Jincy Willett is a seriously funny writer, with a dark and comic vision of our follies. She's also highly ethical, concerned about how people treat one another. Murder, for one, isn't a good way to treat people, and that's what happens to two students in a university extension class in fiction writing.
The victims are characters in The Writing Class, Willett's second novel, published this month by St Martin's Press. Amy Gallup, the teacher and point-of-view character, bears a strong resemblance to Willett, who has taught fiction writing at UCSD and SDSU extensions and now at BookWorks bookstore.
Gallup is middle-aged, anti-social, fearful and cranky. Willett cops to all of these traits, and she even puts her over-the-top crankiness on display on her website, www.jincywillett.com. In person, though, she's gracious and easygoing and articulate about her craft. Writers are always free to use their own lives for characters and material, she says.
“It's so much easier to mine yourself,” she explained, so “why the hell not?”
Her caveat is that the writer must decide where the limits are. For Willett, her own failings are fair game. So are her deceased basset hound and university administrators. The lives of the people she loves, however, are firmly off-limits. Willett is widowed—her husband and her son, local jazz keyboardist Ed Kornhauser, never show up in her fiction.
The Writing Class is a two-fer. It's a fall-off-your-chair-funny, yet gently sad murder mystery in which Gallup and her 13-student class have a killer among them. The North County locations (Moonlight Beach, Miramar Road, the Encinitas streets named after Greek deities) are dead-on accurate, and the characters feel like people you've known.
But why so many characters?
“Because for a real writing class to work, you need that many people,” Willett says.
Developing 13 characters prolonged the part of the writing Willett calls “the middle horrors, where you question yourself.” There were periods, she said, sometimes months-long, during which she didn't write. All that time she watched TV and just had to trust that something was happening in the back of her head.
The second part of the two-fer is for everyone who writes. Willett is a skillful teacher with an impressive ability to articulate what works in a piece of writing, and when the piece doesn't work, why it doesn't and what it needs. [Full disclosure: I watched Willett in action as a student in her UCSD fiction-writing class.] Amy Gallup delivers such clear-eyed observations on craft and on the rigors of writing that The Writing Class works as a manual for writing in any genre.
Willett's first two books delighted some exacting critics. About her short-story collection, Jenny and the Jaws of Life, David Sedaris wrote, “I am prepared to wear a sandwich sign for this book. It's just that good.” Augusten Burroughs called her 2003 novel Winner of the National Book Award, “the funniest novel I have read, possibly ever.” Catch Willett reading from and signing her book at her release party at 7 p.m. Monday, June 23, at The Book Works, Flower Hill Mall, 2670 Via de la Valle, Suite A230, Del Mar. 858-755-3735.