Jincy Willett’s latest novel has been mistaken for a roman-à-clef. Surely readers can be forgiven for being confused: It says roman-à-clef on the dust jacket. It also says “scathingly humorous,” but Willett might prefer it didn’t. “People get very annoyed if they’re told on a book jacket that they’re going to be laughing their asses off and they don’t even crack a smile. I don’t blame them,” she says. Sure, she wrote the funniest collection of short stories David Sedaris ever read, and the funniest novel according to Augusten Burroughs, but there’s at least one reader so disappointed by Willett that they claim to have driven back and forth over her book with the family car. (Willett reads online reviews.) “That was when people were buying hardcover books. Too bad,” she says.
Even if publicists insist on calling Willett a character, she isn’t. She does share select traits with Amy Gallup, semi-reclusive writer-cum-instructor in California—a softening misanthrope—but Amy’s what you’d call a character as in Willett conjured her from words, first in 2009’s The Writing Class. Amy Falls Down picks up where a murder mystery left off, when Amy is plucked from literary obscurity as the result of a weird and woozy interview given to a local reporter after braining herself on a backyard birdbath.
“It’s not a roman-à-clef,” says Willett, cranium intact. “Amy’s definitely based on me, but nothing else is based on anyone. The thing is you’re free to make fun of yourself. [Amy’s dog] Alphonse is based on my departed basset hound, and I can use me and I can use my dead dog with no compunction, but that’s it.” The people in her life are not to be exploited through fictionalization. Modern literary archetypes—writers, publishers, agents—are.
For outsiders looking in, Amy Falls Down provides a side-splitting sendup of a swiftly tilting publishing industry. Gone are these days: When authors sent their manuscripts to publishing houses without über-agent intermediaries; when they got published without platforms, 100,000 Twitter followers or having to disclose their inner worlds to a need-to-know public; when not everyone had books in them. Both Willett and Amy find it unsettling that every surgeon has a med school memoir needing notes. “If you tell people you’re a writer they almost always say, you know, ‘I’ve always wanted to do that. I could do that.’ But if you were a surgeon or something they wouldn’t,” says Willett, who thinks not everyone should be a writer (or a surgeon).
But if you can and if you must, “The essence of writing is communication, telling people your story, and that’s an honorable and very important thing to do.” She writes, “Fiction, when it’s done right, does in the daylight what dreams do at night: we leave the confines of our own experiences and go to common ground, where for a time we are not alone. Where we don’t have to ask how it feels, because we feel it for ourselves.”
The common ground in Amy Falls Down is accidental (not tragic; there’s a difference), beginning with the birdbath. “Accidents are really interesting to me. They bother us more than anything. Basically all we can do is control our response to them, and so I was interested in Amy’s response. If she hadn’t fallen, she wouldn’t have made it out of the house,” says Willett. If things are funny because they’re incongruous, then accidents must be nature’s little jokes. It’s no accident that they can conjure laughs. Amy’s slapstick garden fall kicks off a series of unlikely events that can seem too rich to be true—but so’s life, sometimes.
P.S. A critic for “an online rag, more bookish than Salon, less huffy than the Huffington Post” rediscovers Amy when her wacky interview goes viral, and writes a reconsideration of her work. Willett writes:
Carmen Calliostro’s thing was titled “Bionic Leg.” In keeping with the standards of modern journalism, most of it was about Carmen Calliostro. She began with a yellowed verbal snapshot of her own lithe undergraduate form (litheness could be deduced from her byline sketch) supine on a sward in Ithaca (Carmen was way too shy to come out and say Cornell), thumbing through the stories in Monstrous Women and “falling in love with words for the very first time.” Next came a whirlwind tour of her literary education, during which she confessed (actually using the verb “confess”) to throwing Amy over in favor of a succession of trendier writers. “I was embarrassed,” she said, dimpling verbally, “to have been seduced by writing so old-fashioned. It was the fiction writer’s mission, I was sure, to intuit and interpret the spirit of the times. Amy Gallup was old news: the least zeitgeisty of writers.” (Apparently Carmen’s love affair with words had ended badly.)
I think that’s the funniest paragraph I’ve ever read.
Megan Labrise is a modern journalist in New York. Follow her on Twitter.