What have you written?
“One collection of short stories: Jenny and the Jaws of Life, published by Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, in 1987; reissued in paper in 2002 with a foreword by David Sedaris; and again just now, in a new edition. Two novels: The Writing Class, published June 10, and Winner of the National Book Award in 2003 — both also published by Thomas Dunne Books. There are some uncollected stories, one recently published in McSweeney’s.”
Tell me about The Writing Class — what’s the story?
“A reclusive teacher living in Escondido runs writing workshops at the extension division of an unnamed San Diego university. The novel focuses on one such workshop, which seems to be going well, except that somebody in class is playing increasingly mean-spirited pranks on the other members, often in the guise of critical feedback on their stories. The identity of this person — dubbed the Sniper — remains unknown, the spirit gets meaner, the pranks turn dangerous, and somebody dies. In form, then, it’s sort of like Ten Little Indians. You’ve got a collection of characters, one of them is a killer, and you have to figure out who it is.”
How did you come to write it?
“I’ve taught writing workshops, off and on, for decades. When people submit their own work to a roomful of strangers and ask for critical feedback, they’re really sticking their necks out. It takes nerve to do this. They’re putting on the line something they’ve produced which is important to them. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try to avoid it, people’s feelings get hurt. One day I wondered: what if a creative, talented person (or at least someone who imagines himself creative and talented), embittered by years of rejection, finally decided to hurt back?”
What’s the funniest novel you’ve ever read, and what made it work?
“Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis. The Brits do annihilating social embarrassment better than anybody else.”
When and where do you write? Do you have any curious writing habits?
“Sporadically, and wherever I happen to be. I don’t need peace and quiet or a locked room. Actually, I finished up my last novel in a band room full of brilliant, boisterous, and spectacularly loud high school musicians. My son went to the Coronado School of the Arts, and I had to write on campus there because there weren’t enough hours in the day to make the trip from Escondido more than once. All that energy was downright inspirational.”
Do you think writing classes are generally useless or just good enough to be worthy of satire?
“Neither. If you know what you’re doing, they’re worthwhile. I’ve met some good writers in my workshops. What makes a well-run writing class worthwhile is that it’s the only opportunity that I know of for a beginning writer to get quasi-disinterested feedback from a bunch of strangers. When you’re writing on your own, you tend to get generic encouragement from friends and relatives and brutal rejections from publishers. In a workshop, you can actually get some idea of what works and what doesn’t. And even if you’re a seasoned writer, a writing class can offer you deadlines. Often, that’s enough to get you writing again.”
Name: Jincy Willett Kornhauser (writing as Jincy Willett) | Age: 61 | Occupation: writer, editor, teacher, online tutor | Neighborhood: Escondido