We readers can be greedy things. Mere books are not enough for us: We want the authors, too. We want their autographs, their photographs, handshakes, interviews. We want them to tell us all the secret things they didn’t put in the book—we want it all, the entire package. And these days, they’re more or less obligated to sell it to us.
In her hilarious, merciless, entirely delightful new novel, Amy Falls Down, Jincy Willett digs into this phenomenon from several angles. Our protagonist, Amy Gallup, is a contentedly washed-up fiction writer in her 60s who spends most of her days teaching writing classes online from her California home. Then one day she trips in the garden, conks her head on a birdbath and proceeds to give a newspaper interview she doesn’t remember doing.
The interview, and Amy’s intriguingly odd (because totally concussed) behavior during it, leads to newfound fame for the long out-of-print writer. “You’re not gonna understand it, but you are gonna have to trust me,” her agent tells her. “You’re not just a writer now. You’re a package.”
Amy finds the sudden attention at various points invasive, thrilling, oppressive, scary, sad and gross. Even as she resents the way in which a writer’s work has come to include the roles of performer and media personality, Amy learns to make it work for her. Turns out, she has a knack for it. One of the many pleasures of Amy Falls Down is watching Amy venture out of her shell and have fun toying with the media, the publishing industry, her students and pretty much everyone else. She has nothing to lose, and no interest in impressing anybody; consequently, she has no filter, and she gets away with saying things others won’t.
When a writer suffers a bump on the head, her literary career gets an unexpected boost.
Willett has many things in common with her protagonist, including that same amused befuddlement regarding the “packaging” of writers. By phone from her home in Escondido, California, where the Rhode Islander has lived since 1988, Willett talked about publicity, humor, David Sedaris and the curse of potential, among other things.
Amy’s biography matches Willett’s in several ways: same age, similar geographical background, nearly identical smart-aleck websites. Both teach writing online. Some of the lines Amy spouts in the book turn up in Willett’s interviews. The parallels are noticeable.
“My feeling about using autobiographical material is, I’m completely free to use my own character, but not free to use anybody else’s,” Willett explains. “She’s a lot like me, but that’s it.” Everything else is invented—and in fact, as Willett sees it, Amy actually “has nothing to do with me.”
“It’s lazy, that’s all,” she explains. Using a character that doesn’t need to be invented from whole cloth makes it easier for the author to spend her energy playing with ideas and themes. “The more you make things up, the more likely you are to discover things you didn’t know about yourself,” she says. “Whereas when you’re actually working with what you know, what you’re really doing is crystallizing things you’ve been turning over for a long, long time.” This leads to fiction that engages in the world of ideas and arguments, Willett says. “Not that you have a message—because that’s obnoxious.” The goal has more to do with “exploring certain issues you think are important, and you want to see if you’re right about them.”
Then, too, there’s the fact that using a protagonist only slightly removed from oneself adds to the fun of Amy’s unguarded venting, which focuses on the absurdities of the publishing world. “It was wonderful for me to be able to rant on and on about this stuff,” Willett says. “She does sort of go on.”
Late in the novel, Amy ends a speech by telling the crowd, “I am here accidentally and just for the moment.” Willett seems similarly unimpressed with the idea of fame. It means nothing, she says, except in the sense of still being known 200 years from now—“that’s a big deal.” But the thrill of writing lies elsewhere: “It’s communication, that’s all it is. You can reach out and you can actually communicate with people, even after you’re dead. All we’re doing, really, is talking to each other.”
Willett says she “stumbled into” writing in her 30s (unlike Amy, who was a promising young superstar). “When I was a child I lived in my head entirely, and of course I wanted to write,” Willett says. She finally composed one sentence at age 10, and found it so terrible that she “stopped forever.” But she fell back into writing in college, when she took a random creative writing class while majoring in philosophy. She really just wanted an easy A (“I was trying for a 4.0!”), but once she’d submitted a story, the professor told her she should send it to magazines. This sort of thing might be thrilling to some, but Willett was devastated. “The truth is, it’s one thing to have this daydream,” she says, but when it becomes a real possibility, then it’s suddenly your fault if the dream doesn’t happen. “Great, thanks!” Willett thought. “I was perfectly happy as a philosophy student!”
Nevertheless, she kept writing stories, and her first story collection, Jenny and the Jaws of Life, was published in 1987. She might have continued writing fiction in relative obscurity except that David Sedaris discovered and fell in love with the book, and raved about it publicly.
“That was a very happy circumstance for me,” Willett says. “The thing I like about it is that it’s not a networking story—the only reason we got connected is that he discovered me in a library.” The two have since met and become friends. The Sedaris connection was particularly exciting for Willett because of her fondness for his particular lineage of American writers, especially the humorists of the ’20s and ’30s (S.J. Perelman is a favorite). “There aren’t many people doing that anymore,” she says, adding that writers today hesitate to make light of things. But the fact that something is funny doesn’t mean it has no weight, she argues: “If you’re doing it right, it doesn’t make light of anything.”
Illustrating the point, Willett’s prickly, unvarnished protagonist is at once gruffly funny and unexpectedly touching, the sort of curmudgeon who imagines she’s driving people away but is in fact winning their devotion, wholly by accident. A large part of this ability comes from the accumulated wisdom of having been around a while—something else the author and her character share.
“Writing is an older person’s game,” Willett says. “Experience helps, living helps.”