Winter 2017

Literary letters

Julie Schumacher's Thurber Prize-winning novel is written in the form of recommendation letters from a curmudgeonly English professor.
Illustration by Ellen Weinstein

In 2015, when she became the first woman to win the Thurber Prize for American Humor, Julie Schumacher was surprised. “I didn’t set out to write a funny book,” says the U of M English and creative writing professor and Scholar of the College (an award funded by multiple donors). Her winning novel, Dear Committee Members, is written in the form of letters of recommendation from a curmudgeonly and egotistical—but surprisingly lovable—English professor at a fictitious Midwestern university.

Where did you get the idea for your novel?

I was telling my undergrad creative writing students, “If you’re stuck and don’t know where to start a piece of fiction, choose a form first—for example, write a story in the form of a to-do list.” They asked me what form I’d use, and I said kind of facetiously, “I would write something in the form of letters of recommendation.” I was writing a lot of recommendation letters that semester.

What’s your writing process?

I write by hand, one or two pages a day, in those old black-and-white composition notebooks. I write on the right side, and the left side is for edits, corrections, and changes—things like “He needs to be angrier” or “This is dull. Fix it.”

The novel’s protagonist cares deeply about the humanities. What’s the value of this field?

There’s something a little scary about majoring in a field where there’s no clear idea of jobs or salary at the end, but that’s true of many majors, including business. You don’t know what the world is going to look like in 10 years, so you need to be able to think on your feet, write clearly, frame arguments, and be innovative. That’s what we teach.