In 2008, I wrote a review of The Writing Class, by Jincy Willett. That story revolved around Amy Gallup, the aging teacher of a writing class in which one of the students turned out to be a murderer. Willett’s latest novel continues Amy’s story, but does not involve a murder. As in her previous book, in Amy Falls Down, Willett dispenses fiction writing advice to readers while constructing a biting satire of the publishing industry.
The normally withdrawn Amy, a writer who had a few titles celebrated twenty or so years ago, has agreed to give an interview to a reporter from the San Diego paper doing a “where are they now” series about local authors. Before the interviewer comes for the afternoon appointment, Amy takes a Norfolk pine out to her raised garden. Keeping an eye on her aging basset hound, Alphonse, and her mind on other things, she loses her balance and falls, hitting her head on the bird bath. The interviewer comes and goes, and Amy later finds she has given a somewhat crazy interview that makes her sound like a quirky genius. Thanks to the Internet, her interview goes viral, and she becomes a celebrity. Her old agent Maxine calls her up and gets her booked on popular radio and television programs, and once again— twenty years since she was celebrated for her literary skill—she is in the public eye.
She does not like what the industry has become, where hot, new fiction is churned out rapidly and is pushed aggressively by publishers even if the books are drivel. The interviews she gives and the things she says on the panels that Maxine lines up for her are not just funny, but are inspiring to readers like me who love good writing and roll their eyes at most mega-best sellers. “Suppose there were a de facto moratorium on the brand-new printed word. Suppose all we were left to hold in our hands and read were the books that were already out there,” Amy says during one interview. The interviewer asks, “Wouldn’t that be terrible?” Amy replies, “For the first time in a hundred years, readers would have time to read all the books they’d been meaning to get to and the tens of thousands more that they never even heard of. Nosebleed-inducing farces. Horror stories guaranteed to rob us of sleep. Pulse-pounding page-turners. Sprawling, sumptuous histories. Best of all, those books that critics have told them were essential to our lives. Insightful novels of intoxicating ferocity. Intoxicating novels of ferocious insight. There’s a million of them and each one ‘compelling.’”
In some of the interviews, Amy discusses the state of fiction with a young, mega-bestselling writer and an old, alcoholic author who used to be lauded for his literary talent. She also stays in touch with some of the students from her old writing class and newer students who join them at a newly-established writers’ retreat of sorts at one of the older student’s houses. Each student has a unique personality and favors a different type of writing, which Amy skewers or admires as she reads from their manuscripts.
There are unexpected plot twists, especially near the end, that keep the book from merely being a polemic on the publishing industry. And while the novel is funny, there is a strong, emotional thread throughout as Amy frequently remembers her late, gay husband Max and his death from AIDS several years earlier. The book is hard to characterize. It has a pink cover, and, as I told anyone who saw me reading it, “I do not usually read pink books.” It may be packaged for women, but it should be a treat for anyone who loves books, especially anyone critical of pop best sellers and how they’re hyped.
Check the WRL catalog for Amy Falls Down.