Writing constant letters of recommendation goes with the territory of being a university faculty member. Julie Schumacher, who teaches creative writing at the University of Minnesota, took that task to a new level: She made a novel from it.
Chosen by readers from a list of epistolary novels, “Dear Committee Members” is the latest selection for Moira’s Seattle Times Book Club, meeting next on Wednesday, June 24. The novel is entirely made up of letters of recommendation written by Jason Fitger, a much put-upon professor of creative writing at the appropriately named Payne University. A bestseller upon its initial publication in 2014, it earned Schumacher the Thurber Prize for American Humor.
And, like so many novels, its initial impetus was writer’s block. Schumacher, who had previously written novels for young people, “got stuck on a novel for adults,” she said in an interview this month from her St. Paul home. “Structure has always been hard for me. I was teaching an undergraduate class, and I told students to try to pick a form, see if you can play with form in some way. They asked for an example. I kept thinking that I had just been writing all these letters of recommendation …”
Just like that, a writing exercise was born, and Schumacher thought it would be just that: “a sort of exercise I could impose on myself to get started, to stop thinking about cause and effect and plot and just work with a form. I thought, well, it’s probably not going to work to write something in a series of letters of recommendations. But it was summer, I had time, and I thought, if it doesn’t work I’ll throw it out. Then I started to entertain myself with it.”
Fitger, whose embattled English department is holed up in a constantly under-construction building (the economics department, which had shared the space, decamped for more comfortable quarters), spends his days writing letters on behalf of students and colleagues. Most are seeking recommendations for jobs (at places like the local paintball arcade or RV park) or other academic programs; all end up with a letter rather unlike what they expected. As it turns out, Fitger — who’s struggling with both academic and romantic disappointment — would rather write about himself; inserting his own tales of woe into letters that are perhaps a bit too honest about the person recommended.
Schumacher, herself a faculty member who has written “hundreds and hundreds” of letters of recommendation, said she wanted to be clear: Fitger isn’t based on any specific colleague. “He’s really kind of an evil little version of me more than anything else,” she said, noting that she’s occasionally tempted to be brutally honest in her letters, but valiantly refrains from doing so. “Everything I would squelch, I’m giving it to Fitger. I won’t say it, but he can.”
Of her main character, she said, “I think some people see him exclusively as a jerk, and he can be a serious jerk. But I was so fond of him. I think he means well and he wants to do the right thing and he cares. He’s kind of a jerky Quixote.” Schumacher was, indeed, so fond of him that she brought him back for a sequel, “The Shakespeare Requirement,” published in 2018. “I was missing him,” she said.
For those seeking another epistolary novel after enjoying “Dear Committee Members,” Schumacher has a couple of recommendations of books she studied while working on hers. Helene Hanff’s “84, Charing Cross Road,” in which a New York writer exchanges letters with a London antiquarian bookseller in the years following World War II, was a favorite; though not technically a novel, “I just find it so touching and lovely. I read it a bunch of times.”
And she also loved Nicholson Baker’s “A Box of Matches.” “It’s lovely and charming and hilarious and nothing happens, nothing happens at all.” In it, a man wakes up every morning, lights a fire in his stove using a match, and thinks about things. “When the box is empty, the book is over,” Schumacher said. “All these little bitty pieces, and somehow so satisfying as whole.”
Moira’s Seattle Times Book Club will meet at noon Wednesday, June 24, to discuss “Dear Committee Members,” at seattletimes.com/books.