much of the fall. By January, though, I often give up, and give myself permission not to write again until May. That time away from writing (which often involves day-dreaming and note-taking) can help me build up enthusiasm for the point when I have time again.

What’s next for Jay Fitger? 

It’s been hard for me to let go of Jason T. Fitger. He owns a little piece of my heart.