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Battle over the Bard

August 19, 2018

Professor Jason Fitger, the curmudgeonly creation of author Julie Schumacher, returns in “The Shakespeare Requirement,” a delightful skewering of academia that picks up where 2014’s “Dear Committee Members” left off.

Schumacher, a professor of creative writing at the University of Minnesota, won a Thurber Prize for American Humor for the epistolary “Dear Committee Members,” in which Fitger’s angst unfolds to readers in the form of letters of recommendation. In her follow-up, she switches to an omniscient narrator to tell of more indignities suffered by the English department, now chaired by Fitger, at the hands of their colleagues in Economics.

Schumacher, 59, was reached at her home in St. Paul, Minn., in advance of her appearance at Arcadia Books on Aug. 20.

Q: Why the shift from epistolary novel to third person?

A: I thought the letters were such fun the first time, but I thought I probably can’t do that again. I had my fun and I need to move on and find something new. I was afraid to do the same thing twice.

Q: How was it to look at Fitger from a different angle?

A: It was interesting. Initially, when I was starting the second book, I wanted to find another form. Not letters of recommendation, but some other shape for the book. I had settled initially on making a chair’s log, where he would tell the reader how each of his days was going as chair as everything fell apart underneath him. I sent a draft to my editor, who said, “This is going to seem too much like the first one, and it’s just going to drive itself into the ground.” That was very disappointing. I realized he was right, so I started over. I was nervous about doing the whole omniscient, third-person thing but I decided to just go for it.

Q: Why did you choose the Department of Economics as the villains?

A: I don’t have anything against economists, per se. Initially I was thinking it would be good to have both departments start with E, as both departments are in the same building. I was also thinking about the whole fascination and emphasis on the STEM fields, though economics is not necessarily in that category. I thought of the disregard for the humanities and the liberal arts in favor of departments that are shinier, glossier, financially better off, supposedly more profitable. I thought econ would be a good stand-in for many of those.

Q: The title refers to the idea of requiring every English major to take a semester of Shakespeare. Where do you land on that argument?

A: Being a member of the creative writing program rather than the larger English department, I tend to keep my head down and let my Ph.D. colleagues have that fight among themselves. I prefer to let the reader come up with the decision. There are a lot of schools that no longer require Shakespeare for English majors. At Minnesota we still do. That requirement has been falling by the wayside and that has been controversial at many schools. It’s been kind of a dividing line.

Q: Do you teach Shakespeare?

A: No. I was a Spanish major as an undergrad, I never took a semester of Shakespeare. It’s not my fight.

Q: Do your university colleagues respond well to your books?

A: They’ve been great. The dean of the college of liberal arts threw me a party when I won the Thurber Prize. I think a lot of people suspect or wonder if everyone in my department wants to kill me, but in fact they’ve been really supportive.

Q: Will Fitger return?

A: No, I think now I’m done.

Q: Do you ever imagine who might play him if your book were made into a movie?

A: I love to play that game. About two years ago there was a tiny repertory theater in Portland, Oregon, that did a one-man show of “Dear Committee Members.” It was so much fun. I went there and saw it, and there’s this guy pacing across the stage, reading the letters and pulling his hair. It was so much fun. It would be great fun to see him come to life again that way. As far as a movie goes, I could see a much younger Jack Nicholson, with that wacky look in his eye.

Q: What else are you working on?

A: I was working constantly on this book last summer and fall and I told myself I would take a break so I’ve just been reading, reading, reading all summer. It’s been wonderful.

Q: What are some of the best things you’ve read?

A: I just read Meg Wolitzer’s “The Female Persuasion” and “The Interestings.” I also read “There There” by Tommy Orange, which was really good. Also, “Improvement” by Joan Silber, I thought was terrific. There’s a book called “A Place for Us” by Fatima Farheen Mirza, a debut novel that’s just terrific. I always tell myself I’ll be well informed and I’m going to read a Ron Chernow biography and then I think, “No, I’m going to read a novel instead.”

Krueger to read from latest

Cork O’Connor returns in “Desolation Mountain,” William Kent Krueger’s latest mystery set in northern Minnesota. Krueger will read at 7 p.m. Friday at Mystery to Me, 1863 Monroe St. Reservations are requested for this popular author’s event and can be secured at mysterytomebooks.com.

Slaughter to appear at festival

Best-selling thriller author Karin Slaughter will appear as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival Aug. 30 at 7 p.m. She’s touring in support of her latest, “Pieces of Her,” a mother-daughter drama and Slaughter’s 18th novel. She’ll read from and sign books at the Central Library, 201 W. Mifflin St. Find out more at wisconsinbookfestival.org.

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