Award-winning author Julie Schumacher, MFA ’86, returns to Cornell to read from her work March 15 at 4:30 p.m. in Rhodes-Rawlings Auditorium, Klarman Hall. The event is free and open to the public as part of the Zalaznick Reading Series presented by the Department of English Creative Writing Program.
A professor of English and creative writing at the University of Minnesota, Schumacher is best known for “Dear Committee Members” (2014), an epistolary novel. Her protagonist, Jason Fitger, teaches English at a small college and hilariously reveals too much of himself in passive-aggressive letters of recommendation he writes for students and colleagues.
A national best-seller, it won critical acclaim and the Thurber Prize for American Humor. Schumacher is the only woman to receive that honor.
“Write what you know,” she said of the book, speaking by phone from her faculty office in Minneapolis. “It is the milieu I live in every day. Academia’s a weird world. It’s full of odd people who have been in a library for 10 years thinking their own thoughts about specific investigative material. Then you put them in a room with all these other unsocialized people and expect them to get along. It doesn’t always work.”
A sequel, “The Shakespeare Requirement,” comes out in August and is written in the third person, she said: “I couldn’t do the same thing twice; I imagined everybody saying it was funny the first time.”
Schumacher will join MFA students for lunch March 15 to discuss form and fiction, and will visit associate professor of English Kevin Attell’s class, The Great American Cornell Novel, March 16. Undergraduates are reading “Dear Committee Members” in the class next week.
“I am a huge defender of writing programs; I get very prickly and irritable when I hear, ‘Oh here’s another person from a writing program,’” she said. “Nobody complains about someone going to school to learn to dance. Juilliard exists because people understand that students don’t learn to play the piano on their own; you study with other pianists. In writing, there’s this romantic idea of people starving in a garret for 10 years and coming out Tolstoy.”
One benefit of a program, she said, is “finding a community of readers and writers who can look carefully at their work and offer opinions and guidance. It was huge to me, invaluable. I would not have written anything if I hadn’t gone to Cornell. I had one story. It won this contest. I’d tried to write others and they were terrible. So I turned in this one story and it got me in. It changed my life, opened the door.”
Once she had her MFA, she carried on as an instructor before moving to Minnesota in 1988. “They allowed us to hang around for two years and teach,” she said. “I was very sad to leave. I loved Ithaca. I still have friends there.”
Among them: her advisers, Stephanie Vaughn and Lamar Herrin. “They were amazing mentors as well as great people,” she said. “It was Stephanie’s first year teaching the year I got there. She was the first person who taught the fiction workshop; we met at Home Dairy on a Saturday and I brought something to read. She and Michael Koch would bring in writer friends from Binghamton, Syracuse, Stanford … they were really the heart and soul of the program.”
Schumacher is the author of nine books, including five novels for young readers, a short story collection and “Doodling for Academics” (2017). Her debut novel, “The Body Is Water” (1995), was an ALA Notable Book of the Year and a PEN/Hemingway Award finalist.
Books by the author will be available from Buffalo Street Books for purchase at the reading. A book signing and free catered reception will follow in the English Lounge, 258 Goldwin Smith Hall.